On 15 January 1783, General George Washington stood before his officers in a moment of crisis. His men had toiled and suffered for months with little pay, and Congress did not appear willing to ante-up. Washington could sense the growing possibility of mutiny. In a basic wooden structure that the men called “the Temple,” Washington reasoned with his subordinates to avoid “any measures which . . . will lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained. . . . ”
As the men anxiously listened to his words, Washington thought they were unconvinced by his plea for patience. He began reading a letter from a sympathetic member of the Congress that explained the difficulties the government faced in discharging its war debt. The army would be paid, this member assured, after the Congress resolved other pressing financial matters. The letter was barely legible and the aging Washington had trouble reading it without stumbling. He paused, removed his glasses from his pocket, and said: “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself going blind.” In those two sentences, Washington captured his men. Captain Samuel Shaw wrote of the moment, “He spoke—every doubt was dispelled, and the tide of patriotism rolled again in its wonted course. Illustrious man!”
Washington connected with the men as a human being, a patriot engaged in the same struggle, and the army and its general were entwined. His closing statement echoed in the room: “You will, by the dignity of your conduct, afford occasion for posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to mankind, had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.”
Washington was the first American hero, and without doubt is the most important man in American history. Contemporaries described him as a giant among men in both physical stature and character. He stood over six feet tall and weighed 190 to 200 pounds. His frame exuded strength; his countenance was firm but agreeable. Men wished to emulate him and would enthusiastically follow him to the end, and the women of Virginia society called him charming, sincere, and chatty—an amusing companion, though sometimes impudent in his conversation. They lined up to dance with him. Jefferson described him as the finest horseman in the country. He commanded respect and admiration from both his countrymen and foreign visitors. Without George Washington, the United States would not exist.
The first American hero
George Washington was a fourth generation American, born on 22 February 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia, to Augustine Washington and Mary Ball. His father was a respected man of the community and owned a small plantation between Bridges Creek and Popes Creek, Virginia. Augustine Washington died in 1743. This forced young George Washington to spend much of his youth with relatives, including his halfbrother Lawrence and his wife, Ann Fairfax, at their Potomac River estate, Mount Vernon.
George Washington did not have a formal education, though by modern standards he would be considered extremely well educated. His father and brother were his primary tutors. Washington studied history, theology, and mathematics, including trigonometry, and had a great interest in drafting, map-making, surveying, and agriculture. His mother instructed him in discipline and morals and helped craft Washington’s character. Washington in time would become the quintessential Southern gentleman planter.
While at Mount Vernon, Washington had contact with the most prominent members of Virginia society, including the powerful and influential Fairfax family. He befriended George William Fairfax, and the two adventurous youths embarked on a month-long adventure in 1748 that took them into the heart of the Virginia wilderness. One year later, at seventeen, Washington was appointed the county surveyor for Culpeper, a job that carried the spirited and energetic young man to the farthest reaches of the Virginia frontier. Though Washington is well known for being a man of Virginia society, his experience on the frontier and his athletic and bold personality earned him the respect of even the most rugged Americans.
He was a man among men. Lawrence Washington died in 1752 and bequeathed Mount Vernon to George Washington. This allowed Washington to establish himself in Virginia society. So did military service. The governor appointed Washington as district adjutant for southern Virginia. Washington had a passion for military service and a gift for leadership, qualities that led to his first major military assignment.
In 1753, Governor Dinwiddie commissioned the twenty-one-year-old Washington to carry an ultimatum to the French demanding they vacate lands on the frontier that were claimed by the British. Washington had to march more than one hundred miles through wintery swampland to find the closest French fort. As expected, the French refused to meet Governor Dinwiddie’s demands. Washington had to make much of the return journey on foot after his horses gave out. He was shot at, nearly drowned, and almost froze to death, but successfully delivered the French response, a report that stirred animosity in both the colonies and in England.
George Washington was commissioned a lieutenant-colonel in the Virginia militia in 1754 and given orders to reinforce the British presence along the Ohio River. He had 150 men, a force too insignificant to capture a French fort or make much of an impact along the wild frontier. When Washington arrived near present day Pittsburgh, he was informed that the French had overwhelmed a detachment of British soldiers and had occupied Washington’s intended destination. Washington moved slowly, built a defensive position called Fort Necessity, and ultimately engaged a French scouting party in a surprise attack, a battle which resulted in the death of the French commanding officer. The French counterattacked and forced Washington to agree to terms. He was tricked into signing a document that, unknown to him, stated the French commander had been “assassinated.” This false admission of guilt helped jumpstart the French and Indian War.
George Washington accepted an appointment as General George Braddock’s aide in 1755 and accompanied the British in an effort to capture Fort Duquesne. The expedition proved to be a disaster. The British were ambushed and routed. Washington had two horses shot out from under him and four bullets passed through his jacket. Braddock was killed, and Washington led what remained of the British forces home. Later that year, Washington was appointed commander of all Virginia militia and charged with defending the Virginia frontier from the French, but most especially from Indians. He served with distinction, and though outnumbered and with little food, supplies, or ammunition, was able to keep marauding Indian tribes at bay. After the British captured Fort Duquesne in 1758, Washington resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon. He married wealthy widow Martha Custis in 1759 and spent the next few years as a planter, enjoying the social life of aristocratic Virginia.
George Washington’s political career spanned several decades. He was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, a justice of the peace of Fairfax County, and a vestryman. His faithful adherence to his civic duty won him the admiration of his peers. By the 1760s, Washington had grown increasingly suspicious of the British. He had witnessed their arrogance firsthand during the French and Indian War and now chafed at their restrictions on colonial trade. He supported non-importation of British goods and served as the chairman of a 1774 meeting that adopted George Mason’s Virginia Resolves, a set of contentious grievances against the crown and Parliament.
Though he had been a conservative supporter of the king, Washington increasingly believed that Britain intended to saddle the American colonists with an “arbitrary” government, a government that would not be bound by the rights of Englishmen. He wrote in 1774, “I think I can announce it as a fact, that it is not the wish or interest of that government [Massachusetts], or any other upon this continent, separately or collectively, to set up for independencey; but this you may at the same time rely on, that none of them will ever submit to the loss of those valuable rights and privileges, which are essential to the happiness of every free state, and without which, life, liberty, and property are rendered totally insecure.” Washington was the first example of the conservative revolutionary. He did not favor independence until the British appeared unwilling to compromise.
He was appointed as one of Virginia’s delegates to the First Continental Congress and was selected to command a group of independent Virginia militia companies in 1775. He once again donned a uniform and became an active proponent for the military preparation of the colonies should compromise fail and matters lead to war. By the time Virginia sent him to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, fighting had taken place at Lexington and Concord, and Washington was chosen to help organize an army and fortify New York City.
George Washington wore his blue uniform to every session of the Congress. This has often been construed as an ambitious power-play, but Washington already commanded several militia companies in Virginia and because of his military experience in the French and Indian War had been selected by the Congress to help prepare colonial defenses. He believed the colonies and Great Britain were in a state of war. Why not dress the part?
John Adams nominated him to command the newly created Continental Army. The decision was partly political and partly practical. Washington was from Virginia, and the other candidate, John Hancock, hailed from Massachusetts. By selecting Washington, the Congress ensured that the fight against the British would be a colonial struggle and not an isolated war in Massachusetts, and it concurrently chose the best military mind in the colonies for the job. Washington humbly accepted and refused a salary, asking only that the Congress repay his personal expenses made on behalf of the army at the end of the war. His unpretentious nature has been construed by some modern historians as insincere, a pose. Yet, when relaying the news of his appointment to his wife, Washington displayed the same humility. One has to question why Washington would be disingenuous to Martha Washington. He would have nothing to gain from such a move. Washington inherited an army that was little more than a rag-tag militia, and was faced with the daunting task of defeating the best-trained and equipped army in the world. He experienced problems of supply, pay, morale, discipline, and political intrigue against him throughout the war.
The early years of the conflict were the worst. Most of the men who held Boston in 1775 were eager to return home when their terms of enlistment expired, and Washington complained that the New England militia took provisions without service and had an unchecked avarice. “There is no nation under the sun,” he wrote, “that pays more adoration to money than they do.” Of course, by nation he meant New England. This difficulty never faded. Some of his greatest “blunders” during the war can be attributed to bad morale and expired enlistments. He rarely had a unified veteran army to place in the field.
After a masterful campaign in Boston in 1776 that forced the British army to evacuate that city, Washington moved south to fortify New York. He had roughly 10,000 men and was instructed to defend sixteen miles of coastline against 30,000 British troops and 100 warships. He did not have a navy or many experienced officers, and the Continental Army suffered setback after setback in New York as the British regulars and their Hessian mercenaries overwhelmed the undisciplined and undersupplied American forces.
As his army melted away during 1776 due to desertions and casualties, Washington began to formulate a plan of prudent and calculated strikes within an overall strategy of attrition, of wearing the enemy down. By late 1776, he had only 5,000 men at his disposal. Washington crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. The British decided not to pursue him, but to divide their army and settle into winter quarters throughout New Jersey. This worked to Washington’s advantage. His most successful selective strike occurred on Christmas Day, 1776.
The army crossed the Delaware River under the cover of darkness during ice storm and surprised a Hessian regiment at Trenton. His troops fought a determined battle and killed or captured the entire Hessian detachment. This single blow rallied his men, and after a later success at Princeton, forced the British to evacuate New Jersey. He led two strikes on the British in the fall of 1777, one at Brandywine Creek and one at Germantown, Pennsylvania; neither was a victory, but Washington showed resilience and resolve, and, more important, the French were now paying attention to the American War for Independence. He settled at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in the winter of 1777 and faced his most difficult task as a commanding officer, keeping the army together during a brutal and unforgiving winter.
Meat and supplies had often been short, but the shortages that winter of 1777–78 were the worst. Many of the men were shoeless, dressed in rags, and starving. The frigid cold and paltry living quarters amplified their suffering. George Washington empathized with the men and feared the result of such misery, but, remarkably, desertions decreased as the suffering grew more intense. His men were supremely dedicated to both Washington and the cause. Washington also had to keep the larger picture in view: winning the war. When one junior officer pleaded with Washington for a furlough to see his fiancé, claiming she would “die” if he didn’t go, Washington refused, and responded, “Oh no; women do not die for such trifles.” When the captain asked what he should do, Washington is reported to have said, “Why, write to her to add another leaf to the book of sufferings.”
Washington demanded more disciplined training for his men, and they emerged from Valley Forge hardened and better prepared than at any time in the war. Unfortunately, continued problems of supply dogged his efforts at victory, while long-awaited French military involvement acted as a sedative rather than a stimulant. The army plodded through three more years of virtual inactivity. Washington had hoped, initially, that French reinforcements would lead to a quick victory, but when that victory did not materialize he fell back on his strategy of simply wearing out the British; though there was a great danger that his own men would wear out first. He wrote in 1780, “We have no magazines, nor money to form them; and in a little time we shall have no men . . . . The history of the war is a history of false hopes and temporary devices, instead of system and economy.”
The tide turned in 1781. The French made a daring move and captured the British navy at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and a combined Franco-American force led by Washington trapped Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, in September 1781. This was the last major military engagement of the war. Washington emerged as the hero of Yorktown and the savior of independence. He marched triumphantly into New York City on 19 April 1783 and gladly resigned his commission shortly thereafter. He retired, on the verge of personal bankruptcy, to a dilapidated Mount Vernon, convinced that only Providence had saved the Revolution. At 51, he was also determined never again to enter public life. His voluntary retirement was unprecedented in the annals of history. Washington could have marched into New York and taken over the government. His reputation ensured that the people would support him.
Most victorious generals in history had sought political power from their exploits. Lucius Sulla, Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell, William of Orange, and Frederick the Great of Prussia had all used their battlefield success to seize power. Washington was consciously different. He was the American Cincinnatus. The Roman farmer Cincinnatus was called to duty by the citizens of the republic to act as dictator during two emergencies. He was found plowing his fields, and returned to his farm once he had secured the safety of the republic. Virginia appointed Washington to the Continental Congress while he was “plowing his fields” at Mount Vernon, and when the war was over, he returned to his plantation and resigned from all political appointments, even his position as vestryman at his church. He wanted to secure American liberty by ensuring a separation between military and civil power.
When the people of Virginia called on him to serve in the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Washington at first refused, but he was finally persuaded by the same call of duty that led him to accept the command of the Continental Army in 1775. The Convention unanimously elected him president. His presence and support for the Constitution alone helped silence some opposition to it, and the delegates to the Constitutional Convention surely had him in mind when constructing the executive branch, because they knew the new government would depend on his involvement.
He responded to his unanimous election as president in 1789 with a sense of dread. “My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit, who is going to the place of his execution.” Washington had the perfect disposition for the job. In sharp contrast to modern politicians, he did not campaign for, nor actively seek, power. There were no signs extolling “The Office of the President Elect.” He believed God had intervened in the cause of independence and now believed only Providence could predict the outcome of his new role as president.
Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence. He had confidence in his own abilities and had gladly risked his fame and fortune as the commander of the Continental Army, but the war also displayed the darker side of political life, and Washington was unsure that he could quell the factionalism, bickering, and pettiness of politics.
George Washington almost died before his first term began. He became ill, possibly with a bout of anthrax poisoning, and struggled to regain his strength. Once healthy, he tackled the mundane but important tasks assigned to him by the Constitution. With the help of his Secretary of War, Henry Knox, Washington began to shore up Indian relations and solidify the defensive capabilities of the new United States. He refused a salary, though Congress appropriated him one. He accepted the title of “Mr. President,” turning aside the more flowery suggestions offered by Vice President John Adams. Above all, Washington wanted the United States to be respected on the international stage, and that required, in his view, a strengthening of government. Washington determined to surround himself with bright, able individuals. He chose his good friend from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State, and two former military subordinates, Henry Knox and Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of War and Secretary of Treasury respectively. Washington believed he was better prepared for foreign and military affairs than anyone in the United States, so Jefferson and Knox essentially became glorified secretaries. Washington was also aware of his limitations and let Hamilton run the new Treasury department with little interference. This helped lead to Jefferson’s resentment and later resignation.
When bitter disputes arose between Jefferson and Hamilton over the proper power of the new central government, Washington asked both men to compromise. They did on the matters concerning the federal government’s assumption of state debt and on the location of the new national capital, but could not come to an agreement over Hamilton’s proposed economic system, which included a central bank. Washington tried to mediate and believed he was acting in the best interest of the United States by siding with Hamilton. His relationship with Hamilton grew closer, while Jefferson began to distance himself from the first president, and by 1793 Jefferson had resigned his position and was back at Monticello in retirement.
Without Jefferson around to retard the increasing centralization of the government, Washington gravitated toward a more aggressive approach to federal power. His reaction to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1795 showed the extent he was willing to go to limit internal discord. When farmers in the western part of Pennsylvania resorted to violence to protest Hamilton’s excise tax on distilled spirits, Washington personally led a militia of 10,000 men to the troubled region in an unprecedented display of American force. The “rebellion” turned out to be little more than a minor disturbance, and most of those involved were protected by their friends and neighbors, but Washington seized the moment and insisted that the farmers had to pay the tax. Jefferson said after the event that “an insurrection was announced and proclaimed and armed against, but could never be found.”
Actually, a group of Democratic-Republicans were pegged as the instigators of the “rebellion,” and Hamilton used the event as a political ploy to crush opposition to the Federalist Party in Pennsylvania. This was his, and the Federalists’, chance to show that a standing army was necessary to prevent internal disruption. Washington also capitalized on the moment and placed blame on renegade groups determined to resist federal authority. The federal “smack-down” had the desired effect. Democratic- Republican societies ceased operation, and Federalists gained control of Congress following the 1794 elections. In foreign policy, Washington wished for the United States to remain neutral in European affairs. He issued a Neutrality Proclamation in 1793, a questionable move constitutionally, but one that was designed to keep the United States out of foreign conflict. Washington believed the United States should remain a peaceful trading partner with the rest of the world.
When presented with John Jay’s controversial “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” with Great Britain in 1794, he hesitated to sign it for fear that the United States would be dragged into the international conflict between the French and the British. Southerners also denounced the treaty as purely sectional, claiming it would only favor Northern commercial interests at the expense of the rest of the country, and that it kow-towed to the British. Hamilton insisted it was the best treaty they could hope for, that it resolved remaining disputes between the two countries, would ensure the peace and promote commerce, and urged Washington to support the measure. Washington sent the treaty to the Senate for ratification and it took effect in 1796, but it remained a contentious issue.
George Washington almost decided against a second term in 1792. He told Jefferson that he was feeling the effects of age, and that both his mind and body were beginning to fail him. Finally his sense of duty and the international difficulties confronting the United States obliged him to accept a second term, but it would be his last. He looked forward to retirement, even though he understood that some would suggest he was leaving because of falling popularity and a tarnished image. He had not escaped eight years as president without political and personal attacks, even from one-time friends and associates. Regardless, Washington believed he left the United States on firm ground both internationally and domestically.
On 19 September 1796, Washington issued a farewell address to the United States. The open letter to the public appeared in newspapers across the country and is perhaps Washington’s most famous public document. In it, Washington covered the most popular political topics of the day. He warned against political parties and factionalism, urged his successors and those in Congress to maintain a strict construction of the Constitution and use amendments when necessary to alter its limitations, cautioned against excessive government borrowing, and insisted on morality through religion. These guidelines, in his estimation, were the only way to maintain the republic. He argued, in addition, that permanent foreign alliances were dangerous to the future security of the United States and threatened American sovereignty. Washington’s farewell message is something that our president and congressmen should commit themselves to study.
The last years
Once Washington retired to Mount Vernon in 1797, he hoped, as in 1783, that it would be for the last time, but when the French threatened war with the United States in 1798, Washington again answered the call. President John Adams appointed Washington lieutenant-general and commander- in-chief of American forces. Washington demanded that Hamilton be named second in command with full authority over the army. Adams resisted, but Washington won the war of wills, and Hamilton began the process of organizing an army. At sixty-six, Washington wanted to act as little more than a figurehead and desired Hamilton to complete the difficult tasks of administration. Fortunately, Washington would not have to lead the army against France.
As tension with the French subsided throughout 1798 and 1799, Washington settled into a routine at Mount Vernon. He never fully recovered financially from the Revolution, but during his last years in retirement almost achieved self-sufficiency at his estate. The problems of caring for and maintaining slaves weighed on him financially. Though selling off some of his slaves might have alleviated his problems, he abhorred breaking apart families and refused to participate in the slave traffic. He supported the gradual abolition of slavery, but thought a forced end to the institution would only create more evil than good. Washington believed slavery to be an inefficient and paternalistic institution and thought it would end naturally. Thus, though unsatisfied with the economic and moral ramifications of the institution, he continued as a slaveholder until his death. He manumitted his slaves in his will.
Death came quickly and suddenly in December 1799. Washington had spent two days outdoors in foul December weather. He caught a cold that soon turned to a severe case of laryngitis and swelling of the throat.Washington had trouble breathing and instructed his personal physician to administer bloodletting. This process had worked for his slaves and he firmly believed in its therapeutic effects. When his condition grew worse, Washington prepared for the end. Because of the extreme loss of blood, he was too weak to fight his oncoming demise, but Washington reassured those around him that he was not afraid. He died peacefully on 14 December 1799 with his wife at his side, just two years after leaving the presidency. The great hero proved mortal, but his legacy would endure.
The Washington effect
George Washington established several important precedents while president. Until 1940, no president sought more than two consecutive terms in office. He could have remained president for life. The Constitution did not impose term limits on the executive, but Washington was always mindful of preserving the office of the president from any connotations of monarchy. No one in the Revolutionary generation dared break his precedent of serving no more than two consecutive terms.
He also added a famous line to the oath of office. The Constitution stipulates that the president must take the following oath or affirmation before taking office: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Washington attached the phrase “so help me God” to the end of the oath, an addition that remains. Washington would not have trusted anyone who did not call on Providence for assistance in executing the powers of the president.
Though Washington gravitated toward Hamilton in the final years of his administration, he maintained that the Constitution should be followed literally and strictly. He believed Congress should have the ultimate authority on most political matters. He issued the first Proclamation of Thanksgiving, and began the process of delivering the “State of the Union” address to Congress in person. This precedent was ignored for more than one hundred years, until it was revived by Woodrow Wilson.
In his own “State of the Union” addresses Washington did not make any grand requests for appropriations. He simply asked Congress to “consider” measures that he deemed important. They were not required to act on his suggestions. Perhaps his most important legacy, however, was not in the executive office; it was in the example of his character. He was idolized by successive generations for his honor and integrity, qualities that have rarely been matched, particularly in the federal government. More monuments have been erected for George Washington than any other American.
Inevitably, politically correct historians have tried to tarnish him because he was a slaveholder, because he was venerated in the Confederacy during its own war of independence (with his image on the Confederate States Seal), and because he was, allegedly, “not very smart,” or “too ambitious,” or “sort of a boob,” or a “racist, Indian hater.” But better, and more accurate, was the view of “Light Horse Harry” Lee, Robert E. Lee’s father, who served with Washington: “Possessing a clear and penetrating mind, a strong and sound judgment, calmness and temper for deliberation, with invincible firmness and perseverance in resolutions maturely formed; drawing information from all; acting from himself with incorruptible integrity and unvarying patriotism; his own superiority and public confidence alike marked him as the man designed by Heaven to lead in the great political as well as military events which have distinguished the era of his life.” That is how Washington should be remembered, because that is true to the Washington of history.
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