Colonial Virginia valued real estate as much as family bloodlines, or polite manners and form. Land determined one’s social position in the Tidewater and vast estates were controlled by the very few; an aristocracy that shaped Chesapeake society.
George Washington came of age in this exacting culture, and naturally yearned for acreage to set his mark as a gentleman, fueling his earliest ambitions.
This zeal for land had crossed the Atlantic in the first ships from Great Britain. In the British Isles only gentlemen of the highest status possessed “parks” where they and their guests could hunt, and fish, with acreage left over for tenancy. Landed Cavaliers in the Tidewater quickly fancied themselves equal to any landed gentleman residing in Kent or Sussex. A cursory reading of Jefferson’s Declaration illustrates this sentiment. The “All Men Are Created Equal,” passage in the document affirms Jefferson’s opinion regarding an equality of station.
Washington’s older, half-brother, Lawrence, the heir of their deceased father’s estate, tried to help the twenty-year-old find his way. Lawrence first looked to secure George a commission in the Royal Navy, but Mary Ball, George’s widowed mother refused to permit it. With no money for young Washington to pursue a formal education, he settled on a career as a surveyor.
Making use of his father’s instruments, and with aid of Lord Fairfax, his neighbor and patron, George received an appointment in the Virginia Militia, then trekked into the wilds with his party of frontiersmen to the Ohio River Valley asserting Virginia’s land claims.
The year was 1754 and a historic wilderness clash awaited the young surveyor.
Virginia claimed virtually all territories north by northwest of the colony. At the same time the French had staked claim to the entire region, as well. An initial engagement at the Great Meadows had gone wrong, when Native allies of Washington’s attacked a sleeping party of French soldiers. In the melee, Half King, a Catawba leader, killed a French diplomatic courier, which was, and still is, an international no-no.
French soldiers at Fort Duquesne struck at once.
As the French pressed down on Washington’s party, the young militia officer made a some bad decisions. 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 his capitulation, young George unknowingly admitted he murdered the French diplomat. Lacking a gentleman’s education, which included an understanding of the French language, he didn’t realize what he had signed.
His disgrace was complete.
Fast forward to 1794 and a return to the site of old Fort Duquesne.
Much for Washington had changed. As Commanding General, Washington had won the Revolutionary War, and been elected the first President of the United States. For the nation Washington was fully redeemed through his leadership and valor.
Still, for the man himself, the misadventures from forty years earlier still rankled. Though Washington’s name was universally lauded, nods and winks continued to echo about his pivotal role in starting the French and Indian War.
The scene of Washington’s earlier bumbling had changed, as well.
The French Fort, Duquesne, had been renamed Fort Pitt, after the English Primes Minister who had made victory possible over the French. After the Revolution the growing town was simply called Pittsburgh.
And it was in the proximity of Pittsburgh that a new challenge to Washington emerged.
Congress has passed an excise bill on distillers of whiskey. The infant federal government was burdened with debt from the Revolution. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had proposed the tax as a way to for the Treasury to settle its financial obligations. But distillers out near Pittsburgh stubbornly refused to pay the tax. Whiskey rebels rose up, attacking tax collectors who attempted to do their jobs. By summer of 1794, one collector had been tarred and feathered, and another was burned out of his home by a violent mob.
President Washington wasn’t having any of this defiance. He raised an army, placed Hamilton at the head, and sent them to the site of his earlier disgrace .
The rebels melted away like snow in April, bringing this challenge to federal authority to a speedy close.
Washington flexed federal power in what was the Constitution’s real first challenge. That Washington may have felt some sense of personal absolution, considering the location, is understandable.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both available on Kindle.