George Washington came of age immersed in the culture of Tidewater Virginia. To join the higher echelons of society there were set requirements, in particular vast property holdings.
This lust for land had crossed the Atlantic with the first ships from Great Britain. Only gentlemen of the highest social station possessed “parks” to use the British term; bucolic sanctuaries where aristocrats, and their guests could hunt, and fish, with enough acreage left for tenancy. Landed Cavaliers to Virginia immediately assumed a sense of equality to any aristocrat residing in Old England. (The “All Men Are Created Equal,” passage in the Declaration of Independence affirms Jefferson’s sentiment.)
Washington’s older, half-brother, Lawrence, the heir of their deceased father’s estate, had the land, the title, the rank, and the education that George could never realize. But, Lawrence did try to help the twenty-year-old establish himself. Lawrence first tried to secure a naval commission for his younger brother. But that didn’t work out.* With no money or prospects, young Washington settled on a career as a land surveyor, a noble calling for the time.
Making use of his father’s instruments, and with help from a neighbor, Lord Fairfax, George gained an appointment to the Virginia Militia, and a chance to put his vocation to use.
The year was 1754 and a fateful clash awaited the untested soldier-surveyor.
Virginia’s original charter claimed virtually all western lands, north by northwest of the colony, theoretically to the Pacific. At roughly the same time the French too, had staked claim to that same interior region. At a site known now as Jumonville Glen, in the Ohio River Valley, Washington and his party detected then attacked an encampment of French Canadiens. In the melee a Native scout with Washington, called Half King, killed a Frenchman, who, as it turned out was a diplomatic courier. That was, and still is, an international no-no.
In retaliation soon after, French reinforcements from Fort Duquesne, (Pittsburgh) pressed down on Washington’s party, where the untested and panicked militia officer made a colossally poor decision. In the ensuing “Battle of Fort Necessity,” Washington was easily whipped and forced to surrender when his hastily erected stockade filled with rain, making defense impossible.
Thoroughly humiliated, Washington surrendered to the French on July 4, 1754. In the capitulation treaty, young George unwittingly admitted he had allowed a French diplomat to be assassinated at Jumonville Glen. His lack of education was exposed. Washington couldn’t read French and didn’t know what he had signed. His humiliation was complete, his blunder igniting the French and Indian War.
Fast forward forty years to 1794 and a return to the site of old Fort Duquesne, the scene of Washington’s infamous disgrace. For Washington much had changed. As Commander of the Continental Army, Washington had nobly defeated the British in the Revolutionary War, and became the first President of the United States.
The once awkward Virginian was fully redeemed in the eyes of the new nation. Despite his rough start, Washington had grown up. Still, his misadventures decades earlier still stung. Despite universal accolades, the nods and winks of those who remembered Jumonville Glen remained.
As for old Fort Duquesne? The settlement had become the growing commercial center of Pittsburgh.
And it was in the proximity of Pittsburgh, near the site of his former humiliation, that President Washington faced a new conflict.
The new Congress has passed an excise bill on distillers of whiskey, as a means for the federal government to settle war debt. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had proposed this tax on spirits as a way for the Treasury to settle its financial difficulties. But distillers around Pittsburgh stubbornly refused to pay. In fact Whiskey Rebels rose up, and attacked tax officials who attempted to collect. By summer of 1794, one collector had been tarred and feathered, and another was burned out of his home by a violent mob.
The Revolution was over, and President Washington had had enough. No more domestic violence, especially not from the Ohio Valley. He requested Congress to raise an army, placed Hamilton at the head, and sent them to the site of his earlier disgrace. These agitators melted away like snow in April.
Washington flexed federal power in what was the Constitution’s real first challenge. That Washington felt some sense of personal absolution, considering his military history is understandable.
And what does this episode mean to us in the long run? Don’t piss off George Washington? Maybe. But more importantly the new Constitution was the law, and as chief executive, he enforced that law.
Washington had grown up, and the country needed to do likewise.
*Washington’s mother said no.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both available on Kindle.