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George Washington played a central role in the shaping of the early American history as a soldier and a statesman. He is remembered as the first President of the United States as well as a key member of the founding fathers of the American nation (O'brien 19). His key roles in the American history were in the American Revolution War as the Continental Army’s Commander in Chief and the drafting of the US Constitution during the 1787 convention. He was instrumental in taking Boston and driving out the British. In New York, he was defeated by the British forces but did not suffer major causalities that would have otherwise forced him to surrender. His victories and achievements owe to his strong leadership qualities, military knowledge and careful planning. He was an inspiring leader that led by example for his men to follow. George Washington's strength as a leader depended on his ability to put the general good ahead of personal gain (his incorruptible conduct).
Washington was not born into riches but he learned that through hard work he could rectify his situation. His family was what could be considered today as middle class, which is moderately prosperous during that period rather than the elite and wealthy (Flexner 28). For instance, his close friend, William Fairfax, came from a wealthy family considered to be the major landowners in Virginia. Washington inherited a farm from his father and another from his older brother who had served as his surrogate father. He worked hard on his farm like any other hardworking farm owners at the time. Even though he owned slaves, as it was a norm during those days in the colonial America, he treated them well.
French and Indian War
During the Braddock expedition in 1755 against the French, Washington was General Edward’s senior American assistant. He served as a staff volunteer after he was told that he could not be appointed as a major since only London could give that rank and above (Bordewich 102). According to Ferling (28), he was in a position that he could make recommendations and suggestions but the British authority had no obligation to listen to him. He complained that Americans should not be deprived of the benefits of being British subjects (Flexner 32). On the disastrous Virginia draft law of 1757 he commented that people given public office never cared enough to dispense the trust given to them with more zeal and greater honest to their country. He continued to serve the British crown regardless of his views (Ferling 29).
During the confrontation with the French in the Battle of the Monongahela, Washington suffered severe fever and headache. The army doctor believed that that the fate of his country and men was tied to how he would recover. Ferling (32) pointed out that he fought on regardless of the illness rallying the remaining troops into an organized retreat. His conduct in the face of flying bullets while riding on a horse around the battlefield was a show of bravery that ensured redemption of his reputation after a first disastrous command when he was captured at the battle of Fort Necessity. His heroics on the battlefield saved many lives and earned him a promotion in the newly created Virginia regiment.
After the creation of the Virginia Army under the authority of the assembly, Washington was given unlimited power to carry out offensive and defensive military acts as he saw fit when he was commissioned as Virginia Regiment’s Colonel (Flexner 28). He was the commander in chief of all the forces of the colony. However, he coveted the rank of an officer in the British forces and the pay that accompanied it but he never got the chance. Ellis (30) stated that he happily accepted the offer and the Virginia Regiment were never integrated into the British military ranks despite pleas from the governor. He believed that he was not competent enough but since there was no one else more qualified than him he obliged to serve and risk his reputation.
During his initial days of command, the Virginia Regiment was very tiny hence the forts he set up became easily overrun by Indian raids. As homesteads were burned, the survivors moved to Winchester where Washington’s headquarters was located. He stated “… I could offer myself a willing offering to the butchering enemy provided that would contribute to the people’s ease…” (Flexner 30). According to Ellis (32), he cited that dying at the hands of vengeful savages would not be a heavy burden for him provided that his death would save people even by a small capacity. He called upon the militia reinforcement to help fight the Indians despite bad experience with them before. After the militia failed him once again, he requested for a permanent army which turned out to be the Continental Army. He was given the whole war effort by the assembly meaning that all the consequences were on him.
As the General of the Continental Army, he had vast power Washington had no desire to seize power by using his influence as the commander in chief of the continental forces. According to Ellis (69), he felt that he did not have sufficient experience for his command which was beyond his abilities. The congress took comfort in the belief that he would seek advice rather than make rash decisions. Himself he was not comfortable with the election but he saw that he had no other choice since there was no other man better suited for the job. He would have liked to spend time with his wife but he believed that his destiny was the service which intended to be for the better. Ferling (86) added that Washington refused to take a salary hence showcasing his noble character.
Flexners’s portrayal of George Washington during the revolution is that of a human being of impeccable personal qualities although not without blemish in entirety. With all the power in his hands during the revolution, Washington only focused on fighting for the greater good than going for his own personal desires. Ellis (70) stated that he gallantly led the continental forces against the British. He faced desertions from the poor during a time when the laws favored the rich. He was able to hold onto his men by persuading them, threatening deserters, and using his authority and inspiration (Flexner 28). He also talked the officers out of a rebellion against the continental cabinet since it would have served no greater good by creating disunity (Ferling 98).
According to Ellis (77), Washington had received military knowledge while working for the British yet he soon disavowed their system which gave military rank on the basis of family influence. During his time in the army, all his generals were carefully chosen and supervised by him in order to command and preserve the forces. Those who were prestigious in their localities were selected so as to procure recruits and command obedience. He made sure to give promotions on the basis of merit only (Flexner 31). He was able to coordinate to great effect with the state governors, and the congress as well as their militias. Ferling (94) added that his determination and attention to detail ensured that the army was always in the field to sustain the revolution even when the British seemed to have the upper hand in battle.
At Watertown in Massachusetts while advancing towards Boston Harbor, Washington found himself in dilemma. The army was great confusion and it seemed impossible that the Yankee troops would obey his orders (Ellis 86). He himself had been to Massachusetts long before protesting against the Virginia Regiment taking orders from a Marylander. He slipped unnoticed into their camp where a review was performed greeting him as he was standing under “Washington Elm” (Flexner 66). They cast aside their disagreements and decided to work together obeying his orders to achieve a common goal of ousting the British.
Ellis (80) stated that Washington sought to protect Tories as long as they did not commit treason since he believed that they were all Americans. When hostilities broke in Boston, many people from Massachusetts who opposed armed protest against the British fled to the British army to be protected. With the Continental forces winning, the British withdrew retreating to their ship while leaving behind their men and Tories. Washington decided to forgive them after liberating Boston citing, “Would it not be good policy to grant a generous amnesty to conquer these people by a generous forgiveness?” (Flexner 76). There was a tradition of conducting a parade after conquering the enemy but Washington did not adhere to it. He instead preferred to slip in and out of the city without being noticed. That does not mean that he was not proud of his achievements.
According to Ellis (157), Washington decided to disband the army at the of the war when the United States gained independence from Britain. He earned praise from King George III who called him a person of the greatest character (Ferling 134). He gave his soldiers a farewell address after which he left the army by resigning his commander-in-chief commission. Most people would have seized such an opportunity to step into power and establish themselves as tyrants.
Politics and Retirement
He played an important role in devising the federal form of government for the United States during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 which he presided over (O'brien 22). In the initial two national elections, the Electoral College unanimously elected him as the president due to his recognized leadership qualities (Bordewich 98). His reign saw the increased unification of rival factions within the young nation. He was in support of Alexander Hamilton’s idea of creating a national bank, implanting an operational tax structure for the country, instituting a stable seat of government, and the satisfaction of all debts (Washington 43). He oversaw a period of peace with Great Britain while facilitating trade between the two nations hence ensuring stable financial growth that profited the nation.
His involvement in the military and wealth possessed gained respect for him leading to his election into the legislature. He was critical of the British policies regarding mercantilism and taxation. He never used his influence as a leader to acquire material possessions (O'brien 42). He exported tobacco which he used to pay for the luxuries he imported from overseas. As a successful farmer and a member of the elite he usually hosted people of rank at his estate. He preferred to treat other people civilly citing the need to keep them at proper distance for their familiarity would grow as authority increased. When the revolution broke, he joined the war without being asked and did not even seek to be commander citing that he was not equal to it. When he was made the general and commander, he did not accept a salary. He also worked closely with the congress always ensuring public insight. He directed the Congress to provide the army with essentials only rejecting its purview to get supplies.
After the war, Washington voluntarily resigned and decided to disband his army after victory instead of choosing to institute himself as a monarch (O'brien 36). His personal character as a military leader was praised by British papers. He was praised for how he always sought to minimize the deaths of his men in battle. When he lost in New York, he devised a strategy for retreat that ensured no loss of life. His decision to use variolation as inoculation against smallpox helped to significantly reduce deaths among his troops (Flexner 412). He was also first in peace taking part in signing peace treaties that ended the war altogether. After being democratically elected as the president, Washington retired from presidency just after two terms only despite being widely accepted by the American people (Bordewich 210). As a founding father he did not use his influence to stay in office until his death hence created the two-term tradition that is still in use today. In the years that followed he maintained a non-partisan stance on political matters even though he supported the Federalist Party’s policies.
Bordewich, Fergus M. The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government. Simon and Schuster, 2017.
Ellis, Joseph. His Excellency: George Washington. Vintage Books USA, 2005.
Ferling, John. The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American icon. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2010.
Flexner, James Thomas. Washington: The indispensable man. Open Road Media, 2017.
O'brien, Conor Cruise. First in Peace: How George Washington Set the Course for America. Da Capo Press, 2009.
Washington, George. "Farewell address." September 19 (1796): 1796.
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