… was born 283 years ago today on February 11, 1731*.
To describe George Washington as enigmatic may strike some as strange, for every young student knows about him (or did when students could be counted on to know anything). He was born into a minor family in Virginia’s plantation gentry, worked as a surveyor in the West as a young man, was a hero of sorts during the French and Indian War, became an extremely wealthy planter (after marrying a rich widow), served as commander in chief of the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War (including the terrible winter at Valley Forge), defeated the British at the Battle of Yorktown, suppressed a threatened mutiny by his officers at Newburgh, N.Y., then astonished the world and won its applause by laying down his sword in 1783. Called out of retirement, he presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787, reluctantly accepted the presidency in 1789 and served for two terms, thus assuring the success of the American experiment in self-government.
Washington was, after all, a magnificent physical specimen. He towered several inches over six feet, had broad shoulders and slender hips (in a nation consisting mainly of short, fat people), was powerful and a superb athlete. He carried himself with a dignity that astonished; when she first laid eyes on him Abigail Adams, a veteran of receptions at royal courts and a difficult woman to impress, gushed like a schoolgirl. On horseback he rode with a presence that declared him the commander in chief even if he had not been in uniform.
Other characteristics smack of the supernatural. He was impervious to gunfire. Repeatedly, he was caught in cross-fires and yet no bullet ever touched him. In a 1754 letter to his brother he wrote that “I heard Bullets whistle and believe me there was something charming in the Sound.” During the Revolutionary War he had horses shot from under him but it seemed that no bullet dared strike him personally. Moreover, when the Continental Army was ravaged by a smallpox epidemic, Washington, having had the disease as a youngster, proved to be as immune to it as he was to bullets.
Forrest McDonald in his review of Joseph J. Ellis’ His Excellency: George Washington.
Ron Chernow was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Washington: A Life.