How did George Washington become the man who would become the leader of a new nation? What events helped develop the man whose legacy would become the epitome of an American revolutionary? Balancing circumstance and perseverance, Washington’s life prior to the War of Independence shows us how even a man of greatness faces adversity, and it is due to this rather than despite it, that shapes exceptional leaders.
George Washington, the man who would become the leader of the Continental Army and the First President of the United State, was born into an expanding world. The English colonies still clung to the Eastern seaboard of the ‘new’ continent, but were being filled with an increasing number of immigrants leaving the old countries of Europe for a fresh start. The poorer of these people were forced further West onto lands inhabited by native people. At the time Washington was born, the English colonists had not settled any further than the Allegheny mountains, a range of mountains, part of the Appalachian Range that ran from Canada down through Georgia. The French government had been sending explorers into the region beyond these mountains, via the Great Lakes and up the Mississippi River. They had initiated trading with local people and had established a few forts in the Northern region of the Mid-West. Due to the increasing population in the British colonies, they would soon begin to send their own explorers West to claim new territory.
Washington was born into a privileged family, and received a formal education. His father died when he was eleven, Washington then went to live with his half brother. Washington began his career at age 16 as a land surveyor and due to circumstances would rise very rapidly. He was sent to explore the lands in the Blue Ridge mountain range. At eighteen he became the official speculator for three counties in Virginia. When his half brother died, Washington inherited his responsibilities as local adjunct, which included the training of the local militias. He was made a Major in the Continental Militia, he was just twenty years old.
As the English interest in the Ohio frontier increased, they came into conflict with the French traders that had been there for some time. England had struck a deal with the Iroquois Nation to purchase land in the Ohio River Valley. The problem with this was the land the Iroquois sold wasn’t land they inhabited, but was the living space of several tribes who had not been present or consulted in regards to the sale. Washington was sent to the Ohio River country with a message from the English crown. The French traders need to respect this purchase and vacate the settlements, they must also quit trading with the Natives in these areas. Another aspect of his mission was to establish a permanent English outpost to be used for defense and as a depot for supplies. The French are reluctant to leave, so Washington is forced to return to Virginia for reinforcements. After collecting more troops from Virginia and crossing back over the Alleghenies he found French troops had established themselves at the site where he had intended to build his fort. Setting up camp upriver from the French, Washington encounters a French patrol. Having the advantage of numbers, he leads a successful attack on the scouting party. The French quickly retaliated with an attack on the encampment of Washington’s men. Out maned, Washington was forced to surrender on July 4th 1754. This is seen as the first battle in the French-Indian War, a war that would escalate and spread around the globe. Ultimately most of the major powers in Europe as well as Russia would become involved in what in Europe be called the Seven Year War. In an attempt to refill their treasury due to the cost of this war, England would begin to tax its colonies more heavily. Setting off a sequence of events that would later lead to the American Revolution.
Washington returned to Virginia and was promoted to Colonel. He was sent out under the command of English General Braddock to attack the French settlements in the land the English were claiming was theirs. As they traveled through the Ohio River Valley, they were ambushed and General Braddock was killed, leaving Washington in charge. He was once again forced to retreat with his men back to Virginia. He was then promoted to commander of all the troops in Virginia and sent back to the frontier for three years. In that time he would join a force of 6000 men in an endeavor to remove the French, who seeing that they were greatly outnumbered abandoned their fort, burning it to the ground. The English were then able to establish their own post, naming it Fort Pitt. It sat at the confluence of the two rivers that joined to form the Ohio River. The area around the site would become the modern day city of Pittsburgh.
George Washington could be considered the ultimate American hero. There is no doubt that his leadership in the War of Independence was indispensable. While the tales of his adventures from that war abound, the exploits of his youth are not as common. The details from this period of his life are not disputed, but they do vary in tone, depending upon the source. Washington, while gaining a lot of field experience, was not an immediate success. Not taking away from his accomplishments, his rise to prominence was in large part a product of his circumstances. Being well educated and born into a family with political ties certainly placed him into a fortunate environment, enabling him to have certain opportunities not afforded to everyone. The glorified storybook edition of General Washington, a great leader of men, an against all odds underdog, while not untrue, doesn’t quite tell the whole story of the man. A man who made the most of his place in life. A man who took advantage of his times and position, but also struggled, faced adversity, and whose way was full of missteps. Looking clearly at his early years should show us that he was after all, still just a man, capable of failure and having to learn from his mistakes. I think this should give us hope, that though we weren’t born into a privileged family or an era of great significance, we still all have immense potential. Let’s strive for the ideals characterized by the more famous version of Washington, remembering that like him we must work to achieve them.