The New Student's Reference Work/Washington, George
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Washington, George, is the other American hero whose fame is not wholly accounted for by the record of his life. Like Lincoln the man was infinitely greater than anything he did. A military genius, he wrested liberty from tyranny; a statesman, he helped evolve a stable government from political chaos; a patriot, he refused a crown. Wisdom, patience, tolerance, courage, consecration to the righteous cause animated his every act; ingratitude, injustice and treachery never embittered him, but served to strengthen his character. He grew in dignity and in capacity to the need of his growing responsibility and power, but he never became arrogant; and ambition and opportunity never tempted him from the narrow path of honor. Yet, after we have
reminded ourselves of all his lofty virtues and his incomparable services, we have still not expressed the feeling we have for his memory. We are continually admonished to shape our lives and our conduct by the model he has established for us; and to think less of the reward, more of the duty well-done.
The first president of the United States was of the fourth generation of the Washington
family in America. His great grandfather, John Washington, came over from Yorkshire, England, in 1657. That he was a man of education, property and good birth is proven by the fact that he took up a large tract of land in Westmoreland County, on the Potomac, laid out a tobacco-plantation, acquired slaves, became a magistrate and a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. This property was still in the family when George Washington was born, February 22, 1732, three quarters of a century later. He was the oldest of the five children of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington. He had, however, two older half-brothers. The oldest, Augustine, seems to have taken over the estate on the Potomac, and Lawrence to have acquired the Mt. Vernon property through his marriage with a Miss Fairfax. With his second wife and younger children the father removed to a plantation on the Rappahannock, near Fredericksburg. It was here that Washington grew up, under the care of his mother, for his father died when he was under 11. He learned to read, write and cipher in a school kept by the sexton of the parish church, and, later, had private tutoring in geometry and surveying. It was to his wise, lovely, devoted mother that he owed his moral and religious training. Her favorite book was Sir Matthew Hale's Contemplations. It was filled with precepts and maxims, easily memorized and easily applied to daily conduct. From these Washington early compiled his maxims. When he died, his mother's book was found carefully preserved in the library at Mount Vernon.
As was the unjust custom of that time, very little provision was made for the younger children. Washington, Jefferson and Franklin, in forming our government, saw that this law of entail by which the oldest son inherited the estate, was broken. Washington's older half-brother Lawrence, who was rich and influential, did everything he could to further his promising brother's fortunes. A warrant as midshipman in the king's navy was secured for him, but his mother refused her consent for him to go to sea. He then fitted himself for an appointment as surveyor of Lord Fairfax's enormous grant of Virginian land. At 16 he began this work, making his home ever after at Mount Vernon. The traits of character he had displayed in school and among his playmates now came out prominently. In the school-boys' soldier-plays he had always been chosen captain because of natural ability to direct others. In games of skill he was the umpire for his fairness. He excelled in running, wrestling and horseback-riding. His school-papers were models of neatness and accuracy. Now he had to live afoot and on horseback in the wilderness; he had helpers to direct, inferiors to govern; and he had to make out survey-records so complete and accurate that they would be accepted by public officials upon which to base titles to land. When he returned from three years of hardships and danger and exacting work in mountain and forest, he was a handsome youth of 19. He had his full height of six feet two inches. Slender at that time, he added weight with the years. In his later life his appearance was one of the greatest dignity and nobility. He had blue eyes, an abundance of brown hair and a clear, ruddy complexion. His manner was self-controlled, his speech well-considered. Even as a stripling he was considered a man of such remarkable gifts and experience that at 21 he was made major of the Virginian militia at a time when the colonies were preparing for war with France, and was entrusted with a message to a French post, 600 miles distant, by Governor Dinwiddie.
That journey was a severe test of character and capacity. It took him across unexplored mountains, through trackless forests infested with wild beasts and hostile savages. A treacherous Indian guide attempted to assassinate him. He narrowly escaped drowning when crossing the flooded Alleghany on a rude raft. He was looked upon as the rising hope of the colony, and in the French and Indian War he was made an aid-de-camp to General Braddock. His advice as to methods employed by the Indians in border warfare was ignored, and Braddock suffered a terrible defeat. Washington was the only mounted officer in the engagement who was not killed. Two horses were shot from under him and he had four bullet holes in his coat, but he escaped unhurt. He wrote to his mother that he felt he had been preserved by Providence for some great duty. The Indians believed he bore a charmed life. In 1758 he carried the British colors into the smoking ruins of Ft. Duquesne, and helped rebuild it as Ft. Pitt (now Pittsburgh). When, at the end of the war, the speaker of the Virginian House of Burgesses formally thanked him for his military services he was too confused to speak. “Sit down, Col. Washington,” said the speaker: “your modesty equals your valor and that is beyond praise.”
Thus in 1758 the period of his youth came to a close. He had inherited the estate of Mt. Vernon on the death of his brother Lawrence, and he soon afterwards married a charming and wealthy young widow, Mrs. Martha Dandridge Custis. He never had any children of his own, but to hers he was devoted. The education of the Custis children; the care of his large estate and numerous slaves; his office as vestryman in the parish church; his social pleasures and his duties as a member of the House of Burgesses, which met twice a year in Williamsburg, occupied his time most agreeably for the next 15 years. In accepting the call to public duty he gave up a very beautiful, complete and endearing domestic life for which no honors ever compensated.
In 1774 he was chosen a delegate to the first Continental Congress. Many remarkable men were there — Franklin and Jefferson and others — but Patrick Henry said: “In solid information and sound judgment Washington was the greatest man on the floor.” It was Massachusetts, where the battle of Lexington was fought in April, 1775, that insisted a month later on the supreme command of the army being given to the Virginian colonel. When the appointment was offered to him, he replied that he was deeply honored, but honestly felt that he lacked capacity for so great a task. He refused pay for his services. He arrived in Boston late in June, after the battle of Bunker Hill. Beginning with an army of 17,000 untrained men, with few supplies, he had to attend, not only to his military duties, but to serve 14 masters — Congress and the 13 colonies — and to persuade all of them to support his operations and furnish men and supplies. It was an experience to make a great man, to break a weak one. When, in March of 1776, the British were driven out of Boston, Washington had become a statesman and a military commander of the first rank.
Washington's fame as one of “the greatest generals of history,” as Frederick the Great called him, does not rest on the battles he fought. The greatest battle of the Revolution — probably the decisive conflict that turned the tide of war — was the battle of Saratoga when Burgoyne surrendered. Washington's retreat across New Jersey; the manner in which he turned and struck the pursuing enemy at Trenton and Princeton and then established himself on the heights of Morristown, overlooking New York; and the vigorous resistance to British occupation of Philadelphia at Chad's Ford and Germantown all marked him as a consummate military genius. That record was crowned by the terrible winter of 1777-8 at Valley Forge. In spite of the misery of his soldiers, the clamor of the people tired of war, the delays of a fugitive Congress and the scheme to have him superseded by General Gates, he held his strategic position, and held his starving, freezing army to its task. When, on the news of the French alliance, Philadelphia was evacuated to unite the two British armies in New York, Washington chased the enemy across New Jersey and shut them into New York. There he remained, watching, waiting, on the Hudson, while the British carried the war to the south. They captured Savannah and Charleston and entrenched at Yorktown, Virginia. Then, feigning an attack on the weak garrison in New York, he made a forced march to the Potomac, the French fleet appearing simultaneously in Chesapeake Bay. Three weeks later Cornwallis surrendered and the seven years' war was over.
In 1783 Washington returned to Mount Vernon, — he hoped to private life. But that was not to be. His canonization had already begun. The Revolution had brought forward a score of able, patriotic men, but in the six years' struggle to frame a constitution and establish a federal government Washington was the court of last appeal, his the deciding voice. “The office of president was cut to Washington's measure” is said by one historian. No one else was thought of. He was chosen unanimously in 1789 and again in 1793. A third term he refused, and thus established a precedent which no political party has since dared disregard. For eight years, and until the government was firmly established, he prevented the formation of political parties by Hamilton and Jefferson, allying himself with neither but keeping both in his cabinet. Two years after his retirement he died at Mount Vernon on Dec. 14, 1799. Chief-Justice John Marshall, in moving the resolution of national grief in Congress, uttered the immortal words: “First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
His place is not less to-day because he shares it with Lincoln — one the creator, the other the savior, of our country. We touch Lincoln at more points of human understanding and sympathy. He remains a warm personality. Washington's image tended once to grow remote and legendary. But we love and revere them equally. The final word as to Washington was said by John Richard Green, the historian of the English people, when he characterized Washington as “the noblest figure that ever stood in the forefront of a nation's life.” Tennyson's word as to Wellington applies even more to Washington: “Whatever record leap to light, he never shall be shamed.”
There are numerous biographies of Washington. Irving's Life is marked by its literary quality. Weems' Life was the earliest, and was the one possessed by Lincoln when he was a boy. Lodge's Washington in the American Statesmen Series is exceptionally helpful.