George Washington was a big man in his day, and his stature still dominates the land. The nation’s capital, one of the fifty states, and innumerable counties and cities are named after him. His face is on both the dollar bill and the quarter. His birthday, along with that of Abraham Lincoln, is honored with a national holiday in February. His countenance is dominant on Mount Rushmore, and the Washington Monument is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city named after him.
Physically, he towered over most of his contemporaries. Had he lived in our times, his athletic frame would probably have netted him a college scholarship to play sports. His physical strength and incredibly reserved demeanor intimidated even his closest friends.
His formal education pales in comparison to that of some of his contemporaries, such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but he was anything but uneducated. Washington was a surveyor by training and was termed a gentleman farmer. He was actually more a scholar-farmer, an agricultural scientist and top notch researcher in farming techniques.
His life was such that any portion of it would have made him the subject of historical interest. As a young officer, serving the British Crown, he played a key defining role in an event that led to the French and Indian War. Had the bullets whose whizzing sounds he described as “pleasant” taken his life, he would have mourned as a young commander with promise who died too soon. Even his survival in that war marked him as a man with a purpose that would be fulfilled in the next war.
Entering the Virginia House of Burgesses, Washington maintained his silence, but proved to be a canny politician. Still trim enough in 1775 to wear his officer’s uniform from a decade earlier, he showed at the Continental Congress in that outfit to participate in discussions that followed the outbreak of war in Massachusetts. The silent message of his military experience, and silence was often his key to communication, awakened the politicians to the benefits of choosing the Virginian to lead the predominantly New England-based army. Putting a Virginian in charge was a calculated risk, but the choice of Washington could not have been better or better timed.
As a military leader, there is much to debate about Washington‘s skills on and off the battlefield. Washington’s military wisdom was often learned in the midst of severe defeats. Some of his narrow escapes have caused military historians to question whether he was just plain lucky, or, to use the preferred explanation of Washington’s time, his escapes were Providential. His key military exploit was the ability to retreat, reform, and preserve his army so it could fight again. The war was nearly lost time and time again. Yet it held on year after year.
At the end of the day, or battle, or military campaign, Washington and his ragged band of soldiers could be found on some off-the-beaten-track part of New Jersey or New York. There, they licked their wounds, foraged for food, sewed up tattered uniforms, and drilled for future battles. Valley Forge is the best known of Washington’s painful military recoveries, but it was not the only valley his army went through.
Along the way, the ever-watchful Washington found a chink in his enemy’s armor and struck at Trenton and Princeton. At various times, he did manage to outwit his foes, who included both the British armies and jealous officers on the Patriot side. His toughest actions involved putting down mutinies within the ranks, uncovering plots against himself and his army, and staying out of reach of the pursuing British or Hessian troops. The long wait paid off when he was able to combine forces with the French and deliver a fatal wound to the British army besieged at Yorktown.
Often our history books give the impression that the surrender of British General Cornwallis at Yorktown was a total defeat of the British against the Americans and French. It was followed immediately, according to the impressions of most accounts, by the Treaty of Paris that ended the war. Yorktown took place in 1781, and it was two years later before the Treaty of Paris was signed. The British still had troops stationed throughout the thirteen United States, and they still occupied several key cities. Their navy, which suffered a defeat off the coast of Yorktown, recovered and soon crushed the French fleet.
Washington was not engaged in major battles during this time, but he was keeping his army together and watching the landscape for either a renewal of fighting or a peace treaty between the French and the British. This last possibility would have left the Americans with yet more years of fighting ahead. Much of this fascinating story of Washington and the War for Independence is covered in Thomas Fleming’s book The Perils of Peace: America’s Struggle for Survival After Yorktown.
At the end of the war, Washington did something almost totally unique in history. With an army at his command, with the hearts of his countrymen in his debt, and with a realization that the real battle for the nation lay in the political and not military realm, Washington resigned his commission and turned in his sword to Thomas Mifflin, the President of the Continental Congress.
He then rode home to Mount Vernon to make up for lost time with his beloved family and farm. Once again, the biographers had more than enough material to write about, but Washington’s career was far from over. Within a few years, his concerns about the unsettled nature of the increasingly disunited United States led to his participation in meetings over the nation’s problems. These meetings dealt with symptoms, and the decision was made to have a broader meeting in Philadelphia to look for root causes and solutions.
It was 1789 when the delegates arrived at what would later be termed the Constitutional Convention. Washington overcame a reluctance to attend and was chosen to preside over the meeting. Rarely speaking or participating in debate, his presence provided order for the contributors to the Constitution. When Article II was being formulated, few doubted who would be the first executive, now known as President, of the nation. The safeguards written into the Constitution were focused on what kind of leaders might succeed Washington. He was, at various points in his life, the man who could have been King of the United States.
Washington’s eight years of the Presidency are still regarded for having defined the office. Eric Metaxas says that George Washington “essentially invented the U. S. presidency.” From the formation of a cabinet, to the drawing of lines of demarcation between executive and legislative duties, to the use of the title “Mr. President,” Washington set the patterns that all of his successors followed. Until the 22nd Amendment, it was Washington’s example of serving only two terms that provided the strongest argument for that pattern.
Washington has truly deserved such titles as “Father of Our Country” and such descriptions as that given by “Lighthorse Harry” Lee as being “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” The celebration of July 4 as Independence Day focuses upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence. (And contrary to the painting, the signers did not all gather together on the 4th to sign the Declaration.)
Washington’s signature is missing from that document. He did not vote for the resolution of his fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” Nor did he contribute to the writing of the Declaration alongside another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson.
I recently asked historian and author Thomas Fleming about Washington’s whereabouts in July of 1776. While the signers were in Philadelphia, Washington was with his army in New York. Mr. Fleming said, “Washington was preparing to defend the city against a British attack.”
The signatures on the Declaration would have simply been admissions of guilt had the war been lost. Washington was in the field making sure what was declared would move from a hope to a reality. The task before Washington had already proven difficult, and seven more years of battle were still ahead.
Washington himself spent most of his life as a faithful servant of the British Crown. He had not only served in the army alongside British officers, but had once desired to attain his own status as such. Embracing the cause of independence was risky and not easily made. Early in the war, Washington and his officers still drank toasts to King George III’s health.
What changed his mind? According to Mr. Fleming, “It was after King George III gave a speech declaring the Americans were in rebellion and deserved no mercy, Washington embraced the cause of independence.”
That fateful speech, hardly known by most Americans, may have had a greater impact—one very different from its intent—than even the Declaration of Independence itself.
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