George Washington: Early Life Before the Presidency

About the life of George Washington before he became President of the United States, his career and role in the Revolutionary War.


Career: As a younger son in a land-poor family, Washington had to work hard to win his position as a Virginia gentleman. His education was sketchy--he was the only one of the 1st 6 Presidents who never attended college--and the only subjects he pursued in depth were mathematics and surveying. When he was 11 his father died, and at 14 Washington wanted to run away to sea, but his mother prevented him. The dominant figure in his adolescence was his older half-brother, Lawrence, who had advanced the family fortunes by marrying into the wealthy Fairfax family. When Washington was 17, Lawrence got him a job as a surveyor for the Fairfaxes. For $7 a day, the young man endured severe hardships while mapping out new lands on the frontier. With this experience behind him, the 21-year-old Washington was named as a special messenger to carry an ultimatum from the governor of Virginia to French outposts far to the west. On this dramatic mission, Washington handled himself with dignity and resourcefulness, and his published account of his adventures won him a favorable reputation. In 1753, with Virginia threatened by a conflict with France, Washington was commissioned a lieutenant colonel of the militia. Dreaming of conquest and glory, he marched out with a tiny force and rashly attacked a French scouting party--in one of the key incidents that provoked the French and Indian War. His blunders, however, were soon forgotten after he showed great courage at the battle known as "Braddock's Defeat," in which Washington's leadership was largely responsible for allowing 1/3 of the British-American troops to escape with their lives. At 23, he was promoted to full colonel and placed in command of all Virginia forces in the war. For 3 years he conducted a dogged and skillful defense of the Virginia frontier against sporadic attacks by the French and their Indian allies. This was the sum of his military experience before he was named commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary armies some 18 years later.

Resigning his commission in 1758, Washington was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses on his 3rd try. He served diligently for 15 years, but without particular distinction. Most of his attention was centered on the administration of his plantation, Mount Vernon, which he had inherited after his half-brother Lawrence died of tuberculosis.

In 1774 Washington was chosen as one of the 7 Virginia representatives to the 1st Continental Congress in Philadelphia. By the time the 2nd Congress convened in May, 1775, the Revolutionary fighting was already under way. With thousands of unorganized troops camped near Boston, the representatives pondered the choice of a commander-in-chief. For political reasons, it was considered necessary to appoint a Virginian: With all the fighting centered in Massachusetts, special care had to be taken in order to insure full southern support for the cause. Not only did Washington meet the geographical qualification, but he had a quiet, soldierly bearing, a reputation for dependability, and few political enemies. On June 16, Congress selected him as supreme commander. Washington protested that he was unqualified, citing his lack of military experience, but a few days later he was in full uniform and on his way to Boston.

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