Published in 1967, First in Their Hearts
is a biography of America’s first president, George Washington. Author Thomas James Fleming, a historian with a keen interest in the American Revolutionary period, has written more than forty nonfiction and historical fiction titles. In First in Their Hearts
, Fleming utilizes correspondence and journals from Washington’s friends, family, and contemporaries, as well as Washington’s own letters, to reveal a true picture of the legendary president. First in Their Hearts
is illustrated with photographs and engravings.
George Washington was born in 1732, the third son of Augustine Washington, an educated Virginia landowner. Two of Washington’s older half-brothers went to school in England, but George Washington, the first son of Augustine’s second wife, did not have that opportunity. Washington was 11 years old when his father died. He became a “poor relation,” as his oldest half-brother, Lawrence, inherited the bulk of their father’s estate. George Washington went to live with his domineering mother, Mary Ball, and his younger siblings.
Washington idolized his soldier brother Lawrence, who renamed their father’s estate Mount Vernon to honor his old military commander. Washington visited Lawrence often, and the two planned ways to get Washington away from Mary Ball. Washington showed mathematical talent, and at the age of 15, began earning money as a surveyor in the Ohio River Valley. Lawrence married Anne Fairfax, the daughter of the wealthy, British-born William Fairfax. George spent a great deal of time with Lawrence and the aristocratic Fairfax family at their plantation, Belvoir. In their company, George was exposed to the niceties of society and to the Fairfaxes' Roman belief in liberty. Fleming writes that George learned “these men saw life in terms of duty and honor, both personal and public. No duty was higher, no honor more glorious, than service to one’s country.”
Despite being a strapping six feet two and a half inches tall, Washington was unsuccessful with romance: He lacked the money and education to impress society ladies. In 1752, Lawrence died of tuberculosis, leaving Washington the Mount Vernon property. Washington also received Lawrence’s position as a militia major for the Virginia Colony. At the age of 21, Washington volunteered to be an emissary between Governor Robert Dinwiddie and the French forces occupying lands claimed by Virginia. Soon after, Washington made lieutenant colonel and led troops to attack and defeat a French patrol. Washington later faced his own bitter defeat at Fort Necessity. Fleming notes that at this early age, Washington “managed to thrust himself, at twenty-one, onto the center of the world stage.” Washington inspired loyalty in those he met, including several Indian chiefs. Washington was adopted into the Seneca tribe and given the name Conotocarious
, or “Devourer of Villages.” Fleming observes that this nickname was apt: Washington had a quick temper and did not handle criticism well.
Washington fell in love with his best friend’s wife, Sally Fairfax, but never acted on his feelings. He returned to soldiering, becoming the aide-de-camp of British General Edward Braddock. Fleming notes that Washington “was arriving at the first faint realization that he was not English but American.” Although Braddock was killed during the 1755 battle to capture the French Fort Duquesne, Washington went on to become a full colonel and commander, raising troops to protect settlers in the Virginia Colony from attacks by Indian war parties.
At the age of 29, Washington married the wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Curtis. Washington valued their deep friendship above romance. From 1759 through 1775, Washington oversaw Mount Vernon and Martha’s extensive estates, proving himself, Fleming writes, “one of the best businessmen and most original farmers in America.” Washington became a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, along with Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.
Fleming details several of Washington’s favorite pastimes: theater, dance, lotteries, foxhunting, friendly betting, and toasting and sharing wine with his friends. Washington commented, “I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me than to be attended at the seat of government by the officers of state and the representatives of every power in Europe.” Washington was a generous man, often loaning money to friends and family and donating to charity. He also loved children. Fleming finds receipts in Washington’s papers detailing the toys and books he purchased for his stepchildren and grandchildren.
In 1774, Washington represented the Virginia Colony in the First Continental Congress and was reelected for the Second Continental Congress. John Adams nominated Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in 1775. Washington worried that he was not skilled enough for the post but vowed to do his best. Initially, Washington had a low opinion of the soldiers and officers he commanded, thinking them undisciplined and cowardly. Washington soon realized he needed to unify his troops and the country. Throughout the Revolutionary War, Washington led by example, often putting himself in the line of fire. Fleming notes that at times Washington’s recklessness exposed him to great danger. Washington resigned his commission as Commander in Chief at the end of the War in 1783.
Washington became president of the Constitutional Convention and in 1789, unanimously elected as the first President of the United States. He accepted the post, even though the idea “cast a kind of gloom” upon his mind. Washington made his federal appointments thoughtfully, making sure to have geographic representation so “no state could complain of favoritism.” Fleming writes that Washington “was keenly aware that in the power and prestige of the Presidency lay America’s best hope of unity.” Washington served a second presidential term beginning in 1793. During his years as President, Washington faced many challenges, including criticism of his stance of neutrality during the war between Britain and France.
Fleming concludes that history is also written “in the hearts of the people,” and that on the day Washington left office and returned to his farm at Mount Vernon, the common man lost his “greatest friend.”