In December 1776, the Continental Army had been defeated in nearly every battle and lost 90 percent of its troops, many through desertion. It was rumored that the Continental Congress was considering replacing George Washington as Commander in Chief.
On the night of Dec. 25, Washington led 2,400 men through rain, sleet, and snow across the Delaware River to attack the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton. The password was “Victory or Death.” They surprised the Hessians in a short, sharp battle.
Almost all the Hessians not killed were captured, along with arms, ammunition, and supplies. Washington’s position was never again in doubt through the final victory at Yorktown. During the war he recruited two young aides, Alexander Hamilton, and the Marquis de Lafayette from France, and both became surrogate sons. After the war, Hamilton became Secretary of the Treasury and Lafayette went home as the “Hero of two Worlds.”
Washington was unanimously elected President twice, knowing that everything he did would be a precedent, most of which stands to this day. He never publicly condemned slavery, believing the issue would divide the new nation. Washington was a slave owner, but after 1775 he moderated his views. He sometimes personally cared for ill or injured slaves, and he provided physicians and midwives for them.
He supported many slaves who were too young or old to work, causing Mount Vernon to operate at a loss. He provided that younger ones were to be taught to read and write and placed in suitable occupations. Six months before his death, he made a new will which directed that his slaves were to be freed upon his wife’s death.
In his farewell address, Washington warned about the dangers of permanent alliances with foreign nations, saying they were likely to draw the United States into wars with no justification or benefit to the country. He advocated a policy of good faith and justice toward all nations, based upon religious doctrine and morality. He also stressed that the American people’s independence, peace at home and abroad, safety, prosperity, and liberty are all dependent upon unity among the states.
He urged the people to place their identity as Americans above their identities as members of a city, state, region, or ethnic group, stressing that they have only slight differences in religion, customs, habits and political principles. He said the security provided by the Union will also allow the United States to avoid the creation of an overgrown military. Washington called for a balanced federal budget saying the nation’s credit is an important source of strength and security. He said the people have the right to alter the government to meet their needs. But it should only be done through constitutional amendments.
George Washington was a dominant factor in America’s founding, the Revolutionary War, and the Constitutional Convention. He was the leader of the first successful revolution against a colonial empire. The greatest act of his life, the one that gave him his greatest fame, was his resignation as Commander in Chief of the American Forces. He was eulogized as “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the hearts of his country.”
David Thompson is a builder, teacher, and Vietnam-era Marine fighter pilot. Thompson will present “George Washington” in its entirety at “Talks on Tuesday” at the Sierra Vista Library on Tuesday, Aug. 13, at 1 p.m. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.