Washington, George

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Washington, George

Born February 22, 1732 (Westmoreland County, Virginia)
Died December 14, 1799 (Mount Vernon, Virginia)

First U.S. president, military commander

Known as the Father of His Country, George Washington was commander of the Continental Army from 1775 through 1783, the entire period of the American Revolution. He then became the first president of the United States, serving from 1789 to 1797. The nation's capital and a state are named after him, as are numerous landmarks across the nation. As if in anticipation of his forthcoming historic role, Washington crafted a very formal, authoritative, and dignified persona for himself. In his military career, he defeated the British and won American independence, crushed the Native American resistance to U.S. settlement on the frontier, and decisively put down rebellions in the new republic. During his presidency, the new national government was formed, economic prosperity was established, and new treaties with Britain and Spain were signed. Perhaps one of his most crucial tasks was transferring the nation's over-whelming respect for him to the position of the president.

"It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it."

Family of wealth

George Washington was born in February 1732 in Westmoreland County of rural Virginia to Augustine Washington and Mary Ball. Augustine's first wife died, and he married Mary the year before George's birth. Augustine was schooled in England and kept busy managing his Virginia estates. George's ancestors received lands in England from King Henry VIII (1491–1547; reigned 1509–47), and they held various public offices there. However, political turmoil in England led Augustine's grandfather, John Washington (1631–1677), to immigrate to the Virginia colony in 1657. An ambitious man, John Washington acquired considerable land, built sawmills, and opened iron mines. John sent Augustine to England for his schooling. Augustine had four children with his first wife and six with Mary. He died in April 1743 when young George was just eleven. George's oldest half brother, Lawrence Washington, became his guardian. Being the eldest son, Lawrence inherited the well-developed estate of Little Hunting Creek from Augustine.

Lawrence raised George well. George spent his early years on a farm on the Rappahannock River near present-day Fredericksburg, Virginia. He learned much about the outdoors and farming, including tobacco growing and raising stock. He attended school locally off and on from seven to fifteen years of age. George was good at mathematics and learned surveying (examining and measuring land). The family grew larger when Lawrence married Anne Fairfax of the prestigious Lord Thomas Fairfax family. Lawrence built a house and named his 2,500-acre estate Mount Vernon. George grew up in the world of upper society, learning English manners and customs and gaining knowledge of the cultured world from Anne and Lawrence.

Land surveyor

Washington chose surveying as his profession. In 1748, Lord Fairfax (1692–1782), owner of 5 million acres in northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, sent a party including sixteen-year-old Washington to survey some of his frontier holdings. It was one of Washington's first experiences living on the frontier for an extended period.

The following year, Lord Fairfax helped Washington obtain an appointment as a professional surveyor. For more than two years, Washington surveyed constantly throughout the northern Virginia region, often in wilderness settings that served to toughen him in body and mind. He also gained an interest in westward expansion and land speculation, making his first purchase—nearly 1,500 acres of western land—at age eighteen. Land speculation is the buying of cheap, undeveloped frontier land with the intent of reselling it to settlers at a higher price to make a profit. It was a common means of gaining wealth in early America.

Plantation owner

In 1751, Lawrence contracted tuberculosis. The Washington family, including George, went to Barbados in the West Indies in hopes that Lawrence would recover with the change in climate. There, George contracted smallpox, but he established a valuable immunity that would later protect him in his military life, when smallpox ravaged Continental Army troops. The family returned from Barbados the following year, but Lawrence soon died. At age twenty, George found himself the inheritor of Mount Vernon, one of Virginia's most prestigious estates.

For the next twenty years, Washington steadily increased the size of his estate to 8,000 acres and expanded the Mount Vernon house. He also experimented in the newest agricultural techniques. Though he owned forty-nine slaves by 1760, Washington disapproved of slavery. He refused to sell slaves, because he did not want to disrupt their families. As a result, he eventually owned three hundred slaves, more than he really needed.

Land speculation and tobacco farming through slave labor gained him solid acceptance among the Virginia upper class. Greatly concerned about public perceptions, Washington spent lavishly on clothes. He enjoyed theater, dancing, card games, fox hunting, billiards, horseracing, and duck hunting. At 6 feet 3 inches and 190 pounds, he was an excellent athlete. He had broad shoulders, heavy brows, a large straight nose, and piercing blue-gray eyes. He walked with a dignified air of invincibility. He excelled at firearms and horsemanship. During this period, he became very prominent in the community and was an active member of the Episcopal Church.

French and Indian War

George became active in military matters in the early 1750s. He was appointed an officer in the Virginia militia, the same position Lawrence had held. At this time the French were establishing fur-trading posts deeper into territory claimed by the British on the west side of the Appalachian Mountains. The French were also grooming friendly relations with Native Americans living in the area. In October 1753, Virginia's colonial governor, Robert Dinwiddie (1693–1770), sent Washington to warn the French in the Ohio River valley that they were trespassing on land claimed by Britain. Leading a small group of frontiersmen, Washington journeyed in winter conditions to a French outpost near Lake Erie. The French replied that they intended to settle the Ohio River area. After narrowly missing being shot in a skirmish with Native Americans and falling in a freezing stream, Washington brought the news back to Dinwiddie at Williamsburg in mid-January 1754.

Dinwiddie appointed Washington lieutenant colonel and gave him command of about 160 militiamen to take back to the Ohio River valley. Their assignment was to remove the French from the area. Washington and his troops left Alexandria, Virginia, in April 1754. The French by now had established a post at present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which they named Fort Duquesne. Washington established a nearby position and on May 28, 1754, ambushed a small French detachment, killing its commander. These were the first shots of what would become the French and Indian War (1754–63), a struggle between the British and French over the control of lands in North America. The French soon counterattacked with a force of 1,200 soldiers and Native Americans, forcing Washington to surrender. Washington and his men were allowed to return to Virginia, unarmed, after promising not to build any more forts in Ohio for a year.

The British responded by sending regular army troops to Virginia in February 1755 under General Edward Braddock (1695–1755). Washington was appointed personal assistant to Braddock. Ignoring Washington's advice not to fight in an orderly, European fashion, Braddock's troops were ambushed by the French and Native Americans, suffering great losses, including Braddock himself. Washington led the survivors back to Virginia to safety.

Despite his defeats, Washington had showed coolness and great determination under fire. He rose to the position of commander of all Virginia colonial troops at twenty-three years of age. He also showed resolve by hanging deserters as an example to others. Washington was responsible for defending a 300-mile mountainous frontier with a force of only three hundred poorly paid, poorly fed, poorly clothed soldiers.

Finally, in November 1758, a combined force of British soldiers and Washington's colonial troops marched to Fort Duquesne to oust the French. However, the French burned and abandoned the post just before their arrival. The colonists renamed the location Fort Pitt (later known as Pittsburgh). Despite his victory, Washington was unhappy by the slowness of the war, the lack of support by Virginia leaders, and the failure of British commanders to give him a higher rank, which he felt he had been promised. As a result of the war, Washington had become a hero in America, but he had developed great hostility toward the British. Washington resigned with an honorary rank of brigadier general.

Return to civilian life

After resigning his military post, Washington got married. Martha Washington (1732–1802; see entry in volume 2) became the general's wife on January 6, 1759. Born Martha Dandridge, she was the widow of Daniel Parke Custis, with whom she had two children, John (nicknamed Jacky) and Martha (nicknamed Patsy). She was also one of the wealthier people in Virginia, owning some 15,000 acres and a large number of slaves. They proved an excellent match in temperament, and George showed great affection toward his two step-children. However, Jacky proved difficult and had a rebellious spirit. Patsy died in 1773, and her death proved a tragic loss for the family. Following Jacky's death in November 1781, George and Martha adopted two of his four children, Nelly and "Wash" Custis, and raised them at Mount Vernon as their own children.

As one of the wealthiest landowners in Virginia, Washington closely watched over the operation of his several wheat and tobacco farms during the following years. Washington had his own flour mill, blacksmith shop, brick kiln, carpenters, and stonemasons. He regularly ordered large amounts of supplies, including farm implements, from England. Mount Vernon was the location of many parties and much entertainment; its porch overlooked the Potomac River. Washington wore the finest clothes from London.

A political career

In addition to overseeing his landholdings, Washington began serving in the House of Burgesses (the local government) in 1759. From 1760 to 1774, he also served as justice of the peace for Fairfax County, with the court located in nearby Alexandria. As unrest grew in the colonies over British policies, Washington remained a loyal subject, even though he was irritated by the new rules, such as the restriction on expansion of colonial settlement beyond the Appalachians. This rule hindered his interest in land speculation. Through the 1760s, he steadily showed increasing signs of supporting those more radical opponents of new British taxes such as the Stamp Act of 1765.

As the spirit of rebellion grew, the royal governor of Virginia dissolved the House of Burgesses. Many of its members secretly gathered to continue conducting colonial business. Washington was one of those. However, he still favored using peaceful economic actions to protest British policies; he was not yet ready to take up arms. However, the Intolerable Acts, passed in 1774, imposed harsh measures on the colonies for their growing rebellious mood. The passage of this legislation firmly established Washington's opposition to the British monarchy.

Washington took part in the meeting of the colonial legislature on May 27, 1774, that called for formation of a Continental Congress later that year. He made a speech offering his military service against the British if needed. Washington was elected one of seven Virginia delegates to attend the first meeting of the Continental Congress in September 1774. He showed up at the meeting in Philadelphia in full military dress and provided advice on military matters to the Congress. The delegates chose a more peaceful course and sent a list of grievances to Britain. At this time, Washington continued shifting his viewpoint toward military action rather than sending petitions back to Britain. However, he still did not advocate complete independence for America.

Commander of the Continental Army

Washington assumed leadership of the Virginia militia in 1774 and was elected to the Second Continental Congress that met in Philadelphia in May 1775. By the time of the meeting, fighting had broken out between colonists and the British army near Boston on April 19, 1775. As the best-known military man in America, Washington was readily chosen as commander of the Continental Army in June. He refused to accept a salary but asked that his expenses be paid.

Washington took command of a loosely organized force of New England militia outside of Boston. For the next eight years, General Washington showed decisiveness in his actions as he strove to bring discipline to the inexperienced troops. Washington spent much of his energy mobilizing the states and Congress to contribute to the military mission.

On numerous occasions, the military campaign seemed on the brink of disaster, but Washington had adapted new military strategies of rapid movements that kept the army going. The new strategies avoided major confrontations with the larger British army that was better trained and equipped. Instead, the Continental Army focused on smaller skirmishes and quick retreats that kept the large British army on the move without major victories. Considering the ragged, underfed soldiers serving under him, this was a major accomplishment. Finally, in September 1781, Washington skillfully led the victory over a British force of seven thousand soldiers at Yorktown, Virginia. The events at Yorktown signaled that victory in the war was in reach, but the battles dragged on for two more years.

Morale among the troops remained low, and in May 1782 Washington angrily responded to a letter from troops suggesting he should be king and replace the ineffective Continental Congress. Washington believed that to establish a monarchy rather than a republic (a government run by officials elected by the public for the benefit of the public) would be contrary to everything for which they had sacrificed. Following the evacuation of British forces from New York in November 1783, Washington traveled to the Continental Congress meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, where he submitted his resignation on December 23. He also presented a detailed account of his expenses over the past eight years for repayment. He arrived home at Mount Vernon by Christmas Eve. At that time, the world was full of monarchs and military dictators, and Washington's voluntary resignation was unheard of. However, resigning brought Washington greater respect and admiration worldwide than his military exploits.

Back to Mount Vernon

Washington spent the next four years at Mount Vernon, making repairs from the years of general neglect. Having suffered great personal economic loss while away at war, he successfully began to make the plantation prosperous again. Also, being a leading figure of the new nation, he was obliged to regularly entertain foreign visitors, Native American delegations, and visitors from other states. Rarely did the Washingtons have dinner alone.

Through the 1780s, Washington became dismayed with the functioning of the new nation under the Articles of Confederation, the nation's first constitution. He increasingly urged major governmental reforms including the need for taxing powers. However, Washington largely stayed away from politics and did not offer to help in forming a new government. Nonetheless, a meeting between representatives of Virginia and Maryland over navigation of the Potomac River was held at Mount Vernon in the spring of 1785. This meeting led to calls for a larger meeting to discuss a wider range of national issues. Washington encouraged such a meeting, and it took place in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786, with delegates from five states attending. The Annapolis meeting called for yet another larger meeting in Philadelphia the following year to revise the Articles.

Reluctantly, Washington was selected as one of five delegates from Virginia to attend the meeting, later known as the Constitutional Convention. Washington arrived in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, the day before the convention was scheduled to start, and was unanimously elected president of the convention on the first day. Serving as leader, he contributed very little to the debates, though he campaigned strongly for substantial changes. His commanding presence in the room, along with the presence of diplomat and scientist Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790; see entry in volume 1), helped bring the convention to a successful conclusion with an entirely new constitution. Washington's signature on the document likely secured its ultimate ratification by the states.

The first president

Following the Constitutional Convention, Washington hoped to return to Mount Vernon to run his plantation. However, he was the only person of prominence fully trusted by both those favoring and those opposing the new constitution. So upon adoption of the Constitution, Washington was unanimously elected the first president of the United States and John Adams (1735–1826; see entry in volume 1) of Massachusetts the first vice president. Many also believed Washington could give the most prestige to the new nation in dealing with foreign nations. Washington reluctantly accepted the post, not sure if he had the abilities to administer a government.

On April 16, 1789, Washington set out from Mount Vernon to New York, the temporary location of the new government. Along his journey were repeated celebrations as every town greeted him. Washington was the top symbol of the new nation. He was inaugurated on April 30 on the balcony of Federal Hall. Rather than the fine London clothing of his earlier years, he wore a brown suit made in America with white stockings and a sword. A month later, Martha traveled to New York to join George. She received a similar series of celebrations along the way.

Washington began the process of establishing how the president of the United States should behave. He paid a lot of attention to detail, trying to strike a balance between formal dignity and yet being accessible to the public as an elected official. He did not shake hands but rather bowed, wore a sword on his hip, and rode in a well outfitted four- or six-horse carriage. When he met guests, he stood on a raised platform, often wearing a black velvet suit and gold buckles, yellow gloves, cocked hat with ostrich plume, and powdered hair. His entertainment was private with good wines and good food. He decided to be addressed "Mr. President." He drew criticism from those opposed to a strong central government; they asserted that Washington was too formal and ceremonial, like a monarch. When the first Congress adjourned in September 1789, Washington began touring the nation to encourage unity, first to the Northeast and later to the South.

Building a government

When Washington first took office, there were no laws by Congress, no judiciary, and no executive departments. In 1789, the first Congress sent the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, to the states for ratification and established the judicial and executive departments. Washington had to fill some one thousand positions in the new government. He filled the key positions with people who spanned a range of political views. He believed this would help forge a common unity. He selected New York delegate John Jay (1745–1829; see entry in volume 1) as chief justice of the Supreme Court; Virginia politician Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; see entry in volume 1) as secretary of state; New York politician Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804; see entry in volume 1) as secretary of the treasury; Virginia politician Edmund Randolph (1753–1813; see entry in volume 2) as the attorney general; former Continental Army general Henry Knox (1750–1806) as secretary of war; and Massachusetts politician Samuel Osgood (1747–1813) as postmaster general. The Constitution did not provide for a council of advisors for the president, but by late 1791 Washington began holding meetings among his department heads, referred to as his Cabinet. The purpose of the meetings was to have general discussion on governmental issues.

Through the next few years, Washington regretted the lack of unity within his Cabinet. He was distressed over growing political factions, which eventually led to political parties in the young nation. He consistently favored decisions and advice that came from Hamilton, who had served with him as a personal aide during the war. Hamilton put forward a bold plan of economic revival for the nation. The plan brought considerable criticism from those who feared a strong central government. Hamilton in particular clashed with Jefferson. Washington worked hard to keep them both in the administration.

A second term

The growing political divisiveness in the country led Washington to reluctantly make himself available for a second term in 1792. He was again unanimously elected with Adams remaining vice president. During his second term as president, Washington experienced considerable turmoil, both foreign and domestic. When France declared war on Britain in 1793, the division within his Cabinet grew too wide to resolve.

During the winter of 1793–94, Britain seized some six hundred American commercial ships. Hamilton favored keeping friendly relations with Britain. His economic plan depended heavily on taxes gained from imported British goods. On the other hand, Jefferson favored support of France, a nation that had assisted the United States during the Revolution and had signed an alliance treaty with the United States in 1778. Washington took a middle course, proclaiming neutrality (favoring no country) for the young nation. He knew the nation was totally unprepared for war and needed to maintain international trade relations to regain its economic footing. Washington then had the new French foreign minister, Edmond Charles Genet (1763–1834), removed from his post. Outside proper diplomatic channels, Genet was touring the nation raising support for France. Despite his removal, Genet had already influenced the creation of numerous Democratic-Republican societies around the nation, whose members actively opposed administration policies. Jefferson resigned in December 1793, unable to accept Hamilton's continued involvement in foreign affairs, which was Jefferson's area of responsibility as secretary of state.

To resolve the issue of ship seizures by the British, Washington sent Jay to negotiate a treaty. Though negotiating from a definite position of weakness—the United States had no real navy to threaten the British—Jay was able to obtain some trade concessions. Many in the United States, particularly among those favoring France, thought Jay had sold out to the British to protect Hamilton's economic programs. Despite much public uproar over the treaty, the U.S. Senate ratified it in August 1795. The Jay Treaty with Britain led to further political division in the nation. In March 1796, the U.S. House of Representatives requested presidential papers related to the treaty, and Washington refused to provide them, setting a precedent for maintaining a separation between the executive branch and the legislative branch; this is now known as executive privilege.

Following the Jay Treaty, President Washington sent diplomat Thomas Pinckney (1750–1828) to Madrid, Spain. His assignment was to negotiate a treaty giving Americans navigation rights to the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans. Successfully achieved, the resulting Treaty of San Lorenzo proved highly popular among the public.

Other troubles were brewing within the United States. On the western frontier in the Northwest Territory, Native Americans had formed a strong alliance aided by British troops lingering in the area. The alliance sought to resist the spread of U.S. settlement into lands gained from Britain in the Treaty of Paris, the peace agreement that ended the American Revolution. The Native Americans dealt defeats to American forces sent to subdue the resistance in 1790 and 1791. The 1791 defeat included the loss of 690 soldiers under the command of General Arthur St. Clair (1736–1818), the heaviest loss in casualties to Native American forces in the history of the United States. Highly concerned about making the frontier safe for settlement, Washington ordered General Anthony Wayne (1745–1796; see entry in volume 2) to form a large military force, known as the Legion of the United States, and rigorously train them for two years. In the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers, Wayne's forces crushed the Native American alliance. The resulting 1795 Treaty of Greenville opened millions of acres of Native American lands to U.S. settlement.

During the same period that Washington was focused on taming the Northwest, farmers in western Pennsylvania revolted against the new taxes imposed by Hamilton's economic plan. The revolt is known as the Whiskey Rebellion (see box).

Farewell to public service

In 1796, Washington decided it was finally time for retirement; he did not want to pursue a third term. He waited until September to issue his Farewell Address. It was largely drafted by Hamilton and reviewed by others, but Washington put the final touches on it himself. The address warned against party

Whiskey Rebellion

The new national government established under the U.S. Constitution in 1789 had inherited a huge debt; the nation had borrowed large sums of money to wage the American Revolution. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was charged with developing a plan for putting the nation's finances on a firmer path. Among the number of proposals contained in Hamilton's plan was a tax on distilled liquor. Farmers in the western region of the United States grew corn. The only cost-efficient way of getting their crop to market was by distilling it into spirits, or whiskey. The whiskey was much easier to transport and brought a good price.

When the tax was adopted in 1791, frontier farmers from Georgia to Pennsylvania began protesting. They were short on cash to begin with and could not afford to pay more taxes. In addition, they felt that the federal government was not doing enough to protect them from Native American attacks. Their protests became increasingly violent, and they began harassing federal tax collectors. President George Washington saw this rebellion, known as the Whiskey Rebellion, as an opportunity to demonstrate the new powers of the national government. He selected western Pennsylvania as the location to exert new federal might. Washington personally led a force of almost thirteen thousand militiamen from four states to Pittsburgh, where some two thousand rebels had gathered. The large show of force by the government caused the rebels to scatter ahead of the army's arrival. Washington later granted a full pardon to two rebel leaders arrested and convicted of treason. He required them to take an oath of allegiance to the country. Congress repealed the whiskey tax in 1802.

The Whiskey Rebellion was the first occasion that the federal government exercised military authority over the nation's citizens and the only time in U.S. history that a sitting president commanded forces in the field.

politics and alliances with foreign nations. Washington had secured the West for settlement, brought economic prosperity through treaties with Britain and Spain, and most of all established an operating federal government.

In March 1797, with the inauguration of his vice president, John Adams, as the nation's second president, Washington returned to Mount Vernon. He gladly resumed his plantation operations and normal family life, though the household did continue receiving a steady stream of guests eager to visit with the former president.

The nation called for Washington's service again the following year in 1798 when war with France was looming. Adams requested that he serve as commander of a newly formed provisional army. Washington agreed but demanded that Hamilton be second in command and the more active in assembling a force. As it turned out, Adams was able to maintain peace with France through negotiations.

A tragic end

The end came suddenly to Washington's much heralded life. On December 12, 1799, Washington made his usual rounds inspecting his farm operations in cold and snowy conditions. He returned to Mount Vernon that evening tired and wet but refused to change clothes before entertaining at dinner. Late the following day, he came down with a throat infection and acute laryngitis. Personal doctors were summoned, but the treatment they performed seemed to weaken him further. With his strength steadily decreasing, Washington realized he was nearing death. He approached it with the same calmness he had shown in many crises during his life. He provided his personal secretary with instructions for his burial and died late the evening of December 14.

The entire country went into mourning. War hero Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee (1756–1818) wrote the famous words "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," referring to Washington. Britain and Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) of France paid tribute to Washington. Washington's will provided for freeing his slaves. He was the only Founding Father from Virginia to free his slaves and even provided pensions for the elderly and young.

The new nation's capital under construction was already named for Washington while he was still living. Later, a state was named after him, the only state named after an American individual. Counties in 32 states and 121 towns were named after him. A large prominent monument to Washington was dedicated in the nation's capital in 1885.

For More Information


Brookhiser, Richard. Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Burns, James MacGregor, and Susan Dunn. George Washington. New York: Times Books, 2004.

Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Knopf Publishing Group, 2004.

Ferling, John E. The First of Men: A Life of George Washington. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988.

Schwartz, Barry. George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol. New York: Free Press, 1987.

Vidal, Gore. Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

Web Sites

Library of Congress. "Presidential Inaugurations: George Washington." American Memory.http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/pihtml/pi001.html (accessed on August 19, 2005).

Whiskey Rebellion—Whiskey Insurrection.http://www.whiskeyrebellion.org/ (accessed on August 19, 2005).

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