True Stories of Our Presidents - Charles Morris

George Washington

The First President of the United States

[Illustration] from True Stories of Our Presidents by Charles Morris


Very many years ago, on the twenty-second day of February, of the year 1732, a little boy was born in an old-fashioned farm-house down in Virginia. On this farm, or plantation, as it was called, tobacco was grown, instead of wheat or corn, and this was sent to England to be sold.

The name of the child's father was Augustine Washington. His mother's name was Mary. They gave him the name of George Washington, a name now known to everybody.

When George was a very small boy his father died, and he was brought up by his mother in an old farm-house on the Rappahannock River, just opposite the town of Fredericksburg.

The boy grew up to be honest, truthful, obedient, bold and strong. He could jump the farthest, run the fastest, climb the highest, wrestle the best, ride the swiftest, swim the longest of all the boys he played with. They all liked him, for he was gentle, kind and brave; and always told the truth.

When a boy grows up and gets to be a great and famous man many stories come to be told about him, some of which are not true. Here is a story which is often told about Washington, though no one knows whether it is true or not.

It is said that Mrs. Washington had a fine colt, which she hoped would grow into a very fast horse. But it was wild and had never been ridden, and the men on the plantation were afraid to get on its back. George was now a well-grown boy and a good rider, and he said that he could ride the colt.

Mary Ball


He did ride it, too, so the story goes. The wild creature did all it could to throw him off, but he kept on its back and rode it around the field. In the end the animal grew so violent that it burst a blood vessel and fell dead. George was very sorry, but he went straight to his mother and, told her the truth.

She looked at him a moment, then she said: "I am sorry to lose the colt; but I am very glad to have my son tell me of his fault."

Such is the story. It may not be true, for young boys do not ride wild colts; but it helps us to know what kind of a boy Washington was.

When young Washington was sixteen years old he gave up going to school and became a surveyor. A surveyor is one who goes around measuring land, so that men can know just how much they own, and just where the lines run that divide it from other people's land.

This work kept George out of doors most of the time, and made him healthy and big and strong. He went off into the woods and over the mountains, surveying land for the owners. He was a fine-looking young fellow then. He was almost six feet tall, was strong and active, and could stand almost, anything in the way of out-of-door dangers and labors, He had light brown hair, blue eyes and a frank face, and he had such a firm and friendly way about him, although he was quiet and never talked much, that people always believed what he said, and those who worked with him were always ready and willing to do just as he told them.

French Indian


He liked the work, because he liked the free life of the woods and mountains, and his work was so well done that some of it holds good to-day. He liked to hunt and swim and ride and row, and all these things and all these rough experiences helped him greatly to be a bold, healthy, active and courageous man, when the time came for him to be a leader and a soldier.

People thought so much of him that when trouble began between the two nations that then owned almost all the land in America, he was sent with a party to try and settle a quarrel as to which nation owned the land west of the mountains.

These two nations were France and England. They were far beyond the Atlantic Ocean. Virginia and all the country between the mountains and the sea, from Maine to Georgia, belonged to the King of England. There was no President then, and there were no United States, for all this country was under the rule of far-off monarchs.

George Washington went off to the western country and tried to settle the quarrel, but the French soldiers would not settle it as the English wished them to. They built forts in the country, and said they meant to keep it all for the King of France. It was a long and dangerous journey that young Washington made, through hundreds of miles of woods, with rivers and mountains to cross, and among Indians who tried to kill him. But he came back safe—after crossing a great river full of floating ice and going through other perils—and told the Governor of Virginia what the French had said.

Washington was soon sent out again, this time with a party of soldiers. He fought with the French and Indians, but there were too many of them for his few men. The King of England was very angry when he learned that the French were building forts on what he said was his land, though nobody really owned it but the Indians.

He determined to drive them away, and sent soldiers from England to fight them. They were led by a general named Braddock, who knew all about war in Europe and had plenty of courage, but had never fought in such a land as America, where there were great forests and Indians, and other things very different from what he was used to. But he thought he knew all about war, and would not listen to what anyone told him. Poor Braddock paid dearly for his conceit.

Braddock's defeat


George Washington knew that if General Braddock and the British soldiers wished to whip the French, and the Indians who were on the French side, they must be very careful when they were marching through the forests to battle. He tried to make General Braddock see this too, and to tell him what to do, but the British general thought he knew best, and told Washington to mind his own business.

So the British soldiers marched through the forests as if they were parading down the streets of London. They looked very fine, but they were not careful of themselves, and one day, in the midst of the forest, the French and Indians, who were hiding behind trees waiting for them, began to fire at them from the thick, dark woods.

The British were caught in a trap. They could not see their enemies. They did not know what to do. General Braddock was killed; so were many of his soldiers. They would all have been killed or taken prisoners if George Washington had not been there. He knew just what to do. He fought bravely, and when the British soldiers ran away he and his Americans kept back the French and Indians, and saved what was left of the army.

But it was a terrible defeat for the soldiers of the King of England. He had to send more soldiers to America, and the war went on for years. Washington was kept busy fighting the Indians, to save the lives of the poor settlers on the borders. In the end the French were defeated, and had to give up all their land in America to the English. That was the war which is called the French and Indian War.

Washington had been so brave that the Legislature of Virginia spoke in very great praise of his services. Washington was there and rose to thank them, but he was so confused that he blushed, stammered, trembled and could not speak.

"Sit down, Mr. Washington," said the Speaker. "Your modesty equals your valor, and that is greater than any language I can use."

Soon after this Washington married. His wife, whose name was Martha Custis, brought him a large fortune, and he had a good deal of property of his own. They went to live in a beautiful house on the banks of the Potomac River, in Virginia. It is called Mount Vernon. It was Washington's home all the rest of his life. The house is still standing, and people nowadays go to visit this beautiful place, just to see the spot that everyone thinks so much of because it was the home of Washington.

Washington showed himself as good a farmer as he had been a soldier. Daily he rode over his great estate, and everything he had to do with went on like clockwork. He was prompt, careful, and full of method, fond of his work and of hunting with horse and hounds, and would have liked nothing better than to spend all his life at Mount Vernon. But that was not to be, for a new war was coming on, and the farmer had to buckle on his old sword again.

The trouble came from King George of England, who was not satisfied with the way things were going in the colonies. He tried to make the people pay him more money in taxes than they thought was right and just. The Americans said that the king was acting very wrongly toward them, and that they would not stand it.



They did not. When the king's soldiers tried to make them do as the king ordered, they said they would die rather than yield, and in a place called Lexington, in Massachusetts, there was a fight with the soldiers, and another at Concord. The British had to hurry back to Boston, and many of them were killed.

This is what is called rebellion. It made the king very angry, and he sent over ships full of soldiers to punish the rebels. The men in the colonies said they would fight the soldiers if the king tried to make them do as he wished. So an army gathered around Boston, and there they had a famous battle with the king's soldiers, called the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which they showed how well they could fight.

The leading men in the colonies saw that they must put a brave man at the head of their army, and for this they chose Washington, whom they knew to be one of their best soldiers.

Washington rode all the way from Philadelphia, where he then was, to Cambridge, in Massachusetts, on horseback, for they had no steam-cars or steam-boats in those days, and there was no other way to travel. As he was riding through Connecticut, with a few soldiers as his guard, a man came galloping across the country, telling people how the battle of Bunker Hill had been fought. The British soldiers had driven the Americans from the fort, he said, but it had been hard work for them.

Washington stopped the rider, and asked him why the Americans had given up the fort.

"Because they had no powder and shot left," replied the messenger.

"And did they stand the fire of the British guns as long its they could fire back?" asked Washington.

"That they did," replied the horseman. "They waited, too, until the British were close to the fort, before they fired."

That was what Washington wished to know. He felt certain that if the American farmer boys who stood out against the king's soldiers did not get frightened or timid in the face of the trained soldiers of the king, that they would be the kind of soldiers he needed to win with.

He turned to his companions and said: "Then the liberties of the country are safe," and he rode on to Cambridge to take command of the army.

It was July 3, 1775, when he took command of the American forces. He was then forty-three years of age, tall, stately, dignified, noble in face, and a soldier all through. In his continental uniform of blue and buff he sat his horse under a shady elm, and drew the sword with whose help he hoped to make his country free. Yet years were to pass, and many sad days to come and go, before he would succeed.

We cannot tell here the story of this long and terrible war, nor even of all Washington had to do in it. There was fighting for seven years, and through it all the chief man in America, the man who led the soldiers and fought the British, and never gave up, nor let himself or his soldiers grow afraid even when he was beaten, was General Washington.

Washington and Rochambeau


If the British drove him away from one place, he marched to another, and he fought and marched, and kept his army brave and determined, even when ragged and tired, and when everything looked as if the British would be successful.

He drilled his army of farmers at Cambridge and forced the British to leave Boston without having to fight a battle. But he did not always have such good luck as that. They defeated him at Brooklyn, on Long Island, and made him leave New York, and chased him across New Jersey. But when all looked dark for the Americans, he led his army, one terrible winter's night, across the Delaware River and fell upon the British, when they were not expecting him, and won the Battle of Trenton, taking many prisoners. After that the Americans felt in much better spirits.

But there were many hard and bitter days for George Washington through those years of fighting. A winter came in which the British soldiers seemed victorious everywhere. They held the cities of New York and Philadelphia, and the small American army was half-starved, cold and shivering at a place in Pennsylvania called Valley Forge. When their log huts were all covered with snow, and they had hardly clothes enough to keep them warm, or food to keep them from being hungry, it was not easy for the soldiers to see victory ahead. If it had not been for Washington, the American army would have melted away during that dreadful winter at Valley Forge.

But he held it together, and when spring came marched away with it from Valley Forge, following the British, who had been forced to leave Philadelphia, where they had been living well all winter. Part of his army was attacked by the British at a place called Monmouth Court House, and was almost beaten and driven back, when General Washington came galloping up. He stopped the soldiers who were running away; he brought up other soldiers to help them, and he fought so boldly and bravely, and was so determined, that at last he drove off the British, and won the won the battle of Monmouth.

You see, Washington would not give up when people told him he would have to, and that the British would get all the cities and towns. He said that the country was large, and that, sooner than give in, he would go with his soldiers into the mountains and keep up the war until the British were so sick of it that they would finally go away.

So he kept on marching and fighting, and never gave up, even when things looked worst, and at last, on the 19th of October in the year 1781, he captured a whole British army, commanded by Lord Cornwallis, at a place called Yorktown, in Virginia. That brought the war to an end.

Cornwallis surrenders


So the United States won their freedom. They have been a great nation ever since, and every American, from that day to this, knows that they became a free people because they had such a great, brave, noble, patriotic, strong and glorious leader as General George Washington.

After the Revolution was over, and Washington had said good-bye to his soldiers and his generals, he went back to Mount Vernon and became a farmer again. He was glad enough of the chance, for he loved a quiet life, and he hoped now to spend the rest of his days in quiet on his farm.

But the people of America would not let him stay a farmer. They were not done with him yet. A convention met in Philadelphia, and, after much thought and talk, they drew up a paper that said just how the new nation should be governed. That is called the Constitution of the United States. It declared that, instead of a king, the people should choose a man to be the head of the nation for four years at a time. He was to preside over the affairs of the nation and be chief ruler, and so he was called the President.

When the time came to elect the first President, there was one man in the United States that everybody wanted. This man was George Washington, to whom the people felt that they owed their liberty. It was a great day for the new nation when he was declared President. All along the way, as he rode from Mount Vernon to New York, people came out to welcome him. They fired cannon and rang bells, and made bonfires and put up arches and decorations; little girls scattered flowers in his path and sang songs of greeting, and whenever he came to a town or city every, one marched in procession, escorting Washington through their town.

When he got to New York, after he had crossed the bay in a big rowboat, he went in a fine procession to a building called "Federal Hall," on Wall Street, and there he stood, on the front balcony of the building, in face of all the people, and, with his hand on an open Bible, he said he would be a wise and good and faithful President. Then the judge who had read to him the words he repeated, lifted his hand and cried out: "Long live George Washington, President of the United States!" A flag was run up to the cupola of the hall, cannon boomed, bells rang, and all the people cheered and cheered their hero and general, whom they had now made the head of the whole nation.

So George Washington became President of the United States. He worked just as hard to make the new nation strong and great and peaceful, as he had done when he led the army in the Revolution. People had all sorts of things to suggest. Some of these things were foolish, some were wrong, and some would have been certain to have broken up the United States, and lost all the things for which the country fought in the Revolution.

But Washington was at the head. He knew just what to do, and he did it. From the day when, in the City of New York, he was made President, he gave all his thought and all his time and all his strength to making the United States united and prosperous and strong. And when his four years as President were over, the people would not give him up, but elected him for their President for another four years.

When Washington was President, the Capital of the United States was first at New York, and afterward at Philadelphia. Washington and his wife, whom we know of as Martha Washington, lived in fine style, and made a very noble-looking couple. They gave receptions, to which the people would come to be introduced and to see the man of whom all the world was talking. Washington was then a splendid-looking man. He was tall and well-built. He dressed in black velvet, with silver knee and shoe buckles; his hair was powdered and tied up in what was called a "queue." He wore yellow gloves, and held his three-cornered hat in his hand. A sword, in a polished white-leather sheath, hung at his side, and he would bow to each one who was introduced to him. He had so good a memory, that, if he heard a man's name and saw his face at one introduction, he could remember and call him by name when he met him again. But though he was so grand and noble, he was very simple in his tastes and his talk, and desired to have no title, like prince or king or duke, but only this—the President of the United States.

Washington's mother and Lafayette


His second term as President was just as successful as his first four years had been. He kept the people from getting into trouble with other countries; he kept them from war and danger, and quarrels and losses. But it tired him out, and made him an old man before his time. He had given almost all his life to America.

When his second term was ended, the people wished him to be President for the third time. But he would not. He wrote a long letter to the people of America. It is called "Washington's Farewell Address." He told them they were growing stronger and better, but that he was worn out and must have rest. He said also that if they would be wise and peaceful and good, they would become a great nation; and that all they had fought for and all they had gained would last, if they would only act right. If they did this they would become great, united and powerful.

So another man was made President, and Washington went back to his farm at Mount Vernon. He was the greatest, the wisest and the most famous man in all America. People said it was because of what he had done for them that their country was free and powerful and strong. They said that he was "The Father of his Country," and was "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." But what pleased him most was to get back to his quiet life at Mount Vernon, and be done with courts and armies. He found very much to do, and he mended and built and enlarged things and rode over his broad plantations, or received in his fine old house the visitors who came there to see the greatest man in all America, and lived a very happy and peaceful life.



There came a time when he thought he would have to give up this pleasant life and go to be a soldier once more. For it seemed as if there would be war between France and the United States, and Congress begged Washington to take command of the army once more. He was made lieutenant-general and commander-in-chief, and hurried to Philadelphia to gather his army together. Fortunately the war did not occur, and the new nation was saved all that trouble and bloodshed. But Washington was ready, if needed. So he went back again to his beloved Mount Vernon. But he did not live long to enjoy the peace and quiet that were his right. For one December day, as he was riding over his farm, he caught cold and had the croup. He had not the strength that most boys and girls have to carry hint through such a sickness. He was worn out, and, though the doctors tried hard to save his life, they could not, and in two days he died. It was a sad day for America—the twelfth day of December, in the year 1799.

All the world was sorry, for all the world had come to look upon George Washington as the greatest man of the time. Kings and nations put on mourning for him, and, all over the world, bells tolled, drums beat, and flags were dropped to half-mast, when the news came that Washington was dead.

More than a hundred years have passed since then, but the memory of Washington is loved as much as he was loved himself when alive. In the country he set free cities and towns and a State have been named after him, and there are fine statues to his honor in the cities, and streets and buildings bear his name, and beautiful old Mount Vernon, where he lived and died, is a place which all Americans love to visit.

No man nobler and purer than George Washington ever lived in America, and if you want to grow up good and noble men and women you cannot do better than to read the life of Washington, and try to be like him.