George Washington’s birthday, February 22, was a big deal when I grew up in Atlantic City in the 1950’s. School was closed that day. For weeks before, we had special assemblies about George Washington where we sang “Yankee Doodle” and other patriotic songs. The halls were filled with tributes to George Washington we made with crayons, watercolors, and construction paper. Almost every store and car dealership had some special George Washington sale–often with images of hatchets and cherry trees.
In 1971, Republican President Nixon joined with Democrats in Congress to replace “Washington’s Birthday” with “President’s Day”. They said this was done so government employees could enjoy a three day weekend. Five years later, Republican President Gerald Ford and Democrats expanded “Negro History Week” into “Black History Month”. That crowded George Washington out of most elementary schools and national awareness.
I did not understand the loss until years later, when I taught American History at our community college. George Washington was far more than a great American. His whole life was an example of how every American should live. His achievements were so extraordinary, that there would not have been an America as we know it without him. But we no longer teach this to young people.
George Washington grew up with hardship. His father died when Washington was 11 years old. Most of his property went to the children of his first wife. Washington quit school to work the family’s farm while is mother cared for his younger sister and three younger brothers.
At age 15, Washington made himself an apprentice to a land surveyor. The sale and development of large tracts of wilderness land was the biggest industry in Virginia when Washington grew up there. This industry was dominated by handful of very wealthy landowners. Only by becoming a land surveyor, could an outsider like Washington be part of it. To learn this profession, Washington worked for years without pay on long and dangerous trips hundreds of miles into the wilderness.
During this time, Washington constantly read books to give himself the equivalent of a college education. When he returned home, he dressed well and carefully rehearsed dancing, table manners, and dinner conversation so he could comfortably mix socially with the rich and powerful.
Because of his social and networking skills, Washington was put in command of his local part-time, militia unit even though he lacked formal military training. Once again, Washington read books, learned from others, and taught himself.
At age 21, Washington’s militia unit was sent to chase French soldiers away from what is now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This started an eight year war with France.
George Washington was the victim of discrimination. Washington dreamed of a career as a general in the British army. Although Washington had proven himself to be a smart, brave and capable commander, he was denied promotion in the British army because he was an American, a “mere colonial”. He lacked family and political connections in England.
Washington turned to business instead. He married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow with business management skills and experience. During the next 10 years, the two expanded their farms and also started many successful businesses that included fishing fleets, flour mills, cloth and whisky production.
During this time, Washington also began to resent British taxes and laws that put unfair burdens on his businesses, and gave unfair advantages to political insiders in England. When Americans in Boston rebelled against those same laws and taxes, Washington supported them. In 1775, the Continental Congress put Washington in command of its new Continental Army.
When the British offered freedom to American slaves who joined them, some of Washington’s slaves took that offer. This profoundly affected Washington. After the war, Washington supported laws and provisions in the Constitution to limit and gradually end slavery. He freed his own slaves when he died.
As commander of America’s first army, Washington developed a uniquely American management style. Unlike the British, Washington appointed and dismissed his commanders only on talent and performance. When Washington introduced a new plan or idea, he usually pretended it was the suggestion of someone else so his junior officers would give their honest opinions. When plans failed, Washington took full responsibility. When the cause seemed hopeless, Washington persisted through all eight years of the war.
There were times during the was when Washington’s solders wanted to march on Congress and take over the government. Washington repeatedly stopped them. When his soldiers asked Washington to run the country as a king or dictator, he refused.
After the war, the thirteen newly independent states almost ruined the economy by taxing goods brought in from other American states. George Washington suggested changes to the Articles of Confederation to stop this. Washington then presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1776.
Washington was first elected President in 1788. He was elected for another four year terms in 1992. He was urged to run for a third term in 1796, but Washington stepped down after two terms.
How much of this story did you and your children learn during President’s Day this year? Why has this story of George Washington been systematically erased from our national memory? Short answer: Google “Yuri Bezmenov”, “active measures” or “ideological subversion” or search these words on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqSV72VNnV0
Seth Grossman, Executive Director