George Washington is best known for two things: his contributions to the United States’ revolutionary war effort as the commander of the American forces, and as being the first president of the United States, who reigned for eight years before stepping down and allowing is successor to be elected. But he also had a prodigious and important career before the revolutionary war career that was his pinnacle achievement. A close examination of his life prior to the Revolutionary War demonstrates that Washington always had something of a taste for military and political leadership, and had a keen mind for those matters that would be incredibly useful in his later career. His career before the revolutionary war spanned many decades, and taught him invaluable lessons that would later help shape America and American history for centuries to come.
While his revolutionary military career is well known, very few people actually spend much time considering the life experiences that made Washington so adept in that conflict. Washington’s background, like many revolutionaries, was actually relatively British and relatively upper class (Brookhiser 18). In contrast to Benjamin Franklin, for instance, who was a working class revolutionary that made his way from practically nothing to being one of the most important people in America, George Washington was born to landed estate holders of significant means (Brookhiser 23). All of George Washington’s siblings were able to go to England to receive education, but Washington’s father unfortunately died relatively early in George’s life, forcing him to stay behind in America and receive only the equivalent of an elementary school education (Brookhiser 20). His family connections, however, consistently allowed Washington to achieve relatively well paying work, and become and land owner in his own right, in addition to estate that his family traditionally held. Washington, also through these connections, was able to achieve a small level of his military ambitions (Boller 48). Though he never actually achieved the British military commission that he had long hoped for (48), he was appointed one of the four people in charge of the Virginia colony’s military (49). Following the French and Indian war, which will be discussed below, Washington married a wealthy heiress, Martha, and thus improved his social and economic standing significantly (Brookhiser 73). Washington thus always fit the mould of the traditional revolutionary, being relatively wealthy, a slave owner, and having achieved social status as well as government rank largely through the acquisition of wealth through social and family connections of various sorts.
Washington was also, however, quite talented in a variety of ways and was well positioned to be a revolutionary leader because of those experiences. In 1754, a war broke out between the English and the French colonies over land that was claimed by both parties. This was called the “French and Indian War,” or else the “Seven Years War.” At the opening of this war, Washington was an aide to Edward Braddock, a British General that was leading the military expedition at the time. He is best known for the famous Braddock disaster of 1755, in which British soldiers, believing themselves to have numbers, walked into an ambush by French and Indian soldiers (). A year after the outbreak, the governor of Virginia awarded Washington with supreme control of Virginia’s military forces, and Washington was tasked with fighting the French on the frontier of the mutually claimed territory. Washington thus led the first professional military brigade that had ever been formed in the United States, the Virginia Regiment (all previous military engagements had been fought by militias that were raised solely to fight the conflict, then disbanded. Throughout the course of the French and Indian War, Washington’s military aspirations were never fully realized, as he wanted to be commissioned as a British officer, not simply a commander of a colonial force. However, he did gain valuable experience that would make him the excellent general that he would be during the American revolution.
During the course of the French and Indian War, Washington was able to, and took the opportunity to, minutely study the British engagement strategies, noting their strengths and their weaknesses (Anderson 29). Observations made during this time would prove pivotal to American tactics during the revolutionary war. Washington noted, for instance, that British soldiers, being a largely professional force, were highly trained, and thus to combat them it would require an incredibly disciplined regiment (48). Furthermore, he noted that while their distinctive red uniforms were useful in traditional engagements, allowing leaders to easily see how each unit was doing, where it was moving, losses and so forth, they made the British incredibly visible in non-traditional engagements. Washington’s experience in the Babcock disaster also demonstrated that the British were highly vulnerable to guerilla tactics, and that an outnumber force could thus compete effectively against the British if such tactics were used. These lessons translated directly into tactics during the Revolutionary War, with America, when possible, eschewing traditional combat but instead focusing on disrupting supply lines, carrying out ambushes, and otherwise seeking to maximize their limited resources when compared to the British (19). Thus, ironically, without having a leader that actually served under British generals in the previous years, the fledgling American government might not have actually been able to fight against the British during the Wars beginning in 1776.
George Washington’s career was, before the revolutionary war, somewhat ordinary. He came from wealthy stock that tended to secure jobs very easily through connections, and was able to marry upwards in order to ensure future success. He had a moderately successful military career, never achieving his full aspirations but still gaining some measure of respect and important positions, eventually leading all of Virginia Colony’s forces during the French and Indian War. While this career was certainly impressive, it was also definitely unremarkable. But in a strange twist of fate, it provided Washington exactly the military and political training that would make him so effective a general and president when fighting against British forces decades later.
- Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Year’s War and the Fate of Empire in British North America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2000.
- Buller, Paul. Not So! Popular Myths about America from Coloumbus to Clinton. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
- Brookhiser, Richard. Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. New York: Free Press, 1996.