by Bob Blythe
George Washington was perhaps the one indispensable
man among the founders. It is hard to imagine any of the others
commanding the respect needed to lead the Continental Army to victory
over Great Britain, preside over the Constitutional Convention,
and serve the United States as its first president. Little in Washington’s
early life gave a hint of the great achievements to come. Born into
the plantation elite of Virginia, he received a limited education.
When he was eleven, Washington’s father died, and his half-brother
Lawrence took him under his wing.
While still in his teens, Washington became
a land surveyor, which gave him a solid grounding in mathematics
and the evaluation of topography. This would later serve him well
as a military commander. As a lieutenant colonel of the Virginia
militia, Washington led a force into the Ohio Valley to contest
French domination of that region. He was in command of the British
forces at the Battle of Fort
Necessity (1754), helping to bring on the French and Indian
War. Washington gained valuable military experience in that conflict.
Washington married a wealthy widow, Martha
Dandridge Custis, in January 1759. The couple had no children of
their own, but raised Martha’s together. Inheriting Mt. Vernon,
a family plantation on the Potomac River, in 1761, Washington spent
the next 15 years as a planter, also serving in the House of Burgesses
(the colonial legislature in Virginia). He took the patriot side
in the disputes with Great Britain in the 1760s and 1770s, and was
elected to the first Continental Congress in 1774. With the coming
of open war with Britain in 1775, the congress decided to make Washington
commander in chief of the new Continental Army. Washington had as
much military experience as anyone in the colonies, and his selection
helped gain the allegiance of Virginia, by far the most populous
of the 13 colonies.
Experts hold widely differing views of Washington’s
abilities as a general. Most would agree, though, that he performed
a vital service merely by keeping a fighting force in the field
through the difficult early years of the war. His greatest strokes
as a commander were the surprise attacks on the garrisons at Trenton
(December 26, 1776) and Princeton (January 3, 1777). These victories
restored patriot morale in one of the war’s darkest periods.
After accepting the British surrender at Yorktown
in October 1781, Washington retired to Mt. Vernon to revive his
plantation and financial position. He was elected to the Constitutional
Convention (1787) and reluctantly served as its presiding officer.
Washington’s support of the Constitution was critical in its acceptance
by the states. He was a virtually unanimous choice for the nation’s
first president. Washington served two terms (1789-1797) and could
easily have gained a third had he wished to. Instead, he established
the precedent of a two-term maximum, which remained unchallenged
until 1940. Washington died in 1799, as much from incompetent medical
treatment as the underlying disease. A slaveholder throughout his
life, Washington freed his bondspeople at his death.
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