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George Washington

George Washington

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Charles Willson Peale’s Portrait of George Washington at Princeton. View the interactive portrait.

  • Born 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia
  • Father died when he was a boy
  • Strongly influenced by older brother
  • Military career began in Virginia militia
  • Married a widow with two children
  • Man of character all his life
  • First president of the United States of America
  • Died 1799 at Mount Vernon

The early years

Born February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Va., George Washington was the first son of his father Augustine's second marriage; his mother was the former Mary Ball of Epping Forest. When George was about three, his family moved to Little Hunting Creek on the Potomac, then to Ferry Farm opposite Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River in King George County.

Washington’s father died in 1743, and young George grew restive under his mother's management. He proposed at one point to follow the sea, but instead divided his adolescence among the households of relatives, finding a home and a model in his half-brother Lawrence at Mount Vernon.

Older brother's influence

From Lawrence, Washington learned trigonometry and surveying and cultivated a taste for ethics, novels, music, and the theater. A ranking officer in the Virginia militia, Lawrence had served with Admiral Edward Vernon – for whom the plantation was named – and thus imbued George with aspirations for military service.

Fairfax family influence

Another early influence on George Washington was the powerful Fairfax family of neighboring Belvoir, who introduced him to the accomplishments and proprieties of mannered wealth and provided him his first adventure. In 1748, Lord Fairfax sent George with a party that spent a month surveying Fairfax lands in the still-wild Shenandoah Valley. It was on this expedition that George began to appreciate the uses and value of land, an appreciation that grew the following year with his appointment as Culpeper County surveyor, certified by the College of William & Mary.

Lawrence Washington dies

Lawrence, suffering from a lung complaint, undertook a Barbados voyage in search of health in a warmer climate, and George accompanied him. The younger brother contracted smallpox and returned to Virginia alone, but with an immunity to a disease that later ravaged colonial-era armies. Lawrence died in 1752, and the Mount Vernon estate passed by stages into George's hands until he inherited it outright in 1761.

Washington’s military career begins

Washington also succeeded to Lawrence's militia office. Governor Robert Dinwiddie first appointed him adjutant for the southern district of the colony's militia, but soon conferred on him Lawrence's adjutancy for the Northern Neck and Eastern Shore. And so it happened that in 1753 the governor sent 21-year-old George Washington to warn French troops stationed north of the forks of the Ohio River (modern Pittsburgh) that they were encroaching in territory claimed by Virginia.

The French ignored the admonition, and the mission failed. Nonetheless, when Washington returned, Governor Dinwiddie instructed Williamsburg printer William Hunter to publish his official report as The Journal of Major George Washington, thus making the young officer well known at home and abroad.

George Washington

Ron Carnegie portrays General George Washington.

First taste of battle

In April, Washington returned to the Ohio country with 150 men to remove the intruders and received his first taste of war in a skirmish with a French scouting party. He wrote to his brother Jack, "I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound."

A second engagement quickly followed, and Washington, retreating to Fort Necessity, was beaten by a larger French force. He surrendered and, in his ignorance of the French language, signed an embarrassing capitulation agreement. But he later had opportunities to redress his defeat. The whistling bullets heralded the start of the Seven Years' War, as it was called in Europe. In America, it was called the French and Indian War or, sometimes, Virginia's War. English author Horace Walpole wrote, "The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire."

Washington returned to the field as an aide to General Braddock in 1755 and performed with distinction, despite debilitating illness, in the disastrous campaign against Fort Duquesne. Later that year, Dinwiddie gave him command of all Virginia forces and promoted him to colonel.

Seeds of British resentment

During these years Washington had two disputes with English officers who viewed their regular-army commissions as superior to that of the Virginia militia commander. These disputes may mark the beginning of Washington's resentment of British attitudes toward the colonies.

Operating from a fort at Winchester, Washington protected the Virginia frontier until late 1758 when he and his soldiers joined General Forbes army and helped to chase the French from Fort Duquesne for good.

Life at Mount Vernon

Washington resigned his military commission at the end of December 1758 and retired to Mount Vernon. He was defeated in election for the House of Burgesses in 1755, but won in 1758 and was seated that year from Frederick County. For 15 years he devoted himself to his legislative work and his farm. During this period, he also became a family man, marrying the widow Martha Dandridge Custis, the mother of two children, on January 6, 1759, in New Kent County.

County Justice of the Peace

In 1760, Washington took on the duties of a Fairfax County justice of the peace. He also found time for the amusements of a Virginia gentleman – fox hunting, snuff taking, plays, billiards, cards, dancing, and fishing. He delighted in bottles of Madeira, plates of watermelon, and dishes of oysters.

In these years, his resentment of the subordination of American interests to those of England grew. In 1765, Washington told an acquaintance that Parliament "hath no more right to put their hands into my pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into yours for money."

Defense of liberty

By 1774 Washington was in the forefront of the defense of Virginia liberties and was among the rebellious burgesses who gathered at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg on May 27 after Governor Dunmore dissolved the house. Washington signed the resolves proposing a Continental congress and a ban on the importing of British goods. On July 18, he chaired the Alexandria meeting that adopted George Mason's "Fairfax Resolutions."

Sent to the First Continental Congress, Washington returned home afterward to organize independent militia companies in Northern Virginia and to win election to the Second Continental Congress. In Philadelphia on June 15, 1775, he was offered command of America's forces, accepted, vowed to accept no pay, and left to take over the army at Boston.

Frustration in battle

The years that passed before the victory at Yorktown in 1781 were marked as often by frustration as by success. Hampered by shortages of supplies and the unreliability of enlistments, Washington commanded with caution. He once reported to Congress, "We should on all Occasions avoid a general Action, or put anything to the Risque, unless compelled by a necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn."

Washington as military leader

Thomas Jefferson wrote of Washington: "His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong . . . and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, being little aided by invention of imagination, but sure in conclusion. Hence the common remark of his officers, of the advantage he derived from councils of war, where hearing all suggestions, he selected whatever was best; and certainly no general ever planned his battles more judiciously. But if he deranged during the course of the action, if any member of his plan was dislocated by sudden circumstances, he was slow in re-adjustment. The consequence was, that he often failed in the field, and rarely against an enemy in station, as at Boston and York. He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern. Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed."

Washington regarded Yorktown – a battle he planned in part at the George Wythe House – as "an interesting event that may be productive of much good if properly improved, but if it should be the means of relaxation and sink us into supineness and security, it had better not have happened."

The war wound down and as danger diminished, congressional neglect of the Army grew. Washington’s troops urged him to seize power from the politicians, but he repudiated every such suggestion. On March 15, 1783, Washington met his unhappy and rebellious officers at Newburgh, New York, to discourage them from marching on Congress over back pay, but the speech he had prepared proved unpersuasive.

Washington decided to read a letter that he had received from a congressman. As he reached into his coat for his glasses, he said to his troops, "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country." The officers were so touched that some cried, and the day was carried. Biographer James Thomas Flexner wrote, "This was probably the most important single gathering ever held in the United States."

Return to Mount Vernon

On April 19, 1783 – the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington – Washington said farewell to his staff at the Fraunces Tavern in New York and, on the way to Mount Vernon, stopped in Annapolis to resign his commission to Congress. He resumed the life of a plantation squire, and set out to repair his finances.

Washington had long hoped to connect the Virginia seaboard to the Ohio River and the interior by means of canals. In autumn 1784 he set out on a 650-mile journey for observations. Improvement of his long-neglected farms, however, was his primary preoccupation. He wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette, "I have not only retired from all public employments, but I am retiring within myself . . . Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all; and this, my dear friend, being the order for my march, I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my fathers."

President of a new nation

Nevertheless, the weakness of the government created by the Articles of Confederation concerned Washington and, in 1786, Shays' Rebellion alarmed him. He reluctantly accepted a seat in the federal convention and election to its presidency. His unanimous election as the first president of the United States was certain before the Constitution was even adopted and, again, he accepted with reluctance. "My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feeling not unlike those of a culprit, who is going to the place of his execution," he wrote after the ballot.

George Washington took the oath of office April 30, 1789 in New York. He was 57 years of age.

Washington not only had to organize a government but also to create a role for the highest officer of the new nation. Both tasks earned him enemies. Always opposed to factions, his two administrations nevertheless fostered the bitter rivalry of the Federalist and Anti-federalist parties.

Though unopposed for reelection, his second administration was the subject of uncommon, and sometimes indecent, abuse and vilification. He likened one such attack to an alarm raised against a rabid dog: "Such exaggerated terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero, a notorious defaulter, or even to a common pickpocket."

The Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania against a federal excise tax on spirits was his critical domestic challenge. He rode partway to the field at the head of the column of militia raised to put it down.

Jefferson splits with Washington

After serving as Washington's secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson split with the president. The breach became permanent. Jefferson wrote: "I do believe that General Washington had not a firm confidence in the durability of our government. He was naturally distrustful of men, and inclined to gloomy apprehensions; and I was ever persuaded by a belief that we must at length end in something like a British constitution, had some weight in his adoption of the ceremonies of levees, birthdays, pompous meetings with Congress, and other forms of the same character, calculated to prepare us gradually for a change which he believed possible, and to let it come on with as little shock as might be to the public mind."

Nevertheless, historians credit Washington's conduct of the office with the preservation of the fledgling national union under the American Constitution. Washington issued his farewell address on September 17, 1796, and was succeeded by John Adams the following March 4. His last official act was to pardon the participants in the Whiskey Rebellion.

When relations with France soured in 1798, his Country once more turned to Washington for his service. Adams appointed him lieutenant general of a provisional army. The danger subsided before the troops assembled.

Washington dies

In December 1799, after a day spent riding on his farms in foul weather, Washington's throat became inflamed. At 2 a.m. December 14, he awakened his wife to say that he was having trouble breathing. At sunrise she sent for Dr. James Craig, who arrived at 9 a.m. and diagnosed the illness as "inflammatory quinsy." During the morning Washington was bled three times and two more doctors, Elisha Dick of Alexandria and Gustavus Brown, were summoned. One counseled against bleeding, but more blood was taken and purges administered. At midnight Washington said to his secretary, Tobias Lear: "I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead. Do you understand me?"

Lear said, "Yes."

Washington's last words were, "'Tis well."

Looking back

George Washington seems today a figure larger than life – almost as he was when he was a familiar sight in the halls, homes, shops, and taverns of 18th-century Williamsburg.

On Duke of Gloucester Street, at the Capitol, in the Raleigh Tavern's Apollo Room, or the Governor's Palace gardens, his powerful frame and his polished demeanor – his presence – drew to him the notice that underwrote his place in the history of the city, the state, and the nation.

"His bones and joints are large, as are his hands and feet," aide George Mercer observed in 1760. Washington, he said, kept "all the muscles of his face under perfect control, though flexible and expressive of deep feeling when moved by emotion. In conversation he looks you full in the face, is deliberate, deferential and engaging. His voice is agreeable . . . he is a splendid horseman."

Thomas Jefferson, who served with Washington in the House of Burgesses, wrote: "On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in a few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance."

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