George Washington possessed a unique set of qualities that inspired the people of 13 British colonies to create a new country. He had both political and military skills, along with physical strength, courage and a bearing that won the confidence of his followers.
He also made considerable sacrifices to shape the new nation. Rather than enjoy his vast wealth, George Washington chose to spend eight years fighting the American Revolution. He spent another eight as the first president of the United States.
But not everyone revered him.
Massachusetts governor John Hancock, for example, snubbed George Washington when he visited Boston. The famously vain Hancock apparently wanted Washington to understand that a governor of Massachusetts had more importance than the president of a republic.
Washington’s detractors included his fellow generals as well as his political enemies. Some, like Hancock, were jealous, while others had political differences. In at least one case, George Washington received blame for something he didn’t do.
Here are five criticisms of George Washington:
George Washington, ‘damnably deficient’
Charles Lee, an eccentric Virginian with an excessive love of his dogs, resented George Washington for edging him out as commander in chief. John Adams called him a ‘queer creature’ and Abigail Adams recounted how he made her shake hands with his Pomeranian.
On Dec. 13, 1776, Lee wrote to fellow general Horatio Gates,
entre nous, a certain great man is most damnably deficient…unless something we do not expect turns up we are lost.
One thing did turn up: The British captured Lee, which took away Washington’s difficult rival and made it easier for him to command American forces.
George Washington ‘a Virginian’
John Adams – short, pudgy, irascible – perhaps can be forgiven for resenting the adulation heaped on the tall and elegant George Washington. Adams, unlike Washington, ended his presidency in bitterness and controversy.
Adams still nursed a grudge against Washington seven years after he died. In 1807, Adams wrote a letter to his best friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, that included a snarky description of Washington’s talents, including his Virigin1a birth. Wrote Adams:
Washington was a Virginian. This is equivalent to five Talents. Virginian Geese are all Swans. Not a Bearne in Scotland is more national, not a Lad upon the High Lands is more clannish, than every Virginian I have ever known. They trumpet one another with the most pompous and mendacious Panegyricks. The Phyladelphians and New Yorkers who are local and partial enough to themselves are meek and modest in Comparison with Virginian Old Dominionisms Washington of course was extolled without bounds.
George Washington, Corrupt Monarchist
George Washington sorely disappointed Benjamin Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson. During the French Revolution, Bache believed the French revolutionaries fought for the same ideals the American revolutionaries did.
Then in 1795, Washington supported the Jay Treaty with Britain. The treaty normalized relations with the British at the expense of the French revolutionaries.
Bache owned a newspaper, the Philadelphia General Advertiser and Aurora, which began trashing Washington over the Jay Treaty. He relentlessly attacked George Washington as a corrupt monarchist.
In his final salvo, Bache published a pamphlet arguing that Washington was merely “A Virginia planter by no means the most eminent, a militia-officer ignorant of war both in theory and useful practice, and a politician certainly not of the first magnitude.”
Bache derided him as a dull, uninspiring lover of pomp, and concluded,
He is but a man, and certainly not a great man.
George Washington, Big Spender
Another critic of Washington’s aristocratic style did him some real damage during his presidency. John Beckley, as clerk of the House of Representatives, had access to U.S. Treasury records and used them against the first president.
Washington’s salary was $25,000 – about $475,000 in today’s dollars. But Washington liked to live large and withdrew from the Treasury more than Congress appropriated to him. By March 31, 1795, six years into his presidency, he overdrew his pay by $6,154 — $117,000 in today’s dollars. Beckley published those numbers in Bache’s newspaper, seriously embarrassing the Washington administration.
Wrote Beckley under a nom de plume,
“Will not the world be led to conclude that the mask of political hypocrisy has been alike worn by a CAESAR, a CROMWELL and a WASHINGTON?”
George Washington, Chameleon
Thomas Paine spent 10 months in 1794 in a Paris prison, terrified that the French would execute him. He appealed for release as an American citizen, but French officials replied they considered him an Englishman. Further, the government of the United States refused to recognize him as a citizen. The U.S. ambassador, Gouverneur Morris, kept him incarcerated, but Paine blamed Washington.
You do not want Thomas Paine writing nasty letters about you.
On July 30, 1796, Paine sent a public letter denouncing Washington, a vicious diatribe that created a national controversy.
It is laughable to hear Mr. Washington talk of his sympathetic feelings, who has always been remarked, even among his friends, for not having any…
The character which Mr. Washington has attempted to act in the world is a sort of nondescribable, chameleon-colored thing called prudence. It is, in many cases, a substitute for principle, and is so nearly allied to hypocrisy that it easily slides into it.
Paine even wrote an anti-Washington poem. The poet Joel Barlow wrote in his notebook ‘Thomas Paine’s instruction to the Sculptor who would make the statue of Washington.
Take from the mine the coldest, hardest stone
It needs no fashion, it is Washington;
But if you chisel, let your strokes be rude
And on his breast engrave ingratitude.
Sources: The Bache and Beckley items are from J.D. Tagg, ^Benjamin Franklin Bache’s Attack on George Washington. This story was updated in 2021.