George Washington was born February 22, 1732 to tobacco planter Augustine and Mary Washington. His role in the foundation of this country is unmistakable. He led in politics, economics, and in the military, steering the course which America took in the early days. Rightly so, he is remembered as “the Father of a Country.”
The Washingtons were not part of the upper echelons of Virginia aristocracy. They were not yeomen as such, but more a kind of second tier gentry. Nonetheless, the Washingtons were industrious and respected, and prospered. Augustine Washington felt his sons deserved an education befitting their station. While George’s brothers, including Lawrence, did receive such education, young George’s was cut short by the death of his father in 1743. However, George saw this not as dissuasion, but only fueled his zeal to learn. Having learned his basics through tutors and the Anglican school in Fredericksburg, he read everything he could get his hands on, notably translations of the classics. He relied on his brother Lawrence, neighbors, and notably George and Sally Fairfax to help refine his behavior. As the consummate autodidact, he also taught himself to use his father’s surveying equipment, which not only gave him a trade with which to earn a living, but also put him in a position to begin to stake land claims of his own and gain an ever-growing knowledge of the geography of the frontier.
As young George Washington was coming of age, Britain and France became embroiled in a conflict over the Ohio Country in the 1740s. The Ohio Country was a great swath of territory between French Canada and British Colonies, appealing to the French trapping and British planter interests. By the 1750s the two sides were in open war, The French and Indian War, as it came to be called (because the French had many Algonquin Indian allies). Lt. George Washington, in command of a contingent of Virginia militia, was uniquely qualified to probe the region and engage the French, given his experience in the region as a surveyor. While his engagement with the French was mixed at best, he did earn the respect of his fellow Virginians in his willingness to defend their homes. Washington became senior aide to British General Edward Braddock, who became a mentor of sorts to Washington. Braddock died in 1755, which made Washington’s ultimate goal a challenge. He desired greatly to become an officer in the British Army, but despite his rise through the militia ranks to Colonel, the British refused Washington’s commission at every turn. Washington stopped trying and retired his Virginia Regiment command in 1758. However he learned some valuable lessons. The British infrastructure tended to view the colonials as second-class British citizens. He also learned much about the nature of African Americans and their nobility in military service. Washington served alongside them in the French and Indian War, and watched closely—this was an experience that changed his views about race. He was one of the few planters to make arrangements for the manumiision of substantial numbers of slaves, and he also later invited Phillis Wheatley, an African American poet, to his 1776 headquarters in Massachusetts (a gesture unheard of in those days). Perhaps most amazingly, Washington was certainly fired upon (his trench coat was riddled), but was never hit, a fact which made him “big medicine’ among the Indians, and perhaps in no small part, reinforced his belief in God. Altogether, the experience made Washington a different kind of Virginian than his peers like Jefferson and Patrick Henry. While they were attending masquerade balls in Williamsburg, Washington was dodging musket balls on the Ohio frontier.
In 1759, Washington married Martha Custis (a top tier family), and returned to his farm, Mt. Vernon, to take up the life of planter and local politician. Washington returned,convinced that the British system was inferior to that which existed in the colonies, and that if a man was industrious, he could be successful in his enterprises. One of the problems staring Washington in the face was a mountain of debt. Ever resourceful, instead of growing tobacco which depleted the soil quickly, he diversified operations at Mt. Vernon. He began growing more grains, opened a flour mill, bred horses, entered into hog production, weaving, and opened a whiskey distillery that produced more than 1,000 gallons per month. Though a Virginia aristocrat and legislator, Washington was famed for keeping his emotions in Stoic control (as evinced by his Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation). In an age when some men still carried swords as part of their dress and duels—though illegal—could still easily happen, Washington was a master of speech and restraint—the consummate gentleman. It was with this gentlemanly comportment that he took such offense at the parade of British taxes levied against colonists such as the Sugar and Stamp Acts. They sought to pay for a war that the colonists themselves largely fought, and threaten the very system that had allowed Washington arrive at his current position.
The Boston Massacre of 1770, the Intolerable Acts, and the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 had all but solidified an armed response against Britain. Washington sympathized with the patriot cause but remained cautious until the actual battles in New England. He strode into the early meetings of the Continental Congress in full military dress and sword. Even with other capable leaders, his reputation virtually guaranteed his appointment by John Adams, and subsequent approval as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. This man threw his own money into financing early campaigns, coming to the aid of the New Englanders. He continued to do so when Congress could not allocate proper resources to the army. Washington also proved to be an unorthodox commander, utilizing the Continentals and militia, who used guerilla tactics. He was also fond of espionage and was able on a number of occasions to use his geographical knowledge against the British. Washington was also fighting another American Revolution at his various headquarters along the Hudson. At intervals he would bring up slaves to staff the headquarters (often families), and would conveniently “”forget to return them to Mt. Vernon when he resumed march. When Washington’s army converged with the rest of the Continentals and the French at Yorktown, it was less than a month (in October) when Cornwallis was defeated. Cornwallis had his aide surrender his sword, which he offered to Rochambeau. The French General shook his head and pointed to Washington. Now, Cornwallis had obviously hoped to get one last slight in on Washington, but Washington refused, pointing to General Benjamin Lincoln, who had defended Charleston. Washington’s second in command would eventually accept Cornwallis’ sword, but Washington refused to grant honors to a man bereft of them.
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, commonly just Cincinnatus, was a Roman patrician general, and statesman who lived during the fifth century B.C. in the early days of the Roman Republic. The historian Livy relates that he left his farm, and answered the call to defend Rome and lead the army, even in his old age. Cincinnatus came to embody civic virtue, Roman manliness, and devotion to Rome. In like manner, Washington left his plantation to answer the call to lead the Continental Army, and as such was seen as a kind of Cincinnatus. When the Revolution came to an end in 1783, and the Treaty of Paris solidified our sovereignty, Washington went back to Mt. Vernon, thinking his duty to country was complete. However, the Articles of Confederation had outlived their usefulness, and it was clear that a new set of flexible and better-articulated laws was needed. Washington once again answered the call of his country to preside over the Constitutional debates. Ultimately, Washington would be elected as the first president of this new system under the Constitution in 1789. Much to his chagrin, the debates and the Early Republic period only seemed to polarize the nation. To his credit, he refused monarchial sentiment, insisting on being called Mr. President. When his second term was complete, he stepped down, resolved that the mark of power in a republic was the refusal of power, and not its executive expansion. Cincinnatus indeed.
Washington’s faith has been a subject of some contention, mostly unnecessary I might add. He is generally painted as a Deist in the period. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as his actions spoke volumes about his faith in Christ. He was a member of the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church, an avid attendee of several churches, and also subsidized the founding of Pohick Church near Mt. Vernon. In a 1779 speech he gave to the Delaware, he encouraged them to “above all…learn the religion of Jesus Christ.” While his public language was laced with Deistic parlance, his actions told the story. The man again was never hit by musket in the Revolution, survived disease in the field, and all the horrors of war—how could you doubt God was looking out for him, or that his faith in the God of the Bible did not sustain him through it? Most detractors will point to his membership in the Freemasons as proof that he was a Deist and only nominally Christian. Washington became a Mason in 1752, and was later offered Master of Grand Lodge of Virginia, which he declined. In all his years as a Freemason, we have record of four attendances—how much of a Mason could he have been? He praised elements of the order he admired, namely those that reflected Enlightenment sentiment. Washington must have been aware of the work of darker secret societies at work even in his own day. Namely, he warned in a 1798 letter, that no less than the Illuminati had infiltrated American government and were at that time corrupting the embryonic political institution. He referred to the Illuminati as “diabolical” and further stated: “That Individuals of them may have done it, and that the founder, or instrument employed to found, the Democratic Societies in the United States, may have had these objects—and actually had a seperation of the People from their Government in view, is too evident to be questioned.” Given that he had watched the bifurcation of American politics with his own eyes, he was in a unique position to observe and confirm. Arguments firmly tying Washington to the Freemasons or the Illuminati as some conspiracy to set up some Satanic New Atlantis is simply, historiographically absurd. Washington loved God—it was later individuals who tried to make him a god.
It seems that the great statesman could only find but a few years of respite from the cares of his profession. He did come back to his beloved Mt. Vernon to enjoy his twilight years with Martha. On December 12, 1799 Washington took a ride to inspect his plantation. He was caught in a sudden storm of snow and freezing rain. The next day he awoke with a severe sore throat, which eventually made it difficult to swallow. According to the conventions of the day, doctors bled him. It may have been less the severe cold and more the hypervolemic shock caused by the bloodletting that finally did him in. Washington died on December 14, 1799.