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Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home

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Getting to Know George
Acts of Congress exhibit banner
Getting to Know George is a weekly series leading to the opening of the
Acts of Congress exhibit at the Eisenhower Presidential Library on April 23!
George Washington's personal copy of the Laws of the United States, First Session 1789, known as the Acts of Congress will be on display at the 13 Presidential Libraries.
For tour details, please visit www.archives.gov/exhibits/acts-of-congress

1775 - 1781: General Washington

"[I]t is my full intention to devote my life and fortune in the cause we are engaged in." - GW


How did George Washington become a revolutionary?

When the American Revolutionary War began in 1775, the then-British colonists already had a history in North America stretching back 168 years -- comparable to Americans of 2013 looking back to 1845! Until the outbreak of the French and Indian War, they had led relatively independent, self-governing lives, replete with all the rights of their fellow Englishmen. But burgeoning British debt, accumulated during those war years, prompted the Parliament to look to the colonies for revenue-with disastrous consequences. From the Stamp Act of 1765 to the Coercive (Intolerable) Acts of 1774, the colonists felt increasingly burdened with unjust taxation. George Washington held a front row seat to this unfolding history. In many respects, his own evolution, from loyal British subject to revolutionary figure, mirrored what was occurring throughout the colonies. In his personal life, he and Martha, still grieving Patsy's death, relented to 19-year-old Jacky's impetuous demand to marry 16-year-old Eleanor "Nelly" Calvert of Maryland's most powerful family. Six years later, Jacky, then a military aide to his step-father, would succumb to "camp fever," generally typhus. He left behind four young children and a pregnant wife who shortly thereafter gave birth to twins who would not survive. When Washington departed Mount Vernon on May 4, 1775, for the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he likely never imagined that he would not return home until the war was over. Perhaps the great irony is this: The young Virginia Militia officer, rejected by the British Army would, 23 years later, defeat its proudest and most accomplished generals.


What role did Washington play in the lead up to the American Revolution?

As the French and Indian War ended in 1763, Washington was a 32-year-old family man, pleasantly dividing his time between the farms of Mount Vernon and his duties as a burgess in Williamsburg. An interested observer of the times, he particularly lamented the Stamp Tax and how it negatively affected the colonial economy. Throughout this period (1765-1774), British Prime Ministers came and went with great regularity, most opting to escalate an already-delicate situation with the American colonies. In response, the Virginians were coalescing into three groups. Conservatives supported continued "pleas" and petitions to King George III; moderates argued for a boycott of British goods; and the radicals demanded independence. By the winter of 1768-69, Washington had moved into the moderate's camp. In March 1773, Washington lent his support to forming the Virginia Committee of Correspondence. It was Lord North's response to the Boston Tea Party, the Coercive (Intolerable Acts), which served to radicalize many colonists, including George Washington. When Governor Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses in June 1774, the more "militant" burgesses, including George Washington, reconvened in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern and signed the petition calling for the First Continental Congress (September 5 - October 26, 1774). Before the Second Continental Congress could convene in May 1775, the battles of Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775, had changed everything. The Revolutionary War had begun!  


What leadership qualities did Washington bring to his role as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army?

At the Second Continental Congress, George Washington emerged as the only real candidate for commander in chief of the newly formed Continental Army. (John Hancock had desperately hoped to be selected.) Washington was the epitome of inspired, and inspiring, leadership-he looked the part, acted the part, and he was absolutely authentic in every way. Contemporaries describe his unparalleled countenance, aura of confidence, sense of calm and fearlessness, and his unfailing perseverance. It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anyone more supremely suited to lead our fledgling nation through its most tenuous time. Washington was a man for whom commitment was absolute. This trait would prove invaluable to a cause whose supporters often, and with good reason, slipped into despair and near surrender. Quite simply-Washington would not give up. Transcending his own fears and doubts, he presented a certainty, steadfastness, and optimism in the face of terrible odds, and, much more, he communicated this to those under his leadership. His soldiers loved him and were completely devoted to him. As a military leader, Washington was a bold, strategic, and creative. From his early experience, he knew the British Army; he was familiar with its strengths and, more importantly, its weaknesses. Tactics he employed, such as the use of camouflage, surprise attack, dividing up his forces, concentrating his efforts in the countryside-rather than the cities-and retreating to fight another day, were a puzzle to then-modern European Armies.  


What were Washington's greatest challenges in fighting the Revolutionary War?

Undoubtedly, General Washington's greatest challenge was to keep the Continental Army alive long enough to win the war. Upon assuming his command, he discovered that he had an army without gunpowder. His distracters included members of the Continental Congress and junior officers who criticized what they perceived as his reluctance to fight. Washington was forced to wrestle with the Congress for longer enlistments, supplies, money for arms and supplies, and for pay for his soldiers. From time to time, he and his fellow officers reached into their own pockets on payday. The threat of disease and epidemics was more lethal to soldiers than battle. Washington's remarkable decision to vaccinate his troops against smallpox helped to preserve his army. Winter camp at Valley Forge, a battle for life and death due to cold, disease, and life's basic necessities, challenged Washington and his troops as never before. One in four soldiers died from disease or exposure. Inspiration at Valley Forge came in the form of Baron von Steuben who, with new skills and camp discipline, breathed new life into a weary army. Not the least of Washington's worries was Martha's welfare, with frequent rumors of British intentions to harm her and destroy Mount Vernon. During the darkest days and longest years of the American Revolution, General Washington bore unimaginable burdens of responsibility and worry that surely would have destroyed a lesser person.

How accurate is our image of George Washington in 2013?

Though not quite in the category of "myth," our collective image of George Washington, the man, is far from the reality. Modern Americans often perceive him as stern, unapproachable, one-dimensional, and irrelevant - and, for young people especially - "old." Nothing could be farther from the truth! George Washington was, in every respect, a real person whose appearance alone turned heads. Though he had mastered the art of controlling his emotions and reactions, he was a very passionate man. Certainly he lived through the seasons of his life and aged, but he was considered handsome, athletic, a wonderful dancer, and a charming companion. Washington also had mastered the art of being a good listener, a generous host, a modest colleague, and was a loving family man. If you had had the opportunity to have met him, you would, most likely, have been impressed and would have liked him very much.


Discover George Washington:  

View the five-part series, The American Revolution, produced by A&E in 1994.


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