GEORGE WASHINGTON SPEAKS BLOG ARTICLESOUR ARTICLES ARE CURRENT SO CHECK BACK AND KEEP UP ON OUR EVENTS AND NEWEST VIDEOS.
This is the fifth year that George Washington has personally appeared at Harbor Ridge, a middle school in Gig Harbor, Washington. Students prepared a welcome sign that reflects their enthusiasm to hear from the first president. They knew they could ask any questions they wanted of him. I gave five presentations (a combination of seven classes) to eighth graders as part of their American History studies. Each of the five groups had a different personality, and they put George to work with their questions. It was exhilarating!
Before my visit, the teachers at Harbor Ridge Middle School submitted questions that their student wanted to ask George. Their primary interest was George himself. Knowing their questions in advance allowed me to craft a presentation just for them. And planning my visit in conjunction with their American History curriculum allowed the students to prepare, and consider questions for me that they might not otherwise have thought about.
In the Classroom
I began each presentation, dressed as General Washington, by asking them what they knew about me. They mentioned various facts about his family, education, social status and personality, and these were listed on a whiteboard. Then George filled in what they didn’t know about him. All of a sudden, George Washington became a real person, just like them. He had once been their age, and like any fourteen-year-old, he was awkward, shy, and fearful of being laughed at and made fun of.
Here are some of the questions we explored:
Was Washington wealthy or poor? Most thought he was wealthy and privileged, when actually, he was both.
Was he from a two-parent family? Most thought he was from a typical, two parent home, when the correct answer was “Yes and no.”
Then General Washington filled in the missing information, giving them more context about my life. In history—like many areas of life—context is everything.
Washington’s Family Life
Washington’s father married and had two sons, and then his first wife died. His father remarried, had six children with his second wife. George was the eldest of the second wife’s children, and when George was eleven, his father died. George’s father was a wealthy farmer and entrepreneur, and his sons would all have been well educated and wealthy—if their father had lived. But the bulk of wealth went to his two older half-brothers by primogeniture. Those older brothers had already been educated at a prominent school in England, something George had hoped for too. But his mother was left with a small farm, and chose not to remarry, so from age eleven, he was raised in poverty by a single mom.
This was a surprise to the students at Harbor Ridge. So you see, context is everything.
In the photo above, the young lady on the right is five feet tall, about the height of George when he was eleven, while the young man on the left is about six feet tall and about the height of George when he was fifteen. During those four years, George grew more than twelve inches, but his mother could not afford to buy him new clothes. She had to let out the clothing on the right to fit the body on the left.
George asked the student on the left: How are you feeling about wearing the smaller, older clothing?
He answered: Not good.
George gave some context with the next Question: Oh, by the way, wearing older clothes that are not in style and don’t fit, also includes the three or four socially important dances throughout the year where you meet young people from all around northern Virginia. Now how do you feel about being poorly dressed and the object of glances from those who are much better dressed?
Answer: Awkward. Embarrassed.
Question: Laughed at? Made fun of?
I have not found stories from Washington’s social life as a youth in anything I have read. Was the context true? Yes! His father died, he was part of the second family, a single mom raised him in poverty, his lack of education dogged him throughout his life, he was shy and awkward, and the local dances provided social opportunities. Fear of being laughed at? That detail is not recorded, but what do you think? This is part of historical interpretation.
The historical record provides a lot of information about George Washington’s life, and life in the colonies during his lifetime. My reading of more than one hundred books, visits to historical locations, and interviews with various authors, historians, and other specialists—all this informs the way I interpret and present Washington’s life.
After each presentation at the Harbor Ridge Middle School, the students came up to get selfies and ask individual questions. This young man had a couple of questions about Martha.
George accommodated him and then shared that five-foot-tall Martha would stand on her tip toes, grab his coat lapels and pull him down to get his attention, and then she would say “Now listen here old man”!
The students’ individual questions cover many topics, and reflect a strong interest in Washington and the founding of America. Likewise, the topics requested by teachers vary—some ask me to focus on the French and Indian War and Washington’s early military experience. One group wanted me to talk about agriculture and gardening at Mount Vernon, as Washington was renowned in his day for his expertise and experimentation with agriculture and animal husbandry. Learn more about George visiting students in their classrooms here https://georgewashingtonspeaks.com/for-students/
Can George Washington visit your classroom?
Most of my personal classroom visits take place in the Pacific Northwest, where I live. However, I have visited classes as far away as Nebraska, and will visit a school in Indiana in 2023 as part of a series of events there. I am always happy to visit using Zoom. If a school location requires travel, it’s always ideal if multiple presentations can be arranged on the same trip. Please email [email protected] to inquire about a visit!
For a recent presentation to students, I was asked to talk about agriculture in Washington’s life. After his birth on his father’s Popes Creek plantation, the agricultural life was Washington’s usual environment from his earliest days—the tobacco crops, the kitchen gardens and medicinal plants, the hedgerows, shade trees, and decorative plants surrounded him. His interest in them grew because his family made their living by raising and selling crops.
Washington also took a keen interest in animal husbandry. He bred and sold horses, and experimented with dog breeding to develop the Virginia Foxhound.
Mount Vernon’s more than 8,000 acres required a lot of management, and Washington had obligations beyond the plantation. He was a member of the House of Burgesses, and part of the Virginia militia. In 1766 he hired his distant cousin, Lund Washington—a young man in an unsettled condition—to learn farming and help manage the estate.
Washington knew tobacco depleted the soil, so he switched to growing wheat, and tried a variety of crop rotation practices to keep the farm productive.
When the American Revolution began, Lund Washington took on most of the responsibilities for management of Mount Vernon. The two of them kept up regular correspondence throughout the war—a time when the estate was losing money and virtually bankrupt. Many of their letters can be found on the National Archives website section called Founders Online.
In 1776 Washington sent Lund instructions for replacing some trees on the estate. His letter asked for: “all the clever kind of Trees (especially flowering ones) that can be got, such as Crab apple, Poplar, Dogwood, Sasafras, Lawrel, Willow (especially yellow & Weeping Willow, twigs of which may be got from Philadelphia) and many others which I do not recollect at present—these to be interspersed here and there with ever greens such as Holly, Pine, and Cedar, also Ivy—to these may be added the Wild flowering Shrubs of the larger kind, such as the fringe Tree…”
In other letters, Washington instructed Lund to propagate some of their own trees to plant around the estate. He also discussed reclaiming swampy land to create pastures, and selling parcels of land when cash was short.
Lund didn’t care much for keeping details records—information Washington was eager to have while he was away from home. In his letters, he questioned Lund about the crops, and the animals. How many colts this year? How many lambs? Sometimes horses were sold to provide cash.
After the war, Washington returned to Mount Vernon, eager to restore the estate’s productivity. Lund and his wife moved to another property of their own. When the presidency took Washington away again, he hired his nephew, Howell Lewis, to manage the estate.
Through a long stream of written correspondence, Howell provided reports on the oats, wheat, corn, and barley, the horses, sheep, pigs, and dogs. But these proved much less satisfying to Washington than seeing them for himself.
When he left the presidency, Washington was deeply gratified to return to the farming life he loved. He is quoted as saying, in 1797, “Agriculture is the most healthy, the most useful, and the most noble employment of man.”
Turning Points in the American Revolution
Last September my wife, Sandy, and I visited several Revolutionary War battle sites in upstate New York and Vermont. Our tour guide identified some of those battles as “turning points” in the war, but they are little known by all but the most devoted history buffs.
Although none were major victories for either side, they helped to create conditions which supported the major battles ahead. One thing led to another, as often happens. This prompted me to consider the major turning points.
The Revolutionary War lasted from 1775 to 1783, and during it several key turning points were crucial to the colonists’ success.
Lexington and Concord
In April of 1775, 700-800 British troops were sent from Boston to capture arms and ammunition the colonial militia had stockpiled in Concord. Their effort at a surprise raid was foiled by warnings from Boston patriots, and skirmishes ensued in both Lexington and Concord. The British were shocked when 3,000-4,000 colonists gathered near Concord, and they retreated amid gunfire, back to Boston.
With these skirmishes, the rebellion of the colonists became a shooting war. The “shot heard ‘round the world” ended, for all practical purposes, the attempts to reach a diplomatic resolution to British/colonial relations in America.
The Successful Siege of Boston
In the spring of 1775, British forces took total control of the city of Boston, located on a peninsula with a narrow neck connecting to the mainland, and blockaded the harbor to prevent supplies reaching the colonists. The colonial militia occupied the mainland surrounding the peninsula, and in June the British attacked them in the famous Battle of Bunker Hill. The militia fought valiantly until they ran out of ammunition. Many Patriots left the city to stay in the countryside. Loyalists from the outlying areas moved into the city, where supplies ran short, causing great hardship with the disruption of shipping in this major port.
In July, George Washington arrived to lead the newly formed Continental Army. They maintained a standoff for months, until March 4, 1776 when the Continental Army fortified Dorchester Heights, gaining a position the British could not defend against. On March 17, 1776 the British evacuated Boston (an event celebrated there as Evacuation Day), leaving the city in control of the colonists.
The success of this long stand-off proved that the colonists could defend themselves and would not give up easily. Though the British moved to New York City and continued their efforts, colonial leaders were now ready to declare their independence.
The Signing of the Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in American history. It signaled the signers’ intention to break away from Great Britain and form an independent nation. The Declaration was drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 and formally adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4th of that year.
The document declared that the American colonies would no longer be subject to British rule, and listed 27 grievances against the British government. The document also stated that the colonies have the right to declare themselves free and independent, and that they should be treated as a sovereign nation. The signers put their lives and fortunes at risk with this document that made them traitors to the British crown.
The Declaration of Independence marked the more formal beginning of the American Revolution, and was a powerful statement that still resonates today as a reminder of the power of freedom and the strength of the human spirit.
The Battle of Saratoga
The Battle of Saratoga, fought in September and October of 1777, was the first major victory for the Americans and the first major defeat of the British in the war. The victory showed the world that the Continental Army could stand up to the mighty British and their formidable military.
British commander General John Burgoyne wanted to move south from Canada and capture the Hudson Valley so he could cut off New England from the rest of the colonies.
The Continental Army, led by General Horatio Gates, had been preparing to meet the British forces. On September 19, General Burgoyne and his troops attacked the American lines. The Americans fought bravely, but were unable to withstand the British onslaught. General Gates was forced to retreat to the nearby highlands.
The battle raged on for several days, with both sides suffering horrendous losses. Ultimately, the battle proved to be too much for the British. On October 17, General Burgoyne was forced to surrender.
The victory helped to convince the French to recognize the United States of America and enter the war on their side. The victory at Saratoga was also an important psychological victory. The American forces had been in a state of disarray and the British had been seen as invincible. For the British, the loss was a major setback.
The Franco-American Alliance
The United States’ alliance with France was negotiated by Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee. The alliance began in the late 1770s, when France expressed its support for the Revolution. France provided funds and supplies to help the Americans in their fight for independence. In 1778, France officially declared war on Britain, and the alliance between the two nations was sealed, and French troops were deployed to America. They also provided naval support, which proved invaluable in the naval battles against the British.
The alliance also provided the Americans with an international ally, which helped to legitimize their cause on the world stage, and rally public opinion in favor of their struggle for independence.
The Battle of Yorktown
The Battle of Yorktown was the last major battle of the conflict. It was fought from September 28 to October 19, 1781, in Yorktown, Virginia, and was a decisive victory for the American forces of General George Washington, French ground troops, and the French naval blockade.
General Washington and the Continental Army arrived in Yorktown in September of 1781. Washington had been planning to attack the British forces in New York City, but he changed his plans when he learned that a French fleet was headed to the Chesapeake Bay. He decided to attack the British forces in Yorktown instead.
Meanwhile, a French fleet under the command of Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse had arrived in the Chesapeake Bay and blockaded the British forces. The British had no way to escape. On October 19, 1781, General Cornwallis, commander of the British forces, formally surrendered.
After the battle, the British government realized that they could not win the war and decided to negotiate a peace treaty.
The Treaty of Paris
The Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783, was the final turning point that signaled the end of the war. The treaty was signed between Great Britain and the United States of America, as well as France, Spain, and the Netherlands, all of whom had played important roles in the conflict.
Under the terms of the treaty, Britain recognized the United States’ independence and ceded all of its claims to land east of the Mississippi River. This land included the newly formed states of Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee, as well as the Great Lakes region and the Ohio River Valley. In addition, the British agreed to evacuate all their troops from American soil, and the United States was given access to the fishing waters off Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Treaty of Paris allowed the new nation to begin its journey towards becoming a successful democracy.
While other events and victories contributed to the overall success of the American Revolution, I consider these six events the major game-changers. I would love to discuss this or answer questions. Contact me via my website or Facebook.