Few men or women can be rightly thought of as indispensable. If there was such an individual during the Revolutionary War and early years of the nation, it was most certainly George Washington. Were it not for General, then President, Washington, American independence would have occurred at a later (perhaps much later) date and under very different circumstances.
This is the earliest known portrait of George Washington, wearing his old uniform from the French and Indian War.
(Painting — Charles Wilson Peale)
One of his numerous biographers, Joseph Ellis, notes the world first became aware of George Washington during the French and Indian War (1754-63), when Britain and France fought for control of the "Ohio Country," land between New France and the North American colonies that extended from western New York to the Gulf Coast. As the Virginia Regiment commander, Washington demonstrated his courage under fire. During the Battle of Monongahela, where British forces were overwhelmed and suffered heavy casualties, the 23-year-old Washington rode back and forth across the battlefield rallying soldiers to conduct an organized retreat. His hat and coat absorbed four musket balls, and he had two horses shot from under him, yet escaped unhurt. During the Revolutionary War, General Washington, clad in a brilliant colored uniform and mounted atop a white horse, would often lead his men into battle, behavior that greatly troubled his officer corps.
Washington was almost 6 foot 4 (unusually tall for the 18th century), had sandy red hair, and as a young man weighed approximately 180 pounds, over 200 pounds in later years. With big hands and feet, he was physically powerful and by all accounts a superb athlete. Washington projected a commanding, almost regal presence, and when the lanky Virginian entered a room, women and men stopped what they were doing and looked in his direction.
George and Martha
Based on two surviving letters, it's evident - clear "beyond a reasonable doubt," as Ellis notes - that in the spring of 1758, the 26-year-old Washington fell in love with Sally Fairfax, the wife of his friend, George Fairfax. A man of honor, realizing that nothing could come of his feelings, Washington never pursued Fairfax and married Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759. Recently widowed, Martha was one of the wealthiest women in Virginia, having inherited 18,000 acres of land. The marriage immediately lifted Washington to the top rung of Virginia planter society. Martha had two surviving children by her first husband - "Jackie" and "Patsy," a 4-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl - to whom Washington was a dutiful father.
George and Martha did not have biological children, most likely because Washington was sterile, possibly as a consequence of a bout with smallpox. (By age 30 he had survived smallpox, malaria, dysentery and other diseases.) Relatively little is known of George and Martha's relationship, as only a few letters between them survive (compared to more than 1,000 letters between John and Abigail Adams), as Martha had their personal correspondence destroyed shortly after her husband's death.
"The best horseman of his age," according to Thomas Jefferson, Washington was an avid hunter (especially fox hunting), an excellent dancer, attended concerts and the theater regularly and was well acquainted with the works of William Shakespeare. Although not college educated, as were many of the founding fathers, he read widely, including books and manuals on all aspects of farming and agriculture.
In his book, "Washington: A Life," Ronald Chernow notes that our image of Washington comes largely from Gilbert Stuart's portraits of him painted in the latter years of his life (consider Washington on the $1 bill), "when the swagger and panache of his early days had faded." These paintings fail to reveal the passion, vitality and charisma of his youth and middle age, leaving us with an impression of the first president as a stiff, tired, elderly man.
With British forces in firm control of Philadelphia in late 1777, Washington "wintered" his army approximately 25 miles north of that city in Valley Forge. The prolonged encampment was a crucial test for Washington, his officers and men. The wounded, starving and disease-ridden soldiers in Washington's army came from the poorest strata of American society. Ellis states these individuals were mostly "indentured servants, former slaves, landless sons and recent immigrants from Ireland and England" between 15 and 25 years of age.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of horses starved or died from exhaustion, their carcasses permeating the camp air with a nauseating stench. Soldiers sometimes ate nothing more than "fire cakes," a bland mixture of flour and water. Blankets, clothing and shoes were scarce, and the movement of soldiers in the snow on patrol or on foraging expeditions might be tainted, as Washington wrote, "by the Blood from their feet." Of the 11,000 to 12,000 men who encamped at Valley Forge that winter, as many as 3,000 died from jaundice, dysentery and pneumonia, among other maladies.
Washington knew the "staying power" his army demonstrated at Valley Forge was, as Ellis notes, the "decisive factor in the eventual American victory." Chernow states that while Washington made a number of strategic battlefield blunders, his greatness was "the ability to hold his ragged army intact for more than eight years, keeping the flame of the revolution alive" long after the initial enthusiasm for the war had declined significantly.
At the war's end in 1783, when he learned that Washington would resign his military commission and not proclaim himself king of the United States, England's George III reputedly stated, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world." In 1787 Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention, at which the many details of that document (especially the contentious big-state, little-state representation issue) were hammered out. Historian and Saranac Lake native son Bruce Dudley notes that Washington presiding over the convention and giving his nod of approval to the final draft "was highly instrumental in gaining public acceptance of the new Constitution." If the hero of the revolution endorsed this document, "it couldn't be a bad form of government."
In 1789 Washington was elected president by a unanimous vote of the Electoral College. He was elected for a second term in 1792 and reluctantly agreed to serve four more years. Like numerous plantation owners, Washington was land-rich and cash-poor. Chernow notes the first president of the United States had to borrow money to attend his inauguration in New York and borrow money again eight years later to return to Mount Vernon. During his two terms as president, Washington presided over a government that had divided into two warring camps: Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans. The era of partisan politics had begun.
Death and legacy
After his presidency, Washington returned to Virginia determined to spend the rest of his days at Mount Vernon. After riding for five hours (as was his daily custom) on Dec. 12, 1799, the 67-year-old Washington returned home cold, wet and chilled. He died two days later. Well-intentioned physicians did almost everything wrong in their effort to save him, including bleeding Washington four times, taking more than five pints of his blood. His last words were, "Tis well."
Of the nine presidents who owned slaves, Washington was the only one to free the people who toiled for him (via a provision in his will). Historian Gordon Wood states, "He did this in the teeth of opposition from his relatives, his neighbors, and perhaps even Martha. It was a courageous act, and one of his greatest legacies."
Washington's friend and Revolutionary War colleague Henry Lee spoke the most enduring words of praise for the nation's most beloved man: "First in war - first in peace - and first in the hearts of his countrymen. ... Such was the man America has lost - such was the man for whom our nation mourns."
In his summation of George Washington's life, Joseph Ellis notes "there were two creative moments in the American founding, the winning of independence and the invention of nationhood, and Washington was the central figure in both creations. ... His judgment on all major political and military questions had invariably proved prescient, as if he had known where history was headed. ... His genius was his judgment."
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology as a professor at the University of San Diego. He is a regular contributor of opinion and history articles to the Enterprise; for July 4, 2010, he wrote a two part series, "Independence understood," about the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
Bodle, W. (2002) "The Valley Forge Winter: Civilians and Soldiers at War," Penn State Press: State College, Pa.
Chernow, R. (2010) "Washington: A Life," Penguin Press HC: New York
Dudley, B. (June 13, 2012) personal communication
Ellis, J. (2002) "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation," Vintage: New York
Ellis, J. (2004) "His Excellency: George Washington," Alfred Knopf: New York
"George Washington: American Revolutionary" (2000) A&E Television Network
Unger, H. (2006) "The Unexpected George Washington: His Private Life," Wiley Publishers: New York