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George Washington

George Washington

George Washington: Colonial Revolutionary

But Washington didn't just adopt the Virginia gentry's lifestyle; he also accepted its ideology. Many in Virginia had what has come to be called a "colonial Whig" mentality. Essentially, such colonists believed that the British Empire had become corrupted, that its core was rotten. While it might once have been a boon to the world, now it pursued a politics that benefitted a small group of British elites at the expense of everyone else. The British Crown, they argued, was hostile to freedom and was undermining the great British historical tradition of "rights." It was an empire in moral decline, which needed either to be reformed or to cede its place to a new champion of freedom. These ideas were first developed by political theorists in Britain who belonged the "Country Party," then spread like wildfire among Virginia's planter elite. Washington's friend, the erudite George Mason, exposed him to these new ideas, and he eventually came to share them.6

Of course, Washington was already primed to listen. He had seen Britain's corruption first-hand in the war. As far as Washington was concerned, his personal experience proved that the Brits thought of colonists not as equals to be respected but as inferiors to be exploited. The Crown soon gave him more cause to be suspicious of British intentions. In recognition of his extensive military service, the Virginia assembly had voted Washington huge tracts of "bounty land" in the Ohio Country, but Washington had never managed to get British authorities to recognize his claims. In 1763, King George III issued a proclamation closing the Ohio Country to all Anglo settlers, essentially expropriating Washington's compensation. Furious, Washington suspected a conspiracy to stifle the growth of the colonies for the benefit of British noblemen. His suspicions received additional confirmation when, in 1770, the British parliament approved a plan to allow British gentry to settle prime land along the Mississippi River, after having rejected an almost identical proposal from Washington and his Virginia peers just five years before.

The combination of colonial Whig ideology and personal experience turned Washington into something of a radical. He was convinced that British policies were not serving the colonies well. The Empire was showing its true colors as an enemy of liberty and equality. By the 1770s, Washington's anger and frustration had turned into outright opposition. British policies needed to be opposed, their regulations refused. Washington allied himself with the radicals in the Virginia House of Burgesses, taking strong stands against the Crown. As a former military man, he realized that those stands could mean war. But if war came, so be it. At stake was Washington's own livelihood, and the future of North America—maybe even the future of freedom itself.

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