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, his brother Lawrence, an English-educated captain in the British Navy.
Lawrence exemplified George’s ideal of the perfect English gentleman. 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 frontier tracts in service of his wealthy patron, Lord Thomas Fairfax. Through the Lord’s position, young Washington studied military science and joined 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 wilds of the Ohio River Valley, Washington inadvertently ignited the French and Indian War. Engaging French forces near what is today Pittsburgh, the young militia officer was defeated in July 3, 1754.
Promised rank by a British General, Washington looked to realize his most fervent wish—to become a bonafide English officer and gentleman. However, on Washington’s return to the Ohio Valley, this general was killed in the Battle of the Monongahela. Washington never received his British rank.
Humiliated by the experience, Washington left the militia, embittered, and returned home.
Shortly after Britain’s final victory over the French, Washington inherited Mt Vernon with the death of his beloved Lawrence. As a planter, he sought a planter’s wife, marrying widow, Martha Dandridge Custis. With his grand house on the Potomac, and wealthy bride, Washington’s status in the Tidewater elevated considerably.
Still ambitious, Washington ran for office, serving first in the House of Burgesses, then as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774.
Under increasingly punitive British demands, Washington and many of his peers grew resentful of colonial treatment. By the time of the Second Continental Congress, Washington cast his public lot, by attending the proceedings in a uniform of buff and blue. Colonel Washington had become a rebel, available to command, if necessary, upon the field of battle.
It was during the Revolutionary War, particularly at the battle of Princeton, that Washington transformed, becoming something else, someone exceptional. As his ragtag troop of soldiers flushed redcoats out of the New Jersey town, he is said to have called out , “It is a fine day for a fox hunt, my boys.”
And in that moment George Washington discovered a cause better than any worldly possession could attain, a cause worth more than life.
Authentic majesty did not reside in Royal recognition or military rank. Rather, nobility lay in an ideal—that America could do something grand, and never before attempted—a government of the people. Washington grasped that outside trappings meant nothing, if unaccompanied by worthy ideals.
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.