As a very young man, George Washington’s greatest desire was to be among the landed gentry of Virginia. Virginia looked toward England to define its views of success. Success, according to a poem that young George Washington had copied, included “A good estate on healthy soil/ Not got by vice, nor yet by toil/Round a warm fire, a pleasant joke/ With chimney ever free from smoke/A strength entire, a sparkling bowl/A quiet wife, a quiet soul.” He wanted, in short, to be a gentleman – a man born with wealth and prestige who need not strive for the things that it produces.
But young George Washington did not grow up in a wealthy and prestigious family. As we saw at his birthplace, he was no pauper. But neither was he a gentleman on the scale he desired. His brother Lawrence provided a means toward the end he sought, and that was military success within the British armed forces. Lawrence became a British regular when he fought against the Spanish on behalf of the British, and he was so enamored with the Admiral he served, Edward Vernon, that he named his plantation after him. (Mount Vernon). Washington had come close to serving the British Navy until a relative convinced his mother that Americans who served in such a capacity were treated worse than dogs.
Washington sought to be named Adjutant General of Virginia. His qualifications were virtually nonexistent. However, when dealing with gentlemen, such base matters as qualifications are not always discussed. He had the backing of the powerful Fairfax family. And, to be fair, he was strong and understood the land well, having served as surveyor not only in Virginia but out West, where the conflict was bound to occur. Washington rode around Virginia introducing himself to the important people of Virginia. When Governor Robert Dinwiddie named Washington the Adjutant General of one of the four military districts he had devised, Washington was peeved that he had not secured the Northern Neck area, which was more important than his and was his birthplace.
Word had come to the Virginians that the French had appeared in the Ohio Valley and were setting up forts. Governor Dinwiddie found this to be extremely disconcerting, not because they were claiming land that England laid claim to, but because they were claiming land in the area of the Ohio Company’s land claims. And Governor Dinwiddie was a prime member of the Ohio Company who personally had money invested in this area.
Dinwiddie was unable to convince any of the other colonies that he approached – including Maryland and Massachusetts – that they had any interest in this dispute. His letter to King George III, however, did not fall on deaf ears. In just four months, a very quick turnaround in those days, he received the permission he desired from the King to defend his area. The King would allow him to send emissaries to the upper wilderness to observe and discover whether the French were on British soil. If they were, the Virginia delegation ws to “require of them to peaceably depart.” If they did not choose to depart? “We do strictly command and charge you to drive them out by force.”
This, then, was a key moment in world history. At stake at this confrontation would not merely be the claims of the Ohio Company, but the claims of two great powers, the British and the French. World peace would be at stake. Who to send for this important assignment? George Washington.
George Washington? Looking backwards through time, as historians always do, it is difficult to understand why Dinwiddie would choose such an untested individual for such an important assignment. The British, after the fact, would send soldiers under the feeling that the Americans could not be left to their own devices in such matters with international repercussions. And yet, there were reasons to go with Washington.
First, somebody had to be sent immediately to ascertain whether the French were indeed making a stand in this area, and it was late October. The weather would be challenging, and a using a young man with physical endurance would be useful. Secondly, Washington had a surveying background which gave him as much knowledge of the area they would be traversing as any Virginian. Third, he had the political backing of the Fairfax family. And forth – and this should not be overlooked – Washington had clearly come across to Dinwiddie as a mature and capable young man.
The reasons against giving him the position seem stronger. This was a job for a diplomat. First of all, Washington would need to secure Indian allies. This was not only important for any immediate contingency. If a war was to come about, and certainly this ominous possibility seemed quite possible, it would be of key importance to have as many of the Indian tribes as possible on the side of the British. Not only was Washington bereft of diplomatic experience, he did not speak any of the Indian dialects. The meeting with the French would either avoid or bring about conflict between the two countries. Why on earth send a twenty-one year old Virginian planter who did not speak French? The French would undoubtedly be either amused or insulted by meeting a man dealing with matters so beyond his depths. Finally, if the meeting failed and a battle ensued, Washington was as unschooled in military matters as he was in diplomacy.
Dinwiddie’s most capable assistant was a man named William Trent. As a fur trader Trent had learned several Indian dialects, including the Unami and Mohawk languages. However, Dinwiddie had already sent him off to to an expedition that he obviously considered to be more important – Trent was sent to oversee the Ohio Company’s building of its post at the forks.
While many may have thought that Washington was under qualified for this post, George Washington was certainly not one of them. He was delighted to take his first step upon the world stage, and seemed to have no doubt that he would be able to accomplish the task set before him.