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The First Election of Washington to the House of Burgesses

by R. T. Barton, Winchester, VA, 1892

Men are generally proved to be great by a happy conjunction of opportunity and fitness. This detracts nothing from their fame, only there are many other men quite as great, to whom the happy conjunction does not occur. Those are the men who are born to blush unseen. But the common events of men's lives are very nearly the same, whether they are great or not. When they are recognized as great, however, we judge them almost wholly by their great deeds, and lose sight of the incidents that prove their common mortality. There is even a prejudice against uncovering the facts that show our idols to have been mortal. The realistic spirit of this age, however, which disregards this prejudice, has a healthy influence, provided it is not inspired by mere iconoclastic rage.

It is in this modified spirit that I have ventured to put together, for this occasion, the results of some investigations made years ago, aided by discoveries made by others more recently, on a subject which has received but little attention from history. I mean the first election of George Washington to the House of Burgesses, the predecessor of the body which sits now in this historic hall.

This election occurred in the year 1758, and Washington's first appearance in the role of statesman was in his capacity as representative for the county of Frederick, of which my own town of Winchester was then, as it is now, the county seat.

In 1758, Frederick county consisted of what is now the territory embraced within the limits of the counties of Frederick, Clarke, Warren, Shenandoah and Page, in Virginia, and Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan, in West Virginia, comprising the whole of what is known as "the Lower Valley."

Braddock's defeat on the Monongahela occurred in 1755, and after that Washington, with the rank of colonel, was in command of the Virginia troops at Winchester. In the spring of 1756 he built for the protection of the inhabitants of that town and of the frontier generally, Fort Loudoun, then at the north end of a very straggling village, and through the centre of which the main street of the present town (called from the fort, Loudoun street) now runs; and even at this day the well-defined and greenly sodded bastions of Washington's fort are the play-grounds for the pretty girls of a prosperous female school.

In the summer of 1757, George Washington was one of three candidates for a seat from Frederick county in the House of Burgesses. It has been sometimes said that he was not then really a candidate, but a well preserved local tradition hath it that he was genuinely ambitious to serve the people, but that having opposed the granting ot a license to keep an ordinary to one Lindsay, as the records in truth show that he did, the said Lindsay successfully revenged himself by defeating his candidacy. The Lindsays have been ordinary keepers in that town up to within my own recollection, and the tradition of the fight of Lindsay against Washington has ever been a cherished memory in the line of Lindsay.

The opponents of Washington in that contest were Hugh West and Thomas Swearingen, and these two were duly elected. The poll stood as follows:

Hugh West, 271
Thomas Swearingen[1] 270
George Washington 40
Total Vote 581

On October 4, 1757, the records of the county court show the following entry "On motion of George Washington, Esq., ordered that his tithables be set on the list," from which it may be inferred that the redoubtable Lindsay may have urged the non-residency of the gallant young colonel as an objection to his election, and in anticipation of another appeal to popular favor he was determined to remove this obstacle to the gratification of his ambition.

In May, 1758, Washington became engaged to be married to the widow Custis, who had worn her weeds a full twelve months, but as he was then just about to start on the second expedition to Fort Duquesne the marriage did not immediately take place, and it was not until the succeeding January that the old church in New Kent county witnessed the brave spectacle of the stalwart warrior as a bridegroom in a suit of blue cloth "lined," says the detailed account, "with red silk and ornamented with silver trimmings, a waistcoat of embroidered white satin, knee-buckles of gold, and powdered hair." That this contemplated marriage had something to do with our hero's so quickly repeated candidacy is a surmise that is not far to seek.

The next election for the House of Burgesses, after Washington's unsuccessful venture, took place on the 24th day of July, 1758, and the poll stood as follows;

Colonel George Washington 310
Colonel Thomas Bryan Martin 240
Hugh West 199
Thomas Swearingen 45
Total vote 794

So Washington largely defeated his opponents who the year before had defeated him. It is with this election that we have now to do, and to show the increase in the voting population it is interesting to observe that at the next election, which took place on May 18, 1761, the vote stood as follows:

George Washington 505
George Mercer,[2] 399
Adam Stephen,[3] 294
Total vote, 1,198

Before considering the incidents of Washington's first election, let us very briefly enquire who were the men who had been thus preferred to Washington, and to whom in turn he was himself preferred?

Of Hugh West no record remains, except that he was thus connected with the name of Washington. He is, perhaps, neither better nor worse off in this respect than many another local light who had shined for a time in this and even much higher places.

Of Thomas Swearingen, who did not make even so good a fight in the last list as did the forgotten West, we find that much more has been preserved.

He lived near what is now Shepherdstown, in the county of Jefferson. The published Acts show that in 1766 the House of Burgesses ordered the privilege of establishing a ferry over the Potomac river, which in 1765 had been accorded to Thomas Shepherd, to be discontinued, because it was "at every small distance from the lands of Thomas Swearingen on the Potomac river in Maryland."

In May, 1772, Thomas Swearingen was made by Lord Dunmore a Justice of the Peace of Berkeley county, which was in that year cut off from Frederick. He is mentioned in the records of the court as one of those appointed to take the tithables, and on August i8, 1772, he figures in the list of Justices of Berkeley county, who, at that term of the court, tried one Richard Lewis for forgery, and he, pleading guilty, was ordered to receive "thirty-nine lashes well laid on upon his bare back." This was the first criminal conviction in the new county.

On November 15, 1772, Thomas Swearingen appears as one of the Justices directing the building of the first court-house of Berkeley county.

These prosaic facts are all that are known of Swearingen, and only saved from the oblivion of commonplaceness by his association with the name of Washington, he sinks finally out of sight just as the star of Washington was about to rise, to shine forever.

Of his colleague in his first service in the House of Burgesses, Colonel Thomas Bryan Martin, much more is known, for he was a somewhat conspicuous figure in the Valley part of the Colony, and even afterwards when it became a State, throughout his whole life. But because so much is known, or may so readily be learned about him, it is necessary to tell but little.

Colonel Martin was a nephew of Lord Fairfax and intimately connected with him in his affairs. He lived at "Greenway Court," and was there when his uncle died-a death hastened, tradition says, by chagrin at the surrender of Cornwallis.

Martin was Colonel of the c6unty militia and a justice of the peace under the old regime. In 1776 he was reappointed by Governor Patrick Henry, but his heart was too much with the cause of George III to permit him to serve under, or to recognize rebel authority. He served one term with Washington in the House of Burgesses, but does not seem to have offered for re-election.

On the death of Lord Fairfax, he became, with Gabriel Jones, one of his uncle's executors. Thenceforth his name figured extensively in the litigation which resulted about Lord Fairfax's estate. The lawyers of the present day even are familiar with the case of Martin's Adm'r vs. Tucker, &c., in which the devisees in England of Denny Fairfax, the elder brother of Colonel Martin and of himself; were-the plaintiffs.

But we must return now to the main topic of this paper-the election in the summer of 1758.

There was only one precinct in the county, and that was at the court-house at Winchester. To that point the voters had to come to exercise their right of suffrage. Considering the bad roads and the danger of the times, it seems remarkable that as many as seven hundred and ninety-four voters should have come to the poll.

The qualification of a voter was that he should be a freeholder of one hundred (shortly after reduced to fifly) acres of unimproved land, or twenty-flve acres with a building thereon at least twelve feet square, or of a lot in a city or town with a similarly pretentious building thereon, provided however, that "no free negro, mulatto, or Indian, altho a freeholder, should be permitted to vote."

The presence of this proviso, so unhappily eliminated now from the law, made wholly unnecessary the shuffling slippery secret ballot system, with its opportunities for box stuffing, tissue ballots, and fraudulent miscounts, the fruits of a later civilization, but the voter declared his choice openly viva voce, without concealment or chance of subsequent false pretenses. Nor was the aspirant for popular favor ashamed to openly acknowledge his appreciation of the confidence reposed in him by the elector; but it was the custom of the day for the candidate or his representative, in his necessary absence, to take his seat at the poll, and when the voter called out his name to rise and thank him for the honor done him.

At the election of 1758 the principal public interest was in the effort to obtain regular and sufficient allowances and supplies for the militia and volunteers who for some years had been constantly engaged in the protection of the frontier settlements. The French war was flagrant, and the French and Indians were a constant menace to the peace and safety of the people of Frederick county. But a short time before the whole country had been overwhelmed by the disastrous defeat of Braddock, and at the very time of this election the forces were gathering again at Fort Cumberland for another move on the same line upon Fort Duquesne.

Washington was not then twenty-six years of age, but his gallant and successful conduct of affairs on the retreat after Braddock's death had given him a military reputation of a high order and a strong hold upon the affections of the people of Frederick, who were nearest to and most interested in those army movements so essential to their safety, although, as we have seen, Colonel Washington's distinguished military services had not been sufficient to overcome the wiles of the subtle Lindsay, who kept an ordinary and sold whiskey to the Colonel's soldiers.

Washington was, of course, acquainted with the principal people of the sparsely settled county, for the construction of the Fort and his command there brought him in constant contact with them, and then besides there were two trading fairs held annually at Winchester, which brought the people up from the outlying settlements and gave occasion to more or less social interchange.

Washington's correspondence at this time shows that he had become wearied with military life and somewhat disgusted with the discriminations made against the Colonial, in favor of the imported British officer, and he had determined at the end of the then pending campaign to retire from the service into private life.

But it is nut a strained inference that other considerations than political ambition or a desire to taste once more the sweets of a quiet bucolic life influenced Washington to forego his military aspirations. As we have seen, he had become engaged to the charming widow Custis, and his marriage to her was only awaiting the end of the military campaign. A winter then in the gay Capital at Williamsburg was a delightful way of spending the honeymoon, and it is by no means improbable that the young woman herself suggested a seat in the House of Burgesses as adding something to dignity, making retirement from military service graceful, and, indeed, as being altogether such a nice thing-under the circumstances.

Possibly the habit was begun with Washington's candidacy, and for that reason has been kept up ever since, but the good people of Frederick dislike to award to aspirants for their favor what is known in modern phrase as a "walk-over."

We have seen that the year before the Colonel sustained what may be considered a rather bad defeat. This time, however, he had the powerful support of Colonel James Wood,[4] the clerk of the county court, and it may be even that the hostile Lindsay had been converted or silenced, but of this tradition saith not. The memory of the oldest inhabitant, however, has handed it down that Colonel James Wood was a good deal of a political Boss," but the sturdy and honorable character borne by his descendants leave me no room to doubt that he deserved the influence he evidently possessed with the frontier voter. Colonel Wood appears to have managed without difficulty his own promotion to office, but it was at one time thought that the effort to pull Colonel Washington through would prove too much even for his sagacity and pluck. So anxious, indeed, were the friends of Washington about this election, and so fearful of his defeat, that they importuned the Colonel to leave his military command and come back to the county and see the voters in person. Colonel Bouquet, Washington's immediate military superior, wrote, giving him leave of absence, and on July 19, 1758, Washington replied, thanking him for his courtesy and saying: "Although my being there, under any other circumstances, would be very agreeable to me, yet I can hardly persuade myself to think of being absent from my more immediate duty, even for a few days." And again some days later he wrote: "I had, before Colonel Stephen came to this place, abandoned all thoughts of attending personally the election at Winchester, choosing rather to leave the management of that affair to my friends than be absent from my regiment when there is a probability of its being called to duty. I am much pleased now that I did so.''

The letter of congratulation upon the result of the election, preserved in a note to the collection of Mr. Jared Sparks, affords but a meagre glimpse of what actually occurred, but a story, partly tradition and in part history, throws some light upon the opposition to Washington's candidacy. Supposing the offended Lindsay to have been appeased, or his influence at least overweighed by that of Colonel James Wood, it is yet said that Colonel Washington had to overcome the decided opposition of certain dealers in live stock along the Potomac. When Braddock marched from Alexandria to fort Cumberland he had to tarry at the latter place until he could collect horses enough to pull his wagons in the long and rough expedition that he then contemplated. Certain enterprising speculators undertook to supply this need, and in course of time arrived at the Fort with several hundred horses. It was Washington's duty to inspect them, and when with his fine idea of what an animal ought to be, to do the hard duty which this occasion required of it, he found instead a herd of thin, infirm and aged horses, which had outlived or overworked their usefulness on the Valley farms, he is said to have expressed himself in language the exact meaning of which there could be no sort of difficulty in understanding. The noble band of patriots who had thus undertaken to supply their country's need of horses is said to have borne his remarks and their results in mind when so soon after he offered himself for their suffrages, and to have exhibited their energy and enmity in determined opposition to his election.

It is not at all improbable, therefore, all things considered, that it was more politic for the Colonel to have stayed away from the county, and to have left, as he says, "the management of that affair to my friends." With Colonel Wood for a manager he was probably safer in the line of conciliation than if he had been present in person; for Washington, while he knew well how to keep his tongue in his head, yet when he let it out was disposed to be rather frank.

As we have seen, Colonel Wood sat at the poll as Washington's representative, a very large vote was cast and Washington was triumphantly elected. That night, when the vote was counted, the Winchester boys took Colonel Wood on their shoulders and gave him a vicarious ride for Washington around the town, "in the midst," says a contemporaneous writer, "of a general applause and huzzahing for Colonel Washington."

It is not unlikely that, after the fashion of the day on all occasions of public rejoicing, bon-fires were built, and it is altogether certain that "fire water" was plenty, and a lively party must have waked the echoes of the village on that summer night. For while the gallant Colonel was kept by duty at his military post, he was yet sufficiently alive to the necessities of the occasion to supply the means of conducting his canvass. After the election the bill for its expenses was sent to him and he paid it, after, no doubt, as was his wont, a careful inspection of its items.

The bill was £39, 6s. (about $195), and the following were among the items: "A hogshead and a barrel of punch, thirty-five gallons of wine, forty-three gallons of strong cider, and dinner for his friends."

In the "good old times" people were probably no better than they are now, and it is not a little comfort to us of this day and generation to reflect that Washington was himself but a human being, and "stood treat" just like any ordinary candidate for the Legislature finds himself compelled to do sometimes in these so called degenerate days.

That Frederick county was not an exception in the way of conducting elections on other than strictly temperance principles is shown by the law passed by the House of Burgesses soon after the election of 1758, which provides that no one should be qualified to hold a seat in that house, who should, "before his election, either himself or by any other person or persons on his behalf and at his charge, directly or indirectly give, present or allow any person or persons having voice or vote in such election any money, meat, drink, entertainment or provision, or make any present, gift, reward, or entertainment, &c., &c., in order to be elected."

It is hardly to be supposed that this law was aimed at the worthy delegate from Frederick, but it fit his case so exactly that had it been in force prior to his election he would certainly have been ineligible to his seat. For seven years Washington continued to represent Frederick county, but there is no record of any incident of interest connected with his subsequent elections. As a law-abiding citizen it is to be presumed that thereafter meat and drink, except in the ordinary way of hospitality, were not among the means resorted to by Washington and his friends to secure popular favor.

When the pessimists of to day, justly resenting the ways that are dark which so often prevail in what is known as politics, predict therefrom the speedy downfall of the Republic, it is well to remember how very old these ways are, and from what respectable antecedents many of them have come, and while not approving them, yet to bear in mind that in spite of them and of very many other imperfections in these institutions of ours, the land continues to flourish the equal in valor and in virtue of any other, and in material prosperity outstripping all the nations of the earth.



  1. Thomas Swearingen was probably an ancestor of Thomas Van Swearingen, a representative in Congress from Virginia from 1819 until his death in 1822.-ED.
  2. George Mercer (horn June 23, 1733) served as lieutenant and captain in the regiment of Washington in the French and Indian War. He went to England in 1763 as the agent of the Ohio Company, of which his father, John Mercer, of Marlboro, Virginia, was secretary; returned to Virginia in 1765 as collector for the Crown under the Stamp Act, but found the measure so obnoxious that he declined to act. Going to England again he was appointed (September 17, 1768), through the influence of Lord Hillsborough, Lieutenant-Governor of North Carolina, hut soon relinquished this office. He returned to England prior to the Revolution; and died there in April, 1784.-ED.
  3. Colonel Adam Stephen, who served with Washington in the French and Indian War, and as Brigadier and Major-General in the American Revolution.-ED.
  4. He was the father of Colonel James Wood, a patriot of the American Revolution and Governor of Virginia 1796-'99.-ED.