He Had the Courage to Say ‘No’

He was tall, strong and smart.  He was respected by all, if not loved.  He was the only person for the job.

He could have taken it all.  Instead, he will be revered forever for his restraint and wisdom.

The first-born child of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington, George Washington was born into a life of privilege.  His father was a wealthy Virginia planter who was a member of the local gentry

At age 11, the death of his father changed young George’s life forever.  Although he inherited an estate (not Mount Vernon — that went to George’s older brother, Lawrence), George was denied an education on the other side of the Atlantic as had been planned for him.  Instead, he stayed in Virginia for his schooling.

Forensic reconstruction of Washington at age 19.

Unlike my favorite American, Abraham Lincoln, Washington did not pull himself up by his own bootstraps.  He did not have to.

His brother Lawrence pulled strings to get him appointed as the official land surveyor for Culpepper County.  He was 17, well paid, and in a position to acquire valuable land in the Shenandoah Valley.

Lawrence commanded the Virginia militia.  As Lawrence’s right-hand man, George came to the attention of the most prominent men in Virginia.

At six feet, two inches tall (a giant by the day’s standards), he towered over all others.  He was hard to miss.

Lawrence battled tuberculosis.  George accompanied him on a trip to Barbados in hopes of improving the brother’s health.  Instead, Lawrence’s condition worsened, and George contracted smallpox.  This disease slightly disfigured his face.  But, his survival made him stronger and more resistant to illness for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately, Lawrence did not do as well.  They returned to Lawrence’s estate at Mount Vernon where he died in 1752.  George was 20.  He had already lost the two most important men in his life.

Upon Lawrence’s death, the Virginia Governor did not believe that anyone could fill the elder Washington’s shoes as Adjutant General (militia leader) of Virginia.  Instead, he divided the rank into four positions.

George was given one of them.  He was commissioned a major in the militia.

Washington’s first foray into war was not successful.  During the French and Indian War, his rash actions arguably helped precipitate the conflict.

His loss of Fort Necessity and capture by the French were humiliating defeats.  But, he learned.

After organizing and conducting an orderly retreat, Washington was named commander of the militia and promoted to the rank of colonel. His strengths as a military leader lay in organization and discipline through training.

GW's teeth.

However, a friendly-fire incident during the attempted capture of Fort Duquesne at present-day Pittsburgh, embarrassed him.  He retired from military service.  Still, it is apparent that he learned much from these experiences.

During a visit to Mount Vernon, I learned that George Washington was a lively dancer.  We picture him as a staid individual.  Apparently, that was not the case.

As a tall, healthy, wealthy landowner, George would have been a true catch among the ladies of Virginia.  He probably could have had the belle of the colony.  Instead, he chose a well-propertied widow.

Painting of Martha Washington by Michael Deas based upon forensic reconstruction.

At the age of 27, he married Martha Dandridge Custis.  Whether he loved her or not is an open question.  But, they were compatible and had a long and successful marriage (40 years).

The couple had no home-grown children.  George may have been sterile as a result of his earlier bout with smallpox.  Instead, he raised Martha’s two children from an earlier marriage, and later, two grandchildren.

You sort of know the rest of the story:

  • George leaves an aristocratic lifestyle to lead an Army of farmers.  He trains and equips them;
  • George suffers a major defeat in Brooklyn and is nearly captured by the British;
  • After retreating to Pennsylvania, George and his forces cross the Delaware and stage a surprise attack upon mercenary Hessian soldiers at Trenton on Christmas Eve;
  • He then beats the British at Princeton;
  • After a series of defeats and victories, Washington and his troops spend a demoralizing winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania;
  • Following a successful series of battles in 1779 and 1780 (with substantial help from the Prussians and French), Washington accepts the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia on October 17, 1781.

    Painting of George Washington in 1772 by Charles Willson Peale.

In the wake of their military defeat, the British gave up their efforts in the 13 colonies.  They signed a peace treaty in Paris in 1783.  Washington bade his soldiers farewell in Fraunces Tavern in New York (it’s still there).  The British had recently departed that city.

His relinquishment of the role of commander-in-chief of the military was an astonishing development.  It just didn’t happen in those days.  Even King George III of Britain was impressed.  He called George Washington “the greatest character of the age.”

Forensic reconstruction of Washington at age 45.

This child of privilege had grown into an impressive statesman.  A lifetime of remarkable experiences had tempered him.  He formed an incredible sense of restraint, and an ability to place the needs of his fledgling nation above his own.

George had the courage to say ‘no’:

  1. When he could have remained as a military strongman in the power vacuum that followed the Revolutionary War.
  2. To the temptation to bend the Constitutional Convention over which he presided to suit his personal needs and desires.
  3. To a higher rank than Lieutenant General while acting as commander-in-chief.
  4. Once elected president in 1789, he eschewed titles such as “Your Highness”, “Your Excellency” and “Your Majesty.”  Instead, he preferred “Mr. President.”
  5. He was offered the princely salary of $25,000.  He declined the money, preferring his image as a selfless public servant.
  6. He reluctantly served a second term upon receiving 100% of the Electoral College vote in 1793.
  7. At the completion of a second term, he categorically refused to run for a third — thereby setting the precedent for all successors (save one).
  8. Upon leaving office, he simply wished to devote his energies to his farming and distillery interests.  Despite these desires, he had to say no to himself when approached with various duties in the further service of his country.  President Adams commissioned him lieutenant general again and appointed Washington Commander-in-chief of the Army with regard to a prospective war with France which never emerged.

Forensic reconstruction of Washington at age 57.

Post presidency, George Washington served on the Vestry or church board for Christ Church in Alexandria.  He remained active in the day-to-day operations of his estate at Mount Vernon.

After a day of riding through snow, hail and freezing rain on December 12, 1799, Washington took ill with an extreme sore throat.  His illness progressed.

On December 14, 1799, George Washington died at the age of 67.

He left behind an estate valued at $1 million (about $18 million in present-day dollars).

The nation and the world grieved.  In France, Napoleon ordered 10 days of official mourning.  In America, people wore mourning clothes for months thereafter.

Plans to build a great tomb for the Father of our Country fell through.

Chances are, if George had a say, he would have said ‘no.’

— The Major

The Major & Running Girl at Mount Vernon, 2006.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Mike P. on February 22, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Great post!

    You did an outstanding job summarizing high points of The General’s life and contributions.

    He is much too overlooked these days.

    He truly was the right man at the right time and in fact the only man for the job!

    Thank you!


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