Friday, December 26, 2008

George Washington: A Life

Looking for a new list of books to give to those friends and family looking for gift ideas for me, I hit upon the idea of reading a biography on all the presidents of the United States. It seemed like a great idea for learning more about the history of our country and thus far, the men we have chosen to lead it. Logically I decided to start in the beginning and thus the first out of the shoot was George Washington: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall.

Prior to reading this hefty 512-page biography I knew three things about George Washington. One, he chopped down a cherry tree and then couldn't tell a lie about it, he had wooden teeth and he was our greatest military general. I was only right on the wooden teeth.

In the beginning, George used his status as a wealthy plantation owner inherited from his father and his relationship with the Virginia governor to garner a position in the military of training soldiers in peacetime. The rest of his military career was knowing who to leech onto to pull him father up the military ladder until he eventually happened to be in the right place at the right time to become General of the newly declared Independent States of America. His first military duty was to deliver a message to the French in the Ohio Valley region that they were no longer wanted. On his way to deliver the message he happened upon a French scouting party and ambushed them killing most of the soldiers and the officer in charge. Only later after it was all over was it discovered that the scouting party had actually been French diplomats sent to discuss the occupancy of the Ohio Valley. The French, as can be expected, were not too happy over the killings and thus, George Washington singly handedly began the seven-year French and Indian War.

George continued on his way to an indefensible marshy swamp where he built Fort Necessity where he was quickly overwhelmed by a small contingent of French and Indians and surrendered. He signed a confession that he assassinated the leader of the French scouting party, gave over two of his surviving officers as prisoners of war and marched home with the remaining survivors. But as luck would have it, the American public was looking for a hero and anyone taking it to the French as George has done were considered heroes and thus he came out of the whole affair as one.

However, George had lost the favor of Virginia Governor Dinwiddie so he next leeched onto General Edward Braddock to further his ambitions of a military career. At 23, George became a volunteer aide-de-camp to Braddock. Per his suggestion, George convinced Braddock to separate 1400 soldiers from the main contingent in a final push to the fort but they were ambushed a few miles from their goal and slaughtered by a group of 300 Indians. Braddock and all officers with the sole exception of George would be killed along with three fourths of the soldiers in the Battle of the Monongahela. George buried Braddock in the middle of the road and marched the few surviving soldiers over it on the way back home to disguise the grave from the Indians. But with Braddock dead, George's bad advice was lost from public view and he came out of the battle once again as a hero in the public's eye and was promoted to colonel and named commander of all Virginia forces.

Since his mentor Braddock was now dead, George needed someone else to leech onto and selected General Forbes as his next selection. Forbes made George a Brigadier General and set off again to subdue the French in the Ohio Valley. On the way, Brigadier General Washington got caught up in a case of friendly fire on his own troops, which resulted in a number of casualties. Finally he and Forbes made it to Fort Duquesne, which had been abandoned by the French when their hired help, the Indians, left them. The seven-year war was over. George resigned from his military career and instead decided to turn his attention to politics.

George had inherited his brother's Mount Vernon estate after his brother died of tuberculosis. After the war, he married a recently widowed wealthy lady named Martha Custis after it was clear his true desire and wife of his neighbor wasn't going to drop her husband for George. His marriage to a wealthy widow greatly increased his property holdings and thus his social standing, which along with free booze at the local pub got him elected to the House of Burgesses.

Washington soon took a leading role in the growing colonial resistance to British authority and wound up being selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. When fighting broke out in April of 1775, George dusted off his military uniform and appeared at the Second Continental Congress where he told the assembled crowd he was prepared for war. He had the military experience and prestige, came from heavily populated Virginia and had no serious organized competition and was appointed Major General and made Commander-in-chief.

Washington quickly took control of the forces and was soon being routed by the British War machine and losing battle after battle as he retreated out of New York and New Jersey. General Washington finally scored his first major victory with the famed Christmas crossing of the Delaware to seize Trenton and then Princeton. The British soon were back to pounding on the Americans and once again George Washington's army was being defeated and force into retreat, even giving up the capital of the newly formed government in Philadelphia. With all the desertions and deaths due to disease and exposure, it looks all over for Washington but with the aide of the French, he trapped a sizable British Army at Yorktown in 1781 and ended the war.

After the Treaty of Paris was inked, Washington said goodbye again to his military life and much to everyone's surprise, retired to Mount Vernon. It was short lived and six years later he was persuaded to attend the Constitutional Convention where he participated little but was elected the first President of the United States with 100% of the electoral votes, the only president to do so. George finally came into his own and became the leader that he never was cut out for when in the military. For eight years he was the person between the squabbling secretaries in his cabinet Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson time and time again working out compromises. After eight years, despite people begging for him to stay on another term, Washington didn't run for a third term and successfully retired for the third time to Mount Vernon except for a brief appointment by President John Adams to be Commander-in-chief of the army again in a prospective war with France that never materialized.

George would devote his time running his farm, breeding horses, and entertaining a never ending flow of guests who came from near and far to see the famous couple. On December 12, 1799, George set off to do his daily farm inspections via horseback in a freezing rain. The next morning he woke with a bad cold, and a throat infection. Treatment of the time called for bloodletting and after four such treatments, probably sending George into shock due to blood loss, he died two days later.

Willard Sterne Randall captured all this and more in his biography of George Washington and I not only learned multitudes of new things about George Washington and our country that I hadn't known before, he awoke in me a desire to learn more. Already I am seeking out a biography on John Adams and other presidents to soon read. If my goal of 43 soon to be 44 presidential biographies weren't enough, I have also found a desire to learn more about such people like Benjamin Franklin and Benedict Arnold who tie in closely with the life of Washington. If I'm not careful, I'll end up with a list 100 books long just like my list of the 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time which I am still working on.


sage said...

Great review but you crush many of our great myths. Next you'll be telling us that Martha didn't bake cherry pies (of course she didn't, George cut down the cherry trees)...

You have an honorable and long goal ahead of you... There is a wonderful bio on Adams by McCullough, that's been very popular.

Ed said...

Sage - That very book about Adams is next on my list as soon as I get my hands on a copy. Right now I am reading the second book of Peter Jenkin's Walk Across America.

The Real Mother Hen said...

Born rich, marry rich, befriend with the rich and powerful - and many generations later people will read about you. Hhmm... since I've a deep desire to rule the universe, I wonder if it is too late to fake my birth into a rich family now.

How's your Christmas?

PhilippinesPhil said...

Geez, did she really disparage President Washington without actually knowing squat about the man? (As betrayed by that flip remark). Without him there would be no America. We'd probably be several countries, or a bunch of banana republics. Sounds like someone would rather blow off learning about what a great man he was, and instead say cutesy nonsensical things about him. (Excuse the disgust). This past year I read "His Excellency..." by Joseph Ellis. (By the way, GW isn't just in my top 3, he is numero uno in my book... The more I know about him, the more I think so).

Ed said...

Mother Hen - Right now I am thinking about a road trip. I just don't know where yet.

Phil - After reading that book, he is certainly up on my list, especially in his political life. The list of people he hung out with is a list of who's who in early colonial great people.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. I'm always amazed by how such few people could move history in such grand ways. Great idea for the reading list.

sage said...

Ed, thought you might be interested in this site. There are links to each president and suggested biographies.

Lezlie said...

Welcome to The U.S. Presidents Reading Project, Ed!