February 22

George Washington is remembered as a great general, as one of the founders of the Republic, and as the first president of the United States. But beyond all else he is venerated for his admirable qualities of character.

"When we think of Washington," wrote john Truslow Adams, "...we think of the man who by sheer force of character held a divided and disorganized country together until victory was achieved, and who, after peace was won, still held his disunited countrymen by their love and respect and admiration for himself until a nation was welded into enduring strength and unity." For good cause has been called "the Father of his Country."

The story of George Washington is the story of the beginnings of the United States. The wilderness had to be cleared. That called for physical strength, youth and determination. Young George possessed those qualities. The territory claimed by the British settlers had to be secured from invasions by the French and other claimants. The Indians had to be won over. Washington had the moral courage, the adroitness and the stamina required of a frontiersman. The loosely organized colonies needed a single military commander to unify their forces. Washington was the perfect choice. After independence was won, a new government--one which would put into action the hard-won principles of freedom and justice--had to be formed. Again, George Washington supplied the necessary leadership.

Washington had a heritage of strong ideals and patriotic leadership. His great-grandfather had emigrated from England in protest after King George I was defeated by Lord Cromwell. He settled in the newly formed colony of Virginia, married the daughter of a Virginal landowner, and soon became prominent in the affairs of the colony. Thus the Washington family was established in America, beginning the pattern, carried through George's career, of combining the occupations of planter, soldier, and public official.

By the time George's father Augustine was born the family owned considerable property and the Washington name was well known in the colony. Augustine married Jane Butler around 1715 and established a home in Westmoreland County. He acquired more land, including the property along the Potomac, later to be called Mt. Vernon, and like his father and grandfather became a county justice. Jane died in 1728, leaving four children, the oldest of whom, Lawrence, would become one of the strong influences in George Washington's life.

Augustine then married Mary Ball, and on February 22, 1732, their first child, George, was born in the old family home at Bridges Creek on the Potomac River. Five other children came in rapid succession, four of whom survived. George was a handsome, robust child, and he seemed to grow up very fast. He learned to swim in the rivers which ran through the family property and to hunt along their banks. He also became an expert horseman. These skills were to serve him well throughout his life. Although little is known of George's formal education, other than that it was brief, his boyhood copybooks reveal an aptitude for mathematics and a concern for correct behavior. In one of his exercise books, he carefully copied 110 "Rules for Civility." Among them were:

Speak not when you should hold your peace. Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious
matters somewhat grave. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

Scant as these clues are to the formation of greatness, there were few others. For even Washington's diary, begun during adolescence and continued through his life, reveals little
of his inner directions.

George was scarcely in his teens when his father died and Lawrence became the head of the family. Lawrence had married into the aristocratic Fairfax family and had built a comfortable home which he named Mt. Vernon on the shores of the Potomac River. At 16 George went to live with Lawrence at Mt. Vernon and there found the life-long central point for his affections.

No one could have guessed that the rather awkward youth so lacking in social graces and education would become the first president of his country. But George had the ability to learn from every experience. In addition to Lawrence, whom he regarded as a father, he had the friendship and guidance of the wealthy and prominent Fairfax family. Old Lord Fairfax owned at least a million acres of land stretching far into the western mountains of Virginia. Not sure just where his boundaries lay, he sent George on a surveying trip with young George William Fairfax. They crossed the mountains on horseback, hacking their way through the wilderness and camping out at night. Besides the chance to practice the surveying, a skill he had already acquired, the expedition gave George his first close contact with Indians, and it also gave him his first look at the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. Ambitions were forming in the silent, determined young man. He saw those vast lands to the West as territory to conquer. Soon George was making his living as a surveyor and buying up land with his earnings. At 19 he was a prosperous landowner with a promising future; and had the winds of circumstance not shifted his course he might have spent his life as a successful planter.

Recurring lung trouble caused Lawrence to seek a milder climate and George accompanied him to the Caribbean island of Barbados. The trip was notable for being Washington's only journey beyond the mainland. Lawrence died shortly after their return, and it seemed natural for George to assume the responsibilities of the brother he so admired. He took over the management of Mt. Vernon, continued his surveying practice, and when he was just 21 Governor Dinwiddie appointed him to Lawrence's former post, Adjutant in the Virginia militia with the rank of Major.

A matter-of-fact entry in Washington's diary gives no hint that he realized the import of his first military mission. He wrote:

"Wednesday, 31st [Oct. 1753] I was commissioned and appointed by the Honorable Robert Dinwiddie, Esq., Governor, Etc., of Virginia, to visit and deliver a letter to the commandant of the French forces on the Ohio, and set out on the intended journey the same day...."

The French rejected Governor Dinwiddie's ultimatum that they cease trading operations, but Washington's brave conduct of the dangerous expedition through rough terrain, Indian strongholds, and bitter cold weather foretold his ability as a military leader.

Up to this time Washington's dream had been territorial expansion--for himself and for the colony--but only now did it become clear that its fulfillment meant military action. He had inherited Mt. Vernon from Lawrence's widow, and this, added to his other holdings, made him one of the largest landowners in the colony. His wish would have been to continue the gracious, peaceful life of a country squire. But a strong sense of patriotic duty overcame his personal desires, and he spent the next four years in hazardous wilderness warfare. Washington's leadership, perseverance and courage won him steady promotions, and while still in his early twenties he was made "Colonel of the Virginia regiment and Commander-in-Chief of all the forces now raised and to be raised for the defense of this His Majesty's Colony."

Victory and success seemed to typify Washington's career, but he also knew defeat. The one most remembered was the disastrous encounter at Fort Necessity. Washington and his men had constructed a stockade on the Monongahela River as a defense for the strategic Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh) and struggled valiantly to hold it. But outnumbered by the well-trained French forces Washington was forced to surrender rather than sacrifice more men. Later campaigns were menaced by a scarcity of provisions, attacks by the Indians, and inadequate care for the wounded. Through it all neither his men nor his superiors lost faith in Washington's leadership. Nevertheless, in 1754 he resigned his commission and tried to resume life at Mt. Vernon. But within the year he had, in his own words, "an inclination to serve as a volunteer" under the highly regarded British General Edward Braddock, who had been sent by the King to crush the French along the Ohio River. Washington accepted the post as the famous general's aide-de-camp to gain military experience, and he did learn many valuable lessons; but as it turned out the roles might better have been reversed.

Washington knew the wily habits of the French and Indian fighters and warned that the Redcoats would be attacked from ambush, but the proud general refused to fight Indian style. Consequently, rank after rank of British soldiers was shot down as they advanced in traditional European style. General Braddock himself was killed in the battle and Washington barely escaped injury. Two horses were shot from under him and bullets grazed his coat. In his diary Washington describes the horrors of the defeat but with accustomed composure he eulogizes the fallen general, then adds, "he was interred with the honors of war."

For the next two years, with inadequate, ill-trained and often insubordinate troops, Washington defended a frontier of more than 350 miles. But the disparities between equipment, status and pay given the colonial troops as compared to that of the British regulars had long rankled Washington, and in 1756 he rode to Boston to settle with the British high command the matter of his own rank in the military echelon. He emerged a Brigadier General and, under general John Forbes, Washington commanded the advance guard of an expedition that occupied Fort Duquesnethe turning point that brought he war against the French in Virginia to a successful end. With the satisfaction of an outstanding military success, Washington again resigned his commission and once more became a gentleman farmer.

The next fifteen years were the happiest of Washington's life. He had married the well-to-do young widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, and with her two young children, whom he cherished as his own, returned to his beloved Mt. Vernon prepared to live out his days as a country squire. He wrote in his diary: I am now, I believe, fixed at this seat with an agreeable consort for life and hope to find more happiness in retirement than I ever experienced amidst a wide and bustling world.

In Preparation for the re-opening of the house, orders were hurried off to London for a seven and a half foot bedstead "with fashionable blue or blue and white curtains to suit a room laid with yellow Ireland paper," for carpeting, for cloth to make summer frocks for the servants, and for "the newest, and most approv'd Treatise of Agriculture." Present-day visitors to Mount Vernon, which is now maintained as a national shrine, can visualize life in the self-contained village as it was in Washington's day. The stately house beside the Potomac with its riverside veranda, surrounded by a compound for the carpenters, blacksmiths, cooks, field and household help, the gardens, stables and carriage houses faithfully preserve the atmosphere of the past.

Washington was present in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1765 when Patrick Henry made a stirring speech against the British Stamp Acta law which many Americans, including Washington, felt levied taxes illegally. But Washington made no speeches. Not only was he no speech maker, but reticence and dignity kept him from openly denouncing the King as long as he remained a British subject.

During the next decade, as relations with England worsened, Washington finally made clear his sympathy with the American patriots, and in 1774 he went to Philadelphia as a delegate from Virginia to the First Continental Congress. Their common differences with Britain were beginning to unite the colonies and in the name of the Congress, petitions for relief from taxation and interference with trade were sent to the King. These were answered by the arrival of more British troops.

When the Second Continental Congress met in May, 1775, the first shots of the Revolutionary War had been fired in Massachusetts. Patrick Henry's famous demand, "as for me, give me liberty or give me death" expressed the sentiments of many. Washington wore his Virginia militia uniform to show his preparedness.

First in War

A general was needed for the American Army and what better man could be chosen than this Virginia hero whose whole life had been preparation for such a responsibility. Furthermore, the choice of a southerner would give needed solidarity to the cause, for until then most of the war had been fought in the North. So on June 15, 1775, upon motion of the influential John Adams of Massachusetts, George Washington was unanimously elected commander-in-chief of the armed forces of elected commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United Colonies. With customary modesty Washington disclaimed the honor, but having declared himself "a foe to all tyranny and ready to die for the cause of liberty," his personal misgivings were overcome by a sincere desire to defend the rights of the struggling colonies. He ended his brief acceptance speech by saying: "I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman In this room that I this day declare that I do not think myself equal to the command. As to pay, I beg leave to assure the Congress that as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to accept this arduous employment to the expense of my domestic ease and happiness, I do not wish to make any profit from it. I will keep an exact account of my expenses. Those, I doubt not, you will discharge, and that is all I desire."

The forces that he took command of on July 3, 1775, were not an army but a ragged, undisciplined group of short-term militiamen, poorly equipped, and inadequately housed. They were to face a British army of 10,000 well-trained soldiers, supported by good ammunition and well-built forts. But the Continental army had two advantages: a determined belief in the cause of freedom, and the unshakable leadership of George Washington.

Only a man with Washington's tenacity and patience could have held this raggle-taggle group together through six years of bitter fighting to final victory.

It soon became apparent that total independence was the colonists' goal, and on July 4, 1776, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. Washington's army thus faced a new and more difficult role. They no longer represented individual colonies but an independent United States of America, in open rebellion against the King. More and more soldiers and weapons were sent from England and the Continental army was forced into retreat. Seldom in military history has an army endured such want and misery as Washington and his men suffered at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777. Washington's indomitable spirit, fortitude and steadfastness sustained the men through that ordeal and continued hardships and retreats, and finally the tide turned when help came from France.

Even before old Benjamin Franklin, through masterful diplomacy, had persuaded France to recognize the independence of the colonies and to give them military support, individual European sympathizers had joined the American cause. Among them was the young and idealistic Marquis de Lafayette, who became Washington's lifelong friend and confidant, as well as a valuable military asset.

Victory was assured when the combined American and French armies marched on Yorktown, where General Cornwallis and his British troops surrendered on October 19, 1781. The peace treaty was not signed until September of 1783. Washington had successfully led the first democratic revolution in history.

First in Peace

Great as were his military accomplishments, Washington's service to his country in the difficult days that followed were even greater. "After peace was assured, and while he waited for the British to evacuate New York, Washington addressed a "Circular to the States' expressing his views on the hopeful future of the United States. He commented on his prospective retirement "to pass the remainder of life in a state of undisturbed repose", and then added: There are four things which I humbly conceive are essential to the well-being of the United States as an independent power:

1st. An indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal head. 2nd. A sacred regard to public justice. 3rd. The adoption of a proper peace establishment, and 4th. The prevalence of that pacific and friendly disposition among people of the United States which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity and, in some instances, to sacrifice their  individual advantages to the interest of the community. These are the pillars on which the glorious fabric of our independency and national character must be supported." Other great leadersJames Madison and Alexander Hamilton among themalso recognized the need to forge the Union, and in May of 1787 representatives from all of the colonies were summoned to Philadelphia to draw up a Constitution for a federal government. Washington represented Virginia, and now looked upon as the natural leader, he was made chairman of the Constitutional Convention. His prestige gave the meeting importance, and his decorum assured the dignity of the sessions. The delegates agreed that the purpose of the Constitution should be:

"to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty."

The Constitution as finally adopted in 1788 provided for a Chief Executive to be selected by electors from each state. Their unanimous choice was George Washington. At a brilliant ceremony at Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York, still protesting his unworthiness and still preferring his "vine and fig tree," but impelled by an overpowering patriotism, on April 30, 1789, Washington became the first President of the United States of America.

After two terms in office, wearied of politics, feeling old and tired, he refused to serve a third term. In his farewell address to the nation, Washington summed up the philosophy by which he had led his country:

"With me a predominant motive has been to endeavor to gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption to the degree of strength and consistency, which is necessary to give it humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes."

The last three years of his life were spent in peaceful retirement at Mt. Vernon, where he died on December 14, 1799. In a telling eulogy Abigail Adams (wife of President Adams, who succeeded Washington) wrote:".Possessed of power, possessed of an extensive influence, he never used it but for the benefit of his country."

First in the hearts of his countrymen

Washington's Birthday is a legal holiday in every State of the Union and it is generally commemorated by dignified public ceremonies, banquets and formal balls, but recognition of the Washington legacy to the nation is not confined to this one day. It is woven into the very fabric of American life and government.

Whenever anyone addresses the Chief Executive as "Mr. President" he is reaffirming Washington's conviction that in a democracy officials deserve utmost respect but should not be treated as royalty.

The constitutional rights and guarantees now enjoyed as a matter of course were established during Washington's presidency.

The Supreme Court, the Department of State, the Treasury Department, and innumerable other bulwarks of government, proved through time to be right for the American people, were instituted by George Washington's administration. The nation's capital itself is a memorial to the spirit of the great leader. Although the seat of the government was not transferred to the present capital until later, Washington's influence is reflected in the plan of the city. The tall white Washington Monument, standing alone in the great parade ground in the very center of the capital, symbolizes the first president's unique place in history. Hundreds of thousands of visitors each year ride to the top of the 500-foot obelisk to view the capital buildings and the surrounding country. They see wide, tree-lined streets radiating from the Capitol, and beyond the city they see Mt. Vernon on the shores of the Potomac River.

The image of the man and his ideals have become one in the minds of many. The familiar visage appears on bronze plaques in countless office buildings, in department stores, and in school corridors as a reminder of his lofty principles. Universities, corporations, and fraternal organizations have chosen the name Washington to show their patriotism. There are frequent issues of George Washington postage stamps, and so great is the affection of the American people for their first president that they protest any variation in the accustomed portrait.

Washington's very first biographer, Parson Mason Weems, zealously created the legends that have become inseparably intertwined with fact. One of them explains why we celebrate his birthday with cherry pies and paper hatchets. according to the story George had received a gift of a shiny new hatchet from his father with which he had cut down a newly planted cherry tree. When questioned about it he is supposed to have said, "Father, I cannot tell a lie. I did it with my little hatchet."

In December 1799, after a ride around his estate in snow and rain, Washington contracted acute laryngitis. As a medical precaution peculiar to the times, he was bled profusely, and as a result, died on December 14 at the age of 67. He is buried in a vault at his beloved Mt. Vernon.

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