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French and Indian War: "The Night Council at Fort Necessity." Ilustration (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

The First “Teflon” Hero

What July 4th, 1754 reveals about George Washington’s survival skills

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A second, more political factor bolstered Washington after his inglorious July 4th debacle. Instead of being upbraided and sacked, he was praised by the Virginia legislature for his courage in the face of the "depraved" French and their "savage" Indian allies. Washington benefited from some 18th-century "spin" as the British turned the Fort Necessity fiasco into a propaganda coup to rally opinion against the enemy.

Just as intriguing as this public reversal of Washington's failures is how they escaped inclusion in your schoolbooks. Maybe it is this simple: his "youthful indiscretions" never fit the tidy "I-cannot-tell-a-lie" image of young Washington that many Americans still cherish. As historian Andrew Burstein once wrote, "We gauge our prospects as a people by locating a past from which we can draw hope and pride." Many Americans still cling to the mythic version of history with heroes as perfectly polished as the marble monuments in the nation's capitol.

Yet the tale of "Washington's Confession" is not simply revisionism meant to tarnish an icon. Washington emerged as the "indispensable man" who saw combat at its worst, learned well the politics of war, and was surely shaped by these disastrous misadventures. The measured, and generally indomitable, spirit he later demonstrated, as commander facing daunting odds and then as President, was molded by what has been called his "forge of experience."

Perhaps, then, Washington's confession is just one piece of America's "hidden history," a reminder that winners tell the tales. And Washington was a winner. Even though ­as he surely knew—it is often the defeats and disasters that can teach us the most.

Adapted from America's Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation, by Kenneth C. Davis. Copyright© 2008 by Kenneth C. Davis. By permission of Smithsonian Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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