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What is the most important thing George Washington did?

“First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”-General Henry LeeThe Father of our Country, George Washington was the most influential figure in American history, and was arguably the greatest leader of all time. As Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, Washington liberated the colonies from British imperial rule. He assumed office as the first President of the United States with more prestige than any of his successors. He also inherited a greater collection of national challenges than any other president, the greatest of which was that the American people felt primary allegiance to state and local authorities, not the federal government. By the time Washington left office, he had created a unified American nation and had shaped the executive office of the government into a co-equal branch with Congress. Here are his ten greatest achievements:(Before I begin, I’d like to point out that, for this list, I’ve concentrated on specific events, like Yorktown, instead of vague ideas, like winning the War of Independence.)10. The Second Battle of Fort Duquesne: Washington’s life encompassed the final struggle to determine whether the Spanish, French, or English speaking people would rule North America. To protect its fur traders, France established forts between Lake Erie and the Ohio River, an area that Britain had claimed for its settlers. The world first became aware of Washington when he was sent to resolve this dispute in 1753. He, along with his team of six colonists and four Iroquois, went into the Ohio Valley to deliver a letter to the French commander. The French told him that they intend to stay. Washington was sent to meet with the French a second time. Feeling threatened, his Iroquois guides attacked the French, killing their commander and ten others. This firefight ignited the Seven Years War (known in America as the French and Indian War), a conflict waged on five continents. He partook in only one significant campaign in the war. The British objective was to take Fort Duquesne from the French. Washington argued to General Forbes, who commanded the campaign, that the forces must use Native American tactics instead of a frontal assault on the fort. He made his arguments forcefully, even rudely, until Forbes agreed. Washington led one of three brigades. The French were overwhelmed and retreated. The British built a new stockade called Fort Pitt, after British Prime Minister William Pitt. Washington resigned his commission as Virginia’s greatest war hero, leading to his appointment as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in 1775.9. The Whiskey Rebellion: In 1791, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton insisted on paying down the national debt. To do so, Congress passed an excise tax, chiefly on whiskey. Some frontiersmen who made whiskey and regarded it as their only currency (they rarely dealt with cash) saw this as a threat to their existence. Many felt that their incessant war with Native Americans, on behalf of all, was a form of civic service that should exempt them from taxation. These men were aggressive and armed. President Washington tried work through the courts to punish the tax evaders, but resistance became so widespread that collectors fled for their lives. In July 1794, a riot killed an American solder and burned a tax collector’s home. The governor of Pennsylvania refused to act. Washington viewed the frontiersmen’s actions as treason and rebellion. Washington and Hamilton personally commanded a force of thirteen thousand militiamen to crush the insurrection. The rebellion melted before violence ensued. Washington’s actions set the precedent that the government can defend itself from rebellion. This allowed President Jackson to prevent South Carolina’s succession in the Nullification Crisis and President Lincoln to preserve the Union through military force. This crisis also produced a dramatic illustration of two competing versions of what the American Revolution meant by the 1790s. On one side were the rebels who saw standing up to Congressionally imposed taxation as equivalent to standing up to the British ministry. On the other side stood President Washington enforcing the authority of the constitutionally elected government that claim to represent all Americans.8. Valley Forge: This was the nadir of the American experience in the War of Independence. Throughout the winter of 1777-78, Washington and his men had been camped miserably at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. A windy plateau twenty miles from Philadelphia, it became legendary for the hardships endured there by soldiers short of clothing, blankets, and food. Men without shoes left bloody footprints in the snow. Most were housed in flimsy tents. With states refusing to levy taxes to finance the war, Congress was of little help. It urged Washington to seize food and supplies from surrounding farms. Washington warned Congress that without more food the Army would “starve, dissolve, or disperse.” The soldiers did none of those that miserable winter because of their near-religious reverence for General Washington. Knowing that smallpox was raging across the North American continent, Washington inoculated his men against the disease. Even though many educated Americans opposed inoculation, believing that it would spread the disease, Washington acted on his own experience. His half-brother, Lawrence, got small pox when George was young. George got the disease but survived. He was now immune, and wanted the same for his troops. Biographer Ron Chernow wrote, “This enlightened decision was as important as any military measure Washington adopted during the war.” As the worst of winter passed, the Americans’ fortunes rose. Ben Franklin sent Baron von Steuben, a Prussian officer who claimed to have served with Fredrick the Great, to Valley Forge. Washington approved his training of the Continental Army into a professional fighting force. By the time the Continental Army marched out in May, new enlistments swelled its numbers to twelve thousand.7. The Jay Treaty: In the 1790s, the United States faced challenges in foreign relations unsurpassed in gravity until World War II. Britain and Spain still blocked access to the Great Lakes and Mississippi River, thwarting America’s westward expansion. The French Revolution, which began in 1789, ignited a war in Europe in 1792. The revolutionary ideology turned this European power struggle into a total war where entire populations were mobilized for conflict. President Washington assembled his cabinet to figure out a response to the crisis. The risk of getting pulled into Europe’s war and potentially fighting a superpower like Britain or France meant that the young republic’s survival was at stake. Secretary of State Jefferson advocated upholding the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France. Secretary of Treasury Hamilton wanted Neutrality that expressed favoritism toward Britain. Washington took ideas from each and declared the Neutrality Proclamation, which prohibited either the American government or private citizens from acting on behalf of either Britain or France. This caused outrage by both those Americans who supported France and those who thought Washington was overstepping his Constitutional bounds. Washington had made his decision without consulting Congress, establishing an important precedent for Executive Branch initiative in foreign policy. Washington was a foreign policy realist, which means that he thought that nations should pursue their interests when conducting geopolitics, not morality or ideology. Alliances formed when the interest of multiple nations coincided, but countries did not have friends. This puts Washington in the same camp as geopolitical giants like Otto von Bismarck, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger. Although he appreciated France’s help in the War of Independence, Washington no longer saw the alliance with France as beneficial to the United States and did not feel obligated to come to France’s aid. The biggest foreign policy crisis of Washington’s presidency dominated his second term. The British refused to honor the obligation they made in the Treaty of Paris (which ended the War of Independence) to vacate forts around the Great Lakes, where they stirred up trouble with Native American tribes and restricted American migration into the Ohio Valley. Additionally, the British navy seized American ships carrying French goods in an attempt to undermine France’s war effort. To avoid war, President Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to London to negotiate a settlement. Jay’s treaty provided for British evacuation of the northwest posts and gave America a ‘most favored nation’ status in Britain’s trade, and vice-versa. This swelled American exports. It was a commercial treaty that enormously benefited both signatories while hurting neither. Congress narrowly passed the treaty, and a backlash was initiated in the press by Jefferson’s allies, who now saw Washington as Britain and Hamilton’s pawn. Jay’s image was burned in effigy. Madison, a leading figure in the House, tried to withhold funds for the treaty but was defeated. More ominously, the French saw the Jay Treaty as America taking Britain’s side in the war. France began pursuing American ships, resulting in a crisis that dominated John Adams’ presidency. Washington was exhausted by the aftermath of the Jay Treaty and was upset that his legacy was being damaged by bitter partisanship. He decided not to run for a third term, setting another precedent (more on this later). Washington had exploited the great power rivalry to America’s advantage and avoided a costly war with Britain. Before he left office, Washington negotiated the Treaty of Madrid with Spain, which was similar to the Jay Treaty. Spain recognized the US’s boundary claim east of the Mississippi, removing the last obstacle to America’s westward expansion. This crowned Washington’s life work.6. The Battle of Trenton: General Washington became overconfident after driving the British out of Boston with artillery. He was determined to prevent the redcoats from seizing the Hudson and dividing New England from the other colonies. Arriving in New York in the summer of 1776, as the Continental Congress was adopting the Declaration of Independence, Washington made the mistake of dividing his forces between Long Island and Manhattan. On August 27, the British invaded New York from the sea with thirty-three thousand troops. It was the largest British amphibious invasion until June 6, 1944. The American forces in Long Island were defeated within days. In mid-September, Washington withdrew his army from Manhattan. New York remained under British occupation until the end of the war. Flushed with victory, British General Howe allowed Washington’s forces to escape across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. With winter setting in, most people expected Washington to take a break from fighting to lick his wounds. But he was determined to redeem his reputation after the disaster in New York. He also knew that ending the year with a major defeat could result in the Army’s dissolution. By springtime, the war could be over. Knowing that a garrison of fierce German Hessian mercenaries was based in Trenton, New Jersey, he devised his most tactically brilliant operation of the war that saved the movement for American independence from extinction. On Christmas night, Washington and his forces crossed the Delaware River. Three of his four units failed to cross, but Washington decided to attack anyway in an all-or-nothing wager. Luckily, the Hessians were exhausted from a week of being on round-the-clock alert, expecting an attack. The Hessians fought bravely but were decisively defeated. Embarrassed, the British sent General Cornwallis with a large force to crush the Americans at Trenton. Washington learned of the offensive and struck first. The Battle of Princeton became another American victory. The Trenton-Princeton combination was a huge boost to American morale at this early stage in the war.5. The Constitutional Convention: Since the midpoint of the Revolutionary War, Washington had urged reforming the Articles of Confederation. Particularly, he knew the powers of the national government had to be strengthened so it could raise revenues and regulate commerce. The Articles did not allow Congress to tax. It was up to the states when they wanted to give money to the central government. As a result, Congress had to borrow money to fund the war. The national debt skyrocketed, resulting in a crippling inflation and depression. Paper money was worthless. Debtors feared foreclose and debtor prison. States, desperate to pay off interest on debt accumulated during the war, raised taxes several times. This undermined commerce, leading to a collapse in wages and increased unemployment. States applied tariffs against one another, restricted inter-state trade. Despite this, it took Shays’ Rebellion, an uprising by Massachusetts farmers desperate to shut down courts to prevent the start of bankruptcy proceedings against them, to convince the country that reform was needed. In the summer of 1787, a convention was held in Philadelphia to reform the Articles. The delegates immediately decided to throw out the Articles and create a new constitution that would strengthen the central government and allow it to deal with the economic crisis. Washington was unanimously elected to be the Convention’s president, granting the Convention legitimacy in the eyes of Americans. As president, Washington was expected to stay out of the debates. But he had an intense interest in the arguments that shaped the Executive Branch. Everyone in the room took for granted that he would become the first President of the United States. Although wary of monarchy, the Convention created such a strong presidency only because they knew that Washington would set a standard for the judicious exercise of power. They trusted him because he had surrendered his power after the war (more on this later). Washington’s role at the Convention was a clear endorsement of the new constitution. This, along with the Federalist Paperswritten by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, allowed the Constitution to get ratified.4. Supporting Hamilton’s Plan: Upon taking office, Washington inherited the greatest collection of national challenges of any president. One of those challenges was the largest economic crisis in American history, rivaled only by the Great Depression of the 1930s (see previous section). To plan the administration’s response, Washington turned to his chief advisor, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton had been Washington’s aide-de-camp during the war and was with Washington during crises like Valley Forge and the Battle of Yorktown. Neither man was warm, but their relationship was built on mutual respect. They had similar political views, although Washington was not as conservative as Hamilton. John Locke influenced most politicians of the era, but Hamilton gave Washington a copy of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, which stressed the anarchic behavior of humanity and the need of an artificial constitutional giant figure to keep everyone in awe. Hamilton’s first step in repairing the economy was the “Report on Public Credit.” The federal government was to assume debt owned by the states. Subsidizing northern manufacturers and higher tariffs would result in greater industrialization and more tax revenue for the government. The government would then use this revenue to pay down the debt to a reasonable level, stabilizing the economy. Both during and after the war, many holders of American debt, doubting their notes would ever be redeemable and hoping to get at least something for them, sold them to speculators at prices well below face value. Hamilton’s plan called for full face value to be paid to whoever held the new federal paper, richly rewarding the speculators. Hamilton was untroubled that this aided the wealthy. He hoped the rich would lend out this money, providing capital to spur economic growth (this was a similar logic to Reagan’s supply-side economics). This plan was highly controversial, especially in the south, and it was Washington’s endorsement that got it through Congress. As a result, the national debt was cut in half within fifteen years, and America had the credit to borrow money for the Louisiana Purchase. In the meantime, Washington was able to run the government without a crushing debt overshadowing every move he made. Hamilton’s next step was a national bank where the government would have twenty percent stake and the rest was owned by private investors. The bank would help collect taxes, handle payments on the debt, issue currency notes, and make loans to the government and private businesses. Washington pushed this plan through Congress as well, but the bank fight ignited the vicious antagonism between Hamilton and Secretary of State Jefferson, which became the greatest political rivalry in American history. Washington guided the administration by mediating between these two brilliant but opinionated men, allowing both to serve the country. Washington’s critics claim that Hamilton was the brain behind all of Washington’s policies. The truth is that the two men had decades of experience collaborating and could predict each other’s thoughts. Hamilton’s disproportionately important role within the Washington Administration is comparable to Henry Kissinger’s role in the Nixon Administration or Francis Perkins’ role in the Franklin Roosevelt Administration. Washington led America out of a titanic economic crisis and set the stage for the Industrial Revolution of the Nineteenth Century. America achieved takeoff into self-sustaining growth and a prosperity that lasted until the 1830s. It is fair to say that Washington’s economic policy was the most successful of any president.3. The Newburgh Address: By the time the War of Independence was over in spring 1783, Congress had incurred its tremendous debt. Looking for expenses to cut, it decided not to give the soldiers of the Continental Army their last pay. Outraged, a group of several hundred officers (one of which was General Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga) gathered in Newburgh, New York. They conspired and made a list of demands to Congress about their pay. If Congress failed to meet their demands, the officers would conduct a military coup, overthrowing Congress, and establishing an authoritarian government. Hamilton warned General Washington of the plot. The man who won the war went to Newburgh to confront his soldiers. The occasion showed that Washington was a superb orator and a cunning operator. He pulled out a speech he had written in large letters. For dramatic effect, he made a point of taking out his new reading glasses. His soldiers had never seen him with glasses before; they were taken aback by the physical decline he had endured during eight years of war. He took some time to focus his glasses and said, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown grey in your service, and now I find myself growing blind.” Some would find this corny. But it worked, and thereafter the appeal was to willing listeners who viewed Washington as a secular saint. The coup vanished. If it had been carried through, American democracy would have been damaged beyond repair. Washington then turned to Congress, and convinced it to meet some of the officers’ demands. He turned a potential coup into an actual occasion of lawful and constitutional behavior.2. The Battle of Yorktown: After Valley Forge and the victorious Battle of Monmouth Court House, General Washington saw little action for three years. He remained obsessed with liberating New York, the center of British occupation, and reversing his failure from 1776 (see #6). In 1780, the British shifted toward a southern strategy, because they believed southerners would be more sympathetic to the Crown. They captured Charleston, South Carolina, along with over two thousand American soldiers. Upon hearing the news of this defeat, Washington learned of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal (he became a general for the British), something Washington never forgot. Washington sent a small force commanded by Lafayette to thwart Arnold’s efforts to conquer the Virginia countryside. When 1781 began with American mutinies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (they were frustrated with a lack of pay), Washington wondered if his Continental Army was finally disintegrating. Prospects for American victory appeared remote. Washington’s next move would have to be the decisive one, or else Congress would negotiate a settlement with Britain. Everything changed in the autumn. France assumed responsibility for paying the American forces (since Congress lacked the funds). British General Cornwallis established a fortified position in Yorktown, Virginia, trying to lure Washington away from New York. At first, Washington did not take the bait. He then learned that the French fleet was on its way toward Chesapeake Bay. Washington instantly grasped a matchless opportunity to strike the enemy while the British were vulnerable. The result was the climatic battle of the war and arguable the most consequential battle in American history. The Battle of Yorktown saw nine thousand French and ten thousand American soldiers corner the British while the French fleet cut off any escape routes (the British had temporarily lost their supremacy at sea). Franco-American artillery forced Cornwallis, and over seven thousand redcoats, to surrender. Washington did not realize that this was the final battle of the Revolutionary War. Not true of his enemy. When Prime Minister Lord North got the news in London, he proclaimed, “This is the end.” Yorktown broke Britain’s will to fight. Negotiations began that resulted in the Treaty of Paris two years later, securing America’s independence. Until news of the treaty arrived, Washington refused to disband his army (in case fighting resumed). Some Americans feared that Washington was going to follow Caesar’s example and take control of the government through force. That would not be the case.1. Presidential Precedents and Surrendering Power: The defining moment of Washington’s career was resigning his command at the head of the Continental Army after the Treaty of Paris was announced. In doing so, he became that rarest of creatures, the indispensable figure who declared himself dispensable. Neither Caesar nor Cromwell had done it before him, and neither Napoleon, Lenin, nor Mao would do it after him. The importance of this decision can be summarized by Washington’s nemesis, King George III, who asked an American painter what Washington would do now that he had won the war. “Oh, they say he will return to his farm,” the painter answered. “If he does that,” said the kind, “he will be the greatest man in the world.” This enormous precedent of modern history was followed by many others when the Electoral College unanimously elected Washington as the first president. His greatness was not merely being the first, but that he shaped the Executive Office into a co-equal branch with Congress that could set the legislative agenda and have special powers in foreign policy. None of these powers were written into the Constitution. They exist because of the precedents he set. A handful of those precedents include the Inaugural Address, the Cabinet System, Executive Privilege, and the Executive Order. After eight years, Washington was exhausted from enduring partisanship and managing foreign crises. He decided not to run for a third term and to retire to Mount Vernon, thus establishing another critical precedent. He (along with Hamilton) wrote a farewell address. This tradition has been followed by most of his successors, but only Dwight Eisenhower’s has remained as memorable and important. (That is fitting, because Eisenhower’s career paralleled Washington’s.) Although crafting an executive branch of reasonable influence and surrendering power might not seem as dramatic as, say, Lincoln freeing the slaves, it must be remembered that Washington did not have a historical model to follow. The two previously attempted republican governments, in Rome and England, had become military dictatorships in their formative years. Washington, and the near-religious devotion he inspired, was the main reason why the American Revolution succeeded (and did not follow the path of either the French Revolution or the failed revolutions in Latin America). He remains a gold standard for every leader that has followed him.“I have diligently sought the public welfare; and have endeavored to inculcate the same principles in all that are under me. These reflections will be a cordial to my mind as long as I am able to distinguish between good and evil.”-George WashingtonFor more of my writing, check out “The Eisenhower Encyclopedia” at

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