Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Indispensable Man

Since this week is George Washington's birthday, I feel compelled to write something about His Excellency, the "Indispensable Man."
Young Washington

Those two sobriquets are just a sampling of the many honorifics afforded Washington both during his lifetime and as his legacy grew.  You might be surprised to know that some of the early biographies of Washington were poorly drawn and in some instances created or stoked a mythology that has continued through today, such as the cherry tree incident, wooden teeth, and his "vision" at Valley Forge.  But Washington's actual achievements outstrip all fictional characterizations. In this Blog, we'll discuss some of his earlier accomplishments.

The young George Washington managed to overcome  relatively modest beginnings and rise to a stature that  has reached across the ages. Born  in the second marriage of a small Virginia landholder, a nearly cosmic chain of events helped bring George Washington to the forefront of Virginia society - the platform from which he launched his career. These events include a succession of early deaths (father, male siblings), failure in love, finding a wealthy benefactor, making a successful marriage, exploiting political connections and finally profiting from a string of near catastrophic failures.

Young Martha Custis
When Washington's older brothers died at relatively early ages, young Washington inherited the Virginia lands he never aspired to.  Before coming to them, Washington set out to find his own way through surveying.  He learned about land and mathematics - things that would later help him in land speculation and  planning military campaigns. Young Washington became acquainted with Lord Fairfax (we won't speculate on rumored paramour Sally Fairfax here) and the brilliant and wealthy George Mason. Both connections helped him gain prominence. Failed early romances  caused him to meet some prominent families and ultimately gained the acquaintance of the wealthy young widow, Martha Custis.  His marriage to Martha made him a "man of consequence" in Virginia planter society. It also grounded him and helped him mature into a man of financial and emotional substance.

Virginia Governor
Robert Dinwidie
Because of his persistent lobbying and survey experience, Virginia's Royal Governor Dinwidie sent a very young Washington west to explore Virginia's vast holdings.  Back then the Commonwealth  included West Virginia and claimed large parts of today's Kentucky, Ohio and beyond. The problem was:  those lands swarmed with Indians whose tomahawks were guided by their French benefactors to the north. Neither the French nor the Indians viewed the lands that now comprise Ohio and Kentucky as part of the Old Dominion. Yet Washington made several missions west, one of which resulted in the massacre of a French Ambassador. That incident led directly to a chain of events that started the Seven Years War in Europe and the French and Indian War in America.  Essentially, George Washington ignited the world war that would eventually lead to the American Revolution!

Serving as Aide to General Braddock in 1755

Colonel Washington
 of the Virginia Militia
During the French and Indian War, politics made Washington the eventual commander of the Virginia militia. But when Britain's Lord Loudoun and a succession of other British commanders rebuffed his requests for a regular commission, Washington began to question his "Britishness."  Although denied a regular commission, his knowledge of the west got Washington appointed aide to General William Braddock's fateful (and fatal) campaign to take the French fort located near today's Pittsburgh.  The column of over 1,000 British regulars were ambushed in the forests of western Pennsylvania. But Washington's coolness while officers and men alike panicked  in the face of the French and Indians, brought him renown.  Despite that, Washington spent the remainder of the war commanding a weak militia force in an uneven defense of western Virginia settlements from Indian raids.

The post-war period in America once more relegated Washington to a local figure who focused his efforts on farming and land dealings, while dabbling in petty Virginia politics.  But after the French and Indian War Washington also began a period of political reflection that grew him in intellect and gravitas.  As the struggle with the mother country began to loom over the colonies, Washington's early exploits, successes as well as failures...would eventually lead to his acclamation as commander in chief of the Continental Army in June 1775.

His Excellency, George Washington,
was proclaimed commander in chief of
the Continental Army

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