George Washington Could Swear "Like an Angel from Heaven"

(Portrait by Rembrant Peale)

From his youth, George Washington made a studied effort at maintaining a public persona befitting a gentleman and a leader. He guarded his conduct carefully with particular attention to his temper. He was capable of savage anger, but rarely displayed it.

Sometimes, though, he lost his composure—usually when dealing with subordinates that he regarded as cowardly or incompetent. Once such occasion was at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. Washington’s army had spent several months at Valley Forge training intensively under drillmasters, including the famous Baron von Steuben. Washington was ready to go on the offensive against the British.

(Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth by Emanuel Leutze, 1854)

His senior officers talked him out of a direct assault in favor at a strike at the British rear.* He reluctantly gave heavy responsibility to General Charles Lee, a man of substantial military experience but limited ability. Thanks to Lee, the American battle plan fell apart. Washington rode forward, relieved Lee on the spot, and personally rallied Lee’s fleeing troops into order. It was during this moment that Washington lost his cool and offered General Lee his frank assessment of the subordinate’s professional competence.

Although some historians doubt it, General Charles Scott of Virginia (left) claimed to have witnessed the scene. Scott himself was a man of exceptionally skilled profanity. Later in Scott's life, one of his more refined friends tried to convince him to cease swearing. Would it not be better to follow the example of Washington? George Washington Parke Custis, Washington’s step-grandson and biographer, wrote:

After the war, a friend of the gallant general, anxious to reform his evil habits, asked him whether it was possible that the man much beloved, the admired Washington, ever swore? Scott reflected for a moment, then exclaimed, "Yes, once. It was at Monmouth, and on a day that would have made any man swear. Yes, sir, he swore on that day, till the leaves shook on the trees, charming, delightful. Never have I enjoyed such swearing before or since. Sir, on that ever-memorable day, he swore like an angel from heaven.” The reformer abandoned [Charles Scott] in despair.

Emphasis added.

*One of the qualities that made Washington a great leader was his ability to discern good advice and his willingness to take it. This characteristic secured American victories during the Boston, New Jersey and Yorktown campaigns.

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