Happy Birthday George Washington – Father of Our Country

George Washington, age 19
George Washington, age 19, artistic recreation based on a bust made when Washington was age 56

It should be the highest ambition of every American to extend his views beyond himself, and to bear in mind that his conduct will not only affect himself, his country, and his immediate posterity; but that its influence may be co-extensive with the world, and stamp political happiness or misery on ages yet unborn. ~ George Washington

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was the general and commander-in-chief of the colonial armies during the American Revolution. He served as our first president  from 1789 to 1797. He died December 14, 1799, in Mount Vernon, Virginia.

Unfortunately, we now have President’s Week and no longer have separate days celebrating both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln for their extraordinary accomplishments.

We need to remember these men because they changed our nation in fundamental ways.

It was George Washington’s great-grandfather who brought the family to America from England and his grandfather took them to Virginia. George was the eldest son of six children born to Mary and Augustine, who was wealthy – he acquired land, built mills, grew tobacco and he bought slaves.

Washington was home schooled with a classical education but learned about ranching and surveying from the local backwoodsmen.

Not much is known about his early life. When I went to visit his mother’s farm, the guide said he built it for her as far away from his as he could. She had a reputation as a demanding woman.

His father died when he was only 11 and he became the ward of his half-brother Lawrence who made certain he was educated until age 15. He was well-taken care of by Lawrence.

At age 17, he became a surveyor for a time. He was ambitious and saw this as a way to learn about the lands that he saw as the future of the nation. It also afforded him opportunities to network.

Lawrence died in 1752 of TB and George became the holder of the vast estate.

In the 1750’s, the French were moving into the Ohio territory. The border lands were in dispute and George, showing early promise as a leader, soon became a Major in the Virginia militia.

George Washington was sent to Fort LeBoeuf to ask the French to remove themselves from the lands claimed by Britain, lands that later became known as Waterford, Pennsylvania. The French refused.

On his way back to Virginia, he fell from a raft into the frigid waters of the Allegheny River and almost died. He kept a journal that he later published about his adventures and it became a sensation here and abroad.

George was sent back with troops.

He struck the French post at Fort Duquesne killing the Commander and nine others and took the rest as prisoners. It was the beginning of the French and Indian War. The French counter attacked driving Washington and his forces back. After a full day siege, Washington surrendered and was imprisoned for a short time. He was embarrassed by his capture but was quickly released.

Britain thanked him just the same and Washington went on to build another fort in Williamsburg.

In 1755, he and General Braddock went on a mission to drive the French out once and for all. Braddock was killed during the fire but Washington continued to fight and saved his men. His heroism was lauded and he became the Commander of all the Virginia forces.

In 1758 he returned home to his beloved plantation at Mount Vernon and married the wealthy widow, Martha Custis. He was also elected to the House of Burgesses.

While he was courting Martha Custis, he allegedly flirted with his best friend’s wife, the beautiful Sally Fairfax, who flirted back but treated it largely as a joke. In time, he fell in love with Martha a charming and attractive women in her own right.

Sally and Martha

George loved farming and was good at it. He turned his tobacco crops to wheat, a dramatic change for someone in tobacco territory.

The family had a prominent social life and the finest material things. He was an obedient member of the House of Burgesses.

…He was present when Patrick Henry introduced his resolutions against the Stamp Act in May 1765 and shortly thereafter gave token of his adherence to the cause of the colonial Whigs against the Tory ministries of England. In 1768 he told George Mason at Mount Vernon that he would take his musket on his shoulder whenever his country called him.

The next spring, on April 4, 1769, he sent Mason the Philadelphia nonimportation resolutions with a letter declaring that it was necessary to resist the strokes of “our lordly masters” in England; that, courteous remonstrances to Parliament having failed, he wholly endorsed the resort to commercial warfare; and that as a last resort no man should scruple to use arms in defense of liberty.

When, the following May, the royal governor dissolved the House of Burgesses, he shared in the gathering at the Raleigh, N.C., tavern that drew up nonimportation resolutions, and he went further than most of his neighbours in adhering to them. At that time and later he believed with most Americans that peace need not be broken…

Then the Boston Tea Party!. Washington was present at Raleigh Tavern when they called for a Continental Congress and signed all the resolutions, saying –

“I will raise one thousand men, subsist them at my own expense, and march myself at their head for the relief of Boston.”

When the Congress met in Philadelphia on Sept. 5, 1774, he was in his seat in full uniform, and his participation in its councils marks the beginning of his national career.

His letters of the period show that, while still utterly opposed to the idea of independence, he was determined never to 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.” If the ministry pushed matters to an extremity, he wrote, “more blood will be spilled on this occasion than ever before in American history.”

Issues such as no settling beyond the Alleghenies and the Stamp Act bothered him but did not move him to seek independence. He became a delegate to the First Continental Congress in March, 1775, not seeking independence from Britain.

The Battle of Lexington and Concord of 1775 escalated the rising tensions and Washington joined the Second Continental Congress. He went dressed in full uniform making it clear that he was ready for war. In June 15, Washington was appointed Major General and Commander-in-Chief of the colonial forces against Great Britain.

Suddenly a colonial fighter was taking on the greatest military presence in the world.

He lost the battle for New York City to Sir William Howe who came with the largest British army ever launched. Washington retreated across the Delaware to Pennsylvania in despair.

An over-confident Howe wintered his troops in Trenton and Princeton. Washington was now free to attack when and where he wanted.

…On Christmas night, 1776, Washington and his men crossed the Delaware River and attacked unsuspecting Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, forcing their surrender. A few days later, evading a force that had been sent to destroy his army, Washington attacked the British again, this time at Princeton, dealing them a humiliating loss…

Howe believed in attacking the major cities as a way of winning a quick defeat. He was outwitted.

…In the late summer of 1777, the British army sent a major force, under the command of John Burgoyne, south from Quebec to Saratoga, New York, to split off the rebellion in New England. But the strategy backfired as Burgoyne became trapped by the American armies led by Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Saratoga. Without support from Howe, who couldn’t reach him in time, he was forced to surrender his entire 6,200 man army. The victory was a major turning point in the war as it encouraged France to openly ally itself with the American cause for independence…

While Howe continued with his militaristic assault on cities, he lost the war in spirit. Washington understood that keeping the belief in independence alive was more important. Howe realized his tactics weren’t working because when he’d take over a city, the Revolutionaries simply moved.

Enormous suffering was to follow once he retreated but Washington’s indomitable will lead men to bear up under the most challenging conditions of any war. They suffered an extremely viral winter in tiny cabins and in tattered clothes. Washington kept them together.

…The darkest time for George Washington and the Continental Army was during the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The 11,000 man force went into winter quarters and over the next six months suffered thousands of deaths, mostly from disease. But the army emerged from the winter still intact and in relatively good order. Realizing their strategy of capturing Colonial cities had failed, the British command replaced General Howe with Sir Henry Clinton. The British army evacuated Philadelphia to return to New York City. Washington and his men delivered several quick blows to the moving army, attacking the British flank near Monmouth Courthouse. Though a tactical standoff, the encounter proved Washington’s army capable of open field battle…

Washington was a brilliant General. He kept the British confined to New York City and did not attempt to take back the city. When Washington formed the French alliance, General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, “…Virginia could not stand up to the combined French and Colonial armies and the French fleet of 29 warships at his back, Cornwallis held out as long as he could, but on October 19, 1781, he surrendered his forces…”

Washington abandoned the French after the Revolution to form an alliance with the British through the Jay Treaty, which infuriated Thomas Jefferson.

…the treaty proved beneficial to the United States by removing British forts along the western frontier, establishing a clear boundary between Canada and the United States, and most importantly, delaying a war with Britain and providing over a decade of prosperous trade and development the fledgling country so desperately needed…

The new government was very partisan. Alexander Hamilton – the Federalist – supported a strong national government and Thomas Jefferson – the Democrat-Republican – believed in small government. Washington hoped for free and open debate without feeling bound to party loyalties. He could not contain the partisanship however.

The debate over the proper role of government began and the two-party system evolved.

Wshington’s presidency was void of all trappings of the monarchy though he was criticized for enjoying his wealth. George Washington was asked to be king and he refused. He refused a third term as President and returned to Mount Vernon in 1797.

With the help of Alexander Hamilton, he composed his Farewell Address to the American people, which urged his fellow citizens to cherish the Union and to avoid partisanship and permanent foreign alliances. His last official act was to pardon the participants in the Whiskey Rebellion.

On a cold December day in 1799, Washington spent much of it inspecting the farm on horseback in a driving snow storm. When he returned home, he hastily ate his supper in his wet clothes and then went to bed. The next morning, December 13, he awoke with a severe sore throat and became increasingly hoarse. He retired early, but awoke around 3:00 am and told Martha he felt sick.

The illness progressed. Doctors trying to help him, made his condition worse. They used a technique common in the day – they bled him – sending him into shock. He died late in the evening of December 14, 1799.

The news of his death spread throughout the country plunging the nation into a deep mourning. Many towns and cities held mock funerals and presented hundreds of eulogies to honor their fallen hero. When the news of this death reached Europe, the British fleet paid tribute to his memory and Napoleon ordered ten days of mourning.

The man who sacrificed everything for his country only had two years of retirement at his beloved Mount Vernon.

…He set many precedents for the national government and the presidency: the two-term limit in office, only broken once by Franklin Roosevelt, and then later ensconced in the Constitution’s 22nd Amendment. He crystallized the power of the presidency as a part of the government’s three branches, able to exercise authority when necessary, but also accept the balance of power inherent in the system. He was not only considered a military and revolutionary hero, but a man of great personal integrity, with a deep sense of duty, honor, and patriotism. For over 200 years, George Washington has been acclaimed as indispensible to the success of the Revolution and the birth of the nation. But his most important legacy may be that he insisted he was dispensable, asserting that the cause of liberty was larger than any individual…

I cannot conceive a rank more honorable, than that which flows from the uncorrupted choice of a brave and free people, the purest source and original fountain of all power. ~ George Washington

Washington lost more battles than he won which shows you can lose the battles and win the war. He won the strategic battles often through espionage and brilliant tactics though the British greatly outnumbered him and were far better financed.

George Washington said he did not believe in slavery and detested the system but recognized it was the law and owned slaves. His care of slaves was alleged to be exemplary. He generally did not sell slaves.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case. One female slave escaped to the North when she heard she was going to be sold away from her family by Washington. Washington hatched a plan to kidnap her. She found out about it and said she would return but her children must never be slaves. Washington refused, saying he would not negotiate with slaves. He gave up on his kidnapping plan. She never returned and reportedly never saw her family again.

On his deathbed, Washington decreed that his slaves be freed and educated upon the death of his wife.

Fearing the slaves would murder her, she freed them early.

Slavery is a dark chapter and haunts the legacy of otherwise great men and great generals. I doesn’t change what they fought for and won for us.

Read more at Biography

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