Most people who grew up in the United States learned about the many accomplishments of George Washington. But how great was he? We try to answer that question by looking more closely at his mistakes.
First we begin with the French and Indian War. Washington was a Colonel in the Virginia Militia. He ordered his men to attack French forces which resulted in the death of a French ambassador named Jumonville. Several months later Jumonville’s brother returned with an army and forced Washington to surrender. In order to save himself and his men, Washington had to sign a document admitting that he killed an ambassador. This helped ignite a war between England and France that would wage for seven years.
Next we examine one of his mostly costly mistakes during the Revolutionary War. Both Washington and General Howe thought that holding New York was the key to controlling the colonies. Washington persisted in bolstering defenses in the city despite being outnumbered and outgunned. The result was an overwhelming defeat by the British. Only bad weather and poor decisions by Howe allowed Washington and the army to escape.
Washington continued to advance in life, and so did his mistakes. As the first President of the United States he ordered General Arthur St. Clair to attack native americans in 1791. They resisted and delivered the most crushing defeat in US history. Next he had to deal with the Whiskey Rebellion. The states didn’t want to send armed troops in to assist with collecting taxes, so Washington did it himself. Over 150 farmers were taken prisoner, then were forced to pay their taxes. Yet another mistake was when John Jay resigned as Chief Justice and Washington assigned John Rutledge to the role. Rutledge began speaking publicly in favor of another war with England. Congress did not confirm him and he lost the position. Then he tried unsuccessfully to end his life by jumping in the ocean.
Finally we look at the real moral problem with George Washington, which is slavery. He owned over 577 slaves during his lifetime. During the Revolutionary War he expressed privately that slavery was immoral, but he did little to stop it during his lifetime. Two bills were put forth when Washington was President which would have ended slavery but he didn’t think the nation could survive that and blocked their passage. At the end of his life George Washington modified his will to state that all his slaves would be freed after Martha Washington died. A year after George died, Martha signed an order herself freeing all of them.
In the end George Washington did accomplish great things. But was he a great person? That depends on your tolerance for mistakes.
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We used third party pictures and video footage for this episode. These were used under creative commons and/or fair use. The original versions can be found using the links below:
PBS The War That Made American Part 1:
Washington’s War (Full Movie) – General George Washington and the Revolutionary War
Prince Among Slaves: The Story of Abdul Rahman Ibrahim: