George Washington: The First American Hero
George Washington: The First American Hero
Today, George Washington is an American icon, a symbol of patriotism, strength, and humility. His honesty has become the source of legend, to the point that it is easy to forget that he was a real human being with significant political and military accomplishments. Perhaps what is equally surprising about Washington as the durability of his image is the fact that he was just as beloved in his own era. Death sometimes erases some of the more unflattering aspects of a historical figure’s legacy from the collective memory but Washington was always revered, even in life. In fact, many of his contemporaries wished to make him a king after he helped secure American independence, an honor which he refused. Instead, he went on to become the nation’s first Chief Executive.
George Washington first came to political prominence in colonial America due to his military leadership during the French and Indian Wars. He was born to a but the Washington family came upon hard times after the untimely death of his father. Young George never had a gentleman’s education due to his widowed mother’s financial struggles but he did find work as a surveyor (Knott). After his brother passed away from tuberculosis, Washington lobbied for his brother’s military position and received it, despite his youth and inexperience (Knot).
The initial conflict the young Washington presided over involved a dispute over the Ohio Valley between the British and the French. At the time, acting as an envoy for the British, Washington built a fort in the disputed area to prevent further French encroachment (Knott). While reinforcing the fort, Fort Necessity, Washington killed a small number of French in a skirmish — unknown to Washington one of these men was an envoy, which caused a diplomatic incident and actually precipitated the French-Indian war, an incident which would haunt Washington for the rest of his life and initially make him reluctant to take command of the colonial army (Knott).
Despite the inexperience exhibited in his behavior, Washington did learn a number of important lessons from his tenure fighting in the French-Indian Wars. Most notably, he became aware of the unique guerrilla tactics used by the Indians that flouted the conventions of conventional warfare, ideas which would later prove useful against the British. When the British sent over the Royal Army to assist with the conflict, Washington acted as an aide to General Edward Braddock (Knott). During the skirmish over Fort Duquesne, Washington attempted to persuade the British to use different fighting techniques to hold off the guerilla tactics of the Indians but Braddock ignored Washington and the British were routed by the natives (Knott).
Although the British blamed the colonists for the defeat, Washington was still hailed as a victor. “The colonials, refusing to be England’s scapegoat, reacted by elevating Washington as a hero. To convey their approval of his leadership and abilities, the colonials gave him command of all Virginian forces and charged him mainly with defending the colony’s western frontier from Native American attacks” (Knott). Washington eventually resigned from the army after he captured Fort Duquesne in 1758, but thanks to this command of the Virginian forces, he became aware of how to train and command an army single-handedly at a very young age (Knott).
Washington also gained a strong sense of injustice and righteous indignation against the British Crown, as he believed he had been treated very badly by the British forces over the course of his stewardship. This sense of outrage was further fostered when Washington returned to his life as a gentleman farmer. The British system of tariffs on tobacco left him in debt and forced him to expand into more crops that could be sold domestically, as well as weaving, fishing, and other practices to reduce his estate’s dependency on England (Knott). Although there was less revolutionary ferment in the southern colonies at first, Washington was one of the first and most prominent citizens to support revolt. “But a series of English provocations — the closure of Boston Harbor, new taxes, the shooting deaths of five colonials in an altercation with Royal troops, the abolition of the Massachusetts state charter — made Washington a firm believer in American independence by the early 1770s” (Knott).
Interestingly, when Washington was selected by the Second Continental Congress to lead the colonial army, he did not think he was capable of doing so, based upon his missteps during the French-Indian Wars. “I beg it may be remembered that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with” he said (Knott). Washington was the only man widely acknowledged to have enough experience from the available candidates. Washington was also a popular figure and well-liked. He was also well aware of the fact that his decision to accept a position of command made him a traitor in the eyes of the British, and this marked a sharp transition from the once-respected status he had held in the eyes of colonial society. Still, Washington believed that what he was doing was right and necessary for the future of the land he loved.
The British army was widely regarded as the most effective fighting force in the world yet the revolutionary army over which Washington presided over a fighting force was characterized as “ragtag, barely trained, half-starving and woefully unequipped” as well as “led by generals often squabbling, undermining, or fighting with each other” (Kladky). Washington unsurprisingly lost his first major battles against the British but was able to bolster the morale of his men by a series of bold and unexpected moves, once again drawing upon his knowledge of Indian fighting techniques learned from observation during his earlier tenure as general. Once again, Washington benefited from a refusal to fight according to the codes of war observed by the British (Knott). This was the inspiration for his famous Christmas Day onslaught of the British at Trenton. Despite the fact that historians later characterized these victories less as “large-scale battles than they were guerrilla raids” they gave the colonial army hope (Knott). Washington’s tactics have been called “hit and run,” and he refused to engage the British directly except when absolutely necessary, preferring to wear them down with skirmishing.
Washington’s great skill as a leader was thus his astute ability to assess the psychology of his men. Although his personal charisma, including his good looks, height, and ability to ride a horse well were some of the more subjective yet compelling reasons that he had been given his command, Washington’s ability to inspire trust cannot be discounted, either. “His close coordination with governors and state militias, his cooperative relations with Congress, and his professional attention to supplies, logistics, and training all contributed to the success of the Continental Army” (Kladky). Washington’s ability to build alliances laid the foundation for America’s later unity, an impressive achievement given that the colonists had previously regarded themselves more as individual states versus a true nation.
Washington was also extremely realistic in his assessment of the weaknesses of his men, yet another reason he was willing to throw the conventional rulebook for fighting military conflicts out the window and instead to resort to any means necessary to ensure victory. “I think the game is pretty well up,” he admitted before his victory at Trenton, indicating the fact that if the army did not have a victory soon, its prospects were dire (Remini 42). One historian stated that “George Washington was not a great general but a brilliant revolutionary,” based on the way he was able to rally his men’s morale in the face of trying circumstances (Knott). Technically, although America won its war, Washington actually lost most of his battles. But “he held his ragtag, hungry army together” and one French office stated that he found it “truly incredible that troops almost naked, poorly paid . . . should behave so well on the march and under fire” (Knott).
It should be noted, however, that Washington was not without his critics. The war took eight long years and his men were frequently living in a desperate state. Washington could also be indecisive as a leader. For example, “Fort Lee was so slowly evacuated that the British seized precious cannons, muskets, and supplies” (Kladky). But as a result of his successes during the Revolutionary War and his instrumental role in bringing about American independence, Washington was deemed to be the logical selection for the nation’s first president.
Even before the Articles of Confederation were created (the ineffectual, initial governing structure before the American Constitution was forged), initially many wished to make Washington king, an honor which Washington refused, thanks to his belief that monarchy was an unjust system of government, based upon his experiences with the British (Knott). Washington was unanimously selected to head the first Constitutional Convention and later became the nation’s first president, despite not wanting the office (Knott). Washington was often a reluctant leader but his lack of desire for personal power ultimately inspired more trust in his leadership ability.
Kladky, William P. “Continental Army.” Mount Vernon. Web. 24 Feb 2017.
Knott, Stephen. “George Washington: Life Before the Presidency.” Miller Center of Public
Affairs, University of Virginia. Web. 24 Feb 2017.
Remini, Robert. A Short History of the United States. HarperCollins, 2009.
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