Today’s History Crush post is from archives technician Timothy Duskin, who confesses that his admiration for our first President has only increased since researching the records related to George Washington at the National Archives.
I have always considered George Washington to be the greatest Founding Father, the greatest President, and the greatest American. Two years ago, I gave a “Know Your Records” lecture on records related to George Washington at the National Archives. My sentiments were reinforced in the course of my research for that lecture and they have remained the same ever since.
As a major in the Virginia militia, Washington delivered the demand of Virginia Governor Dinwiddie to vacate the Ohio Valley to the French in 1753. He was responsible for starting the French and Indian War in 1754, when he became commander of the Virginia Regiment and eventually became the war’s foremost hero.
Washington’s political career began when he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1761, where he took up the cause of the North American colonies. He was then elected to the Continental Congress in 1774, which appointed him General and Commander in Chief of the Continental Army at the beginning of the Revolutionary War in 1775.
After the Boston Tea Party, counties in all of the colonies passed resolves to address their grievances with England. Washington and George Mason authored the Fairfax County Resolves at Mount Vernon, Washington’s home, in 1774. It was the most articulate of all the resolves passed in all of the colonies. Mason based the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which he authored in 1776, on the Fairfax County Resolves. In turn, Thomas Jefferson based the Declaration of Independence on the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
And of course, Washington is known for his military leadership during the Revolutionary War. In December 1776, it looked as though the Continental Army was finished and some in Congress were even considering rescinding independence and suing for peace with Great Britain. General Washington crossed the Delaware River with his army and defeated and captured an entire Hessian force with all of its food and stores, which Washington’s army desperately needed.
Washington then followed this victory by defeating a British force at Princeton. These two victories brought hope back to the cause of the United States as well as new recruits to the Continental Army. Washington refused to give up fighting, though he faced tremendous odds, until he finally defeated the British at Yorktown in 1781.
When some of his officers wanted to overthrow Congress and establish Washington as a king, he refused, saying, “The army must serve the country, but not rule it. Express your utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes to overturn the liberties of our country.”
At the war’s end in 1783, Washington resigned his commission, giving up all his power. He said, “When we assumed the soldier we did not lay aside the citizen.”
His former opponent, King George III, said that Washington’s resignation “placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living.” He also called Washington “the greatest character of the age.”
Washington felt that the Federal Government was too weak under the Articles of Confederation, and began an effort for a new Constitution. This led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Washington was President of the Constitutional Convention, and his support for the new Constitution was instrumental in its ratification.
Washington was elected as the first President by a unanimous electoral vote for both his terms, making him the only President to ever be elected this way. He made appointments to his administration from both major parties and got them to work together—possibly the only administration in American history to achieve this.
However, the United States was weak when Washington took office, with frequent attacks by Indians under provocation from both the British and the Spanish. Washington established a regular army, a decision that won the Northwest Indian War, and negotiated treaties with Great Britain and Spain. He also established a navy.
Despite these successes, Washington refused to run for a third term, giving up power again for the second time and setting the two-term precedent. After retiring from the Presidency, Washington’s last public service was as Commander in Chief of the armies raised by the United States during the Quasi-War with France in 1798. He was also one of only two generals to be appointed Lieutenant General before the Civil War.
Washington came to support a plan of gradual emancipation for slaves and he was the only Founding Father to free all of his own slaves, which he did in his will upon the death of his wife.
Upon Washington’s death, Major General Henry Lee, who served under him in the Revolution, said that he was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” And even now, Senator Bill Bradley has said that he is still first in the hearts of his countrymen.
President Calvin Coolidge said it best: “Washington was the directing spirit, without which there would have been no independence, no Union, no Constitution, and no republic….We still cannot yet estimate him.”
For more George Washington records held at the National Archives:
George Washington’s five pages of an Annotated Copy of a Draft of the U.S. Constitution
George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, 4/30/1789
Message of President John Adams nominating George Washington to be Lieutenant General and Commander in Chief of the Armies raised or to be raised in the United States, 7/2/1789