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Reader Report: There was more to George Washington than the cherry tree

The Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796, showing him renouncing a third term as president of the United States.
(Gilbert Stuart)

Many have heard the story of George Washington confessing that he had chopped down the cherry tree because “I cannot tell a lie,” but most do not know of the many achievements and the honorable character of this amazing person, whose birthday we’ll honor Monday.

At 17, Washington was part of a survey team sent to explore the wild and unexplored western lands of colonial Virginia. This assignment was an educational and maturing experience for Washington, who, four years later in 1753, was sent by Virginia Gov. Robert Dinwiddie to lead a group to ask the French to leave Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh).

On the way, however, Washington accidentally intercepted a troop of French soldiers; a skirmish ensued. Unfortunately, Washington’s hastily built fortification, Fort Necessity, did not offer enough protection, and he was obliged to surrender. This humiliating defeat marked the beginning of the conflict between the French and the British for domination in North American known as the French and Indian War.

Then, in 1755, the British sent a large force under the command of Gen. Edward Braddock to again confront the French. Another battle ensued in which Washington exhibited extreme courage and leadership when two horses were shot out from under him and four bullet holes were found in his coat. Because Braddock was mortally wounded, Washington assumed command and led the remaining soldiers to safety.

George Washington's signature on a detail from an expense account: "The United States in Account with G. Washington."
(Perry C. Riddle / Los Angeles Times)

After this period of exploring, soldiering and leading, Washington returned to his beloved home, Mount Vernon, where he enjoyed the social and political life of Virginia. He sat in the Virginia House of Burgesses as an elected representative. Dedicated to the successful operation of his farm, he experimented with new farming techniques, such as crop rotation, to make it more productive and profitable. He switched from growing tobacco to growing wheat as his cash crop. He built a Gristmill to grind the wheat. He experimented with livestock breeding. He also experimented with producing a high-quality whiskey and ultimately had one of the largest distilleries in North America.

Washington was an entrepreneur. He was a also a man of infinite curiosity and talent.

When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, Washington was commissioned to become the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. He endured many battles in which he failed to achieve victory, but every battle was a learning experience for him.

At Valley Forge, the Army’s winter camp in 1777, the citizen soldiers drilled and perfected their skills to become a capable army. When the war was over, Washington resigned as commander-in-chief. This was unusual. Even today a leader of a successful army usually assumes the role of dictator, but Washington had a vision of a free and self-governing nation, so he returned to his beloved Mount Vernon to resume his life as an ordinary citizen.

It is easy to forget that the leaders of the American Revolution were marked men. If caught, they would be hung as traitors. They had given their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to achieve and fight for freedom. Today we don’t give much thought to the sacrifice these men and their families made; we don’t even question the inevitability of their success, but there was no certainty that the American Revolution would be won.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Europe were certain that the new country, the United States of America, would stumble and fail. And it almost did. The Articles of Confederation was the first Constitution. It was a loose confederation of the original 13 colonies, and it turned out to be very ineffectual. It needed to be changed.

In May 1787, a Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia. Washington was elected to preside. By September 1787, our present Constitution was written, and then it needed to by ratified by the colonies.

The obvious and unanimous choice for the first leader of the nation was Washington, so in March 1789, at the age of 57, he took the oath of office with his hand on The Bible and the words of promise, “so help me God.”

Would he be called “Your Excellency?” “Your Highness?” or perhaps “Your Most Illustrious and Exalted President?”

Washington, quick to avoid any pretense, preferred to be called “Mr. President.” He led the country with fairness and integrity throughout his two terms, which became the norm for others to follow. Washington did not want a free people to become too dependent on one man for leadership, and he also knew that power can be addictive and destructive.

Washington returned to Mount Vernon to spend his last years working at his home. He was very involved with all of the affairs of his estate. It was after one of his inspection rounds in the cold of December that he came home wet and chilled. He died a few days later, at age 69, of pneumonia. The nation honored him as the man who was “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

It is such a humble, dedicated, courageous, and hardworking man that we honor on his birth date, Feb. 22, 1732.

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Newport Beach resident SHERRY MARRON has a doctorate in American studies. She has taught at the University of Connecticut and Orange Coast College..


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