First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, George Washington was also the first born of American presidents, having come into the world on this date in 1732 (according to the New Style, or N.S.). He has been called "the indispensable man," and it is hard to imagine successful outcomes to the American Revolution and the American experiment in self-government without him.
George Washington never got as far west as what is now the state of Indiana. However, he approached our region in his work as a surveyor and as a military officer in the French and Indian War. A fellow Virginian, George Rogers Clark (1752-1818), helped secure what would become Indiana when he and his men captured Fort Sackville from the British on February 23, 1779 (the day after Washington's birthday, N.S.). Many of Indiana's counties are named after heroes of the revolution, including Washington, Clark, Greene, and Knox counties in the south; Marion, Morgan, Putnam, and Wayne counties in the middle; and DeKalb, Kosciusko, and Steuben counties in the north. George Washington of course served as the president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and as president of the United States from 1789 to 1797. He survived a little more than two years after leaving the presidency and died at his home, Mount Vernon, Virginia, on December 14, 1799.
An illustration by Max Francis Klepper (1861-1907), a German-born artist who began his career in Logansport, Indiana. From Stories of New Jersey by Frank R. Stockton (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1961, p. 166).
|"Washington's Farewell to His Officers" by Frederick Coffay Yohn (1875-1933) of Indianapolis. At around the turn of the century, Yohn was often considered in the company of Howard Pyle as a historical illustrator.|
|"George Washington Takes the Oath of Office as the Nation's First President" by Joseph Clemens Gretter (1904-1988), aka Gretta, from Glimpses of American History by Clemens Gretta and Leah Berger (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1933, p. 88). Gretter was born in Benton County, Indiana.|
This is Black History Month, and it would be remiss to leave out any mention of George Washington and slavery. He was a slaveholder, as was his wife separately. His words and actions on slavery are complex and self-contradictory, however. Washington arranged in his will for the manumission of his slaves and for providing for them from his estate, yet he kept them all his life and even took clever steps to avoid freeing them under the laws of Pennsylvania, where he lived as president. In 1786, Washington wrote to Robert Morris: "There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery," yet he also pursued Oney "Ona" Judge, an escaped slave and his wife's property, even up to the end of his life. Oney Judge died on February 25, 1848, in Greenland, New Hampshire, at about age sixty-five. Until that day, she was a fugitive slave and legally the property of the Custis estate. In the end, though, in accordance with his will, George Washington's slaves were freed on January 1, 1801. He was the most prominent of our Founding Fathers to have taken that step.