Remember officers and Soldiers, that you are Freemen, fighting for the blessings of Liberty— that slavery will be your portion, and that of your posterity, if you do not acquit yourselves like men.
— George Washington, message to his soldiers, August 27, 1776—
Lists of America’s greatest presidents often include men like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, depending on the political biases of the authors and of those who have been polled. Greatness is difficult to measure when assessing leadership, and there is often a good deal of debate as to the merits of an American chief executive to be considered truly “great.” And yet, one man towers above all the rest in the pantheon of American presidents: George Washington. Called the “Father of His Country” even while he was still alive, George Washington is truly the one American leader without whom there could not have been an America.
Of course, no complete biography of George Washington, or any of the other figures covered in this season’s podcasts, can be presented in only fifteen minutes. By necessity, certain aspects must be left out even if they were a significant part of a subject’s life—such are the limits of time and attention. For this season’s biographical podcasts, we have chosen to examine specific character traits of great Americans which defined their leadership and their contributions to the history of their country. For George Washington, the first in this series, he was above all a soldier, a strategist, and a statesman.
Washington the Soldier
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, to Augustine and Mary Washington in the Colony of Virginia. By the time he reached the age of 21, he had endured the loss of his father and elder half-brother Lawrence and grown wealthy by surveying and purchasing land in Virginia and other colonies. In 1753, he was commissioned lieutenant colonel in the Virginia Regiment and sent to attack the French Fort Duquesne in the Ohio Valley the following year. The Virginians’ first assault failed, and Washington withdrew thirty miles southeast and constructed Fort Necessity as a garrison for his regiment. The French, together with their Indian allies, pursued and attacked the fort in March 1754, which was poorly-located in a valley surrounded by dense forests. The Battle of Fort Necessity was Washington’s first experience in combat, and also his only surrender in battle.
In 1755, Washington’s regiment joined a British force commanded by General Sir Edward Braddock in a second campaign to capture Fort Duquesne. The British marched into the Ohio Valley, using the Americans as skirmishers to scout for the enemy and also as laborers to build a road on which they could march in line-and-column. Washington fell severely ill and was left behind, though he recovered in time to join the army at the Monongahela River on July 8, 1755. The very next day, the French attacked Braddock’s army in a devastating ambush that killed or wounded two-thirds of the British troops. (Braddock himself was mortally wounded in the battle and died four days later.) Washington, still feverish, rallied his Virginians to form a rear-guard and protect the fleeing British soldiers. In a letter to his younger brother written nine days after the battle, Washington described the perils of combat: “By the All-Powerful Dispensations of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation; for I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side of me!” This account was substantiated by a Native American warrior present at the battle. When Washington returned to the site of the battle in 1770, his party was met by a Native chief, who spoke to the Americans through an interpreter. Pointing to Washington, he said, “The Great Spirit protects that man and guides his destinies… he was never born to be killed by a bullet! I had seventeen fair fires at him with my rifle, and after all could not bring him to the ground!”
Washington petitioned for a commission in the British Army repeatedly throughout the war, but he was always refused this honor (a slight which many historians believe lay at the core of his distrust of the British). In the next year, the Virginia Regiment trained rigorously under Washington’s strict directions. They engaged the French and Indians in over twenty battles and lost nearly a third of their number. By 1758, the British were gaining ground in the Ohio Valley, and the regiment deployed for the last time as part of the Forbes expedition to once again capture Fort Duquesne. No battles were fought, as the French had already abandoned the fort.
Washington’s experience as a soldier during the French and Indian War was limited to his command of the Virginia Regiment, but he gained valuable insight into how the British Army fought battles and organized its logistical operations. He came to understand the importance of mobility and the use of geography in pursuit of victory. Soon enough, he would put these lessons to good use.
Washington the Strategist
The British victory in the Seven Years’ War led directly to the political crisis with the Thirteen Colonies that culminated in the American Revolution and the War of Independence. George Washington, now a civilian, was a vocal critic of British impositions on the American colonists, and especially of their taxation policies in the Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, and Tea Act. As the crisis grew toward its climax in 1775, Washington was elected to the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Rights and Grievances and the Suffolk Resolves, two documents which tried to force King George III and Parliament to see reason and loosen their grip on the colonies.
When war broke out in April 1775, Washington arrived at the Congress in Philadelphia dressed in his military uniform and ready to serve if called upon. On June 14, 1775, Congress appointed him commander-in-chief of the new Continental Army, and after accepting the commission but refusing a salary, he departed the colonial capital for Boston, the first front in the war. George Washington was never a brilliant tactician who could snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat. His talents lay in the area of strategy, of maneuvering his armies to decisive points of attack; he relied on subordinates like Henry Knox, Nathanael Green, and the patriot-turned-traitor Benedict Arnold for battlefield command. When he arrived in Boston, Washington was horrified at the state of the Continental Army, then made up of undisciplined Massachusetts militiamen whose morale was hanging by a thread after the retreat at Bunker Hill. As he had done with the Virginia Regiment, Washington imposed strict, almost draconian, disciplinary measures to whip the army into shape. Fines, floggings, and imprisonment were common punishments for military crimes, and eventually the army became an effective fighting force. (This trend would continue throughout the war, with Washington—together with allies like Baron Friedrich von Steuben of Prussia—training the Americans in the arts of soldiering before sending them into battle.)
The Americans’ first task at Boston was to liberate the city from British occupation, but to do this they would need heavy artillery to threaten both the soldiers in the streets and the Royal Navy ships in the harbor. Washington had no such weapons in Massachusetts, but the Continentals had captured 59 cannons at Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York. In November 1775, Washington dispatched General Henry Knox (a 25-year-old book salesman who had learned the military arts by reading the works of Julius Caesar) to Ticonderoga with orders to bring the artillery to Boston. It took Knox and his men three months to drag the “noble train of artillery” across snow-covered hills, over frozen lakes and rivers, and through dense forests, and they arrived at Boston in March 1776. Washington set them up at Dorchester Heights, which commanded the city and the harbor beyond. When the British realized they had been outmaneuvered, they evacuated Boston without firing a shot.
Though few Americans realized it at the time, 1776 would be the decisive year of the War of Independence. George Washington recognized an uncomfortable truth about the colonies’ military situation: unless they could find allies in Europe who would draw British military strength away from North America, the colonists could not win the war. Accordingly, the Continental Army’s strategy had to be, quite simply, to survive long enough for American diplomatic overtures to France (Britain’s historic enemy) to succeed in bringing Louis XVI’s armies into the war. Washington’s achievements in 1776 would not be as grand as those of Sherman or Grant in the Civil War, or of Patton or Schwartzkopf in the 20th century, but they would ensure that the cause of liberty in America would not die. Knowing that the British would next attack New York City, Washington moved his army to Long Island, where he fought the largest battle of the War of Independence. The battle was lost, and the Americans retreated to Brooklyn Heights, where it appeared they would be captured or slaughtered. General William Howe’s combined force of British redcoats and German mercenaries had blocked their retreat by land, and the Royal Navy was in New York harbor penning them in. Only when fortune favored the bold and a fog rolled across the harbor was the American army able to escape across the East River to Manhattan. Washington risked it all and ordered the evacuation across the river under the guns of the Royal Navy, trusting to the weather and the strength of men rowing the boats to survive. And survive they did.
Washington then abandoned Manhattan Island, crossing the Hudson River as the British landed north of New York City at Kip’s Bay and overrunning a militia brigade in the process. Howe remained in the city, and command passed to General Charles Cornwallis, who had only one order—capture or destroy the American army no matter the cost. Washington’s strategic genius was more than a match for his British foes; for the next five months he retreated again and again as Cornwallis massed for attack, fighting only with a small portion of his army while the rest pulled away. By December, the Continental Army had reached the Delaware River in southern New Jersey. They crossed it, taking every boat they could find with them, and the campaign season closed with the army still intact.
However, Washington was facing a serious problem. The army’s strength had dwindled every day during the retreat as demoralized soldiers abandoned their comrades or else went home to tend their farms and protect their families. Most soldiers’ enlistments would expire at the end of the year, and there was little reason to believe they would sign up for another year’s fighting without a victory. At this point, Washington made a bold and crucial decision: the army would recross the Delaware River and attack the British and German garrisons at Trenton and Princeton. The attacks went off perfectly, and with these twin victories Washington had shown his men that the cause was not lost. The army remained intact, and the war went on.
For the rest of the war, George Washington earned the title of “Indispensable Man” for his leadership of the Continental Army. Defeats at Germantown and Philadelphia did not lead to the army’s collapse, and even as American soldiers suffered at Valley Forge in the coldest winter conditions imaginable, their faith in their great commander did not waver. While other men like Arnold, Greene, and Daniel Morgan won battles in New York and the Southern colonies, Washington held the main army together by sheer force of will. As the war turned against the British in South Carolina and Cornwallis’ army began to march north in 1780, Washington saw his chance. Now backed by the might of France (which had joined the war after America’s victory at Saratoga in 1777), his army left Pennsylvania and headed south to join Greene’s force pursuing Cornwallis through North Carolina and into Virginia. At the Yorktown peninsula, where Cornwallis hoped to escape by sea, Washington laid siege to the main British army in North America and forced its surrender in September 1781. Now, with British public support for the war waning by the day, Parliament agreed to a negotiated peace, and two years later the new United States of America secured its independence in the Treaty of Paris.
Washington the Statesman
After the war, George Washington hoped to return to Mount Vernon to enjoy his retirement. He was now 52 and had no desire to be involved in the politics of the nation he had helped to create. However, fate had other plans for the retired general. After Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts convinced the government that a new constitution was needed, Washington was asked by Virginia delegate James Madison to attend the Constitutional Convention and lend his voice to the effort. When he arrived in Philadelphia crowds cheered their hero, and he was unanimously chosen to serve as president of the convention. As the US Constitution was being drafted, Washington spoke only in neutral terms, hoping that this would be his last political action on behalf of his country, but again others had different plans. The Framers designed the presidency with Washington in mind, and when the election for the first President of the United States was called, George Washington agreed to stand.
Washington is the only President of the United States to be unanimously chosen by the Electoral College, and his greatest contributions to his country came during his two terms in office. His inauguration on April 30, 1789, at the age of 57 provided the model for all future inaugural ceremonies. Washington was so nervous as he stood on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City that, as he took the oath of office, his voice was little more than a whisper. (Chancellor of New York Robert Livingston had to shout the words of the oath so that the crowd would know what their president was saying.) As president, George Washington lay the foundations for the office with every step he took. He refused high titles of address, insisting on being called only, “Mister President.” He exercised his authority in domestic matters very sparingly, relying on his Cabinet and Congress to run the country. He did act decisively in matters of foreign and security policy when he crushed the Whiskey Rebellion, pursued neutrality between Britain and France as the French Revolution erupted in Europe, and signed a very unpopular treaty with the British government. All in all, George Washington was the model of restrained leadership, one which every American chief executive would be wise to follow.
The immortal words by Lord Acton that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” ring true in America today, but there are always exceptions which prove the rule. The crowning act of Washington’s presidency was also his last. As he watched partisan political fights break out in Congress and in his Cabinet as Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans vied for power in Congress and prestige with the American people, he grew disgusted with the state of national affairs. The president was also physically exhausted, having spent more than four decades in the service of his country; he worried that he might not survive another term even if he chose to stand for election. Politicians and citizens alike marveled at Washington’s incredible act of statesmanship. A man who, had he desired, could have been crowned King George the First had chosen to relinquish the power he had never sought and which he had wielded so judiciously. In March 1797, Washington watched as his vice president, John Adams, was sworn in as his successor. In a letter to his wife Abigail, Adams quoted President Washington as saying to him, “I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of us will be happiest!”
George Washington retired to Mount Vernon for the last time in the spring of 1797. He remained vocal in political matters, growing more pro-Federalist in his final years and agreeing to serve as commander-in-chief of the Army in the Quasi War with France. On December 12, 1799, Washington had spent much of the day outside in the snow inspecting his fields at Mount Vernon, and he refused to change out of his wet clothes for a dinner engagement with guests. The next morning, he awoke with a sore throat and had difficulty breathing. Doctors were summoned, and after five pints of blood were drained from his frail body, he dismissed the physicians. As one of them left, he commented quietly, “Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go.” His wife Martha was at his bedside on the night of December 14, 1799, when George Washington passed away, as was his personal secretary who recorded his last words as, “’Tis well.” Washington’s funeral was held at Mount Vernon and closed to the public. He was buried there in the family vault, and when she died three years later Martha was laid to rest next to him. Congressman, and wartime general, Henry “Light-Horse” Lee (the father of Confederate general Robert E. Lee) delivered a eulogy before Congress. Speaking for the American people, who had lost their greatest leader, Lee spoke the immortal words that characterized the Father of His Country: “First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”