Washington and Braddock

from Washington: A Life
Ron Chernow

Washington hinted that personal problems might hinder acceptance of the post. In fact, he was overwhelmed by the demands of planting his first spring crop at Mount Vernon and confided that the estate was "in the utmost confusion." Aggravating matters was that he had nobody to whom he could entrust management of the place. As he contemplated service under Braddock, Washington struggled with his special bugaboo, the vexed matter of colonial rank. He still dreamed of a regular army commission, valid for life, but the best Braddock could award him was the temporary rank of brevet captain. Still balking at this demotion, Washington agreed to serve as a volunteer aide to Braddock, and the general, in turn, allowed him to devote time to his private affairs until the army headed west. To brother Jack, Washington explained that under this arrangement, he could "give his orders to all, which must be implicitly obeyed," while he had to obey only Braddock. Already preoccupied with matters of honor and reputation, Washington feared that people might question his motives and suspect him of being a power-hungry opportunist--a recurring leitmotif of his career. Serving without pay would silence such potential naysayers. His sole desire, he told John Robinson, speaker of the House of Burgesses, was to serve his country: "This, I flatter myself, will manifestly appear by my going [as] a volunteer, without expectation of reward or prospect of attaining a command." This theme of disinterested service--honored mostly in the breach when he was young and in the observance when he was older--would be one of the touchstones of his life.

What I learn from this is reinforced in so many life lessons.  Live as what you want to be--live the truth you want to exhibit, and (with due help from Providence and those around you) you will eventually become that. Washington wanted to be the disinterested man of public affairs, and while his motives early on might have been mixed, acting the part allowed him to become what he saw as the paragon.  In becoming that paragon he became also a legend.  It is good to strip away much of the clutter around the person of Washington and discover what is truly and profoundly admirable in a man who was, after all, only a man--but a great man--one of the greatest (of European descent at least) that this country has ever known.


  1. "Live as what you want to be--live the truth you want to exhibit, and (with due help from Providence and those around you) you will eventually become that."

    As you say, one of the recurring themes in Washington's life and an important lesson. There was a PBS special a few years back that, among other things, highlighted a classroom discussing the rules of civility he had copied. The kids were laughing at the rules, saying things like "I can't do that, I gotta be me" and completely missing the point you made.


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