Today is Presidents Day in the U.S., and over the past week I’ve been re-reading James Flexner’s Washington: The Indispensable Man in preparation. I’ve been fascinated by George Washington since I read his first inaugural address my junior year of high school. It was his desire not to be president that captivated me then and continues to interest me today. He wanted a simple retirement after the Revolution, not the responsibilities of leading a nation that his friends guilted him into doing.
After serving out his two presidential terms, Washington was finally able to retire to his home at Mount Vernon and live at a more relaxed pace. In Flexner’s biography, he discusses Washington’s daily routines starting on page 361:
Washington rose with the sun. “If my hirelings are not in the places at that time, I send them messages expressive of my sorrow for their indisposition. Then, having put these wheels in motion, I examine the state of things further,” always finding more “wounds” in his structures that needed to be healed. At a little after seven o’clock breakfast was ready. “This over, I mount my horse and ride round my farms, which employs me until it is time to dress for dinner, at which I rarely miss seeing strange faces, come, as they say, out of respect to me. Pray, would not the word curiosity answer as well? And how different this from having a few social friends at a cheerful board!
“The usual time of sitting at table, a walk, and tea, brings me within the dawn of candlelight, previous to which, if not prevented by company, I resolve that as soon as the glimmering taper supplies the place of the great luminary, I will retire to my writing table and acknowledge the letters I have received, but when the lights are brought, I feel tired and disinclined to engage in this work, conceiving that the next night will do as well. …”
I have to laugh aloud at Washington’s candor in this passage. He grumbles about people coming to see him “out of respect to me,” when he knows they’re just coming to visit because he’s famous. He longs to have his home filled with actual friends, instead. Then, he admits that when he has a candle brought to his desk so that he might respond to letters, he procrastinates and puts it off for another date.
Washington struggled with his desire to live a more simple life even in his retirement from public service. He certainly wanted fewer social obligations, and I think we can safely infer what his opinions would have been about modern e-mail. His biography is a nice reminder that the problems and aggravations we face currently, and our desire for a more simple life, are often very similar to those experienced by the people who lived before us.