An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Legacy of George Washington

Aug 27, 2012 by

George Washington

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

Since this is an election year, it seems fitting to reflect on previous Presidents and their accomplishments. Professor Donald Elder has consented to comment on our previous presidents to put the current election in context. It is hope that this series of interviews about our Presidents will allow the American people to reflect on our past leaders as we enter the political process to elect another President for the next four years.

  1. Professor Elder, thank you for agreeing to do this series of interviews to let students all across the United States know a bit more about the men who have led this country for more than 200 years. Obviously, we will start with the Father of Our Country- George Washington- When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events?)

There’s an interesting story about when George Washington was born. We list his birth date as February 22, 1732, but he never celebrated his birthday on that date. In fact, he would not have given his birth year as 1732. He would have stated his birth date as February 11, and his birth year as 1731. This discrepancy is due to the fact that when Washington was born, Great Britain still used the Julian calendar (which did not incorporate the concept of the Leap Year). According to that calendar, Washington was born on February 11, 1731. In 1752 the Gregorian calendar went into effect in Great Britain and its colonies, a change which added 11 days and one year to Washington’s birth date. He was born on his family’s estate in present-day Westmoreland County, Virginia.

Washington’s older brothers had gone to England for their education, but the death of his father when he was 11 prevented Washington from following that path. It has been suggested that his future involvement in the American Revolution could have been precluded if he had received a formal education in Great Britain. He also had another life changing moment at the age of 15 when the possibility of an appointment to the British Navy for him was quashed by his mother. Washington had attributes that would aid him in life (he was tall and strong, for example), but he was also clearly benefited by his family connections.

He in large measure received his appointment as the surveyor for Culpeper County, Virginia at the age of 17 because of his older brother’s marriage into an influential family, and that same brother also helped Washington become an officer in the Virginia militia. In that capacity, he led an expedition from Virginia into what is now western Pennsylvania to lay claim to the territory, but was captured by the French. This action is generally regarded as the beginning of a conflict that we know in American history as the French and Indian War. After his service in the Virginia militia ended, Washington married Martha Custis and concentrated on his business affairs. The growing dispute with Great Britain over the issue of taxation brought Washington back into the limelight, as he was selected by Virginia to represent the colony at the meeting of the First Continental Congress in 1774.

During the meeting of the Second Continental Congress in 1775, Washington was selected by his fellow delegates to become the commander of the military force around Boston that had recently fought the British at Lexington and Concord. Washington led the Americans to victory in the American Revolution, and then once again returned to civilian life. After four years, however, Washington reentered the political realm in 1787 when a constitutional convention was called for. He served as the president of the convention, and in the first election held under the auspices of the Constitution he was elected president. He was inaugurated in 1789, and would serve two terms as president, leaving office in 1797.

  1. What was he MOST known for?

Washington deserves credit for many things, but I would say that his primary accomplishment was to keep our nation together during its first years under the Constitution. No nation the size of the United States had ever tried to exist as a federal republic, and that experiment could have failed just as easily as the US government under the Articles of Confederation had. Through his leadership, Washington helped the nation adapt to the opportunities and demands of the new political system.

  1. What would you say were his strengths?

Washington was a physically imposing figure, and was brave almost to the point of foolhardiness. He was dignified and usually a good judge of character. He may not have been the most intelligent person to be president of the United States, but he was smart enough to understand the issues of the time. This helped him usually make decisions that proved beneficial for the nation.

  1. What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

For people who crossed him, Washington could prove to be an implacable foe. Thomas Jefferson disappointed him with his actions to undermine Alexander Hamilton, and Washington never spoke to Jefferson again. But for a man who occupied such a vital place in our nation’s history over such an extensive period of time, Washington seems remarkably devoid of negative attributes.

  1. What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

It is hard to overstate the importance of George Washington to our nation. If he had failed to provide effective leadership in either the American Revolution or his presidency, the United States could have died in its infancy. He established a benchmark by which all other presidents and military commanders have been judged. The influence that the United States would eventually exert on the rest of the world began with his decisive leadership as our head of state.

  1. In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

There has been remarkably little fluctuation throughout our history regarding the place of Washington in our national pantheon. I think that most historians regard Lincoln as the greatest American president, but Washington ranks either second or third in virtually every poll that I’ve ever seen.

  1. What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

As president, Washington had to steer a careful course in the realm of foreign policy. The United States had significant disputes with Great Britain, France, Spain, and the Native Americans of the American interior, and Washington employed policies that allowed us to avoid being conquered or divided.

  1. Could you provide a summary statement about our first President, and “ the Father of Our Country “?

A toast was once offered to him that went “to Washington—first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” I think that still is a fitting assessment.

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