Reflections on George Washington's Birthday...
On April 5, 1769, George Washington sat down at his writing desk in Mt. Vernon, to write what historian Willard Sterne Randall calls the most important letter of his life.
For a political and military leader in the days before telephones and email, that’s quite a claim… but let’s consider the circumstances.
The king was right in one respect: he had to raise money to pay for the war. The war was partially, but not entirely of course, about the British holdings in North America, about cementing our relations with some American Indian tribes, and defending our colonies from hostile ones and from Britain’s historical enemy across the Channel, the French monarchy. So the king justifiably believed that the American colonies should chip in to pay for the debt from that war.
And most Americans would have agreed.
Yes, the American people, for the most part, were not completely divorced from reality. They understood that governments need reasonable taxes to raise a defense against invaders, to lay post roads, to arrest, try, and jail criminals, etc. The American people may have had a poor estimation of what such things actually cost (they may still, even today), but they knew that these things required tax dollars.
That's why the Americans had legislatures.
Each of the colonies had a house of burgesses, or delegates, or representatives. George Washington was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses in Williamsburg; Sam Adams was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in Boston. Stephen Hopkins was a member of the Rhode Island Assembly that met at the Old State House in Providence. Every colony had a similar capital city, a capitol building, and a legislature; every colony had in fact been essentially self-governing for a century.
So if the king needed funds, and could demonstrate just cause in seeking them, there were colonial governments all up and down the coast that could have voted on a taxing method to collect and fund the portion of the king's governmental expenses that they agreed fair, in the spirit of the Magna Carta.
Unfortunately, George III did not share their opinion that the Magna Carta had anything to do with foreign colonies. He was grumpy enough about the idea of having to share some of his power with Parliament in England; he certainly wasn't going to be open to the idea of respecting elected bodies across the ocean, even friendly ones. George III tolerated them more as the escape valves for the steam in a bunch of teakettles, not as the legitimate governing bodies of independent constitutional republics, whatever it may have said on the colonial charters signed by his predecessors.
Well, while the Canadian colonies, for various reasons, didn't seem to be all that upset by this attitude from their king, the thirteen colonies to their south grew more infuriated by the day. As the 1760s wore on, and George III kept appointing new tax collectors and creating new taxes, the thirteen individually grew livid, and began to talk to each other.
This was a new turn of events. The colonies thought of themselves as independent countries, each part of the United Kingdom, yes, but still separate from each other, as Wales and Scotland and England were separate but all part of the U.K (with England perhaps a "bit more equal" than the others). But the French and Indian War had made them fight together, just a bit, and the seeming avalanche of taxes from London unified them in opposition. As the contentious decade of the 1760s came to a close, it became clear that Benjamin Franklin's cordial meetings (acting as the agent to the crown on behalf of several of the colonies) would never be sufficient, so they would need to take stronger measures.
In 1768, a boycott of English products was begun in the New England colonies. Boston merchants began on January 1; Newport, Providence, and New York City followed in the summer. By spring of 1769, Philadelphia and Baltimore had joined the coastwise boycott, and now some in the north were encouraging the south to join. Dr. David Ross of Maryland sent a sheaf of papers from the Pennsylvania/Maryland correspondence to George Washingon, and awaited a response.
Independent before Independence
George Washington was famous for his military action during the war a decade earlier, but he was also a politician. As a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, he might have blended in with those other fine men, but he was also active across the colonies as the leading champion for the soldiers who felt themselves misused by the king's long refusal to honor promises of lands - west of the Appalachians - that were supposed to be payment for their service in the war.
And Washington was also growing well-known for his plantation. He didn't run his plantation like most southerners did. The concept of land's nutrient depletion wasn't unknown in those days, but Washington did take it more seriously than most. He read voraciously, hunting down every book he could find on maximizing agricultural output, on the manufacturing of goods, on the raising of horses. He was certainly respected early as the continent's greatest horse breeder and all-round equestrian, but his other agricultural talents, while not as exciting, were impressive as well.
We think of Jefferson as being the great Virginian horticultural student because of the notes he took and the book he wrote, but Washington had been putting it into practice for decades before anyone heard of Jefferson. Washington was early in recognizing the damage that tobacco did to to a farm, and tried to wean his many holdings off the poison weed as early as he could.
By 1769, in fact, he was more an all-round merchant than a typical Virginia tobacco farmer. He grew apples, corn, clover, and more. He raised animals. In the cluster of some thirty buildings at Mount Vernon, his operations included a bakery, a smokehouse, a granary, a distillery, fabric and clothes making shops. Washington fished the Potomac River and owned his own boats for transportation of his many products, both throughout the colonies and across the Atlantic.
Washington wanted to be independent of more than just the ugly farm-killing crop of tobacco. He wanted to be independent of England as well... commercially speaking. He found the colonists' relationship with the London middlemen (known as "factors") to be grating, lopsided. If the factors weren't corrupt themselves, the system was, as it was London that held all the cards in the relationship. The American farmer would send a ship laden with goods to England, and the London factor would be importer, buying agent, selling agent, and bank, all for their American client. Washington knew we would be better off trading with each other, before cargos have a chance to spoil on the long ocean trip, insulated from the risks of storm damage or spoilage at sea.
So by 1769, Washington was only sending about enough cargo to London to retire his old debts. What he couldn't buy locally in the colonies, he tried to manufacture himself.
But the king was fighting back, even if the king didn't know he was fighting Washington in particular. George III was demanding import duties to make their imports from England more expensive... was restricting what countries the Americans could trade with, in an effort to ensure that ALL colonial output went through the London factors... even banning certain types of manufacturing outright. Washington, for example, wanted to reopen an old iron works that his family had once operated, but such foundries were now banned by order of the king.
It was clear: George III was restricting the colonies' growth. Consciously, intentionally, maliciously, George was cuffing these colonies and making them ever more dependent on trade with the mother country, trade on England's terms, a lopsided agreement clearly designed to keep Americans down. No westward expansion, no local iron works, no global trade except through London middlemen. No, No, No.
As Washington's private system of independence became known, he became a hero in the commercial world, far beyond his renown on the battlefield or in the capitol rotunda. And when merchants and farmers dependent on such trade started talking about an organized boycott, they knew George Washington was one prominent merchant to have on their side.
The South Joins the Boycott
George Washington had served on the grievance committee in Williamsburg for some time, and the burgesses had quietly talked of the various options for escalating their battle with the king all through 1768. While the north was already boycotting, the south was talking and considering... and worrying. The economy of the south was far different from the economy of the north; a northerner could eat his own bread rather than exporting the wheat, but there's a limit to how long you can live on your own crop when that crop is tobacco. Washington was not the only diversified planter in the south, but he was by far more the exception than the rule.
So on April 5, George Washington joined the boycott. He wrote a letter to his friend, neighbor, and political mentor, George Mason, announcing his support for a change from talking to the king to boycotting him. He included careful words - "...arms I would beg leave to add, should be the last resource, the denier resort." But he was under no illusion; by saying that taking up arms against the king should be considered, even as a last resort, he was committing treason. But he knew it was right; he knew the time had come for America to rise up and assert itself at last.
No more pleading for mercy from the king, no more begging for our friends in Parliament (we had many, in the Rockingham/Burke faction, but it hadn't helped). No more hoping for scraps from the table in the form of restoration of some of our rights recently denied, while accepting that they or others could always be denied again. No more hoping for a relaxation of this tax or the other, now it was clear that there would always be a replacement tax just as onerous, from another George Grenville or Lord Hillsborough or Champagne Charlie; there seemed an unlimited supply of petty tyrants ready to do the king's dirty work in creating new and obnoxious ways to tax and oppress the colonists.
Washington's position, and the position shared by most Americans up and down the coast, was and would always be that we were Englishmen, born citizens of England deserving of the rights of Englishmen, and we would be part of Parliament, or have our own colonial legislatures be respected as equal to parliament... or else... or else... well, that was the thing. We didn't want to say the "or else" out loud, but we knew what it was, and George Washington, most prominent British-American soldier in the colonies, had written it down: a boycott was likely the last option before resorting to the battlefield.
Washington and Mason spent much of April and May of 1769 building the alliance for a nonimportation agreement, already in the offing from a committee of Marylanders and Virginians. When the legislature was seated at Williamsburg on May 8, the newly appointed British governor quietly held orders in his back pocket to use if needed: to dissolve the legislature should the radicals get too active.
Washington stood up on May 16 to propose "fewer words and sterner actions", and formally called for a tough economic boycott of England. Washington's faction called for Parliamant to respect that only our own elected legislatures should be able to tax us, that we have the right to collaborate with other colonies, that we have the rights of Englishmen. Before they could vote on it all, Governor Botetort pulled out his orders, and gave the order: The House of Burgesses was dissolved.
Did they go quietly into that good night? No, George Washington, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, Peyton Randolph, and the lion's share of the rest of the freshly-dissolved legislature walked down the street to the Raleigh Tavern. They selected Washington to chair a committee, and he accepted the leadership with great urgency. The next day, they agreed to the boycott as Washington wrote it, essentially joining their northern neighbors in banning most British goods.
With Virginia on board, and Washington as a lead supporter to show such economic independence was indeed possible, the boycott caught on. American imports from England dropped, and Americans were unified as never before.
Did the boycott succeed? Well, it depends on what you mean by success. No, it didn't force King George III into compromises. No, it didn't force him to respect our legislatures or to do his constitutional duty (under the Magna Carta) to defend the rights of our citizens from tyranny. In fact, it led to the necessity of taking arms; it led to revolution, as the Glorious Cause developed into the unification of the thirteen colonies into a sovereign nation within a few years' time.
Today, too many of us are raised with the belief that George Washington is called the Father of his Country because he was commander in chief during the Revolutionary War, or because he was the first President of the United States under the Constitution. But in fact, he was the Father of His Country even before the war began, in several key ways.
1) Washington was the first American military figure to arise from the colonies in the French and Indian War. Perhaps unconsciously, his methods and messages in those years concentrated on how different the colonists were from their root stock in England. We were less daunted by challenges of nature or human foe, more anxious to spread out and explore, rather than spending our entire lives in the same five-mile area, as most Englishmen of the era did. Washington became a traveler in the war, and continued to be one afterward, alerting his countrymen to the practical truth of our nationhood, even in the days when the technical legality of the matter was that were thirteen separate countries.
2) Washington fought the king, on behalf of his troops, throughout the 1760s, for the western lands that soldiers had been promised after the previous war. This inspired loyalty in soldiers, past, present, and future, because they saw that he remained loyal to them long after their service to him was over. Many a manager today can use Washington as a role model when trying to support his staffers over the tone-deafness of upper management. The foot soldiers knew that in Washington they had a commander who respected them and desperately wanted to honor his commitments to his people.
This experience also helps explain the almost identical battles of the 1780s, when Washington again, this time with such allies as Hamilton, Madison, and the Morrises alongside, had to fight Congress for funds to pay the money owed the soldiers of the Revolution in salary and pensions. In their view, we had fought a war partially because the old government didn't honor its financial commitments to its soldiers; we weren't going to allow our own independent government to commit the same crime against its people.
3) Washington was a commercial genius. Not the inventor of the department store or the steam engine or the internet - nothing that exciting, perhaps, but of something just as important. At a time when most farmers just grew a couple of crops for sale, when most people were utterly dependent on England and the seemingly all-powerful English middlemen, Washington showed his countrymen the way of independence. With such diversity in manufactures, crop rotations, and transportation, his little conglomerate, based in the thirty-some buildings of Mount Vernon, showed his fellow planters what was possible, and inspired all colonists to declare their commercial independence from England. Once the apron springs of the individual were cut, the apron springs of the colonies themselves could finally be severed as well.
4) Washington had become a political leader. By the close of 1769, George Washington had not only been identified as a key ally in the campaign for a coastwise boycott, he had proven that this confidence in him had been rightly placed. The 6'4" tower of firm resolve and American independence had proven himself to be the key radical of the era. He resisted the easy way, the temptations of stuffy Tidewater alliance with the old aristocracy. He had become the only American who could equally inspire writers and speakers, farmers and merchants, soldiers and politicians.
Two centuries later, we still owe it all to George Washington. At every turn throughout his long career, he showed us that independence could be ours, and then he accepted the reins and made it happen.
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade lecturer. For further reading on George Washington, John strongly recommends Richard Brookhiser and Paul Johnson for their wonderful short biographies of the great man. Of longer biographies, Willard Sterne Randall's is his favorite combination of readability and unexpected details, and it served as a major source to this article, as most biographies give much too little ink to the critical boycott period before the Revolutionary War began.
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