Derek Coleman: Some things you might not have known about America's first President
Today, Friday, 22nd February, marks the anniversary of the birth of a great man. He was a loyal servant of his king and country for many years, he joined her army and he fought against her enemies in her wars. He led many of her soldiers to safety after a great disaster and a Royal Governor appointed him to warn encroaching foreign forces to go home.
He was born 281 years ago and his family came from the village of Sulgrave in Northamptonshire, England, but he was born at Popes Creek, Westmoreland County, Virginia, which was then a British colony. The date of his birth was Feb. 11, but that was under the old Julian calendar and when that was changed to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, this became Feb. 22. Who was this loyal servant of the Hanoverian Kings George I, II and III? It was none other than George Washington, first President of the United States of America.
George Washington’s anscestors were land owners and members of the gentry back in England. His grandfather’s uncle had married into the Duke of Buckingham’s family, one of his ancestors was mayor of the city of Northampton and he was directly descended from the Lord of the manor of Sulgrave. His grandfather reached Virginia in 1658 and young George was born into a large, land-owning plantation family.
He had an easy, fairly uneventful childhood. The story of the cherry tree and the hatchet almost certainly never happened — it was probably made up by his biographers — and he filled his days learning about the plantation, hunting, fishing and not much schooling. He could read, although he did not seem to do a lot of it, and he taught himself mathematics. His early teenage years were spent at what was to become Mount Vernon under the guidance of his half brother, Lawrence and then he moved to another family plantation called Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock, near Fredericksburg, which he had inherited from his father who died when he was 11.
George was taller than the average for those days and his family had the right connections. His half brother Lawrence had married into Lord Fairfax’s family and it was thanks to his influence that at the age of 17 George was appointed as the official surveyor for Culpeper County, Va. This was an excellent job for a young man and gave him the opportunity to start buying land in what was then the western part of Virginia. Lawrence was also the commander of the Virginia militia and a member of a land company known as the Ohio Company. Through him, George got to meet Robert Dinwiddie, the new lieutenant governor of Virginia.
In 1751, Lawrence contracted consumption and George went with him to Barbados to see if the sea voyage and warmer climate would help him. While there, George caught smallpox but survived; Lawrence was not so lucky and died a year later. His death meant his place with the militia became vacant and George was appointed as a major in the Virginia regiment.
It was in this position that in October of 1753, Governor Robert Dinwiddie sent George to warn the French to abandon their new posts along the Ohio River valley. He was just 21 years old and, despite the dangers, carried out his mission successfully. As a reward he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and the next year he was sent back into the wilderness. Here he clashed with a French scouting force and defeated them, capturing several. What happened next is disputed. The French commander was killed — murdered, claimed the French — and Washington withdrew to a fort his men were building.
Incensed by what had happened, a large party of French and Indians attacked and, despite a spirited defense, Washington was eventually forced to surrender.
It was a setback, but his actions earned George the thanks of the House of Burgesses and, when the British redcoats arrived the next year, their commander, General Braddock, promoted him to colonel and appointed him as a member of his staff. Braddock’s expedition is a story for another day. Suffice it to say it was a disaster, yet George Washington emerged from it as a hero with a reputation as a fearless commander who looked after his men. As a reward he was made commander of all the Virginia forces.
It was in this position that he commanded the advanced guard of the expedition under General John Forbes that later drove the French from the area they had won. George resigned his commission at the end of 1758 and early next year he married Martha Dandridge Custis.
George settled down at Mount Vernon and for the next 15 years enjoyed the life of a rich plantation owner. He hunted, he conducted his business, he expanded his estates and was consistently elected to the House of Burgesses, where he appeared to make no great mark. Despite this, he followed the political trends of the day and in a letter dated 1769 he was already discussing resisting the demands of the British government by force. His talents were recognized in 1774 when he was named as a delegate to the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He served on none of the committees there, but his voice was heard and he was elected to serve again at the second congress in March of 1775.
This time, George Washington served on committees for fortifying New York, for collecting powder and ammunition, for raising money and for formulating rules for an army the colonies did not yet have. He was also the only member of the second Continental Congress who attended sessions dressed in military uniform.
On April 19 of that year, the world changed. It was a Wednesday, and in Massachusetts colonists fired on the redcoats for the first time. Two months later, Congress unanimously voted that “the gentleman from Virginia” should take command of the army of the united colonies. The Revolutionary War had started and George Washington was set to give up being British to become the father of a new, great nation.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.