George Washington has been described as early America’s indispensable man because of the epic contributions he made to the founding of the United States. He commanded the ragged, often hungry and unpaid Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. During the course of the long war, that at times had the support of only 35% of the population, Washington rebuffed the offer made by his disgruntled officers. They wanted to seize power and have Washington become dictator. After the war, Washington returned to public service as a member of 1787 convention in Philadelphia that produced the United States Constitution.
His willingness to give up power was surprising, unexpected behavior for a leader of his time. It would turn out to be one of his most endearing and important legacies. In December 1783 at the Maryland Statehouse, he surrendered his military commission. After severing as the first president of the United States, he stepped down at the end of his second term in March 1797.
He was said to be fearless in battle. Leading from the front, Washington often had horses shot out from under him. Serving in the Virginia militia, he was with Gen. Braddock when the British were routed near Fort Duquesne (modern Pittsburgh) in July 1755. Surviving the disaster, Washington was with the army that finally captured the place in November 1758. His experience with the tough, haughty British regulars gave him keen insights into British military thinking and strategy. Washington would put the lessons learned to good use later on.
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, the younger son of a second marriage. His early life was filled with disappointment, his mother blocked his attempt to join the British navy. The untimely death of his father put a halt to his formal education. Bouncing back, Washington became a respected surveyor while still in his teens. It was a lucrative but dangerous profession in the British North American colonies. Although his formal schooling had been cut short, Washington made up for it by reading. He had a pursuit of knowledge that continued all through his life.
Although it was not common practice in his day, Washington was an interested, engaged communicator with women. He actively sought out their ideas and advice in social settings. Believing in honest observation and experimentation, Washington developed a lifelong interest in science. He put his scientific approach to work when he unexpectedly inherited Mt. Vernon, a 2,126 acre plantation, in the 1750s. He soon switched to wheat and corn production because tobacco growing was ruining the land. As time progressed, he expanded the size of the property to 8,000 acres, of which 3,200 acres were under cultivation.
Washington had a genuine love of farming. He tested over 60 crops for suitability. As he struggled to learn how to control soil exhaustion, the stream banks on his property remained covered with natural vegetation. Washington experimented with fertilizer, animal manure and natural lime. He developed a sophisticated crop rotation cycle to improve the soil that included grasses, clover and buckwheat. Willing to innovate, he designed a 16-sided, two story thrashing barn to improve the process of separating wheat from chaff. Washington was also a devoted breeder and trainer of horses.
In 1770, he risked his capital by building a gristmill to take advantage of the growing market for flour. The water-powered mill was a large commercial facility with two sets of grinding stones that gave it the capability of producing a variety of products. Located at the head of a creek, the products produced by the gristmill could be loaded onto ocean-going ships. Attuned to changes in technology, Washington had the equipment to automate gristmills mills developed and patented by Oliver Evans installed in his mill in 1791.
George Washington was the only founding father to operate a distillery. Because alcohol consumption played a large role in the social life of the 1700s, the distillery Washington constructed in 1797 was among the most profitable of his enterprises. The distillery was the largest in the country at the time, measuring 75 by 30 feet. The building contained five stills, producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey per year. At that time, whiskey was not bottled or aged. It went into 31 gallon barrels that were sold directly to local merchants at a price of 50 cents per gallon. One of Washington’s popular whiskey recipes was composed of 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley.
There was a cooperage on site of Washington’s busy complex manufacturing the barrels needed to transport whiskey and flour. The residue from the whiskey stills was not wasted, it supported the feeding of 150 pigs. Washington inherited his first slave at a young age. As he grew older, his attitude toward slavery appears to have evolved. In his will, he arranged to free the slaves belonging to him (approximately 123) upon his wife’s death. Washington was the only slave-owning president to have done so. Although he was a notable political and military leader, George Washington was also comfortable with being on the cutting edge of technology.