It is the birthday of George Washington, our nation’s indispensable man. Here are a few things you might not know about him.
Today is the birthday of George Washington, this country’s “indispensable man.” Without him, it is nearly impossible imagine how we would have won the American Revolution — and it is completely impossible imagine how we would have a Constitutional republic.
Washington’s major achievements are legend, and each worthy of a bit of detail. His most important:
As our first President, Washington gave us the customs of a limited tenure for President and the peaceful transition of power. Those two customs have allowed our Republic to prosper for over two centuries.
Then there is what Washington didn’t do. By refusing to seize power, he further defined our nation as one based on a Constitution and laws, not on coercive power. Despite numerous opportunities to take power as a dictator, either by coup or, after the end of the war, by popular acclamation (Washington is the only person elected to the Presidency to receive all possible electoral votes), he refrained. Virtually every other military commander of a revolutionary force in history has seized political power afterwards – Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon are but three examples. Yet Washington refused to do so. To put this in stark perspective, no one was more surprised than King George III when told that Washington had retired after the war and returned home. The King was moved to call Washington “the greatest character of our age.”
Moreover, Washington stopped the single greatest threat to the nascent Republic, the Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783. At the end of the war, many of the officers had not been paid for their service. They were on the verge of marching on Congress with musket and cannon to conduct a coup when Washington intervened, calling them all to a meeting. At one point, Washington paused to read aloud a letter. He apologized as he fumbled for his reading glasses, saying to his officers that he had gone somewhat “blind in the service of our country.” That was a cathartic moment for many of the officers, for their respect for Washington was boundless. He had shared their hardships from day one and never wavered. Many broke out into tears. The Conspiracy ended at that moment.
Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention. It was his imprimatur on the newly drafted Constitution that led to its passage in contentious state-wide referendums.
The American Revolution
Washington built the Continental Army from the ground up against impossible odds – a broken supply system, no pay for soldiers, “palace intrigue,” lack of a military tradition – during the midst of a war against the superpower of the age. It is fair to say that, while countless people played critical roles at various points, it was only Washington’s inhuman tenacity that kept the effort going. When he was finally finished, Washington had built a force that could stand toe to toe with the British Army and win.
Now here are some of the lesser known facts about Washington
Washington Started A World War
Washington, when he was 20, started history’s first world war, known as the Seven Years War. We know our geographical theater of that war as The French-Indian War. Now, in fairness to Washington, by 1750 the national pastime of both Britain and France was going to war with each other. Moreover, they had already set the stage for the Seven Years War by jockeying the world over for colonies. All came to a head as France tried to cut off the British coastal colonies in America. Virginia sent out a long-range patrol to find out the facts on the ground under the newly minted Major Washington. Washington ambushed a group of French, taking prisoners, some of whom were then executed by the Indians who formed a part of Washington’s force. It was an international incident that started a war that saw fighting over five continents and set the stage for the American Revolution.
Washington Became Famous At Age 20
Washington kept a journal of his first patrol into French territory. He gave it to the Virginia governor upon his return. The Governor had the journal printed and sent copies around the colonies and to Britain. The journal is available on-line for free.
Washington has an imperfect reputation as a battlefield commander
When it came to great tactical military commanders, America produced four. Benedict Arnold, the true victor at Saratoga, was our finest battlefield commander. Daniel Morgan was a legitimate military genius who created snipers and won a decisive victory at Cowpens. Francis Marion invented irregular and asymmetric warfare. Nathaniel Greene, who never won a single battle during the war, nonetheless made of every enemy victory a Pyrrhic victory.
Where does Washington rate as a battlefield commander? He was by nature highly aggressive and willing to be bold, but in all fairness, he was constrained by leading an army that was, for about the first five years of its existence, palpably inferior to Britain’s army. Most of the time, Washington had little choice but to fight a war of attrition and survival. He would offer battle but only when he had an escape route. The moment it looked like he might face destruction, he took advantage of the escape. Consequently, he lost most of the battles in which he engaged.
The only major battles that he won, though, were decisive. Washington’s incredibly bold decision to cross the Delaware River and attack the Hessians at Trenton has to rank as one of the greatest – and ballsiest – moves in the history of warfare. Without doubt, Washington saved the Revolution from certain doom that day. Washington’s second great victory came at the end of the war, at Yorktown, when he and a combined force of French and Colonial troops — with the incredibly timely intervention of the French Navy – forced the surrender of Cornwallis.
Yorktown had to be Washington’s finest moment. He had finally built a force capable of going toe to toe with the Brits. The hallmark of the British Army at the time was musket volley fire to get close, then a ruthless bayonet charge. It was the British bayonet charge that separated the British Army from all other armies of the time, and with it they had terrorized the Continental Army for years. It wasn’t until 1779 that the battle hardened Continentals were mentally prepared and trained to conduct and defend against a bayonet charge. Washington’s final order for his infantry at Yorktown was to conduct a night-time bayonet charge on two key British redoubts. The Brits were routed and their loss at Yorktown sealed. History does not record how Washington reacted to that news, but I would bet everything that he allowed himself a smile.
Washington Combined Politics and Booze
It was customary, in the local elections of the colonies, for candidates to set up tents of booze at the polling stations. Washington was no slouch. When he ran for office in Virginia in 1758, 391 voters showed up at the polling station. Washington treated them to 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer and 2 gallons of cider. A majority of those still able to stand and speak entered the station and mumbled Washington’s name, giving him his first elected office.
The character of Washington
Rarely do we get a sense of the man through the fog of history. It is impossible to understand why Washington is our nation’s indispensable man without understanding the man himself, as well as his specific acts. There are countless fascinating biographies of him, many of them worth a read. These are just a few of my observations from those books.
George Washington grew into a handsome man of immense size, strength, and athleticism. He grew to be between six foot three or six foot four, towering over his contemporaries who averaged about five foot eight. His athleticism was well-known, be it from competitions of strength with friends to the fact that he gained a reputation as the finest horse rider in Virginia. And as to his looks, I will defer to Ms. BWR who, when viewing the reproduction at the top of this post of a young George Washington, was moved to exclaim “Wow. What a hunka’ hunka’ of burning George . . .”
For all of his considerable intelligence, George Washington was largely a self-taught man. He was only eleven and had just completed the equivalent of a sixth grade education when his father passed away. That forever ended Washington’s formal schooling. While no one ever criticized Washington for this during his lifetime, nor seemingly in any way looked down upon him for it, Washington never forgot it. I have often wondered if that did not play, at least in part if not in whole, in the development of two unique aspects of Washington’s personality that would have great importance later in life.
One of those aspects was Washington’s unique combination of modesty and pragmatism. Washington, to a remarkable degree, lacked arrogance. Washington always displayed a willingness to seek out and listen to the council of others on important decisions while never becoming indecisive. Indeed, he was famous during his command of the Continental Army for asking very junior officers and soldiers for their thoughts, then taking what he thought was the best idea, irrespective of the source.
The second aspect was that Washington, unique among similarly situated military leaders in history, lacked any ambition to seize political control and rule as a dictator. Washington never shunned power when called upon by his country to serve, but he only did so within the carefully limited strictures placed upon him. I wonder – pure speculation here – if Washington felt that he was not so intelligent as to rule as a dictator or King. In truth, no one is. Washington realized that truth. It seems it is only the credentialed who don’t.
Washington was a man driven by three ambitions throughout his life: Ambition for military fame, something he would first taste early in life with the French Indian War; ambition for personal fortune, something he would achieve through diligence as a planter and marriage; and, above all, an ambition to create and maintain unspoiled a reputation as a virtuous man of his age – honest, self-controlled, brave, charming, and industrious.
Perhaps Washington’s most defining aspect was his unbending tenacity. He withstood more challenges than Job and never bent. The more dire the circumstance, the more determined he seemed to become. The single greatest example of this was the decision to attack the Hessians at Trenton at the end of 1776. Many a book has been written about it, including David McCullough’s superb 1776. If you do not know the full story of Trenton — and indeed, the entirety of what happened that year — I could not recommend the book more strongly.
Lastly, Washington was a man with an open mind. Nothing shows this more than his attitudes towards blacks and slavery. Washington, a slave owner himself, grew up in a time and place when slavery was the norm and blacks, by virtue of the color of their skin, were considered subhuman, fit only for slavery.
When Washington took over command of the Continental Army, he was stunned to find that a significant number of his troops were black. His reaction was swift and vehement, that such troops should be disarmed and, if not immediately cashiered from service, then at least not allowed to reenlist at the end of their one year term. At first, he would not even entertain arguments that the blacks then in service had served well – and several had served with distinction – at Lexington and Concord.
Over the next few years, Washington changed his mind. One reason was the fact that two of his closest staff, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens (himself the son of the largest slave trader in the colonies), were both ardent abolitionists who addressed the topic to him. The second reason was pragmatic. Washington needed infantry and many blacks were willing to fight for their country. He eventually came to support blacks in the Continental Army and, as well, approved of a plan ultimately voted down by the SC legislature for blacks in the colony of South Carolina to be given their freedom in exchange for military service.
By the end of the war, the Continental Army was seemingly as well-integrated as today’s military. When Washington put his army into parade formation at Yorktown to receive Cornwallis’s surrender, one French officer observed that every fifth soldier was black.
I also wonder whether or not Washington’s relationship with Billy Lee changed his attitude. Billy Lee was a slave Washington purchased in 1768. Within a few years, Billy Lee became Washington’s closest companion and the two were constantly together, even in the thick of every battle, throughout the Revolutionary War. At any rate, after the war, Washington several times expressed his desire to see a gradual end to chattel slavery and as President. When he died, while he could not free his wife’s slaves in his will, he manumitted his own. Ultimately, Washington’s record on slavery and its abolition was spotty, but it was a good ninety degrees off from the day in 1776 when he assumed command of the Continental Army.
Washington was unlucky when it came to illnesses. The list of diseases with which he was afflicted at various times, and particularly during the Revolution, reads like a checklist of all the major diseases of the 18th century: diphtheria, tuberculosis, smallpox, dysentery, malaria, quinsy (tonsillitis), carbuncle, pneumonia, and epiglottitis. In the end, it was a doctor’s medical treatment by aggressive bleeding that probably killed Washington.
Washington is indeed our “indispensable man” without whom our country would not likely exist. Moreover, Washington was a fascinating man, a jumbled mix of strong traits and imperfections. We all know some of his great acts, but few know the man and his life beyond those acts. He is a fascinating man and time learning more about him would be time well spent indeed.