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Guide to American Presidents
GEORGE WASHINGTON 1732-99
1st PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 1789-97
"Washington came of very good blood - aw, quite good - I b'lieve."
Attributed by his classmates to Amory Blaine in F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise.
The Washingtons are of unusual antiquity in European terms, let alone American ones. A direct male ancestry has been traced back to William de Wessington or Wessyngton (i.e., Washington, a town in Tyne and Wear, formerly County Durham, in northern England), who was living in the late 12th century. The remoter ancestry is not absolutely certain but a detailed argument has been put forward for William de Wessington's descent in the male line from Eochu Mugmedon, High King of Ireland in the mid-4th century, through his son Niall of the Nine Hostages. Niall reigned as King of Ireland at a time when the Romans had not yet gone home to Italy from across the water in Britain. Indeed he may have been the Irish king who waged war on Stilicho, father-in-law of the Emperor Honorius who was the last Roman ruler of Britain. From Eochu and Niall descend the O'Neills, the oldest family traceable in the male line in Europe. If the link between William de Wessington and Eochu is accepted, it makes Washington the first of many American Presidents with direct male line Irish ancestry, though he must have been the only one not to boast about it to win votes.
In 1264 William de Wessington's grandson (or conceivably son) Sir Walter de Washington fought on King Henry III's side against Simon de Montfort at the battle of Lewes, where he was killed. So far George Washington's ancestors had been the senior male line, but after Sir Walter's son they descend through a junior branch. This branch seems to have maintained the family loyalty to the kings of England. Robert, Sir Walter's grandson, chose as his wife Joan de Stirkeland, a member of a north country family who have supplied several sheriffs of their county, a deputy lieutenant of their county, the bearer of the banner of St George at the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years War against the French and a leader of a royalist infantry regiment at the Battle of Edgehill in the Civil War of the 17th century.
Despite their marrying several heiresses this junior branch of Washingtons could not arrest the decline over the next two centuries of their own younger sons
- and George Washington's recent ancestors descended from a younger branch of a younger branch. By the mid-16th century this junior branch of Washingtons was settled at Sulgrave in the English Midland county of Northamptonshire. Even now they enjoyed the status of lesser gentry (Robert Washington in 1584 inherited 1,250 acres, a respectable property). George Washington, however, descends from a fifth son of Lawrence Washington, who predeceased his father, the Robert who had inherited 1,250 acres, after having sold the bulk of the estate at Sulgrave in 1605, perhaps under some financial pressure. This fifth son became a parson but was expelled from his parish as a royalist by the Parliamentarians during the Civil War. It was therefore understandable that the parson's son Colonel John Washington should emigrate to America. There he eventually acquired 6,000 acres (including 700 as his wife's dowry), which was more than respectable by English standards.
Colonel John's son Captain Lawrence Washington, as High Sheriff in Virginia in 1692, continued the long family tradition of supporting the Crown, albeit in an American context. He married Mildred Warner, granddaughter of a one-time acting governor of Virginia and a descendant of the medieval Lords Kyme, whose loyalty to their king was not always total. It would be downright fanciful to trace George Washington's disaffection toward the Hanoverian George III to a remote ancestor's quarrels with the Plantagenets. Yet the link between Washington and Plantagenet high politics was not as tenuous as might be supposed. Because of the vagaries of English peerage law Washington was a potential heir to the Kyme title, which had become abeyant (very roughly, fallen into disuse) in 1381. He was almost certainly not aware of this, although since he remained technically King George's subject till the Treaty of Paris in 1783 (and certainly till the end of 1775, when two thirds of his life was over) and titles of nobility were only dropped in the United States in 1795 after some discussion as to whether to introduce native American ones, the historical might-have-beens are intriguing to say the least.
Captain Lawrence Washington died when his son Augustine was only three, whereupon Augustine's mother, Mildred, remarried. Her new husband, George Gale, was from the northwestern English county of Cumberland and took the family back to England. When Mildred died in childbirth a year later Gale took over the care of her three children by Captain Lawrence Washington. Mildred had left Gale £1,000 but the Washingtons contested her will, claiming she had alienated Washington property. As a result the children were awarded to the care of a cousin on their father's side, John Washington, and returned to America.
Augustine died when his son George was only 11 and the boy spent the next six or so years, some of them at Mount Vernon, with relatives. The Mount Vernon estate at this time belonged to his elder half-brother Lawrence, whom George greatly admired, for Lawrence had been educated in England and had acquired what the 18th century called an easy address (i.e., geniality), together with graceful manners. Lawrence eventually willed the estate to George. (Augustine had left over 10,000 acres altogether.) In Virginia the English system of entail was widespread. Entail allowed estates to be kept whole by being passed to a single heir, usually the eldest male, at the expense of younger sons and females. It was only abolished after the Revolution (by Thomas Jefferson as it happened). Lawrence had married a cousin of the Lords Fairfax, who owned large estates in Virginia, and his father-in-law Colonel William Fairfax was a powerful influence on the young George Washington. Lawrence's half-sister-in-law married George Washington's cousin Warner Washington and Sally Cary, the great love of George's youth, married Mrs Lawrence Washington's eldest brother George William Fairfax. Strong links therefore developed between the Fairfaxes and Washingtons (which were confirmed a generation later when Warner's daughter Louisa married the 9th Lord Fairfax). It was through these links that George Washington in 1748 took part in a survey of the Fairfax lands in Virginia.
In an age when 'interest' (i.e., personal influence) was virtually a necessity to get a young man a start in life, that of a nobleman like Lord Fairfax counted for much. It could have led to a naval career for Washington but his mother was highly possessive right up to her death in 1789 and her anguish at the prospect of his leaving her made it out of the question. He did take a brief voyage, however. When Lawrence went to Barbados for the sake of his health in 1751 George accompanied him. There he caught small-pox, but survived and was subsequently immune to the disease. This was a considerable blessing for the United States since small-pox was one of the chief scourges of the troops in the Revolutionary War.
When, a few years after the end of that war, the young republic's new, stronger form of government was set up, Washington could probably have assumed the Crown if he had wanted. Given his ancestry, character and military reputation, he would have been an ideal candidate. But the times were not auspicious for hereditary monarchy. Indeed the particular year in which the presidency was inaugurated
- 1789 - saw the beginning of the French Revolution, after which kings could never feel wholly safe on their thrones again. America's transition from a number of colonies over which a king ruled, however distantly, to an independent republic involved one or two little awkwardnesses. For instance, although the US Constitution was remarkably well designed and Washington as near an ideal first President as one could hope for, protocol problems cropped up, such as how to address the new President. The Senate deliberated and suggested 'His Highness, the president of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties'. (Oliver Cromwell when Protector of England had also been addressed as 'His Highness'.) It never caught on, but that didn't prevent numerous citizens over the next century writing to the President as "His Majesty", "His Lordship" or "His Excellency", as President Benjamin Harrison testifies in his book on the presidency.
In a republic the President's name may live on after him but his family are more likely than royalty to sink into obscurity. The proof of this is that the most famous other Washington, Booker T., is no relation. But George Washington's nephew Bushrod Washington was an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1798 to 1829 when that institution was at perhaps its greatest importance in shaping the young republic. He was considered to have a slow mind and he may also have had poor judgement in worldly matters (he was enthusiastic about the Society of the Cincinnati in correspondence with his famous uncle). But he made up for that with the clarity of his legal judgements. His uncle bequeathed Bushrod his library and personal papers. Eventually (after Martha's death) Bushrod inherited Mount Vernon itself. He oversaw preparation of John Marshall's five-volume work The Life of Washington (1804-7). Another nephew, George Augustine Washington, son of the 1st President's younger brother Charles by a cousin, Mildred Thornton, managed the Mount Vernon estate during his uncle's first term as President. He married Martha Washington's favourite niece, Fanny Bassett, but died in 1793, whereupon George Washington invited Fanny to stay on at Mount Vernon. He also offered to educate their eldest surviving son, George Fayette Washington. When the Whiskey Rebellion erupted in 1794 and Washington called out the militia to suppress it, five of his Washington nephews served in the Virginia contingent. Of these nephews Colonel William A. Washington, the older surviving son of George's younger brother Austin, showed more than ordinary military talent. President Monroe in his autobiography mentions William Washington as having shown promise as early in the Revolutionary War as 1776, when he was chosen to lead the attack on Trenton. Monroe served as his lieutenant on that occasion and took over the command when William Washington was badly wounded. In December 1780 William Washington tricked a loyalist detachment in South Carolina into surrendering by the use of what was called a 'Quaker gun'
- a log balanced on three of its branches to resemble artillery.
George Washington's marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis ultimately brought him outright possession of about $100,000, making him one of the richest men in the American colonies (he died owning over 33,000 acres and was worth about $500,000). At the time a married woman had no independent property rights, even though she might have been married before and have children by her first husband. It was a system that might have been designed to encourage avaricious stepfathers but Washington was no Mr Murdstone: he had considerable affection for his step-children, and the death aged 18 of the youngest, Patsy, particularly saddened him, even though her considerable property now passed to her mother and therefore to Washington himself. His stepson John Custis, Martha's spoiled favourite and an intractable puppy who shirked military service during the Revolutionary War as well as cheating his stepfather of various small sums, had a seventh and youngest child, George Washington Parke Custis, who was the author of a book, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington (1861). It is rich in traditional stories about Washington but not necessarily accurate. Other biographies of Washington include one by President Woodrow Wilson
- stigmatized as silly by a recent scholarly study - and one by Henry Cabot Lodge, friend of President Theodore Roosevelt and a member of the famous Boston Brahmin family. George Custis's daughter Anna married the Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, whose father, General 'Light Horse Harry' Lee, composed the encomium on Washington "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen".