Little Washington: The First Washington of All

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His half brother Lawrence, fourteen years George's senior, looked out for him. Lawrence counseled the boy about his future and introduced him to Lord Fairfax, head of one of the most powerful families in Virginia. Despite George's meager education, he had three great strengths: his mother's ambitious drive, a shy charm, and a gift for mathematics. Lord Fairfax discerned all three traits and invited the sixteen-year-old to join a team of men surveying Fairfax lands in the Shenandoah Valley region of the Virginia colony. It was the young man's first real trip away from home, and he proved his worth on the wilderness journey, helping the surveyors while learning their trade.

Surveying offered George decent wages, travel opportunities, and time away from his strict and demanding mother. By the time he was seventeen, he went into the surveying business on his own. However, the next year, tragedy visited the Washington family once again: George's beloved half brother and mentor, Lawrence, contracted an aggressive strain of tuberculosis. George accompanied Lawrence to the island of Barbados in the West Indies in the desperate hope that the tropical climate would help his brother.

Unfortunately, it did not, and George returned to Virginia alone, concluding the one trip of his life outside America. Lawrence had commanded a local militia in the area near the Washington family home.

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Soon after returning to Virginia, George, barely out of his teens, lobbied the colonial government for the same post and was awarded it. The young man possessed no military training whatsoever, and it soon showed in disastrous fashion.

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England and France, vying for control of the American continent north of Mexico, were at odds over the Ohio River Valley. The French were entering the region from Canada and making alliances with Native Americans, and the English-based government in Virginia was determined to stop these incursions.

Serving as a British military envoy, Washington led a group of volunteers to the remote area, gathered intelligence on enemy troop strengths, and delivered a message ordering the French to leave the region. They refused, and when Washington returned home, he proposed that a fort be built on the Ohio River in order to stop further French expansion into the area.

In the spring of , he put together a poorly trained and equipped force of men and set out to reinforce troops building this stockade, which he called Fort Necessity. On the way, he encountered a small French force and promptly attacked it, killing ten of the French—an unknown young militiaman from Virginia had fired the first shots of the French and Indian War. Because one of the men killed was a French envoy delivering a message to the British, Washington had taken part in the killing of an ambassador, a serious violation of international protocol.

Repercussions of this rashness reached all the way to Westminster Palace and Versailles.

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Native Americans in the region, sensing British-American ineptitude, sided with the French. The joint Native American-French force attacked the small, ill-placed Fort Necessity and overwhelmed Washington and his men. They were forced to leave the area after signing a surrender document. The document was in French, and in it, Washington, who did not read French, supposedly admitted to breaches of military protocol, thus handing the French a great propaganda victory when the text of the document was released in Europe.

Not long afterward, Washington was passed over for promotion, and he resigned from the army, bitter that the British had not defended his honor. England decided that the best way to drive the French from the Ohio River Valley was to send in regular troops from the Royal Army. Their commander, General Edward Braddock, needed an aide with experience in the conflict and offered the post to Washington.

Eager to regain favor with the English army, Washington accepted. Washington had warned Braddock that the French and Indian troops fought very differently than the open-field, formalized armies of Europe, but he was ignored.

Washington was mostly self-educated

A few days later, the British were attacked by a large Native American force and completely routed. Washington fought bravely despite having two horses shot from under him. Braddock was killed, his terrified British troops fled into the forest, and his young aide barely escaped with his life. London blamed the colonials for the fiasco. 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.

Washington was only twenty-two years old. This sudden turn of events provided him with a superb apprenticeship for the supreme command that would come two decades later: Washington learned how to raise a force, train it, lead it into battle, and keep it from deserting. But the young commander was always short of recruits and money, and appeals to the English military authorities did little good.

Washington, Virginia

Washington became increasingly annoyed with their condescension and their rebuffs of his attempts to win a regular army commission. After commanding a regiment that finally captured Fort Duquesne in , he resigned from the military and went home to Mount Vernon, the farm he had inherited from Lawrence. A year later, Washington married a rich young widow named Martha Custis. He won a seat in the lower Virginia legislature and settled into the life of a Virginia planter. His early married years were happy ones. Washington worked hard and learned everything he could about farming, but his new occupation gave him another reason to resent the mother country.

He found that he was largely at the mercy of a trade system that heavily favored British merchants buying tobacco, his major crop. Consequently, after a few years, he owed a significant debt. By , he abandoned tobacco farming and diversified Mount Vernon into crops that could be sold more easily in America. He also dabbled in light industry such as weaving and fishing.

All of these ventures were aimed at making his plantation more self-sufficient, thus minimizing his business ties to England. Several hundred slaves labored at Mount Vernon. As Washington turned to crops that were less labor intensive than tobacco, he had more help than he needed. However, although he could pursue greater profits by minimizing labor expenses, he almost never sold or moved a slave to another property unless the slave wanted to leave.

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As he approached middle age, Washington expressed increasing qualms about the practice of slavery. By the mids, colonial resentment of British rule was widespread. To replenish its coffers that were drained for the war with the French, London imposed taxes on the colonies. Moreover, to force compliance, England established punitive laws against the colonials. Americans, who had no say in British parliamentary decisions, voiced their disdain for these tariffs that had suddenly raised the prices on necessities such as tea.

As the controversy grew hotter, more British troops poured into the colonies, which only compounded the problem.

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Generally, the southern colonies were less openly defiant toward England during the early stages of the independence movement. Like most Virginians, the master of Mount Vernon was slow to warm to revolutionary fervor, hoping that the British would end their oppressive ways.

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 s. He was one of the first leading citizens in Virginia to openly support resistance to English tyranny. In , the Virginia legislature voted him one of seven delegates to the First Continental Congress, an assembly devoted to resistance to British rule—interestingly, a thirty-one-year-old Virginian named Thomas Jefferson finished out of the running.

Washington joined the majority of the assembly in voting for new economic reprisals against England. In April , electrifying news came from the North. Local militias from towns around Boston had engaged British troops at Lexington and Concord.

George Washington - Wikipedia

When Washington rode to the Second Continental Congress a month later, there was talk that he might be named commander of all the colonial forces. Washington, his confidence weakened by the misadventures against the French and Native Americans, resisted the appointment. But he was the natural choice for several reasons: he was still considered a hero from the French and Indian War; at forty-three, he was old enough to lead but young enough to withstand the rigors of the battlefield; and northerners hoped a general from Virginia would help draw the reluctant South into the conflict.

Above all, the leadership and charisma of the tall, quiet, stately Virginian was unsurpassed. Washington did not attend the congressional session that took the vote for the army's command. He was the last of its members to know that he had been chosen—by a unanimous vote. He refused a salary and told the Congress, "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.

In accepting command of colonial forces, George Washington had crossed a deadly serious line.