Any attempt to outline what differentiates our greatest presidents from the rest must, therefore, begin with an examination of the character of the man who shaped the American Republic’s expectations and hopes for the presidency. If you, like me, came out of high school with a picture of Washington as a genteel colonial aristocrat whose selection as commander of the Continental Army and, subsequently, as the first President, was a natural progression in a life of privilege, then you are mistaken. On the contrary, there was no easy path to success for young Washington. His father’s death when he was only eleven years old denied him any formal education beyond about the eighth-grade level and left his future uncertain. By his own initiative, the future president—ambitious, charismatic and a bit of a rogue in his younger years—carved his place in society as an adventurer, a warrior and a ladies’ man.
A Young Man Finds His Way 
Washington’s father left most of his “modest property” to his two oldest sons, who were George’s half-brothers. One of these men, Lawrence, fourteen years older than George, became a substitute father of sorts, at least for a few years. Lawrence’s share of the inheritance included the property that would later be named Mount Vernon, and George lived here with his mother and four younger siblings after his father’s death.
The move to Mount Vernon brought young George into contact with the prominent Fairfax family, whose American headquarters was just a few miles away at Belvoir. William Fairfax, a minor relative of Lord Fairfax, served as the American agent of the powerful British Lord. Coincidentally, Lawrence Washington married one of William’s daughters. William’s son, George Fairfax, and George Washington became friends. It was this Fairfax connection that enabled sixteen-year-old George Washington to participate in his first wilderness adventure, surveying Fairfax lands across the Blue Ridge in the Shenandoah Valley. In love with the wilderness and in need of a way to earn a living, George set himself up as a surveyor across the Blue Ridge the very next year. In a short time, he was able to begin speculating in land on the frontier. But just as this part of his life was gaining momentum, his half-brother became ill. George accompanied Lawrence to Barbados to help care for him, but the disease did not abate. The two returned to Mount Vernon, where Lawrence died in 1752.
Lawrence had been a natural role model for George even before the death of their father. When George was just nine, Lawrence had secured an officer’s commission in an American regiment that participated in an ill-fated expedition with British regular forces against the strategic Spanish outpost at Cartagena. The excitement of his older half-brother’s military adventure undoubtedly inspired George to pursue military appointments to further his own career when he came of age. His half-brother’s marriage help George secure the patronage of the powerful Fairfax family. In 1752, a 20-year-old George Washington sought and attained his deceased brother’s post as the Adjutant General of the Virginia militia. Thus, Major Washington had his first military post without any experience in the responsibilities that post entailed.
Military Misadventures, Legendary Courage and A Reputation Secured 
As fate would have it, Washington’s military education would be through the hard school of experience. Britain and France were engaged in a global competition that was about to erupt into full-scale war, and the Ohio Valley—the wilderness beyond the Virginia frontier—was one of the regions where the two powers were to clash. Between 1753 and 1759, Washington commanded several expeditions into the contested territory and served as an advisor to the British Regular Army on others. Raised to the rank of Colonel and Commander in Chief of all Virginia militia, he sought to defend the Virginia frontier against raids by tribes allied with the French. Through a series of failures, Washington earned for himself a hero’s reputation for his courage and skill as a frontiersman. He also earned praise for his attempt to get the British regulars to adopt tactics more suitable to the wilderness, and his energetic efforts to protect the Virginia frontier with insufficient resources.
In late 1753, the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia sent Washington with a small band on a dangerous and sensitive mission. Washington was to travel into the Ohio Valley to find and warn the French that they were trespassing on land claimed by the English crown. The mission required moving nearly 500 miles through unbroken wilderness that was home to a formidable array of native tribes. The journey would have been hazardous in good weather, but the party had to fight through snow both ways. Washington found the French, but they were in significant strength and well on with plans to increase their presence and fortify the strategic area where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers join to form the Ohio (modern-day Pittsburgh). Waterways were frozen enough to force a return journey through snow and ice. Washington was nearly shot by a turncoat guide, and, later, nearly killed by exposure when a small raft overturned while crossing an icy river. His journal of this adventure was immediately published by the Lieutenant Governor in an unsuccessful effort to raise forces from the Virginia colonists to fortify the Ohio Valley.
The very next year, the same Lieutenant Governor gained the approval of the Virginia legislature for a 300-man force, and Washington, now a lieutenant colonel, became the de facto commander. A small force of about 33 people were sent ahead to fortify “the forks of the Ohio.” Washington followed with 159 more. The advance force was quickly surrounded by a vastly superior force of French and Indians, but the Virginia men were merely escorted a short way back and told to go home. When they encountered Washington, he decided to continue westward to link up with his own Indian allies. Together, the combined force launched a surprise attack on a small party of French, killing several of them. Warned that the French were sending hundreds to avenge this attack, Washington built a fort in an open meadow dominated by wooded heights. His allies abandoned him, warning him that the fort was poorly sited, which indeed it was.
The French took advantage of the wooded heights when they attacked on July 3, 1754. Washington’s men were exposed, and only the inaccuracy of the muskets used by both sides prevented a worse catastrophe than what unfolded. The return fire from the fort was ineffective. It started raining in the afternoon. The trenches around the fort began filling with water, and the powder stored in the magazine was in danger of being spoiled due to a leaky roof. By nightfall, over 100 of Washington’s men were either killed or wounded. The French, however, offered a cease fire. In exchange for a surrender document signed by Washington, they agreed to let the garrison withdraw to Virginia. The whole affair was a disaster by British standards: the Frenchmen Washington’s force had killed in their surprise attack included a diplomat on a mission to warn the British away from land claimed by the French. On top of this, Washington’s signed surrender was an embarrassment. To Virginians, however, Washington emerged in a heroic light, having won one victory and then led a courageous defense against a superior force. Washington expected his troops to be absorbed into the regular British Army, and to receive a regular commission himself. When this did not happen, he resigned.
The next spring saw two regiments of British regulars, under the command of Major General Edward Braddock, arrive in Virginia with the mission of capturing the now-finished French fort—Fort Duquesne—at the forks of the Ohio River. Advised that no one was more knowledgeable about the wilderness between Virginia and the Ohio Valley than George Washington, the general took Washington on as a volunteer advisor. But Braddock refused to listen when Washington tried to persuade him that European tactics would not work in the wilderness against the French and their Indian allies.
The British force was ambushed about ten miles from Fort Duquesne, suffering horrendous casualties. Washington’s horse was shot with him on it. Bullets tore his clothes. But he was not wounded—all the other mounted officers were either wounded or killed. Washington led the evacuation of the wounded, which included Major General Braddock. Braddock ordered him to ride for reinforcements, which he did. Braddock died of his wounds. The British Army withdrew to Philadelphia. Once again, Washington was looked on as a hero by Virginians, and he gained a favorable reputation amongst Americans in other colonies as well. The surviving British officers praised his courage. But the British military establishment blamed Washington for Braddock’s defeat. The British abandoned the defense of the Virginia frontier, leaving Washington and his militia to try and fend off incessant raids by tribes armed and encouraged by the French.
For the next two years, Washington served as “Colonel of the Virginia Regiment and Commander in Chief of all Virginia forces,” engaged in the impossible task of defending the isolated homesteads of the Shenandoah Valley with resources—funds, troops, wagons, horses and supplies—totally insufficient for the task at hand. He attempted to garrison the valley with a series of small forts that were only one day’s distance from one another. With full responsibility for all appointments of officers and matters of supply, Washington—already legendary for his exploits in battle—earned praise for tireless and skillful administration of his small force. He was largely unsuccessful at defending the settlers in the valley, yet they respected his efforts enough to elect him as their representative to the Virginia Assembly.
By 1758, the strategic situation had tipped in favor of the British. Formal declaration of war between France and Britain in 1756 allowed the British Navy to block French supplies from reaching the French in Canada and their allies in the Ohio Valley. Washington was unaware of this development, which finally created conditions favorable for the British to capture Fort Duquesne. Perpetually involved in bureaucratic wrangling with both his civilian leaders in Virginia and the British authorities, George Washington’s experience in the wilderness nevertheless made him valuable to both. Thus, when the new British commander, Brigadier General John Forbes, launched an expedition from Philadelphia northward, Washington was given command of the advanced brigade. When British forces reached the forks of the Ohio River in late November, they found the French had abandoned and burned their fortifications. Moreover, the tribes that had supported the French cause by raiding the Virginia frontier now made peace with the British. With the Virginia frontier secure, a 26-year-old George Washington resigned from his military position and returned to Mount Vernon.
Throughout this period, surviving correspondence paints a picture of young Washington as a ladies’ man. From flirtatious letters exchanged with women around Mount Vernon to notes from his fellow officers commenting on exploits in frontier saloons, Washington’s love of dancing, drinking, and romance is clear. Biographer James Thomas Flexner writes that “Washington was in love with love.” He notes that one romance held a special place in Washington’s heart even when he was much older. Ironically, the object of this long-lived affection was the wife of his close friend, George Fairfax. It is not clear whether there was more to their relationship than flirtatious correspondence. Whatever their relationship, it never interfered with Washington’s friendship with Fairfax. Indeed, that Fairfax connection was important in the social advancement of young George Washington. 
By 1759, despite his young age, Washington was widely known throughout the colonies for his prominent role in the defense of the Virginia frontier. There are reports that Benjamin Franklin praised some of his exploits. Although criticized by some for his drinking, gambling and romantic exploits, Washington was also known for his courage, administrative skill, and leadership ability. His survival during many close brushes with death lent him a mystique of invulnerability. The officers who served under his command were intensely loyal to him. Upon his resignation, the Virginia legislature passed a resolution praising his service.
 * the first attempt at a federal government for the victorious states after the American Revolutionary War
 This section is a summary of information found in Flexner, James Thomas; Washington, The Indispensable Man; Back Bay Books; New York, NY; 1969; pp. 3-9.
 ibid., pp. 9-38.
 ibid, pp. 7-22.