“A government is like fire, a handy servant, but a dangerous master.” – George Washington
And there you have it. A very unlikely man to lead a ragtag group of soldiers against the greatest military on Earth at that time. Probably an even more unlikely man to lead a fledgling experimental democracy through it’s teething years. Who was this man? Historians, even today, cannot fully say. What can be said is that he did it. Nothing in his background suggested he could, yet he did. As you’ll read below, he should have been dead many times over but fate had a much larger role for him to play.
George Washington’s titles included Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and first President of the United States. To many Americans, there is no greater hero than George Washington. The real story of this iconic leader contains more complexity than most legends ever do. Yes, he was a hero in battle, but he was not always successful. He rallied the troops to keep going at Valley Forge despite the horrible conditions they endured. As a Commander, he called on both bravery and strategy to win the Revolutionary War. And, when the war was over, he chose to resign his commission rather than become the first King of the United States.
5. Washington’s second inaugural address is the shortest ever delivered
Washington’s second inaugural, delivered March 4, 1793, clocked in at less than two minutes and was only 135 words in length. This is how it reads:
“I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.”
“ Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.”
4. Washington’s Distillery
When Washington left the presidency in 1797, he was looking forward to returning to Mount Vernon and relaxing. However, Washington was a man who hated to let an opportunity slip by and when he hired a Scottish plantation manager in 1797, he decided to go into the whiskey business. His new plantation manager, James Anderson, recognized an opportunity on the estate. Washington’s abundance of crops, combined with his state-of-the-art gristmill and immense water supply could be used to make whiskey. It wasn’t just the abundance of crops, but the type. Washington had planted a lot of rye to help improve the health of the soil. Rather than let it go to waste, Anderson wanted to turn it into whiskey.
3. Small Pox Inoculations
What a lot of people are unaware of during this time period is that General George Washington actually ordered the soldiers of the Continental Army to be inoculated. Washington was a strong supporter of inoculation, believing that the medical procedure would greatly reduce the chances of his army dying from small pox. The science behind inoculation had many doubters at the time, but Washington firmly believed that the benefits far outweighed the risks. As small pox began spreading throughout his army, Washington made the controversial decision to inoculate the troops. During the siege of Boston, Washington’s concern about the spread of smallpox caused him to issue an order stating that no soldier could enter the city unless he had been infected with smallpox in the past.
Earlier during a trip to the Caribbean with his brother Lawrence, Washington was infected with smallpox. In fact, Washington had a few pockmark scars on his face to remind him of this nearly fatal encounter. During the war, Washington had seen several British raids that were unsuccessful, due to the depleted manpower of the British Army all which was infected by the disease.
In our modern world we know the benefits of understanding the scientific benefits of inoculations. For colonial Americans, however, this was very much a roll of the dice. Fortunately for the Continental Army and the country, Washington was bold enough to take the risk.
2. Washington was Bulletproof
In 1755, George Washington served as an aide-de-camp under General Edward Braddock of the British army during the French and Indian War. During one of the battles, Braddock was shot off his horse and the troops were surrounded and very unorganized. Washington started giving the troops orders, riding back and forth between them and the officers. He was giving orders despite the fact that he was a volunteer with no rank, and if that wasn’t bad enough, his horse got shot out from under him.
Due to his efforts, the British were able to form a rear guard and allow a safe retreat. After the battle, Washington had four bullets in his coat and none in his body. He was also the only officer who wasn’t shot down. All of this happened while he had still not recovered from an illness that had him lying in a wagon for 10 days. Many years later, an Indian chief traveled to meet Washington. He remembered the battle, saying, “Our rifles were leveled, rifles which, but for you, knew not how to miss … I am come to pay homage to the man … who can never die in battle.”
Washington’s bulletproof status was with him during the American Revolution. During the battle of Princeton in 1777, Washington charged into a fight where an American regiment had already been defeated. The British were winning and the Americans were fleeing in all directions. As things were falling apart on an impossible scale, Washington rode over to the fleeing men and yelled out, “Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy, and we will have them directly.” The men couldn’t look Washington in his face and keep fleeing.
Forming his troops, Washington rode out in front of them and told them not to fire until he gave the word. He rode until he was just 30 yards away from the British, and, in between the two armies, ordered his men to fire.
So many shots were fired that one soldier said, “The smoke was so thick that it was virtually impossible to see. The entire scene was chaos.” The smoke cleared and Washington was not hit and lying dead on the ground as he should have been, but instead “sat upright on his horse, calm and resolute.”
Colonel Fitzgerald, Washington’s aide, burst into tears upon seeing his commander alive. Riding over to Fitzgerald, Washington said, “The day is our own.”
1. The Trenton-Princeton Campaign
At no time was American morale lower than in the last months of 1776. Despite starting the year off on a high note by forcing the British to evacuate Boston and declaring independence in July, the second half of the year went extremely well for the British, defeating the Continental Army in New York and handing the Americans several defeats afterwards. Army desertions for the Americans were on the rise. By December, George Washington had just 2,500 troops at his command from a force of 10,000 that summer. To compound matters, the one-year enlistments of most of his remaining troops was set to expire in days.
It was a low time for George Washington and he knew something had to change fast. A friend reported that Washington wrote a note with three simple words, victory or death. There could be no turning back. Washington was going to fight to the last to keep the American cause alive or sink beneath the waves with it.
What happened next was an incredibly complex operation, and Washington rose to the occasion. He noticed that the British and their Hessian mercenaries were feeling confident enough in themselves and in the fact that the campaigning season was over to take it easy. Washington decided on attacking the Hessian stronghold of Trenton, New Jersey.
That he was able to organize this operation and motivate his soldiers to follow through in such conditions is remarkable in itself, but that wasn’t the end of it. To get to Trenton, he would need to cross the freezing Delaware River and totally surprise the enemy. To achieve that surprise, he would have to organize a night crossing.
A few of the troops froze to death. Many of them left bloody footprints in the snow, because boots were often hard to come by in the Continental Army due to supply problems. The surprise worked. The garrison at Trenton had no idea of Washington’s intentions and the battle quickly ended perfectly for the Americans. The entire Hessian garrison was captured while the Americans suffered only a few casualties.
A week later, Washington won another victory, this time over the Bitish themselves, at Princeton, ambushing Lord Cornwallis’ rearguard. During this battle, George Washington rode between the lines while both sides were shooting at each other in order to rally his troops.
These two victories were decisive in that, militarily, they gave the Patriot cause some much needed breathing room. They allowed Washington and his army to dominate New Jersey and forced the British back toward New York. Yet, the morale boost was extremely more important. No one wants to be part of a losing cause, and had Washington not initiated these actions in that transition from 1776 to 1777, the Continental Army would have almost certainly not have survived.