While in the office recently at LBJ High School in Johnson City, I noticed a beautiful framed portrait of George Washington leaning up against a wall. I asked Principal Julie Storer about the picture. She told me that it had been donated to the school and that they were looking for an appropriate place to display it. My spirits were lifted!
When I was in grade school, I remember that every classroom displayed a portrait of George Washington. One is hard-pressed nowadays to find a likeness of the Father of our Country anywhere in any of our schools. I think that is unfortunate, indeed. I see pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Emiliano Zapata and even Che Guevara—but no Washingtons or Lincolns. Perhaps we have come to think of George Washington as that old guy in a powdered wig with whom it is difficult to relate in this day and age.
It is important to understand that he didn’t live in the past—he lived in his own present, just as we do. Outcomes were not pre-determined in his present any more than they are in our present. He had to make do in the cultural and social environment in which he lived just as we must navigate through the complex world in which we live. It is not easy now and it certainly was not easy then. British novelist, L.P. Hartley, said, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
We tend to see the Founding Fathers, Washington included, as “elder statesmen” due, in large part, to the fact that most of the portraits and likenesses of them were made in their later years after they became presidents or legislators. The reality is that the Revolution was the cause of young men and young women. George Washington took over the Continental Army in the summer of 1775 at the age of 43. John Adams was 40. Thomas Jefferson was only 33 when he penned the Declaration of Independence.
At the ripe old age of 20, George Washington received an appointment to the Virginia militia. A year later he was sent by the governor of Virginia to the Ohio Valley to inform the French that they were to withdraw from the forts they were building there in league with the local Indian tribes. They were to withdraw or they were to be forcibly removed. Washington and a handful of others made a journey of 1,000 miles through snowy, trackless forests populated by hostile Indians. The trip was fraught with dangers probably not even imagined by the young Virginian. He was nearly killed at one point when his Indian interpreter turned on the little band and opened fire at point-blank range. Another time he fell into the icy waters of the Monongahela River and almost froze to death.
When the French rejected the British ultimatum, Washington returned to the Ohio Valley as a lieutenant colonel of Virginia troops. Washington found his first of many battles exhilarating. “I have heard the bullets whistle,” he said in a letter to his brother, “and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” This was the opening salvo in the French and Indian War that lasted eight years.
Washington distinguished himself as a man of great valor both physical and moral. Two horses were shot from under him and his jacket and hat were pierced by bullets, but he was not wounded. “The miraculous care of Providence,” he later said, “protected me beyond all human expectations.” He often faced defeat, for which he and the colonials were blamed by his British superiors. Even so, his countrymen, knowing the man that he was, held him up as a hero.
In 1758, Washington resigned his commission and returned to his home at Mount Vernon. The stature he had achieved among the men of his Virginia army was evident in his officers’ farewell. They warmly praised the 26-year old Washington’s “steady adherence to impartial justice” and “invariable regard to merit.” They expressed deep regret at losing his leadership. Where else, asked the officers, could they find a man “so renown’t for patriotism, courage and conduct?”
Washington settled down at Mount Vernon in Virginia. He married Martha Custis, a plump and wealthy widow with two children. Between 1759 and 1775, during his 16-year retirement from military service, Washington had everything he wanted - a tranquil marriage, a prosperous farm, a handsome home, and a hand in local and national politics.
Next week: From Farmer to Commander In Chief.
Sources: World Leaders Past and Present: George Washington, by Roger Bruns. “The Glorious Cause of America,” by David McCullough, BYU Magazine, Winter 2006.