THE YOUNG WASHINGTON, Man of Action

contributed by guest author, Phil Elvy

Reconstruction of Teenage George Washington, Surveyor

This image of  George as a 17-year-old land surveyor was reconstructed by forensic scientists based on contemporary pictures of America’s first President. You can see it today at Washington’s Virginia estate, Mt. Vernon, outside Washington, DC.

No words of George Washington adorn the National Mall. No personal quirks make him stand out from America’s other Founders. Yet it is Washington in our pockets and wallets and Washington whose image is being used somewhere in the world every waking moment of every day.

 Who is this man, still recognized as the greatest American of them all? What was it that made him, as ‘Light Horse’ Harry Lee so eloquently put it, “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen”? And what, 179 years after his death, compelled Congress to appoint him General of the Armies of the United States, superior to all five-star generals?

Let us go back to where Washington began, in 1732, in a modest farmhouse just downriver from Robert E. Lee’s first palatial home in Northern Neck, Virginia. Born 75 years apart, the two great generals shared unparalleled bravery and a powerful love for their home state. Neither ever owned a home anywhere but Virginia, yet duty forced both to spend years away from their beloved home state, living and fighting in distant places.

Unlike Lee, Washington never enjoyed the advantages of formal education. His father’s death when George was just eleven dashed any hope of school in England and a commission in the British navy, the path his elder half-brother Lawrence had followed.  There was no money, and in any case, his mother wouldn’t hear of it.

So George learned to shift for himself. He read. He modeled his manners on the Fairfaxes, his very rich and noble neighbors. He fell in love. He memorized a book on etiquette. He learned how to write in a fine copperplate hand. He became a masterful horseman, even going so far as to break wild horses himself.

Most usefully for his immediate prospects, he read mathematics, learned surveying, and became a dab hand at drawing maps. At 16 he was hired to survey land in the new town of Alexandria. At 17, he was invited by Lord Fairfax to accompany him to the Ohio frontier. Clever at business from the outset, young George kept his eyes peeled, saved his money, and bought well-favored tracts of land in the Ohio valley.

Then, once again, death took a close relative from him, turning his life upside down. This time it was his dear brother Lawrence who died, and after some negotiations with the widow, Lawrence’s land passed to the 23-year-old George. Ironically, given the later turn of events, Lawrence had named his estate after his favorite commander, Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon, and so it was that the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Armies’ beloved home still bears the name of a British naval officer.

This brings us to the mysterious role played by “Divine Providence,” as Washington termed it, throughout his illustrious and eventful life.

As with business and farming, George’s military career started early. At age 23, in addition to Mt. Vernon, he also inherited Lawrence’s post in the Virginia militia.  Surely it was Divine Providence that he decided to keep a diary of his military venture—a trip to the Ohio to ask the French army to leave. Little did the young soldier suspect that this diary would make him famous throughout Virginia, or that during his next trip west, a few tactical mistakes and unavoidable disasters would start what we now call the French and Indian War.

When seasoned British reinforcements arrived in 1775 to straighten out the mess Washington had started and put their quarrel with the French over America’s Western lands to rest, once and for all, was it Divine Providence

By age 23 when he inherited his brother’s rank of colonel in the Virginia militia, Washington had already spent years dealing with warring factions and lands as far west as the Ohio River Valley.

 that caused General Braddock to see in the somewhat ill-starred Col. Washington a leader of quality? Or was it simply the young man’s long experience in the West country, as both soldier and surveyor, that caused him to be selected as Braddock’s aide de camp?

Whatever the reason, the expedition put both men to the test. Not far from Ft. Duquesne (today’s Pittsburgh), Braddock’s forces suddenly came under attack. Attackers in full Indian war paint began picking off redcoats struggling to form traditional battle lines in the narrow space of the path, while the colonial militia (including Daniel Boone), who how Indians fought, melted into the forest and took cover behind trees.

In battle, both Braddock and Washington proved fearless. Both rode back and forth rallying their men, knowing that doing so made them easy targets. Both had horses shot out from under them more than once. Then, three hours into the battle, Braddock took a mortal shot to the lungs and fell from his horse. Seeing the British troops milling about in panic, Washington grabbed a third mount and took command.

Washington’s quick action and conspicuous bravery turned a route into an orderly retreat. But though he surely prevented an all-out massacre, by the end of the day 63 of the 86 British officers and half of the enlisted men were dead or wounded.

Washington himself found seven bullet holes in his clothing and several additional holes where balls had gone through his hat. Miraculously, and this is where Providence comes in, the young Col. Washington survived Braddock’s Defeat without a scratch.

The incident made him an instant hero. Throughout the colonies and the world, he began to enjoy an Indiana Jones-like reputation—here was a man of valor, a man who never retreats, a man whom bullets cannot touch.

Now 26, the young hero decided to put his own house in order. In 1759, he met and married the wealthy 27-year-old widow Martha Dandridge Custis. At her wedding, the slim-waisted and fine featured brunette bride, who was more than a foot shorter than her husband-to-be, wore a yellow dress and purple shoes with silver sequins like stars. The couple settled at Mt. Vernon, and for the next 16 years, George contentedly put away his sword for the plow.

From everything we know their union was a happy one. During the Revolution, one of George’s officers noted: “Mrs. Washington is excessively fond of the General and he of her. They are very happy in each other.” That George fully appreciated the value of a good wife is also clear from his comment, in a 1785 letter, to his friend Burwell Bassett: “I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery.” (italics mine)

But in 1775 it was the Hero of Monongahela rather than the successful lover and farmer of Mt. Vernon who wowed the Second Continental Congress —just shy of 6’3” (there is some question as to his precise height), ramrod straight, and in full military dress. If the colonies were to defy the British, they would need an Army, and John Adams nominated Col. Washington over several more experienced men. (Adams would later quip that Washington was always chosen to lead because he was always the tallest man in the room.) In truth, while Adams respected Washington as an internationally renowned military icon, he also knew that the military would need a Southern leader, preferably a Virginian, to keep the Southern colonies on board.

But why, we have to ask ourselves, was Washington there at all? Then in his early 40’s, Washington was a respected an ingenious and contented farmer, wealthy in both slaves and land. He read widely and thought deep but was no philosopher (like Madison and Mason), no scholar (like Jefferson and Adams), no scientist and internationalist (like Franklin).

The prosperous Washington, then, had little to gain and everything to lose. Yet here he was, offering his person and his sword to defend his country, declaring in writing his independence from tyranny, and dedicating himself to the establishment of a strange new form of government that, in his day, existed only in the minds of philosophers and ancient Greeks–a republic.

Today, more than two centuries later, many countries around the world are  striving to do the same. We leave you to consider, then, what prompted George Washington to ride north to Philadelphia and offer to lead a revolution, effectively putting his own neck into a British noose.

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