That's a lot of candles, Sir!
Note—Today begins a five part series on the life, times, achievements, and flaws of the proclaimed Father of the Country, George Washington. May it be a reminder of how far we have fallen.
Today is George Washington’s Birthday except it isn’t unless you live in Virginia, Illinois, Iowa, or New York. Those are the only states that still mark the occasion as an official stand alone holiday. And outside of the old boy’s native Virginia you would be hard pressed to find evidence of it outside of mattress sale ads. Nobody gets off work for it anymore. Schools are generally in session working too hard cramming for standardized testing to do much about it. Since Ditto machines became obsolete I doubt if second graders even get silly Cherry Tree handouts to sniff and color. Of course, George usually gets top billing with Abe Lincoln for the Presidents Day Federal holiday, but it’s just not the same.
Too bad. The Father of Our Country, First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of his Countrymen, etc. was an interesting dude. He was one of the few who can truly be said to indispensable men of their age. While not the stiff plaster saint devoid of common human foibles often depicted, he had enough grit, determination, and personal rectitude to hold an Army in the field for eight years against the mightiest empire on Earth with precious few victories under his belt and yet prevail—with a little help from the French. He then helped shepherd a unique new republican government into existence and became the unifying leader that kept the component states from flying apart by centrifugal force. And most astonishing of all, he walked away from power at the appointed date and let another take his place unchallenged or molested. That unprecedented act set in motion 220 years of—mostly—peaceful transfers of power. If things seem to be spinning out of control this year, it is no fault of Washington’s example.
To begin with George wasn’t even born on February 22. He first saw the light of day on February 11, 1731 under the old Julian Calendar then still in use by England and its colonies. He was an ambitious 21-year-old in 1752 when Britain adopted the Gregorian Calendar losing 11 dates and changing his birthday. It must have been confusing and disorienting.
Washington's modest birthplace--Pope's Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia.
He was the son of a second marriage of a modestly prosperous planter and member of the gentry. His Father died when he was just 11 years old and he became the ward of his older half-brother Lawrence who had married into the fabulously wealthy Fairfax family, Virginia’s largest landowners. The boy, without a fortune of his own, famously mooned over the lovely Sally Fairfax, the young wife of Lord Fairfax himself. She may, or may not, have encouraged the attentions. George wrote up rules for himself to adopt the manners of the aristocracy and get ahead in the world.
He received a middling education from a local Anglican priest and dreamed of following brother Lawrence into service in the Royal Navy. His domineering mother squashed that dream when he was 15 and the right age to have a midshipman’s berth purchased for him. He took up surveying when he was 17 and laid out tracts in the western counties of Virginia, sparking a lifelong interest in western lands.
When Lawrence died in 1752—the year of the calendar change, George came into his estate, Mt. Vernon named for the Admiral who Lawrence had served under. The next year he was appointed a district adjutant of the Virginia Militia with a rank of Major.
His military career got off to a fast start by essentially starting a world war. Dispatched to protect the interests of the Ohio Company land speculation scheme, Washington discovered the Ohio Company fort at the present site of Pittsburgh had fallen to a party of French and their Native allies and that they were building their own Ft. Duquesne. The young officer and his militia men along with Mingo allies ambushed the French party killing most of them including its leader Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. Jumonville may have been killed by the Mingos while Washington’s prisoner. The story is unclear.
Washington began to build his own Ft. Necessity near the former Ohio Company post but his party was attacked and he was captured by the French before he could complete it. He was paroled and expelled by the French and allowed to return to Virginia with his troops where he was greeted as a hero. The French accused him of assassinating Jumonville and after a couple of years of diplomatic wrangling the incident became the casus belli of the Seven Years War or the French and Indian War in North America in 1756.
None-the-less he was exhilarated by the battle and wrote to his brother, ““I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”
Given Washington’s unique experience it was no surprise that he was tapped as the senior American aide to British General Edward Braddock in 1755 for his expedition to expel the French from the Ohio country. It was the largest deployment to date of British Regulars who along with colonial militia and Native allies were supposed to capture Ft. Duquesne. Because no American officer could serve above the rank of captain without appointment from London, Washington was denied a field command at the rank of major and reluctantly was officially listed as a volunteer aid to the General. Braddock was a conventional European soldier with no experience in the irregular warfare of the frontier. He tried to push a heavy column over the mountains and through thick woods while hacking a stump road for the baggage train and artillery. It was slow going and gave the French, alerted by their Native allies, ample time to prepare.
Finally, on Washington’s recommendation, Braddock split his forces with a fast moving flying column leaving the heavy construction crews and baggage behind with a rear guard. Braddock took command of the lead column with Washington, who had been ill with fever, at his side. At the Battle of the Monongahela the well prepared French and Indians ambushed the lead column, cutting it to pieces and mortally wounding Braddock. Washington coolly rallied the British and Virginia Militia and organized an orderly retreat from what had been a rout. He had two horses shot out from under him and his coat was torn by four musket balls. The expedition limped home.
Washington was hailed as a hero by his troops, but the British held him at fault for his advice on splitting the force. He was not posted to the next British expedition against the French. And his hopes for a Regular Army commission and a scarlet coat were dimmed.
Instead Washington was created Colonel of the Virginia Regiment and “Commander in Chief of all forces now raised in the defense of His Majesty’s Colony” in 1755. The regiment, known as the Virginia Blues was the first in the Colonies to with full time professional soldiers, who were regularly drilled and outfitted with full uniforms and military equipment rather than ill organized, equipped and trained Militia turned out for short service.
The troops were mostly draftees from the poorest levels of Virginia society and included some mulattos and native “half-breeds”. Washington whipped them up into a respectable fighting force and deployed them in a string of frontier forts and blockhouses to protect settlers from Indian raids sponsored by the British. He led his men in brutal campaigns against the Indians where his regiment fought 20 battles in 10 months and lost a third of its men. As a result Virginia’s frontier suffered less than that of other colonies. Years of low level frontier warfare followed.
In 1758 he and elements of his regiment were part of a new drive against the French in the Ohio country—the Forbes Expedition. Despite the ultimate success of that expedition which ultimately drove the French from Ft. Duquesne, Washington saw little action and that was an embarrassing snafu—his men and a British unit mistook each other for the French in the heavy woods and 14 men were killed in a friendly fire disaster.
That might have contributed to Washington’s decision to resign his commission when he got home, but more likely was his continuing disappointment in the British refusal to incorporate the Blues into the Regular Army with a commission for himself. Despite his love for the military, he “retired” to manage his Mt. Vernon estate and other properties in in December of 1758.
Martha Washington was not always the heavy set, grey haired matron familiar to most of us. As Martha Dandrige Custis she was an attractive--and very rich--widow when Washington married her.
But there seems to have been an even more compelling motive. On January 6, 1759 he married 28 year old Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow with two children despite the fact that she was older than him and he still secretly pined for Sally Fairfax. But Martha was still beautiful, charming, and compatible. She also had shown she could capably manage a plantation on her own. She was an excellent partner for the ambitious George and soon they were devoted to each other and he dedicated himself to raising her children when it became apparent that he would have none of his own.
Martha was, in fact, not just wealthy, but baring the Fairfax family, one of the richest persons in Virginia. She brought with her not only more plantations and property but hundreds of slaves most of which she retained in her name but who joined the score or so that Washington owned and were soon all working under his exacting direction. The young retired officer had vaulted from the middling gentry to the front ranks of the Virginia aristocracy with all the prestige and responsibility that entailed.
Washington threw himself into the management of his properties, especially the home estate at Mount Vernon. He began expanding the modest home his brother had left into to the impressive white mansion we see today with additions and modifications being constantly made. He rode the extensive grounds daily personally overseeing the work of the plantation and spent hours at his desk planning and pouring over business matters.
Seeing other Tidewater planters beginning to suffer from a total reliance on tobacco as a cash crop as it exhausted the soil and yields fell off, Washington sought to diversify his planting and began to employ the earliest innovations in scientific farming including crop rotation being explored by Scottish agronomists. He put in wheat, rye, oats, flax, and hemp in addition to tobacco. He strove to make the plantation as self-reliant as possible building grist mills, whiskey distilleries, saw mills, a rope walk, and directed wheels and looms in the slave quarters spin flax and wool to yarn and weave the homespun into rough cloth. He raised fine horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs and his busy smoke houses produced plenty of bacon and fine hams. The sale of his surplus production eventually rivaled the revenue from his tobacco barns. He grew richer by the year.
Washington at an older age was depicted as a kind slave master supervising haying in this painting by Junius Brutus Stearns.
Virtually all of the labor was provided by his slaves, who he found more honest and trustworthy than most hired white help. Many rose from field hands to become skilled craftsmen, overseers, and household servants. A few were taught to read and write to help with the details of administration. Washington was a firm and exacting master, but by the standards of the day he was a fair one. Whipping and other corporal punishment was sparing. And because he was interested in expanding his slave holdings to serve his bustling properties, he seldom sold his slaves or separated families. After all, he preferred to breed slaves rather than buy them. And unlike so many other masters, Washington did not use his female slaves as a private harem. His rectitude and loyalty to Martha prevented common sexual abuse that was rife among slave holders.
Still, no matter how you cut it, there is no denying that the vast wealth that Washington amassed on the base of his brother’s estates and his wife’s properties was the direct result of slavery.
Despite all of this, Washington was still in debt to his British creditors for the importation of luxury goods for his household, especially in the early years of his marriage as he sought to establish his social standing. When Martha’s daughter Patsy Curtis died in his arms of epilepsy in 1773 it was a crushing personal blow. But he came personally into half of Patsy’s substantial estate with which he was able to pay off his English debt in full and permanently—a rare feat among the Virginia aristocracy.
It was not all work. Washington enjoyed the amusements of his class—fox hunting at which he excelled developed his reputation as the finest horseman in Virginia. He entertained a stream of guests all the cream of Virginia society and visitors from other colonies and the Mother Land. He enjoyed social dancing at which he was said to be quite graceful. He also assumed the duties of a leading squire like the office of vestryman at his local Anglican parish despite a growing deism that detached him from conventional and orthodox Christianity. He joined a local Free Mason Lodge not taking it terribly seriously at first but then becoming immersed in its mysteries and rituals, the true source of the spiritual life that he could no longer find at the communion rail. And of course in addition to minor local offices and honors, was elected a member of the House of Burgesses.
Given his wealth and status, Washington could easily have become a Tory, like the Fairfax family he had long sought to emulate. But beginning in the mid 1760’s he began to throw his lot increasingly with those restive under the Crown and Parliament. Perhaps it was the lingering resentment of a soldier who was never made a Regular, perhaps it was the spirit of the age. He was never a deep or original political thinker like George Mason or a firebrand like Patrick Henry, but he was a steady, firm political presence. The Stamp Act of 1765 stirred him to action and became especially active after the adoption of the Townsend Acts two years later in which Parliament tried to re-assert its authority over the colonies with a series of taxes, levies, and punitive actions aimed mostly at Massachusetts and New York. In response Boston merchants began to agitate for non-importation declarations by the Colonies.
In 1769 Washington and George Mason spearheaded the movement in Virginia where the House of Burgesses passed a resolution stating that Parliament had no right to tax Virginians without their consent. Governor Lord Botetourt dissolved the assembly which then met at Raleigh Tavern and adopted a boycott agreement known as the Association. It was a critical turning point.
The furor in the Colonies led to the Townsend Act to be repealed in 1770 except for the tax on tea left in place as both an important revenue source and an assertion of Parliamentary authority. But agitation in the New World continued and in 1774 London responded with what the Colonies called the Intolerable Acts. Washington was livid he wrote to a friend,
They are an Invasion of our Rights and Privileges…I think the Parliament of Great Britain has no more right to put their hands in my pocket without my consent than I have to put my hands into yours for money… [We must not submit to acts of tyranny] till custom and use shall make us as tame and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.
Washington not only blew off steam, he acted. In July 1774, he chaired the meeting at which the Fairfax Resolves were adopted calling for the convening of a Continental Congress. The next month he attended the First Virginia Convention, and was elected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.
George Mason, Virginia's leading intellectual figure, authored the Fairfax Resolves that called for a Continental Congress, but it was George Washington's prestige a Chairman of the meeting that helped get them adopted.
Meanwhile things were getting out of hand in Boston where the British had closed the port to trade, occupied the city, and quartered troops on the town. Things blew up in April of 1775 when Massachusetts Militiamen resisted efforts by British Regulars to seize armories inland. The Battles of Lexington and Concord and the Siege of Boston by Militia troops from throughout New England followed.
When the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia the midst of the crisis, Washington showed up in his old Virginia Blues uniform and cut a dramatic, martial figure. His life, and the fate of the colonies, would be changed forever.
Tomorrow—Part II, First in War….