C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
Critical and Biographical Introduction
By George Washington (17321799)
The life of Washington proves how much can be effected by single-mindedness in the pursuit of an ideal. His contemporaries who met him during the Revolution, or during his terms of office, seemed at a loss to account for his greatness; as if the man were constantly hiding behind his services. “Something of stillness envelops the actions of Washington,” Chateaubriand wrote. Many accounts of his personal appearance remain: few exact impressions of his personality. His letters and his diaries throw little light upon him, neither do they discover the secret of his extraordinary power. The Farewell Address is perhaps the most truthful portrait of him which remains. He was born in Virginia on February 22d, 1732, of a family which had come from England about the middle of the seventeenth century. Of his early life little is known, save a few apocryphal stories. His education was elementary: he was brought up on his father’s plantation, leading a free out-of-door life; he emerged into clear view first as a surveyor of the lands of Lord Fairfax, father-in-law of his half-brother Lawrence. Four years later, when he was about twenty years of age, he became heir to the family property of Mount Vernon. In 1753 Lieutenant-Governor Dinwiddie appointed him commander of the northern military district of Virginia. The French and Indian War breaking out in the same year, Washington was sent by the Governor to warn the French away from the new forts in western Pennsylvania. The intelligence and clear judgment which he displayed in the execution of this commission led to his being appointed, in 1755, commander-in-chief of all the Virginia forces, with the task of defending a frontier of three hundred and fifty miles with seven hundred and fifty men. In Braddock’s campaign he came rapidly to the front as an officer of extraordinary coolness, courage, and military skill. At the close of this war he married Martha Dandridge, the widow of Daniel Parke Custis, and settled down to twenty years of retirement in Virginia. In 1774 the Virginia convention appointed him one of seven delegates to the Continental Congress; at which Congress, on the motion of John Adams, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the colonies. On July 2d of the same year he took command of the army at Cambridge, Massachusetts. From that time on he was engaged in a series of brilliant campaigns, which ended only when the object of the war had been fully attained. James Thacher, a surgeon in the Revolution, who kept a military diary, has left this description of Washington the general:—
In 1783 Washington resigned his commission, and went again into retirement, until his election to the Presidency in 1787. After serving two terms, he spent the remainder of his life upon his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. He died in 1799.
“I felt on his death, with my countrymen,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “Verily a great man hath fallen in Israel.”
Washington Irving said of him: “The character of Washington may want some of those poetical elements which dazzle and delight the multitude; but it possessed fewer inequalities, and a rarer union of virtues, than perhaps ever fall to the lot of one man.”