George Washington, “The Greatest Man in the World”?

This guest post is by Manuscript Division historian and early America specialist Julie Miller.

first page of handwritten manuscript letter beginning with "Dear Sir"

Letter, Benjamin West to [James] Peale, February 10, 1775. Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Did King George III really say that George Washington was “the greatest man in the world?” Or, did he say that he was “the greatest character of the age”? If he did say anything like that, who did he say it to, and why?

The source of this sentiment, allegedly expressed by King George III, is the American artist Benjamin West. Born in Pennsylvania in 1738, West visited England in 1763 after a tour of Italy. He liked England so much that he never went home, living the rest of his life in London, where he prospered. His work attracted the attention of the king, who gave him several court appointments, including “Historical Painter to His Majesty.” In 1792 West became the president of the Royal Academy of Arts.

When West first went to England it was natural for a colonial subject of the British Empire to think of England as home. But when the Revolutionary War began, West was in an awkward position as an American at the court of King George III. According to one historian, West was “laden with mixed emotions and even partisanship” for the American cause.[1] He described how he felt in a letter to the Maryland artist [James] Peale just before the Battle of Lexington and Concord: “. . . the present commotions between this country and its colonies, It is a subject I could dwell long on, but prudance, and the times will not permit my saying any thing on that head – as anything what I might say would have but little waight in the scale of opinions, if it would, I should stand forth and speake it [boldly] tho it ware at the risk of my all.”[2] West’s letter to Peale, with its corrections and irregular spelling, is in the Manuscript Division.

Despite West’s mixed feelings, he and the king, whom he painted multiple times and knew well, had an ongoing conversation about America and Americans. West reported one of these conversations to another artist, Joseph Farington, who recorded it in his diary. One day near the end of the Revolutionary War “the King began to talk abt. America,” Farington wrote. “He asked West what would Washington do were America to be declared independent. West said He believed He would retire to a private situation.—The King said if He did He would be the greatest man in the world.”[3] On December 23, 1783, West’s prediction came true when Washington resigned his commission as commander of the Continental Army and returned to private life at Mount Vernon.

Farington, quoting West, sets the conversation during the Revolutionary War. He even dates West’s conversation with the king when he notes that West told him it took place the day before Lord Shelburne was appointed prime minister in July 1782.[4] But there is a problem: Farington recorded his conversation with West on December 28, 1799, seventeen years after West’s conversation with the king. Possibly Washington’s death on December 14, 1799, stimulated West’s memory about his long-ago conversation with the king, except that news of Washington’s death did not appear in English newspapers until the end of January 1800.[5] West might have learned of Washington’s death from a letter or a traveler, except that a trip across the Atlantic in the late eighteenth century took at least a month.[6]

Half-length portrait of the painter, Benjamin West, seated, facing forward, holding a sketchbook and pencil..

Benjamin West, undated print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In May 1797, West told another version of the same story to another diarist, Rufus King, President Washington’s minister (ambassador) to Great Britain. In a memorandum that was later published with his diary, the ambassador describes a conversation he and West had after a dinner at the Royal Academy.[7] West remarked that relations between Britain and the United States had warmed since the Revolution, and that the king now found that he was able to say nice things about American politicians. In 1797, Washington had just declined to run again for a third term as president.[8] West told King that the king said (somewhat ambiguously) “that act closing and finishing what had gone before and viewed in connection with it, placed him [Washington] in a light the most distinguished of any man living, and that he thought him the greatest character of the age.” In this telling, the story is not set during the Revolutionary War.[9] In fact, King writes: “The retirement from the Army affected the King, but he was silent to Mr. West upon the subject.”[10]

How do we evaluate these two sources and the story they tell?  Farington’s 16-volume diary is in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle; Rufus King’s 1797 memorandum is in his papers at the New-York Historical Society. Both have been published.[11] They contain two versions of the same story, both told to the diarists by Benjamin West. These are second-hand accounts, possibly made long after the event, and they do not agree about when George III made his remark about Washington. The discrepancy suggests that West may have conflated more than one conversation in his two recorded retellings. But there is no real confusion about what the king said. It is not surprising that he should speak of Washington, since there is other evidence that George III had his American opponent on his mind during the Revolutionary War. Later, when Washington was president, the king had every reason to be interested in a national leader who voluntarily walked away from power after only two terms in office, especially because he had himself considered abdicating after the war. Instead, King George III retained his crown until his death—even after he was incapacitated by illness and had to be replaced by his son as regent. The Regency lasted from 1811 until 1820, when George III died, the same year as Benjamin West.

That Benjamin West told this story at least twice (and maybe more than that, to people who didn’t keep diaries, or whose diaries didn’t survive) shows how much it interested him. He may have found the king’s admiration of Washington a comfort in his uncomfortable situation. He expanded on his “very peculiar circumstances” to Rufus King: “that he loved his own country, that he had always felt the warmest attachment to it; that he owed much to England; …that moreover the King had been his friend.” Telling the story multiple times, possibly years after his conversation with the king, it would not have been surprising if West misremembered the details. Neither would it have been surprising for Joseph Farington or Rufus King to mishear him or only pay attention to the parts of the story that interested them. We will never know for sure. As sources, the Farington and King diaries are only as good as their authors – which is as good as any primary source can be.

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[1] David R. Cartwright, Benjamin West, Allegory and Allegiance (San Diego: Timken Museum of Art, 2004), 5.

[2] Benjamin West to “Mr. [James] Peale, Portrait Painter, Maryland,” February 10, 1775, Benjamin West Correspondence, Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Painter James Peale was the brother of the better known painter Charles Willson Peale. This letter is addressed by West simply to “Mr. Peale,” but documentation with the letter identifies him as James Peale.

[3] The Farington Diary, ed. James Greig (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1923), I: 279.

[4] For the appointment of Shelburne as prime minister after the death on July 1, 1782, of his predecessor, Lord Rockingham, see: S. M. Farrell, “Charles Watson-Wentworth, Second Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) and “Lord Shelburne (1737-1805),” Oxford Reference (Oxford University Press, 2022).

[5] News of Washington’s death appeared in the General Evening Post (London), January 25, 1800; Bath Chronicle, January 30, 1800; European Magazine and London Review, March 1800.

[6] For example, on July 5, 1784, Thomas Jefferson left Boston, and arrived in Le Havre on August 3, see the Thomas Jefferson Papers Timeline. His return trip in the fall of 1789 took 29 days, and he had been told it could take nine weeks, Thomas Jefferson to William Short, November 21, 1789.

[7] The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, Comprising his Letters, Private and Official, his Public Documents, and his Speeches. Edited by Charles R. King. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894-1900. III: 545.Charles King gives the date as May 3, 1797. The finding aid for King’s papers at the New-York Historical Society gives the date of the memorandum as May 13, 1797.

[8] The presidency was not term-limited until 1951 when the 22nd amendment was ratified.

[9]  King, Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, III: 545.

[10] King, Life and Correspondence, III: 546.

[11] Farington, The Farington Diary; King, Life and Correspondence.

 

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