Joshua Brookes arrived in the United States in 1798 at just twenty-five years of age. It was to be a 5-year tour, which he would document in a journal that now resides in the New-York Historical Society’s collection. Though he sailed back to his native England in 1803, Brookes did not stay away long, coming back to settle in America just a few years later. Upon his return, Brookes first tried his hand at farming before moving to New York City, where he died in 1859. He is buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.
Brookes’ journal is quite remarkable. He recorded extensive, even obsessive, notes on elements of American society in the Early Republic. These include everything from American slang, food and lists of meals, customs, and amusements, to natural history, diseases, crops, economics, and practically everything in between. It’s a sprawling resource, and a particularly valuable reflection of everyday life in the period.
Although it has never been published in its entirety, one particular section, his visit to Mount Vernon in February 1799, appears in the April 1947 issue of the New-York Historical Society Quarterly. Providing a first-person account of George and Martha Washington, including their dress and demeanor and even the menu for their dinner, it’s entirely worthwhile reading. But Brookes also visited Thomas Jefferson at Monticello just months later, in August 1799, and recorded the following remarks from Jefferson:
George Washington is a hard master, very severe, a hard husband, a hard father, a hard governor. From his childhood he always ruled and ruled severely. He was first brought up to govern slaves, he then governed an army, then a nation. He thinks hard of all, is despotic in every respect, he mistrusts every man, thinks every man a rogue and nothing but severity will do. He has no idea of people being left to themselves to act; he thinks that they cannot think and that they ought only to obey. As I lived near him and saw him every day, I thought I knew what was in his mind at that time, but afterwards I found that ideas were there that I had no conception of. If he had died when Congress met in New York, he would have been the greatest man that ever lived, but he is now losing his reputation daily. He is not the man he was, else he would not allow himself to be led as he does, or give his sanction to things he does sanction. He has divines constantly about him because he thinks it right to keep up appearances but is an unbeliever.
Jefferson’s words offer a stark reminder that even the founders did not see eye-to-eye politically. While they had regarded parties as dangerous to the republic (Washington described them as “baneful” in his farewell address) by 1799 political differences already precipitated the Federalists and Republicans, the two leading parties of the Early Republic.
Though Washington himself attempted to maintain neutrality during his presidencies, his affinity for Federalist policy was difficult to conceal entirely. This placed him at odds with Jefferson’s Republican party and goes a long way toward explaining Jefferson’s cutting description. This is especially true when placed in the specific context of his battles with Hamilton while serving as secretary of state in Washington’s cabinet, an office from which he would resign in 1794. His bitterness at what he perceived as Federalist sway over Washington is readily apparent. Regardless, Jefferson’s uncharitable attitude toward Washington, who died a few months after his comments to Brookes, was not well received by Martha. She reportedly described Jefferson’s visit to Mount Vernon in 1801 as “the most painful occurrence of her life” outside of George’s death.
Thomas Jefferson: The Private Man, from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society is on view through July 16th.