By John F. Di Leo -
The great George Washington was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia on February 22, 1732, and served about seventeen years as a delegate in the Virginia colony’s House of Burgesses.
He is remembered for many other things as well. The Father of his Country was known as a successful merchant, farmer, and horticulturalist, a prominent frontier soldier and wartime commander, and of course, the first President of these United States. But, oddly, his service as a legislator is largely forgotten.
Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe… all of our early presidents cut their teeth in the colonial legislatures, before the War of Independence… and since then, many presidents served in the nation’s house and senate first as well.
An executive, presented with a new law to sign and then implement, might gain from the background knowledge of what the law was intended to accomplish, and how… of what methods the legislature had considered and declined, what all sides discussed in debate, before settling on the system and wording in the final bill.
And sure enough, our first president had exactly that experience, and used it to great advantage.
Frontier Surveyor and Soldier
While George Washington was born to a successful agricultural family in the colony of Virginia, he wasn’t the eldest son… not even close. And that made all the difference, especially in those days.
Young George was the third son of Augustine Washington, and was the first child of his father’s second marriage. Altogether, Augustine had ten children; while the first might inherit enough to live on, the rest in such a large family had better learn a good trade or marry very well.
George did both by his late 20s. When his youthful hope for a naval commission fell through, he took up the profession of surveying, a talent very much in demand in our growing country, and quickly gained a specialty on the frontier. As Virginians looked westward, George Washington rode out to measure their aims and their acquisitions, soon becoming known as one of the best surveyors, equestrians and frontiersmen in the country.
But life on the frontier was dangerous in those days, with war-mongering Frenchmen collaborating with their friends among the Indian tribes (there were pro-British Indian tribes too, but unfortunately, all too many were in cahoots with the French), The French used these allies to harass new settlers, in an attempt to foil westward expansion.
With Washington’s knowledge of the terrain, he was a natural choice to lead the colony’s troops when the colony finally answered the call to respond. While both his successes and failures in command are legendary, complicated by challenges ranging from youth and inexperience to lack of troops and supplies, Washington’s years of service to King and Country left him well-regarded and experienced by the end. By the time he resigned his commission and returned to private life in his mid-twenties, he had become world-renowned as a thoughtful leader who understood the needs of a region in expansion – economically, geographically, and militarily.
The House of Burgesses
George Washington’s first successful election was in the summer of 1758, when he won his seat to represent Frederick County at the colonial capital, Williamsburg. He received 309 votes in a voice vote, a whopping 78% of the total, in those days of limited suffrage and public ballots (only landowning males could vote… and all the landowning males had been impressed by reports of Washington’s leadership of the militia for several years by then.)
Washington was to remain a member of the state house until he became Commander in Chief during the War of Independence, 17 years later.
He spent his early years in Williamsburg as a representative of Frederick County, during the reign of King George II. Upon the King’s death in October, 1760, the governor called for new elections, and he moved up to run for an open seat representing Fairfax, his home county. Washington therefore represented Fairfax County from 1761 until 1775.
Issues and Specialties
Like most responsible representatives, Washington went to the colonial capitol to share his own personal experience and specialties with the public.
- He brought his knowledge of foreign affairs, for when the colony had to deal with the Indian tribes.
- He brought his understanding of military matters, for when the colony needed to recruit, train, and outfit the militia and cooperate with British regulars.
- Even at his young age, his extensive lands and his diverse plantings (which were to become more diverse every year) enabled him to assist in issues regarding commerce, both among the several colonies and with foreign customers. Every year, his personal accomplishments made his contributions to economic debate that much more valuable.
- And his personal service alongside the colony’s soldiers made him the government’s primary resource for all veteran-related issues.
Throughout his service in the legislature, Washington served on the standing committees on Religion, Propositions and Grievances, and Elections and Privileges… and of course served in a number of important special committees, such as the one reviewing veterans’ claims during the Seven Years War (a.k.a. the French and Indian War).
Campaigns and Elections: House records were not retained then as they are now, so much of Washington’s service is left to conjecture. Here’s just one interesting question: In the 1750s, it was customary for candidates to supply food and drink to voters meeting in the public hall on election day, a custom that went back and forth between legal and illegal during Washington’s service in Williamsburg. In these modern days of voting irregularities, it would be interesting to see how the men of the Founding era viewed these issues.
Washington served on the committee that handled it, and we know he (like almost everyone else) supplied barrels of wine or beer for the events (James Madison famously refused, and lost his first candidacy, then agreed to host, and won, in his second!)… but we can only guess at how the Commission on Elections and Privileges evaluated the relevant risks and rewards in plying voters with food and drink to help the speeches go down..
Veterans’ Land Bounties: A serious challenge throughout his legislative service was the long-unfulfilled promise of frontier land grants to those who served with or under Washington in the militia. Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie had made the promises in 1754, but Crown policies regarding our “rights” to western lands changed during the Seven Years War, preventing the executive from honoring the promises… until the commitment was finally honored in 1769-1770, after countless public reminders from the house floor.
Washington’s long battle to obtain for his veterans what the Crown had promised became an eerie foreshadowing of the financial difficulties of post-Revolution America. Fighting for veterans’ rights was to be a recurrent theme throughout Washington’s entire career.
Sole Authority to Tax: As the Seven Years War became a true world war, the Crown faced the problem of funding it. Recognizing that the defense of these colonies was a significant part of the reason and prosecution of the war, the Crown sought to collect taxes from this side of the Pond in various ways.
Essentially beginning with the Stamp Act, but continuing with many other attempts in the years that followed, Parliament attempted to levy new taxes directly on the people of these colonies. Washington was among the clearest voices of dissent on this issue, as the colonial legislatures demanded that – as long as the colonies were unrepresented in Parliament – the colonial legislatures were the only ones with the moral authority to set and collect taxes on colonists.
The Coastwide Boycott: The most fertile ground for the seeds of revolution was in New England; the anger following the Stamp Act only grew more severe with the Townshend Acts and other taxing efforts, eventually leading the British to put Boston under martial law. New Englanders began a boycott of British goods, and reached out to the other colonies to establish a united front.
George Washington became the leader of Virginia’s support of the boycott, in many ways leading the South to make this boycott of all import/export trade with Britain go continental, by writing his fellow burgesses to seek their support on April 5, 1769.
Washington stood up at the capitol on May 16 to publicly propose “fewer words and stronger actions” in defiance of the now-tyrannical monarchy, and the Lt. Governor promptly utilized his authority to dissolve the legislature. Not to be outdone, Washington led them down the road to Raleigh Tavern, declared a quorum, and went right back to work. With that, Washington ceased being merely a Virginia leader, but cemented his position as a truly continental leader of what was to become the independence movement.
The Continental Congress
The First Continental Congress met at Philadelphia – the largest city in North America at the time – in the fall of 1774. The Virginia House of Burgesses sent seven of their most distinguished members to form their colony’s delegation. George Washington attended of course, along with Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry.
The colonial representatives discussed their various grievances with Parliament and the Crown, discussed options for further colonial cooperation, and petitioned London for appropriate corrective action… then adjourned, with a commitment to reconvene in the spring if their demands were not met.
They were back again in May, and Washington attended in his full military uniform as a Virginia militiaman. By this time, the battles of Lexington and Concord had been fought… and the Battle of Bunker Hill took place while this Second Continental Congress was in session.
On June 14, 1775, this congress declared a Continental Army, and commissioned George Washington – now titled General – to head up to Massachusetts and assume his new role as Commander-in-Chief, which he was to hold until his retirement at the end of the war.
With this commission, George Washington’s seventeen years of service as a legislator ends. Having served as both a state representative and a national one, he gained invaluable experience in economics, foreign relations, military management, government budgeting, all the nuts and bolts of governance that a leader must know in order to be an effective head of state.
From June, 1775 until December, 1783, General Washington was a military commander, in some ways, one of the most successful in world history… and then from that retirement until the spring of 1787, he was a civilian again.
But his nation called again, as the failure of the Articles of Confederation became undeniable, and a new convention was called to correct the errors in our form of government.
The delegates who called for the convention needed his steady hand at the helm, and pled with him to come out of retirement to attend… and when he did, they persuaded him to preside over it.
That summer in Philadelphia was among the most momentous summers in world history. These 55 delegates crafted a new format that balanced legislative, executive, and judicial branches, established a concept of joint federal and state sovereignty, and effectively built a new system of limited government that would protect citizens’ rights while engineering a framework for economic prosperity and security on the world stage.
The Constitution was a masterpiece, and Washington’s manner of presiding is rightly credited for more than just the respectability that his presence gave the proceedings.
In an era of firebrand statesmen like Patrick Henry and John Adams, George Washington had learned that a quieter, more deliberate manner might be both more appropriate and more effective in governance. Years before, the General had given this advice to a nephew upon the nephew’s elevation to public office:
“Speak seldom but to important subjects [which] particularly relate to your constituents…. Make yourself perfectly master of the subject. Never exceed a decent warmth, and submit your sentiments with diffidence. A dictatorial style, though it may carry conviction, is always accompanied with disgust.”
With such a serious and measured demeanor, Washington set the tone for the convention. There would be no fistfights on the floor, no duels after hours. Even the most hot-tempered revolutionaries would be on their best behavior in Washington’s presence. He ensured that the sessions were all-business, with mutual respect for the towering men of consequence who filled the halls. These 55 men had a great deal to accomplish in one summer; under his leadership, they succeeded beyond all expectation.
Washington spoke little during the convention’s active daily sessions, but he made the rounds in the evenings; much was discussed at the dinner tables where state delegations and specific committee members would meet and work. As both the event’s presiding officer and as the most respected “elder among elders,” he was uniquely qualified to manage such statecraft.
As a result, “Washington the legislator” and “Washington the military commander” joined forces that marvelous summer, to put into place the system of government that a grateful nation selected him – virtually by acclamation – to lead as its first President a year later.
And then as President, Washington was to make good use of all of his experience – as a negotiator, as a writer, as a strategist, as a merchant, as a farmer, as a commander – and as the lawmaker too, the most-often forgotten aspect of the great man’s long career.
George Washington of Virginia, Founding Father. Hear, Hear!
Copyright 2016 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Customs broker and international trade trainer. An actor, writer and father of three, he is a former County Chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party. His columns are regularly found in Illinois Review.
John strongly recommends that all Americans read biographies of our first and greatest president, in particular “George Washington – A Life” by Willard Sterne Randall and “All Cloudless Glory” by Harrison Clark… these two include much better coverage of Washington’s legislative experience than most; the majority of other biographies focus (understandably) on his military and presidential years.
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.