Not many people could boast of having knocked down the Father of the Country, but that wasn’t the primary thing William Payne remembered about his famous tussle with George Washington.
It was the autumn of 1755. George Washington — then a colonel — had just suffered a defeat in a battle during the French and Indian War. Trying to put that unpleasantness behind him, he arrived at Alexandria, Virginia to offer his support to his friend George William Fairfax in his campaign to win a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses.
Washington had left the battlefield behind, but he was still more than willing to do battle. When he encountered William Payne, a prominent supporter of the opposing candidate, their exchange grew volatile.
The two men were in the public square, debating the merits of their respective candidates. Payne took offense at something said by Washington, and in a fit of rage, he struck Washington with his walking stick and knocked him to the ground.
The unlikely altercation between the 6’2” Washington and the 5’6” Payne caused onlookers to gasp. Washington was accompanied by several of his officers. Upon seeing their commander knocked to the ground, they immediately drew their swords to avenge the insult. Before further violence could take place, however, Washington intervened and ordered his men to put their swords away. He led them from the public square, leaving many a tongue wagging for the rest of the day. Many wondered how long it would be before Washington sought revenge over his public embarrassment.
The next day, Payne received the note he was sure would come. It was a request from Washington to meet him at the tavern. Payne prepared himself to meet the man, certain that Washington would follow the customary method of resolving disputes: a duel to the death.
When Payne walked through the doors of the tavern, he certainly was wondering how he could possibly prevail in a battle of dueling pistols against an experienced military man. What he saw, however, was the last thing he could have imagined. Washington stood beside a table, and instead of dueling pistols, the table held a bottle of wine and two glasses.
Washington broke the silence by saying, “To err is nature; to rectify error is glory. I was wrong yesterday, but I wish to be right today.” He offered his hand in apology. The astonished Payne accepted the apology — and the drink — and sat down with the man he had expected to duel.
That incident of humility and reconciliation changed the relationship between the two men. Washington and Payne became close friends and stayed that way until Payne’s death in 1782.
The respect the two men had for each other was passed on to their families. At George Washington’s funeral, William Payne’s eldest son served as one of the pallbearers.