George Washington was born on February 22, 1732. He served as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and later presided over the 1787 convention that drafted the United States Constitution. Washington was widely admired for his strong leadership qualities and was unanimously elected as the first President of the United States by the Electoral College in the first two national elections, serving from 1789 to 1797. He oversaw the creation of a strong, well-financed national government that maintained neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars, suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion, and won acceptance among Americans of all types. Washington’s incumbency established many precedents still in use today, such as the cabinet system, the inaugural address, and the title Mr. President. His retirement from office after two terms established a tradition that lasted until 1940 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term. The 22nd Amendment (1951) now limits the president to two elected terms. George Washington is popularly considered the driving force behind the nation’s establishment and came to be known as the “father of the country,” both during his lifetime and to this day.
He was born into the provincial gentry of Colonial Virginia to a family of wealthy planters who owned tobacco plantations and slaves, which he inherited. In his youth, he became a senior officer in the colonial militia during the first stages of the French and Indian War. In 1775, the Second Continental Congress commissioned him as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolution. In that command, Washington forced the British out of Boston in 1776 but was defeated and nearly captured later that year when he lost New York City.
After crossing the Delaware River in the middle of winter, he defeated the British in two battles (Trenton and Princeton), retook New Jersey, and restored momentum to the Patriot cause. His strategy enabled Continental forces to capture two major British armies at Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown in 1781. Historians laud Washington for the selection and supervision of his generals; preservation and command of the army; coordination with the Congress, state governors, and their militia; and attention to supplies, logistics, and training. In battle, however, Washington was repeatedly outmaneuvered by British generals with larger armies.
After victory had been finalized in 1783, Washington resigned as commander-in-chief rather than seize power, proving his opposition to dictatorship and his commitment to American republicanism. Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which devised a new form of federal government for the United States. Following his election as president in 1789, he worked to unify rival factions in the fledgling nation. He supported Alexander Hamilton’s programs to satisfy all debts, federal and state, established a permanent seat of government, implemented an effective tax system, and created a national bank.
In avoiding war with Great Britain, Washington guaranteed a decade of peace and profitable trade by securing the Jay Treaty in 1795, despite intense opposition from the Jeffersonians. He remained non-partisan, never joining the Federalist Party, although he largely supported its policies. Washington’s Farewell Address was an influential primer on civic virtue, warning against partisanship, sectionalism, and involvement in foreign wars. He retired from the presidency in 1797, returning to his home and plantation at Mount Vernon.
Upon his death, Washington was eulogized as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen” by Representative Henry Lee III of Virginia. He was revered in life and in death; scholarly and public polling consistently ranks him among the top three presidents in American history. He has been depicted and remembered in monuments, public works, currency, and other dedications to the present day.
George Washington was the first child of Augustine Washington (1694–1743) and his second wife Mary Ball Washington (1708–1789), born on their Pope’s Creek Estate near present-day Colonial Beach in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was born on February 11, 1731, according to the Julian calendar and Annunciation Style of enumerating years then in use in the British Empire. The Gregorian calendar was adopted within the British Empire in 1752, and it renders a birth date of February 22, 1732.
Washington was of primarily English gentry descent, especially from Sulgrave, England. His great-grandfather John Washington emigrated to Virginia in 1656 and began accumulating land and slaves, as did his son Lawrence and his grandson, George’s father Augustine. Augustine was a tobacco planter who also tried his hand in iron-mining ventures. In George’s youth, the Washingtons were moderately prosperous members of the Virginia gentry, of “middling rank” rather than one of the leading planter families.
Six of George’s siblings reached maturity, including older half-brothers Lawrence and Augustine, from his father’s first marriage to Jane Butler Washington, and full siblings Samuel, Elizabeth (Betty), John Augustine, and Charles. Three siblings died before adulthood: his full sister Mildred died when she was about one, his half-brother Butler died in infancy, and his half-sister Jane died at age twelve, when George was about two. His father died of a sudden illness in April 1743 when George was eleven years old, and his half-brother Lawrence became a surrogate father and role model. William Fairfax was Lawrence’s father-in-law and the cousin of Virginia’s largest landowner Thomas, Lord Fairfax, and he was also a formative influence.
Washington’s father was the Justice of the Westmoreland County Court. George spent much of his boyhood at Ferry Farm in Stafford County near Fredericksburg. Lawrence Washington inherited another family property from his father, a plantation on the Potomac River at Little Hunting Creek which he named Mount Vernon, in honor of his commanding officer Admiral Edward Vernon. George inherited Ferry Farm upon his father’s death and eventually acquired Mount Vernon after Lawrence’s death.
The death of his father prevented Washington from an education at England’s Appleby School such as his older brothers had received. He achieved the equivalent of an elementary school education from a variety of tutors, as well as from a school run by an Anglican clergyman in or near Fredericksburg. There was talk of securing an appointment for him in the Royal Navy when he was 15, but it was dropped when his widowed mother objected.
In 1751, Washington traveled to Barbados with Lawrence, who was suffering from tuberculosis, with the hope that the climate would be beneficial to Lawrence’s health. Washington contracted smallpox during the trip, which left his face slightly scarred but immunized him against future exposures to the dreaded disease. However, Lawrence’s health failed to improve, and he returned to Mount Vernon where he died in the summer of 1752. Lawrence’s position as Adjutant General (militia leader) of Virginia was divided into four district offices after his death. Washington was appointed by Governor Dinwiddie as one of the four district adjutants in February 1753, with the rank of major in the Virginia militia. During this period, Washington became a Freemason while in Fredericksburg, although his involvement was minimal.
Washington’s introduction to surveying began at an early age through school exercises that taught him the basics of the profession, followed by practical experience in the field. His first experiences at surveying occurred in the territory surrounding Mount Vernon. His first opportunity as a surveyor occurred in 1748 when he was invited to join a survey party organized by his neighbor and friend George Fairfax of Belvoir. Fairfax organized a professional surveying party to lay out large tracts of land along the border of western Virginia, where the young Washington gained invaluable experience in the field.
Washington began his career as a professional surveyor in 1749 at the age of 17. He subsequently received a commission and surveyor’s license from the College of William and Mary and became the official surveyor for the newly formed Culpeper County. He was appointed to this well-paid official position thanks to his brother Lawrence’s connection to the prominent Fairfax family. He completed his first survey in less than two days, plotting a 400-acre parcel of land, and was well on his way to a promising career. He was subsequently able to purchase land in the Shenandoah Valley, the first of his many land acquisitions in western Virginia.
For the next four years, Washington worked surveying land in Western Virginia and for the Ohio Company, a land investment company funded by Virginia investors. He came to the notice of the new lieutenant governor of Virginia Robert Dinwiddie, thanks to Lawrence’s position as commander of the Virginia militia. He was hard to miss; at over six feet, he was taller than most of his contemporaries. In October 1750, Washington resigned his position as an official surveyor, though he continued to work diligently over the next three years at his new profession. He continued to survey professionally for two more years, mostly in Frederick County, before receiving a military appointment as adjutant for southern Virginia. By 1752, Washington completed close to 200 surveys on numerous properties totaling more than 60,000 acres. He continued to survey at different times throughout his life and as late as 1799.
Washington began his military service in the French and Indian War as a major in the militia of the British Province of Virginia. In 1753, he was sent as an ambassador from the British crown to the French officials and Indians as far north as present-day Erie, Pennsylvania. The Ohio Company was an important vehicle through which British investors planned to expand into the Ohio Valley, opening new settlements and trading posts for the Indian trade. In 1753, the French themselves began expanding their military control into the Ohio Country, a territory already claimed by the British colonies of Virginia and Pennsylvania. These competing claims led to a war in the colonies called the French and Indian War (1754–62) and contributed to the start of the global Seven Years’ War (1756–63). By chance, Washington became involved in its beginning.
Lieutenant governor of colonial Virginia Robert Dinwiddie was ordered by the British government to guard the British territorial claims, including the Ohio River basin. In late 1753, Dinwiddie ordered Washington to deliver a letter asking the French to vacate the Ohio Valley; he was eager to prove himself as the new adjutant general of the militia, appointed by the Lieutenant Governor himself only a year before. During his trip, Washington met with Tanacharison (also called “Half-King”) and other Iroquois chiefs allied with England at Logstown to secure their support in case of a military conflict with the French. He delivered the letter to local French commander Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, who politely refused to leave. Washington kept a diary during his expedition which was printed by William Hunter on Dinwiddie’s order and which made Washington’s name recognizable in Virginia. This increased notoriety helped him to obtain a commission to raise a company of 100 men and start his military career.
Dinwiddie sent Washington back to the Ohio Country to safeguard an Ohio Company’s construction of a fort at present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. However, before he reached the area, a French force drove out colonial traders and began construction of Fort Duquesne. A small detachment of French troops led by Joseph Coulon de Jumonville was discovered by Tanacharison and a few warriors east of present-day Uniontown, Pennsylvania. On May 28, 1754, Washington and some of his militia unit, aided by their Mingo allies, ambushed the French in what has come to be called the Battle of Jumonville Glen. Exactly what happened during and after the battle is a matter of contention, but several primary accounts agree that the battle lasted about 15 minutes, that Jumonville was killed, and that most of his party were either killed or taken prisoner. It is not completely clear whether Jumonville died at the hands of Tanacharison in cold blood, or was somehow shot by an onlooker with a musket as he sat with Washington, or by another means. He was given the epithet Town Destroyer by Tanacharison.
The French responded by attacking and capturing Washington at Fort Necessity in July 1754. However, he was allowed to return with his troops to Virginia. Historian Joseph Ellis concludes that the episode demonstrated Washington’s bravery, initiative, inexperience, and impetuosity. These events had international consequences; the French accused Washington of assassinating Jumonville, who they claimed was on a diplomatic mission. Both France and Great Britain were ready to fight for control of the region and both sent troops to North America in 1755; war was formally declared in 1756.
In 1755, Washington became the senior American aide to British General Edward Braddock on the ill-fated Braddock expedition. This was the largest British expedition to the colonies, and was intended to expel the French from the Ohio Country; the first objective was the capture of Fort Duquesne. Washington initially sought an appointment as a major from Braddock, but he agreed to serve as a staff volunteer upon advice that no rank above captain could be given except by London. During the passage of the expedition, Washington fell ill with severe headaches and fever; nevertheless, he recommended to Braddock that the army be split into two divisions when the pace of the troops continued to slow: a primary and more lightly equipped “flying column” offensive which could move at a more rapid pace, to be followed by a more heavily armed reinforcing division. Braddock accepted the recommendation (likely made in a council of war including other officers) and took command of the lead division.
In the Battle of the Monongahela, the French and their Indian allies ambushed Braddock’s reduced forces and the general was mortally wounded. After suffering devastating casualties, the British panicked and retreated in disarray; however, Washington rode back and forth across the battlefield, rallying the remnants of the British and Virginian forces into an organized retreat. In the process, he demonstrated much bravery and stamina, despite his lingering illness. He had two horses shot from underneath him, while his coat was pierced with four bullets. In his report, Washington blamed the disaster chiefly on the conduct of the redcoats, while praising that of the Virginia contingent.
Washington was not included by the succeeding commander Col. Thomas Dunbar in planning subsequent force movements, whatever responsibility rested on him for the defeat as a result of his recommendation to Braddock.
Lt. Governor Dinwiddie rewarded Washington in 1755 with a commission as “Colonel of the Virginia Regiment and Commander in Chief of all forces now raised in the defense of His Majesty’s Colony” and gave him the task of defending Virginia’s frontier. The Virginia Regiment was the first full-time American military unit in the colonies, as opposed to part-time militias and the British regular units. He was ordered to “act defensively or offensively” as he thought best. He happily accepted the commission, but the coveted red coat of officer rank (and the accompanying pay) continued to elude him. Dinwiddie as well pressed in vain for the British military to incorporate the Virginia Regiment into its ranks.
In command of a thousand soldiers, Washington was a disciplinarian who emphasized training. He led his men in brutal campaigns against the Indians in the west; his regiment fought 20 battles in 10 months and lost a third of its men. Washington’s strenuous efforts meant that Virginia’s frontier population suffered less than that of other colonies; Ellis concludes that “it was his only unqualified success” in that war.
In 1758, Washington participated in the Forbes Expedition to capture Fort Duquesne. He was embarrassed by a friendly fire episode in which his unit and another British unit each thought that the other was the French enemy and opened fire, with 14 dead and 26 wounded in the mishap. Washington was not involved in any other major fighting on the expedition, and the British scored a major strategic victory, gaining control of the Ohio Valley when the French abandoned the fort. Following the expedition, he retired from his Virginia Regiment commission in December 1758. He did not return to military life until the outbreak of the revolution in 1775.
On January 6, 1759, Washington married wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis, then 28 years old. Surviving letters suggest that he may have been in love at the time with Sally Fairfax, the wife of a friend. Nevertheless, George and Martha made a compatible marriage, because Martha was intelligent, gracious, and experienced in managing a planter’s estate.
Together they raised her children from her previous marriage, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke (Patsy) Custis. Later, they raised Martha’s grandchildren Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. George and Martha never had any children together; his earlier bout with smallpox in 1751 may have made him sterile. The newlywed couple moved to Mount Vernon, near Alexandria, where he took up the life of a planter and political figure.
Washington’s marriage to Martha greatly increased his property holdings and social standing, and made him one of Virginia’s wealthiest men. He acquired one-third of the 18,000-acre (73 km²) Custis estate upon his marriage, worth approximately $100,000, and managed the remainder on behalf of Martha’s children, for whom he sincerely cared.
In 1754, Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie had promised land bounties to the soldiers and officers who volunteered to serve during the French and Indian War. Washington prevailed upon Lord Botetourt, the new governor, and he finally fulfilled Dinwiddie’s promise in 1769–1770, with Washington subsequently receiving title to 23,200 acres (94 km²) where the Kanawha River flows into the Ohio River, in what is now western West Virginia. He also frequently bought additional land in his own name. By 1775, Washington had doubled the size of Mount Vernon to 6,500 acres (26 km²), and had increased its slave population to over 100. As a respected military hero and large landowner, he held local office and was elected to the Virginia provincial legislature, representing Frederick County in the House of Burgesses for seven years beginning in 1758.
Washington lived an aristocratic lifestyle—fox hunting was a favorite leisure activity. He also enjoyed going to dances and parties, in addition to the theater, races, and cockfights. He also was known to play cards, backgammon, and billiards. Like most Virginia planters, he imported luxuries and other goods from England and paid for them by exporting his tobacco crop. However, by 1764, conspicuous consumption of luxuries coupled with a poor tobacco market left Washington ₤1,800 in debt. He began to pull himself out of debt in the mid-1760s by diversifying his previously tobacco-centric business interests into other ventures and paying more attention to his affairs, especially in the form of buying fewer imported luxuries.
In 1766, he started switching Mount Vernon’s primary cash crop away from tobacco to wheat, a crop that could be processed and then sold in various forms in the colonies, and further diversified operations to include flour milling, fishing, horse breeding, hog production, spinning, and weaving, and (in the 1790s) he erected a distillery for whiskey production which yielded more than 1,000 gallons a month.
After a history of epileptic attacks, Patsy Custis died suddenly in Washington’s arms in 1773. The day following Patsy’s death, Washington wrote to Burwell Bassett: “It is an easier to conceive, than to describe, the distress of this Family, especially that of the unhappy Parent of our Dear Patcy Custis, when I inform you that yesterday re- moved the Sweet, Innocent Girl into a more happy & peaceful abode than any she has met with, the aflicted path she hitherto has trod.” Washington canceled all business activity and, for the next three months, was not away from Martha for a single night. Patsy’s death enabled Washington to pay off his British creditors, since half of her inheritance passed to him.
Washington was a successful planter of tobacco and wheat, and also a leader in the social elite in Virginia. From 1768 to 1775, he invited some 2,000 guests to his Mount Vernon estate, mostly those whom he considered “people of rank”. As for people not of high social status, his advice was to “treat them civilly” but “keep them at a proper distance, for they will grow upon familiarity, in proportion as you sink in authority”. In 1769, he became more politically active, presenting the Virginia Assembly with legislation to ban the importation of goods from Great Britain.
Washington played a leading military and political role in the American Revolution. His involvement began in 1767, when he first took political stands against the various acts of the British Parliament. He opposed the 1765 Stamp Act, the first direct tax on the colonies imposed by the British Parliament, which included no representatives from the colonies; he began taking a leading role in the growing colonial resistance when protests became widespread against the Townshend Acts (enacted in 1767). In May 1769, he introduced a proposal, drafted by his friend George Mason and calling for Virginia to boycott English goods until the Acts were repealed.
Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts in 1770. However, Washington regarded the passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774 as “an Invasion of our Rights and Privileges”. He told friend Bryan Fairfax, “I think the Parliament of Great Britain has no more right to put their hands in my pocket without my consent than I have to put my hands into yours for money.” He also said that Americans must not submit to acts of tyranny “till custom and use shall make us as tame and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.”
In July 1774, he chaired the meeting at which the “Fairfax Resolves” were adopted, which called for the convening of a Continental Congress, among other things. In August, Washington attended the First Virginia Convention, where he was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.
The colonies went to war after the Battles of Lexington and Concord near Boston in April 1775. Washington appeared at the Second Continental Congress in a military uniform, signaling that he was prepared for war. He had the prestige, military experience, charisma, and military bearing of a military leader and was known as a strong patriot. Virginia was the largest colony and deserved recognition, and New England — where the fighting began — realized that it needed Southern support. Washington did not explicitly seek the office of commander and said that he was not equal to it, but there was no serious competition. Congress created the Continental Army on June 14, 1775. Washington was nominated by John Adams of Massachusetts, then appointed as a full General and Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.
The British then articulated the peril of Washington and his army; on August 23, 1775, Britain issued a Royal proclamation labeling American Patriots as traitors. If they resorted to force, they faced confiscation of their property, and their leaders were subject to execution upon the scaffold.
General Washington essentially assumed three roles during the war. First, he provided leadership of troops against the main British forces in 1775–77 and again in 1781. He lost many of his battles, but he never surrendered his army during the war, and he continued to fight the British relentlessly until the war’s end. He plotted the overall strategy of the war, in cooperation with Congress.
Second, he was charged with organizing and training the army. He recruited regulars and assigned Baron von Steuben to train them, a veteran of the Prussian general staff. The war effort and getting supplies to the troops were under the purview of Congress, but Washington pressured the Congress to provide the essentials. In June 1776, Congress’ first attempt at running the war effort was established with the committee known as “Board of War and Ordnance”, succeeded by the Board of War in July 1777, a committee which eventually included members of the military. The command structure of the armed forces was a hodgepodge of Congressional appointees (and Congress sometimes made those appointments without Washington’s input) with state-appointments filling the lower ranks. The results of his general staff were mixed, as some of his favorites (such as John Sullivan) never mastered the art of command.
Eventually, he found capable officers, such as General Nathanael Greene, General Daniel Morgan (“the old wagoner” with whom he had served in The French and Indian War), Colonel Henry Knox (chief of artillery), and Colonel Alexander Hamilton (chief of staff). The American officers never equaled their opponents in tactics and maneuver, and consequently, they lost most of the pitched battles. The great successes at Boston (1776), Saratoga (1777), and Yorktown (1781) came from trapping the British far from base with much larger numbers of troops. Daniel Morgan’s annihilation of Banastre Tarleton’s legion of dragoons at Cowpens in February 1781 came as a result of Morgan’s employment of superior line tactics against his British opponent, resulting in one of the very few double envelopments in military history, another being Hannibal’s defeat of the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC.
The decisive defeat of Col. Patrick Ferguson’s Tory Regiment at King’s Mountain demonstrated the superiority of the riflery of American “over-mountain men” over British-trained troops armed with musket and bayonet. These “over-mountain men” were led by a variety of elected officers, including the 6’6″ William Campbell who had become one of Washington’s officers by the time of Yorktown. Similarly, Morgan’s Virginia riflemen proved themselves superior to the British at Saratoga, a post-revolutionary war development being the creation of trained “rifle battalions” in the European armies.
Washington’s third and most important role in the war effort was the embodiment of armed resistance to the Crown, the representative man of the Revolution. His long-term strategy was to maintain an army in the field at all times, and eventually this strategy worked. His enormous personal and political stature and his political skills kept Congress, the army, the French, the militias, and the states all pointed toward a common goal. Furthermore, he permanently established the principle of civilian supremacy in military affairs by voluntarily resigning his commission and disbanding his army when the war was won, rather than declaring himself monarch. He also helped overcome the distrust of a standing army by his constant reiteration that well-disciplined professional soldiers counted for twice as much as erratic militias. This was clearly demonstrated in the rout at Camden, where only the Maryland and Delaware Continentals held firm under Baron DeKalb.
Washington assumed command of the Continental Army in the field at Cambridge, Massachusetts in July 1775 during the ongoing siege of Boston. He recognized his army’s desperate shortage of gunpowder and sought new sources. American troops raided British arsenals, including some in the Caribbean, and some manufacturing was attempted. They obtained a barely adequate supply (about 2.5 million pounds) by the end of 1776, mostly from France.
Washington reorganized the army during the long standoff in Boston and forced the British to withdraw by putting artillery on Dorchester Heights overlooking the city. The British evacuated Boston in March 1776 and Washington moved his army to New York City.
British newspapers were highly disparaging toward most of the Patriots, but they routinely praised Washington’s personal character and qualities as a military commander. These articles were bold, as Washington was an enemy general who commanded an army in a cause that many Britons believed would ruin the empire.
In August 1776, British General William Howe launched a massive naval and land campaign designed to seize New York. Many of Washington’s generals preferred retreating from the city and engaging in a defensive strategy, but he believed it better to engage in a major pitched battle. The Continental Army under Washington engaged the enemy for the first time as an army of the United States at the Battle of Long Island, the largest battle of the entire war. The Americans were heavily outnumbered, many men deserted, and Washington was badly defeated. He and his generals determined on a course of retreat, and Washington instructed General William Heath to make available every flat-bottom riverboat and sloop in the area. In little time, Washington’s army crossed the East River safely under the cover of darkness to Manhattan Island and did so without loss of life or materiel.
Washington had considered abandoning the island and Fort Washington, but he heeded Generals Greene and Putnam’s recommendation to attempt a defense of the fort. He belatedly retreated farther across the Hudson to Fort Lee to avoid encirclement. With the Americans in retreat, Howe was able to take the offensive; he landed his troops on the island on November 16 and surrounded and captured Fort Washington, resulting in high Continental casualties. Biographer Alden claims that “although Washington was responsible for the decision to delay the patriots’ retreat, he tried to ascribe blame for the decision to defend Fort Washington to the wishes of Congress and the bad advice of Nathaniel Greene.”
Washington then continued his flight across New Jersey; the future of the Continental Army was in doubt due to expiring enlistments and the string of losses. On the night of December 25, 1776, he led his army across the Delaware River. The next morning, the troops launched a surprise attack on a Hessian outpost in Trenton, New Jersey, capturing nearly 1,000 prisoners. Washington followed up his victory at Trenton with another over British regulars at Princeton on January 3. The British retreated to New York City and its environs, which they held until the peace treaty of 1783.
Washington’s victories wrecked the British carrot-and-stick strategy of showing overwhelming force then offering generous terms. The Americans would not negotiate for anything short of independence. These victories alone were not enough to ensure ultimate Patriot victory, however, since many soldiers did not reenlist or deserted during the harsh winter. Washington and Congress reorganized the army with increased rewards for staying and punishment for desertion, which raised troop numbers effectively for subsequent battles.
In February 1777 while encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, Washington became convinced that only smallpox inoculation by variolation would prevent the destruction of his Army. He ordered the inoculation of all troops and, by some reports, death by smallpox in the ranks dropped from 17% of all deaths to 1% of all deaths.
Historians debate whether Washington preferred to fight major battles or to utilize a Fabian strategy to harass the British with quick, sharp attacks followed by a retreat so that the larger British army could not catch him. His southern commander Greene did use Fabian tactics in 1780–81; Washington did so only in fall 1776 to spring 1777, after losing New York City and seeing much of his army melt away. Trenton and Princeton were Fabian examples. By summer 1777, however, Washington had rebuilt his strength and his confidence; he stopped using raids and went for large-scale confrontations, as at Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, and Yorktown.
In late summer of 1777, British General John Burgoyne led a major invasion army south from Quebec, with the intention of splitting off rebellious New England. But General Howe in New York took his army south to Philadelphia instead of going up the Hudson River to join with Burgoyne near Albany — a major strategic mistake. Meanwhile, Washington rushed to Philadelphia to engage Howe, while closely following the action in upstate New York, where the patriots were led by General Philip Schuyler and his successor Horatio Gates. The ensuing pitched battles at Philadelphia were too complex for Washington’s relatively inexperienced men and they were defeated. At the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, Howe outmaneuvered Washington and marched into the American capital at Philadelphia unopposed on September 26. Washington’s army unsuccessfully attacked the British garrison at Germantown in early October. Meanwhile, to the north, Burgoyne was beyond the reach of help from Howe, trapped and forced to surrender after the Battles of Saratoga. This was a major turning point militarily and diplomatically — the French responded to Burgoyne’s defeat by entering the war, allying with America and expanding the Revolutionary War into a major worldwide affair.
Washington’s loss at Philadelphia prompted some members of Congress to consider removing Washington from command. This movement termed the Conway Cabal, failed after Washington’s supporters rallied behind him. The zealous admiration of Washington indeed inevitably waned. John Adams was never a fan of the southern delegation to the Continental Congress, and he wrote that “Congress will appoint a thanksgiving; and one cause of it ought to be that the glory of turning the tide of arms is not immediately due to the commander-in-chief nor to southern troops. If it had been, idolatry and adulation would have been unbounded…. Now we can allow a certain citizen to be wise, virtuous, and good, without thinking him a deity or a savior.”
Washington’s army of 11,000 went into winter quarters at Valley Forge north of Philadelphia in December 1777. Over the next six months, the deaths in camp numbered in the thousands, the majority being from disease, compounded by lack of food and proper clothing, poor shelter, and the extreme cold; historians’ death toll estimates range from 2,000 to over 3,000 men. The British were comfortably quartered in Philadelphia and paid for their supplies in sterling; in contrast, Washington had difficulty procuring supplies from the few farmers in the area who would not accept rapidly depreciating American paper currency, while the woodlands about the valley had soon been exhausted of game. As conditions worsened, Washington was faced with the task of maintaining morale and discouraging desertion, which had become common by February.
Washington had repeatedly petitioned the Continental Congress for badly needed provisions but with no success. Finally, on January 24, 1778, five Congressmen came to Valley Forge to examine the conditions of the Continental Army. Washington expressed the urgency of the situation, exclaiming, “Something must be done. Important alterations must be made.” At this time, he also contended that Congress should take control of the army supply system, pay for its supplies, and promptly expedite them as they became necessary. In response to Washington’s urgent appeal, Congress gave full support to funding the supply lines of the army, which also resulted in reorganizing the commissary department, which controlled gathering the supplies for the army. By late February, there were adequate supplies flowing throughout camp.
The next spring, a revitalized army emerged from Valley Forge in good order, thanks in part to a full-scale training program supervised by General von Steuben. The British evacuated Philadelphia for New York in June, 1778. Washington summoned a council of war with Generals Lee, Greene, and Wayne and Lafayette, and he decided to make a partial attack on the retreating British at the Battle of Monmouth. On June 28, Lee and Lafayette moved with 4,000 men and without Washington’s immediate knowledge; they attempted to launch but bungled the first attack at the British rear guard. Clinton came about and offered stiff resistance, also with 4,000 men and waiting in anticipation, keeping the Americans in check. After sharp words of criticism, Washington relieved Lee and continued fighting to an effective draw in one of the war’s largest battles. When nightfall came, the fighting came to a stop and the British continued their retreat and headed towards New York, where Washington soon moved his army just outside the city.
In the summer of 1779, Washington and Congress decided to strike the Iroquois warriors of the “Six Nations” in a campaign to force Britain’s Indian allies out of New York, which they had used as a base to attack American settlements around New England. In June 1779, the Indian warriors joined with Tory rangers led by Colonel William Butler and slew over 200 frontiersmen, using barbarities normally shunned, and laid waste to the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. Indeed, one British officer who witnessed the Tory brutality said that the redcoats on return to England would “scalp every son of a bitch of them.” In August 1779, General John Sullivan led a military operation that destroyed at least 40 Iroquois villages, burning all available crops. Few people were killed as the Indians fled to British protection in Canada. Sullivan later reported that “the immediate objects of this expedition are accomplished, viz: total ruin of the Indian settlements and the destruction of their crops, which were designed for the support of those inhuman barbarians.”
Washington at this time moved his headquarters from Middlebrook in New Jersey up to New Windsor on the Hudson, with an army of 10,000. The British, led by Howe’s successor Sir Henry Clinton, made a move up the Hudson against American posts at Verplanck’s Point and Stony Point, and both places succumbed; but a counter-offensive was briefly successful by the patriots led by General Anthony Wayne. Clinton was able to shut off Kings Ferry in the end, but it was a strategic loss; he could proceed no farther up the river due to American fortifications and Washington’s army. The skirmishes at Verplanck’s Point and at Stony Point demonstrated that the continental infantry had become quite formidable and were an enormous boost to morale.
Washington went into quarters at Morristown during the winter of 1779–1780, which represented the worst suffering for the army during the war. The temperatures fell to 16 below zero, the New York Harbor was frozen over, and snow and ice covered the ground for weeks, with the troops again lacking provisions for a time as at Valley Forge. In late 1779, Clinton moved his forces south to Charleston for an offensive against the patriots led by Benjamin Lincoln. After his success there, Clinton returned victorious to New York, leaving Cornwallis in the south. Congress replaced Lincoln with Gates, despite Washington’s recommendation of Greene. Gates failed in South Carolina and was then replaced by Greene. The British at the time seemed to have the South almost in their grasp. Despite this news, Washington was encouraged to learn in mid-1780 that Lafayette had returned from France with additional naval assets and forces.
In the summer of 1778, George Washington ordered Major Benjamin Tallmadge to form the Culper Ring. This group was composed of a select few trustworthy individuals whose purpose was to collect information about the British movements and activities in New York City. The Ring is famous for uncovering Benedict Arnold’s intentions of treason, which shocked Washington because Arnold was someone who had contributed significantly to the war effort. Arnold was embittered by his dealings with Congress over rank and finances, as well as the alliance with France, so he conspired with the British in a plan to seize the post that he commanded at West Point. Washington just missed apprehending him, but did capture his co-conspirator Major John André, a British intelligence officer under Clinton who was hanged by order of a court-martial called by Washington.
Washington’s army went into winter quarters at New Windsor in 1780 and suffered again for lack of supplies. There resulted a considerable mutiny by Pennsylvania troops; Washington prevailed upon Congress as well as state officials to come to their aid with provisions. He very much sympathized with their suffering, saying that he hoped that the army would not “continue to struggle under the same difficulties they have hitherto endured, which I cannot help remarking seem to reach the bounds of human patience”.
In July 1780, 5,000 veteran French troops led by the comte de Rochambeau arrived at Newport, Rhode Island to aid in the war; French naval forces then landed, led by Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse. It was Washington’s hope initially to bring the allied fight to New York and to end the war there, but Rochambeau advised de Grasse that Cornwallis in Virginia was the better target. de Grasse followed his advice and arrived off the Virginia Coast. Washington immediately saw the advantage created, made a feinting move with his force towards Clinton in New York, and then headed south to Virginia.
Washington’s Continental Army, also newly funded by $20,000 in French gold, delivered the final blow to the British in 1781, after a French naval victory allowed American and French forces to trap a British army in Virginia, preventing reinforcement by Clinton from the North. The surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, marked the end of major fighting in North America. Cornwallis failed to appear at the official surrender ceremony, and sent General Charles Oharrow as his proxy; Washington then had General Benjamin Lincoln accept the surrender in his place.
Substantial combat had ended but the war had not, and a formal treaty of peace was months away, creating tension. The British still had 26,000 troops occupying New York City, Charleston, and Savannah, together with a powerful fleet. The French army and navy departed, so the Americans were on their own in 1782–83. Money matters fed the anxiety; the treasury was empty, and the unpaid soldiers were growing restive, almost to the point of mutiny. At one point, they forced an adjournment of the Congress from Philadelphia to Princeton. Washington dispelled unrest among officers by suppressing the Newburgh Conspiracy in March 1783, and Congress came up with the promise of a five-year bonus.
With the initial peace treaty articles ratified in April, a recently formed Congressional committee under Hamilton was considering needs and plans for a peacetime army. On May 2, 1783, the Commander in Chief submitted his Sentiments on a Peace Establishment to the Committee, essentially providing an official Continental Army position. The original proposal was defeated in Congress in two votes (May 1783, October 1783), with a truncated version also being rejected in April 1784.
By the Treaty of Paris signed that September, Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States. Washington disbanded his army and gave an eloquent farewell address to his soldiers on November 2. 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 he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief on December 23, 1783. “I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life, by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.” Historian Gordon Wood concludes that the greatest act in his life was his resignation as commander of the armies. King George III called Washington “the greatest character of the age” because of this.
Washington later submitted a formal account of the expenses that he had personally advanced the army over the eight-year conflict of about $450,000. It is said to have been detailed regarding small items and vague concerning large ones, and included the expenses incurred from Martha’s visits to his headquarters, as well as his compensation for service—none of which had been drawn during the war.
Washington’s retirement to personal business at Mount Vernon was short-lived. He made an exploratory trip to the western frontier in 1784 and inspected his land holdings in Western Pennsylvania that had been earned decades earlier for his service in the French and Indian War. There he confronted squatters, including David Reed and the Covenanters; they vacated, but only after losing a court decision heard in Washington, Pennsylvania in 1786.
After much reluctance, Washington was persuaded to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 as a delegate from Virginia, where he was unanimously elected as president of the Convention. He held considerable criticism of the Articles of Confederation of the thirteen colonies, for the weak central government which it established, referring to the Articles as no more than “a rope of sand” to support the new nation. Washington’s view for the need of a strong federal government grew out of the recent war, as well as the inability of the Continental Congress to rally the states to provide for the needs of the military, as was clearly demonstrated for him during the winter at Valley Forge. The general populace, however, did not share Washington’s views of a strong federal government binding the states together, comparing such a prevailing entity to the British Parliament that previously ruled and taxed the colonies.
Washington’s participation in the debates was minor, although he cast his vote when called upon; his prestige facilitated the collegiality and productivity of the delegates. After a couple of months into the task, Washington told Alexander Hamilton, “I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of our convention and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business.” Following the Convention, his support convinced many, but not all of his colleagues, to vote for ratification. He unsuccessfully lobbied anti-federalist Patrick Henry, saying that “the adoption of it under the present circumstances of the Union is in my opinion desirable;” he declared that the only alternative would be anarchy. Nevertheless, he did not consider it appropriate to cast his vote in favor of adoption for Virginia, since he was expected to be nominated president under it. The new Constitution was subsequently ratified by all thirteen states. The delegates to the convention designed the presidency with Washington in mind, allowing him to define the office by establishing precedent once elected. Washington thought that the achievements were monumental once they were finally completed.
The Electoral College unanimously elected Washington as the first president in 1789 and again in 1792. He remains the only president to receive the totality of electoral votes. John Adams received the next highest vote total and was elected vice president. Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, taking the first presidential oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. The oath, as follows, was administered by Chancellor Robert R. Livingston: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Historian John R. Alden indicates that Washington added the words “so help me God.”
The 1st United States Congress voted to pay Washington a salary of $25,000 a year — a large sum in 1789, valued at about $340,000 in 2015 dollars. Washington faced financial troubles then, yet he initially declined the salary. At the urging of Congress, however, he ultimately accepted the payment to avoid setting a precedent whereby the presidency would be perceived as limited only to independently wealthy individuals who could serve without any salary. The president was aware that everything which he did set a precedent, and he 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 proposed by the Senate.
Washington proved an able administrator and established many precedents in the functions of the presidency, including messages to Congress and the cabinet form of government. He set the standard for tolerance of opposition voices, despite fears that a democratic system would lead to political violence, and conducted a smooth transition of power to his successor. He was an excellent delegator and judge of talent and character; he talked regularly with department heads and listened to their advice 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.” After reluctantly serving a second term, Washington refused to run for a third, establishing the tradition of a maximum of two terms for a president, which was solidified by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Washington’s Farewell Address was issued as a public letter in 1796 and was one of the most influential statements of republicanism, 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. He referred to morality as “a necessary spring of popular government”, and said, “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason, and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” The address warned against foreign influence in domestic affairs and American meddling in European affairs, and against bitter partisanship in domestic politics. He also called for men to move beyond partisanship and serve the common good. He cautioned against “permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world”, saying that the United States must concentrate primarily on American interests. He counseled friendship and commerce with all nations, but advised against involvement in European wars and entering into long-term “entangling” alliances, while advancing the general idea of non-involvement in foreign affairs. The Farewell Address made no clear distinction between domestic and foreign policies; John Quincy Adams interpreted Washington’s policy as advocating a strong nationalist foreign policy while not limiting America’s international activities. The address, however, quickly set American values regarding foreign affairs. Washington’s policy of non-involvement in the foreign affairs of the Old World was largely embraced by the founding generation of American statesmen, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.
Washington retired from the presidency in March 1797 and returned to Mount Vernon with a profound sense of relief. He devoted much time to his plantations and other business interests, including his distillery, which produced its first batch of spirits in February 1797. Chernow 2010 explains that his plantation operations were only minimally profitable. The lands out west yielded little income because they were under attack by Indians, and the squatters living there refused to pay him rent. Washington attempted to sell off these holdings but failed to obtain the price that he desired. Meanwhile, he was losing money at Mount Vernon due to a glut of unproductive slaves, which he declined to sell due to a desire to keep families intact, and due to questions as to whether the slaves rightfully belonged to him or to Martha.
Most Americans assumed that he was rich because of the well-known “glorified façade of wealth and grandeur” at Mount Vernon. However, nearly all his wealth was tied up in land or slaves. Historians estimate that his estate was worth about $1 million in 1799 dollars, equivalent to about $19.9 million in 2014 purchasing power.
By 1798, relations with France had deteriorated to the point that war seemed imminent. President Adams offered Washington a commission as lieutenant general on July 4, 1798, and as Commander-in-chief of the armies raised or to be raised for service in a prospective war. He accepted and served as the senior officer of the United States Army from July 13, 1798, until his death seventeen months later. He participated in the planning for a Provisional Army to meet any emergency that might arise but avoided involvement in details as much as possible. He delegated most of the work, including active leadership of the army, to Hamilton, who was then serving as a major general in the U.S. Army. No French army invaded the United States during this period, and Washington did not assume a field command.
On Thursday, December 12, 1799, Washington spent several hours inspecting his plantation on horseback, in snow, hail, and freezing rain; that evening, he ate his supper without changing from his wet clothes. He awoke the next morning with a severe sore throat and became increasingly hoarse as the day progressed, yet still rode out in the heavy snow, marking trees that he wanted cut on the estate. Some time around 3 a.m. that Saturday, he suddenly awoke with severe difficulty breathing and almost completely unable to speak or swallow. He was a firm believer in bloodletting, which was a standard medical practice of that era which he had used to treat various ailments of slaves on his plantation. He ordered estate overseer Albin Rawlins to remove half a pint of his blood.
A total of three physicians were sent for, including Washington’s personal physician Dr. James Craik along with Dr. Gustavus Brown and Dr. Elisha Dick. Craik and Brown thought that Washington had “quinsey” or “quincy”, while Dick thought that the condition was more serious or a “violent inflammation of the throat”. By the time that the three physicians finished their treatments and bloodletting of the president, there had been a massive volume of blood loss — half or more of his total blood content was removed over the course of just a few hours. Dr. Dick recognized that the bloodletting and other treatments were failing, and he proposed performing an emergency tracheotomy, a procedure that few American physicians were familiar with at the time, as a last-ditch effort to save Washington’s life, but the other two doctors disapproved.
Washington died at home around 10 p.m. on Saturday, December 14, 1799, aged 67. In his journal, Lear recorded Washington’s last words as “‘Tis well.”
On December 18, 1799, a funeral was held at Mount Vernon, where his body was interred. Congress passed a joint resolution to construct a marble monument for his body in the planned crypt below the rotunda of the center section of the Capitol (then still under construction), a plan acquiesced to by Martha. In December 1800, the House passed an appropriations bill for $200,000 to build the mausoleum, which was to be a pyramid with a 100-foot (30-meter) square base. Southern representatives and senators, in later opposition to the plan, defeated the measure because they felt that it was best to have Washington’s body remain at Mount Vernon.
Throughout the world, people were saddened by Washington’s death. In the United States, memorial processions were held in major cities and thousands wore mourning clothes for months. Martha Washington wore a black mourning cape for one year. In France, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte ordered ten days of mourning throughout the country.
To protect their privacy, Martha Washington burned the correspondence that they had exchanged; only five letters between the couple are known to have survived, two letters from Martha to George and three from him to her.
In 1830 a disgruntled ex-employee of the estate attempted to steal Washington’s skull from the original tomb. The next year a new vault was constructed at Mount Vernon to receive George and Martha Washington’s remains, along with other relatives buried in the original tomb.
A joint Congressional committee debated the removal of President Washington’s body from Mount Vernon to a crypt in the Capitol in early 1832. The crypt was built by architect Charles Bulfinch in the 1820s during the reconstruction of the burned-out structure after the British set it afire in August 1814, during the Burning of Washington. Southern opposition was intense, antagonized by an ever-growing rift between North and South. Congressman Wiley Thompson of Georgia expressed the Southerners’ fear when he said, “Remove the remains of our venerated Washington from their association with the remains of his consort and his ancestors, from Mount Vernon and from his native State, and deposit them in this capitol, and then let a severance of the Union occur, and behold the remains of Washington on a shore foreign to his native soil.”
On October 7, 1837 George Washington’s remains, still in its original lead coffin, were placed within a marble sarcophagus designed by William Strickland and constructed by John Struthers. The sarcophagus was sealed and encased with planks while an outer vault was constructed around it. The outer vault contains the sarcophagi of George and Martha Washington, the inner vault contains the remains of other Washington family members and relatives.
George Washington’s legacy remains among the two or three greatest in American history, as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, hero of the Revolution, and the first President of the United States. Congressman Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, a Revolutionary War comrade, famously eulogized Washington, “First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen”.
Lee’s words set the standard by which Washington’s overwhelming reputation was impressed upon the American memory. Biographers hailed him as the great exemplar of republicanism. Washington set many precedents for the national government, and the presidency in particular, and was called the “Father of His Country” as early as 1778. Washington’s Birthday is a federal holiday in the United States. In terms of personality, biographer Douglas Southall Freeman concluded, “the great big thing stamped across that man is character.” By character, says David Hackett Fischer, “Freeman meant integrity, self-discipline, courage, absolute honesty, resolve, and decision, but also forbearance, decency, and respect for others.”
Washington became an international icon for liberation and nationalism, as the leader of the first successful revolution against a colonial empire. The Federalists made him the symbol of their party but, for many years, the Jeffersonians continued to distrust his influence and delayed building the Washington Monument. On January 31, 1781, he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
During the United States Bicentennial year, George Washington was posthumously appointed to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States by the congressional joint resolution Public Law 94-479 passed on January 19, 1976, with an effective appointment date of July 4, 1976. This restored his position as the highest-ranking military officer in U.S. history.
George Washington appears on contemporary U.S. currency, including the one-dollar bill and the quarter-dollar coin (the Washington quarter).
Washington and Benjamin Franklin appeared on the nation’s first postage stamps in 1847. Since that time, Washington has appeared on many postage issues, more than all other presidents combined.
Scott #69 was issued on May 6, 1861. Designed by James Mcdonough, the 12-cent black stamp was printed by the National Bank Note Company using the flat plate process in sheets of 200 subjects (two panes of 100). Just 7,314,000 copies of the stamp were issued with the primary usage being on foreign mail, 12 cents being the standard rate to England and Hawaii. Earl Apfelbaum, in his book The World of Stamps and Stamp Collecting, notes that “although most of the 1861s are not rare, they are exceedingly difficult to find in Very Fine or better condition. As a rule, they were perforated poorly, with the perforations customarily cutting into the design. Stamps centered so poorly that only two-thirds of the design shows are not rare. Too, the choice of paper was poor, being very brittle. Add to this the early ‘stamp saver’s’ penchant for peeling stamps off envelopes with a knife (it did not matter 100 years ago if a stamp was thinned), and it’s easy to see why fewer than one copy in 100 of the 1861s remain in choice condition.”