Most early portraits of George Washington represent him as serious and even dour, and more than a few contemporaries described the man as aloof. It is thus perhaps surprising to learn that he actually possessed a fine sense of humor. David Humphreys, Washington’s own secretary and official biographer, wrote c. 1788 that “grave & majestic as he ordinarily was in his deportment, he occasionally, not only relished wit & humour in others, but displayed no inconsiderable share of them himself.” Humphreys also stated that “notwithstanding [Washington’s] temper is rather of a serious cast & his countenance commonly carries the impression of thoughtfulness; he perfectly relishes a pleasant story, an unaffected sally of wit, or a burlesque description which surprises by its suddenness & incongruity with the ordinary appearance of the same object.” Washington himself wrote to a fellow Virginian, Colonel Theodorick Bland, that “it is assuredly better to go laughing than crying thro’ the rough journey of life.” For his part, David Howell, delegate from Rhode Island to the Continental Congress, described Washington in September 1783 as having “a pleasant smile and sparkling vivacity of wit and humor.”1
Humor was especially useful in time of war. George Washington took up command of the Continental Army in June of 1775 and spent the next seven and a half years living with the anxiety and physical dangers of wartime (featured image at top). The war years were not naturally mirthful times, yet he used humor to put himself and others at ease. Washington’s use of humor helped to convey an air of confidence and optimism, thus helping the American cause. His jesting is documented in some of his wartime letters, and further attested by personal accounts from many people who spent time with him during the Revolution.
Washington was acutely aware of his public presentation, and he was eager to display his genteel side to French officers. An aspect of gentility was gentle humor, and a number of the French pointed out that Washington was endowed with a good wit and had a ready smile. A French writer who had been a farmer in America, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, claimed—already contributing to the myth of the wooden, stoical hero—that George Washington was not known to laugh during the Revolutionary War, and rarely smiled even among intimates. But the French officers and officials who actually spent extended time with Washington during the war attested otherwise. François Marbois (later Barbé-Marchois), secretary of the French legation and of the Chevalier de la Luzerne, noted that Washington “is serious in business,” but that “outside of that, he permits himself a restricted gaiety.” According to Pierre-Étienne Du Ponceau, the secretary of the Baron von Steuben, “General Washington had a great deal of that dry humour, which he knew how to make use of on proper occasions.”2 Claude Blanchard, quarter-master of the French army, wrote that Washington “is affable and converses with his officers familiarly and gaily.” The Comte de Ségur stated of Washington that “the expression on his face was pleasant and kind; his smile was gentle.” 3 Even the aforementioned Crevècoeur acknowledged that Washington relaxed his expression after a couple of glasses of wine. Washington, as we will soon see, often exchanged pleasantries with his favorite among the French officers, the Marquis de Lafayette.
Recorded anecdotes indicate Washington’s easy behavior with his fellow officers, both American and European. Along with the usual terrors of war came the onerous duties of his military leadership, but Washington managed to make light of his leadership during war. Writing of a difficult crossing of the Hudson River in September of 1779, Frenchman Mathieu Dumas reported that “we coasted the rocks which lined the right bank of the Hudson, between West Point and New Windsor, at the foot of which it is impossible to land. General Washington perceiving that the master of the boat was very much alarmed, took the helm, saying, ‘Courage, my friends, I am going to conduct you, since it is my duty to hold the helm.’ After having with much difficulty made our way against the stream and the ice, we landed, and had to walk a league before we reached the headquarters.” 4 This incident is corroborated by François Marbois, secretary of the French legation; writing of the river crossing near West Point: “The general held the tiller, and during a little squall which required skill and practice, proved to us that this work was no less known to him than are other bits of useful knowledge.” 5 By the jest recorded by Dumas, Washington meant not that it was literally his duty to hold the helm, but that he was at the helm of the whole American cause, and his taking on the helm of the boat was to be understood as a little symbol. He intended his remark more facetiously than the francophone witnesses realized, but the act itself seems to have impressed the Frenchmen.
Other anecdotes indicate how during the Revolution he joked about the visual arts with fellow military officers. One incident also offers insight into Washington’s taste in art for the “neat but plain” style. When goblets, made of silver and too gaudy in design, came into his view in September 1783 during toasts at a military banquet—the goblets made by a man who had since become a Quaker preacher—Washington is said to have quipped that he wished the craftsman “had been a Quaker preacher before he had made the cups.”6 Washington meant that he preferred a functional and restrained shape for the goblets rather than a fanciful one. The remark shows his persistent taste for a plain style and also his awareness of the Quaker manner in the decorative and other arts, a style that tended towards solid and “honest” construction and spare use of ornament.
Washington’s wartime humor appeared in quiet, private moments as well as public gatherings. For the Marquis de Chastellux, George Washington mirthfully encouraged him in 1782 to “frighten” away an ague with some alcohol: “The General observing it, told me he was sure I had not met with a good glass of wine for some time, an article then very rare, but that my disorder must be frightened away; he made me drink three or four of his silver camp cups of excellent madeira at noon, and recommended to me to take a generous glass of claret after dinner, a prescription by no means repugnant to my feelings, and which I most religiously followed.” 7 The marquis recognized the kidding nature of Washington’s “medical” prescription and echoed it with mock reverence in his account through his claim to follow Washington’s advice “religiously.”
One of Washington’s more sustained letters of humorous content during the war concerned the food on the table at West Point. Washington had just invited two ladies to dinner at the fort, one invitee being the wife of Dr. John Cochran, and the other a Mrs. Livingston. In his letter to Dr. Cochran, Washington composed a droll little anecdote in the style found in contemporary London magazines. Washington wrote on 16 August 1779, otherwise hardly a happy time in the war effort, in a light vein:
It is needless to premise, that my table is large enough to hold the ladies; of this they had ocular proof yesterday. To say how it is usually covered is rather more essential, and this, shall be the purport of my Letter. Since our arrival at this happy spot, we have had a Ham (sometimes a shoulder) of Bacon, to grace the head of the table; a piece of roast Beef adorns the foot; and, a small dish of Greens or Beans (almost imperceptable) decorates the center.
When the Cook has a mind to cut a figure (and this I presume he will attempt to do to morrow) we have two Beefstake-Pyes, or dishes of Crabs in addition, one on each side the center dish, dividing the space, and reducing the distance between dish and dish to about Six feet, which without them, would be near twelve a part. Of late, he has had the surprizing segacity to discover, that apples will make pyes; and it’s a question if, amidst the violence of his efforts, we do not get one of the apples instead of having both of Beef.
If the ladies can put up with such entertainment, and will submit to partake of it on plates, once tin but now Iron; (not become so by the labor of scowering) I shall be happy to see them. 8
Washington’s fame during the war meant that portraits of him would be in greater demand by the public, but during this time the General continued his earlier indifference or feigned indifference to portraiture, especially for likenesses of himself. Whether from real modesty or from a desire to project a humble or insouciant air about the taking of his likeness, Washington often spoke of portraiture with some humor. One portrait deserves mention here, as it relates to his martial activities, and his reaction to the work echoes some of the other light-hearted reactions that he had towards war and warfare. The work attempted to capture Washington’s ferocity on the battlefield: cashing in on the popularity of General Washington as a subject, an anonymous English printmaker, who signed himself as “Alexander Campbell” of Williamsburg, produced a scowling and intense portrait of Washington on horseback (right). Washington saw it and wrote in 1775 to legislator Joseph Reed of Pennsylvania: “Mrs Washington desires I will thank you for the Picture sent her. Mr Campbell whom I never saw (to my knowledge) has made a very formidable figure of the Commander in Chief giving him a sufficient portion of Terror in his Countenance.”9 To our eyes as well as to Washington’s, the printmaker’s effort is risible, and Washington detected the pretentious attempt of the clumsy artist to convey a “portion of Terror,” that is, fearsomeness, in his face.
Even the day-to-day financial aspects of military life provided fodder for Washington as humorist. A great problem facing the army during the war involved funding for arms and provisions, a difficulty exacerbated by the reluctance of the Continental Congress to provide the needed support. The monies often had to come from loans, and in that regard financier Robert Morris was instrumental in helping to arrange loans for the struggling congress to support the armed forces. Continental Congress representative David Howell of Rhode Island recorded a neat witticism by Washington. When the president of the congress said he believed that, “Mr. Morris had his HANDS full,” the General replied at the same moment, “He wished he had his POCKETS full, too.” 10
Other isolated moments during the war offered Washington a chance to exercise his wit. A meeting between General Washington and a locally famous person produced a couple of recorded instances of Washington’s sense of humor carrying political overtones. The anecdotes appear in the wartime journal of James Thacher, a military surgeon working for the American army. Thacher described how he saw in July of 1780 in Totowa, New Jersey a “monster in the human form,” having a body “only twenty-seven inches in length,” and being a “miserable deformed object” who “has never been able to stand or sit up, as he cannot support the enormous weight of his head.” Thacher reported that among the many visitors to this marvel of Nature was George Washington himself, who asked the young man “whether he was a whig or a tory?” It is difficult to imagine Washington making light of someone in such a plight, but his offbeat question indicates his odd sense of humor. The youth, in deadpan and honest fashion, answered to Washington that “he had never taken an active part on either side.”11 His response was itself inadvertently humorous, since, barely able to move, he was indeed in any case not able to take an active part for either side. Washington’s sally of wit from this, a bon mot praised by Thacher himself, occurred when Washington told Baron von Steuben in 1783 that he held no grudge against a certain New Yorker (unnamed in Thacher’s account), because he was no fervent Tory even if he did not support the revolutionaries. “Oh, Baron, said the General, laughing, there is no difficulty on that point. Mr. ______ is very like the big-headed boy at Tatawa, he never has taken an active part.” Thacher noted that Washington’s joke was broadly perceived by his colleagues as a “most adroit coup de sabre” against the gentleman in question.12
After the war, Washington penned a good number of jokes about love and sexuality. Even during the war itself, he produced some light remarks on these topics. In addressing the pain of separation between young lovers, General Washington crafted a clever remark that Pierre-Ėtienne Du Ponceau remembered from the encampment at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-1778. At the time, Du Ponceau was serving as the secretary of Baron von Steuben. According to Du Ponceau, Benjamin Walker, a young aide-de-camp to German officer and drillmaster Baron von Steuben, wished to leave the area to visit his belle, but Washington would not release him:
[Walker] had long been engaged to a Quaker young lady who resided in the state of New York and whom he afterwards married. He once asked the General to give him leave of absence for a few days to go and see her. The General told him that he could not at that time dispense with his services. Walker insisted, begged, entreated, but all in vain. “If I don’t go,” said he, “she will die.” “Oh!, no,” said Washington, “women do not die for such trifles.” “But General, what shall I do? what would you do?” “Why, write to her to add another leaf to the book of sufferings.” This was related to me by Walker himself. Washington had a great deal of that dry humour which he knew how to make use of on proper occasions.13
There are, simultaneously, a number of witty elements in Washington’s comments to Walker. First, he made light of the young man’s own suffering, indicating that the young officer was exaggerating how his fiancée would react. Washington certainly also made light of her “sufferings,” which he mockingly noted should be recorded in a logbook of sufferings like that maintained by the English and American Quakers, who in the seventeenth-century started detailing their sorrowful experiences in what they called “The Great Book of Sufferings.” Many of the “sufferings” they recorded were legal penalties such as fines, whippings, and jail sentences for not paying obeisance or taxes and tithes to the political regime, military establishment, or dominant churches. They abhorred the punishments, but they also found reassuring parallels between their own sufferings and those of Christ, his apostles, and other early Christians. In the eighteenth century, the Quakers were often the butt of criticism and jokes, and by Washington’s time the “Great Book of Sufferings” had long earned a reputation for being a self-promoting proclamation of martyrdom and a melodramatic public expression of the Quakers’ conflicts with the rest of society. Many Americans regarded the “Great Book of Sufferings” as a record of the unpatriotic and separatist character of the Quakers.14 Washington’s remark was a brilliant joke because it evoked the sorrow of the girl as an unpleasant by-product of the military service of her beloved. Like the Quakers, who were sometimes forced to participate in the military or otherwise to serve the larger populace through taxation or fines, even against their religious beliefs, the young woman could lament her beau’s military duties and see her own suffering as a result of the wrong-minded and martial character of the non-Quaker world. Washington managed to mock both Walker’s and the girl’s sufferings, while he also alluded to the lack of patriotism of the Quakers, who were failing to contribute to the war that Washington and his fellows were waging at that moment.
In all of his slight humor about the sexes, Washington never made the kind of deeply misogynistic statements that appear, for example, in the writings of Virginia planter William Byrd.15 Washington’s remarks on the sexes tended to be light-hearted, as when he joked, even during a highly tense time during the siege of Boston, to his brother-in-law Burwell Bassett on 28 February 1776 that “Mrs Washington Says that she has wrote all the news she Could get (and ladies you know are never at a loss).”16 Along similar lines, and also making humorous reference to sacred writings, on 30 September 1779 Washington wrote a teasing letter to the Marquis de Lafayette to reassure him that the wife of the young marquis would not fall for Washington, because “amidst all the wonders recorded in holy writ no instance can be produced where a young Woman from real inclination has preferred an old man,” and thus Washington “shall not be able I fear to contest the prize with you, yet, under the encouragement you have given me I shall enter the list for so inestimable a Jewell,” that is, the marquise herself. As he had done before the war, the mature Washington continued to use mirthfully literary language to make light of love’s power over weak mortals. During the Revolutionary War, Washington wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette about the young officer’s separation from his wife, and he penned the humorously flowery line that “no distance can keep anxious lovers long asunder.” Similarly, Washington wrote to writer Annis Boudinot Stockton on 2 September 1783, employing a biblically inflected metaphor: “Once woman has tempted us and we have tasted the forbidden fruit, there is no such thing as checking our appetites, whatever the consequences may be.”17 Washington used the heroic language of antiquity and the Bible to mock the contemporary act of falling in love.
Turning to a more serious context: with the war nearly over, the states and the Continental Congress had neglected the army, which was in desperate need of food, clothing, and back pay for troops. Even here Washington managed a bit of sartorial humor. In support of the common soldiery, Washington complained on their behalf in a letter to Major General John Armstrong of Pennsylvania on 10 January 1783: “The Army, as usual, are without Pay; and a great part of the Soldiery without Shirts; and tho’ the patience of them is equally thread bear, the States seem perfectly indifferent to their cries.”18 Here, as elsewhere in his writings, Washington uses humor to help soften a situation and to get results.
In short, in addition to employing his other attributes so useful in time of war—good judgment, hard military experience, admirable caution, excellent horsemanship, physical vigor, and bravery—Washington used his fine sense of humor to relieve the stress of those difficult times, enhance his leadership and, in a quiet and affable way, make the war effort go more smoothly.
 David Humphreys’ “Life of General Washington,” with George Washington’s Remarks”, ed. Rosemarie Zagarri (Athens, GA, and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1991), 36, 56. George Washington to Theodorick Bland, 15 August 1786, The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1983), 4: 210. For the quote from Howell, see Edmund Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, 8 vols. (Washington, DC: The Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1921-1936), 7 (1934):292.  Gilbert Chinard, ed. and trans., George Washington as the French Knew Him: A Collection of Texts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1940), 18, 75, and 120. See the letter by Du Ponceau dating from 24 June 1836, in “Notes and Documents: The Autobiography of Peter Stephen Du Ponceau,” ed. James Whitehead, in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 63, no. 2 (April 1939): 210-211.  George Washington as the French Knew Him, ed. Chinard, 36, 65.  George Washington as the French Knew Him, ed. Chinard, 42.  George Washington as the French Knew Him, ed. Chinard, 75-76.  For the testimony of David Howell, see Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, 7:292; Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington, a Biography, 7 vols. (New York: Scribner, 1948-1957), 5(1952): 453; Harlow Unger, The Unexpected George Washington: His Private Life (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2006), 148, 280 note 19; and Paul Zall, George Washington Laughing: Humorous Anecdotes by and about our First President from Original Sources (Hamden, CT: Archon Books: 1989), 7.  George Washington as the French Knew Him, ed. Chinard, 50.  George Washington to John Cochran, 16 August 1779, in The Writings of George Washington, 39 vols., ed. John Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931-44), 16(1937):116-117; and Zall, George Washington Laughing, 3-4.  George Washington to Colonel Joseph Reed, 31 January 1776, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary Series, 3:228-229. The editor’s note no. 7, page 229, explains as follows: “On 9 Sept. 1775 a London publisher using the name C. Shepherd issued two mezzotints purporting to depict GW as commander in chief of the Continental army: a three-quarter-length portrait of a man in military uniform and a full-length picture of a uniformed figure on horseback. Reed sent Martha Washington a copy of one of these prints but which one is not certain. Both prints are inscribed: ‘Done from an original Drawn from the Life by Alexr Campbell of Williamsburgh in Virginia.’ No painter of that name has been identified. These obviously fictitious pictures are part of a series of very similar and equally inaccurate portraits of American and British leaders that were issued under the names of various publishers during the early years of the war.” See also Wendy Wick, George Washington, an American Icon: The Eighteenth-Century Graphic Portraits (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Charlottesville, VA, distributed by the University Press of Virginia, 1982), 18-22.  David Howell to the Governor of Rhode Island, William Green, 9 [?] September 1783, in Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, 7:292; see also Zall, George Washington Laughing, 6-7.  James Thacher, A Military Journal during the American Revolutionary War, from 1775 to 1783 (Boston: Cottons & Barnard, 1827, second edition, revised and corrected), 199. 417-418; see also Zall, George Washington Laughing, 7-8.  Thacher, A Military Journal, 418.  See “Notes and Documents: The Autobiography of Peter Stephen Du Ponceau,” ed. Whitehead, 210-211. See also George Washington as the French Knew Him, ed. Chinard, 18; and Zall, George Washington Laughing, 30.  For the Quakers and their “suffering,” see Meredith Baldwin Weddle, Walking in the Way of Peace: Quaker Pacifism in the Seventeenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 34-35, 84-89, and Adrian Davies, The Quakers in English Society, 1655-1725, (Oxford [UK]: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), passim. Accounts of early “sufferings” by Quakers in colonial America appear in the sympathetic account of James Bowden, The History of the Society of Friends in America, 2 vols. (London: Charles Gilpin: W. and F.G. Cash, 1850-1854).  For some insights into William Byrd’s misogyny, see Kenneth Lockridge, On the Sources of Patriarchal Rage: The Commonplace Books of William Byrd and Thomas Jefferson and the Gendering of Power in the Eighteenth Century (New York and London: New York University Press, 1992), 1-45, and Kenneth Lockridge, The Diary, and Life, of William Byrd II of Virginia, 1674-1744 (Chapel Hill, NC: the University of North Carolina Press, published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Va., 1987), 84-98.  George Washington to Burwell Bassett, 28 February 1776, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary Series, 3:386. Burwell Bassett was the husband of Anna Maria Dandridge Bassett, the younger sister of Martha Washington.  George Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette, 30 September 1779, The Writings of George Washington, ed. Fitzpatrick, 16:376. George Washington to Annis Boudinot Stockton, 2 September 1783, The Writings of George Washington, ed. Fitzpatrick, 27:178.  George Washington to John Armstrong, 10 January 1783, The Writings of George Washington, ed. Fitzpatrick, 26:26-27. And see Zall, George Washington Laughing, 5.
In order to effectively convey the serious consequences of any situation, one must be so thoroughly versed as to be able to conceive the irony and humor inherent to the same.
Quite enjoyable, thank you!
Humour, an aspect of Washington’s that is too often neglected by history. Well done, Sir. I have always found it interesting that in stark contrast to Washington’s otherwise fairly stoic nature, his humour had a sharp wit and sarcasm to it; and almost always it seems, at the expense of someone else!
From Washington’s 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation:
24. Do not laugh too loud or too much at any Public Spectacle.
47. Mock not nor Jest at anything of Importance break no Jest that are Sharp Biting and if you Deliver anything witty and Pleasant abstain from Laughing thereat yourself.
64. Break not a Jest where none take pleasure in mirth Laugh not aloud, nor at all without Occasion, deride no man’s Misfortune, tho’ there Seem to be Some cause.
84. When your Superiors talk to any Body hearken not neither Speak nor Laugh.
I deeply love this article! However, I must point out that I believe there has been a mistake made in the commentary about Washington’s letter to Lafayette. Washington was not referring to the separation between Lafayette and his wife. Lafayette was in France when Washington wrote the letter in question. Washington was referring to the separation of himself and the Marquis’ wife. Truly, I think this makes the letter all the more amusing.
Here is the text of that section of the letter:
“But at present must pray your patience a while longer, till I can make a tender of my most respectful compliments to the Marchioness. Tell her (if you have not made a mistake, and offered your own love instead of hers to me) that I have a heart susceptable of the tenderest passion, and that it is already so strongly impressed with the most favourable ideas of her, that she must be cautious of putting loves torch to it; as you must be in fanning the flame. But here again methinks I hear you say, I am not apprehensive of danger. My wife is young, you are growing old and the atlantic is between you. All this is true, but know my good friend that no distance can keep anxious lovers long asunder, and that the Wonders of former ages may be revived in this. But alas! will you not remark that amidst all the wonders recorded in holy writ no instance can be produced where a young Woman from real inclination has prefered an old man. This is so much against me that I shall not be able I fear to contest the prize with you, yet, under the encouragement you have given me I shall enter the list for so inestimable a Jewell.”
Dear Ms. Strahin: You are right, the phrase I should have used is not “about the young officer’s separation from his wife,” but instead “about Washington’s separation from Adrienne.” And you also right that it makes the line even more humorous! There is other humor in the letter, as well, that I didn’t mention, including the line to the Marquis, with italics on “own love” and “hers,” to: “Tell her (if you have not made a mistake, and offered your own love instead of hers to me) that I have a heart susceptable (sic) of the tenderest passion.” It is, all in all, a pretty droll and cheeky letter.
It is my favorite of Washingon’s letters. I remember in high school reading excerpts of it in a biography. I read it over and over, enjoying it more and more each time.
Thank you for writing this article! I truly enjoyed reading it. I especially enjoyed the part about the “book of sufferings.”
This is a great article, Joe!
I have shared it on the George Washington Society’s Facebook page.
Thanks for all you do,