Washingtonianism: The Father of his Country’s vision for the American Founding
June 20, 2012
For we who believe that great men, not impersonal forces, make history, George Washington is Exhibit A. As the Revolution’s commander in chief, president of the Constitutional Convention, and first president of the United States, he was luminously the Founding’s indispensable man, in biographer James Flexner’s pitch-perfect phrase. A pragmatic visionary—that familiar American combination—he conceived from his hard-won experience in the French and Indian War the central Founding ideas of an American union under a strong executive three decades before the Constitutional Convention, and his hardships in the Revolution led him to forge that vision into a plan. An ambitious entrepreneur, he shared the “spirit of commerce” he knew was America’s ruling passion, and he eagerly foresaw a nation where industry and trade, not just farming, would provide opportunity for all and would generate the wealth he thought key to national power and security, a vision he fulfilled in his two terms as president. He had a born leader’s knack of attracting brilliant, like-minded young men to work with him to fill in the details and make his dream a reality, and he fired them up with ample measures of praise and credit. They were visionaries together, but he was the visionary in chief.
His youthful friendship with the Fairfax family, English aristocrats who, with 5 million colonial acres, were among the grandest of Virginia’s grandees, set him going on both his entrepreneurial and military careers. After learning surveying, the 16-year-old Washington began laying out plots in 1748 for Lord Fairfax to sell on his rich Shenandoah Valley lands. Within two years, he had earned enough to buy 1,500 acres himself, and with 2,315 acres by the time he was 20, he was on his way as a high-rolling land speculator.
Whatever the spark was that the Fairfaxes saw in Washington—some mix of will, focus, courage, and honor—Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie, the crown’s highest Virginia official, saw too when the young surveyor called on him in January 1752, bearing letters of recommendation that gained him a dinner invitation, which led to his appointment as a major in the Virginia militia just before his 21st birthday, February 22, 1753. Certainly he looked the part: “Six feet high & proportionably made,” he wrote to his London tailor, “rather Slender than thick . . . with pretty long arms & thighs,” narrow shoulders and chest compared with his wide hips, big hands, piercing gray-blue eyes above a long, straight nose, powdered brown hair tied in a queue, a firm mouth clenched ever tighter as age decayed his teeth, and with “a Constitution hardy enough to encounter and undergo the most severe tryals, and I flatter myself resolution to Face what any Man durst,” he boasted to Dinwiddie. As Jefferson later marveled, he was also “the best horseman of his age.”
Late that fall, the neophyte major put his hardihood to the test, volunteering for a mission that “I believe few or none would have undertaken,” he wrote. It set earthshaking events in motion. British and French ambitions collided in the Ohio Valley, when France made plans to build a string of forts there to enforce its territorial claim, and the British responded with plans for outposts of their own, along with an ultimatum demanding the French troops’ “peaceable Departure.” Washington’s mission: to deliver the ultimatum. It’s easy to see how his published report of his two-month midwinter mission, with its exotic tales of savage Indians, daring wilderness adventure, and haughty French defiance, made the 22-year-old an instant celebrity on two continents. In London, theGentleman’s Magazine praised him as “a youth of great sobriety, diligence, and fidelity,” and Dinwiddie jumped him to lieutenant colonel.
No applause greeted his next wilderness exploit, though. Instead, quipped the era’s gossip, Horace Walpole, “a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire,” and it took until 1763 for the Seven Years’ War that Washington ignited to blaze through the New World, Europe, and even India and Africa, before it burned itself out.
Responding to rumors that the French were probing a strategic site where Pittsburgh later rose, Dinwiddie ordered his new lieutenant colonel to “restrain all such offenders” or “kill and destroy them.” Washington and his militiamen marched into the forest on April 2, 1754, but with 50 miles still to go, their scouts reported that 1,000 French soldiers had seized a half-finished British stockade, renaming it Fort Duquesne. Washington camped at a seemingly defensible spot named Great Meadows and called for reinforcements.
Meanwhile, hearing that a French scouting party was “sculking” about, Washington leaped into action—disastrously. His Indian allies led him and 40 men to “a very obscure place surrounded with Rocks,” where on May 28 they attacked 36 French soldiers and quickly captured 21 and killed ten, including wounded men whom Washington saw the Indians “knock . . . on the head and bereave them of their scalps.” Among the dead: a 35-year-old nobleman, the Sieur de Jumonville, who, like Washington on his earlier mission, was an envoy bearing an ultimatum demanding that the British clear out of the Ohio Valley, as the captured French officers indignantly insisted.
At first, Washington didn’t want to believe that he’d erred so grossly. The French officers, he blustered in his dispatch to Dinwiddie, were “bold Enterprising” men “of gt subtilty and cunning,” and “the absurdity of this pretext is too glaring as your Honour will see.” To his brother Jack, Washington boasted of “a signal Victory,” in which “I heard Bulletts whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.” When the London Magazine printed the letter, the battle-hardened George II scoffed, “He would not say so, if he had been used to hear many.”,,,