|February 22, 1732
Westmoreland Co., Virginia
|December 14, 1799
Mt. Vernon, Virginia
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732 (February 11, 1731, O.S.), the first son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington, on the family's Pope's Creek Estate near present-day Colonial Beach in Westmoreland County, Virginia.
In his youth, Washington worked as a surveyor of rural lands and acquired what would become invaluable knowledge of the terrain around his native state of Virginia. Washington embarked upon a career as a planter and in 1748 was invited to help survey Baron Fairfax's lands west of the Blue Ridge. In 1749, he was appointed to his first public office, surveyor of newly created Culpeper County, and through his half-brother, Lawrence Washington, he became interested in the Ohio Company, which aimed to exploit Western lands. After Lawrence's death in 1752, George inherited part of his estate and took over some of Lawrence's duties as adjutant of the colony.
As district adjutant, which made him Major Washington at the age of 20 in December 1752, he was charged with training the militia in the quarter assigned him. At age 21, in Fredericksburg, Washington became a Master Mason in the organization of Freemasons, a fraternal organization that was a lifelong influence.
In December 1753, Governor Robert Dinwiddie sent Washington to assess French military strength and intentions, and to deliver a message to the French at Fort Le Boeuf in present day Waterford, Pennsylvania. The message, which went unheeded, called for the French to abandon their development of the Ohio country, setting in motion two colonial powers toward worldwide conflict. Washington's report on the affair was widely read on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1754, Dinwiddie sent Washington to drive out the French. With his American Indian allies led by Tanacharison, Washington and his troops ambushed a French scouting party of some 30 men, led by Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. Washington and his troops were overwhelmed at Fort Necessity by a larger and better positioned French and Indian force. The terms of surrender included a statement that Washington had assassinated the scouts and their leader at the Battle of Jumonville Glen. Released by the French, Washington returned to Virginia, where he resigned rather than accept demotion.
In 1755, Washington joined British General Edward Braddock in a major effort to retake the Ohio Country. While Braddock was killed and the expedition ended in disaster, Washington distinguished himself as the Hero of the Monongahela.While Washington's role during the battle has been debated, biographer Joseph Ellis asserts that Washington rode back and forth across the battlefield, rallying the remnant of the British and Virginian forces to a retreat.
In fall 1755, Washington was given a difficult frontier command in the Virginia mountains. In 1758, he took part in the Forbes Expedition, which successfully drove the French from Fort Duquesne. Later that year, Washington resigned from active military service and spent the next sixteen years as a Virginia planter and politician.
George Washington was introduced to Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow who was living at White House Plantation on the south shore of the Pamunkey River in New Kent County, Virginia, by friends of Martha when George was on leave from the French and Indian War. George only visited her home twice before proposing marriage to her 3 weeks after they met. George and Martha were each 27 years old when they married on January 6, 1759 at her home, known as The White House, which shared its name with the future presidential mansion. The newlywed couple moved to Mount Vernon, where he took up the tuckahoe life of a genteel planter and political figure. They had a good marriage, and together, they raised her two children by her previous marriage to Daniel Parke Custis, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis, affectionately called "Jackie" and "Patsy". George and Martha never had any children together—an earlier bout with smallpox followed, possibly, by tuberculosis may have left him sterile. Later the Washingtons raised two of Mrs. Washington's grandchildren, Eleanor Parke Custis ("Nelly") and George Washington Parke Custis ("Washy") after their father died in 1781.
Washington's marriage to a wealthy widow greatly increased his property holdings and social standing. He acquired one-third of the 18,000 acre Custis estate upon his marriage, and managed the remainder on behalf of Martha's children. He frequently purchased additional land in his own name, and was granted land in what is now West Virginia as a bounty for his service in the French and Indian War. By 1775, Washington had doubled the size of Mount Vernon to 6,500 acres (26 km²), with over 100 slaves. As a respected military hero and large landowner, he held local office and was elected to the Virginia provincial legislature, the House of Burgesses, beginning in 1758.
Washington first took a leading role in the growing colonial resistance in 1769, when he introduced a proposal drafted by his friend George Mason which called for Virginia to boycott imported English goods until the Townshend Acts were repealed. Parliament repealed the Acts in 1770. Washington also took an active interest in helping his fellow citizens. On September 21, 1771 Washington wrote a letter to Neil Jameson on behalf of Jonathan Plowman Jr., a merchant from Baltimore whose ship had been seized for exporting non-permitted items by the Boston Frigate, and requested his help toward recovery of Plowman's ship. Washington regarded the passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774 as "an Invasion of our Rights and Privileges". In July 1774, he chaired the meeting at which the Fairfax Resolves were adopted, which called for, among other things, the convening of a Continental Congress. In August, he attended the First Virginia Convention, where he was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.
After fighting broke out in April 1775, Washington appeared at the Second Continental Congress in military uniform, signaling that he was prepared for war. Washington had the prestige, the military experience, the charisma and military bearing, the reputation of being a strong patriot, and he was supported by the South, especially Virginia. Although he did not explicitly seek the office of commander and even claimed that he was not equal to it, there was no serious competition. Congress created the Continental Army on June 14; the next day, on the nomination of John Adams of Massachusetts, it selected Washington as commander-in-chief. Washington assumed command of the American forces in Massachusetts in July 1775, during the ongoing siege of Boston. Realizing his army's desperate shortage of gunpowder, Washington asked for new sources. British arsenals were raided (including some in the West Indies) and some manufacturing was attempted; a barely adequate supply (about 2.5 million pounds) was obtained by the end of 1776, mostly from France. Washington reorganized the army during the long standoff, and forced the British to withdraw by putting artillery on Dorchester Heights overlooking the city. The British evacuated Boston and Washington moved his army to New York City.
Although negative toward the patriots in the Continental Congress, British newspapers routinely praised Washington's personal character and qualities as a military commander. Moreover, both sides of the aisle in Parliament found the American general's courage, endurance, and attentiveness to the welfare of his troops worthy of approbation and examples of the virtues they and most other Britons
found wanting in their own commanders. Washington's refusal to become involved in politics buttressed his reputation as a man fully committed to the military mission at hand and above the factional fray.
In August 1776, British General William Howe launched a massive naval and land campaign designed to seize New York and offer a negotiated settlement. The Continental Army under Washington engaged the enemy for the first time as an army of the newly-declared independent United States at the Battle of Long Island, the largest battle of the entire war. This and several other British victories (despite some American victories at the Battle of Harlem Heights and elsewhere) sent Washington scrambling out of New York and across New Jersey, leaving the future of the Continental Army in doubt. On the night of December 25, 1776, Washington staged a counterattack, leading the American forces across the Delaware River to capture nearly 1,000 Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey.
Washington was defeated at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. On September 26, Howe outmaneuvered Washington and marched into Philadelphia unopposed. Washington's army unsuccessfully attacked the British garrison at Germantown in early October. Meanwhile Burgoyne, out of reach from help from Howe, was trapped and forced to surrender his entire army at Saratoga, New York. As a result of this battle, France entered the war as an open ally of the Americans, turning the Revolution into a major world-wide war. Washington's loss of Philadelphia prompted some members of Congress to discuss removing Washington from command. This episode failed after Washington's supporters rallied behind him.
Washington's army encamped at Valley Forge in December 1777, where it stayed for the next six months. Over the winter, 2,500 men (out of 10,000) died from disease and exposure. The next spring, however, the army emerged from Valley Forge in good order, thanks in part to a full-scale training program supervised by Baron von Steuben, a veteran of the Prussian general staff. The British evacuated Philadelphia in 1778 and returned to New York City. Meanwhile, Washington remained with his army outside New York. He delivered the final blow in 1781, after a French naval victory allowed American and French forces to trap a British army in Virginia. The surrender at Yorktown on October 17, 1781 marked the end of fighting. Though known for his successes in the war and of his life that followed, Washington only won three of the nine battles that he fought.
In March 1783, Washington used his influence to disperse a group of Army officers who had threatened to confront Congress regarding their back pay. The Treaty of Paris (signed that September) recognized the independence of the United States. Washington disbanded his army and, on November 2, gave an eloquent farewell address to his soldiers. On November 25, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington and the governor took possession. At Fraunces Tavern on December 4, Washington formally bade his officers farewell and on December 23, 1783, he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief, emulating the Roman general Cincinnatus, an exemplar of the republican ideal of citizen leadership who rejected power.
Washington's retirement to Mount Vernon was short-lived. He was persuaded to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, and he was unanimously elected president of the Convention. He participated little in the debates involved (though he did vote for or against the various articles), but his high prestige maintained collegiality and kept the delegates at their labors. The delegates designed the presidency with Washington in mind, and allowed him to define the office once elected. After the Convention, his support convinced many, including the Virginia legislature, to vote for ratification; the new Constitution was ratified by all 13 states.
The Electoral College elected Washington unanimously in 1789, and again in the 1792 election; he remains the only president to receive 100% of electoral votes. John Adams was elected vice president. Washington took the oath of office as the first President under the Constitution for the United States of America on April 30, 1789 at Federal Hall in New York City although, at first, he had not wanted the position.
The First U.S. Congress voted to pay Washington a salary of $25,000 a year—a large sum in 1789. Washington, already wealthy, declined the salary, since he valued his image as a selfless public servant. At the urging of Congress, however, he ultimately accepted the payment. A dangerous precedent could have been set otherwise, as the founding fathers wanted future presidents to come from a large pool of potential candidates - not just those citizens that could afford to do the work for free.
Washington attended carefully to the pomp and ceremony of office, making sure that the titles and trappings were suitably republican and never emulated European royal courts. To that end, he preferred the title "Mr. President" to the more majestic names suggested.
Washington proved an able administrator. An excellent delegator and judge of talent and character, he held regular cabinet meetings to debate issues before making a final decision. In handling routine tasks, he was "systematic, orderly, energetic, solicitous of the opinion of others but decisive, intent upon general goals and the consistency of particular actions with them."
Washington reluctantly served a second term as president. He refused to run for a third, establishing the customary policy of a maximum of two terms for a president which later became law by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.
Washington's Farewell Address (issued as a public letter in 1796) was one of the most influential statements of American political values. Drafted primarily by Washington himself, with help from Hamilton, it gives advice on the necessity and importance of national union, the value of the Constitution and the rule of law, the evils of political parties, and the proper virtues of a republican people. In the address, he called morality "a necessary spring of popular government." He said, "reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle" – making the point that the value of religion is for the benefit of society as a whole.
Washington's public political address warned against foreign influence in domestic affairs and American meddling in European affairs. He warned against bitter partisanship in domestic politics and called for men to move beyond partisanship and serve the common good. He called for an America wholly free of foreign attachments, saying the United States must concentrate primarily on American interests. He counseled friendship and commerce with all nations, but warned against involvement in European wars and entering into long-term "entangling" alliances. The address quickly set American values regarding religion and foreign affairs.
After retiring from the presidency in March 1797, Washington returned to Mount Vernon with a profound sense of relief. He devoted much time to farming and, in that year, constructed a 2,250 square foot distillery, which was one of the largest in the new republic, housing five copper stills, a boiler and 50 mash tubs, at the site of one of his unprofitable farms. At its peak, two years later, the distillery produced 11,000 gallons of corn and rye whiskey worth $7,500, and fruit brandy.
In 1798, Washington was appointed Lieutenant General in the United States Army (then the highest possible rank) by President John Adams. Washington's appointment was to serve as a warning to France, with which war seemed imminent.
On December 12, 1799, Washington spent several hours inspecting his farms on horseback, in snow and later hail and freezing rain. He sat down to dine that evening without changing his wet clothes. The next morning, he awoke with a bad cold, fever and a throat infection called quinsy that turned into acute laryngitis and pneumonia. Washington died on the evening of December 14, 1799, at his home aged 67, while attended by Dr. James Craik, one of his closest friends, and Tobias Lear, Washington's personal secretary. Lear would record the account in his journal, writing that Washington's last words were Tis well.
Modern doctors believe that Washington died from either epiglottitis or, since he was bled as part of the treatment, a combination of shock from the loss of five pints of blood, as well as asphyxia and dehydration. Washington's remains were buried at Mount Vernon. To protect their privacy, Martha Washington burned the correspondence between her husband and herself following his death. Only three letters between the couple have survived. After Washington's death, Mount Vernon was inherited by his nephew, Bushrod Washington, a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Congressman Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, a Revolutionary War comrade and father of the Civil War general Robert E. Lee, famously eulogized Washington as:
First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding; his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting…Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues…Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.
Lee's words set the standard by which Washington's overwhelming reputation was impressed upon the American memory. Washington set many precedents for the national government and the presidency in particular. As early as 1778, Washington was lauded as the "Father of His Country"
He was upheld as a shining example in schoolbooks and lessons: as courageous and farsighted, holding the Continental Army together through eight hard years of war and numerous privations, sometimes by sheer force of will; and as restrained: at war's end taking affront at the notion he should be King; and after two terms as President, stepping aside.
Washington manifested himself as the exemplar of republican virtue in America. More than any American he was extolled for his great personal integrity, and a deeply held sense of duty, honor and patriotism. He is seen more as a character model than war hero or founding father. One of Washington's greatest achievements, in terms of republican values, was refraining from taking more power than was due. He was conscientious of maintaining a good reputation by avoiding political intrigue. He rejected nepotism or cronyism. Jefferson observed, "The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish."