Father of Our Country: George Washington Sacrificed for His Country's Well-Being and Never Sought Personal Gain. with His Leadership and Moral Character, He Embodied the True Spirit of America. (History: Greatness of the Founders)

By Eddlem, Thomas R. | The New American, April 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

Father of Our Country: George Washington Sacrificed for His Country's Well-Being and Never Sought Personal Gain. with His Leadership and Moral Character, He Embodied the True Spirit of America. (History: Greatness of the Founders)


Eddlem, Thomas R., The New American


Twenty-three-year-old militia Colonel George Washington had been bedridden for nearly a week with a fever and splitting headache. But Washington insisted on heading up to the front as the British army, under the command of General Braddock, neared battle at the French Fort Duquesne. He rode on his horse with a pillow on top of his saddle to ease the pain caused by the bumpy ride.

As the British and colonial force crossed the Monongahela River near present-day Pittsburgh on July 9, 1755, just a few miles southeast of the French fort, a combined force of about 850 French, Canadians, and Indian allies ambushed Braddock's advance column of 1,400. The mostly Indian force hid behind trees and other natural cover as they opened fire on the surprised British and colonial forces. Many of the British officers were struck down from their horses instantly. The British, in the well-known European style, responded with musket salvos from the open ground and a cannon fire that roared throughout the forest. The French and Indian force simply rolled back behind the trees and under the hill cover where they had been waiting for the British force and reloaded. British cannon and musket fire splintered trees and raised mounds of dirt, but the French and Indian force re-emerged virtually unscathed and responded with a second round. The French-allied forces aimed for officers first, many of whom could be i dentified simply because they were riding on horseback.

Washington charged into this melee, forgetting his illness and bravely urging on the line of British regulars. Two horses were shot out from under the militia colonel during the battle. The British held their line bravely for more than an hour, though the lopsided battle soon forced the British regulars to break formation and begin a retreat. The Indians in the trees raised a war whoop upon seeing the British retreat, and the loud turkey calls echoing throughout the forest caused the British soldiers to panic despite Washington's urgings.

Of the 1,459 British and colonial soldiers in the battle, 977 -- including 63 officers -- had been killed or wounded, including Washington's future military opponent Thomas Gage. Braddock died of his wounds three days later, during the embarrassing retreat back to Virginia. Washington was among the very few officers who escaped the battle without a scratch. He wrote back to Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie on July 18, 1755: "I luckily escaped without a wound, though I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me." The tone of Washington's letter was matter of fact, and that was all the modest colonel said about himself in the entire letter about the defeat. The Battle of the Wilderness, as it was later called, was neither the first nor the last time Washington would beat the odds and cheat death in battle.

Washington had survived a disastrous campaign the year before, when he led a huge contingent of Virginia militia into the French frontier. Some even believe that Washington's surrender to French terms at his Fort Necessity in 1754 could have started the Seven Years' War, or, as it was called in North America, the "French and Indian War." Terms Washington had agreed to at the surrender included calling a skirmish with armed French soldiers carrying diplomatic papers an "assassination." This skirmish turned out to be the first outbreak of hostilities in the French and Indian War.

Personal Morality and Youth

Washington possessed the most advanced character traits from his youth. He smarted from a "consciousness of a defective education" throughout his life, though his early and limited schooling taught him some of the more refined virtues and manners. Though Washington never learned to speak a foreign language, he composed a "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." Therein, the teenage youth summarized maxims of civility such as: "in writing or speaking, give to every person his due title according to his degree and the custom of the place"; "when a man does all he can, though it succeeds not well, blame not him that did it"; and "labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

Most Americans are familiar with Mason Weems' fabrication about young Washington and the cherry tree. But Washington was more than steadfastly honest; he also possessed the more refined character traits of tact and diplomacy. The generation of America's Founding Fathers included countless principled and honest men who did their best for their country. All of these, however, lacked to varying degrees either the talent or the refined tact required to fill the roles Washington performed.

Men who knew Washington well constantly praised him. "George Washington is, I believe, almost the only man of an exalted character who does not lose some part of his respectability by an intimate acquaintance," said his secretary Tobias Lear. "To him the title of Excellency is applied with particular propriety. He is the best and greatest man the world ever knew," Francis Hopkinson, one of Washington's military aides, wrote. "Had he lived in the days of idolatry, he had been worshipped as a God."

Though Washington as president did not regularly attend sectarian religious services, he had actively participated in the "services of the Episcopal church" according to biographers Jay A. Parry and Andrew M. Allison. "[I]n 1762 he was elected a vestryman of the local Truro Parish, and afterward was elevated to the position of warden. In these capacities he was assigned to handle parish collections and to help supervise the construction of a new church building." Washington always "considered religious and moral education an essential part of life's learning." And the Virginian instituted regular religious services, which he required his soldiers to attend.

Washington also impressed his fellow Virginians with his athleticism and the huge physical stature he inherited from his father, Augustus Washington. George stood several inches over six feet, was a renowned equestrian, exceptionally strong physically, and possessed a tough physical constitution. Having contracted smallpox while in Barbados in 1749, Washington became immune to the disease that would ravage the Continental army throughout the War for Independence.

Commander in Chief

Washington increased his efforts to collect a library after marrying the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759. Possessing considerable business sense and having inherited the Mount Vernon estate from his half brother Lawrence, Washington was already wealthy. His happy marriage to the ever-faithful and cheerful Martha made him one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. And Washington became more interested in politics, taking a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses less than a month after his wedding. He served in the House of Burgesses until 1774, when he began his service in the Continental Congress. As more and more members of Congress resolved that the colonies must struggle for independence, the Continental Congress appointed a commander in chief to protect colonial liberties. Washington became the natural choice.

"There is something charming to me in the conduct of Washington," John Adams wrote of Washington. "[A] gentleman of one of the first fortunes upon the continent, leaving his delicious retirement, his family and friends, sacrificing his ease, and hazarding all, in the cause of his country. His views are noble and disinterested. He declared, when he accepted the mighty trust, that he would lay before us an exact account of his expenses, and not accept a shilling of pay." Washington modestly and reluctantly accepted the responsibility, and he magnanimously refused a salary even though before his appointment Congress had fixed the commander in chief's salary at the then-princely sum of $500 per month.

Washington was appointed commander in chief at the time of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and his new Continental army led a careful winter watch over the British garrison in Boston. Throughout the cold New England winter, the Continentals camped outside of Boston and waited for Henry Knox to bring cannons up from newly captured Fort Ticonderoga. During the tense nine months between Bunker Hill and the cannons' arrival, Washington had ample opportunity to demonstrate both his leadership ability and his physical prowess. When his officer John Glover reported a riot among Washington's troops in Cambridge, the new commander in chief charged into action. "Without waiting to hear the whole story, Washington leaped onto his saddled horse outside the door and started off at a full gallop toward Glover's camp. His stallion flew over the pasture bars into the midst of the rioting troops. In an instant the six-foot, three-and-a-half-inch General was on the ground, rushing into the fray," one Washington biographer related. Washington "'seized two tall, brawny riflemen by the throat, keeping them at arm's length,' and shook them in his powerful grip while thundering commands at their fellow soldiers. Immediately the tumult ceased."

"From the moment [I] saw Washington leap the bars at Cambridge," James Sullivan, a future Massachusetts governor, wrote years after witnessing the middleaged commander's actions, "and realized his personal ascendancy over the turbulent tempers of his men in their moments of wildest excitement, [I] never faltered in the faith that we had the right man to lead the cause of American liberty."

Trenton and Princeton

George Washington's greatest leadership challenges occurred during his first two winters after the British invaded New York in the summer of 1776. Washington poorly handled the defense of New York's Long Island, and only escaped with his army intact because of a providential fog and the diligence of Colonel Glover's Marblehead boatmen.

Washington retreated slowly through New Jersey throughout the fall of 1776, more due to the slowness of British Commander William Howe than Washington's activity. Washington was at best an average commander in chief in a military sense, though he was an excellent battlefield commander. Most importantly, he had the integrity and strength of character that instilled the faith of the soldiers and officers underneath him.

As the first year of the War for Independence drew to a close, many Americans nevertheless grew increasingly critical of Washington. General Charles Lee, Washington's second in command, wrote to General Gates on December 13, 1776 that "Entre nous [between us], a certain great man is most damnably deficient. He has thrown me into a situation where I have my choice of difficulties." Fortunately for Washington, the incompetent Lee was captured later that day by an enterprising British scout force led by the ambitious Cornet (2nd Lieutenant) Banastre Tarleton. Lee had carelessly dallied behind his retreating command, and the commander in chief was spared of Lee's insubordination until Lee was released in a later prisoner exchange. Lee's incompetence in the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, at which Washington hotly relieved the indecisive general, ended the latter's hopes of greater command and resulted in court martial proceedings against Lee.

But at the end of 1776 even President Joseph Reed wrote a letter from Congress all but begging Washington to strike back at the British. "Some enterprise must be undertaken in our present circumstances or we must give up the cause," Reed pleaded. Washington rose to the task, as he was to do so many times. The commander in chief conceived a masterstroke against the Hessian base at Trenton, New Jersey. Washington's troops were quietly ferried across the Delaware River Christmas night by John Glover's reliable Marblehead regiment and surprised the Hessians the next morning, taking 90 percent of the garrison in casualties or prisoners. * A second attack against the British at Princeton on New Year's Day also served as a lopsided American victory. The British soon pulled their chain of posts out of most of New Jersey for the rest of the winter. The twin victories revived American credit abroad and gave critical confidence to the same American troops that had fled at the sight of British bayonets on Long Island the previous summer.

At Valley Forge the following winter, Washington faced problems from within equally as difficult as the threats from without. A more concrete plot was hatched to sabotage Washington's command. A group of congressmen suspicious of Washington arranged to have the quartermaster's position raised to a brigadier generalship and maintained independently of Washington's command. Irish-born soldier of fortune Thomas Conway was named for the post, and he quickly began to under mine Washington's command.

Lafayette called Conway "an ambitious and dangerous man" in a 1777 letter to Washington because "he has done all in his power to draw off my confidence and affection from you. His desire was to engage me to leave this country. I now see all the general officers of the army against Congress. Such disputes, if known to the enemy, may be attended with the worst consequences."

Conway wrote to General Gates that "Heaven has been determined to save your country; or a weak general and bad councilors would have mined it." Conway flattered all potential rivals of Washington, and Washington dispatched a brief memorandum to Conway on November 9, 1777 to inform him that he was aware of the insubordination in Conway's letter to Gates.

The Conway trouble prompted Washington's critics in Congress to appoint a committee to investigate Washington's command. This was nothing less than a naked attempt to undermine Washington. Though comprised entirely of patriotic and well-meaning congressmen, the delegation was heavily stacked by Washington's critics. Only the young Gouvernor Morris of New York and Charles Carroll of Maryland were initially interested to see the conflict from Washington's perspective. As Washington showed the congressmen his soldiers' decrepit provisions and explained to them Conway's treachery, his character and integrity won over the entire committee. Congress removed Conway and placed the quartermaster's position back within Washington's chain of command.

Near Rebellion at Newburgh

The victory of Washington's Continentals and the French at Yorktown in 1781 did not end the war. As negotiations for peace entered their final stages in Paris in 1783, Washington faced yet another crisis among his officers. Most of them were tired of receiving late payment for their service and had memorialized Congress for back pay due to them. Many had sacrificed by leaving crops in the fields and families with no means of support other than the Continental pay. When Congress debated and dithered on officers' pay measure for three months and did nothing, an anonymous pamphleteer suggested that the only way for the officers to get their pay would be to compel Congress through the threat of the sword.

"I give you these assurances, and pledge myself in the most unequivocal manner, to exert whatever ability I am possessed of, in your favor' Washington countered in an emotional address to his officers from his Newburgh, New York, headquarters on March 15, 1783. "Let me entreat you, gentlemen ... not to take any measures which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained; let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress." Washington's pleas deflated all threat of rebellion, and restored faith in the bureaucratic but well-meaning Congress.

After seven long years in arms together, he resigned his commission in New York City on December 4, 1783. Washington raised his glass at a lunch for his officers, thanked them, and, his eyes glistening with emotion, told his officers, "I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand." Two-hundred-and-eighty-pound Henry Knox was the first to cross the room and the tall Virginian threw his arms around the corpulent artilleryman with whom he had been in the field since 1775.

Benjamin Tallmadge described the incredible emotional outpouring in the room, as each officer came up to Washington to say goodbye. "Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed, and hope I may never be called upon to witness again.... Not a word was uttered to break the solemn silence ... or to interrupt the tenderness of the ... scene. The simple thought that we were then about to part from the man who had conducted us through a long and bloody war, and under whose conduct the glory and independence of our country had been achieved, and that we should see his face no more in this world, seemed to me utterly insupportable. But the time of separation had come, and waving his hand to his grieving children around him, he left the room...." And Washington returned to Mount Vernon.

Washington, like Cincinnatus of the ancient Roman republic, had voluntarily given up extraordinary military powers to return to his plow after eight years in the field. This one act of selfless abrogation of power alone makes Washington among the greatest leaders in human history.

Convention President

Washington happily returned to his farm at Mount Vernon, even though the call of duty took him away from his Virginia home again. This time, in the summer of 1787, Washington was asked to serve on a convention to revise the inadequate Articles of Confederation. He was unanimously chosen as the president of the convention, and, though he rarely spoke during deliberations, Washington served as a calming and steadying influence favoring a stronger and more vigorous federal government.

"Precedents are dangerous things," Washington had written to his friend Henry Lee in 1786. "Let the reins of government then be braced and held with a steady hand, and every violation of the constitution be reprehended. If defective, let it be amended, but not suffered to be trampled upon while it has an existence." This is how Washington exercised his authority after he was elected as the first president of the United States under the new Constitution.

President Washington brought the most brilliant minds of the day into his administration, including Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state and Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury. Washington's appointment of the energetic Hamilton set the nation on the right financial footing, even though Congress allowed Hamilton's plan for a national bank to proceed. The new republic's president carefully remained within constitutional bounds. More importantly, Washington set those careful republican precedents in a time when kings and slavery were mankind's universal lot. At a time when freeing slaves in Virginia was legislatively prohibited, he ordered in his will all of his slaves freed after he and Martha had passed into the next world. And he placed the presidency firmly on a republican ground free of the trappings and pomp of royalty, while reserving to the office its inherent and simple elegance.

Washington steered America clear of European entanglements, proclaiming an official policy of neutrality. He required "conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers" in an executive order. Washington fastidiously adhered to the principle that only an explicit act of Congress can bring the United States into conflict with foreign nations, a principle and precedent seldom observed by recent presidents. Overwhelmingly reelected to the presidency in 1792, he refused to stand for election for a third term. America's Cincinnatus galloped off to his Mount Vernon with his beloved Martha in 1797 to live out their remaining years. "It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world," Washington noted in his classic Farewell Address, which offers timeless principles for Americans of all generations. "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possi ble."

Washington's life straddled the ancient and modern worlds. He was born under the ancient Julian calendar, and his birthday was changed from February 11, 1731 to February 22, 1732 when England switched over to the Gregorian calendar in 1751. Yet he lived to usher in a new experiment in government that has lasted more than 200 years. And despite violations of our priceless Constitution by those who have sworn to uphold it, it nevertheless is still in force and continues to shine as an example to the rest of the world. Some might say that Washington straddled the ancient and modern worlds because he helped to create the modern world.

Washington left this world in 1799 to the accolades of Americans nationwide. But none was more eloquent than Washington's friend and fellow general Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, who extolled America's first Founding Father in his funeral oration. "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life," eulogized Lee. "Pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere; uniform, dignified and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him, as were the effects of that example lasting."

* For more on the Delaware crossing and Trenton victory, see "A Christmas to Remember" in our December 16, 2002 issue. This article is available online; go to www.thenewamerican.com and click on "back issues."

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