George Washington had a lifelong relationship with the Western frontier that would be a continuing preoccupation throughout his adult life, said University Professor Kevin Starr at the recent George Washington Leadership Lecture series.
Starr, the California State Librarian Emeritus and professor of history at USC Dornsife, explained how Washington’s formative years led to a sense of Western destiny for America to expand to the unexplored territories. At age 16, when most of his contemporaries were attending college, Washington joined family friend Lord Fairfax on a surveying expedition of the Fairfax lands in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where he encountered the frontier environment in which he would soon be making his military reputation.
“As young George Washington encountered it, surveyorship involved an intellectual and imaginative, as well as professional, relationship to the frontier at a time when the Western boundaries of the English-speaking North American colonies extended to an indefinite West,” Starr said. The extent of the North American continent remained unknown until the Louis and Clark expedition of 1804-06.
Washington often found himself on the far Western frontier. Appointed to the Virginia militia in 1752, he went into the disputed Ohio region and ordered the first shots inaugurating the French and Indian War. A year later, he volunteered to fight under British Gen. Edward Braddock in an attempt to expel the French from the Ohio Country. After Braddock was killed, Washington rallied the remnants of the British and Virginian forces to an organized retreat. He was rewarded with the rank of Colonel of the Virginia Regiment, gaining valuable military, political and leadership skills in the west.
Despite not being part of the Confederation Congress that created them, Washington was a force in American life and influential over the decisions to pass The Land Ordinance of 1785 and Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which set up the U.S. for future treaties and purchases to expand the nation. He had a vision for the country to extend its boundaries westward.
“Although he was not president of a not-yet established Republic of the United States,” Starr noted, “these two land acts represented Washington’s values regarding the importance of Western territories — that these lands would be made available over time to the people of the United States.”
The Jan. 14 discussion, held at Town and Gown, marked the first Los Angeles event of the series, a partnership between USC Price School of Public Policy and the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. The partnership was established through a gift from Maribeth Borthwick ’73, vice regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, and her husband, William, who were in attendance.
The lecture series promotes a better understanding of Washington’s legacy and the enduring and universal importance of his ideas, values and actions. The first lecture took place last October in Virginia at the newly constructed library on Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.