The recent showing on the A&E Network of “The Crossing” has resulted in a flurry of questions being raised about the character and personal habits of Commander-in-Chief George Washington. Specifically, was he as profane with his language as portrayed in the film?
“The Crossing” was A&E’s movie version of Howard Fast’s book by the same name. Howard Fast, who has authored over seventy novels, describes his work as “American historiography”; that is, it is a combination of history and biography written in a novel form.
It is Washington’s dialogue in this movie which has raised the most questions. Yet, it is the dialogue which is its least historical portion; that is, there is no exact record of the conversations which occurred prior to and during the crossing. While there are soldier’s and staff’s remembrances of the topics and tones of the discussions and even of a few occasional phrases, there simply exists no historical records documenting the full conversations themselves. This portion of the historiography of the “the Crossing” makes it a novel. Interestingly, however, the George Washington in the movie “the Crossing” is much more profane than the George Washington in the book “The Crossing.” In fact, some of the profane words used in the movie are actually words of recent origin, having had no previous historical usage.
Nonetheless, accepting that the dialogue is the least accurate element of “The Crossing,” the question still remains, was the portrayal of George Washington as a leader given to verbal profanity an accurate historical portrayal? Fortunately, there is much available primary-source historical information (from both military documents and eye-witnesses of that time) which provides a clear and indisputable answer to this question: No, the use of profanity was not a part of the leadership style of George Washington. In fact, the records are clear that the opposite was true.
George Washington’s own personal aversion to profanity was first documented nearly thirty years before “The Crossing” of 1776. In 1746, Washington wrote out his famous “Rules of Civility.” His Rule 22 declared:
Use no reproachful language against any one, neither curse, nor revile.1
A decade later, and still nearly twenty years before “The Crossing,” Washington first documented his personal aversion to profanity in the
military. In 1756, during the French and Indian War as a young colonel commanding Virginian forces during that conflict, Washington told his superior, Lt. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie:
[T]his I am certain of, and can call my conscience and what, I suppose, will still be a more demonstrable proof in the eyes of the world, my orders, to witness how much I have–both by threats and persuasive means–endeavored to discountenance gaming, drinking, swearing, and irregularities of every other kind; while I have, on the other hand, practiced every artifice to inspire a laudable emulation in the officers for the service of their country and to encourage the soldiers in the unerring exercise of their duty. 2
Several weeks later, Washington issued the following order to his troops:
Colonel Washington has observed that the men of his regiment are very profane and reprobate. He takes this opportunity to inform them of his great displeasure at such practices and assures them that if they do not leave them off, they shall be severely punished. The officers are desired, if they hear any man swear or make use of an oath or execration, to order the offender twenty-five lashes immediately, without court-martial. For the second offense, he will be more severely punished.3
Washington’s firm opposition to profanity in the military never wavered, as evidenced by military orders he issued on several occasions throughout the American Revolution. For example:
The General most earnestly requires and expects a due observance of those articles of war established for the government of the army which forbid profane cursing, swearing and drunkenness; and in the like manner requires and expects of all officers and soldiers not engaged on actual duty, a punctual attendance on Divine Service to implore the blessings of Heaven upon the means used for our safety and defense. 4 GENERAL ORDERS, CAMBRIDGE, JULY 4, 1775
The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing (a vice heretofore little known in an American Army) is growing into fashion; he hopes the officers will, by example as well as influence, endeavor to check it, and that both they and the men will reflect that we can have little hopes of the blessing of heaven on our arms if we insult it by our impiety and folly; added to this, it is a vice so mean and low, without any temptation, that every man of sense and character detests and despises it. 5 GENERAL ORDERS, NEW YORK, AUGUST 3, 1776
It is much to be lamented that the foolish and scandalous practice of profane swearing is exceedingly prevalent in the American Army. Officers of every rank are bound to discourage it, first by their example, and then by punishing offenders. As a mean to abolish this and every other species of immorality, Brigadiers are enjoined to take effectual care to have Divine Service duly performed in their respective brigades. 6 GENERAL ORDERS, MIDDLEBROOK, MAY 31, 1777
Purity of morals being the only sure foundation of public happiness in any country, and highly conducive to order, subordination, and success in an army, it will be well worthy the emulation of officers of every rank and class to encourage it both by the influence of example and the penalties of authority. It is painful to see many shameful instances of riot and licentiousness
among us; the wanton practice of swearing has risen to a most disgusting height. A regard to decency should
conspire with a sense of morality to banish a vice productive of neither advantage of pleasure. 7 GENERAL ORDERS, FREDERICKSBURG, OCTOBER 21, 1778
There is a clear and consistent message throughout his orders: General Washington did not tolerate the practice of swearing in the military. It is therefore reasonable to assume that he would have been a leader in propagating that which he so sternly opposed? Hardly. “The Crossing” has
mis-portrayed this element of the character and nature of General Washington.
In fact, on only one occasion during the lengthy forty-year military career of General Washington was he accused of cursing or profanity. That occasion allegedly occurred during during the Battle of Monmouth in 1778 when General Charles Lee displayed
gross cowardice in the face of the British and ordered the American troops under his command to retreat. The retreat became a general rout until General Washington arrived, rallied the troops, reformed the scattered bands, and attacked.
Washington, irritated with General Lee for direct disobedience to his orders, removed Lee from the control of any troops following an angry exchange with him on the field of battle. Some charge that this heated argument Washington swore at Lee. Lee later
demanded an apology from Washington for the way he had been humiliated on the battle field, but Washington refused. Lee was afterwards court-martialed, found guilty, and given a twelve-month suspended sentence for disobedience to direct orders, misbehavior before the enemy, and disrespect to the Commander-in-Chief.
Interestingly, even W. E. Woodward, an early twentieth-century revisionist historian very critical of Washington, found no basis for believing that general Washington used profanity even on this occasion. Woodward explained:
The question as to whether Washington swore on this occasion has stirred the American nation for five generations. . . . Washington may have sworn in his heated interview with Lee, but it does not appear in the evidence; and I think it a very doubtful legend. The story of his swearing at Monmouth rests on the unofficial testimony of people given years after the occurrence, and in the form of loose
reminiscences. . . . In the whole mass of testimony produced at the Lee court-martial, there is not one
word about swearing. Much of this testimony was given by friends of Lee, and Lee himself presented a defense in writing in which he said that he endeavored to reproduce Washington’s words literally. At the
court-martial he was Washington’s mortal enemy, and it seems that if Washington
had given him a good cursing–which would have been a breach of military courtesy–Lee would have set down something about it in his paper. . . . Evidently he [Washington] repented quickly his loss of temper at Monmouth, for shortly after his altercation with Lee he turned to that
general, who was still hanging around swollen with injured pride, and mildly directed him to take command of the rallied troops.8
Even historians harshest in their criticism of George Washington find little basis for believing that Washington swore, Yet, even if this one occasion is accepted, there still is absolutely no substantiation for the type of loose and flowing profanity which characterized Washington during “The Crossing.”
In fact, those who knew and served with Washington during his military career described him in the opposite terms. For example, General Henry Lee said of Washington that:
To his equals he was condescending, to his inferiors kind . . . [V]ice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. 9
Similarly, David Ramsay, military surgeon during the Revolution, said of Washington that:
His private character, as well as his public one, will bear the strictest scrutiny. He. . . . carried the spirit of piety with him, both in his private life and public administration. 10
And General Alexander Hamilton confirmed the general character of Washington when, upon Washington’s death in 1799, he declared:
If virtues can secure happiness in another world, he [Washington] is happy. 11
While many of the military and historical facts, dates, names, and places portrayed in A&E’s “The Crossing” may be accurate and correct, the portrayal of the flawed moral character of the Commander-in-Chief is historically inaccurate.
1. Jared Sparks, The Life of George Washington (Boston: Ferdinand Andrews, 1839), p. 514.
2. George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington: U. S. Printing Office, 1931), Vol. I, p. 317, to Robert Dinwiddie on April 18, 1756.
3. George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, Jared Sparks, editor (Boston: Ferdinand Andrews, 1836), Vol. II, p. 167, n, from his “Orderly Book,” an undated order issued between June 25 and August 4, 1756.
4. Washington, Writings, Vol. III, p. 309, General Orders, Head Quarters, Cambridge, July 4, 1775.
5. Washington, Writings, Vol. V, p. 367, General Orders, Head Quarters, New York, August 3, 1776.
6.Washington, Writings, Vol. VIII, p. 152-53, General Orders, Head Quarters, Middle-Brook, May 31, 1777.
7. Washington, Writings, Vol. XIII, p. 118-19, General Orders, Head Quarters, Fredericksburg, October 21, 1778.
8. W. E. Woodward, George Washington, The Image and The Man, W. E. Woodward (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1926), pp. 352-353.
9. A Memory of Washington: Compromising a Sketch of his Life and Character; and the National Testimonials of Respect–Also a Collection of Eulogies and Orations (Newport, RI: Oliver Farnsworth, 1800), p. 99, from the eulogy on Washington by General Henry Lee, December 26, 1799.
10. E. C. M’Guire, Religious Opinions and Character of Washington (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1836), p. 362, from the eulogy on Washington by David Ramsay, on January 15, 1800.
11. Alexander Hamilton, The Works of Alexander Hamilton, John C. Hamilton, editor (New York: John F. Trow, 1851), Vol. VI, p. 415, to M. Leer on January 2, 1800.