Person of History: George Washington

In George Washington, character intersects action and morality motivates reform. A man of honor and adventure, Washington’s place in American history is prime and divine.

Things you learn about George Washington in grade school and still remember years later:

1. He was the first president of the United States

2. He was tall (6’2″)

3. He had a powerful drive to succeed, and did, despite having a minimum education

4. He was a natural soldier and became a General in the War of Independence (during which he crossed the Delaware, standing up, in the front of a boat at night in the cold, right?). He said of his first battle experience, “I heard bullets whistle and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”

5. His wife’s name was Martha and they lived together at Mount Vernon.

Things you may have learned in grade school and don’t remember, or perhaps, things you never learned at all:

1. He grew up in the gentry class, not having more than an elementary education (which later would be criticized by his Vice President, John Adams). His father died when he was 11, and although we have close to 17,000 preserved letters from Washington, only two mention his father. On the other hand, he adored his strong mother and mentioned her frequently in his writings.

2. An adventurer at heart, he spent his early years surveying the Virginian frontier. His neat penmanship and ability to draw maps made him a natural at surveying land, which he described as the next best thing to owning land.

3. He inadvertently detonated a world war, the French-Indian war (referred to as the Seven Years War in Europe), when Irowuois Indians under his command killed ten Frenchmen near Fort Duquesne. The French retaliation led to skirmishes in British territories around the world.

4. He was elected leader of the American army unanimously, and was so touched by this that he was unable to write his letter of acceptance, and had it dictated instead. He was the natural choice because of his fighting experience and abilities and his strong leadership traits. Three days after his appointment, Congress issued the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms. At this point, formal independence had not been declared, and the hope was to avoid war through negotiations with Britain.

5. Washington would have claimed Christianity as his belief system, although his writings hardly mention”God”, instead referring to “Providence” or “the Great Ruler of Events”. He did not regularly attend church. He believed religion was a useful tool for civilized society, but not necessary. Paul Johnson, conservative historian, labels Washington as a deist. Washington was involved in the Masons.

6. Although he owned slaves, he understood that to build our country on slave-labor would be detrimental. He was the only founding father to free his slaves upon his death.

7. His passion was farming. Just visit Mount Vernon, outside Washington D.C., and you’ll see the evidence. At the time of his death, he was farming 8000 acres. His farming adventures included crop rotation and livestock breeding.

8. Martha Washington spent the winter months of the war years with her husband, tending the sick and doing needlework.

9. He never wore a wig, although he cared about his appearance and powdered his hair and tied it with a ribbon. He replaced some broken teeth with ones made from hippopotamus ivory. When he was a young explorer and mapper his traveling ensemble included nine shirts, six linen waistcoats, seven caps, six collars, and four .

For a good, quick but thorough read (pictured right): George Washington, by Paul Johnson.

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