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Famous Men of Modern Times by  John H. Haaren

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GEORGE WASHINGTON

(1732–1799)

[264] GEORGE WASHINGTON, familiarly known as the Father of his Country, was born on a plantation in Virginia called Bridge's Creek, on February 22, 1732.

When he was three years old the house in which he was born was burned down, and the family moved to another plantation on the Rappahannock, opposite Fredericksburg.

He was the eldest of five children, although he had a half-brother named Lawrence, who was fifteen years older than himself.

His father died when he was but eleven years of age. But his mother, who was a strong and healthy woman, took up her burden bravely and brought up her family with great care.

It is generally admitted that Washington got his manly qualities from his mother. In features and in mental characteristics he resembled her very closely.

After the death of George's father one of his estates called Mount Vernon, on the Potomac River, was inherited by Lawrence.

[265] Lawrence Washington was fond of George, and often invited him to spend his holidays at Mount Vernon.

An English nobleman, named Lord Fairfax, lived near Mount Vernon, and often visited Lawrence Washington. In this way he became acquainted with George. Lord Fairfax owned an immense tract of wild forest land in Virginia. He had never seen it himself, and few white men had ever been on it. Lord Fairfax was an old gentleman, but he took a great liking to George Washington. When he found that the young [266] man understood surveying he engaged him to survey these lands.


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WASHINGTON AS A SURVEYOR

When only sixteen George entered upon his task. This was quite an undertaking for one so young. But in three years the survey was finished; and it was so well done that it stands to this day.

Lawrence Washington died in 1752, and in his will he made George guardian to his daughter and heir to Mount Vernon in case of her death.

George had now grown to manhood. He was wonderfully strong and athletic and could out-run, out-leap and out-ride all the young men of his acquaintance.

So fully did he command the confidence of those who knew him that he was appointed to positions of great trust and responsibility.

At the age of twenty-three he was made colonel and commander-in-chief of all the forces raised in Virginia for the defense of the Western Territory against the French.

In this French War, as it was called, he received a splendid training, not only in success but in failure, and confidence in him was greatly increased when men saw how these failures and defeats raised his unconquerable spirit.

In a second expedition Washington was again [267] placed in command of the American troops. The French had built a fort at the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers join and form the Ohio, which they called Fort Duquesne.

Washington decided to capture this fort; but the French garrison were afraid to risk a battle; so they burned the fort and marched away into Canada.

When Washington and his men arrived they found nothing but smoking ruins; but they took possession of the place in the name of King George.

Some time afterward, the English won a great victory over the French at Quebec. This gave them all French America from the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes as far west as the Mississippi, and south to the Gulf of Mexico. At the end of the war, Washington returned to Mount Vernon.

In May, 1758, Washington was called to Williamsburg to confer with the governor in regard to the condition of the Virginia troops. He traveled there on horseback, accompanied by his servant; and one day he stopped for dinner at the mansion of a hospitable planter.

There he was introduced to a lovely young widow, Mrs. Martha Custis. Her manners and conversation were so pleasing to him that he [268] spent the afternoon and evening in her company; and the next morning he rode away a captive to her charms.

George Washington and Martha Custis were married on January 6, 1759. The union proved to be a very happy one. She adorned every station to which his greatness called her, and he was tenderly devoted to her till the end of his life.

For several years Washington lived the life of a country gentleman. He was very fond of horses and hounds and often went fox hunting. But like other people in the American colonies he was greatly troubled by the unjust way in which the English king and his government were acting.

The English Parliament ordered that a tax should be paid upon all the tea brought into New York, Boston, and the other ports of the colonies. As the colonists had no representative in Parliament they felt that they ought not to be taxed; and when a shipload of tea arrived in Boston a number of citizens went on board the vessel and threw the chests of tea into the harbor. This was called the "Boston Tea Party."

Washington hated the tea tax, and he and his friends refused to buy any goods that came from England. [269] A number of men from all the colonies met together in a Congress to consider what should be done. They sent a letter to the king of England begging that they might have the same rights as those of his subjects who were born in England.

Quite a number of men in the English Parliament said that the colonists were right. Among these was William Pitt, after whom the city of Pittsburg was named. But the Parliament was stubborn, and the Americans found that if they were to gain their rights they could only do so by fighting for them. So they took up arms and entered upon a great struggle for their liberties.

The Congress of the Colonies raised an army, and Washington was made commander-in-chief.

British troops had already been sent over to fight against the colonists. As Washington was riding from Mount Vernon to Cambridge, Massachusetts, people told him that a battle had taken place between the English soldiers and the colonial militia.

His question was, "Did the militia fight?" "Yes!" was the answer. "Then" said Washington, "the liberties of the country are safe."


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SIGNING THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

On arriving at Cambridge, Washington at once [271] assumed command. The British held the city of Boston, but Washington made up his mind to take it.

One cold night in March he fortified a hill which commanded the city. From its heights he discharged such a shower of shot and shell that the British commander found that Boston was not a safe place for him to stay in; so he took to his ships and left the city in Washington's hands.

This was a great victory for the colonists and they were much encouraged. On the fourth of July, 1776, Congress declared that the colonies no longer belonged to Great Britain, but were free and independent.

A British fleet and army now arrived from England to capture New York. They landed on Long Island, and a battle was fought in which the Americans were badly defeated.

The British rested for a couple of days after the battle; and during that time Washington led the American army across the East River, marched through New York, and on through Harlem to White Plains. There they dug trenches, threw up breastworks, and awaited the British attack.


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WASHINGTON CROSSING THE DELAWARE

The English commander hesitated to attack [273] them in this strong position, and Washington soon afterward crossed the Hudson into New Jersey.

These were dark days for all who were fighting for liberty and independence. On several occasions Washington saved his army only by rapidly retreating from place to place.

At Christmas, 1777, the main body of the British army were in winter quarters at New York, and the towns of Princeton and Trenton, in New Jersey, were also, held by them. Washington determined to make an advance movement against them.

He crossed the Delaware amidst floating ice, marched to Trenton in a driving storm of sleet, and captured the town. He was also successful at Princeton, and Frederick the Great, the most famous soldier of Prussia, declared that "Washington's victories at Trenton and Princeton were the most splendid gained in the eighteenth century."


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WASHINGTON AND LAFAYETTE AT MOUNT VERNON.

He next won a great battle at Monmouth in New Jersey, and after that the outlook began to improve.

Benjamin Franklin was then in Paris, and he persuaded the French government to help his countrymen. So a French fleet and an army [275] came over, and rendered good service to the American cause.

The Marquis de Lafayette, a young French nobleman had already come to this country and joined the colonial army. Washington admired him very greatly, and made him a major general. He was a brave man and a brilliant soldier, and will ever be kindly remembered by the American people.

In 1781, the main division of the British army was at Yorktown in Virginia under the command of Lord Cornwallis.

As soon as the French allies arrived, Washington went to see the commander of the fleet; and it was agreed that the French and Americans should unite and make an attack on Cornwallis. The French fleet sailed to Yorktown; and the French and Americans closing in upon the town by land, it was soon besieged on all sides.

The British army was so closely cooped up in Yorktown that Cornwallis was finally obliged to surrender; and this victory brought the war to an end.

Peace was made with England, and Washington returned to his beautiful home at Mount Vernon. Where he would have liked to spend the rest of his life in quiet. But the country still needed his help.

[276] Although our country was called the "United States of America" the states were not really united. They had joined in the war against England because all were in the same danger. But as soon as the danger was over, they began to disagree among themselves.

There were thirteen independent states. Each of these states had its own governor, but there was no president over all.

There was really no nation, and of course there was no constitution. Washington said there must be a union that would keep the states together in peace as well as in war.

Most of the people felt as he did; and so, in 1789, a constitution was drawn up and adopted by the states.

This constitution provided that there should be a president elected by the people to be the ruler of the nation; that laws should be made which the people in all the states must obey; and that these laws should be made by Congress and the president.

After the constitution had been adopted, an election was held, and George Washington, being the unanimous choice of his countrymen, became the first president of the United States of America.

[277] New York was then the capital city of the country, and after his election Washington went to live there. His journey from Mount Vernon to New York was one long triumphal march.

Congress then held its meetings in a hall in Wall Street; and in front of that hall he took the oath to serve the country faithfully and to maintain the constitution.

An immense crowd had gathered to witness this ceremony; and as soon as it was performed they shouted "God bless George Washington, president of the United States." Bells pealed and cannons roared, and there was great rejoicing all over the land.


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INAUGURATION OF WASHINGTON

So well did Washington rule that when his term of office expired he was again the choice of the people; and they would have elected him a third time had not he himself declined the great honor.

He wrote "A Farewell Address to the People of the United States," and went back to Virginia to live amid the quiet scenes of Mount Vernon and enjoy a well-earned rest.

Not quite three years passed when, in December, 1799, he took a severe cold as he was riding over his farm in a storm of sleet. He failed very rapidly from the first; and, two days later, [279] George Washington, the Father of his Country, was dead.

He was buried at Mount Vernon. The entire nation sincerely mourned the loss of its founder and friend; and the world grieved for the death of one of its grandest heroes.


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