George Washington’s Two Revolutionary Sons

young GW

George Washington, General of the Continental Army

George Washington had no children of his own, although he raised two step-children, and was considered a responsible and affectionate parent.

GW: The Revolutionary War

When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, George Washington was 43 years old. Having served in the Virginia Militia in his youth, rising to the rank of Colonel, he was considered the highest ranking “American” officer. He was appointed General, and sent to take command of a ragtag army forming in Massachusetts.

Forty-three was considered well into middle-age at that time. A new generation was now approaching adulthood – and enlisting as soldiers. Washington’s aides would become his military “family.”

Lafayette: The Favorite Son

lafayette

The Marquis de Lafayette “joined” the American army when he was nineteen. And at his own expense.

When the shot fired at Lexington was “heard round the world,” it was a clarion call to a young French nobleman, the Marquis (with a string of first and middle names) de Lafayette (1757-1834). Fatherless at two years old and trained at France’s finest academies, he was commissioned as a military officer by his early teens. He saw in the American Revolution a cause he believed in, as well as a chance for glory, something vitally important in the 18th century.  Other Frenchmen had enlisted and had been sent to America, but Lafayette was of the highest nobility and outranked them all.

At his own expense, which was huge since it included purchasing his own ship and soldiers, he parted from his young wife and sailed for America, arriving in the summer of 1777. After offering to serve without pay, Congress made him a Major General. He was not yet twenty.

lafayette2andgw

Many illustrations were made (in retrospect) of George Washington meeting Lafayette.

They sent him to George Washington, and the two men of different generations, bonded quickly. It did not hurt that Lafayette was a Freemason, as was Washington. Nevertheless, Washington did not know exactly what to do with the young French officer of high nobility. Congress had awarded the Marquis his rank, believing it to be “honorary.” Lafayette believed himself to be experienced and able. In time, George Washington would learn that the young Frenchman was indeed intelligent, capable and a fine commander. He was given increasing responsibilities.

lafayetteandgw

George Washington and Lafayette

The Marquis de Lafayette was also charming and effusive (in contrast to Washington’s reputed “cool”) and grew to love and admire General Washington with his whole Gallic heart. His filial devotion was sincere, and contagious. The austere Washington grew to love the French aristocrat like a son. And always would.

In 1781, after Cornwallis’ defeat at Yorktown, where Lafayette was a key commander, the Marquis had a tearful farewell with his beloved “father.”

surrender_of_lord_cornwallis

Lafayette and the French Army were instrumental at the Siege and Battle of Yorktown. Alexander Hamilton was instrumental as well.

They would never see each other again, although they corresponded and exchanged gifts. Washington is known to have sent a barrel of Mt. Vernon hams to his French “son.” He was understandably proud when the Marquis emerged as a notable French general and advocate of the Rights of Man.

As events in France morphed into the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, Washington was deeply concerned for the safety of his dear young friend, but as the President of a small country just beginning to get underway, he needed to steer a neutral course.

Nevertheless, Lafayette had named his first son George Washington Lafayette, and when events became dangerous, he sent the young boy and his tutor to safety, in care of his godfather, the President of the United States.

Alexander Hamilton: The Ambitious Prodigal

hamilton

Alexander Hamilton. His greatest regret may have been his birth in the West Indies. It made him “ineligible” to be President.

Alexander Hamilton (c. 1755-1804) was close in age to Lafayette and also “fatherless” – but Hamilton was an illegitimate child born in the West Indies. At an early age, his exceptional intelligence and aptitude was recognized by the townsmen, who arranged to have him study at Kings College, now Columbia University, in New York.

When the American Revolution began, he volunteered early on, mostly for the glory part.

General Washington, dismayed by the motley and undisciplined militiamen that were cobbled together, would come to rely heavily on a cadre of young staff officers to help with the endless paperwork, sans carbon paper, let alone copiers.

alexander-hamilton

Hamilton was a multi-talented and very smart fellow. He was also incredibly ambitious.

Hamilton was invited to be on Washington’s staff, and his superior intelligence, education and business genius was quickly noticed. The General, an astute businessman himself, discovered a worthy young officer and financial wizard in Hamilton.

Youth is always attracted to danger and glory, and a superbly intelligent youth is also easily bored and in need of challenges. Lt. Col. Hamilton wanted a battlefield command; Washington was not inclined to grant it. Whether it was a lack of confidence in Hamilton’s military abilities, or his desire to keep the brilliant aide on staff is subject to conjecture. Some believe that Washington was concerned that the militiamen would not respond well to a “staff” officer whose rank was perceived as honorary.

The ambitious Hamilton grew impatient, and the two men had a rocky on-again-off-again relationship. Washington was uncharacteristically forgiving of the young-man-in-a-hurry, perhaps recognizing the same qualities of his own youth. By the end of the War, Hamilton was finally allowed to prove his military mettle at Yorktown.  He did a commendable job.

hamiltoncolor

Hamilton, along with James Madison and John Jay, was instrumental in drafting the Constitution of the new United States.

George Washington and Alexander Hamilton maintained a cordial correspondence and reunited some years later in Philadelphia, where the now-thirty-year-old NY attorney and politician had been sent to help draft a Constitution to replace the inadequate and ineffectual Articles of Confederation.

Washington, now in his mid-fifties, had been coerced from retirement to preside over the Constitutional Convention. Scrupulously attentive to his position as “presider,” he made few comments during the proceedings, but is said to have been an active participant behind the scenes in informal discussions. Like Hamilton, he saw the absolute necessity of a strong, centralized federal government to unite the diverse States which were only superficially United.

When Washington was re-recruited away from his beloved Mt. Vernon to assume to Presidency of the (hopefully) United States, he insisted that Alexander Hamilton again be part of his “official” family. The President truly loved the brilliant young man with the massive talents and massive ego.

Their relationship would always be rocky, but forgiving.  Just like so many other fathers and sons.

Sources:

Knott, Stephen F. and Williams, Tony –Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America – Sourcebooks, 2016

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/washington-amp-lafayette-162245867/?no-ist

http://www.infoplease.com/t/history/true-washington/hamilton.html

http://www.ushistory.org/valleyforge/served/lafayette.html

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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3 Responses to George Washington’s Two Revolutionary Sons

  1. energywriter says:

    Interesting concept of father/son or commander/adjutant. As always, great info written in a engaging way. sd

  2. Ah, but Lafayette did see Washington again after Yorktown, during a brief visit back to America in 1784. That was when we said our last farewells!

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