Reflections on the Father of his Country on this Father’s Day holiday…
On June 14, 1775, the Continental Congress voted to establish a Continental Army, so they could formally and successfully confront their British overlords with unanimity, rather than as just a host of unconnected state and local militias. The following day, June 15, they had to pick a commander.
There were several to choose from; John Hancock of Boston was certainly a contender, as were a few of the other military men of the day who went on to serve in the War of Independence… but once John Adams nominated George Washington – who had, after all, been wearing his dashing navy-and-buff military uniform as a delegate to Congress – the choice was unanimous. No one else would have made sense, if George Washington was available.
Today, we think of George Washington as “Father of his Country” because he was our first President under the Constitution… and we often think that he was the first President because he was successful in the posting he received on June 15, as leader of the army in our revolution. But in fact, even when he was selected to head up the army, George Washington was already regarded by many as a national figure, one of very, very few.
Only Benjamin Franklin could be said to have as national an image, to be identified as much as “an American” as George Washington was. The rest of our politicians, however great they may have been, were strictly associated with their states or regions. Hancock and Adams were New Englanders; Schuyler and Clinton were New Yorkers. Everyone associated Carroll and Chase with Maryland, McKean and Rodney with Delaware. But, while everyone certainly knew that Washington was a Virginian, his worldwide image was as an American, a member of an identity that barely really existed in an era of individual and very separate colonies.
George Washington was born the first son of a wealthy planter’s second marriage. Augustine Washington had already fathered four children in his first marriage (though one died in infancy), and with two elder brothers, George couldn’t expect to inherit much. His life would likely be uninteresting and unimportant, unless he made something of himself on his own.
Principally self-educated – he lived in the sticks, without the little red schoolhouses that New Englanders like the Adamses enjoyed – George Washington was home-schooled and more: he was a voracious reader his entire life, building a good library of his own in an era when books were luxuries as much as silver or gold.
He hoped for a naval commission, but this hope was denied, and he learned the trade of land surveying, marrying his love of the outdoors with a career in demand. His days as surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia gave him a knowledge of the frontier – and more, a comfort level with the other side of the Alleghenies – that would shape his view of the possibilities for both his own life and his country’s from those days forward.
Many students in those days kept a “copybook,” a notebook in which a student copied down the parts of borrowed books that struck him as the most important. Alexander Hamilton’s was famously full of economic truths; Thomas Jefferson’s was full of quotes from classical literature. Historians have always noted that George Washington, the fifth child of a country squire in the backwoods outpost of the British Empire, among the pages of notes on mathematics, surveying and history, also copied down “110 Rules of Civility and Moral Behavior,” as a guide to beating the odds and becoming a gentleman, a position usually reserved for the eldest.
Because of his knowledge of the mountains, and his already growing fame as a horseman, the 21-year-old Washington was appointed to lead militia missions in 1753, when the colonial governor was concerned about French incursions onto British-claimed lands across the mountains. Just as Alexander Hamilton’s famous boyhood letter about a storm on St. Croix was to make it to the mainland and bring him fame at an early age, so too did George Washington’s reports from the frontier – concerning his confrontations with the Indians and the French – make it into the papers and bring him renown on both sides of the Atlantic, while still a relative youth in his twenties.
Washington’s service in the mid-1750s – in leading the Virginia militia, and supporting the British Regulars under General Edward Braddock and others during the French and Indian War – was to build Washington’s name as the colonies’ foremost military man. He understood the hills, and how to fight in a terrain with which the British had no experience. It has been argued that Washington was revolutionary in his use of guerilla tactics – directing forces to hide behind trees and rocks rather than marching in the open like sitting ducks. That’s an overstatement – the French and Indians did it first, not Washington – but in comparison to the formal approach of the British Square, it was radical indeed.
Whenever he was called to military service – both during those frontier days as an Englishman, and later, when fighting the English as a commander in the Glorious Cause of Independence, George Washington built a rapport with his troops that was unusual in comparison to the English model. British officers were famous for commanding from a position of caste dominance: “we’re of the manor born, so you commoners must take orders from us.” Washington, by contrast, was regarded as serious, even severe, but without any trace of that disdain for the troops. He had great regard for those who served, and expected obedience because he knew the terrain, he knew horsemanship; he knew how his opponents would behave. He expected obedience for his talent and rank, not from any feeling of caste superiority.
Washington, in fact, was a mentor in a way that the British officers were not. He was relatively uninterested in whether a young officer came from a prominent or politically connected family; he was interested in whether that officer showed the spark of leadership that could merit promotion in his nation’s service. And his devotion to the financial well-being of his servicemen – right down to the lowest private – was to drive his career for decades (one of the key reasons for his opposition to England from the 1760s onward was how King George III reneged on the government’s promise to pay the militiamen of the 1750s with frontier lands).
Commander in Chief
As Commander in Chief during the War of Independence, Washington built a crew of young officers that became known as “Washington’s Family.” With no children of his own (his wife Martha brought children from her first marriage, but Washington’s teenaged bout with smallpox was likely the cause of his sterility), he became a father figure to his many talented aides de camp. Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox, Tench Tilghman, John Laurens, the Marquis de Lafayette, and many other young officers cycled through the demanding roles of General Washington’s “right hand men.” They drafted correspondence for him, served as go-betweens with his field officers, and worked as a committee to lead the war effort. Washington looked out for them, guided their careers and education, and received their lifelong respect as a result.
There were a couple that didn’t make the grade – Aaron Burr famously chafed at the camaraderie of the group, and quickly left to serve other generals – but that was the exception that proves the rule. George Washington was an effective father figure to this group, a group that went on to such military and civilian heights as Secretary of War (Knox), Secretary of the Treasury (Hamilton), and even Vice President of the French National Assembly (Lafayette, however briefly).
In the 1760s, when merchants in the New England colonies hoped to start a coastwise boycott against the British, it was George Washington whose support they prayed for to help the effort go national. In the 1780s, when the Articles of Confederation were foundering and they needed a leader to give an imprimatur to the reform effort, only George Washington could give the Constitutional Convention the respect it would need. And in 1788, when that new Constitution called for a new Head of State, only George Washington fit the bill.
He spent a lifetime devoted to these colonies, and to the new nation that they became. He was a father figure both to his stepchildren and to his military aides… an elder statesman to the young legislators of the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress… the noble face of America to the diplomats and peoples of the world as they watched the events that Washington put in motion.
Thanks to his success at Mount Vernon, he was the very model of a businessman, to planters and merchants in the agricultural and intercontinental trades. Thanks to his work in leading the government to solvency so it could pay its debts to our soldiers, he was a hero to our veterans and a role model to future officers. And thanks to his talented, fair and honorable leadership as our first President from 1789 to 1797, he defined the precedent for that office for well over a hundred years. Not until well into the 20th Century did any president dare to visibly break the precedents set by George Washington.
I visited a veterans’ museum in Pontiac, Illinois, a few years back, and one of the curators there, a veteran, took a moment to walk my family through the layout of the Purple Heart medal, the military honor awarded to our valiant men and women when wounded or killed in battle. He pointed out that the medal includes both a picture of General Washington, and the Washington family coat of arms. The gentleman paused for a moment, and reminded us that General Washington had no biological children of his own; through the award of the Purple Heart, the General could be said to have adopted our most courageous servicemen into his own family, even after all these years.
What is a father? Is it someone who just has a son or daughter, then leaves, and moves on to a new family or new stage in life, never thinking about his progeny again? Or is it someone who raises them, nurtures them, guides them? Someone who sets them on their path, and provides a role model to be followed? A father is someone who thinks ahead, someone who does everything in his power to build a future for those who are to follow in his footsteps.
On this day in 1775 – when the Continental Congress unanimously selected him as our Commander in Chief – and today, 239 years later, it is clear that George Washington was and remains, in every way, the Father of His Country.
Let us thank Providence for blessing us with his service and leadership, and let us pray that we’re granted another like him, soon, before this great nation is too far gone to save.
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. He studied history and political science at Northwestern University, and served the Republican Party, the heir of Washington’s Federalists, as a minor party activist in the 1980s and 90s. A former Republican precinct captain in the Chicago suburbs, and a former county chairman of the party in Milwaukee in the mid-1990s, he has now been a recovering politician for 17 years (but, like any addiction, you’re never really cured).
Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included. Follow John F. Di Leo on Facebook or LinkedIn, or on Twitter at @johnfdileo.