A Joke That Helped George Washington
The painting’s portrayal of Washington is true to the essence of what is known of the man. The Patriot’s chief general routinely projected an aura of detached dignity, and maintained a wall of formality that separated him from subordinates. It was not true, however, to Washington’s actual conduct on that particular occasion: he let down the formality, and cracked jokes. His cold, hungry, and demoralized trooped clambered into boats on a frigid winter night, made even more miserable by driving sleet. When it was Washington’s turn to get into a boat, he looked at Henry Knox, his overweight artillery chief, and said: “Shift your fat ass, Harry! But don’t swamp the damn boat!”
All things considered, the joke was not a comedic gem. But any levity from George Washington in public, especially on such a serious occasion, was highly unusual. At first, the men were stunned, and looked at each other in shocked disbelief. Then somebody chuckled, and before long, contagious laughter rippled throughout the assembled force, as Washington’s comment was spread and repeated. With their spirits lifted, the Revolutionaries crossed the river with elevated morale. They fell upon the enemy in Trenton, to kill, wound, and capture about a thousand men, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded.