Most Influential US President
Which One was the Most Influential?
You can find so many lists of the most influential presidents. Most lists have the same men on their rosters, but a few different ones sneak in. You'll find Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan to just name a few. These men, as well as the rest that make up the list of U.S. presidents, have all left their imprint on this country and many others around the world. So, to narrow it all down to one man who left the biggest mark is nigh impossible. Do you choose Lincoln and the changes he implemented on an entire race which sent shock waves in the economic and social realms? Do you choose Roosevelt for his economic plans that we still have today that can either be applauded or mourned? Each one was influential in his own right. But which one set the most traditions and tried to create a model for all future presidents? That can only be George Washington, the very first president of the United States of America.
Any time someone is the first, they become legendary. All eyes are on them as a new era begins. That was even more true in 1776 when an infant nation tried to leave the crawling stage of life and take its first tentative steps by implementing a new government that had not be tried and would be an example for many others in the centuries to come. The colonists in America had grievances that they felt had not been addressed by their parent country. When push came to shove, they went further and called England into an all out war to establish their independence.
It was the beginning of a new era. The world was changing all around, and eyes were on the new country now known as the United States of America. What would be their first official acts? Who would lead this band of revolutionists? Who would be able to decide if this country would go the way of rebellious child to the extremes or go the route of maturity?
It was no surprise when the colonists turned to George Washington of Virginia.
From Land Owner to Military Leader
In today's eyes we would say that George Washington was born into money and connections. Four generations before his birth, the first of his family faced the hard crossing of the Atlantic Ocean to set foot on the new and at times hostile land. But many of his family was still in England moving in aristocratic circles. But this did not guarantee a blissful life or one without hardships especially in the New World.
Washington's family was a classical dysfunctional family. His father had been married twice with George being a result of the second marriage. At the age of 11, George lost his father. Since he did not get along with his mother, George moved in with one of his half-brothers until the age of 16 when he moved to live with another brother.
It was during his teen years that George traveled with one brother to Barbados. (This was the only time that he ever left the county.) It was on this trip that both siblings got sick. George contracted smallpox which left him sterile (the reason there are no direct descendants) and ruined his teeth (the reason for wearing wooden dentures). Upon returning from the trip, George faced grief again at the death of his brother who never got over the sickening trip.
Though many when reading of his younger years would feel pity and wish that he had a much more loving and soft life, that kind of home life might have spawned a much different history for America. It was life that created much of George's character. He become self-reliant and more mature at an earlier age. He knew that life was not a bed of roses and that one couldn't sit and bemoan their fate. They had to face the challenges and make the best of it. The perfect conditioning for the future leader of a fledgling army and unsure country.
At the age of 16 George embarked on a surveying expedition that showed him more of the wilderness and what living a rough outdoors life could be like. He fell in love with it and pursued the life of a surveyor. Through this experience he learned the lay of the new land and how to read the signs of nature around him. This would prove valuable in a few years as he fought the Red Coats and led soldiers through the best and worst that nature could bring.
It was working for the surveying company when George was introduced to the diplomatic world. The Ohio Company had the vast lands to the west of the colonies given to them to divide up for settlement. Unfortunately, the French had a foot on the same lands. Washington was sent to explain the situation and warn the French of the possible outcomes. The diplomatic mission was met with raised noses and disdain. Not surprisingly, they ignored the warning. Washington's first political act was a failure. But Washington did not come away from the encounter with only egg on his face. The assignment gave Washington a chance to see more of the new country and get a good look at the lay of the land. In battle, knowing this is a valuable asset. It was also because of this trip that Washington saw the possible need of a fort and proposed the site that later became Pittsburgh. Arriving back home to report the bad news, Washington wrote up an account of the trip that became a bestseller and brought his name to the attention of most of England.
A few years later at the age of 22, Washington joined the Virginia militia. During a reconnaissance trip, Washington and his party met a French exploration group. The French leader was shot and killed. Washington surrounded the French party and demanded their surrender. Many considered this act the beginning of a world war now known as the French and Indian War. This one act had a huge ripple effect throughout the following years.
As a result of the French surrender, war broke out between the British and the French. Washington's knowledge of the land was well known, and the British used that to their advantage by making Washington one of their scouts. Eventually Washington obtained a military commission but not what the young man was looking for. In the end, he resigned and returned back to the family estate in Virginia where he married a young widow by the name of Martha Dandridge Curtis. She brought two small children and wealth to the promising marriage.
Washington found the comforts of home more to his liking. He thrived in focusing his attention on Mount Vernon and his family. It was not uncommon to see him sitting in front of the fire relaxed and enjoying the quiet. Though usually reserved in public, it was at home where he could let himself come out and have a good laugh. But these moments were to come to an end twenty years latter.
In 1774 the winds of the New World shifted as many felt displeasure with the relationship the colonies had with their mother country, Great Britain. To address these concerns, the Continental Congress was organized. The Virginia colony turned to Washington to be their representative. Who else was better qualified? In addition, Washington was more conservative than many of the delegates who were proposing independence. He felt that the issues could be resolved. It took two years before Washington began to realize that independence was the only solution left for the colonies.
As the need for an army became evident, the Congress quickly looked toward the only man who had the background and knowledge to lead it - George Washington. Once again, he was in the military world but this time instead of seeing him as a scout, the British saw him as a criminal.
Commander of all Commanders
Washington took his knowledge of the land and used it to his advantage during each battle. But what he used the most was the knowledge of when to retreat. Many would view the many times that he retreated as poor decision making or cowardice, but the retreat saved lives and actually pulled the British into more colony friendly terrain. Washington was a genius at knowing when to push forward and when to pull back. A great example of this occurred at the Crossing of the Delaware. It was on Christmas morning when Washington and his men snuck across the river and surrounded the Hessians, hired mercenaries. They took their ammunition and supplies and then just as quietly retreated back across the river. Many wanted Washington to remain at the Hessian camp and fight the British when they arrived, but Washington knew that they were out numbered and the area was not conducive to a colony win. By the time the British realized what had happened, the colonists were gone and all traces of where they had come from disappeared.
Leading the band of colonists was not an easy job for Washington. Morale was low. Supplies were more often than not even lower. He had to keep the vision of independence before the men and show them that failure was not destined to them. Despite all obstacles, he succeeded. America won its independence due to Washington's command.
With victory came uncharted territory. The colonists had won their freedom. Now what? They had to have a leader. King George wasn't in that position anymore. Who could it be? Who would have the assurance and fortitude to lead a bunch of rebels? Who had experience in such things? Only one name came to everyone's tongue - George Washington. He made history as the only presidential candidate to receive 100% of electoral college and he received that at both elections.
With great humility, Washington assumed the role of the first president of the newly formed United States of America. He brought to the role determination and hope. He knew when to compromise and when to let go. He knew when retreat was wise and when to push forward was needed. He looked at the government as a team effort with all needing to play their parts and work together. Though he had the power to initiate acts, he waited until Congress was in session. He didn't play the political game as it is done today. There was no looking for loopholes to get an agenda pushed through. They were all in it together and together they would go forward.
Congress voted to pay Washington $25,000 a year which was extremely high for that time period. Initially Washington declined the payment. He had more than enough of his own, but Congress convinced him to accept it so that the office of President was not looked at as a position only the wealthy could obtain.
At the end of his second term, Washington stepped out of the presidency role. He did not want to imitate their former parent, England, with creating a leader that remained in office for life. He set a precedent of no more than two terms that was followed until Franklin D. Roosevelt took four terms. After that, an amendment to the Constitution was passed to limit the term to two.
Washington's influence on the new country was great. He took command with confidence and gave the colonists a strong foundation to stand on. He set the general precedents for the office and tried to establish the role that would benefit the country as a whole.
Unfortunately, many of his influences have been pushed back to only comments mentioned in biographies. The humility, teamwork, and compromise that Washington brought to the table have all but disappeared. Politics has taken over. Washington saw the dangers awaiting the country by warning them about political parties and getting involved in European affairs. He knew that these could divide the country and prevent real accomplishments for the good of the citizens.
Washington is honored today by his portrait on our currency, streets and cities named after him, and his birthday celebrated each year. But beyond that the role he tried to establish has been overhauled to where he would not be able to recognize it.
- George Washington: A National Treasure
George Washington: A National Treasure exhibition is a historic tour from the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, celebrating our nation's first president - the man, the icon, the hero. As Gilbert Stuart's George Washington Lansdowne portrait tr
- Rediscovering George Washington | PBS
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