Commander in chief of the continental army, president of the constitutional convention, first president of the united states
“The Father of His Country.” George Washington’s image as “The Father of His Country,” who guided the birth and development of the American republic in war and peace, is more than a cliché. He did possess several qualities of the ideal patriarch—courage, strength, honesty, and decisive judgment tempered by patience and the ability to restrain and conciliate opposing views—which made him a skillful leader and conferred legitimacy on the offices he assumed.
Youth. George Washington, the first child of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington, was born on 22 February 1732 near Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His father’s death in 1743 ended Washington’s chance to be educated in England like his older half brothers, but other opportunities arose in his teens when he began living mostly at Mount Vernon, the elegant home of his half brother Lawrence. Through Lawrence’s marriage into the influential Fairfax family Washington met important people such as Thomas Lord Fairfax, one of the colony’s largest landowners, and acquired the social skills of a Virginia gentleman. Fairfax hired the sixteen-year-old Washington to join a surveying party laying out his property in the Shenandoah Valley. By the age of eighteen Washington was a successful surveyor who was able to purchase almost fifteen hundred acres of land in the lower Shenandoah Valley.
Early Military Career. In 1752 Lawrence Washington died, and George applied for his brother’s commission as a militia officer. Lt. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie’s decision to oust the French from the Ohio River Valley in order to protect the interests of the Virginia-based Ohio Company and Washington’s execution of the orders set off the French and Indian War, which soon widened into the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France. On 27 May 1754 Washington surprised a French reconnaissance party at Laurel Mountain, killing ten and taking twenty prisoners, but on 3 July a much larger French force from Fort Duquesne surrounded Washington at his recently completed Fort Necessity. He was forced to surrender but allowed to return to Virginia. Washington resigned his commission but sought military glory in 1755 as a volunteer on Gen. Edward Braddock’s expedition against Fort Duquesne. On 9 July 1755 a French and Indian force ambushed Braddock’s army of regular and provincial troops. Braddock decided to maintain his troops in an orderly parade-ground formation instead of accepting Washington’s offer to lead the provincial troops into the woods “and engage the enemy in their own way.” The British suffered over nine hundred casualties, including Braddock. News of Washington’s spurned advice to Braddock and his courageous performance under fire made him a hero in the colonies. In August 1755 the twenty-three-year-old Washington was appointed colonel and commander in chief of Virginia’s militia, responsible for defending a 350-mile frontier with only a few hundred men. His experiences with inadequate supplies, undisciplined militia, and lack of co-operation from civilian officials prepared him for his position as commander in chief of the Continental Army.
The American Revolution. Between 1759 and 1774 Washington established his position as a respected leader in Virginia society. His January 1759 marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow with two children, substantially raised his economic and social status. The death of Lawrence Washington’s widow and child in 1760 made him the owner of Mount Vernon. In order to free himself from an economic system that left Virginia tobacco planters heavily in debt to British merchants Washington diversified by planting wheat and corn, building a commercial mill, and hiring out his artisans to other plantations. He also increased his real estate holdings near Mount Vernon and speculated in western lands. His service as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses for most of this period further enhanced his status in the community and gave him firsthand experience with colonial self-government. When Parliament imposed taxes and legislation to pay off the debt from the Seven Years’ War and tighten colonial control, Washington participated in Virginia’s resistance. In 1774 and 1775 the Virginia legislature chose him as a delegate to the Continental Congress. Washington lacked the formal education to cite scholarly works on political philosophy to support his opposition to British rule. Instead, he had extensive experience, as a provincial military officer, planter, and colonial legislator, with British arrogance and a colonial system of economic and political subjugation. Those experiences led Washington to conclude that British colonial policies were “repugnant to every principle of natural justice” and “an unexampled testimony of the most despotic system of tyranny that was ever practiced in a free government.”
Continental Army. On 15 June 1775 the Continental Congress unanimously chose Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Army. John and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, the key figures in Washington’s selection, recognized that appointing a prominent southern military figure to lead what was thus far largely a New England army would unite the colonies. Washington’s decision to refuse a salary reinforced his patriotic image and sent an inspirational message to his fellow citizens that private sacrifices were necessary to defend the common cause of liberty. Washington’s vastly outnumbered army dictated a military strategy of surprise attacks, skillful retreats, and avoidance of direct confrontation. The states’ fear of a permanent army forced Washington to rely on a small Continental Army and undisciplined, short-term state militia regiments. He was, in many ways, the chief executive of the Confederation government, endlessly pressing Congress and the states for men and supplies. In the fall of 1777 Washington’s critics in the army and Congress, led by Brig. Gen. Thomas Conway, plotted to replace Washington with a new hero. Gen. Horatio Gates had won a stunning victory at Saratoga, resulting in the surrender of Gen. John Burgoyne and five thousand troops and a valuable French-American alliance, while Washington suffered the British capture of Philadelphia and defeats at Brandywine and Germantown, Pennsylvania. The “Conway Cabal” quickly collapsed after Washington publicly revealed it. After the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, Washington had one final contribution as commander in chief. In March 1783 a group of Continental Army officers in Newburgh, New York, threatened to use force to obtain their back pay and pensions from Congress. Washington made it clear that he would not support the use of military force to achieve political ends, but he defended their cause to Congress and the states.
Constitutional Convention. In June 1783 Washington, approaching retirement, sent a circular letter to the states. He hoped to “demonstrate to every mind open to conviction” that “the distresses and disappointments” of the long war “resulted from a want of energy in the Continental government” and to convince the states to strengthen the federal government. Two developments in Washington’s retirement contributed to his active involvement in the creation of a stronger federal government. One of Washington’s chief interests was the development of a canal system linking Virginia with the West. Such a system of inland navigation required the cooperation first of Virginia and Maryland, which shared rights to the Potomac River, and eventually other states. What began in 1785 as a suggestion that Virginia and Maryland should meet annually to discuss mutual commercial concerns widened into a call for all the states to meet at the Annapolis Convention in September 1786. That, in turn, led to the Constitutional Convention. The second incident was Shays’s Rebellion in 1786 and 1787, which convinced Washington that the country was “fast verging to anarchy and confusion!” As president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Washington took no part in debates, but he voted in favor of strengthening the federal government and executive authority. When delegates met in various social settings, Washington was there using his influence to gather support for a stronger federal government and harmonize opposing opinions. Most important, the generally accepted view that Washington would be the first chief executive was a decisive factor as the delegates framed the powers of the presidency.
The First President. Washington’s beliefs in separation of powers and political independence shaped his conception of the presidency. Between 1789 and 1797 he did not participate in the passage of legislation or use the presidential veto to protect policies he favored, and he did not support partisan interests. Instead, he served as an impartial administrator of the nation’s laws. He did, however, exert his constitutional authority in foreign policy. The political conflict between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson over domestic and foreign policy spoiled Washington’s hopes for a nonpartisan, harmonious administration. He supported Hamilton’s policies on the national debt and the National Bank once he was convinced of its constitutionality, not as a Federalist but because he thought they would strengthen the nation’s finances. Washington was not initially alarmed about Jefferson’s opposition to Hamilton’s policies. He liked to make decisions based on hearing a wide range of opinions, and he also prided himself on his ability to conciliate opponents. He reluctantly accepted a second term in 1793 in the interest of national unity, but as party divisions deepened over foreign policy, Washington could neither reconcile Hamilton and Jefferson nor retain his nonpartisan stance. His decisions in 1794 to march at the head of troops with the arch-Federalist Alexander Hamilton at his side to crush the Whiskey Rebellion and to link the uprising to the “self-created” Democratic Societies were based on his fear that insurrections would destroy republican government. He also believed that the Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793 and the Jay Treaty in 1795 were nonpartisan policies to preserve American neutrality and prevent war with Britain. Republicans, however, cited those policies as proof that Washington was a Federalist “monocrat” out to destroy liberty. When a weary Washington retired to Mount Vernon in 1797, the country was thriving economically, France was angry over the Jay Treaty, and party divisions seemed permanent.
Final Years. Washington became decidedly partisan in his retirement. During the French crisis of 1798 and 1799 he expected Republicans to be willing partners in a French invasion of the United States. His most overt political acts were his acceptance of the command of the Federalist-created enlarged army and his insistence that Alexander Hamilton be named second in command. However, when Federalists pleaded with Washington to protest President John Adams’s peace mission to France publicly, Washington refused. He died on 14 December 1799 from a severe throat infection. Washington had served his country well in both war and peace by defending liberty and setting important precedents for the establishment of republican government. He had one final legacy: Washington never reconciled the existence of liberty and slavery as so many of his contemporaries did. In his will he provided that his slaves be freed after his wife’s death, that his heirs take care of elderly or sick slaves, and that slave children be taught to read and write and learn a “useful occupation” before being freed at the age of twenty-five.
Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington: Man and Monument (Boston: Little, Brown, 1958);
James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man, revised edition (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974).
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