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 on Jan. 14 at the George Washington Leadership Lecture series.
The discussion, held at Town & Gown and moderated by USC Price School of Public Policy Professor David Sloane, marked the first Los Angeles event of the series, a partnership between USC Price 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.
Through the lecture series, USC Price aims to promote 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.
Washington is most remembered for being the first U.S. president, a founding father of the Constitution and as the commanding officer who led the colonies to independence in the Revolutionary War. Yet his impact on the country goes far beyond that, and he contributed greatly to shaping the fields in which USC Price conducts research and in which its students pursue careers.
“Washington was a surveyor, a military leader, a city planner who helped plan Washington, D.C., and a real-estate developer in the Western state of Ohio, the colonial period’s version of California,” said USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott. “He envisioned the Potomac River as the main transportation route between east and west, and he instituted innovations in health care by disease prevention for the military, and wound care and nutrition at Valley Forge, just to give a few examples of his innovative approaches across a variety of fields from transportation to real estate to health care to public policy and leadership.”
Douglas Bradburn, founding director of the Smith National Library, talked about his hopes that the partnership would inspire new generations of leaders to look at the lessons and continuities of the past as they try to solve the problems of the future.
“The Sol Price School wants to make the world a better place,” Bradburn said. “It wants to actively be engaged in making things easier for people, and that’s exactly the story of George Washington. His vision was to leave the world a better place than he found it.”
Washington’s formative years
Starr, the California State Librarian Emeritus and professor of history at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, 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.
Although he wasn’t 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 United States 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.”