Washington, George

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Washington, George (1732–1799), Revolutionary War commander in chief and first president of the United States.Born into a family on the margins of the Virginia aristocracy, Washington advanced rapidly to local prominence owing to his brother Lawrence's brief career in the British military establishment and to Lawrence's marriage into the powerful Fairfax family. Ambitious and intelligent, though lacking formal education, Washington obtained the office of regional militia adjutant, the assignment of warning the French in the Ohio Valley to depart from lands claimed by Virginia, and afterward the position of special aide to Gen. Edward Braddock. Washington's heroic performance during Braddock's defeat on the Monongahela helped earn him the command of Virginia's frontier defenses during the French and Indian War. Hampered by problems of inadequate manpower and supplies, he performed well, though displaying a lack of respect for higher civil and military authority. His regiment won the praise of crown officers for its training and degree of professionalism, although Washington failed in repeated efforts to have his forces taken into the British army.

Washington's drive and determination, essential qualities for any military commander and revolutionary leader, manifested themselves before 1775 in acquiring still other public posts: county surveyor, vestryman, and legislator. As a planter, he had already shown skill in obtaining land before he inherited Mount Vernon after his brother Lawrence's death. Recognizing the hazards of tobacco growing, he profitably converted much of his acreage to wheat prior to the Revolution, and he continued to accumulate western lands through claims based on his colonial military service.

An early critic of Britain's new colonial policy after 1763, Washington strongly supported boycotting British goods and advocated other forms of nonviolent resistance. Beginning in 1774, he played the leading role in organizing and reforming the Virginia militia, and as a member of the Continental Congress he wore his Virginia uniform to indicate his willingness to serve after hostilities erupted at Lexington and Concord. Because of his military background and experience in dealing with legislative bodies, the highly visible Washington was the obvious choice, and Congress appointed him commander in chief of the Continental army in June 1775.

Sensitive to civil‐military relations and to the problems of conducting warfare without the resources of a strong government, Washington had learned much since his earlier wartime service in the 1750s. He communicated regularly with the state governors and with the Congress, aware that he was something of a diplomat in a coalition war involving a weak central authority and thirteen sovereign states. His patience and deference added enormously to his stature and respect, as did certain symbolic acts during the war, such as his refusal to accept military pay and his repeatedly expressed wish to retire quietly to Mount Vernon and eschew subsequent honors and office.

During the first major phase of the Revolutionary War, 1775–78, the conflict was fought largely in the northern and middle states, and Washington's immediate command bore the brunt of the British efforts to crack the rebellion. After Washington's siege of the British in Boston, he moved south to meet the enemy at New York in the summer of 1776. His army fought stubbornly but suffered a succession of defeats before Washington retreated and regrouped on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. Counterattacks that picked off British posts at Trenton and Princeton in New Jersey during the Christmas season reinvigorated the American cause, but the army suffered important defeats the following year at Brandywine and Germantown in Pennsylvania. Yet Washington was a fighter, not a Fabian, as often portrayed, and he learned from his mistakes. He kept coming back, as when he battered the rear guard of the British army at Monmouth when it moved from Philadelphia back toward New York in 1778.

With the war stalemated in the North, Washington capitalized on France's entry into the conflict. Since the British dispersed some regiments to the West Indies and turned increasing attention to the American South, Washington spent the next three years keeping close watch on British forces in New York City and endeavoring to keep his own army up to strength, annual tasks that never eased. His opportunity for a bold stroke did not come again until 1781, when he raced south to cooperate with French military and naval forces in capturing Charles Cornwallis's army on the Virginia Peninsula at the Battle of Yorktown, 19 October 1781.

Washington's stature actually increased during the war's final two years. He dramatically upstaged a band of conspiratorial officers at Newburgh, New York, in 1783, shaming them for their threatening behavior toward a weak Congress. He also wrote two of the great, if neglected, state papers of the Revolution: his “Circular to the States” on the need for a firmer union, and his “Sentiments on a Peace Establishment,” in which he advocated ideas about regular and militia forces that contributed to the debate on national defense in the Constitutional Convention.

Consistently a nationalist in 1775–76, Washington presided at that convention in 1787, threw his weight behind the Constitution's ratification, and accepted (albeit reluctantly) the presidency in 1789, serving two terms. He worked to build a viable peacetime military structure and federalized the militia to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, at the same time avoiding a war with Britain over neutral rights, a conflict that he considered the country ill‐prepared to fight.

Washington always recognized that governments needed power to perform effectively. As general and president, he employed the power available to him but with moderation and restraint. In both his military and his civilian capacities, he set precedents that successful American generals and presidents still follow.
[See also Commander in Chief, President as; Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


Douglas Southall Freeman , George Washington, 7 vols., 1948–57.
Marcus Cunliffe , George Washington: Man and Monument, 1958.
James Thomas Flexner , George Washington, 4 vols., 1965–72.
Edmund S. Morgan , The Genius of George Washington, 1980.
Don Higginbotham , George Washington and the American Military Tradition, 1985.
John E. Ferling , The First of Men, 1988.

Don Higginbotham

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