An anxious boy, George Washington began life in the formal, orderly Virginia Tidewater. Born the first son of a second marriage, young Washington looked up to his older half brothers blessed with solid social standing and a full inheritance. In particular, George held dear, brother Lawrence, an English educated captain in the British Navy. Lawrence exemplified George’s ideal of the perfect English gentleman, and the younger man suppressed, (poorly) an ardent hunger to be a gentleman, too.
Self-conscious, young George flailed around for a vocation. He first trained as a surveyor, platting out western lands in service to the wealthy, then studying military science and joining the Virginia militia. Tall and strong, with a talent for numbers and tactics, Washington performed well in both pursuits.
Dispatched by the Royal Governor of Virginia into the hinterlands of the Ohio Valley Washington ignited the French and Indian War, by clashing with French forces near, what is today, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Promised rank by a British General, Washington looked to realize his most fervent wish—to become a bonafide English gentleman. However, the general was killed, and Washington blamed for the disasters on the frontier. Humiliated by the experience, Washington returned home.
In the years after Britain’s final victory over the French, Washington inherited Mt Vernon after the loss of his beloved Lawrence, then married widow, Martha Dandridge Custis. With his grand house and wealthy bride, Washington’s status in the Tidewater rose considerably. Still ambitious, Washington ran for office, serving first in the House of Burgesses then as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.
Under increasingly punitive British rule, Washington and many others grew resentful of discriminatory treatment. By the time of the Second Continental Congress, Washington attended in a uniform of buff and blue, telegraphing his availability to lead, if necessary, on the field of battle.
It was during the Revolutionary War, particularly at the battle Princeton, that Washington transformed, became something different, someone better. As his troops flushed redcoats out of the New Jersey town, he is said to have exclaimed, “It is a fine day for a fox hunt, my boys.” In that moment George Washington discovered a cause greater than any gentleman could attain, something worth dying for. Majesty did not reside in Royal favor or rank. Rather nobility lay in an idea—that a people could do something grand, and never before attempted—freely govern themselves. Washington grasped that outside trappings meant nothing, if unaccompanied by noble principles.
Those who assess General Washington with shallow, superficial values have missed the meaning of the man’s life and distinction. It’s a pity that those who seem to know the price of everything understand the value of nothing.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. Hard copies are available at http://www.river-of-january.com.