George Washington

Early Life and Career.

Born in Westmoreland County, Va., on Feb. 22, 1732, George Washington was the eldest son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington, who were prosperous Virginia gentry of English descent. George spent his early years on the family estate on Pope’s Creek along the Potomac River. His early education included the study of such subjects as mathematics, surveying, the classics, and “rules of civility.” His father died in 1743, and soon thereafter George went to live with his half brother Lawrence at Mount Vernon, Lawrence’s plantation on the Potomac. Lawrence, who became something of a substitute father for his brother, had married into the Fairfax family, prominent and influential Virginians who helped launch George’s career. An early ambition to go to sea had been effectively discouraged by George’s mother; instead, he turned to surveying, securing (1748) an appointment to survey Lord Fairfax’s lands in the Shenandoah Valley. He helped lay out the Virginia town of Belhaven (now Alexandria) in 1749 and was appointed surveyor for Culpeper County. George accompanied his brother to Barbados in an effort to cure Lawrence of tuberculosis, but Lawrence died in 1752, soon after the brothers returned. George ultimately inherited the Mount Vernon estate.
By 1753 the growing rivalry between the British and French over control of the Ohio Valley, soon to erupt into the French and Indian War (1754-63), created new opportunities for the ambitious young Washington. He first gained public notice when, as adjutant of one of Virginia’s four military districts, he was dispatched (October 1753) by Gov. Robert Dinwiddie on a fruitless mission to warn the French commander at Fort Le Boeuf against further encroachment on territory claimed by Britain. Washington’s diary account of the dangers and difficulties of his journey, published at Williamsburg on his return, may have helped win him his ensuing promotion to lieutenant colonel. Although only 22 years of age and lacking experience, he learned quickly, meeting the problems of recruitment, supply, and desertions with a combination of brashness and native ability that earned him the respect of his superiors.

French and Indian War.

In April 1754, on his way to establish a post at the Forks of the Ohio (the current site of Pittsburgh), Washington learned that the French had already erected a fort there. Warned that the French were advancing, he quickly threw up fortifications at Great Meadows, Pa., aptly naming the entrenchment Fort Necessity, and marched to intercept advancing French troops. In the resulting skirmish the French commander the sieur de Jumonville was killed and most of his men were captured. Washington pulled his small force back into Fort Necessity where he was overwhelmed (July 3) by the French in an all-day battle fought in a drenching rain. Surrounded by enemy troops, with his food supply almost exhausted and his dampened ammunition useless, Washington capitulated. Under the terms of the surrender signed that day, he was permitted to march his troops back to Williamsburg.
Discouraged by his defeat and angered by discrimination between British and colonial officers in rank and pay, he resigned his commission near the end of 1754. The next year, however, he volunteered to join British general Edward Braddock’s expedition against the French. When Braddock was ambushed by the French and their Indian allies on the Monongahela River, Washington, although seriously ill, tried to rally the Virginia troops. Whatever public criticism attended the debacle, Washington’s own military reputation was enhanced, and in 1755, at the age of 23, he was promoted to colonel and appointed commander in chief of the Virginia militia, with responsibility for defending the frontier. In 1758 he took an active part in Gen. John Forbes’s successful campaign against Fort Duquesne. From his correspondence during these years, Washington can be seen evolving from a brash, vain, and opinionated young officer, impatient with restraints and given to writing admonitory letters to his superiors, to a mature soldier with a grasp of administration and a firm understanding of how to deal effectively with civil authority.

Virginia Politician.

Assured that the Virginia frontier was safe from French attack, Washington left the army in 1758 and returned to Mount Vernon, directing his attention toward restoring his neglected estate. He erected new buildings, refurnished the house, and experimented with new crops. With the support of an ever-growing circle of influential friends, he entered politics, serving (1759-74) in Virginia’s House of Burgesses. In January 1759 he married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy and attractive young widow with two small children. It was to be a happy and satisfying marriage. After 1769, Washington became a leader in Virginia’s opposition to Great Britain’s colonial policies. At first he hoped for reconciliation with Britain, although some British policies had touched him personally. Discrimination against colonial military officers had rankled deeply, and British land policies and restrictions on western expansion after 1763 had seriously hindered his plans for western land speculation. In addition, he shared the usual planter’s dilemma in being continually in debt to his London agents. As a delegate (1774-75) to the First and Second Continental Congress, Washington did not participate actively in the deliberations, but his presence was undoubtedly a stabilizing influence. In June 1775 he was Congress’s unanimous choice as commander in chief of the Continental forces.

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