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George Washington

Article Index

The American Revolution

One might shrink from writing on such a subject as General Washington were it not desirable to keep his memory and deeds perpetually fresh in the minds of the people of this great country, of which he is called the Father,--doubtless the most august name in our history, and one of the grandest in the history of the world.


Washington was not, like Franklin, of humble origin; neither can he strictly be classed with those aristocrats who inherited vast landed estates in Virginia during the eighteenth century, and who were ambitious of keeping up the style of living common to wealthy country gentlemen in England at that time. And yet the biographers of Washington trace his family to the knights and squires who held manors by grant of kings and nobles of England, centuries ago. About the middle of the seventeenth century John and Lawrence Washington, two brothers, of a younger branch of the family, both Cavaliers who had adhered to the fortunes of Charles I., emigrated to Virginia, and purchased extensive estates in Westmoreland County, between the Potomac and the Rappahannock rivers. The grandson of one of these brothers was the father of our hero, and was the owner of a moderate plantation on Bridges Creek, from which he removed, shortly after the birth of his son, George, in 1732, to an estate in Stafford County, opposite Fredericksburg.

It was here that the early years of Washington were passed, in sports and pleasures peculiar to the sons of planters. His education was not entirely neglected, but beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic, his youthful attainments were small. In general knowledge he was far behind the sons of wealthy farmers in New England at that time,--certainly far behind Franklin when a mere apprentice to a printer. But he wrote a fair, neat, legible hand, and kept accounts with accuracy. His half-brother Lawrence had married a relative of Lord Fairfax, who had settled in Virginia on the restoration of Charles II. Lawrence was also the owner of the estate of Mount Vernon, on the Potomac,--the wealthiest member of his family, and a prominent member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Through this fortunate brother, George became intimate with the best families in Virginia. His associates were gentlemen of position, with whom he hunted and feasted, and with whose sisters he danced, it is said, with uncommon grace.

In person, young Washington was tall,--over six feet and two inches,--his manners easy and dignified, his countenance urbane and intelligent, his health perfect, his habits temperate, his morals irreproachable, and his sentiments lofty. He was a model in all athletic exercises and all manly sports,--strong, muscular, and inured to exposure and fatigue. He was quick and impetuous in temper, a tendency which he early learned to control. He was sullied with none of the vices then so common with the sons of planters, and his character extorted admiration and esteem.

Such a young man of course became a favorite in society. His most marked peculiarities were good sense and the faculty of seeing things as they are without exaggeration. He was truthful, practical, straight-forward, and conscientious, with an uncommon insight into men, and a power of inspiring confidence. I do not read that he was brilliant in conversation, although he had a keen relish for the charms of society, or that he was in any sense learned or original. He had not the qualities to shine as an orator, or a lawyer, or a literary man; neither in any of the learned professions would he have sunk below mediocrity, being industrious, clear-headed, sagacious, and able to avail himself of the labors and merits of others. As his letters show, he became a thoroughly well-informed man. In surveying, farming, stock-raising, and military matters he read the best authorities, often sending to London for them. He steadily fitted himself for his life as a country gentleman of Virginia, and doubtless aspired to sit in the House of Burgesses. He never claimed to be a genius, and was always modest and unassuming, with all his self-respect and natural dignity.

In the middle of the eighteenth century the cultivation of tobacco, to which the wealth and enterprise of Virginia were directed, was not as lucrative as it had been, and among the planters, aristocratic as they were in sentiments and habits, there were many who found it difficult to make two ends meet, and some, however disdainful of manual labor, were compelled to be as economical and saving as New England farmers. Their sons found it necessary to enter the learned professions or become men of business, since they could not all own plantations. Washington, whose family was neither rich nor poor, prepared himself for the work of a surveyor, for which he was admirably fitted, by his hardihood, enterprise, and industry.

Lord Fairfax, who had become greatly interested in the youth and had made him a frequent companion, giving him the inestimable advantage of familiar intercourse with a thoroughbred gentleman of varied accomplishments, in 1748 sent this sixteen-year-old lad to survey his vast estates in the unexplored lands at the base of the Alleghany Mountains. During this rough expedition young Washington was exposed to the hostilities of unfriendly Indians and the fatigues and hardships of the primeval wilderness; but his work was thoroughly and accurately performed, and his courage, boldness, and fidelity attracted the notice of men of influence and rank. Through the influence of his friend Lord Fairfax he was appointed a public surveyor, and for three years he steadfastly pursued this laborious profession.

A voyage to Barbadoes in 1751 cultivated his habits of clear observation, and in 1752 his brother's death imposed on him the responsibility of the estates and the daughter left to his care by his brother Lawrence.

Young Washington had already, through the influence of his brother, been appointed major and adjutant-general of one of the military districts of Virginia. The depredations of the French and Indians on the border had grown into dangerous aggression, and in 1753 Major Washington was sent as a commissioner through the wilderness to the French headquarters in Ohio, to remonstrate. His admirable conduct on this occasion resulted in his appointment as lieutenant-colonel of the Virginia regiment of six companies sent to the Ohio frontier; and in this campaign Washington gained new laurels, surprising and defeating the French. His native and acquired powers and his varied experience in Indian warfare now marked him out as a suitable aide to the British General Braddock, who, early in 1755, arrived with two regiments of English soldiers to operate against the French and Indians. This was the beginning of the memorable Seven Years' War.

Washington was now a young man of twenty-three, full of manly vigor and the spirit of adventure, brave as a lion,--a natural fighter, but prudent and far-seeing. He fortunately and almost alone escaped being wounded in the disastrous campaign which the British general lost through his own obstinacy and self-confidence, by taking no advice from those used to Indian warfare. Braddock insisted upon fighting foes concealed behind trees, as if he were in the open field. After the English general's inglorious defeat and death, Washington continued in active service as commander of the Virginia forces for two years, until toil, exposure, and hardship produced an illness which compelled him to withdraw for several months from active service. When at the close of the war he returned to private life, Colonel Washington had won a name as the most efficient commander in the whole conflict, displaying marvellous resources in the constant perils to which he was exposed. Among his exploits was the capture of Port Duquesne, now Pittsburgh, in 1758, which terminated the French domination of the Ohio, and opened up Western Pennsylvania to enterprising immigrants. For his rare services this young man of twenty-six received the thanks of the House of Burgesses, of which he had been elected a member at the close of the war. When he entered that body to take his place, the welcome extended to him was so overwhelming that he stood silent and abashed. But the venerable Speaker of the House exclaimed, "Sit down, Mr. Washington; your modesty equals your valor, and that surpasses the power of any language I possess."

Meanwhile, Mount Vernon, a domain which extended ten miles along the Potomac River, fell into Washington's possession by the death of his brother Lawrence's daughter, which made him one of the richest planters in Virginia. And his fortunes were still further advanced by his marriage in 1759 with the richest woman in the region, Martha, the widow of Daniel Parke Custis. This lady esteemed his character as much as Kadijah revered Mohammed, to say nothing of her admiration for his manly beauty and military renown. His style of life as the lord of Mount Vernon was almost baronial. He had a chariot and four, with black postilions in livery, for the use of his wife, while he himself always appeared on horseback, the finest rider in Virginia. His house was filled with aristocratic visitors. He had his stud of the highest breed, his fox hounds, and all the luxuries of a prosperous country gentleman. His kitchens, his smoke-houses, his stables, his stewards, his tobacco-sheds, his fields of wheat and corn, his hundred cows, his vast poultry-yards, his barges, all indicated great wealth, and that generous hospitality which is now a tradition. His time was passed in overseeing his large estate, and in out-of-door sports, following the hounds or fishing, exchanging visits with prominent Virginia families, amusing himself with card-playing, dancing, and the social frivolities of the day. But he neglected no serious affairs; his farm, his stock, the sale of his produce, were all admirably conducted and on a plane of widely recognized honor and integrity. He took great interest in the State at large, explored on foot the Dismal Swamp and projected its draining, made several expeditions up the Potomac and over the mountains, laying out routes for new roads to the Ohio country, gained much influence in the House of Burgesses, and was among the foremost in discussing privately and publicly the relations of the Colonies with the Mother Country.

Thus nine years were passed, in luxury, in friendship, and in the pleasures of a happy, useful life. What a contrast this life was to that of Samuel Adams in Boston at the same time,--a man too poor to keep a single servant, or to appear in a decent suit of clothes, yet all the while the leader of the Massachusetts bar and legislature and the most brilliant orator in the land!

When the Stamp Act was passed by the infatuated Parliament of Great Britain, Washington was probably the richest man in the country, but as patriotic as Patrick Henry. He deprecated a resort to arms, and desired a reconciliation with England, but was ready to abandon his luxurious life, and buckle on his sword in defence of American liberties. As a member of the first general Congress, although no orator, his voice was heard in favor of freedom at any loss or hazard. He was chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, and did much to organize the defensive operations set on foot. When the battle of Lexington was fought, and it became clear that only the sword could settle the difficulties, Washington, at the nomination of John Adams in the Second Congress, was unanimously chosen commander-in-chief of the American armies. With frank acknowledgment of a doubt whether his abilities and experience were equal to the great trust, and yet without reluctance, he accepted the high and responsible command, pledging the exertion of all his powers, under Providence, to lead the country through its trials and difficulties. He declined all pay for his services, asking only that Congress would discharge his expenses, of which he would "keep an exact account." And this he did, to the penny.

Doubtless, no man in the Colonies was better fitted for this exalted post. His wealth, his military experience, his social position, his political influence, and his stainless character, exciting veneration without envy, marked out Washington as the leader of the American forces. On the whole, he was the foremost man in all the land for the work to be done. In his youth he had been dashing, adventurous, and courageous almost to rashness; but when the vast responsibilities of general-in-chief in a life-and-death struggle weighed upon his mind his character seemed to be modified, and he became cautious, reticent, prudent, distant, and exceedingly dignified. He allowed no familiarity from the most beloved of his friends and the most faithful of his generals. He stood out apart from men, cold and reserved in manner, though capable of the warmest affections. He seemed conscious of his mission and its obligations, resolved to act from the severest sense of duty, fearless of praise or blame, though not indifferent to either. He had no jealousy of his subordinates. He selected, so far as he was allowed by Congress, the best men for their particular duties, and with almost unerring instinct. So far as he had confidants, they were Greene, the ablest of his generals, and Hamilton, the wisest of his counsellors,--ostensibly his aide-de-camp, but in reality his private secretary, the officer to whom all great men in high position are obliged to confide their political secrets.

Washington was "the embodiment of both virtue and power" in the eyes of his countrymen, who gave him their confidence, and never took it back in the darkest days of their calamities. On the whole, in spite of calumny and envy, no benefactor was ever more fully trusted,--supremely fortunate even amid gloom and public duties. This confidence he strove to merit, as his highest reward.

Such was Washington when, at the age of forty-three, he arrived at Cambridge in Massachusetts, to take command of the American army, a few days after the battle of Bunker Hill, on the 17th June, 1775.