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The Denison Forum Book Review of Young Washington: How Wilderness and War Forged America’s Founding Father

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Book Review Young Washington by Peter Stark
George Washington by George Stuart, 1795. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

In Young Washington: How Wilderness and War Forged America’s Founding Father, Peter Stark portrays a deeply flawed and immature Washington, long before personal growth transformed him into the Father of Our Country.

Stark writes: “George Washington at twenty-one was a very different Washington from the one we know and hold sacred, different from the stately commander of the Continental Army, the selfless president, the unblemished father of our country gazing off into posterity. This is not the Washington possessed of nearly superhuman virtue, who, given the chance to consolidate power and rule indefinitely over the just-born nation, willingly stepped down and returned to a quiet life on his Virginia plantation. Rather, this is the young Washington. But not the Washington of the cherry-tree bedtime story.

“This young Washington is ambitious, temperamental, vain, thin-skinned, petulant, awkward, demanding, stubborn, annoying, hasty, passionate. This Washington has not yet learned to cultivate his image or contain his emotions. Here, instead, is a raw young man struggling toward maturity and in love with a close friend’s wife. This is the Washington of emotional neediness, personal ambition, and mistakes – many mistakes.”

Stark writes that the experience in the wilderness of North America helped “mold Washington as he underwent the transition from adolescence to adulthood and moved from self-centered youth to empathetic adult, from ambitious individual to selfless leader.”

Washington did not come from one of the leading families in Virginia. “The Washingtons had occupied a spot on the second tier of society for generations, first in England and then in Virginia,” Stark writes. But Washington was ambitious. Stark writes that “he wished to propel himself into the upper aristocracy, to acquire a good name and reputation. . . . The military offered Washington one clear avenue to rank and social standing. Large tracts of land and military promotion – these could provide the status and wealth he sought. Both were his to find in the vast wilderness of the Ohio.”

Young Washington threatened to resign from military service many times because of some problem or perceived slight. He frequently complained about inequities between the colonial and the British troops, including matters affecting his own rank.

In his first taste of combat, when he was in his early twenties, he lost control of a skirmish with the French. His Indian allies scalped wounded Frenchmen, and the Indian leader mutilated the body of the dead French leader. Stark writes that the incident helped touch off worldwide conflict between the English and French, including the French and Indian War: “The eighteenth-century British commentator Horace Walpole would famously remark: ‘The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.’”

Stark also writes: “If the young Washington was all about rapid, even heedless, advancement, it’s not surprising that the Washington of later years would be known for his deliberation, planning and caution. ‘Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence,’ Thomas Jefferson would write of the Washington of many years later, ‘never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed.’”

In 1754, when Washington was twenty-two, he and a British officer were forced to surrender Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania to the besieging French and Indians. The British and colonists were allowed to leave under terms of the capitulation. “Washington had suffered his first, humiliating defeat,” Stark writes. Stark adds that Indian allies had deserted because they were “disgusted with Washington’s inexperience, his arrogance, and his lack of preparedness.”

Stark later writes of Washington’s reaction to an apparent demotion: “He quit. It was already becoming a pattern with young Washington. He perceived a threat to his honor or pride or what he would later call his ‘reputation,’ so he quit, or threatened to, as if to say that a gentleman should not suffer such insults.”

During a disastrous expedition led by British Major General Edward Braddock in 1755, during the French and Indian War, Washington first drew praise for his bravery. After the climactic battle, he discovered that four musket balls had pierced his clothing without grazing his flesh – which he took as a sign that God was protecting him, a belief that would stay with him through the years.

He learned lessons from Indian raids on the frontier. Stark writes: “While supremely frustrated by the raiding Indians, Washington would learn much from them – about patience, about waiting for opportunities, about avoiding major battles  if possible – that would come to fruition in the distant future when he served as commander in chief of a far larger body of troops.”

Stark notes that Indian raids on the frontier in 1756 gave Washington an opportunity to show a different quality than pride or arrogance:   “For the first time and in language stronger than any he had used before, Washington displayed a deep empathy for the sufferings of the common people. In these moments of crisis, surrounded by pleading frontier families, young Washington began to move beyond his self-absorption and obsession with rank and reputation. In his empathy for the people’s suffering, he made a first step toward the selflessness and sacrifice for which he would one day become legendary.”

In 1758, figuring his work was done, Washington resigned his Virginia officer’s commission. Stark writes: “Whatever his shortcomings, Washington had earned the deep respect of many of his officers. In a letter they signed on New Year’s Eve, 1758, twenty-seven officers asked him to stay on another year. Praising his ‘impartial justice’ and ‘regard to merit,’ they wrote that Colonel Washington had set an inspiring example of ‘true honor and passion for glory. . . . In you we place the most implicit confidence. Your presence only will cause a steady firmness and vigor to actuate every breast, despising the greatest dangers and thinking light of toils and hardships, while led on by the man we know and love.’”

Stark says that Washington grew beyond pure self-interest: “Very quickly, he found himself burdened with the responsibility of caring for others.” Stark adds in the final paragraph of the epilogue:  “It was not only about him. At some point, or gradually over the years and challenges that he faced with varying degrees of success or failure, he came to realize that he could acquire far more honor and reputation through his selfless acts – his acts for the common good – than he could through the single-minded pursuit of self-interest. From his earliest years in the Ohio wilderness during his twenties, he seemed conscious of living on a historical stage with meticulously chosen dress to match. If he was initially playing the role, consciously shaping his image and his actions – wilderness messenger, warrior, planter, burgess – he became very good at it. Finally, he became that person, that selfless leader, the one that is remembered as George Washington.”