Professor looks at George Washington’s ties to Albany

George Washington does have a down side. He was a slave owner, a shrewd land investor and, if he had

George Washington does have a down side. He was a slave owner, a shrewd land investor and, if he had to, would resort to the tactics of total warfare against an opponent and its people.

Still, among those few military men who bear the label “Father of his Country,” Washington is in a class by himself according to University at Albany history professor Warren Roberts.

“He was a man of rectitude and honesty who always subordinated himself to Congress,” said Roberts. “He didn’t seize power when he could have after the Revolution, and the Europeans couldn’t believe it. Gordon Wood, who I consider to be the great historian of the American Revolution, wrote that ‘Washington epitomized all that was best about the American cause.’ ”

On Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Albany Institute of History & Art, Roberts will discuss Washington and his life, in particular his relationship with Albany’s Philip Schuyler. Following the talk, titled “George Washington and Albany: An Intimate Connection,” Roberts will sign copies of his book, “A Place in History: Albany in the Age of Revolution, 1775-1825,” published earlier this year by SUNY Press.

He will focus on Washington’s two visits to Albany, coming in 1782 and 1783, as well as his first meeting with Schuyler and the subsequent friendship the two men developed after initially meeting at the Second Continental Congress.

‘George Washington and Albany: An Intimate Connection’

WHERE: Albany Institute of History & Art, 125 Washington Ave., Albany

WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday


MORE INFO: 463-4478,

“They left Philadelphia together and rode to New York City before Washington headed to Boston and Schuyler continued up the Hudson River,” said Roberts. “Washington was a Virginia aristocrat with an estate looking over the Potomac River, and Schuyler was a Dutch aristocrat with an estate looking over the Hudson River. You could say they bonded.”

When Washington suggested to Congress that they make Schuyler head of the Continental Army’s Northern Department, the group agreed. The results were mixed, and while historians differ on Schuyler’s abilities as a leader, Washington’s faith in him never wavered.

Keeping in touch

“That’s a real complicated narrative,” said Roberts, when asked about Schuyler’s successes and failures as a military leader. “It was clear to everyone that the Hudson River-Champlain corridor was going to be of very strategic importance, and even after Schuyler was relieved as commander of the Northern Department, Washington told Congress to delegate all non-military responsibilities to Schuyler. So Washington continued to have great trust and confidence in the man.”

Washington’s first visit to Albany, according to Roberts, came in the summer of 1782 when the American Revolution, at least the actual fighting, was over.

“They hadn’t signed the Treaty of 1783 yet, but things were winding down and Washington wanted to see the Saratoga Battlefield,” said Roberts. “So Washington comes to Albany and he and Schuyler ride up to the battlefield together. Then Washington comes back in 1783 and they ride out into the Mohawk Valley together. Nobody knew New York real estate like Schuyler, so both men were riding out there thinking of investments, and Washington realized a very handsome profit from that trip.”

Roberts has gleaned much of his information about Washington from the personal and professional correspondence between the two men.

“They wrote a number of letters during the war, and while I haven’t found much after the war, Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s aide during the war and one of his most trusted confidants during his presidency, marries Schuyler’s daughter,” he said. “So the Albany connection continues. Schuyler’s son-in-law was the one man Washington listened to more than anyone else, more than [Thomas] Jefferson.”

While the men may have formed a close bond, by all accounts Washington was the better soldier and the better person. Early in the war, Schuyler was very unhappy with the New England and New York militiamen assigned to him and he complained to Washington about it in one of his letters. Washington wrote back in even more disparaging terms about the Continental Army but eventually changed his tune.

“Washington grew enormously during the course of the war, and Schuyler didn’t,” said Roberts. “He despised his men all the way through it. I would call Philip Schuyler admirable but not likable. You had to respect his integrity, but he was a creature of his time, his class and his background. He was never able to evolve into a person with broader vision.”

Washington, however, did just that.

“Washington is very likable,” said Roberts. “When some of his fellow officers suggested he rethink his position toward his own soldiers, he did. His attitude toward them changed. He grew, he evolved. At his death he manumitted his slaves.”

As for Washington’s treatment of the Native Americans during the Revolution, he did what he felt he had to do, Roberts said. In 1779, after two years of Tory-led Indian raids on the western frontier of New York and Pennsylvania, Washington commanded Gens. John Sullivan and James Clinton to sweep through the Mohawk Valley and points south and west and wreak “total destruction and devastation” on the Iroquois villages. Washington stressed “that the country may not merely be overrun but destroyed” and that any peace offering from the Iroquois would be rejected until “the total ruin of their settlements was effected.”

“A savage war was being fought, and with what the Indians had done in Cherry Valley the year before Washington felt he had to do something to make the frontier safe,” said Roberts, referring to the Cherry Valley Massacre on Nov. 11, 1778, one of several brutal Indian attacks that occurred west of Schenectady and struck terror into the whole region.

“It was 1779, the French really hadn’t come yet in sufficient numbers to make a difference and everything was up in the air. Washington was desperate.”

Unlikely historian

Roberts, a native of the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, wasn’t always interested in Colonial history. In fact, he wasn’t much interested in any kind of history until a two-year stint in the U.S. Army landed him in Europe in 1954.

“I was stationed in Germany, and in April of 1955 we visited Paris,” he remembered. “Just being there and seeing it transformed me. I was never a student. I never had an A in college before that. Like most kids, I was just drifting along with no sense of purpose.”

He ended up coming back to the U.S. and, after already having earned a degree in business from the University of Southern California, returned to school. He got a B.A. in history, then his master’s and finally his Ph.D., all at the University of California at Berkeley.

“I was always going to take over the family business with my older brother,” said Roberts, who got a teaching position at UAlbany in 1963.

“If you had told me I was going to become a history teacher, it would have been the last thing in the world I would have thought.”

Along with history, in 1956 Roberts also suddenly discovered that he loved Beethoven.

“I went to a puppet opera in Chicago, and that was my epiphany,” he said. “I became devoted to Beethoven. That, and seeing Europe, changed everything for me. I realized I loved history and wanted to teach it more than anything else.”

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