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George Washington

George Washington, (February 22, 1732December 14, 1799), also called Father of his Country,1 was an American general and Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War (17751783) and later the first President of the United States under the U.S. Constitution. (178997). He also served as President of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

For the role he played in winning and securing American independence, George Washington is generally recognized as one of the most important figures in U.S. history. Unlike many other revolutionary leaders, he voluntarily relinquished power even though some others wanted him to retain that power for life (as monarchs and dictators do). This established an important precedent of republican democracy that served as an example around the world.


Early life

He was born on February 11, 1731 (old style)/February 22, 1732 (new style). His birthday is celebrated on the Gregorian (new style) calendar date. Also note that the English year began on March 25 (Annunciation Day, or Lady Day) at the time of his birth, hence the difference in his birth year. His birthplace was Pope's Creek Plantation, south of Colonial Beach in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

Washington was part of the economic and cultural elite of the slave-owning planters of Virginia. His parents Augustine Washington (1693 - April 12, 1743) and Mary Ball (1708 - August 25, 1789) were of English descent. He spent much of his boyhood at Ferry Farm in Stafford County, near Fredericksburg and visited his Washington cousins at Chotank in King George County. As a youth, he was trained as a surveyor and helped survey the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. He visited Barbados, with his sick half-brother Lawrence in 1751, and survived an attack of smallpox, although his face was badly scarred by the disease. He was initiated as a Freemason in Fredericksburg on 4 February 1752. On Lawrence's death in July 1752, he rented and eventually inherited the estate, Mount Vernon (near Alexandria).

French and Indian War and afterwards

Washington was commissioned in 1754 as a colonel in the Virginia militia and built a series of forts in the western frontier of Virginia. He was dispatched by the governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, to force the French out of the Ohio valley. When they refused, he attacked a French scouting party, killing ten, including its leader, Jumonville. Anticipating retaliation, he built a small fort (Fort Necessity). It proved ineffective: Washington's forces were vastly outnumbered and the fort, built on low ground, flooded during a heavy rainfall. He was forced to surrender and negotiated a safe passage back to Virginia. Nevertheless, the incident ignited the French and Indian War.

In 1755, Washington accompanied the Braddock Expedition of the British Army during the French and Indian War. During the Battle of the Monongahela in western Pennsylvania, he had three horses shot out from under him, and four bullets pierced his coat. He showed his coolness under fire in organizing the retreat from the debacle. Washington then organized the First Virginia Regiment, which saw service through the war. He also served as an aide to General John Forbes in a later successful expedition to seize Fort Duquesne.

In 1759, he resigned his commission and married Martha Dandridge Custis, the wealthy widow of Daniel Parke Custis. Washington adopted Custis's two children and never fathered any of his own. The newlywed couple moved to Mount Vernon where he took up the life of a genteel farmer. He became a member of the House of Burgesses.

By 1774, Washington had become one of the colonies' wealthiest men. In that year, he was chosen as a delegate from Virginia to the First Continental Congress and the next year to the Second Continental Congress. He did not support colonial independence until 1776, when he read Thomas Paine's Common Sense.

American Revolution

The Continental Congress appointed Washington as commander-in-chief of the newly-formed Continental Army on June 15, 1775. The Massachusetts delegate John Adams suggested his appointment, citing his "skill as an officer... great talents and universal character." He assumed command on July 3.

Washington successfully drove the British out of Boston on March 17, 1776 by stationing artillery on Dorchester Heights. This day is celebrated in Boston as "Evacuation Day". The British army, led by General William Howe, retreated to Halifax, Canada, and Washington's army moved to New York City in anticipation of a British offensive there. Washington lost the Battle of Long Island on August 22 but managed to retreat, saving most of his forces. However, several other battles in the area sent Washington scrambling across New Jersey, leaving the future of the Revolution in doubt.

On the night of December 25, 1776, Washington led the American forces across the Delaware River to attack Hessian forces in Trenton, New Jersey, who did not anticipate an attack near Christmas. Washington followed up the assault with a sneak attack on General Charles Cornwallis's forces at Princeton on the eve of January 2, 1777, eventually retaking the state. The successful attacks built morale among the pro-independence colonists.

Later in the year, General Howe led an offensive aimed at taking the colonial capital of Philadelphia. He severely defeated Washington's forces at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11 and succeeded in his task. An attempt to dislodge the British, the Battle of Germantown, failed as a result of fog and confusion, and Washington was forced to retire for the winter at Valley Forge.

However, Washington's army recovered from the defeats and harsh winter conditions and drilled during the spring under the German Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Later, it attacked the British army moving from Philadelphia to New York at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778.

Against tremendous odds, Washington sustained his army throughout the Revolution, keeping British forces tied down in the center of the country while Generals Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold won the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. After Monmouth, the British concentrated their offensives in the southern colonies, and rather than attack them there, Washington's forces moved to Rhode Island, where he commanded military operations until the war's end. In 1779, he ordered twenty percent of the army to carry out an offensive against the Iroquois Confederacy, which had allied with the British. The achievement of his orders for " total destruction and devastation of their settlements" led the Iroquois to name Washington, Town Destroyer.

In 1781, American and French forces and a French fleet had trapped General Cornwallis at Yorktown in Virginia. Washington quick-marched south, joining the armies on September 14, and pressed the siege until the army surrendered. The British surrender there was the effective end of British attempts to quell the Revolution. In 1783, by means of the Treaty of Paris, the Kingdom of Great Britain recognized American independence. As a result, on November 2 of that year at Rocky Hill, New Jersey General Washington gave his "Farewell Address to the Army". Then at Fraunces Tavern in New York on December 4, he formally bid his officers farewell.

Activities between Revolution and Presidency

On December 23, 1783, General George Washington resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Army to the Congress, which was then meeting at the Maryland State House in Annapolis. This action was of great significance for the young nation, establishing the precedent that civilian elected officials, rather than military officers, possessed ultimate authority. Washington's stature was such that had he wanted to retain power—like Julius Caesar before him or Napoleon after him—he may have been able to seize it. Indeed, there was even some support among his most devoted followers for making Washington a permanent ruler or king, but Washington, like most of the Founding Fathers of the United States, abhorred the very idea.

At the time of Washington's departure from military service, he was listed on the rolls of the Continental Army as "General and Commander-in-Chief". See Retirement, death, and honors section below for more on this topic.

Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. For the most part he did not participate in the debates involved, but his prestige was great enough to maintain peace. He adamantly enforced the secrecy adopted by the Convention during the summer. After the Convention, his support convinced many, including the Virginia legislature, to support the Constitution.

Washington farmed roughly 8,000 acres (32 km²). Despite the large amount of land he owned at the time, he was considered "land poor" and never had much cash on hand. In fact, he had to borrow 600 to relocate to New York, then the center of the American government, to take office as president.


America's first presidential election took place on February 4, 1789. It was left up to each state to determine how to choose its electors. Of the 13 states, only 10 cast electoral votes, and of those 10, only 5 held a general popular election for president.

Each of the 69 electors who carried out their duties cast two votes, one of which had to be for a candidate from outside the voter's state. Therefore Washington, who garnered 69 electoral votes was a unanimous choice, and remains the only person ever to be elected president unanimously (a feat which he duplicated in 1792). As runner up with 34 votes, John Adams became vice-president elect. Congress certified the results of the election on April 6, and, though it was originally planned for March 4, Washington took the oath of the office of President of the United States on April 30 on the portico outside the Senate chamber of the Federal Building in New York City.

His election as president was a disappointment to Martha, the first First Lady, who wanted to continue living in quiet retirement at Mount Vernon after the war. Nevertheless, she quickly assumed the role of hostess, opening her parlor and organizing weekly dinner parties for as many dignitaries as could fit around the presidential table.

In 1791, the Federal government imposed an excise tax on whiskey. This tax was highly unpopular on the American frontier, and in July 1794, in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, a Federal marshal was attacked by a mob and a regional inspector's house was burned. On August 7, 1794, Washington called out the militias of several states and personally led a force of 13,000 to suppress the unrest. The event has gone down in history as the "Whiskey Rebellion." By his actions, Washington ensured that Federal law would be upheld and that the new nation would not fall to insurrection.

Washington held the first Cabinet meeting of any U.S. President on February 25, 1793. Opposition between members of his cabinet, particularly between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over the issue of a federally-chartered bank, led to the formation of political parties.

Also in 1793, the revolutionary government of France sent diplomat Citizen Genet, who attempted to turn popular sentiment towards American involvement in the war against Great Britain. Genet was authorized to issue letters of marque and reprisal to American ships and gave authority to any French consul to serve as a prize court. Genet's activities forced Washington to ask the French government for his recall.


President George Washington 1789–1797
Vice President John Adams 1789–1797
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson 1789–1793
  Edmund Randolph 1794–1795
  Timothy Pickering 1795–1797
Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton 1789–1795
  Oliver Wolcott, Jr. 1795–1797
Secretary of War Henry Knox 1789–1794
  Timothy Pickering 1795–1796
  James McHenry 1796–1797
Attorney General Edmund Randolph 1789–1793
  William Bradford 1794–1795
  Charles Lee 1795–1797
Postmaster General Samuel Osgood 1789–1791
  Timothy Pickering 1791–1795
  Joseph Habersham 1795–1797

Supreme Court appointments

Washington appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:

Major Presidential Acts

States Admitted to the Union

First President?

Some have wondered why national leaders of the United States prior to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution are not recognized as the President of the United States.

Some people argue that the Presidents of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation should be retroactively recognized as the true first Presidents of the United States. Politically, the two positions are different in that one was simply a chairman of a Congress that controlled a loose confederation while the other is an active executive official who heads a true federal government. Given this, historians generally believe that the positions should not be considered the same and therefore, the first "true" U.S. President (in the sense of being America's full Head of State) is indeed Washington. [1] Washington himself, in correspondence, congratulated John Hanson on becoming the first President of the Continental Congress (1781-1782), using the phrase "President of the United States" in describing Hanson.

Retirement, death, and honors

After retiring from the presidency in March of 1797, George Washington eagerly returned to Mount Vernon.

In 1798, George Washington returned to military service and was appointed Lieutenant General in the United States Army by President John Adams. Washington's appointment was to serve as a warning to France, with which war seemed imminent. Washington never saw active service, however, and upon his death one year later the U.S. Army rolls listed him as "retired."

Within a year of this 1798 appointment, Washington fell ill with acute laryngitis and died on December 14, 1799 at his home. Modern day doctors now believe that Washington died from either a streptococcal infection of the throat or, since he was bled as part of the treatment, a combination of shock from the loss of blood, asphyxia, and dehydration. He was buried in a family graveyard at Mount Vernon.

Congressman Henry Light Horse Harry Lee, a Revolutionary War comrade, famously eulogized Washington as "a citizen, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

With the exception of Dwight Eisenhower, who held a life-time commission as General of the Army (five star), George Washington is the only President with military service to reenter the military after leaving the office of President. Even though he had been the highest-ranking officer of the Revolutionary War, having in 1798 been appointed a Lieutenant General (now, three stars), it seemed, somewhat incongruously, that all later full (i.e. four-star) generals in U.S. history (starting with General Ulysses S. Grant), and also all five-star generals of the Army, were considered to outrank Washington. General John J. Pershing had attained an even higher rank of General of the Armies (above five star -- though the most stars Pershing actually ever wore were four). This issue was resolved in 1976, when Washington was, by Act of Congress, posthumously promoted to the rank of General of the Armies, and also declared to permanently be the top-ranked military officer of the United States. [2]

Personal information

Drawing of George Washington
Drawing of George Washington

Admirers of Washington circulated an apocryphal story about his honesty as a child. In the story, he wanted to try out a new axe, so he chopped down his father's cherry tree; when questioned by his father, he gave the famous non-quotation: "I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree." The story first appeared after Washington's death in a nave "inspirational" children's book by Parson Mason Weems, who had been rector of the Mount Vernon parish. See also George Washington's axe for an elaboration of this story. Parson Weems also fabricated a famous story about George Washington praying for help in a lonely spot in the woods near Valley Forge.

Nevertheless, Washington was a man of great personal integrity, with a deeply-held sense of duty, honor and patriotism. He was courageous and far-sighted, holding the Continental Army together through eight hard years of war and numerous privations, sometimes by sheer force of will.

Because of Washington's involvement in Freemasonry, some publicly visible collections of Washington memorabilia are maintained by Masonic lodges, most notably the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia. The museum at Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York City includes specimens of Washington's false teeth.

George Washington was plagued throughout his adult life with bad teeth, losing about one tooth a year from the age of 24. In his later years he consulted a number of dentists and used a number of sets of false teeth (but none of wood).

Washington was notable for his modesty and lack of ambition. He never accepted pay during his military service, and was genuinely reluctant to assume any of the offices thrust upon him. When John Adams recommended him to the Continental Congress for the position of general and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Washington left the room to allow any dissenters to freely voice their objections. In later accepting the post, Washington told the Congress that he was unworthy of the honor.

It is often said that one of Washington's greatest achievements was refraining from taking more power than was due. He was conscientious of maintaining a good reputation by avoiding political intrigue. He had no interest in nepotism or cronyism, rejecting, for example, a military promotion during the war for his deserving cousin William Washington lest it be regarded as favoritism. Thomas Jefferson wrote, "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."

Washington had to be talked into a second term of office and reluctantly agreed to it, but refused to serve a third term, setting a precedent that held until the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. At John Adams's inauguration, Washington is said to have approached Adams afterwards and stated "Well, I am fairly out and you are fairly in. Now we shall see who enjoys it the most." Washington also declined to leave the room before Adams and the new Vice President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, establishing the principle that even a former president is only, after all, a private citizen.

Washington was a cricket enthusiast and was known to have played the sport, which was popular at that time in the British colonies.

Washington and slavery

Washington owned slaves throughout his adult life, as did most of his peers in the Virginia plantation aristocracy. He was noteworthy, however, for the humane treatment of his slaves and for his growing unease with the "peculiar institution." Historian Roger Bruns has written, "As he grew older, he became increasingly aware that it was immoral and unjust. Long before the Revolution, Washington had taken the unusual position of refusing to sell any of his slaves or to allow slave families to be separated." After the Revolution, Washington told an English friend, "I clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our [Federal] union by consolidating it on a common bond of principle." He wrote to his friend John Francis Mercer in 1786, "I never mean... to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees." Ten years later, he wrote to Robert Morris, "There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see some plan adopted for the gradual abolition" of slavery.

As President, Washington was mindful of the risk of splitting apart the young republic over the question of slavery (as in fact happened in 1861). He did not advocate the abolition of slavery while in office, but did sign legislation enforcing the prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Territory, writing to his good friend the Marquis de la Fayette that he considered it a wise measure.

Unlike all of the slaveholding Founding Fathers, Washington included provisions in his will which freed his slaves upon his death. His widow Martha freed those she owned shortly before she died.

As cited in Henry Weincek's "Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America", one of his slaves, Ona Judge Staines escaped the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia in 1796 and lived the rest of her life free in New Hampshire.

Religious beliefs

The religious views of George Washington are a matter of some controversy. There is considerable evidence that he (like many of the Founding Fathers) was a Deist - believing in God (he preferred more impersonal appellations, like Providence), but not believing in divine intervention in the world after the initial design. Before the revolution, when the Episcopal Church was still the state religion in Virginia, he served as a vestryman (lay officer) for his local church. He spoke often of the value of religion in general, and he often accompanied his wife to Christian church services. However, there is no record of his ever becoming a communicant in any Christian church and he would regularly leave services before communion - with the other non-communicants. When Rev. Dr. James Abercrombie, rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia mentioned in a weekly sermon that those in elevated stations set an unhappy example by leaving at communion, Washington ceased attending at all on communion Sundays. Long after Washington died, asked about Washington's beliefs, Abercrombie replied: "Sir, Washington was a Deist." Various prayers said to have been composed by him in his later life are highly edited. He did not ask for any clergy on his deathbed, though one was available. His funeral services were those of the Freemasons.

Washington was an early supporter of religious pluralism. In 1775 he ordered that his troops not burn the Pope in effigy on Guy Fawkes night. In 1790 he wrote to Jewish leaders that he envisioned a country "which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.... May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid." This letter was seen by the Jewish community as a significant event; they felt that for the first time in millennia Jews would enjoy full human and political rights.


George Washington peacefully relinquished the presidency to John Adams after serving two terms in office. He set many other precedents that established tranquility in the presidential office in the years to come. He was also lauded posthumously as the "Father of His Country" and is often considered to be the most important of the United States's "Founding Fathers." Therefore, he has been commemorated frequently.

The capital city of the United States, Washington, D.C., is named for him. The District of Columbia was created by an Act of Congress in 1790, and Washington was deeply involved in its creation, including the siting of the White House. At this time, the future site of the capital was a swamp, and Washington remained largely marshland well into the 19th century. The capital was placed in the South, rather than in the major towns of the North, as a compromise during the writing of the United States Constitution in order to get Southern votes for important compromises.

Washington also selected West Point, New York, as the site for the United States Military Academy.

Washington State in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. is also named for him, the only state named for a president.

His image is on the one dollar bill and the quarter-dollar coin.

The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., was named after him, and it was in part founded with shares Washington bequeathed to an endowment to create a university in Washington.

The palm tree genus Washingtonia is also named after him.

See also: List of places named for George Washington

Further reading

The literature on George Washington is immense.

The definitive biography, still used as a reference by historians:

This is perhaps the most highly regarded single-volume biography:

  • Flexner, James Thomas. Washington: The Indispensable Man. 1974, reprinted 1994.

For full details of the first elections:

  • Jenson, Merrill et al., eds. The Documentary History of the First Federal Elections, 1788-1790. 4 vols. Madison, Wisconsin, 1976-1989.

For a comprehensive bibliography divided by topic:

Notable recent works include:

  • Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Knopf, 2004.
  • Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
  • Comora, Madeleine & Deborah Chandra. George Washington's Teeth. Illustrated by Brock Cole. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003; ISBN 0374325340. A lighthearted chronicle of his dental struggles.

Related articles

In recent years, a number of anti-Semitic groups have attributed false quotations to George Washington and other founding fathers of the USA, with the intention of inciting anti-Semitism. This subject is discussed in Neo-Nazi Theory (American founding fathers).


[1] The earliest known image in which Washington is identified as such is on the cover of the circa 1778 Pennsylvania German almanac, Lancaster: Gedruckt bey Francis Bailey. This identifies Washington as "Landes Vater" or Father of the Land.)

External links

Last updated: 10-23-2005 16:23:57
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