Important Figure in American History - George Washington
George Washington was an American political leader, military general, statesman, and Founding Father who served as the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797. Previously, he led Patriot forces to victory in the nation’s War for Independence. He presided at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 which established the U.S. Constitution and a federal government. Washington has been called the ‘Father of His Country’ for his manifold leadership in the formative days of the new nation. Washington received his initial military training and command with the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War. He was later elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and was named a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he was appointed Commanding General of the Continental Army. He commanded American forces, allied with France, in the defeat and surrender of the British during the Siege of Yorktown, and resigned his commission in 1783 after the signing of the Treaty of Paris.
Washington played a key role in the adoption and ratification of the Constitution and was then elected president by the Electoral College in the first two elections. He implemented a strong, well-financed national government while remaining impartial in a fierce rivalry between cabinet members Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. During the French Revolution, he proclaimed a policy of neutrality while sanctioning the Jay Treaty. He set enduring precedents for the office of president, including the title ‘President of the United States’, and his Farewell Address is widely regarded as a pre-eminent statement on republicanism.
Washington owned slaves for labor and trading and supported measures passed by Congress protecting slavery, to preserve national unity. He later became troubled with the institution of slavery and freed his slaves in a 1799 will. He endeavored to assimilate Native Americans into the Western culture but responded to their hostility in times of war. He was a member of the Anglican Church and the Freemasons, and he urged broad religious freedom in his roles as general and president. Upon his death, he was eulogized as ‘first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.’ He has been memorialized by monuments, art, geographical locations, stamps, and currency, and many scholars and polls rank him among the greatest American presidents.
Washington’s great-grandfather John Washington immigrated in 1656 from Sulgrave, England to the British Colony of Virginia where he accumulated of land, including Little Hunting Creek on the Potomac River. George Washington was born February 22, 1732, at Popes Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and was the first of six children of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington. By English common law, Washington was a naturalized subject of the King, as were all others born in the English colonies. His father was a justice of the peace and a prominent public figure who had three additional children from his first marriage to Jane Butler. The family moved to Little Hunting Creek, in 1735, then to Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1738. When Augustine died in 1743, Washington inherited Ferry Farm and ten slaves; his older half-brother Lawrence inherited Little Hunting Creek and renamed it, Mount Vernon.
Washington did not have the formal education that his elder brothers received at Appleby Grammar School in England, but he did learn mathematics, trigonometry, and surveying, and he was talented in draftsmanship and map-making. By early adulthood, he was writing with ‘considerable force’ and ‘precision.’ However, his writing displayed little wit or humor. As a young man in pursuit of admiration, status, and power, he tended to attribute his shortcomings and failures on someone else’s ineffectuality.
Washington often visited Mount Vernon and Belvoir, the plantation that belonged to Lawrence’s father-in-law William Fairfax. Fairfax became Washington’s patron and surrogate father, and Washington spent a month in 1748 with a team surveying Fairfax’s Shenandoah Valley property. He received a surveyor’s license the following year from the College of William & Mary; Fairfax appointed him surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia, and he thus familiarized himself with the frontier region. He resigned from the job in 1750 and had bought almost in the Valley, and he owned by 1752.
In 1751, Washington made his only trip abroad when he accompanied Lawrence to Barbados, hoping that the climate would cure his brother’s tuberculosis. Washington contracted smallpox during that trip, which immunized him but left his face slightly scarred. Lawrence died in 1752, and Washington leased Mount Vernon from his widow; he inherited it outright after her death in 1761.
Colonial Military Career
Lawrence’s service as adjutant general of the Virginia militia inspired Washington to seek a commission, and Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie appointed him as a major in December 1752 and as commander of one of the four militia districts. The British and French were competing for control of the Ohio Valley at the time, the British building forts along the Ohio River and the French doing likewise, between Lake Erie and the Ohio River. In October 1753, Dinwiddie appointed Washington as a special envoy to demand that the French vacate territory which the British had claimed. Dinwiddie also appointed him to make peace with the Iroquois Confederacy and to gather intelligence about the French forces. Washington met with Half-King Tanacharison and other Iroquois chiefs at Logstown to secure their promise of support against the French, and his party reached the Ohio River in November. They were intercepted by a French patrol and escorted to Fort Le Boeuf where Washington was received in a friendly manner. He delivered the British demand to vacate to French commander Saint-Pierre, but the French refused to leave. Saint-Pierre gave Washington his official answer in a sealed envelope after a few days’ delays, and he gave Washington’s party food and extra winter clothing for the trip back to Virginia. Washington completed the precarious mission in 77 days in difficult winter conditions and achieved a measure of distinction when his report was published in Virginia and London. French and Indian War
In February 1754, Dinwiddie promoted Washington to lieutenant colonel and second-in-command of the 300-strong Virginia Regiment, with orders to confront French forces at the Forks of Ohio. Washington set out for the Forks with half of the regiment in April but soon learned that a French force of 1,000 had begun construction of Fort Duquesne there. In May, Washington had set up a defensive position at Great Meadows when he learned that the French had made camp away. Washington decided to take the offensive in pursuit of the French contingent.
The French detachment proved to be only about 50 men, so Washington advanced on May 28 with a small force of Virginians and Indian allies to ambush them. What took place was disputed, but French forces were killed outright with muskets and hatchets. French commander Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, who carried a diplomatic message for the British to evacuate, was mortally wounded in the battle. French forces found Jumonville and some of his men dead and scalped and assumed that Washington was responsible. Washington placed blame on his translator for not communicating the French intentions. Dinwiddie congratulated Washington for his victory over the French. This incident ignited the French and Indian War, which later became part of the larger Seven Years’ War. The full Virginia Regiment joined Washington at Fort Necessity the following month with news that he had been promoted to command of the regiment and colonel upon the death of the regimental commander. The regiment was reinforced by an independent company of 100 South Carolinians, led by Captain James Mackay, whose royal commission outranked Washington, and conflict of command ensued. On July 3, a French force attacked with 900 men, and the ensuing battle ended in Washington’s surrender. In the aftermath, Colonel James Innes took command of intercolonial forces, the Virginia Regiment was divided, and Washington was offered a captaincy which he refused, with the resignation of his commission.
In 1755, Washington served voluntarily as an aide to General Edward Braddock, who led a British expedition to expel the French from Fort Duquesne and the Ohio Country. On Washington’s recommendation, Braddock split the army into one main column and a lightly equipped ‘flying column’. Suffering from a severe case of dysentery, Washington was left behind, and when he rejoined Braddock at Monongahela, the French and their Indian allies ambushed the divided army. The British suffered two-thirds of casualties, including the mortally wounded Braddock. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage, Washington, still very ill, rallied the survivors and formed a rear guard, which allowed the remnants of the force to disengage and retreat. During the engagement he had two horses shot from under him, and his hat and coat were bullet-pierced. His conduct under fire redeemed his reputation among critics of his command in the Battle of Fort Necessity, but he was not included by the succeeding commander Colonel Thomas Dunbar in planning subsequent operations.
The Virginia Regiment was reconstituted in August 1755, and Dinwiddie appointed Washington its commander, again with the colonial rank of colonel. Washington clashed over seniority almost immediately, this time with John Dagworthy, another captain of the superior royal rank, who commanded a detachment of Marylanders at the regiment’s headquarters in Fort Cumberland. Washington, impatient for an offensive against Fort Duquesne, was convinced Braddock would have granted him a royal commission and pressed his case in February 1756 with Braddock’s successor, William Shirley, and again in January 1757 with Shirley’s successor, Lord Loudoun. Shirley ruled in Washington’s favor only in the matter of Dagworthy; Loudoun humiliated Washington, refused him a royal commission, and agreed only to relieve him of the responsibility of manning Fort Cumberland.
In 1758, the Virginia Regiment was assigned to Britain’s Forbes Expedition to take Fort Duquesne. Washington disagreed with General John Forbes’ tactics and chosen route. Forbes nevertheless made Washington a brevet brigadier general and gave him command of one of the three brigades that would assault the fort. The French abandoned the fort and the valley before the assault was launched, with Washington seeing only a friendly-fire incident that left 14 dead and 26 injured. The war lasted another four years, but Washington resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon.
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