(b. February 22, 1732; d. December 14, 1799) Revolutionary War general and statesman, first president of the United States (1789–1797).
"First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen" were the words spoken of George Washington when he died. Long before the American Revolution, George Washington was a military hero. Leading a small militia unit and American Indian allies, he ambushed a detachment of Frenchmen thus provoking the French and [American] Indian War. At the age of twenty-two, Washington became commander in chief of the Virginia militia. He served as a special adviser to General Edward Braddock in the ill-fated campaign that ended in disaster near the Monongahela River in 1755. Washington escaped unscathed from this battle and courageously led the badly defeated troops to safety. His experiences in the war were invaluable and his exploits became legendary.
After unsuccessfully applying for a commission in the British army, Washington retired to private life and after 1763 became active in the colonial opposition to Britain's new imperial policy. As a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Washington gained recognition for an eloquent speech in which he denounced the Intolerable Acts and vowed that if the British attacked Boston, he would march to their relief at the head of a thousand men at his own expense.
Elected to the Second Continental Congress by Virginia, Washington alone arrived in Philadelphia wearing a military uniform. On June 15, 1775, the Continental Congress elected him commander in chief of the colonial forces.
On his way to take command of the New England army bottling up the British forces in Boston, Washington was feted by the New York Provincial Congress. Remembering Oliver Cromwell's perfidy in ruling Commonwealth England with his army, a New Yorker asked Washington if he and his officers would promise to surrender their commissions at the end of hostilities. Washington responded that when he and his officers put on their military uniforms, they never ceased to be citizens. They were citizens first and soldiers second. They surely would surrender their commissions.
Washington served as commander in chief for the entire Revolutionary War. His achievements were remarkable. He kept a citizen's army in the field for over eight years even though it was outnumbered by the enemy, ill-provisioned, and unpaid by Congress. He withstood intrigues against him by fellow officers and Congressmen, periodic mutinies, and ineffective and unreliable state militias. Washington's charismatic leadership kept the army intact despite terrible hardships.
During the last year of the war, Washington defeated a potential military coup (March 1783), and in a June 1783 circular to the states, he announced that he would retire at the end of the war. In this first farewell address, Washington called for continuing the Union, strengthening Congress, replacing the militias with an effective military establishment, and paying the war debt and back pay of the army, the officers' pensions, and benefits for widows and orphans of soldiers. When the British evacuated, Washington fulfilled his promise by surrendering his commission to the [Continental] Confederation Congress in December 1783.
Because of the crisis in American affairs, Washington was called out of retirement and served in the Constitutional Convention from May to September 1787. The confidence that Washington would serve as the first president under the new Constitution led the Convention to give the president significant powers and contributed greatly to the willingness of Americans to ratify the Constitution.
Washington was unanimously elected president in 1789. He depended upon great statesmen for advice—Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state, Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury, and James Madison as the leader of the House of Representatives. As political parties formed over policy disagreements, Washington stood above party. As president, Washington's goals were to persuade the American public to accept the new Constitution and the federal government, to revive American finances and commerce, to keep America out of the maelstrom of European politics and war, to enter into treaties with neighboring American Indian tribes, to remove the British from their old Revolutionary War forts located on American soil near the Great Lakes, and to obtain Spanish permission for Americans to navigate the full length of the Mississippi River. All of these goals were accomplished. Washington's every act as president set precedent as he gave the new government a chance to survive in a dangerous world unfriendly to republican forms of government.
After two terms in office, Washington retired, setting a precedent for future presidents. Years after Washington's death, Jefferson said of him that it was his "singular destiny and merit" to lead "the armies of his country successfully through an arduous war, for the establishment of its independence; of conducting its councils through the birth of a government, new in its forms and principles, until it had settled down into a quiet and orderly train; and of scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example" (Letter to Walter Jones, January 2, 1814).
Ferling, John E. The First of Men: A Life of George Washington. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1988.
Flexner, James Thomas. Washington: The Indispensable Man. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969.
Grizzard, Frank E., Jr. George Washington: A Biographical Companion. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2002.
Higginbotham, Don. George Washington: Uniting a Nation. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
Kaminski, John P., and McCaughan, Jill Adair, eds. A Great and Good Man: George Washington in the Eyes of His Contemporaries. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1989.
Smith, Richard Norton. Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.
Wills, Garry. Cincinnatus: George Washington & the Enlightenment. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.
John P. Kaminski