We celebrated Presidents Day today and will celebrate the anniversary of the birth of George Washington tomorrow (February 22). It is only fitting that George Washington is my VIP for this week. I believe that George Washington (1732-1799) should be considered as the greatest American ever or at the very least one of a very small group of the greatest Americans. I read a recent poll indicating that Americans consider Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton to be our greatest presidents. I agree that Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan are among our greatest presidents, but I do not understand how George Washington could be lower on the list than Bill Clinton!
I believe that George Washington was raised up and prepared by God to lead our nation through our war for independence and to establish our government. Knowing of my beliefs, you can imagine my horror recently when I heard a mother tell about taking her kindergarten student to school and finding all kinds of pictures and information about Martin Luther King, Jr. but not a single word or picture about George Washington. She asked her son if he knew who George Washington was, and he didn't have any idea who she was talking about! She contacted the principal's office about the lack of teaching such an important part of our history and never even received a return telephone call. Please make sure that your children know the greatness of George Washington!
Washington, known as the "Father of the Country," led our nation for almost 20 years. He helped shape the beginning of the United States in three important ways. First, he was the commanding general of the Continental Army that won the Revolutionary War and brought American independence. Second, he served as the president of the Constitutional Convention where the United States Constitution was written. Third, he was the first President of the United States.
George Washington was loved by Americans during his life time. The officers in his army would have made him king if he had consented. He was unanimously elected to head the Virginia delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and his arrival in Philadelphia was announced by the ringing of the bells in the city. He was elected president of the convention where he helped the delegates stay together long enough to write the Constitution. Washington's name was linked with the Constitution, and people took it for granted that he would be the first President. He received 69 out of 69 electoral votes.
Washington was described by one of his officers, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, as "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." He looked like a man to be admired and respected. He was tall, strong and broad-shouldered. His friend, George Mercer, described him in 1760 as follows: "He may be described as being straight as an Indian, measuring 6 feet 2 inches in his stockings, and weighing 175 pounds… [He was about the size of my oldest son.] A large and straight rather than a prominent nose; blue-gray penetrating eyes… He has a clear though rather colorless pale skin which burns with the sun… dark brown hair which he wears in a queue [a plait of hair hanging from the back of the head; pigtail] … His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth… His movements and gestures are graceful, his walk majestic, and he is a splendid horseman."
His character was described as follows after his death by Thomas Jefferson: "His mind was great and powerful … as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion….
"Perhaps the strongest feature of his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed.
"His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known…
"He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good and a great man… On the whole, his character was in its mass, perfect … it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great…."
Washington's family name has been traced back to the year 1260 in England where the name was de Wessington but later spelled Washington. His ancestral home in England is thought to be Sulgrave Manor. John Washington (1632-1677), George's great-grandfather, became American by accident when his small English ship went aground in the Potomac River in 1656 or 1657. While the ship was being repaired, he made the decision to marry and live in Virginia. He didn't have much money when he started, but he owned 5,000 acres of land within 20 years, including the land that became Mount Vernon.
John's oldest son Lawrence was George's grandfather, and Lawrence's youngest son Augustine was his father. Augustine discovered iron ore on some of his land and developed an iron works there. He had four children by his first wife, Jane Butler. After her death, he married Mary Ball who became George's mother. They had five other children.
George was born on February 22, 1732, on Pope's Creek Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia. When he was 3 years old, his family moved to a large, undeveloped plantation later known as Mount Vernon, which was about 50 miles up the Potomac River in Virginia. There were no close neighbors. Augustine traveled often to his iron works, about 30 miles away. When George was about 7, his father bought Ferry Farm, a 260-acre farm on the Rappahannock River across from Fredericksburg and moved his family closer to the iron works.
George attended school for only 7 or 8 years. His best subject was arithmetic. He studied enough history and geography to know about the outside world, but did not learn much about literature, foreign languages or history - especially compared to Thomas Jefferson or James Madison who received more formal education. He finished his formal schooling at about age 14 or 15. He could keep business accounts, write clear letters and do simple figuring. He kept diaries and careful accounts of his expenses for the rest of his life.
George was observant and hard working. He helped manage Ferry Farm, which he would inherit at age 21. He learned how to plant and produce tobacco, fruit, grains, and vegetables. He enjoyed living the life of a young Virginia country gentleman. He loved horses, became a good dancer, and enjoyed hunting, fishing, and boating. He had boyhood romances and wrote love poems. As a youth, he was sober, quiet, attentive, dignified, dependable, and respectful of his elders.
George loved and respected his older half-brother Lawrence and eventually inherited Mount Vernon from Lawrence's heirs in 1761. Through Lawrence, George became interested in the military and wanted to join the navy. His mother would not permit him to join the navy because she wanted to keep him close to her. Through Lawrence, George also became acquainted with Lord Fairfax, the largest property owner in Virginia. He owned 5 million acres of land in northern Virginia; his land included much of Shenandoah Valley and extended to the Allegheny Mountains. Lord Fairfax invited 16-year-old George to go with him on a surveying trip in March 1748. In July 1749, George became the official surveyor for Culpepper County. He was paid in cash, which he carefully saved until he found some good land. By 1752 he owned about 2,300 acres of land. George applied to the governor for a commission in the militia, and he was commissioned as a major in 1752. He was put in charge of training militia in southern Virginia and spent several years in military actions.
At age 20, George proposed twice to a 16-year-old young woman who turned him down both times. On January 6, 1759, he married Mrs. Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow with two children. The wedding probably took place at the bride's plantation home, which was called the White House. Her first husband left a fortune of 18,000 acres of land and 30,000 English pounds, equally divided between the widow and her two children. George and Martha had no children together, but he was a loving stepfather to her two children.
Washington was a surveyor, farmer, landowner, businessman, and legislator. He attended the First Continental Congress and helped to boycott trade with Britain. He heard Patrick Henry's famous speech, "Give me liberty or give me death." He was elected to the Second Continental Congress. By the time he left to attend it, the Battles of Lexington and Concord had already been fought when Congress opened on May 10, 1775. Even though the majority of the delegates wanted to avoid war, they feared that they would not be able to do so. Congress appointed Washington to one military committee after another and gave him several assignments to prepare for war.
On June 14, 1775, Congress called on Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia to send troops to help Boston, which was under British military rule. John Adams led a discussion about the need to elect a commander in chief. Adams praised Washington highly and noted that his popularity would help to unite the colonies. Even though many delegates from New England thought the commander in chief should be a northerner, Washington was elected unanimously. He had not sought the position but humbly accepted it. He refused the $500 monthly salary but indicated that he would accept reimbursement for his expenses.
Washington led the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War. Thomas Paine wrote of the period, "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot, will in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country." Washington was tried many times by "summer soldiers," who would not fight in winter, and "sunshine patriots," who were loyal to the cause only when things were going well. Washington had a strong will to win, which made it possible for him to overcome his many discouragements.
To many Americans, Washington represented what they were fighting for. They came to believe in Washington even when they didn't recognize the need for independence or trust Congress. After eight long and difficult years, the war ended when Washington's army and the French navy surrounded the British army at Yorktown and forced them to surrender on October 19, 1781. Washington's officers suggested that the military set up a monarchy with Washington as king, but when Washington heard the idea, he ordered them to abandon the idea. He told his officers goodbye on December 4, 1783, in New York City and headed home to Virginia. On his way, he stopped at Annapolis, Maryland, to return his commission as commander in chief to Congress. He was 51 years old and made it home in time to spend Christmas with Martha.
George spent the next five years as a Virginia planter, buying more land, promoting businesses, breeding mules, developing a rotation system for his farm crops, using waste products from his fishing industry as fertilizer, and trying to prevent soil erosion.
Although he longed to stay home, he was unanimously elected to head the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and was later elected president of the convention. He spent the hot summer months, May through September, in Philadelphia at the convention. His presence there made the convention and the Constitution more acceptable to the people.
Washington was elected President of the United States in February 1789 and inaugurated as the first President on April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall in New York City, at the age of 57. (By the time of his second inauguration, the government had moved to Philadelphia, where he was inaugurated in Congress Hall.) When Washington became President, there were only 11 states. Four other states soon accepted the Constitution or joined the Union: North Carolina (Nov. 1789), Rhode Island (1790), Vermont (1791), and Kentucky (1792).
Washington signed his first important bill passed by the new Congress on July 4, 1789. It set taxes on imports and provided income to run the government. His first veto came in April 1892 on a bill that he thought was unconstitutional in that it favored Northern States over Southern States in the number of Representatives allowed from each state.
George was very much aware that everything he did would set a precedent. He believed strongly that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government should operate as separately as possible and as outlined in the Constitution. He oversaw many important items of business for the new nation. He spent much time on the plans for a new capital, which would eventually be named after him. He appointed Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury as well as other members of a small cabinet. Hamilton was instrumental in developing a plan to pay off the debts from the Revolutionary War and in setting up The First Bank of the United States.
By the end of his second term as President, Washington grew tired of public office and happily went home to Mount Vernon at the age of 65 (1797). There he spent the last years of his life, and there he died about 10:00 P.M. on December 14, 1799, from an infection in his throat. Washington was given a military funeral on December 18 and buried in the family tomb at Mount Vernon.
Washington held the title of lieutenant general at the time of his death, which was the highest military rank in the United States at that time. Because he was later outranked by many other Army officers, in 1975 Congress granted him the nation's highest military title, General of the Armies of the United States. This made him the senior general officer on the Army rolls.
George Washington was "first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen" (Henry Lee). He was a great man and should be remembered with love, respect and honor.
Facts and information for this post came from an article by Philander D. Chase, World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 21, pp. 90-108.
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