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There is great story about George Washington that drives the point home about people who have become amazing leaders who were not such great leaders when they began was illustrated by Chin-Ning Chu in her book “Do Less, Achieve More” about the misconceptions of Washington and his rise to fame and fortune. The following has been adapted from her book to illustrate my point here.
Whether you attend grade school in the United States or elsewhere, the story of young George Washington chopping down the cherry tree was ubiquitous. This story gave Washington such an aura of holiness that we mere mortals felt inadequate when our virtues did not compare to the pure seed of greatness that had been planted in this extraordinary child. In fact, according to historians, this story is a fiction manufactured by a clergyman toward inspiring the children who attended his church’s Sunday school classes to follow the path of honesty. The life story of the real man named George Washington is a tale of quite a different type.
The life story of George Washington reveals a man who evolved from a swindler to an icon who finally embodied true, altruistic greatness. As we get in touch with the human side of Washington’s life story, our admiration is not tarnished. Instead, it expands into the realization of how truly great was the stature of this Father of America.
Chin-Ning goes into great details as to how George Washington’s life was not the ideal that so many of us were brought up to believe it was. When Washington was 11 years old, his father died. His two older half-brothers received the majority of their father’s estate and were sent to England for the best education possible at that time in history. George was left without the benefit of wealth and a proper formal education.
At 16 George was invited to live with his brother, Lawrence, who was a major in the Virginia militia and served as a member of the House of Burgesses, the governing body of Virginia. Lawrence had also married into one of the wealthiest families in the territory. As a measure of success, Lawrence had it all. He had the status of a gentleman, massive wealth, a military position, a government position, and a huge estate. During the time that George lived with his brother, he grew very accustomed to the lavish lifestyle and became obsessed with attaining the positions and “symbols” that would show he was a man of stature. Understand for a moment that in 18th century Virginia, nothing was more valued than “status”.
By the age of 17, George Washington had passed his examination allowing him to be commissioned as a land surveyor. In that time in history, being a land surveyor was an important and prestigious position, equal in stature to a physician or clergyman. A well paying position, by the time he was 20 he owned over 2,000 acres of the most fertile land in the area.
At this time he also set out to gain the next position of stature, which was to become a British officer. An obstacle was that his only military training came from reading two books on the art of war. His requests were repeatedly rejected and he soon gave up on his quest to become a British officer believing that he was being discriminated against because he was a colonist.
But a military position was an important piece in his plan to become a distinguished gentleman, so at the age of twenty, George Washington rode to Williamsburg for an audience with Governor Dinwiddie. There, he requested that he be appointed to the Virginia militia at the rank of major. For a man with no military training, what he was asking was a tall order, and his request was turned down.
Washington knew that becoming an officer was paramount if he were ever going to command the respect and stature he wanted. So he persisted. Eventually, because of a relationship he nurtured with Lord Thomas Fairfax and a business partnership between his brother Lawrence and the Governor, the rank of major was granted to George when he was given the peaceful and least strategic portion of southern Virginia to defend. Because of his persistence he had gained the status of military officer, but his title was not given based upon his merit. Because of this, no one took Washington seriously in the regiment. Even the junior officers did not want to obey him.
By this point in Washington’s life, he was consumed with the drive for power and status. When George Washington received his first military assignment in 1754, he thought this was his big chance to be recognized by the powers that be. He established Fort Necessity in the Great Meadows at the Forks of the Ohio River. At the first rainstorm, flooding had George and his men up to their knees in mud and water, and they were soon forced to give up the fort and surrender to the French.
As was the practice when surrendering, Washington signed the surrender document, which was written in French. It was the mark of a true English gentleman in those days to write and speak French fluently. George had no understanding of the French language, but he was not about to admit that to his captors. So Washington signed the document and handed it over to the French officers. He had no idea that he had just signed and admission of guilt that, in a previous battle, he had assassinated a French diplomat after that gentleman had surrendered to him and was being held prisoner.
In order to reply to the charges and offer the correct explanation, George Washington would have had to admit that he was not knowledgeable in French. Clearly, Washington’s first chance to be recognized as a great commander was turning out badly. He knew that if he was going to overcome this obstacle, he had to think quickly. In his defense, he promptly blamed the officer whom he had picked to be his translator for his poor translation job. He then blamed his superior who had sent him to do battle at the Forks.
This would become a pattern for Washington, just as it does for many people. Throughout his life, when circumstances did not transpire according to his vision, George Washington would find others to blame. When he met with failure and difficulties, he would always feel victimized and double-crossed.
Not only did Washington’s quest for power begin to affect him negatively in regards to his accountability. It also showed in some of his business deals. George Washington continued to amass property in his quest to be a great landowner. But his acreage was not all obtained through honest work. At the beginning of the French and Indian War, the Governor of Virginia, in order to entice the colonists to fight, promised land to all of the enlisted men. The offer did not include officers because the governor was counting on them to serve out of their sense of aristocratic honor.
By the end of the eight year French and Indian War, a new governor had arrived who was not familiar with the details of the previous governor’s promise. George and his fellow officers conspired together and were able to change the old proclamation that had granted land to the enlisted men into a proclamation granting the land to the officers.
Through this cheap swindle, and at a great cost to those men whom he had commanded, Washington obtained an additional twenty thousand acres of prime fertile land.
Having been promoted to commander, ruling over a large estate, George Washington was well on his way to fulfilling his dreams. At the age of twenty-seven, George married a woman truly worthy of being a gentleman’s wife: Martha Curtis, a twenty-eight year old lady who happened to be the wealthiest widow in Virginia. Possessing money and position, she had all the apparatuses of prestige that George had always chased. Through this marriage, George gained the status of a true gentleman.
Armed with a gentleman’s wife, Washington began entertaining his neighbors at Mount Vernon. He gave lavish parties, inviting those who could help him promote himself and expedite his ambitions. He was constantly pursuing the opportunity to rub elbows with the rich, famous and powerful. Following in his brother Lawrence’s footsteps, George ran for the House of Burgesses. It worked like a charm; he was elected to the governing body of the colony of Virginia.
In 1775, George Washington represented Virginia at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Washington did not come to the meeting without his own agenda. He knew that the Congress was being convened to discuss rebelling against Britain and the taxes that they felt were unfair. He thought that if the members of Congress saw him in his uniform, they would see him as the man best qualified to be the commander of the Army of the Continental Congress. He was the only delegate in the hall who dressed in the heroic military uniform of a general. It was a uniform that he designed and had tailored for himself, distinguished epaulets and all.
Just as Washington had anticipated, the delegates realized that he was exactly what they needed. He was young, he was experienced in battle (though they didn’t realize most of his experience was in defeat), and he was on the right side of the political compromise. Most importantly, he was a soldier from Virginia at a time when Congress needed to persuade the Southern colonies to join in this freedom fight, and he had his own uniform which had them believing he was not only a commander, but a general.
George was soon on the road to Boston, carrying the commission papers that gave him command over the hastily forming Continental army. All of his life, George Washington had craved the recognition that had now been bestowed on him by congress. Now the reality hit home. As he looked at himself in brutal honesty, he knew that when it came to facing well-trained, professional fighting men, he had to admit to himself that he knew little of the art of war.
The British sailed to New York to engage Washington’s army. The battles that would come showed Washington that his fears were well justified. His military training (from the two books he had read) proved quite inadequate. His poorly trained army was easy pickings for the crack British troops. Getting their first taste of real battle; the blood, the gore, the screams of the dying, many of the soldiers deserted.
George Washington entered a state of depression. He saw himself not as a great general but as a fake. This defeat on the battlefield was a reflection of the defeat he was beginning to feel within himself in regards to his attempt to become someone of great importance. Now there were no likely suspects for him to blame. Until now, he had always found a convenient scapegoat; here, in his greatest defeat, he stood utterly alone.
To add to his problems, he was forced to fight battles on two fronts: one against the British and the other against his own generals. Since most of his generals had been trained and had served tours of duty in the British army, they thought when it came to his military understandings he was a fool. They conspired to remove him by sending Congress venomous reports requesting that he be replaced, while at the same time they openly defied his orders and fought him at every turn.
By the end of 1776, the situation had become so hopeless and desperate that Washington had to consider the possibility of running out west to hide. More horrible to Washington than defeat or death was the thought that he would have to accept the reality of being a nobody, a nothing, a fake. He had struggled all of his life trying to prove to himself and others that he was a man of importance and worthy of respect. Now the pain of defeat was forcing him to take a long hard look at himself.
He began to realize that if one expects to be respected, one must respect himself first. He began to see that he must be a man of true substance. He had to become something more than the “stuff” and “symbols” he had gathered around himself for the purpose of being respectable. He realized that before Washington could defeat the British, he had to defeat the demons of his own mind. As with many of us, before he could achieve victory over the world, he had to triumph over himself.
In December 1776, George Washington was in serious trouble. His soldiers’ enlistment time was up, and they were about to go home. So far, he had seen nothing but defeat. In desperation he turned inward to deal with his deepest fears.
He became detached, and in this state he found the true meaning of honor and recognition. He realized that they had nothing to do with all the symbols he had collected, such as the large house, land, and social and political status. They had only to do with whether a man is willing to fulfill the duty and role his maker has assigned to him in this life.
By getting in touch with his own demons, George Washington saw that his blind, vigorous pursuit of becoming a respectable gentleman was rooted in his lack of the sense of completeness within himself. He also knew that he could not win the war by fighting for all the wrong reasons. The things that had been so important to him before like reputation, status, and a royal commission he now saw as insignificant. From this new perception, he saw that the role that had been entrusted to him was so grand, so monumentally important, that even his own death would be nothing in comparison to the enormous responsibility that lay in the balance.
Once he had given up the burden of his own vanity, his mind was sharply focused. Every cell of his body and brain were now aligned with his soul’s cry for victory in what it saw as the noblest of causes. Now he would fight effectively because he felt it was his destiny to win this war for the noble, fledgling republic struggling to be born on the shores of the continent called America. No longer was it about his personal need, but that of the greater good.
With the turning around of Washington’s inner state, so too turned the fate of the American Revolution. On that freezing Christmas Eve in 1776, George Washington single-handedly altered the course of American history. With twenty-four hundred men, he crossed the Delaware River in the midst of a snowstorm to mount a sneak attack. His battle cry was “Death or Victory.” He and his men were grimly determined to turn the war around or die in the attempt.
His outlook on life and what was important was so dramatically changed that in April 1781, when the British were attacking in Virginia and had their cannons trained on Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon he refused to leave his post in an effort to save what he had worked for all of his life. Thomas Jefferson, then the Governor of Virginia, told Washington to come home and mount a defense for his home and state. Sitting at his camp on the Hudson River, George Washington declined. He knew that the pivotal point of his military operation was where he was, up north.
His character was so changed that on March 15. 1783, he was preparing a speech that needed to be powerful enough to stop a civil war. The war had ended, but his generals were not willing to hand over the victory and ultimately, the power that came with it to a Continental Congress that had done nothing but lie to them throughout the course of the war.
George Washington’s transformation was so evident, that these same generals who earlier wanted to have Washington removed, now wanted to storm Congress, guns loaded, to demand their back pay. Not only that, they intended to create a form of dictatorial government and declare Washington the king. Here stood George Washington, the man who had been driven totally by his search for the status of gentleman and the commission of an English officer, and now had the opportunity in front of him, just one decision away, to be king, an equal to George III. But the Washington of yesterday was no longer alive in this new Washington.
Standing before his men, George Washington read his carefully prepared speech and the letter he had just received from Congress, which promised once again to pay their back wages. I’m not sure what the speech said, but I need to believe that he was passing on his new found perceptions about the greater good to the men who had followed him through freezing winters, facing starvation, and all of those bloody battles on their way to victory.
Historians regard this scene as an extraordinary political performance. I believe that this moment in time was much more than just a performance. This was the moment that George Washington showed to the entire world that he truly had developed the character needed to become the Father of the Nation. Most people have been taught that Washington had a flawless character. Yet, he had just as many human flaws as anyone else. But in spite of himself and his character defects, by learning from life’s trials and tribulations, he ultimately evolved into a heroic man of destiny.
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The Warrior Sage Chapter/Section
Who Is Willard Barth?
Preface - Exploring Strength And Weakness
Chapter 1:1 - The Process Of Self-Awareness
Chapter 1:2 The Stages Of Child Development
Chapter 2:1 The World Changed Forever
Chapter 2:2 The Vicious Cycle Begins
Chapter 2:3 Losing Faith
Chapter 2:4 My Dark Secret
Chapter 2:5 Where Is The Love I Was Promised?
Chapter 3:2 The Road To Alcohol Dependence
Chapter 3:3 Leaving My Childhood Behind
Chapter 3:4 Escaping Responsibility; The Joy Ride Ends
Chapter 3:5 Living A Duality Begins
Chapter 3:6 Out Of Control
Chapter 3:7 Crossing The Line To Insanity
Chapter 3:8 The Black-out Drinking Begins
Chapter 3:9 Facing The Music
Chapter 3:10 A New Beginning
Chapter 3:11 More Lessons To Learn
Chapter 4:1 The Final Party
Chapter 4:2 A Moment Of Clarity
Chapter 4:3 My New Life Begins
Chapter 4:4 Sober, Time To Face The World
Chapter 4:5 The First Year Of Sobriety
Chapter 4:6 Major Change Comes In Year Two
Chapter 4:7 My Daughter Is Born April 20, 1992
Chapter 5:1 Life Changing Decisions Follow My Daughter's Birth
Chapter 5:2 Recognizing The Voice Inside
Chapter 5:3 The Empress Hotel
Chapter 5:4 A New Chapter In My Life Begins
Chapter 6:1 Finding My Way Home
Chapter 6:2 Falling Into Place
Chapter 6:3 A New Awareness
Chapter 6:4 Personal Finances and Personal Development
Chapter 6:5 The George Washington Story
Chapter 6:6 Letting Go So Others Can Grow
Chapter 6:7 The Wrap Up
Jump HOME from The George Washington Story