George Washington was an essential leader during the formation of the United States of America. He led the armies as the commander-in-chief of the Continental forces during the American Revolution (1775–83). He was a delegate to both the First Continental Congress and Second Continental Congress that led America into that war. (See Continental Congress, First , and Continental Congress, Second .) Later he served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention that set up American government under the U.S. Constitution . At that convention he was unanimously elected the first president of the United States. He served two terms and was responsible for defining much of the country's political and economic structure.
George Washington was the first child born to Augustine Washington and Mary Ball, on February 22, 1732. His father was a prominent land-holder and businessman in Westmoreland County, Virginia . After his father's death in 1743, Washington and his mother spent the next several years at the homes of family members and relatives. While residing at the Mount Vernon estate of Lawrence Washington, his elder half-brother, George Washington acquired the social connections and skills of a Virginia gentleman. At the age of sixteen, Washington learned how to survey land, and by the following year he became the county surveyor.
Washington's work as the county surveyor took him into the borderlands and wilderness of the county. His knowledge and experience of the frontier helped him get appointed as major in the Virginia militia when his brother died in 1752. One year into his service, at the start of the French and Indian War (1754–63), Washington had the first of his many military adventures.
In 1758 Washington resigned his commission. He married Martha Dandridge Custis (1731–1802), a wealthy widow with two children, on January 6, 1759. Though Washington would never have children with Martha, he treated her son and daughter as if they were his own.
Upon the death of his brother's widow and child in 1760, Washington inherited Mount Vernon, and the family moved there. Though Washington was drawn away from this home many times, it was always the center of his life. He entertained many social and political guests there as well as reveled in the routines of a gentleman farmer.
Washington's military career began in 1752 when he attained his late half-brother's position as major in the Virginia militia. In 1753, the French began pushing into British territory in the Ohio River valley. In order to protect financial interests in this area, the governor of Virginia sent Washington to dislodge the French. This event in 1754 marked the beginning of the French and Indian War, which soon widened into the Seven Years' War between Britain and France. Washington experienced both victory and defeat, and his service to British General Edward Braddock (c. 1695–1755) earned him national recognition.
In 1755, Washington was serving as aide-de-camp to General Braddock. Ordered to attack the French at Fort Duquesne (near present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ), their forces were instead ambushed by French and Indian forces near the fort. Washington recommended a course of surprise counterattack through the woods, but Braddock rejected the idea and maintained an orderly parade-ground formation. The British forces suffered a horrible defeat, including the death of General Braddock.
News of Washington's advice and his courageous actions in battle made him a hero in the colonies. In August 1755, he was appointed colonel and commander-in-chief of Virginia's militia. When he resigned from military service in 1758, Washington was a brigadier general.
These experiences prepared Washington for his greater challenge to lead the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. His experiences with inadequate supplies, undisciplined militia, and a lack of cooperation from civilian officials gave him invaluable skills as a leader. Serving with the British under General Braddock strengthened his resentment of British rule of the colonies. Unwilling to treat the colonial forces as competent equals and giving all British officers greater status and authority, the British attitude affected Washington's commitment to independence.
Shortly before retiring from the Virginia militia in 1758, Washington was elected to the House of Burgesses , Virginia's colonial legislature. This enabled him to enhance his status in society, participate in the practices of self-government, and be involved with the relations between the British and the colonists.
After the French and Indian War, war debts motivated the British parliament to impose a series of taxes on the colonies. Colonial assemblies resisted this taxation. In 1774, the Virginia legislators called for a Continental Congress between all colonies. Its purpose was to assess the level of anti-British feeling among the colonists and to tighten a boycott on British goods. Washington attended as a representative for Virginia.
The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia soon after the first to coordinate military resistance against the British. Washington attended again, and this time he was unanimously named the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Washington's task was daunting. He had no trained military, and there was no system for distributing supplies. There also was no central government that could oversee the creation of such a system or demand every colony's financial participation.
Against all odds, and eventually with aid from France, Washington overcame these political and economic obstacles. He forged an army that eventually challenged the British, either winning or retreating in good order. In October 1781, Washington trapped the British General Lord Cornwallis (1738–1805) in Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis's surrender meant American victory and independence. Washington continued to oversee the Continental Army until the British left New York in 1783. He submitted his resignation in December and attempted to retire to Mount Vernon.
The rebelling colonies established a national government under the Articles of Confederation in 1781, but it had many weaknesses. The government lacked power to collect taxes, regulate commerce, or maintain armed forces. States maintained these independent powers.
Washington was vocal about the weaknesses of the system and eventually came to believe that an entirely new form of government was needed. In Washington's opinion, a stronger union and a federal government were essential to the health of the nation. A Constitutional Convention was called in 1787 to restructure the government, and the U.S. Constitution was approved September 17, 1787. The last of the original thirteen colonies would ratify it on May 29, 1790. Meanwhile, in April 1789, George Washington was unanimously elected the first president of the United States by vote of the newly created Electoral College .
George Washington's presidency was marked by firsts. The Constitution was new, and certain aspects of it were not yet clearly defined. These “Silences of the Constitution” left the new government with many questions to answer. Washington's legacy as president is how he handled his powers to maintain a balance between the branches of government and to establish precedents, or accepted ways of doing things, for future presidents.
The Constitution had created a federal government with three branches: the legislative branch for making laws, the executive branch for enforcing laws, and a judicial branch for administering justice under
the laws. Washington believed strongly in this separation of powers. He worked hard not to infringe on the powers of Congress. In his eight years as president, he used his veto power only twice to reject bills Congress had passed that he thought were unconstitutional.
To make decisions with as much information as he could gather, Washington formed a cabinet of advisors. Among them were Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804). Jefferson and Hamilton's political differences would challenge Washington and eventually lead to Jefferson's resignation.
For the most part, Washington's presidency focused on building the economic and political foundations for a strong nation. Domestically, this took the form of establishing a federal bank, using the powers given Congress to collect taxes, and creating a monetary system.
While Washington worked to make decisions based on the best interests of the union, the differing needs of the states were beginning to create political divisions. Though Washington worked to discourage the development of factions, political differences between men like Hamilton and Jefferson mimicked regional and class differences in the country. This led to the formation of political parties. Hamilton became leader of the Federalist Party , who wanted a strong federal government. Jefferson was leader of the Democratic-Republican Party , who wanted state power to be greater than the power of the federal government.
In foreign affairs, Washington skillfully avoided wars for the young nation. With another war between Great Britain and France in 1793, Washington experienced both foreign and domestic pressure to take sides. Within the United States, economic trade interests called for support of Britain.
Those who recalled French support for the American Revolution rallied to the French cause. Treaties that America made with France after the Revolution also called for such support. Washington, however, felt it was unwise to take sides in the dispute. As a result, he issued the Proclamation of Neutrality in April 1793. The United States would officially support neither France nor Britain, and it maintained trading rights with both nations.
Both France and Britain stopped U.S. merchant ships bound for the opposing countries. Britain escalated these assaults in 1793, straining relations with America to the breaking point. To avoid war, Congress chose to enact mild sanctions against both Britain and France for violation of U.S. shipping rights.
Washington then sent U.S. Supreme Court chief justice John Jay (1745–1829) to Britain to negotiate a settlement. The resulting treaty, Jay's Treaty , was widely viewed as too generous to Britain and unfavorable to American power in foreign trade. It reignited domestic political differences, and negatively affected Washington's popularity. Despite public opinion, however, it helped to normalize relations with Britain, protect U.S. security, and promote economic development.
Washington also avoided a crisis with Spain that was provoked, in part, by American expansion to the west. The Spanish controlled the port of New Orleans, a major avenue for communication and trade with American settlers on the frontier. Spain denied Americans the right to travel freely through New Orleans, charging them for off-loading goods onto ocean vessels. The situation angered American settlers, who demanded that the government interfere and force an end to the practice. Spanish anxiety over Jay's Treaty and the growing number of American settlers prompted Spain to negotiate with the United States. The resulting Pinckney's Treaty of 1795 was a great success that allowed free navigation of the Mississippi River for three years.
Washington intended to retire at the end of his first term in early 1793. His colleagues instead persuaded him to serve another term, and he was again elected unanimously to the presidency during the election of 1792. By 1796, however, Washington had grown tired of the demands of political life and decided to retire and published his Farewell Address on September 17. His decision established an informal precedent of presidents serving two terms at most. This precedent lasted until Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected four times in the twentieth century.
On December 12, 1799, Washington contracted acute laryngitis, and his health deteriorated rapidly. He died on December 14. Afterwards Congress unanimously agreed to erect a marble monument—the Washington Monument —in his memory in the nation's new federal capital Washington, D.C. , also named in his honor.