George Washington was a reluctant leader. A man who preferred to remain on his farm in Virginia than fight, but when called to lead the Continental Army he did not refuse. When called to lead our country as its first president, he did not refuse. He stepped up to the challenge and gave all of us the example we strive for today. While the following account of Washington’s life is not filled with details of great battles or pictures of domestic life, it does include quotes from Washington’s letters or letters written by others about Washington. I think these show a side of Washington which cannot be learned in history books and are of great importance in understanding the man himself.
George Washington was born in 1732 into a planter family. His parents raised him with the morals, manners, and education of a gentleman. Unfortunately, his mother was widowed early and the family became poor. George was left to find his own way in life. When he was only 16 years old, he ventured west as a land surveyor. What is a surveyor? A surveyor is a person who measures the length and breadth of a piece of land. They mark the area and create maps from what they have measured.
While he was surveying the Ohio country for Governor Dinwiddy, he kept a journal. In the journal he wrote “the waters were quite impassable, without swimming our horses, which obliged us to get the loan of a canoe from Frazier, and to send Barnaby Currin and Henry Steward down the Monongahela, with our baggage, to meet us at the forks of Ohio, about 10 miles, there to cross the Aligany.” As evidenced from this excerpt, Washington was articulate and paid attention to details. His journal entries are filled with such details as well as quotes from the people who were present at the time.
He began his career as a soldier in 1754 as a lieutenant colonel. He fought in the French and Indian War. Later he became an aid to General Braddock. In this excerpt, he writes a letter to his mother. He was 23 years old at the time. “Honored Madam: as I doubt not but you have heard of our defeat and, perhaps, had it represented in a worse light, if possible, than it deserves, I have taken this earlier opportunity to give you some account of the engagement as it happened, within ten miles of the French fort, on Wednesday, the 9th instant.” He goes on to say: “We marched to that place, without any considerate loss, having only now and then a straggler picked up by the French and scouting Indians. When we came there, we were attacked by a party of French and Indians, whose number, I am persuaded, did not exceed three hundred men; while ours consisted of about one thousand three hundred well-armed troops, chiefly regular soldiers, who were struck with such a panic that they behaved with more cowardice than it is possible to conceive. The officers behaved gallantly, in order to encourage their men, for which they suffered greatly, there being near sixty killed and wounded; a large proportion of the number we had.”
When he returned home from the French and Indian War, he worked his land at Mount Vernon. He also served on the House of Burgesses in Virginia.
George Washington met and fell in love with a widow named Martha Dandridge Custis. They were married in 1759. The union made Washington one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. She had two children from her previous marriage and he raised them as if they were his own. Before he went off to fight for the colonies, he wrote Martha a letter where he calls her “my dearest”. He makes contingencies in case he dies while in battle and informs her that his will has been written and has been entrusted in the care of Colonel Pendleton. He concludes by stating: “I shall add nothing more, as I have several letters to write, but to desire that you will remember me to your friends, and to assure you that I am, with the most unfeigned regard, my dear Patsy, your affectionate, George.”
He was elected the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in 1775. Not long after that, he began to train these ill-equipped men, turning them into a fighting army that would someday defeat the British, one of the best armies in the world. After he was chosen to be Commander-in-chief, he spoke the following words: “Mr. President: Though I am truly sensible of the high honor done me, in this appointment, yet I feel great distress, from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience many not be equal to the extensive and important trust. However, as the Congress desire it, I will enter upon the momentous duty, and exert every power I possess in their service, and for the support of the glorious cause, I beg they will accept my most cordial thanks for this distinguished testimony of their approbation.”
Life for Washington as the Commander-in-Chief was not an easy one. He suffered many setbacks but he continued to strive hard and he was always conscious of what his men suffered. He often wrote to Martha of the trials and during the harsh winters at Valley Forge, Martha even joined him, taking time to visit the men and offer them what solace she could as well as well-needed supplies like socks and blankets.
When he captured Boston, he wrote: “the inhabitants have suffered a great deal, in being plundered by the soldiery at their departure.”
He worked hard with the delegates after the war to create the Articles of Confederation. When the new Constitution was written and ratified, he was selected to be our first president. He was inaugurated on April 30th, 1789.
At the end of his second term, he retired to his farm – Mount Vernon. When he left office, there were two parties and the country seemed ready to split in two factions. He urged everyone to work together in harmony for the better of the country, not for the individual man. He sent his resignation letter to his friend Alexander Hamilton to proofread before submitting it. Congress sought to elect him to a third term, but Washington was ready to retire to Mount Vernon. He writes: “…to decline being considered among the number of those, out of whom a choice is to be made. I beg of you, at the same time, to do me the justice to be assured, that this resolution has not been taken without a strict regard to all the considerations appertaining to the relation, which binds a dutiful citizen to his country . . . In looking forward to the moment, which is intended to terminate the career of my public life, my feelings do not permit me to suspend the deep acknowledgement of that debt of gratitude, which I owe to my beloved country, --for the many honors it has conferred upon me.”
John Bernard, a gentleman who stumbled across Washington while riding over the Virginia countryside was invited to join Washington at Mount Vernon commented on him as a host saying: “He spoke like a man who had felt as much as he had reflected, and reflected more than he had spoken; like one who had looked upon society rather than the mass than in detail; and who regarded the happiness of America but as the first link in a series of universal victories; for his full faith in the power of these results of civil liberty which he saw all around him led him to foresee that it would, ere long, prevail in other countries, and that the social millennium of Europe would usher in the political.
Three years after he retired, he died of a throat infection on December 14th, 1799. His last words were recorded as being: “I feel myself going. I thank you for your attentions; but I pray you to take no more trouble about me. Let me go off quietly. I cannot last long.”
When he died, John Marshall wrote the following: “no man has ever appeared upon the theater of human action whose integrity was more incorruptible, or whose principles were more perfectly free from the contamination of those selfish and unworthy passions which find their nourishment in the conflicts of party. His ends were always upright, and his means always pure. He exhibits the rare example of a politician to whom wiles were absolutely unknown. In him was fully exemplified the real distinction between wisdom and cunning, and the truth of the maxim that honesty is the best policy.”