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End of an era for an ‘Indispensable Man’

Washington died Dec. 14, 1799

He has been called the “Father of his Country,” despite having less formal education than any of the earliest presidents.

Perhaps his contributions to American democracy and the presidency would not be eclipsed until the advent of Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts or Reagan.

From 1753-1798, it seemed every time a crisis occurred, or a solution had to be found, those who voiced their opinions suggested, “Let Washington do it.”

Washington’s family may be traced back to the late 1200s in England. His ancestors there lived at Sulgrave Manor in Northhamptonshire, England. These squires’ last name at this early time was “de Washington.” This English name would evolve into “Washington.”

George’s great-grandfather, John Washington, served on an English ship that ran aground in the Potomac River in the 1650s. He stayed in Virginia, married and prospered.

George was born at Pope’s Creek Farm in Westmoreland County, Virginia on Feb. 22, 1732. On the old style (Julian) Calendar, his birthdate was actually Feb. 11, 1732. His father, big “Gus” Washington, was a Virginia land speculator and iron mine owner. Gus’ first wife, Jane Butler, died after having given birth to four children. “Gus” then married Mary ball, who was George’s mother. George’s father died when George was 11, leaving him with a mother whom he tried to avoid the majority of the time. Mary often asked George, when he reached manhood, for money, even though she had no need for it.

George’s dream from boyhood was to join the British Navy at a young age, but Mary constantly denied his requests. Little is known about his early years, but, by age 45, George Washington would become world famous.

After George’s father died, George selected Lawrence Washington, his half brother, as a role model. Lawrence had been a militiaman in the war between England and Spain and influenced George with his stories of the war. George visited Lawrence at Mount Vernon, Lawrence’s plantation. It had been named for an English officer Lawrence had admired — Edward Vernon, “Old Grog.”

With his dream of joining the British Navy quashed, George turned to surveying at age 15. He mastered the mathematics involved and began to earn his own money.

In 1749, George helped lay out the town of Alexandria, Virginia. Lord Thomas Fairfax had inherited 5,280,000 acres of land and took a serious liking to the young Washington. Fairfax asked George to assist in surveying his western lands and later secured for the young surveyor an appointment as surveyor for Culpepper County. George would take his earnings and purchase lands for himself. George had inherited 280 acres and 10 slaves from his father, but did not take possession of his inheritance until his mother died. With the death of Lawrence and Lawrence’s only child, Sarah, in 1752, George inherited Mount Vernon. By 1757, at age 25, he was in possession of 4,000 acres.

From 1752, on, George Washington’s resume is filled with many challenges and achievements for which only learned historians have given him due credits. In mid-November of 1753, the governor of Virginia wanted a volunteer to seek out the French headquarters in the Ohio Valley and tell them they must leave British-claimed lands there.

When he arrived at Fort LeBoeuf, Washington was told the French would not leave. Twice Washington could have died on his return to Virginia. He suggested that the English build a defensive fortress upon the present site of Pittsburgh.

Next, Washington was sent to the fort’s site with less than 200 men. The force collided with 32 French troops at Great Meadows.

Shots were fired and the “French and Indian War,” destined to become a world war, began on May 28, 1754.

On July 9, 1755, George was asked to lead a colonial force, in support of British regulars, toward French-held Fort Duquesne. The French and Indians ambushed them, and Washington, at the death of the British general, led the survivors to safety. After 1758,  Washington returned home and his military star was shining brightly along the frontier. He would now have time to experiment in agriculture, increase his investments and find a wife.

On Jan. 6, 1759, George married a widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, at her plantation, called the White House. She was one of the wealthiest widows in America and owned 7,500 acres of cultivated land, 300 slaves and assets amounting to $100,000 in gold.

He also assumed guardianship of Martha’s two young children by her first marriage, Patsy and Jack Custis. Although the Washingtons had no children as their own, George treated these two as his own. Their marriage lasted more than 40 years.

In the interim between wars, Washington became involved in politics. As early as 1758, he had been elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses. George was re-elected time after time.

The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia from Sept. 5-Oct. 26, 1774. George was a delegate from Virginia, but did not seek any attention or assignments. He felt strongly that all of the colonies should boycott English commerce. He was again elected by Virginia to attend the following Second Continental Congress.

The Revolutionary War had begun in April 1775, and there was a need for an army and a commander-in-chief. From day one, Washington attended congressional sessions, dressed in his blue and red uniform of a colonel of the Virginia militia, in which he had served the British crown.

He said nothing, but was unanimously named head of the revolutionary army around Boston on June 15, 1775. Washington would lose more battles than he won in the Revolutionary War. He took no salary but kept a meticulous record of expenses he signed IOUs for when supplies were needed.

On Dec. 23, 1783, with the war completely ended, he went to Annapolis, Maryland, where the Congress was meeting, to submit his expenses during the war, which amounted to more than $480,000. Washington then rode hard, so he could spend Christmas with Martha at Mount Vernon. How long would he get to stay at his beloved estate this time?

In 1781, our second national government had been established. The “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” were very weak. Individual states exerted more power than the federal government. The United States was tottering on the brink of disaster. A convention of all states was called for in May 1787 in Philadelphia. History would call it the Constitutional Convention. This convention was called to revise the very weak Articles of Confederation.

Washington was asked to lead the Virginia delegation and the men there elected him president of the convention. He spoke out only once and was quite bored. Most of the time he spent with his chin resting in the cup of his hand.

The old government was discarded and a new one proposed. After four months, the convention ended and it was quite apparent Washington would be elected our first president.

In fact, he is the only American president to garner every electoral vote — twice, in 1789 and 1793.

Although the richest man in America, Washington had to borrow money to get to New York City, the nation’s capital. His wealth was in his lands.

Many felt his private and public appearances to be ostentatious. His presidential salary was $25,000 a year. He usually wore a black velvet suit (in mourning for his deceased mother), sported gold buckles at his knees and shoes, powdered his hair, wore his coat over his sword and carried his cocked hat.

Washington had wanted to retire to Mount Vernon after his first term, but was pressured into serving a second term for the good of the nation. At the end of his second term, March 1797, he wanted no part of a third term. Disgusted with the constant arguing of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the rise of political parties, abuse of our ships on the high seas and talk of impeachment because he had overdrawn his salary, he was tired and felt his memory failing.

With prior assistance from John Jay and Hamilton, he sent his 6,000-word farewell address to a Philadelphia newspaper. On Sept. 19, 1796, the address was published, with his advice to those who would follow him. After 45 years of public service and “old” at age 65, he returned to his beloved Mount Vernon. However, as relations with France grew worse, Washington was asked to help raise an army. He was commissioned lieutenant general and commander in chief of the United States Army.

Washington died on Dec. 14, 1799, between 10 and 11 p.m. An era ended with his last breath.

The quotation on his legacy, “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of his Countrymen,” originated with “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Robert E. Lee’s father.

Over 60 years after his death, Washington was still held in high regard. With the coming of the America Civil War, both nations and armies agreed to recognize Mount Vernon as completely “neutral” and no soldiers ever intruded its lands.


— Bob Leith is a retired history professor from Ohio University Southern and Rio Grande University.