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George Washington took the oath of office to become the first President of the United States of America on April 30, 1789. Yet his influence on the history and development of the United States and on its office of President started some 35 years earlier, when, as a young man, he led a small force of militia men into a battle later called a massacre. Had one only this beginning to go on, one would likely not expect to find that the rash military leader who broke the rules of war to kill a few French military scouts would become both the storied, inspiring general who led the Continental Army to win the American Revolutionary War, and the thoughtful, fair-minded political leader who would set careful precedents that have allowed the United States Presidency to become one of the most powerful political positions in the world today. As both the popular general whose successes won the Revolutionary War, and as the careful politician who made his first job the development of the Presidency, George Washington played essential roles in American history that earned him the position of national hero in his own day, and nation symbol in modern America.
In 1754, a young Lieutenant Colonel George Washington led his first notable military action when he ordered the militia men under his command to fire upon a French scouting party near Fort Duquesne. His actions would cause uproar because he failed to follow standard protocol of the time, which demanded that a warning be given before attacking an enemy. His militiamen easily killed a third of the French scouts, including the commander, de Jumonville, and they took the rest prisoner. The Native Americans who had assisted Washington's militia scalped the French dead and, by some reports, the dying as well. Washington's report tried to put the battle in a better light, but most accounts suggest the attack was a massacre. A few weeks later, Washington and his men were trapped at Fort Necessity by a force led by de Jumonville's brother (Pederson, The French and Indian War, 30-31). Exacting his revenge, the French commander allowed Washington and his men to withdraw, but as a condition of the release, George Washington signed a document in which he admitted to murdering the commander of the French scouting party (McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner, 180-181). Though Washington later claimed to have been tricked into signing the document without realizing it branded him a murder, the result of the two encounters in which George Washington figured so prominently was the initiation of the French and Indian War.
Washington's interest in the military continued despite his actions in starting the war. When Great Britain sent General Braddock to the colonies to lead the defense against the French and their Native American allies, George Washington became Braddock's assistant. He warned Braddock that the British soldiers could not expect to fight in the European style, standing in clean, gentlemanly lines. But Braddock didn't take his advice, and in July 1955, Braddock's company was ambushed by the French and their Native American allies. Braddock and more than a thousand soldiers died. Washington survived but his romantic view of war was irrevocably changed (Uschan, America's Founders, 34-35). He soon left his position with the British force and returned to manage the Mount Vernon plantation, though he continued to lead a thousand-man-strong Virginia army.
Over the next two decades, George Washington's support for Great Britain waned and be became a supporter of independence for the American colonies. His support for Independence led to his involvement in the First Continental Congress, to which he was a delegate in 1774. Washington was elected Commander of the Continental army after the Second Continental Congress in 1775. His election to the position was a perfect fit, and he was instrumental in leading the army to many victories despite it being poorly provisioned, lacking supplies including ammunition at times, underfunded, and composed of many men who were poorly clothed. He was viewed as a charismatic leader and said to have extraordinary stamina, both of which were inspirational to the men under his command. Washington's superior military tactics and strong leadership drove the army to defeat the British in many key battles despite its poor condition.
In December 1776 and January 1777, Washington led the Continental Army to brilliant victories in Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey that boosted the morale of the underpaid, under-clothed, and underfed army so well that it was able to recruit thousands of new soldiers in the spring (Uschan, America's Founders, 37-41). Although 1777 was a tough year and the winter of 77-78 was a deadly low point in the war, Washington's Continental Army began to force the British back soon after. In 1782, some military officers began to think that Washington could lead the country very well, and offered to help him seize control, becoming the King of the new nation. Washington's famous refusal would later help Americans trust him in the position of President (Uschan, America's Founders, 44). In 1783, the United States won its freedom from the British, in large part because of Washington's leadership of the Continental Army.
The Constitutional Convention convened in 1787 was a turning point for the young country. Washington had retired from leading the Continental Army in 1783 and returned to his plantation, but by 1787 he felt compelled to become active in politics again. Since winning the war, the thirteen colonies had no central strong central government, and Washington, among others, felt that the lack of central government was proving to be too ineffective and that the United States would not survive long without a better system (Uschan, America's Founders, 42). Washington was a central figure in the success of the Constitutional Convention. As president of the Constitutional Convention, he helped delegates reach compromises that might otherwise never have occurred (Uschan, America's Founders, 42-44). In 1789, he was elected as the nation's first President. Though many feared that a President would soon become a King-like figure, Washington's previous refusal of Kingship made it clear that he had no desire to become a dictator or establish a monarchy through his position.
George Washington was keenly aware that as the first President of the United States, his actions and decisions would set precedents that future leaders would follow. He set out to engage in careful and thoughtful leadership. He viewed his job as not only leading the new country of the United States, but as also creating the traditions and institutions that would help the country endure as a democracy (McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner, 337-339). His goal was to create a position of President which was strong enough to lead the nation, but not dictatorial in nature. He discouraged the use of titles for the President such as "Highness" and "His Excellency" (McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner, 338), created the institution of the President's cabinet, and asserted executive privilege to protect sensitive information. He also established that the President ranked above state officials, even in a nation built of States (McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner, 339). Washington's careful and thoughtful leadership was instrumental in allowing the position of President to develop into the powerful yet moderated leadership role it retains today.
George Washington set careful precedents when faced with policy decisions as well. The young, post-revolution French Republic went to war with Great Britain and its allies in 1793, and the United States risked being forced to ally with one party or another. The problem of how the United States should react to the war was the first major diplomatic problem confronted by the new nation (Eastern Michigan University Digital Textbook, "Proclamation of Neutrality," para 4). France had supported the Americans in the Revolutionary War, and some thought the new nation owed the French for their previous support or because the French revolutionaries had created a democracy in the model of the United States itself. But on the other hand, British business was essential to American economy, and the country was too young and fragile to risk losing that business. Thomas Jefferson, fearing that the defeat of the young, democratic French Republic would also harm the changes of democracy surviving in the United States, urged the President to support the French revolutionaries, but others warned that the young nation with its weak military could not afford to take sides in the conflict (McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner, 351-352). Washington chose the practical option over the idealistic one, and declared his Proclamation of Neutrality on April 22, 1793.
The Proclamation of Neutrality maintained the neutrality of the United States in foreign conflicts throughout Washington's presidency. Perhaps as important as the fact that the nation couldn't afford to become embroiled in a military conflict was Washington's belief that the United States should stay out of the affairs of other nations. In addition to declaring the United States' position as neutral in the conflict between France and Great Britain, Washington's proclamation further warned…[continue]
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