George Washington by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn

President #1, C-SPAN historians ranking #2

You Never Forget Your First Time

georgewashingtonThe face of George Washington is well known to Americans. He stares at us on dollar bills. His profile is on the quarter. His portrait used to be a fixture in school classrooms. The capital city of the nation is named for him.

And, just like all of us, George Washington was just one person. One person, full of the typical needs and wants, features and defects, highs and lows, just like anyone else. He was the first true hero of the United States of America. But, why him? What made George Washington, Virginia plantation owner, into GEORGE WASHINGTON, American icon?

Historians James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn, both of Williams College, try to cut through the mystique that often clouds our judgment of George Washington. Their book is not revisionist by any means. But, it is a way for people to get a better grasp on just who the first President of the United State truly was.

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732; although, at the time, he thought his birthday was February 11. The British had not yet adopted the Gregorian calendar, so they were 11 days behind. (This would be the case until 1752.  Although, it would be fun if we celebrated Washington’s birthday one day before Lincoln’s.)

Washington didn’t attend any university; but, he did receive training in surveying. He also received a commission to serve in the Virginia militia. The two jobs would end up setting Washington on his path to fame.

One of Washington’s first major jobs as a surveyor was to map the parts of Virginia near the Ohio border in 1753. This put Washington into close contact with the French, who controlled that part of North America.

In 1754, France and Britain went to war in North America over the control of the territory of what was then called “The Northwest.” Washington served alongside British generals during this conflict, known as the French and Indian War in North America and the Seven Years War in Europe. (The war lasted nine years in North America, so it needed a different name.)

Washington was attached to British General Edward Braddock, who led his troops into an ambush at the Battle of the Monongahela. Braddock was killed; but, Washington was able to rally the remaining troops. For his efforts, Washington was sent to accompany General John Forbes in an attempt to capture Fort Duquesne.

There was no battle at Fort Duquesne, though. The French abandoned the fort in the face of the overwhelming size of the British forces. Fort Duquesne became Fort Pitt, and later Pittsburgh. Forbes ended up with a baseball stadium in Pittsburgh named after him.

For all of his service, Washington hoped that the British Army would give him a commission. But, no commission would be awarded. Washington took this as a tremendous slight. Washington was keenly aware of the importance of titles and status. He realized that the British Army would never consider a colonial like him worthy of honor.

Washington did receive a generous grant of property for his service, and he was able to parlay that into great personal wealth. And with this wealth, Washington did become one of the most famous and most important people in Virginia. Washington would serve in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Although not as radical as other members of that body, such as Patrick Henry, Washington did join others in calling for a boycott of imported goods from Britain.

When the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1774, Washington was part of Virginia’s delegation. Washington dressed in his military uniform for all the meetings. And when the American Revolution began the following year, the Congress decided to appoint Washington as the head of the Continental Army. Presumably, this was because he already had a uniform.

Washington agreed to serve without pay, asking only to be reimbursed for expenses. During the Revolution, Washington became, in the words of Burns and Dunn, a transactional leader. Washington had to take care of forming an army, keeping it equipped and fed, making sure people all over the colonies (soon to be states) were happy. It was almost a triumph of management, more than military expertise.

After eight long years, Washington and the Americans won their independence from Britain in 1783 (although hostilities had ended in 1781 after the Battle of Yorktown.) Washington addressed his officers in what was known as his Farewell Address. It would turn out that Washington’s public life was far from over.

The United States, under the terms of the Articles of Confederation, was almost ungovernable. The Congress had very little authority. States tried levying tariffs on goods imported from other states.

Meanwhile, in Western Massachusetts, a Revolutionary War veteran named Daniel Shays led a popular uprising against the government of Massachusetts. Shays’ wanted the state to stop property seizures by creditors against farmers. Although the violence was relatively muted, the concept behind Shays’ Rebellion stirred Washington to take action to change the American government.

The action turned out to the Constitutional Convention. Washington did not directly call for it, but encouraged others to do so. And Washington also welcomed an invitation to participate in it. And Washington had little trouble in accepting the job as the president of the convention.

Washington’s job at the Constitutional Convention was not to come up with new ideas. The heavy lifting, from an intellectual standpoint, was left to people such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. But, it was Washington’s air of authority (he wore his military uniform during much of the convention to help with this) that kept the delegates in line.

After the Constitution was ratified, there was little doubt who would be the man chosen to be the first President. It had to be Washington. He won every electoral vote in 1789.

Washington had one of the most difficult jobs as President because nobody knew just what the President was supposed to do.  Washington had no example to go by. He had to find out how to make it all work. And he had to do it right away.

During the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, many thought that Congress would end up as the most powerful branch of government. But, Washington was able to shape the office of President into a more powerful force.

Burns and Dunn point out two main ways Washington accomplished this. First, Washington, thanks to the efforts of Hamilton, made the President a proactive force in making legislation. Washington did not want to sit back to wait for Congress to propose action. Most notably, Hamilton sent to Congress plans to consolidate state debts into one national debt, as well as a plan to set up a national bank. Washington fully supported these policies.

The second area where Washington asserted the authority of the President was in foreign affairs. After Washington negotiated a treaty with several Indian tribes early in his Presidency, he went to the Senate to discuss the treaty with its members. But, the initial meeting was a disaster as the senators were not prepared to ask questions and Washington was asked to come back later. Washington had no desire to ever repeat that experience. Since then, all presidents have negotiated treaties and then just presented the completed document for the Senate to vote on. Washington also knew that since the President had the right to receive and appoint ministers and ambassadors, the President had the right to recognize nations.

Washington relied heavily on Hamilton and Jefferson for advice and counsel. The two men were given a great deal of latitude to make decisions. But, it was Hamilton who ended up being Washington’s favorite adviser.

Hamilton, who during the Constitutional Convention proposed an executive who would be elected for life, saw great promise in the United States. Hamilton felt that a strong Chief Executive was needed for this. Washington was of the same mind. The favoritism that Washington gave to Hamilton would ultimately to the rise of the two-party system in the United States.

Burns and Dunn point to a 1791 article anonymously written by Madison as the beginning of factionalism in U.S. government. At this time, Hamilton’s plan for the assumption of state debts by the Federal government was before Congress. Madison opposed this because he felt it was outside the scope of Congress’ powers according to the Constitution. Also, Madison felt that the plan was unfair to many Revolutionary War veterans who had sold off their debt certificates to speculators at a fraction of their value. Hamilton’s plan had all of the certificates redeemed at full value.

Although most in government knew that Madison had written the piece, Washington and Hamilton believed that Jefferson was the man behind the whole idea. Jefferson also believed that his views were being ignored by Washington.  So, he resigned his position as Secretary of State in 1793.

In addition to domestic differences, the American political system also split along the lines of France and England. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the United States was left in the position of having to choose whether to honor its Revolutionary War alliance with France, or, try to remain neutral and avoid the wrath of England.

Jefferson and his supporters backed France. Hamilton and his supporters sided with England. Washington opted for a policy of neutrality, knowing that the United States could not afford a war with any European power.

However, the English were not going to allow American ships to trade with their French enemies. The Royal Navy began to seize American merchant ships and choke off trade. Washington opted to try diplomacy to get the English to relent in their attacks.

So, Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to London in 1794 to negotiate a treaty. Jay didn’t have much to bargain with. When he returned, the treaty didn’t have much in the way of concessions from the British. There were no provisions to relieve the pressure on American shipping; but, the British did agree to abandon their forts along the Canadian border.

Jay’s Treaty (as it would be called) was sent to the Senate in 1795, where it was debated in secret. (The Senate conducted almost all of its business behind closed doors in the early years of the Republic.) The Senate voted to ratify the treaty.

It did not take long for details of the treaty to emerge. Public reaction to it was harsh. Mobs burned effigies of Jay throughout the country. (Jay said he could ride up and down the country at night using the lights from his burning effigies.) Hamilton was shouted down at a public meeting trying to defend the treaty. Washington was stunned by the reaction. It was the first time that Washington faced an enormous amount of opposition from the American public. (Washington had been reelected in 1792 unanimously.)

Washington was not sure if he would sign the treaty; but, the decision was made for him in the summer of 1795. At that time, Washington was given a letter written by his Secretary of State, Edmund Randolph, to the French minister to the United States. Randolph seemed to indicate that he felt that the treaty was favorable to England, instead of France. Also, Randolph, somewhat obliquely, solicited a bribe from the French to prevent the treaty from going into force. Washington would not tolerate such disloyalty from his Secretary of State. Randolph was fired, and the treaty was signed by Washington.

Toward the end of his second term in 1796, Washington was a tired man. He complained of vision and hearing problems, and, even worse, memory lapses. He had worked nearly all of his adult life to the creation of a new nation that he was extraordinarily proud of. But, Washington knew it was time to retire from public life for good. Washington’s example of serving two terms would be followed by all presidents until Franklin Roosevelt. (The 22nd Amendment made the two terms limit a requirement instead of an example.) Washington delivered a second Farewell Address.

In this address, Washington bemoaned the partisanship that had taken over American politics. He also famously warned against the United States from entering into any alliances that would force the country to become needlessly involved in European matters. This philosophy would guide American foreign policy for most of the 19th Century.

In 1797, after the inauguration of John Adams as the second President, Washington returned to his home at Mount Vernon. Burns and Dunn portray the retired Washington as one who had come to accept partisanship in government. When Washington was asked to lead the Army by Adams in a possible war against France, Washington insisted that all his officers be Federalists (as the supporters of Adams and Hamilton had become known.) Washington also worried that the United States was in danger of being taken over by the Illuminati. (Someone had traveled through time and given Washington the collected works of Dan Brown.)

Washington passed away on December 14, 1799 at the age of 67. Henry Lee, in a eulogy for Washington, described him as being “first in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” George Washington, the man, was dead. George Washington, the myth, lives on to this day.

Other stuff: Normally, this section is reserved for listing places that are memorials dedicated to the President reviewed. However, I don’t have enough space or energy to list all of the homes, monuments, and memorials dedicated to George Washington.

Washington’s Mount Vernon home is not a national park or monument. It is run by a private foundation called the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Foundation. The Washington Monument is not considered to be a National Monument by the United States Park Service. It is a National Memorial. Construction began on the Washington Monument in 1848; but, it was not completed until 1884. There were problems with raising money for the monument. Also, there was this thing called the Civil War….

For those not wishing to travel to Virginia or the District of Columbia, you can just visit the state of Washington. I hear it’s pretty much the same as our nation’s capital.

Washington had no children with his wife Martha. However, Martha did have two children by her first husband.

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4 Responses

  1. So George Washington didn’t invent the high five after all.

    Despite the picture atop this page, I still found myself picturing David Morse with the big nose while I read your great post.

  2. If Washington could not get a British commission, what exactly was his uniform that so impressed the First Continental Congress. What uniform would a non-commissioned surveyor wear? Surely something akin to Sergeant (maybe Sergeant Major?) was not going to impress anyone. If he really hobnobbed with British generals he must have been expecting a commission as Colonel at least – probably very unusual to come in at such a high level.

    I really don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’m intrigued. What sort of rank equivalent did he have as a non-commissioned surveyor?

  3. The first time I visited Mount Vernon, I was about 16. As I sat on a wicker chair, on a porch that wrapped around the entire house, I fantasized that it would somehow be revealed that I was the long-lost heir to Mount Vernon, and the house would pass into my possession.

    Maybe, for that reason, they don’t let you sit on the wicker chairs anymore.

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