The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

June 27, 2017

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George Washington: Today’s Indispensable Man
Forrest McDonald - 02/16/09

The first character to which he aspired was that of the country gentleman. This entailed becoming a successful commercial farmer. Washington’s inheritance was small, but he worked skillfully as a tobacco planter and steadily increased his holdings. It did not hurt that he married a wealthy widow, whose property was greater than his. (As an aside I must point out that Washington, like his neighbors, employed slave labor. At the time, slavery was legal in almost every country on earth. Washington’s duty, he believed, was merely to treat his slaves humanely.

He gradually changed his mind, however, and in his will he freed his slaves. Though many other Virginians, including Jefferson, talked about the evils of slavery, none followed Washington’s example. Moreover, Washington made provision for supporting his former slaves who were too old to support themselves. His estate was paying pensions to them as late as 1833.)

The key to Washington’s success as a farmer was that, in an age in which scientific farming was in its infancy, he became the scientific farmer par excellence. He read every book and journal on the subject, and he exchanged letters with experts throughout Europe. He conducted endless experiments and made endless calculations (my favorite is that he determined that there were 13,411,000 grains in a bushel of timothy). He invented a plow that automatically dropped seeds in the furrows. He was his own architect in the construction of Mount Vernon. He conducted time and motion studies a century-and-a-half before “efficiency experts” introduced the concept into American manufacturing. And he became an immensely wealthy man by the time of the Revolution.

Already, however, he had aspired to and succeeded in his first public character, that of a military hero. At the age of twenty-two he was entrusted with command of Virginia troops sent to the back-country in what turned out to be the beginnings of the French and Indian War. He took to warfare enthusiastically. “I heard the bullets whistle,” he wrote to a younger brother, “and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” He made mistakes, but in the crucial Battle of the Wilderness, he offered his commanding British general advice which, had it been followed, would have saved the day. Instead the British employed conventional tactics—and were slaughtered. Washington emerged as a hero, and was regarded throughout the colonies as a man destined to do great things.

His opportunity came twenty years later, when the Continental Congress convened to defend American liberties against British encroachments. Washington was the obvious choice for commander in chief, partly because he was the only American with an intercolonial reputation as a fighting man, partly because as a Virginian in charge of New England troops he would give the army a “national” flavor. However, lest Congress overlook the obvious, Washington attended its sessions dressed in a splendid general’s uniform designed especially for the occasion. On the motion of John Adams, he was given the command.

Washington and his men drove the British out of Boston early in 1776, but soon thereafter things began to go badly. The Americans failed to defend New York, and Washington’s army was forced to retreat to Pennsylvania. Part of the army disbanded; the remainder was a shambles. Making everything worse was that large numbers of civilians, upon seeing the British, suddenly lost their taste for independence and went over to the enemy. (Indeed, Washington’s mother was a Loyalist.)

Washington headed off disaster by a bold stroke. On Christmas night, 1776, he crossed the ice-choked Delaware River and successfully attacked the British garrison in Trenton. Popular morale improved, and many volunteers joined the army. Yet by the summer of 1777 Washington knew that he would never have enough strength to defeat the British head-on. Instead, he would have to maneuver carefully and wait, possibly for years, until the British made a blunder that would enable him to strike the decisive blow.

But the waiting game required patience and discipline—traits that the Americans did not have and that Washington himself would have to teach them. Moreover, it cost a great deal of money to keep an army in the field, and the Congress had very little. Congress raised funds by printing paper money, backed merely by a vague promise to repay some day; the paper rapidly lost its value until it was worth nothing at all (giving rise to the expression, “not worth a continental”).

In the fall of 1777, General Horatio Gates won a major victory in upstate New York, but out of jealousy of Washington he declined to cooperate with the main army, and as a result the enemy took Philadelphia. Washington’s army retreated to Valley Forge, where it endured a winter quite as dreadful as legend depicts. A single brushstroke conveys the whole: Congress declared a day of “Continental Thanksgiving,” and ordered that each soldier be fed a special “dinner,” consisting of “half a gill of rice and a tablespoon full of vinegar.”

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