The Washington Library at Mount Vernon recently acquired five stunning George Washington letters written to François Jean de Beauvoir, Marquis de Chastellux, an Enlightenment thinker and general in the French army during the American War of Independence.
François-Jean de Beauvoir, chevalier de Chastellux was born in Paris, France in 1734 and died there on October 24, 1788. He began his military career at a young age as a second lieutenant during the Seven Years’ War, and rose to the rank of major general. He later served under Rochambeau, commander of the French expeditionary force sent to aid the Continental Army during the American War of Independence. He arrived in America in July 1780. After successful participation in the Yorktown campaign, he remained in America for over a year. He returned to France in January 1783; where he was made a Marshall of France and named Inspector General of Infantry. In 1784, he succeeded his brother as the Marquis de Chastellux.
Significance of the Chastellux Letters from Mount Vernon on Vimeo.
During Chastellux’s time in America he became a close friend to Washington and they maintained this friendship until Chastellux's death. Having immense respect for Washington, in 1780-1782 Chastellux commissioned Charles Wilson Peale to paint a portrait of him commemorating the victory at Yorktown. And, in April 1786 he published Voyages de M. le Marquis de Chastellux dans l’Amérique Septentrionale Dans les Années 1780, 1781 & 1782 (Travels in North America), a book on his experiences in America including a description of Washington in which he stated that “the strongest characteristic of this respectable man is the perfect union with reigns between the physical and moral qualities which compose the individual… .” In August 1786, Chastellux presented a French-language copy to Washington who then purchased the English translation in August 1787. The Washington Library is home to both of these editions.
Washington began corresponding with Chastellux, a fluent English speaker, on January 28, 1781 when he welcomed him to Newport after “traversing so much of the American theatre of War.”1 While much of the early correspondence related to activities of war, as their friendship grew, Washington revealed a more poetic and personal side. When Chastellux left for France, Washington remarked with much emotion that he “felt too much to express anything….a sense of your public Services to this Country, & gratitude for your private friendship, quite overcame me at the moment of our separation… .”2
Washington appeared to truly enjoy the intellectual exchange and these personal sentiments continued throughout their correspondence along with detailed accounts of the state of political affairs in American and growing international relationships. Five of the documented twenty-one letters written by George Washington to Chastellux are now back at Mount Vernon.
George Washington to Chastellux, 10 May 1783, Newburgh
Written from Newburgh, this letter was written in response to Chastellux’s return to Paris and demonstrates the great friendship between the two, “…your Letter…has convinced me that time not distance can eradicate the Seeds of friendship when they have taken root in a good Soil & are nurtured by Philanthropy & benevolence.”
George Washington to Chastellux, 12 October 1783, Princeton
After successfully commanding the Army, Washington discussed his strong desire to retire:“Having the appearance, & indeed the enjoyment of peace, without a final declaration of it ... it being my axious desire to quit the walks of public life, & under the shadow of my own vine, and my own Fig-tree."
George Washington to Chastellux, 1 February 1784, Mount Vernon
After returning to Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve 1783, Washington enthusiastically remarked that he was finally able to retire: “I am at length become a private citizen of America, on the banks of the Potowmac; where under my own Vine & my own Fig tree—free from the bustle of a camp & the intrigues of a Court, I shall view the busy world."
George Washington to Chastellux, 5 September 1785, Mount Vernon
Washington hoped for peaceful trade and poetically outlined how nations might accomplish such a noble task: “It gives me great pleasure to find by my last letters from France, that the dark clouds which hung over you[r] hemisphere, are vanishing before the all-chearing Sunshine of peace. My first wish is to see the blessings of it diffused through all Countries, & among all ranks in every Country."
George Washington to Chastellux, 25 April – 1 May 1788, Mount Vernon
Washington reveals his humorous side after learning of Chastellux’s recent marriage: "A wife! well my dear Marquis, I can hardly refrain from smiling to find you are caught at last. I saw, by the eulogium you often made on the happiness of domestic life in America, that you had swallowed the bate and that you would as surely be taken (one day or another) as you was a Philosopher and a Soldier."