George Washington is rightly known as "the father of his country." No figure had a more central role during the American Revolution and early national period. Even after his death he remained the preeminent embodiment of national character. To understand the trajectory of Washington's career is to understand that of early American history.
Washington was born 22 February 1732, the son of a wealthy Virginia planter. He received irregular schooling from the ages of seven to fifteen. His father died when he was only eleven, and he became the ward of his half-brother Lawrence, who was married to Anne Fairfax. The Fairfax family was one of the wealthiest and most influential in early Virginia, and young Washington benefited from their patronage. Washington's early years were spent as a surveyor, a profession that kindled his enduring interest in
western land development. Lawrence died in 1752. Washington eventually became the heir to Lawrence's estate, including Mount Vernon, which would serve as Washington's lifelong home; his inheritance made him one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia. In 1759 he added significantly to his holdings when he married the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge. The couple did not have children.
Washington spent his early life as a very successful planter. He was an assiduous caretaker of his own property, often experimenting with new farming techniques. Over time, Washington shifted his farm production from tobacco to wheat, which helped save him from the crippling debt that affected so many other Virginia planters. He served in a number of local offices as well as in the Virginia House of Burgesses.
In contrast to many other Virginians, Washington, though a slaveholder, eventually charted what was a somewhat progressive path for his time. Despite eventually having more slaves than he could productively employ and their upkeep added to his expenses, he refused to sell his slaves because he did not want to break up slave families. In his will, he stipulated that all of his slaves (with the exception of his wife's dower slaves) were to be freed upon his wife's death.
Washington gained military experience during the French and Indian War (1754–1763). He served in a number of posts, including as British General Edward Braddock's aide-de-camp; his coolness, bravery, and resourcefulness when Braddock's force was ambushed gained him the confidence of his fellow Virginians. He was eventually appointed commander in chief of all of Virginia's troops during the conflict. After the war he resigned his commission. He retired once again to life as a planter and seemed likely to finish his life as a wealthy, respected Virginia gentleman. The looming imperial crisis would change all of that and make Washington one of the most famous figures in the Western world.
the american revolution
After Washington resigned his commission during the French and Indian War, he tried to get a regular commission in the British army. If he had been successful, the course of the future nation would likely have been substantially different. His attempt reflected the common aspirations of elite provincial Americans for acceptance among the elite of British society. The unwillingness of British gentlemen to give their American cousins what Americans felt was their due helped sow resentments that eventually led people like Washington to choose the path of resistance.
Washington quickly showed himself to be an ardent Patriot. He was chosen to be a Virginia delegate to both the First and Second Continental Congresses and, in 1775, was chosen commander in chief of the Continental Army. His appointment was, in part, due to bargaining with the delegates from New England, who were willing to give the honor of command to a Virginian so as to tie that powerful colony firmly to the cause of Revolution, most of the burden of which New England had borne up to that point. Washington accepted the appointment and rode north to oppose the British forces that had gathered at Boston.
Washington was not a superior tactician; if judged solely by his performance on the battlefield, he was a mediocre general. He showed daring and élan with his nighttime crossing of the Delaware and his surprise attacks and victories at Trenton and Princeton, and his decisive plan to capture Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown was a model piece of strategy. But he also blundered repeatedly, most severely during the Battle of New York in 1776. He divided his force in the face of superior numbers and almost allowed his army to be trapped by the British navy. If
not for the British failure to follow up their initial victory quickly, the Continental Army would likely have been destroyed, and the Revolution might have ended before it had scarcely begun.
Washington's greatness lay not in his tactical brilliance but in his strength of character, which was largely responsible for holding the army together. As long as Washington could keep a viable army in the field, the Americans were, in some sense, winning the war. Washington did just that, despite tremendous challenges. His original recruits were raw, untrained colonials who often signed up for short enlistments, yet he managed to create a disciplined fighting force, even though his army was rarely supplied with the food and equipment it needed. It was said that, during the winter, you could follow the path of the army by the bloody footprints left by shoeless feet. The Continental Congress not only failed to supply him adequately but frequently complained about his generalship. Subordinates made at least two attempts to displace him. Through his adroit management, he also managed to prevent a mutiny at the end of the war by disillusioned and discouraged officers. Despite all of these difficulties, Washington persevered and, by doing so, brought the army to eventual victory.
After the Treaty of Paris had been signed in 1783, officially ending the war, Washington rode to Annapolis, Maryland, and, appearing before the Continental Congress, resigned his commission. Echoing Cincinnatus, the Roman general who did not attempt to seize power but returned to his farm after leading his army to victory, Washington's gesture gained him immeasurable fame and admiration. That act alone increased his prestige as much as anything else he did in his lifetime.
Washington knew that the work of the Revolution was unfinished. His personal experiences under the Articles of Confederation convinced him that a stronger union was the only safeguard for the future of the nation. But he himself did not expect to take part in this work. After pledging to retire from public life, he did just that and returned to Mount Vernon to repair his fortunes, which had been severely damaged by the war. But the 1780s proved a turbulent and difficult time for the new nation. At the behest of several friends, Washington eventually agreed to take part in the constitutional convention at Philadelphia. When he arrived, he was quickly elected president of the proceedings. Although he played almost no part in the debates, his silent presence played an essential role in the eventual shape of the government. Everyone expected Washington to be the first president, and thus the delegates were willing to give the office powers that they would never have bestowed on another man. In addition, his prestige was essential to the eventual ratification of the Constitution. Although many were frightened by the additional powers being given to a central government only a few short years after concluding a war against another centralized power, a great many of those people trusted Washington to pursue a moderate course.
After the document was ratified, Washington was unanimously elected to the presidency and, as he traveled north to New York City, was met by cheering crowds along the way. When he arrived, he and others had to invent a new government almost from whole cloth. The Constitution is remarkable for its brevity, and many of the crucial details of governing had to be established.
One of Washington's first tasks was establishing what sort of tone he would take as president. No one was certain how a chief executive should be treated in a republican government. He was not a king, but neither was he a common man. Washington eschewed some of the trappings of high office: he expressed a preference for a simple title, "Mr. President," rather than some of the elaborate titles proposed. But he limited his availability to the public to weekly receptions. He also wore a sword and rode in a carriage and four. He attempted to establish a proper sense of dignity for the office; but some began to whisper against him, seeing his actions as signs of creeping royalism.
During his two terms (1789–1797), although Washington tried to keep himself above partisan disputes, he leaned more and more heavily to the side of the Federalists, supporters of the administration who advocated a stronger central government and a more deferential society, as well as a foreign policy that favored Great Britain. He backed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's financial plans, including the assumption of state debts and the creation of a national bank. He insisted on neutrality when war broke out between Great Britain and the newly republican France despite America's original treaty with France (1778), which had promised perpetual alliance. These actions and others earned him the enmity of the Republican Party, which had emerged in opposition to the Federalists. He found himself the butt of vicious partisan attack in the newspapers. For someone who considered himself above party, who longed for retirement, and who worried constantly about his reputation, this partisan controversy was galling.
Even after retiring to private life, Washington was called on one more time to be commander in chief of the provisional army in case of a possible war with France, although in the end war was avoided. He died on 14 December 1799, an appropriate date for a man who was so thoroughly of the eighteenth century.
After his death, Washington's symbolic importance to the nation remained. Freed from the partisan bickering that had dogged his final years, he quickly became not just father to his country but a role model for its people. During his lifetime, Washington unavoidably became entangled in the nation's political divisions; but Washington as symbol served a unifying role. No one played a more important role in refashioning his character to fit the new political realities than Mason Locke Weems, an itinerant preacher and bookseller—and inventor of the story of young George Washington and the cherry tree—who wrote the astoundingly popular Life of Washington. Weems remade Washington as a common man who could serve as a proper role model for the nation, and this formulation provided the grounds for future generations' veneration. Throughout the history of the United States, Washington has continued to serve as a symbol for the nation and its ideals. Although his eighteenth-century manner now seems stiff and foreign to us, he remains the symbolic father of his country, the indispensable man.
Freeman, Douglas Southall, et al. George Washington: A Biography. 7 vols. New York: Scribners, 1948–1957.
Longmore, Paul K. The Invention of George Washington. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988; Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
Trees, Andrew S. The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.
Wills, Garry. Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984.
Andrew S. Trees