Mount Vernon had the opportunity to sit down with author and journalist Philip Smucker who recently published an original book about George Washington’s chivalry and his renowned athleticism.
Author Philip Smucker, a fifth-great-grandnephew of George Washington, uses his background as a war correspondent, sports reporter, and amateur equestrian to weave an insightful tale based upon his own travels in the footsteps and hoofprints of Washington as a surveyor, sportsman, and field commander in his new book, Riding with George: Sportsmanship & Chivalry in the Making of America's First President.
In Riding with George, you explore the role sportsmanship and chivalry had in shaping the man who would become the first president of the United States. What inspired you to explore this aspect of Washington?
It was a long process. I had read several biographies of George Washington, particularly the Flexner, Freeman, and Ferling volumes, and I was impressed with the snippets about George’s rather amazing athleticism, even wondering why no one had tackled this issue earlier. That was about seven years ago while I was smacking golf balls around the Mount Vernon course with a friend. I’m a rather bad athlete myself, and having attempted many sports and excelled in none, apart from maybe archery when I was eleven, I began to wonder about the confluence of athletic skill, warfare, and leadership. The deeper I dug, the more I discovered. Washington, of course, had mostly an informal education. What he learned early of the world was often on the back of a horse, or on foot in the woods. He was a “kinesthetic learner” – in other words he understood and learned by doing things. He was also the only “Founding Father,” who slept out under the stars for a good portion of his life – all the while learning the life of a woodsman, the prowess of an equestrian and the ways of men, whether they were Native Americans, wild-eyed frontiersmen, or high-brow British aristocrats chasing foxes.
George’s “sporting trail” – as I like to think of it – offered a lot of clues about his character as well. Early on he learned to look into the proverbial mirror and catch a glimpse of himself as an actor on a stage. Thus, he developed a love of protocol and prowess – apparently through the formalities of foxhunting, as well as through his early engagements on the dance floor, and on a trip with his half-brother Lawrence to the Barbados.
George taught himself to perform a mean minuet and ride as well as any of his Virginia peers, even through a hail of bullets. Alas, as a bad athlete and a war reporter, I had begun my writing career covering the Cal Berkeley rugby team’s antics on and off the field. I could not resist the idea of chasing this compelling story down the winding trails of the Shenandoah and into the hills of Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until the last two years of the five year project that I realized I would need to provide the reader a glimpse into George’s own skills and psyche by attempting – in my own bumbling way – to partake of the “sports” that he excelled at. Over the course of my endeavors – and with a lot of help along the way -- I think I gained a few insights into what drove George’s love of sports, manners, and prowess. He was, after all, a product of the Old Dominion, whose British forefathers – particularly the royal authorities – valued the skills he polished at a young age for military reasons and for the sake of the prosperity of the “Empire.”
Why was chivalry important to George Washington?
The word chivalry conjures up skills on the back of a horse and politesse, which George came to possess in spades. Though there is still a great deal of research to be done on George’s childhood, my own suggests that his mother’s love of riding and good manners helped to forge his character and provided him with an appropriate and respectful view of the opposite gender. As an old English literature major, I dug back into British and French history to look into the roots of chivalry. George saw himself, in my view, as an Old World courtier – a knight in the service of the crown and beautiful women. These traditions are very much an extension of the British definition of chivalry, which I like to think of through the Shakespeare’s allusion in his play, King Henry VI in the line, “I see our wars will turn unto peaceful comic sport when ladies crave to be encountered with.” Indeed, though George knew his duty as a warrior, he was always happy to hang up his spurs and flirt with the ladies!
What was it that made a young George Washington become so interested in sport?
I think George was drawn to sport, which included dance as a way to prove value in a highly-competitive New World. As much as the British court valued sporting prowess, Colonial America valued athletic skills as much or more. The Old World’s actual class system simply meant a lot less in America. Athleticism was a ticket to ride in a rough and raw world.
In George’s first mission into the wilderness to deliver the French a message to depart the Ohio Valley, we witness an amazing moment when he plunges into an icy river and uses his immense strength to swim to shore and survive a night on a frozen island in the middle of a treacherous river. The next day, lo and behold, Washington simply walked on water - actually ice - to safety after the river had frozen overnight. Later, at the Battle of Monongahela, George would ride through heavy fire, lose two horses in the process, and take four bullets in his coat and hat. So, early on in his career he was able to employ his sporting prowess to rise above his peers. I also think he knew this going in – it was almost expected of him growing up in Fredericksburg.
the battle of monongahela
Apparently, George Washington never threw that silver dollar across the Potomac River. In your research, did you come across any other stories that really surprised you?
I guess I understood that anecdote to be a part of the making of myths about Washington. (Historian Ed Lengel has written extensively about this “myth making.”) However, I detail in the book several instances of rather amazing physical skill – often combined with reckless courage -- that assured me that such myths were not spun from whole cloth.
If George were alive today, I’m sure he would drive a rather fast sports car. In his own era, he would ride fifty miles a day – often at a gallop – just to get from Mount Vernon to Williamsburg. After having been riddled with bullets in his coat at Monongahela, he rode nearly forty more miles with a bad case of dysentery past the dead and dying to deliver a message. During the Revolution when fistfights broke out among his men, he charged into the fray with William Lee, his black slave and valet, employing his brute strength to quell the hand-to-hand combat. All that and he could be called on to dance a French minuet at any ball in his honor. At six-feet-two, he might have felt awkward at times, standing several inches above the crowd, but he overcame his soft-spoken nature by training his own body at its core to perform in public in adept and nuanced ways. He also studied theater and became – well – a great actor on the stage of world history because of it. He was to my mind – and without much doubt -- an American “Renaissance Man.” Of course, Washington also was human and had flaws, including slavery, a disturbing issue I tackle at some length in the book.
What was dancing like in the 18th century?
In my research, I found Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria and the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg to be the best venues at which to imagine what proper Colonial dancing was like. I took lessons and failed miserably myself, but it was here that I gleaned a taste of what it might have been like for George, who hit the dance floor at both venues. Though so many young Virginians in George’s day had a dance master teach them steps, it appears, from my research, that George was largely self-taught as a dancer. I learned myself from modern colonial dance instructors that most minuets, though careful to form and grace, were also often spontaneously choreographed by the dancers themselves.
It was explained to me that that everyone watching such a display was ready to laugh or poke fun at any failure. In other words, it was a bit like all the onlookers playing a judge on “Dancing with the Stars,” remarking on any particular skill or flaw. As historian Rhys Isaac explained the company would form “a circle, observing and formally adjudicating” individual performances. With this in mind, I started to understand how – if George hadn’t learned to dance well – he might have merely been known in history as an accomplished dodger of musket balls. He took his own performances on the dance floor as seriously as those on the battlefield, from what we know, and referred to dance as “the gentler conflict.” Eighteenth-Century dance allowed a gentleman to live up to his reputation and, indeed, win favor in the right circles, including in Williamsburg and in my own hometown of Alexandria.
Foxhunting seems like the modern day equivalent to golfing in that important business and political partners often came together for sport but also to discuss significant matters. Did Washington broker any big deals while foxhunting, as an entrepreneur or as a politician?
Yes. Foxhunting back in George’s day was usually with a smaller groups of men, often the upper crust of society. So, naturally, there was a lot of male bonding that went on. The British relished such encounters, including sports like “pig-sticking” in India.
George’s fortunes in life changed literally when he bonded as a young equestrian with the extremely wealthy Fairfax family – by all accounts while on the trail of the fox. In 1747, when George was just 15, Lord Thomas Fairfax, an enthusiastic English sportsman, and the owner of a fair share of the uncharted wilderness in Virginia, landed in America having shipped his “two dogs and a bitch” for foxhunting in advance. The “Old Lord,” as George would one-day fondly refer to his friend, who eventually took up residence in the Shenandoah, was described by one British visitor to the America as a man “whose chief – if not sole – amusement was hunting.”
Lord Fairfax was a British aristocrat to the bone. He had received an education at Oriel College, Oxford, where he studied a broad range of English and classical literature. In Oxford and London, he hung out with witty, poetry-loving sons of blue bloods in coffeehouses. He likely even encouraged young George’s curiosity about the arts and drama. And, yes, Fairfax and his kin were all power brokers and a teenage George got to charge off after foxes with all of them on numerous occasions. Lord Fairfax, by all accounts, including Flexner’s, took young George under his wing and was quickly impressed. A typical eighteenth-century hunt tested any man’s riding skills and athletic prowess. To be clear, there was a lot of protocol in foxhunting, almost like a cavalry charge in some respects, but in the Darwinian sense, it was about both survival of the fittest and getting ahead in life with power and money. One might think of it as a high-powered Trumpian (or Clintonian) golf match, in that regard. And as my own foxhunting companion, Col. Dennis Foster instructed me, “if you couldn’t ride you would not be invited back.” But in George’s case the “deal” was more the reward of the Fairfax’s family undying affection and support in years to come.
The Fairfax clan was convinced that young George had what Tom Wolfe once called “the right stuff” to become a star in the New World. Indeed, the better George performed in the field, the more likely he was to fall into the good graces of Lord Fairfax, who, along with his loyal cousin, Colonel William Fairfax, became his chief patron. Lord and Colonel Fairfax were thinking hard about George’s future, as would be made clear by George’s meteoric rise in their world. So, with the Fairfax clan, George was able to forge a unique union between Old World interests and New World ambitions.
What skills did Washington acquire through sports which helped him become the Father of our country?
The notion of what Washington represents is often confused with his stoic visage on the dollar bill. In writing my book, I discovered a much richer side of the “Father of our Country.” He was an accomplished athlete, an outdoorsman, a hunter, an explorer and a classic romantic enthralled with America. George loved our land, its vastness, its ruggedness and each new encounter it provided him. He was as comfortable camping under a boulder or at the confluence of two rivers as we was dancing in an elaborate ball in Williamsburg.
The idea that sportsmanship builds character is a notion that would develop -- and be better articulated by other presidents, including Teddy “the rough rider” Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy -- but for young George the idea was an unspoken truth. His athletic prowess would steel him for combat, and prepare him to weather hardship in both the French & Indian War and the Revolution.
I do not believe that Washington would have become the leader he became without his immense physical presence and amazing athletic prowess. There are several heroic moments when Washington was at war that stand out in my mind as involving an incredible amount of stamina, strength, courage, skill and poise. One is at Monongahela and the other is at Princeton. As the Princeton fight unfolded, Washington dashed forward to prevent a retreat amid withering fire. As on several occasions in his storied military career, he pretty much dared his foe to make a martyr of him. Near to the University town, British soldiers had just murdered a fallen mate, Col. Mercer, but George’s fury was less apparent than his audacity and gall as he literally pranced on horseback before his troops. He shouted to his men, as he did on other occasions to “parade with me, my brave fellows.” Several volleys were fired in a barren, frozen orchard as Washington led the way, charging up the hill, stopping only when the American column was within a hundred feet of British guns. The general’s aide-de-camp, John Fitzgerald, later told Washington’s grandson that, fearing to witness his general shot dead, he “drew his hat over his face” before removing it moments later to see Washington wreathed in smoke but unscathed and still in full command. With British forces now on the run, George and his men took up the chase as he reportedly shouted with gusto, “It is a fine fox chase, my boys!”
For me, this moment encapsulates the confluence of sport and war, including in the mind of Washington. At Princeton, George became the “spirit” of the Continental Army. Washington had chosen to dash into the heart of the battle rather than remain an observer on a nearby bluff. This urge to be in the center of the charge was nothing new for him.
As a young man, he had relished danger even when on a foxhunt in the Shenandoah, where he had learned about courage and equestrian skill. That was the way he rolled as a young man, including in the French & Indian War, and this did not change with maturity. But there was another element on display at Princeton – one of magnanimous sportsmanship. In keeping with his own code of honor and sense of fair play, he insisted on proper rules of war, almost always more humane than those of his British foe. His officers’ corps insisted that quarter, or mercy, be extended to the enemy, particularly captives. After his earlier victory at Trenton, Washington ordered that the Hessian captives be treated with the same human rights for which the Continental Army had vowed to fight. When Philadelphians called for the heads of the Hessians, many of whom had earlier executed Americans in and around New York, Washington made a point of publicly stating that the German mercenaries were “innocent people in this war,” insisting they be treated as friends rather than as enemies. And at Princeton, despite the redcoats’ bayoneting his friend Dr. Mercer on the cold earth, Washington insisted on decent treatment for all prisoners in the aftermath, arguing that they should “have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren.”
Washington, though he sometimes suffered bouts of depression and a loss of faith in his own men, rarely ever considered anyone to be his mortal enemy. I believe that he usually thought of his foe as something of a clever and friendly competitor. He genuinely believe in fair play and good sportsmanship and these qualities -- along with his amazing comportment and his ability to see himself as an actor on the stage of a New World order – made him in my view an excellent First President, distinguishing him as a leader and the “Father of our Country.”