Bios

George Washington

BRITISH SUBJECT

George is the first child of his father’s second wife - the first having died - and is born on 22 February 1732. His father, Augustine, is a prominent, if not spectacularly prosperous plantation owner. Five generations of the family had lived in Westmoreland County, in the English colony of Virginia:

“They were never at the top of Virginia Society. Augustine Washington was trying to get there.”
Richard Brookhiser, ‘Founding Father’

But in 1743 Augustine, still in his forties, dies. George is just 11. Virtually overnight George has to become a man. His mother expects him to head the household:

“He is going to have to make it on his own. He is extraordinarily committed to moving forward in his world.”
Joseph J. Ellis, ‘His Excellency: George Washington’

One thing he does inherit, however, is ten slaves. Further purchases, later inheritances and even his marriage will greatly increase this number:

“George Washington was a slave owner. He had hundreds of slaves.”
Clarence Lusane, Professor, American University

George hand copies the ‘Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour’, a Jesuit guide to gentlemanly conduct. The key values in which he is home-schooled are restraint, reserve and dignity. He masters the skills of horsemanship, dancing and fencing. He studies hard and explores buying unclaimed land as a means of elevating his status. He will go onto to become one of the largest landowners in America:

“...he’s very conscious of rank from an early age...He is the quintessential Virginia Gentleman.”
Caroline Cox, ‘A Proper Sense of Humor’

And like most Virginians, George is a loyal British subject. At 16 he becomes a surveyor. He explores the wilderness and maps the boundaries of colonial Virginia. At 17 he takes his first public office as a surveyor for the county of Culpeper. In tandem to this, he becomes expert in identifying what land to privately buy. At over six foot two, he makes an instant impression on Virginian society. Later, Founding Father John Adams jokes that they elect George Washington because he’s always the tallest man in the room.

In 1751, Washington accompanies his half-brother to Barbados. He is struck down by smallpox. He survives but its effects will greatly affect him later in life. Firstly, it is suspected that it makes him sterile explaining why he never has children. Secondly, it makes him immune so that that when his Revolutionary Army is nearly destroyed by the disease, Washington is able to lead his men back to health.

In 1752, Washington’s brother and niece die. He inherits the family fortune, the country home – Mount Vernon – and various other items, including more slaves.

Aged 20, Washington joins the colonial militia. In 1753, the French begin seizing British territory in the Ohio valley - near present day Pittsburgh. The Governor of Virginia sends 21-year-old Washington on a dangerous mission to deliver an ultimatum to the French.  The French ignore it. On the return journey, Washington nearly drowns. He writes up his perilous adventures and when he’s published in  the spring of 1754, he makes front page news. At just 22, he is famous, on both sides of the Atlantic. 

NATURAL BORN SOLDIER?

“Washington fought against the French and the Indians...when he was a British officer.”
Evan Thomas, Professor, Princeton University

The Americans call it The French and Indian War but the British rather inaccurately refer to it as The Seven Years War – it starts in 1754 and ends nine years later in 1763. Washington’s commissioned a lieutenant colonel. When he encounters some French soldiers, he orders his troops to fire. It’s the first shots of the war and ignites the conflict. This skirmish isn’t, however, a successful one for Washington. He’s surrounded and has to humiliatingly surrender.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, Washington will go on to earn a reputation for bravery. He fights under the infamously unsuccessful General Braddock. In 1775, he’s with him when Braddock ignores warnings and walks into an ambush. It costs the General his life, and, those of 900 of his men. Washington leads the retreat. He narrowly cheats death when two horses are shot from under him and four bullets rip through his coat. Washington is, in his own words, ‘unhurt’. But it’s one of Britain’s most embarrassing defeats and makes a huge impression on Washington.

But though his belief in his mother country, England, has been shaken, Washington still seeks an officer’s commission in the British Army. He may be a Colonel in the militia but the lowliest British officer technically outranks him. His application’s rejected:

“He was turned down for a leadership position in the British military, and was embittered by that.”
Mark Feldstein, Professor, University of Maryland

Washington sees himself as essentially English, and yet even after loyal military service, England regards him as second class. The British Empire would come to regret its rejection. Also in 1775, Washington purchases some more slaves: four men, two women and a child.

In 1758, he resigns from the militia. Within a month, he marries. His wife, Martha Custis, is a wealthy widow and their marriage makes Washington one of the richest men in Virginia. Washington focuses on what he believes will be his future-he raises hogs, grows tobacco and invests in land. As with all things, he is relentless:

“I think Washington would have been a difficult man to work for because you knew at 5:30 in the morning, a horse might turn the corner and there was George Washington looking over your shoulder.”
James Rees, Exec Director, Mount Vernon

Washington spends the next decade rapidly expanding his portfolio – his 2,000 acres will grow to 8,000 acres – and making money – lots of money. One estimate puts his worth at, in today’s money, half a billion dollars:

“George Washington was the richest man in America.”
Howard Zinn, ‘A People’s History of the United States’

But his wealth, his extensive and rapidly expanding enterprises and property holdings, mean Washington experiences the full gamut of British regulations and taxes.

Just before he married, Washington had entered North America’s first legislative assembly – The House of Burgess of Virginia. He uses this arena to learn the art of politics and the platform it afforded to oppose what he sees as unfair British taxes.

“America felt that Britain, its mother country, was exploiting it for taxation and not giving it the freedom it deserved to chart its own course.”
Evan Thomas, Professor, Princeton University

“George Washington was not ...a Sam Adams or a Thomas Paine (or like) any of the fervent extremists...who were leading the revolution. He was a more reluctant convert.”
Mark Feldstein, Professor, University of Maryland

The British Parliament passes the 1773 Tea Act. The 13 colonies can now only buy British controlled East India Company tea. The colonies rebel and, during the famous Boston Tea Party, destroy the equivalent in today’s money of a million dollars of tea. BY 1774, Washington is one of the leading Virginian figures supporting the colonial cause. He’s sent by Virginia to represent the state in the early revolutionary government meetings, the first and second Continental Congress in 1774 and 1775.

COMMANDER IN CHIEF (1775-83)

In June 1775, Washington’s made commander of all colonial forces, the Continental Army during the revolutionary war:

“Washington was literally the man on horseback who rode back to the Second Continental Congress ready to take charge of the Patriot Army.”
Mark Feldstein, Professor, University of Maryland

Independence from the British may have been inevitable. Victory for Washington was not. He has barely 14,000 troops. Sixty per cent are convicts, freed slaves or immigrants. They have to take on the best-equipped army in the world and largest superpower of its day. Washington’s priorities are basic. He has to ensure his troops are clothed – a fifth of soldiers have no shoes - paid, fed and free from disease – four in ten die in one smallpox outbreak. Washington survives because of his earlier exposure to the disease. His experiments with inoculation means his army survives.  Such is their desperation that even Washington’s genteel wife volunteers to nurse the sick and wounded. In total, she spends roughly half the war in camp. Only when these basics were met, could he start training. And even when they were trained, the biggest problem for Washington was the rate at which they deserted. Badly paid, if at all, militiamen often left as soon as their time was finished:

“Again and again his army dissolved about him because the civilian authorities did not keep it paid, clothed, fed, sheltered, armed or reinforced.”
Hugh Brogan, ‘The Penguin History of the USA’

And Washington will make some bad mistakes. He’s often saved only by the fact that his opponents make worse ones.  Despite losing more battles than he wins, he avoids destruction by avoiding going head to head with the British. Washington becomes master of an almost guerrilla warfare like strategy. If forced to confront, he falls back slowly, feigning retreat. An unexpected strike back shows his overconfident enemy their error. He is greatly helped by his intimate knowledge of British army tactics, which he acquired during his time fighting for them.

In March 1776, Washington wins his first victory beating the British in Boston. The British evacuate and Washington moves his army to New York City. But the British launch a massive amphibious assault – their largest ever expeditionary force. Within months, Washington is forced to flee:

“George Washington lost battle after battle but he never lost the war. He always lived to fight again another day.”
Evan Thomas, Professor, Princeton University

On Christmas night 1776, Washington launches lightning attacks:

“George Washington was a guerrilla leader. When he crossed over the Delaware river, he was using guerrilla tactics – stealth -  to do it, and no one was expecting it to happen.”
Mark Feldstein, Professor, University of Maryland

Washington’s defeats of royal forces at Trenton Princeton are small, but symbolic. And they began to turn the French from covert suppliers of munitions into overt opponents against the British. But for Washington, this is little comfort. Winter approaches. His army don’t have proper tents:

“Valley Forge is the lowpoint - that cold bleak winter - they were walking barefoot in the snow. Washington’s strategy was all about making it for another day.”
Mark Feldstein, Professor, University of Maryland

But an American victory at Saratoga in October 1777 persuades the French to become allies. The British are now fighting on two fronts: the rebels on land and the French at sea.  And it was only by sea that the British could secure its 3,000 supply line to its troops.

Isolated, the British enlist the Native Americans. Known only as savages, even Loyalists to the Crown are appalled. The propaganda war is lost. Washington patiently maintains his guerrilla style tactics even though popular support from his countrymen and military support from his French allies mean that he’s now capable of fighting a conventional war. Washington utilises anything to secure victory. In British controlled towns and cities, Washington operates a spy network. In 1781, he uses spy-supplied intelligence to scupper a British surprise attack on the French. The British army are forced to rest and recuperate at Yorktown. Washington seizes the moment, and rushed to lay siege to them. The British army soon realises it’s surrounded, literally, by a nation on land and by another, the French, at sea.

On 19 October 1781 the British army and fleet surrender. Peace talks begin in Paris and a treaty is signed in 1783. There was little peace for Washington. He had to both calm a mutiny by his own unpaid soldiers and reject a call for him to be made a King. Having dealt with both, he retires to his mansion Mount Vernon.

PRESIDENT

Having won the revolutionary war, Washington is needed to make sure the peace is not lost:

“Washington is pulled back into the political fray, back into Philadelphia, in that hot summer of 1787, where they carve out the new constitution, and he agreed to become President to help unify this new nation.”
Mark Feldstein, Professor, University of Maryland

In 1787 Washington is elected president of the convention that wrote the U.S. Constitution.

He is unanimously elected the first president of the United States in April – and remains the only president to so be elected. But the potential for absolute power doesn’t corrupt him. Instead, he turns his attention to the implementation and administration of the new country.

Washington has to hold together states that saw themselves as separate. He’s disheartened when his two closest advisers lead opposing political parties. The Federalists are lead by the Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans by his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

TWO TIME PRESIDENT (1789-1797)

As politicians around him bicker about their new country, Washington increasingly makes the Presidency the prime mover in the new country’s foreign policy. He advises future politicians to avoid lengthy alliances with foreign powers. Washington wants to retire after his first term. But in 1792, he’s re-elected. The French Revolution guillotines out the old and war breaks out in Europe. Many feel obligated to ally with the French both because of their support of American independence and because the French Revolutionary ideals are seen as a continuation of American democratic principles. Washington knows that his country is new, fragile and desperately in need of the prosperity that peace brings.

He ensures American neutrality. He also establishes normal diplomatic relations with the country’s former colonial master, Britain. In his Farewell address he urges his countrymen to avoid excessive political party and geographical identification. He retires from both the Presidency and public life in 1797:

“Washington understood that for the democracy to be really a real democracy and for there to be popular rule and not rule by kings, he had to give up power. He had to set the example of the chief executive who voluntarily gives up power and goes home.”
Evan Thomas, Professor, Princeton University

FULL CIRCLE

On 14 December 1799, three years after leaving office, Washington dies from a throat infection at his Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, aged 67. He had been caught in the winter weather and rather than be late for dinner, he had sat through it in his damp attire. When Washington died, he was surrounded by friends and family. His wife sat at the foot of the bed. In drawing up his will, he had planned to emancipate the 318 men, women and children who were his slaves:

“When he died, he freed his slaves, he emancipated them upon his death, so Washington was, even in death, the unifying man.”
Mark Feldstein, Professor, University of Maryland

Sadly, Washington only directly owned roughly half of the slaves on his estate (others had been acquired through his marriage) and so many slaves were simply given to other relatives. The issue of slavery would later rip apart the country Washington had help found.

It would take another great President to fight to keep it together.