As his letters (over 17,000 have been collected at the University of Virginia) and diaries affirm, Washington was above all a pragmatist. That pragmatism made him a superb military strategist and also increased his wealth as a Virginia landowner long before he headed the Continental Army or became the first president (president, as he refused to be made king, because of his anti-monarchist stance).
Washington’s views on democracy, liberty and the codified “pursuit of happiness” that current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy cited specifically in his ruling in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which overturned federal sodomy laws, were straightforward. Washington’s letters, diaries, military papers and conversations with friends and colleagues of his era were all succinct: He believed in freedom with discipline; he was left-leaning, but no anarchist. He looked the other way on matters that may have otherwise raised eyebrows when it was the pragmatic thing to do, as he would throughout his tenure as both military leader and leader of the nation.
One of these issues was homosexuality in the military.
Many historians have tried to place Washington on the modern political spectrum in revisionist categories, but Washington was a diligent, even obsessive recorder of every detail of his life down to minutiae of his personal, military, political and even agricultural experiences. His own records of his life and that of his milieu stand for themselves.
In 2007, Washington’s home in Philadelphia was excavated in an archeological dig, reviving questions about his slaveholding in the first White House in Philadelphia. An example of Washington’s shift in personal politics, however, is his stance on slavery. When Washington was 11, his father died, leaving him 10 slaves. Washington increased his slaveholding between wars to more than 100 slaves as he acquired land in Virginia as a monied aristocrat. But then he inserted a codicil to his will that his slaves – 318 in all – were to be freed upon his death.
Such acts were contrary to the Southern politic on slaveholding and Washington died in 1799 – well before abolition had taken hold in the country. Even more dramatic, however, was Washington’s stance on homosexuality, which evolved well before his views on slavery as has been chronicled by historians and military documents (Washington’s own and others) from Valley Forge.