Dear Mr. Washington…

gwashingtonHe was our first president and one of the greatest generals ever to don the uniform. Before that he was kind of a whiny and very rich brat.

Prior to our trip to Philly, D.C. and the lovely Appalachians late in July I’d already been reading a very long – but fascinating – bio of our first president. It wasn’t preparation for the trip, as that came about at the last minute with minimal planning beyond booking hotels but because I felt I’m undereducated on my country’s history. Beyond what I learned in school, have seen on the History Channel and heard from my history-obsessed older son, it dawned on me I know very little about how our country came to become what it is. Washington being the first, well, it was inevitable I’d start with him. How serendipitous that turned out to be, considering our decision to head East and visit the historic roots of America.

I had a preconceived image of George Washington as the tall, assured figure the history books described. Imagine my surprise reading about the inauspicious beginning of his career. He had the chutzpah to insert himself into commanding positions without permission, taking advantage of the disorganized nature of the American Colonies and lack of very thorough British planning. This part I admired; forcing one’s way into positions of power being quite impressive and “taking the bull by the horns.” I’ve always seen that as a particularly American trait, the determination to do or die, to assert oneself and pursue a dream. You can get a long way being pushy. And Americans are that, for good or ill.

But then, when things didn’t go his way (which was by far most of the time) his reaction was to high-tail it, running back home to Mt. Vernon, from which he’d fire off petulant letters to various high-profile figures, complaining no one understood him. Then he’d complain his rank was too low, that the Brits were – surprise! – paid more and given higher positions. He was long on words, short on action. Despite the fact he knew little about military strategy and was a screw up. Apparently, he figured he’d learn that on the job, which eventually he did, of course.

For reasons I still can’t fathom, the Powers That Be kept calling on him despite the fact he was, quite frankly, a bumbler. For instance, he accidentally killed a French diplomatic delegation coming to make peace for having taken over the fur trade, sneaking up on them as they slept, unarmed and innocent. As you may imagine, this caused quite a ruckus from the French, leaving the British with a lot of explaining to do. While that was going on, the justifiably incensed French demanding justice, away to Mt. Vernon he ran, beating a hasty retreat, leaving behind cannons and other provisions he may as well have gift wrapped, topping them with bows. Because he had no exit strategy the loss of life and provisions was great.

Not that it was all his fault. He was head of the Colonial army, the British General Braddock leading the “Red Coats,” the military might of the world unused to guerrilla warfare. Once the British sharpshooters realized they were sitting ducks who may as well have been wearing targets on their chests, for an army of French and their Indian allies who shot at them from behind trees, they turned and bolted. This left both Washington and Braddock slack-jawed, wielding their swords in vain, their orders to turn back and fight like men ignored. To make matters more humiliating, afterward they realized they’d also inadvertently killed the colonial volunteers sent into the woods, hired to protect them from just this sort of eventuality.

It was a nasty business.

Washington remained a rather pathetic military figure for so many years I’m  not quite sure how he came to be elected head of the Continental Army. Even in that position he made so many mistakes, caused the loss of so many lives, unless he was paying someone wads of cash – or tobacco, for a while our greatest currency – the mind boggles. But then, once he figured out what he was doing we all know how that one turned out. Not that there weren’t complaints, even the threat of mutiny. Still, luck remained on his side.

As a farmer and businessman he was incredibly successful. It was Mt. Vernon he loved most of all, perhaps more than his wife Martha. He’d snapped her up after she became the most wealthy widow in the Colonies, though his heart was and would always be with the wife of one of his best friends and benefactors.

After he’d known Martha only a handful of hours he proposed and she accepted. Score! Along with her and her children from her first marriage came loads more land, a large amount of which he used to buy and rent out the rich valley lands in the Shenandoah region. In this way he was a very shrewd man and this was how he earned a large portion of his wealth.

Not university educated, he was an autodidact, learning about farming and raising animals from reading books. Detail-oriented and a quick study, he directed his slaves (!) to carry out his well-planned methods of everything from planting an orchard and flower garden to earning money in the blacksmith trade. Once he deduced the fact tobacco crops ravaged the soil,he began rotating his crops, the first planter to ever do so, Instead, he turned to wheat, built a mill and sold grain. He was shrewd, that man, which is how he earned his money.

P1020617George Washington’s beloved Mt. Vernon (front)

P1020588Mt. Vernon (back)

Washington was a reader of the most popular fiction of the time, as well,  writing British booksellers asking that they send over whatever was popular and worth reading. Smollett was a particular favorite. He did the same with everything, from purchasing “the most fashionable” china to his pretty, frilly shirts and fabric for Martha to use for clothing the family. London merchants must have loved the man. Here’s my money. Pick out stuff and ship it to me. A proprietor’s dream customer: an American dripping with money who trusted their taste.

I haven’t reached the post-Revolutionary point in the book but it’s so well-written and researched I feel confident recommending it. I’m at around the 3/4 mark and unless the author does something devastating I’m so glad this was the bio I started with. Will I read more about GW? Possibly, but then again I have an awful lot of presidents to learn about.

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For now, this one’s fantastic:

randallwashingtonGeorge Washington: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall

  • File Size: 1814 KB
  • Print Length: 636 pages
  • Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
  • Publisher: New Word City, Inc.; 1 edition (June 28, 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00DPFKME6

I’m reading it on my Kindle. And it’s available at Amazon for $ 2.99, one of the best bargain price books I’ve bought.

I wasn’t sent this book, or any information about it, for review. I bought it myself and write about it because it’s impressed me and I recommend it.

Anyone who’s read another bio of the man – or seen a good video – please let me know. I’d appreciate it.

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