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Washington: ‘First in the Hearts of His Countrymen’

Celebrating George’s Birthday

George Washington Birthday Parade and Weekend Festivities will be held Feb. 16-18. Largest parade in the country celebrating the 281st anniversary of the birth of the nation’s first president takes place on Washington’s Birthday holiday, Monday, Feb. 18, 1 to 3 p.m. in Old Town Alexandria. Part of a weekend of events includes the Birthnight Banquet & Ball and a Madeira Wine Tasting at Gadsby’s Tavern, a 10-K race, a 1-mile race just before the parade, plus free open houses at historic attractions on parade day. Related stories, page 22.

— George Washington, “The Father of our Country,” actively promoted prosperity, political and economic freedom for Alexandrians. In so doing, he sowed the seeds that grew to fruition in the winning of the country’s independence from Great Britain and establishing the Constitution.

George Washington chose to live in Alexandria when he was 11 years old and came to visit his older stepbrother Lawrence at Mount Vernon. With his mother’s permission, he came here because it offered better opportunities than those in Fredericksburg. He and the city grew together, increasing in wealth and fame.

As a youth of 17, Washington helped survey the new town in 1749, a year after it was established as a trading town on the Potomac. A few years later, as a soldier, he recruited and drilled his troops in Market Square before the French and Indian War. He and the Virginia militia joined British Gen. Edward Braddock, who had made the Carlyle House his headquarters, in the campaign to drive the French out of the Ohio Valley. He learned how the British Army operated and gained war hero status during the ambush by the enemy when he led the retreat after Braddock’s death; those who returned attributed their survival to his leadership.

MARKET SQUARE was also the site of Arell’s Tavern, where the Fairfax Resolves were debated and adopted. Spurred on by George Mason, realizing the similar threat to the port of Alexandria when the British closed the port of Boston after the Tea Party, Washington presided at the July 18, 1774, meeting in which participants voted to refuse to import most goods from England and to prepare for the “defense and preservation of our Common rights.” Then these resolves were read to all assembled in Market Square. This document, which reworked Mason’s Prince William Resolves, was the basis for Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was the basis for our Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Washington presided at the Constitutional Convention and was our first President in the republic which it established.

Washington also drilled the militia on Market Square again in 1775 before he left for Philadelphia, where he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the land and naval forces in the American Revolutionary War. In 1799 he held the last review of his Revolutionary War troops from the steps of Wise’s Tavern; the building still stands at Cameron and Fairfax streets.

This man of vision founded the Potomac Canal Company and initiated plans for a canal which would extend to the Ohio territory and thereby open up the interior of the country (where he owned land) to trade. Those products would be sold in Alexandria and thereby help to make the city great and prosperous. (A lock is visible near Canal Square.)

Washington was appointed a town trustee. Believing in the necessity of education for youth, in his will he endowed the free school (Alexandria Academy, whose building is on S. Washington Street) with his 25 shares valued at $200 each in the Bank of Alexandria, in which he was a depositor as well as a shareholder. That money was to fund educations for needy boys — and girls, who generally were not formally educated in those days. He gave a fire engine to the city, and sold produce from Mt. Vernon at Market Square. He bought the largest pew and worshipped at Christ Church, was present at the organizational meeting and contributed to the building fund of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, which was built in 1795 and was the first permanent Catholic Church in Virginia. He was the first grand master of the Masonic Lodge, was a justice of the peace and voted at the courthouse on Market Square.

WASHINGTON OWNED properties in Alexandria, including his townhouse at 508 Cameron St., the only house he built for his use alone, but he rented and generously loaned it to family members and friends when he was not in the area. He slept here too at the town house and at the homes of friends like John Dalton, a business partner of John Carlyle.

Washington conducted business here, shopped (bought medicines at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop), dined and celebrated (birthnight banquets and balls, receptions when he returned from Annapolis after resigning his commission as Commander-in-Chief, left for New York to assume the Presidency, and returned home at the end of his public service) with friends at Gadsby’s Tavern, Wise’s, DuVall’s and other taverns.

When Washington hosted the Mount Vernon Conference in 1785, his hope that Virginia and Maryland would settle their differences about fishing and navigational rights on the Potomac was realized. (He had a personal stake in the outcome because much of his wealth came from the shad that he shipped all over the world.) That agreement is in force today. Inspired by the success of that meeting, the delegates called for another meeting the following year to discuss more issues among the colonies. That successful meeting at Annapolis led to another in Philadelphia in 1787 at which the Constitution was adopted.

Washington gave this area additional prominence and expected additional commercial opportunities when he included it as part of the original District of Columbia in his second proclamation as President, issued in 1791. Therefore, people throughout the nation heard of Jones Point where the first mile marker was put. (Others, a mile apart, are on Russell Road just north of the intersection with King Street, and King Street in the middle of the parking lot of First Baptist Church and just before the exit to I-395.)

As Washington hoped, in the decade from 1800-1810, Alexandria’s population increased 50 percent. His efforts to contribute to the future success of his hometown were successful even after his death in 1799, and he set the standards high for future legislators and presidents. He was truly as his great friend and admirer “Light-Horse” Harry Lee noted: “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” including his many friends in Alexandria.