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George Washington

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George Washington
Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington.jpg
George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797
1st President of the United States
In office
April 30, 1789[a] – March 4, 1797
Vice President John Adams
Preceded by position established
Succeeded by John Adams
Senior Officer of the U.S. Army
In office
July 13, 1798 – December 14, 1799
Appointed by John Adams
Preceded by James Wilkinson
Succeeded by Alexander Hamilton
Commander-in-Chief of the
Continental Army
In office
June 15, 1775 – December 23, 1783
Appointed by Continental Congress
Preceded by position established
Succeeded by Henry Knox (Senior Officer of the Army)
Delegate to the Second Continental Congress from Virginia
In office
May 10, 1775 – June 15, 1775
Preceded by position established
Succeeded by Thomas Jefferson
Delegate to the First Continental Congress
from Virginia
In office
September 5, 1774 – October 26, 1774
Preceded by position established
Succeeded by position abolished
Personal details
Born (1732-02-22)February 22, 1732
Popes Creek, Colony of Virginia, British America
Died December 14, 1799(1799-12-14) (aged 67)
Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.
Cause of death Epiglottitis and hypovolemic shock
Resting place Washington Family Tomb, Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.
Political party None
Spouse(s) Martha Dandridge (m. 1759)[1]
Parents Augustine Washington
Mary Ball
Awards Congressional Gold Medal
Thanks of Congress
Signature Cursive signature in ink
Military service
Allegiance Kingdom of Great Britain
United States of America
Service/branch Colonial Militia
Continental Army
United States Army
Years of service 1752–58 (British Militia)
1775–83 (Continental Army)
1798–99 (U.S. Army)
Rank Colonel (British Army)
General and Commander-in-Chief (Continental Army)
Lieutenant General (United States Army)
General of the Armies (promoted posthumously: 1976, by an Act of Congress)
Commands Virginia Colony's regiment
Continental Army
United States Army

George Washington (February 22, 1732[b][c] – December 14, 1799) was an American statesman and soldier who served as the first President of the United States from 1789 to 1797 and was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. 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. As a driving force behind the nation's establishment he came to be known as the "father of the country," both during his lifetime and to this day.

Washington 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 teens he attended various schools and learned mathematics and surveying which he soon put to practice. Thereafter he became a senior officer in the colonial militia during the first stages of the French and Indian War. He gradually grew indifferent to British rule with its lack of colonial representation in British Parliament and excessive taxation on the colonies. In 1775, the Second Continental Congress commissioned him as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolution. In that command, Washington drove 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, retook New Jersey, and restored momentum to the Patriot cause. Washington's strategy enabled Continental forces to ultimately defeat the British. Historians laud Washington for his supervision of his generals, preservation of command and coordination with federal and state officials.

After victory had been finalized in 1783, Washington resigned as commander-in-chief rather than remaining in power, proving 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. Washington was widely admired for his strong leadership qualities and was unanimously elected president by the Electoral College in the first two national elections. Following his election as president in 1789, he worked to unify rival factions in the fledgling nation. He helped pass Alexander Hamilton's programs to satisfy federal and state debts to establish a permanent seat of government, to implement an effective tax system, and to create a national bank.

In avoiding war with Great Britain, he guaranteed a decade of peace and profitable trade by securing the Jay Treaty in 1795, despite intense opposition from the Jeffersonians. 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 wide acceptance among Americans. 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 and was later made law by the 22nd Amendment. He remained non-partisan, never joining the Federalist Party, although he largely supported its policies. By 1794, Congress was divided between two parties, that had stemmed from a political-personal feud between Washington's two secretaries, Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. 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 at Mount Vernon. Upon his death, Washington was eulogized as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen". 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.

Early life (1732–1752)

George Washington was the first child of Augustine Washington and his second wife Mary Ball Washington, born on their Popes Creek Estate near 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.[3][c]

Popes Creek Estate, Washington's birthplace

Washington was of primarily English gentry descent, especially from Sulgrave, England. His great-grandfather John Washington immigrated 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 at iron manufacturing,[4] and later he was the Justice of the Westmoreland County Court.[5] In Washington's youth, his family was moderately prosperous and considered members of Virginia's "country level gentry" of "middling rank," rather than one of the leading wealthy planter elite families.[6]

Six of Washington'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 sister Mildred died when she was about one, his half-brother Butler died in infancy, and his half-sister Jane died at age 12, when George was about two. A fire destroyed his father's Popes Creek Estate.[7]

Washington's family moved to a home on Ferry Farm, Stafford County, Virginia near Fredericksburg when he was 6 years old, where he spent much of his boyhood. The main farmhouse was "a fairly common English building with some regional variations," The family kept 10 slaves in the main farmhouse and outbuildings, and another 20 near the farm. Washington is said to have damaged his father's cherry tree on Ferry Farm, according to American folk legend.[8]

Washington's father died of a sudden illness in April 1743 when George was 11 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.[9] William Fairfax's son George William Fairfax was a close friend and associate of Washington.[10] His wife Sally was also a friend of Washington and an early romantic interest, and maintained correspondence when she moved to England with her father, but most of the letters were intercepted by the British during the war.[11]

Lawrence Washington inherited a plantation from their father on the Potomac River at Little Hunting Creek which he named Mount Vernon in honor of his commanding officer Vice Admiral Edward Vernon. Washington inherited Ferry Farm upon his father's death and eventually acquired Mount Vernon after Lawrence's death.[12]

The death of his father prevented Washington from an education at England's Appleby Grammar 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.[14] His education totaled seven or eight years, while he lived with relatives at various places that included the Westmoreland and the Chotank regions of Virginia, as well as Ferry Farm and Mount Vernon. He was trained in mathematics, trigonometry, and surveying that developed a natural talent of draftsmanship and map making. He was also an avid reader and purchased books on military affairs, agriculture, and history, as well as the popular novels of his times.[15] 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.[16]

In 1751, Washington traveled with Lawrence to Barbados (his only trip abroad) in the hope that the climate would be beneficial to Lawrence's declining health, as he was suffering from tuberculosis.[17] Washington contracted smallpox during the trip, which left his face slightly scarred but immunized him against future exposures to the disease.[18] Lawrence's health failed to improve, and he returned to Mount Vernon where he died in the summer of 1752.[19] In 1752, Washington became a freemason while in Fredericksburg, although his involvement was minimal.[20]

Colonial surveyor

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 William Fairfax of Belvoir. Fairfax organized a professional surveying party to lay out large tracts of land along the border of western Virginia, where Washington gained invaluable experience in the field.[21]

Washington began his professional career in 1749 at the age of 17, when he was appointed county surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia.[22], receiving a commission and surveyor's license from the College of William & Mary.[d] He completed his first survey in less than two days, plotting a 400-acre parcel of land. He was subsequently able to purchase land in the Shenandoah Valley, the first of his many land acquisitions in western Virginia. On March 23, he recorded his first encounter with American Indians when the surveying party met an Indian war party of 13 returning from a battle; Washington noted that the men in his party were "agreeably surprised".[24]

Washington worked surveying land in Western Virginia for the Ohio Company, a land investment company funded by Virginia investors. He came to the notice of the new Lieutenant governor Robert Dinwiddie, thanks to Lawrence's position as commander of the Virginia militia. In October 1750, Washington resigned his position as an official surveyor, though he continued to survey professionally for two more years. By 1752, he 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.[25]

Colonial military career (1752-1758)

Washington Expeditions 1753-1754
Washington's map accompanying his Journal to the Ohio (1753–54)
Major George Washington 1754

Washington's colonial military career began in 1752. His half-brother Lawrence had served as Virginia's Adjutant General (militia leader), but his office was divided into four districts after he died. On December 13, 1752 Governor Dinwiddie appointed Washington Major in the Province of Virginia militia and one of the four district adjutants, southern Virginia, and then transferred to Northern Neck and the Eastern Shore of Virginia.[26] He was trained in military musters and drills. Washington's military ambition had been inspired by Lawrence's service with Admiral Edward Vernon.[15]

First expedition (1753)

When Wasshington's older brother, Lawrence, died, he left vacant the position of Adjunct General, where Washington decided to give up surveying for a soldier's life and pursue the position. The Virginia colony was divided into four districts, with an adjunct in charge of each district. Wanting to oversee the Northern District he was instead assigned to the less prestigeous Southern District. When William Fitzhugh planned to move to Maryland and resign as adjunct to the Northern District, Washington immediately lobbied Fitzhugh for the position, which he granted to him. Just before his twenty-first birthday, Washington took the oath of office and assumed the rank and title of Major Washington.[27]

In 1753, Lieutenant governor Robert Dinwiddie selected Washington (now a major) to be a military ambassador from the British crown to the French officials and Indians as far north as Erie, Pennsylvania. Washington was only 21, and it was unusual for a colonial governor to give such responsibility to a man so young, so he was eager to prove himself; he immediately accepted Dinwiddies' difficult mission, as it appealed to his sense of honor and possible glory.

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,[28] and the British government had ordered Dinwiddie to guard the British territorial claims, including the Ohio River basin.[15] He ordered Washington to deliver a letter in late 1753, asking the French commander Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre at Fort Le Boeuf to vacate the Ohio Valley and provide him with a safe escort to Lake Erie.[29] Dinwiddie also gave him the difficult task of making peace with the Six Nations.[30]

Washington left Will's Creek in the middle of November with six frontiersmen, and he reached the Ohio River a week later expecting to find the French—but they had withdrawn. He met with Tanacharison (also called "Half-King") and other Six Nations Iroquois chiefs at Logstown to secure their support in case of a military conflict with the French. Washington and his men then traveled 60 miles into the wilderness and met the French at Venango, but the French officer there refused to take his letter.[31] Washington reached Fort Le Boeuf on December 11 and delivered the letter to its commander, who responded with a letter in return, telling Dinwiddie to send his demand to the Major General of New France in its capital at Quebec City.[32]

Washington kept a diary during this expedition which was printed by William Hunter on Dinwiddie's order making Washington's name recognizable in Virginia and England,[33][34] help him to obtain a commission to raise a company of men and to start his military career.[35]

French and Indian War

An engraving depicting the evening council of Lt. Col. George Washington at Fort Necessity

In 1753, the French 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 the French and Indian War (1754–62) [e] and contributed to the start of the global Seven Years' War (1756–63). Washington became involved in its beginning by chance in 1754, with the fighting commencing on his orders, and it was his first battle experience.[36]

On March 15, 1754 Governor Dinwiddie commissioned Washington to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the newly formed Virginia Regiment, and sent him on his second expedition to the Ohio Country to safeguard construction of a fort at Pittsburgh. Washington set out on April 2, 1754 with 150 men, but he received news en route that a French force had driven out colonial traders and begun construction of Fort Duquesne.[34] Tanacharison and a few warriors discovered a small detachment of French troops east of Uniontown, Pennsylvania led by Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. Washington built an entrenched camp at Great Meadows, Pennsylvania which he called Fort Necessity, and he and some of his militia unit and their Mingo allies ambushed the French on May 28, 1754 in the Battle of Jumonville Glen.[34] There are discrepancies, but several primary accounts agree the battle only lasted about 15 minutes, where Jumonville was killed, with most of his party taken prisoner or killed.[37] Following the battle, Tanacharison gave Washington the nickname Town Destroyer.[38]

The French responded by attacking and capturing Washington at Fort Necessity in July 1754 in a ten-hour battle,[34] which was Washington's only surrender.[39] The French allowed him to return with his troops to Virginia, but he signed a French surrender document due to faulty translation which said that he had "assassinated" Jumonville, a pretext to blame him for starting a war.[34] Historian Joseph Ellis concludes that the episode demonstrated Washington's bravery, initiative, inexperience, and impetuosity.[40] Upon his return to Virginia, Washington refused to accept a demotion to the rank of captain, and resigned his commission.[41]

Washington's expedition into the Ohio Country had international consequences; the French accused him of assassinating Jumonville by the surrender document, and claimed that Jumonville was only on a diplomatic mission.[40] 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.[42]

Braddock expedition and disaster (1755)

19th-century engraving of the wounding of Major-General Braddock at the Battle of the Monongahela.

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.[43] 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. 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 where Braddock accepted the recommendation.[44]

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. On horseback Washington rallied the his forces into an organized retreat, demonstrating bravery and stamina, despite his lingering illness. He had two horses shot from underneath him, while his hat and coat were pierced by several bullets. Two-thirds of the British force of 976 men were killed or wounded in the battle. Washington's conduct in the battle redeemed his reputation among many who had criticized his command in the Battle of Fort Necessity.[45] 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.[46]

Commander of Virginia Regiment (1755)

On August 14, 1755 Lt. Governor Dinwiddie rewarded Washington 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.[47] 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.[48]

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.[49]

Forbes expedition and retirement (1758)

Engraving depicting the British arrival at the remains of Fort Duquesne

In 1758, Colonel 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.[50]

Lessons learned

Washington never gained the commission in the British army that he yearned for, but in these years he gained valuable military, political, and leadership skills,[51]aided by his observations, readings, and conversations with professional officers, that proved invaluable during the Revolution.[52]

His frustrations in dealing with government officials during this conflict led him to advocate the advantages of a strong national government and a vigorous executive agency;[53] other historians tend to ascribe Washington's position on government to his later American Revolutionary War service.[f] Don Higginbotham places Washington's first formal advocacy of a strong central government in 1783.[55] He developed a very negative idea of an undisciplined militia, compared to regular troops.[56] However, his experience was limited to command of some 1,000 men and came only in remote frontier conditions that were far removed from the urban situations that he faced during the Revolution.[57]

Civilian life, marriage, and Mount Vernon (1759–1774)

A mezzotint of Martha Washington, based on a 1757 portrait by Wollaston

On January 6, 1759, Washington married wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis, aged 28. 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.[58] The couple raised her children from her previous marriage, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke (Patsy) Custis, and they later raised Martha's grandchildren Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. The couple never had any children together; his bout with smallpox in 1751 may have made him sterile.[59][60][g] They moved to Mount Vernon near Alexandria, where he took up life as a successful planter of tobacco and wheat, and soon emerged as a political figure.[62]

Washington expanded the estate at Mount Vernon after his marriage.

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 he managed the remainder on behalf of Martha's children, for whom he sincerely cared.[63]

In 1754, Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie had promised land bounties to the soldiers and officers who volunteered during the French and Indian War.[64] Washington prevailed upon Lord Botetourt, the new governor, and he finally fulfilled Dinwiddie's promise in 1769–70;[65] Washington received title to 23,200 acres (94 km2) where the Kanawha River flows into the Ohio River in West Virginia.[66] He also frequently bought additional land in his own name, and he had doubled the size of Mount Vernon to 6,500 acres (26 km2) by 1775 and had increased its slave population to over 100.[67]

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.[67] In the 1758 election, he plied the voters with 170 gallons of rice punch, beer, wine, hard cider, and brandy, though he was largely absent while serving on the Forbes Expedition.[68] He won election with roughly 40 percent of the vote, defeating three other candidates with the help of several local elites.[69] He rarely spoke early in his legislative career, but he became a prominent critic of Britain's taxation and mercantilist policies in the 1760s.[70]

Col. George Washington
Provincial Troops, Virginia Regiment, oil on canvas, painted by Charles Willson Peale, 1772, Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia

Washington lived an aristocratic lifestyle, and fox hunting was a favorite leisure activity.[71] 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.[72] Like most Virginia planters, he imported luxuries and other goods from England and paid for them by exporting his tobacco crop. By 1764, however, these luxuries and a poor tobacco market left him ₤1,800 in debt.[73] He began to pull himself out of debt in the mid-1760s by diversifying his business interests and paying more attention to his affairs, especially in the form of buying fewer imported luxuries. He started switching Mount Vernon's primary cash crop from tobacco to wheat that could be processed and then sold in various forms in the colonies, and he further diversified operations to include flour milling, fishing, horse breeding, hog production, spinning, and weaving. In the 1790s, he erected a distillery for whiskey production which yielded more than 1,000 gallons a month. [74]

After five years of suffering from epileptic attacks, Patsy Custis died peacefully in Washington's arms on June 19, 1773. The following day Washington wrote to Burwell Bassett: "It is 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 afflicted path she hitherto has trod."[75] He cancelled all business activity and was not away from Martha for a single night for the next three months.[76] Patsy's death enabled Washington to pay off his British creditors, since half of her inheritance passed to him.[77]

Washington became a political figure and soon emerged as 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".[78] In 1769, he became more politically active, presenting the Virginia Assembly with legislation for an embargo on goods from Great Britain.[79]

American Revolution

Washington played a leading military and political role in the American Revolution that started in 1765. His involvement began in 1767, when he first took political stands against the various acts of the British Parliament, opposing the Stamp Act, the first direct tax on the colonies, enacted with 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.[80]

Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts in 1770. Washington regarded the passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774 as "an Invasion of our Rights and Privileges".[81] 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."[82]

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.[83]

American Revolutionary War (1775–1783)

Washington taking Control of the Continental Army, 1775.

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.[84]

Washington was unanimously selected to lead the Continental Army largely because he was from Virginia, the largest and wealthiest colony whose allegiance to the army was essential to unite the colonies,[85] and because he was a known patriot who had the prestige, experience, and bearing of a military leader. He did not explicitly seek the office of commander and said that he was not equal to it,[86] but there was no serious competition.[87] Congress created the Continental Army on June 14, 1775;[88] Washington was nominated by John Adams of Massachusetts, and appointed as a full General and Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army on June 15.[89] His refusal to accept a salary earned him a reputation as a "noble and disinterested" commanding officer.[90] The British articulated the peril faced by Washington and his army on August 23, 1775 by issuing 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.[91]

Gen. George Washington
Continental Army, oil on canvas painted by Charles Willson Peale, July 1776, Brooklyn Museum

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.[92] Second, he was charged with organizing and training the army. He recruited regulars and assigned Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a veteran of the Prussian general staff, to train them, who transformed Washington's army into a disciplined and effective force.[93] The war effort and getting supplies to the troops were under the purview of Congress, but Washington pressured the Congress to provide the essentials.[94]

In June 1776, Congress made its first attempt at running the war effort 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.[95] 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 never mastered the art of command, such as John Sullivan.[92] 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 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.[92]

Washington's third and most important role in the war effort was the embodiment of armed resistance to the Crown, serving as 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 to 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.)[96]

Victory at Boston

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.[97]

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.[98]

British newspapers disparaged most of the Patriots, but praised Washington's personal character and qualities as a military commander despite his opposition to Britain, which some believed would ruin the empire.[99]

Defeat at New York

Battle of Long Island

Beginning in June, 1776, British General William Howe, based on Staten Island, had amassed a large force of British and Hessian troops in preparation for an all out siege on New York City, which was considered the key to securing the continent. Before the attack Howe attempted to negotiate peace terms with Washington and sent him a dispatch which he addressed to George Washington, Esq. Washington refused the letter, demanding that he be recognized and addressed as a General and a belligerent, not as a rebel. He was also concerned that, as rebels, his men could be hanged if captured, and considered it his duty to insist that his men and the newly established United States be recognized and addressed with the proper protocol. After a few attempts, the negotiations failed.[100]

In the weeks leading up to the siege British naval and land forces were increasing in strength. In August 1776, 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.[101] 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.[102]

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. Unable to hold there Washington, with strong objections from Lee, abandoned the fort and retreated further north to White Plains.[103] However, with Howe in pursuit he was unable to secure that position and was forced to retreat 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. As commander Washington was responsible for the decision to delay the retreat, but he also faulted the wishes of Congress and the bad advice of Nathaniel Greene."[104]

Crossing the Delaware

Washington Crossing the Delaware Emanuel Leutze 1851
Leutze's artwork invokes a deep sense of American national pride.[105]

Retreating from his defeat in New York, Washington continued his flight across New Jersey and across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, with Howe's troops pursuing most of the way.[106] The future of the Continental Army was in doubt due to poor supply, lack of adequate clothing and boots along with expiring enlistments and many desertions along the way.[107] He was disappointed to find that many New Jersey residents were Loyalists, or simply very skeptical about the prospect of Independence. The over confident General Howe assumed that Washington and his men would never be able to cross the Delaware, decided not to advance on Philadelphia and instead bided his time and took up winter quarters in Trenton, New Jersey situated on the east shore of the Delaware. Learning about the complacency of Howe and his Hessian mercenaries, and prompted by desperate conditions and expiring enlistments, Washington gathered with his generals on Christmas Eve at the home of Samuel Merrick and devised a plan to cross the icy Delaware at night and surprise the British/Hessian garrison encamped there. By sundown stormy weather was increasing and a light rain began to fall.

Before the mass crossing, Washington had crossed the river and staked out an area on the New Jersey shore where his troops would land. In the mean time, he had his men search along the Delaware for sixty miles for sturdy boats and barges suitable for transporting troops and supply, commandeer what could be used for the crossing and to destroy any that could later be used by the British. Many Durham boats[h] were found and used in the crossing. Washington ordered some of the extra boats found to be hidden away in creeks for future use.[109] However, at about midnight, his plan was on the verge of failure with serious delays from the artillery teams assembling at the point of departure. On the night of December 25–26, 1776, he led his army across the Delaware, with eighteen pieces of artillery, while struggling with rapid currents and ice hindering their way. Washington divided his forces into three groups, with two of them failing to make it across the river.[110]

Battles of Trenton and Princeton

Battle of Trenton, by H. Charles McBarron, Jr., 1975

Washington crossed the next morning with stormy weather and heavy sleet and snow still coming down, and his scouts reported the location of the Hessian outposts and forward positions about one mile from Trenton in New Jersey. Washington divided his army into three groups and rode about on horseback giving words of encouragement to his men: "Soldiers keep by your officers. For God's sake, keep by your officers." Still on his mount, Washington stopped briefly and was given food and drink at a nearby home while his senior officers gathered around for a council of war. Moving on, the three divisions divided at the Birmingham crossroads, with General Nathanael Greene's division taking the upper Ferry Road and General John Sullivan's division advancing on River Road.[111] In coordinated effort Washington advanced on Trenton in a surprise attack at about 8 a.m., still dark from heavy cloud cover. He led the charge himself, aided by Major-General Henry Knox and his artillery, and captured some 850 prisoners.[112]

Washington followed up his victory at Trenton with another over British regulars at Princeton on January 3,[113] with only forty Americans killed or wounded while the British forces suffered 273 killed or captured.[114] American Generals Hugh Mercer and John Cadwalader were already present and being driven back by the British, with Mercer fallen and mortally wounded. Washington, mounted on his white horse, arrived at the scene and rallied Mercer's and Cadwalader's men to counterattack, with Washington out in front advancing to some thirty yards from the British front line.[115] The other British troops retreated after making a brief stand, some evacuating Princeton and others taking refuge in Nassau Hall. Hessian commander Colonel Johann Rall was mortally wounded during the battle, which took place in less than an hour.[116] Alexander Hamilton was present at the battle; he brought three cannons and began firing at the building where the British were held up. Washington's troops charged the building, and the British put out a white flag and surrendered; 194 soldiers walked out of the building and laid down their arms.[117] The other British retreated to New York City and its environs, which they held until the Treaty of Paris (1783).

Washington's now depleted army took up winter headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey after his victory at Princeton, rather than retreating back to Pennsylvania; this allowed him to disrupt British supply lines and drive them from parts of New Jersey. He admitted some years later that the British could easily have defeated his thinly guarded encampment if they had counter-attacked before his troops were dug in.[118]

Washington's victories marked a turning point in the revolution and 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.[119] These victories alone were not enough to ensure ultimate Patriot victory, however, since many soldiers did not re-enlist or even 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.[120]

1777 campaigns

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.[121] 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.[122]

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.[122] 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 him from command. This movement termed the Conway Cabal, failed after Washington's supporters rallied behind him.[123] Biographer Alden relates, "it was inevitable that the defeats of Washington's forces and the concurrent victory of the forces in upper New York should be compared." The zealous admiration of Washington indeed inevitably waned, with John Adams giving Washington little credit.[124]

Valley Forge

General Washington and Lafayette look over the troops at Valley Forge.

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.

[125] 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.[126]

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.[95] The next spring, a revitalized army emerged from Valley Forge in good order, thanks in great part to a full-scale training program supervised by General von Steuben,[127], who was promoted to Major General for his effort and became Washington's chief of staff for the remainder of the war.[128] The British evacuated Philadelphia for New York in June 1778. Washington summoned a council of war with Generals Lee, Greene, Wayne, and Lafayette. He decided to make a partial attack on the retreating British at the Battle of Monmouth. The British were commanded by Sir Henry Clinton, Howe's successor. On June 28, Lee and Lafayette moved with 4,000 men. 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.[129]

Sullivan Expedition

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.[130] 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. 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."[131] 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."[132]

Hudson River and Southern battles

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 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.[133]

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.[134] 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 when he learned in mid-1780 that Lafayette had returned from France with additional naval assets and forces.[134]

Arnold's treason

A page from the Culper Ring's codebook, listing the men whom Washington gathered to be agents

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,[135] 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.[136]

Winter of 1780–1781

Washington's army went into winter quarters at New Windsor in 1780 and suffered again for lack of supplies. Washington prevailed upon Congress as well as state officials to come to their aid with provisions. He 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".[137]

Victory at Yorktown

General Washington and the comte de Rochambeau at Yorktown by Auguste Couder, 1836

In July 1780, 5,000 veteran French troops led by the comte de Rochambeau arrived at Newport, Rhode Island to aid in the war.[138] French naval forces then landed, led by Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse. At first Washington hoped 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. Admiral de Grasse followed this 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.[139]

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.[140] The surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, marked the end of major fighting in North America.[141][142] Cornwallis failed to appear at the official surrender ceremony, and sent General Charles O'Hara as his proxy; Washington then had General Benjamin Lincoln accept the surrender in his place.[143]

Demobilization and resignation

Substantial combat had ended but the war had not, and a formal treaty of peace was months away. The British still had 26,000 troops occupying New York City, Charleston, and Savannah, and had a powerful fleet. The French army and navy departed, so the Americans were on their own in 1782–83. Money matters fed 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.[144]

With the initial peace treaty articles ratified in April 1783, 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[145] 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.[146]

By the Treaty of Paris signed on September 3, 1783, 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.[147] On November 25, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington and the governor took possession. Only a few trusted members of Congress, including Thomas Jefferson, knew of Washington's decision to resign his commission as Commander-in-chief. At Fraunces Tavern on December 4, after leading the Continental Army for eight and a half years,[148] Washington formally bade his officers farewell, and he resigned his commission on December 23, 1783, to the Continental Congress in the Old Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House in Annapolis, Maryland.[149]

"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."[150] Historian Gordon S. Wood concludes that "The greatest act of his life, the one that gave him his greatest fame, was his resignation as commander in chief of the American forces."[151] King George III called Washington "the greatest character of the age" because of this.[152]

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.[153] Historians debate whether Washington preferred to fight major battles or to utilize a Fabian strategy[i] to harass the British with quick, sharp attacks followed by a retreat so that the larger British army could not catch him.[154]

Constitutional Convention

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.[86] 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.[155] He also facilitated the creation of the Potomac Company, a public–private partnership that sought to link the Potomac River with the Ohio River, but technical and financial challenges rendered the company unprofitable.[156]

After much reluctance, he 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.[157] 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.[158] 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.[159]

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."[160] 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.[161] The new Constitution was subsequently ratified by all thirteen states.[162] The delegates to the convention designed the presidency with Washington in mind, allowing him to define the office by establishing precedent once elected.[163] Washington thought that the achievements were monumental once they were finally completed.[160]

Election of 1788-1789

Starting on December 15, 1788, after a long Congressional delay in counting the votes,[164] the Electoral College, under the new Constitution, unanimously elected Washington on January 10, 1789, the first President of the United States [j].[166] He remains the only president to receive the totality of electoral votes.[k] John Adams received the next highest vote total and was elected vice president.[167]

Presidency (1789–1797)

President George Washington
Gilbert Stuart 1795

At the age of fifty-seven, Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, taking the first presidential oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City.[168][l][m] He arrived in a coach led by militia and a marching band, followed by a long line of statesmen and foreign dignitaries in the nation's first inaugural parade. As he stepped onto the balcony, he was greeted by a cheering crowd of some 10,000 people.[171] As Washington was administered the oath by Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, he was given a thirteen-gun salute.[172] Returning to the Senate Chambers, Washington read a modest 1,200–word speech, asking that an "Almighty Being" bless the "important revolution".[173] Washington declined a salary in his speech, but Congress later voted him a salary of $25,000 annually.[174] Washington accepted the amount to defray costs of the presidency.[175] Washington was aware that everything 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.[176][n] To that end, he preferred the title "Mr. President" to the more majestic names proposed by the Senate.[177]

Washington originally planned to resign during his first term, but because of his overwhelming support and admiration felt obligated to remain in office.[178] He proved an able administrator and established many precedents in the functions of the presidency, including messages to Congress and the cabinet form of government.[179] He set the standard for tolerance of opposition voices, despite fears that a democratic system would lead to political violence, and he conducted a smooth transition of power to his successor.[180] As president 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.[181] 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."[182]

During his first term in office, Washington had to contend with major problems, old and new. The United States was not completely unified; North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet formally joined the Union, and the status was uncertain of the independent Vermont Republic. Great Britain refused to relinquish its forts in the American West.[183] Additionally, the United States Army was minuscule and the United States Navy did not exist. The old Confederation lacked the powers to handle the needed workload. It had weak leadership, no executive, a small bureaucracy of clerks, a large debt, worthless paper money, and no taxing power.[183]

Washington remained popular and unopposed during the Election of 1792, while no one dared to run against him.[184] Washington's silence on the election upon his return to Mount Vernon, in October 1792, was considered his consent as the only candidate. On February 13, 1793 the Electoral College unanimously elected Washington president for a second term. John Adams was reelected Vice President by a vote only of seventy-seven to fifty.[184][o]

In 1793 Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act which allowed slave owners to cross state lines and retrieve runaway slaves.[186] He did sign into law the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which limited American involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.[187]

Cabinet and executive departments

Washington and His Cabinet
Left to right:Washington, Knox, Hamilton (standing), Jefferson, and Randolph

Congress created executive departments during Washington's first months in office in 1789, including the State Department on July 27, the Department of War in early August, and the Treasury Department on September 2. The President also received two additional officers without departments: the Attorney General and Postmaster General. Washington appointed Richmond lawyer Edmund Randolph as Attorney General and Samuel Osgood as Postmaster General. He also appointed fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson to be Secretary of State and Henry Knox as Secretary of War. Finally, he appointed Alexander Hamilton to head the Treasury Department.[172] Washington's cabinet eventually developed into a consultation and advisory body, although this was not mandated by the Constitution.[188]

During Washington's administration, the President was given broad powers for removing officials in the executive branch. Congress passed a bill sponsored by James Madison that gave the President the power to remove public officials whose appointments mandated Senatorial approval. In 1789, Vice President John Adams cast the deciding vote in the Senate against a bill that would have mandated senatorial consent for the removal of Senate-confirmed federal and cabinet appointments. The bill had been sponsored by Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay.[189][190]

Washington's cabinet members were known for their dissension, forming rival parties and having sharply divided views, the most fierce between Hamilton and Jefferson.[191] Jefferson described his relationship with Hamilton as being "daily pitted… like two cocks."[183] Knox almost always sided with Hamilton, while Randolph tried to remain neutral but tended to side more with Jefferson, his fellow Virginian. Washington restricted cabinet discussions to topics of his own choosing, without participating in debate. He occasionally requested cabinet opinions in writing, and he expected his department heads to carry out his decisions without complaint. Hamilton played an active role advising Congress, including written reports and using influence over congressional committee leaders.[183]

Domestic issues

The President's House in Philadelphia was Washington's official residence from 1790 to 1797

Washington was not a member of any political party and hoped that they would not be formed, fearing conflict that would undermine republicanism.[192] His closest advisors formed two factions, however, thereby setting the framework for the future First Party System. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had plans to establish the national credit and to build a financially powerful nation, and he formed the basis of the Federalist Party. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was the founder of the Jeffersonian Republicans, and he strenuously opposed Hamilton's agenda. Washington typically favored Hamilton over Jefferson, and it was Hamilton's agenda that went into effect and became law. Hamilton's fiscal recommendations, created bitter controversy, during Washington's presidency.[193]

Public credit and National Bank

The most pressing fiscal problem of the new administration was the public credit of the United States.[193] On January 14, 1790, Hamilton submitted his Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit to Congress which culminated in the Funding Act of 1790 and the Residence Act, both of which Washington signed into law on August 4.[194] Congress authorized the assumption and payment of these debts, and provided funding through customs duties and excise taxes.

Congress reached a compromise concerning the location of the nation's capital, to be situated in Philadelphia for a decade and then permanently located near Georgetown on the Potomac River.[193] The Residence Act authorized the President to select the specific location on the Potomac for the seat of the government. He was to appoint three commissioners to survey and acquire property for it, and Washington personally oversaw this effort throughout his term in office. In 1791, the commissioners named the seat of government "The City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia" to honor him.[p]

Hamilton created more controversy among Washington's Cabinet members when he advocated the establishment of the Bank of the United States (BUS). Although Madison and Jefferson objected, the bank easily passed Congress and the law was presented to Washington for signing on February 14, 1791. Washington asked for advise from his cabinet, Jefferson and Randolph strongly opposed the new bank constitutionally, while Hamilton believed it would legally be operated on the government's enumerated powers. Washington sided with Hamilton and signed the legislation on February 25, however, the rift between Hamilton and Jefferson widened and became openly hostile.[196]

Under Washington, the young American nation experienced its first financial crisis in March 1792 when federalists under Hamilton used large loans to gain control of the U.S. debt securities, causing a run on the new national bank.[197][q] By mid-April the markets returned to normal.[199] Jefferson believed Hamilton was part of the scheme, in spite of Hamilton's efforts to remedy matters, and informed Washington who was caught in the middle of what was the beginning of a long-standing feud between his two secretaries, Hamilton and Jefferson.[200]

Hamilton-Jefferson feud

Jefferson and Hamilton, bitter rivals

Two of Washington's Cabinet members, Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, were diametrically opposed in political principles. Like Washington, Hamilton believed in a strong national government that needed a national bank and foreign loans to function, while Jefferson believed the government should be primarily under the direction of the states and the common workers and deeply resented the idea of banks and foreign dependency. This difference was the cause of many disputes and infighting between the two, much to Washington's dismay.[201] In 1791, Jefferson and Congressman James Madison encouraged revolutionary poet Philip Freneau to form the National Gazette, a newspaper to counter the pro-Hamilton press.[202] A few weeks later, Hamilton demanded that Jefferson resign if he could not support Washington.[203] Rather than respond publicly, Jefferson told Washington that Hamilton's fiscal system would undermine and overthrow the republic.[204]

Washington pleaded with his two secretaries by letters to stop the open warfare for the sake of the nation, but Hamilton and Jefferson politely ignored the president's advice.[205] To keep party strife under control, Washington gave up hope that he would retire after his first term.[204] The feud continued after Washington's reelection and into his second term in office.[203] Jefferson's political actions, his support of Freneau's National Gazette,[206] and his attempt to undermine Hamilton nearly led Washington to dismiss him from his cabinet, though Jefferson ultimately resigned office voluntarily in December, 1793.[207][r] The feud between Hamilton and Jefferson led to the well-defined Federalist and Republican parties and their divergent theories of government.[209]

In January 1793, Hamilton was investigated by Republicans in Congress for misappropriating loans, demanding Hamilton give reports of his actions in the Treasury.[210] Hamilton reluctantly complied, but Congress could not find any substantial evidence of misconduct, while the anti-Hamiliton Giles' Resolutions in the House were defeated.[211] Washington remained aloof on the matter, but he did not write a public statement that protected Hamilton.[212] Hamilton was also involved in the Reynolds Affair.[213] While Hamilton's admitted affair confirmed Jefferson's conviction that he was untrustworthy, it did little to change Washington's opinion of him, who still held him in "very high esteem" and who still viewed Hamilton as the dominate force in establishing federal law and government.[214] By 1794, party affiliation was necessary for election to Congress.[215]

Whiskey Rebellion

In March 1791, Congress imposed an excise tax on distilled spirits to help pay the national debt; grain farmers strongly protested in frontier districts, especially the westernmost counties of Pennsylvania, saying they were unrepresented and were unfairly shouldering too much of the debt. Threats and violence against tax collectors escalated into full-scale defiance of federal authority in 1794, known as the Whiskey Rebellion. The federal army was too small to meet the task, so Washington invoked the Militia Act of 1792 to summon militias from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey.[216] The governors sent the troops, with Washington taking initial command. He subsequently named Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee as field commander to lead the troops into the rebellious districts. The rebels dispersed and there was no fighting. Washington's forceful action demonstrated that the new government could protect itself and its tax collectors. This represented the premier instance of the federal government using military force to exert authority over the states and citizens[217] and was the only time that a sitting U.S. president personally commanded troops in the field.[218] Washington justified his action against "certain self-created societies" whom he regarded as "subversive organizations" that threatened the national union. He was not disputing their right to protest, but insisted that their dissent should not take the form of flagrant violation of federal law. Congress overwhelmingly agreed and extended their congratulations to him, with only Madison and Jefferson expressing their indifference.[219]

Foreign and Indian affairs

Battle of Fallen Timbers
The Ohio Country was ceded to America in its aftermath.

Washington's most pressing foreign problem, at the start of his presidency, was the British occupation of forts on the American western frontier.[220] Indian tribes roamed largely uncontrolled and used guerrilla warfare, that presented an effective force against the sparcely manned American army. [221] In the Northwest frontier Indians were aided by British allies to protect the British-Canadian fur trade, while Indian tribes warred with each other. [222] In 1791, to restore peace, Washington sent General Arthur St. Clair from Fort Washington on a punitive expedition against warring tribes into present day Indiana.[184] On November 4, St. Clair's forces, despite Washington's warning, were ambushed and humiliatingly defeated by a confederated Indian army. [184] St. Clair resigned, and Washington replaced him with General Anthony Wayne, who between 1792 and 1793, instructed his troops in Indian warfare tactics. [184] On August 24, 1784, Wayne defeated the Northwest Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and the Ohio Country was opened up for American cession.[223] Uncommon for his times, Washington equated killing Native Americans, to those of whites, and he desired a policy to protect their property, and integrate Indians into American culture.[184]

In April 1792, the French Revolutionary Wars broke out between Great Britain and its allies and revolutionary France; Washington, with cabinet approval, proclaimed American neutrality. The revolutionary government of France sent diplomat Edmond-Charles Genêt to America, called "Citizen Genêt". He was welcomed with great enthusiasm and began promoting the case for France, using a network of new Democratic Societies in major cities. He even issued French letters of marque and reprisal to French ships manned by American sailors so that they could capture British merchant ships. Washington denounced the societies and demanded that the French government recall Genêt, which they did.[224]

Hamilton formulated the Jay Treaty to normalize trade relations with Great Britain, remove them from western forts, and resolve financial debts remaining from the Revolution;[225] John Jay negotiated and signed the treaty on November 19, 1794. Jeffersonians supported France and strongly attacked the treaty. Washington listened to both sides, then announced his strong support, which mobilized public opinion and was pivotal in securing ratification in the Senate on June 24, 1795 by the requisite two-thirds majority.[226] Washington himself was not immune from Republican abuse, he was openly criticized after he had signed the Jay Treaty, that was believed to favor the British. [227] Additionally, Washington was charged with withdrawing more than his allotted $25,000 annual salary, but he made no public reply. [228]

The British agreed to depart from their forts around the Great Lakes, and the United States-Canada boundary had to be re-adjusted. Numerous pre-Revolutionary debts were liquidated, and the British opened their West Indies colonies to American trade. Most importantly, the treaty delayed war with Great Britain and instead brought a decade of prosperous trade. The treaty angered the French and became a central issue in many political debates.[229] Relations with France deteriorated after the treaty was signed, leaving succeeding president John Adams with the prospect of war.[230]

Farewell Address

Washington's Farewell Address (September 19, 1796)

In the months that led up to the end of Washington's presidency, he was relentlessly assailed by his political foes and a largely partisan press, which was highly critical of his numerous successes and Federalist leanings and accused him of being ambitious and greedy. He pointed out that he had taken no salary during the entire war, but he came to regard the press as an erosive and disuniting force, criticizing them for spreading numerous falsehoods and referring to them as "diabolical". This also had a great influence in his Farewell Address, which expressed how troubled he was by the years of infighting and character assassination by much of the press.[231]

Washington's Farewell Address was first published in the American daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796 and was one of the most influential statements on republicanism, drafted primarily by Washington himself with help from Hamilton. It gave 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". "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."[232]

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",[233] 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 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. [234][235]

Washington's Farewell address, however, did not quell bi-partisan politics, but only served to aggravate them, setting the tone for the coming 1796 election, with Washington lending his support for John Adams.[233]

Retirement (1797–1799)

A map of the Mount Vernon plantation and lands

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.[236] His plantation operations were only minimally profitable.[25] His lands in the west (Piedmont) 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. In addition, some of the slaves belonged to Martha, but the groups had been living together for years and there had been much intermarriage among them.[237]

Most Americans assumed that he was rich because of the well-known "glorified façade of wealth and grandeur" at Mount Vernon,[238] but nearly all of Washington's 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.[239]

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 17 months later. He participated in 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 to Hamilton, including active leadership of the army; Hamilton was serving as a major general in the U.S. Army at the time. No French army invaded the United States during this period, and Washington did not assume a field command [240][s]

Personal life

The Washington Family by Edward Savage, painted between 1789 and 1796, shows (from left to right): George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington, Eleanor Parke Custis, Martha Washington, and an enslaved servant, probably William Lee or Christopher Sheels

Washington was a tall man endowed with great physical strength that often amazed his subordinates and younger men. He was mostly silent during times of debate, yet he exhibited a commanding and sometimes domineering presence without having to speak.[241] His height was variously recorded as 6 ft (1.83 m) to 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m), although he registered 6 ft 3½ in when measured for his coffin.[242]

As a young man, Washington had red hair. It is often assumed that he wore a wig, as was the fashion among some at the time, but he did not. Instead, he powdered his hair,[242] which is represented in several portraits including the unfinished Gilbert Stuart depiction called the "Athenaeum Portrait".[243]

Washington was a very skilled horseman; Jefferson called him "the best horseman of his age", and both American and European observers praised his riding. The horsemanship benefited his hunting, a favorite hobby. He was an excellent dancer, and he also attended the theater frequently and would make Shakespearean references in his letters.[244] He drank in moderation and precisely recorded gambling wins and losses. He disliked the excessive drinking, gambling, smoking, and profanity that were common in colonial Virginia. He grew tobacco but he eventually stopped smoking and considered drunkenness a man's worst vice. He was glad that post-Revolutionary Virginia society was less likely to force guests "to drink and to make it an honor to send them home drunk."[245]

Washington suffered from problems with his teeth throughout his life, and historians have tracked his experiences in great detail.[246] He lost his first adult tooth when he was 22, and had only one left by the time that he became president.[247] John Adams claimed that he lost them because he used them to crack Brazil nuts, but modern historians suggest that mercury oxide probably contributed to the loss, which he was given to treat illnesses such as smallpox and malaria.[248] He had several sets of false teeth made, four of them by a dentist named John Greenwood, and he went through several sets during his presidency. However, none of the sets was made from wood. The set made when he became president was carved from hippopotamus and elephant ivory, held together with gold springs. Prior to these, he had a set made with real human teeth. Dental problems left him in constant pain, for which he took laudanum, procured for him by Tobias Lear.[249]


For his entire life, Washington was affiliated with the established Anglican Church of Great Britain. It was dis-established in Southern states following the Revolution and reorganized as the Episcopal Church. In 1762 Washington served as a vestryman and as church warden for both Fairfax Parish in Alexandria and Truro Parish, a post he maintained for twenty-two years.[250][251] Numerous historians have suggested that Washington's theology agreed largely with the Deists, but he never expressed any particular Deist beliefs. He often used words for the deity such as "God" and "Providence", while avoiding using the names "Jesus" and "Christ." In his collected works, such terms appear in an official letter to Indians which might have been drafted by an aide. At the time, Deism was a theological outlook, not an organized denomination. It was compatible with being an Episcopalian. There is speculation among some historians about how committed Washington was to Christianity as compared to Deism.[252]

Washington devoted private time for prayer before breakfast,[253] and frequently accompanied his wife to church services. Third-hand reports say that he took communion,[254] although he is usually characterized as never or rarely participating in the rite.[255] He would regularly leave services before communion with the other non-communicants (as was the custom of the day). He ceased attending at all on communion Sundays after being admonished by a rector.[256] He regarded religion as a protective influence for America's social and political order, and he recognized the church's "laudable endeavors to render men sober, honest, and good citizens, and the obedient subjects of a lawful government."[257]

It is generally concluded that Washington was a Christian, although the exact nature of his religious beliefs has been debated by some historians and biographers for over 200 years. Biographer Don Higginbotham notes that, in such instances, people with diametrically opposing opinions frequently base their views of Washington's beliefs on their own beliefs.[258] Higginbotham claims that Washington harbored no contempt of organized Christianity and its clergy, and quotes him as saying: "being no bigot myself to any mode of worship".[259] Washington was a vigorous promoter of tolerance for all religious denominations as commander of the army and as president. He often attended services of different denominations, and suppressed anti-Catholic celebrations in the Army.[260] Michael Novak suggests that Washington did not assert his particular religious conviction, so that all Americans would feel free to approach him on their own terms—and might also feel like full members of the new republic.[261] He concludes that Washington was educated in and adhered to the Episcopal Church and believed in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, with no indifference to other forms of Christianity.[262]

Enlightenment and Freemasonry

Historians have emphasized that Washington was deeply rooted in the ideas, values, and modes of thinking in the Age of Enlightenment. Biographer Don Higginbotham maintains that Washington was a self made hero and a man of his age who embraced Enlightenment values more seriously than most of his contemporaries.[263] In 1793, Washington proclaimed "We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition."[264] The economic ideas of Adam Smith were attractive to him, opposing mercantilism and favoring free trade. He wrote in 1786 that he looked forward to that "not very remote" time "when the benefits of a liberal and free commerce will, pretty generally, succeed to the devastations and horrors of war."[265]

Like many activists in the Enlightenment in Europe and the colonies, Washington favored the Freemasonry movement. A new Masonic lodge was established in Fredericksburg in September, 1752 and he was initiated two months later as one of its first apprentices. Within a year, he progressed through its ranks to become a Master Mason,[266] and eventually was the highest ranking Mason in the United States.[267] He had a high regard for the Masonic Order and often praised it, but he seldom attended lodge meetings. He was attracted by the movement's dedication to the Enlightenment principles of rationality, reason, and fraternalism. The American lodges did not share the anti-clerical perspective which made the European lodges so controversial.[268] In 1777, a convention of Virginia lodges asked him to be the Grand Master of the newly established Grand Lodge of Virginia, but he declined due to his responsibility in leading the Continental Army at a critical stage. In 1788, he was named Master in the Virginia charter of Alexandria Lodge No. 22, with his consent.[269]

Washington regularly attended the established Church of England, but he grew indifferent with its form of worship and refrained from using the term God, substituting terms frequently used in Enlightenment doctrine such as The Creator or The Almighty in his correspondence and as Commander in Chief during the Revolution.[267]


Washington was the only prominent Founding Father to arrange in his will for the freeing of all his slaves following his death and the death of his wife.[270] He privately opposed slavery as an institution, which he viewed as economically unsound and morally indefensible. He believed that the divisiveness of his countrymen's feelings about slavery was a potentially mortal threat to the unity of the nation.[271] He never publicly challenged the institution of slavery,[272] possibly because he wanted to avoid provoking a split in the new republic over so inflammatory an issue.[273]

Washington had owned slaves since the death of his father in 1743, when he inherited 10 slaves. (Washington was 11 at the time.) He owned at least 36 slaves by the time of his marriage to Martha Custis in 1759, which meant that he had achieved the status of a major planter. (Historians of the Upper South said that major planters owned 20 or more slaves.) Martha brought at least 85 "dower slaves" to Mount Vernon after their marriage, as she had inherited one third of her late husband's estate. Washington bought more land using his wife's great wealth, tripling the size of the plantation at Mount Vernon and purchasing the additional slaves needed to work it. By 1774, he paid taxes on 135 slaves (this figure does not include the dower slaves). The last record of a slave purchase by him was in 1772, although he later received some slaves in repayment of debts.[274] Washington also used some hired staff and white indentured servants; in April 1775, he offered a reward for the return of two runaway white servants.[275]

Washington refused to allow his slaves to be sold without their permission. This policy was economically inefficient, resulting in an unnecessarily large work force.[276] He allowed his household slave a measure of freedom, allowing them to go into town and visit the theater, among other such things.[277] In his will, he provided that his slaves should be freed after the death of his wife. However, Martha chose to free them at the end of 1800, fearing that her life was not safe in their hands because her death would make them free.[278] Most of the former slaves were unable to find suitable work after being freed and lived in poverty. Part of this was due to Virginia passing laws against educating blacks and restricting the rights of free blacks.[279]

Washington sought to preserve slaves' families. His slaves were well treated, well fed and clothed,[280], however there were rare incidents when he allowed the administration of corporal punishment by overseers, as was customary for the time. His estate manager Anthony Whitting whipped a slave named Charlotte when Martha deemed her to be "indolent". "Your treatment of Charlotte was very proper," Washington wrote in 1793, "and if she or any other of the servants will not do their duty by fair means, or are impertinent, correction (as the only alternative) must be administered."[281] Another of his estate managers named Hiland (or Hyland) Crow was known for brutally flogging some slaves, which Washington disapproved of.[282] Some of his slaves absconded during the Revolutionary War to find protection with the enemy, and Washington did not let up in his efforts to reclaim what he saw as his property. One internal British memo portrayed him after victory as demanding, "with all the grossness and ferocity of a captain of banditti," that the runaways be returned.[283]

American Cincinnatus

During the Revolutionary and Early Republican periods of American history, many commentators compared Washington with Roman aristocrat and statesman Cincinnatus. The comparison arose as Washington, like Cincinnatus, commanded the Continental Army only until the British had been defeated. Thereafter, he returned as quickly as possible to cultivating his lands instead of seeking great political power.[284] Lord Byron's Ode to Napoleon also lionized Washington as "the Cincinnatus of the West".[285]

Final days

On Thursday, December 12, 1799, Washington spent several hours inspecting his plantation on horseback, in snow, hail and freezing rain; that evening, not wanting to keep his guests waiting, he ate his supper without changing from his wet clothes. The next day the weather worsened with heavy snow. Now nursing a sore throat, he trudged down the hill towards the Potomac to mark some trees he wanted cleared. That evening he complained of chest congestion and hoarseness, but his mood remained cheerful. Some time around 3 a.m. that Saturday, he suddenly awoke with severe difficulty breathing and almost completely unable to speak or swallow.[286] He was a firm believer in bloodletting, which was a standard medical practice of that era, and he had used it to treat various ailments of slaves on his plantation. He ordered estate overseer Albin Rawlins to remove nearly a pint of his blood.[287] Three physicians were also summoned, 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".[288] By the time that the three physicians finished their treatments and bloodletting of the president, half or more of his total blood content was removed over the course of just a few hours.[286] Dick recognized that the bloodletting and other treatments were failing, and he proposed performing an emergency tracheotomy as a last-ditch effort to save Washington's life. Few American doctors were then familiar with this procedure and the other two doctors disapproved.[286][289] Washington finally instructed doctors Brown and Dick to cease their attempts in trying to save his life and leave the room, while he assured Doctor Craik, "Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go".[290]

Published regulations for the funeral procession in honor of Washington (in New York City)

Washington's illness and subsequent death came swiftly and unexpectantly.[291] His final instructions were, "Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put in the vault in less than three days after I am dead."[292][t] In his journal, Washington's personal secretary Tobias Lear recorded his last words as "'Tis well." With Martha calmly composed at the foot of his bed, Washington died peacefully without further struggle five hours later at home around 10 p.m. on Saturday, December 14, 1799, aged 67.[294] Funeral arrangements were made by Washington's Masonic lodge of Alexandria. The funeral was held on December 18, 1799 at Mount Vernon, where his body was interred. Leading the procession were foot soldiers and cavalry; the pallbearers were six Colonels, all of whom had served under Washington during the revolution. The service was restricted mostly to family, friends, and neighbors. Congress chose Henry Lee III to deliver the eulogy, a Continental Army officer and loved by Washington.[295] Word traveled slowly concerning his death; church-bells rang in the various cities, and many places of business closed when word arrived.[296]

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 (still under construction), and Martha acquiesced.[297] 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 m) square base. Southern representatives and senators opposed the plan and defeated the measure because they felt that it was best to have Washington's body remain at Mount Vernon.[298]

Throughout the world, people admired Washington and were saddened by his 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.[299] Ships of the British Royal Navy's Channel Fleet lowered their flags to half mast to honor his passing.[300] To protect their privacy, Martha Washington burned the correspondence which 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.[301]

Subsequent diagnoses

The diagnosis of Washington's final illness and the immediate cause of his death have been subjects of debate since the day he died.; Medical report. In the days immediately following his death, Craik and Dick's published account stated that they felt that his symptoms had been consistent with cynanche trachealis, a term of that period used to describe severe inflammation of the structures of the upper airway. Even at that early date, there were accusations of medical malpractice, with some believing that Washington had been bled to death. Various modern medical authors have speculated that Washington probably died from a severe case of epiglottitis which was complicated by the given treatments (all of which were accepted medical practice in Washington's day), most notably the massive deliberate blood loss, which almost certainly caused hypovolemic shock.[302][u]

Move to new burial site

The Washington family tomb at Mount Vernon

In 1830 a disgruntled ex-employee of the estate attempted to steal Washington's skull from the original tomb.[304] 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.[305]

The sarcophagi of George (right) and Martha (left) Washington at the entrance to the Washington family 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 capitol after the British had 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."[298]

On October 7, 1837 George Washington's remains, still in the original lead coffin, were placed within a marble sarcophagus designed by William Strickland and constructed by John Struthers.[306][297] The sarcophagus was sealed and encased with planks while an outer vault was constructed around it.[306] The outer vault contains the sarcophagi of George and Martha Washington, the inner vault contains the remains of other Washington family members and relatives.[305]


The serious collection and publication of Washington's documentary record began with the pioneer work of Jared Sparks in the 1830s in Life and Writings of George Washington (12 vols., 1834–1837). The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799 (1931–44) is a 37 volume set edited by John C. Fitzpatrick. It contains over 17,000 letters and documents and is available online from the University of Virginia.[307] The definitive letterpress edition of his writings was begun by the University of Virginia in 1968, and today comprises 52 published volumes, with more to come. It contains everything written by Washington or signed by him, together with most of his incoming letters. Part of the collection is available online from the University of Virginia.[308]

George Washington's personal annotated copy of the "Acts Passed at a Congress of the United States of America" from 1789 includes the Constitution of the United States and a draft of the Bill of Rights. It was sold on June 22, 2012, at Christie's for $9,826,500 (with fees added to the final cost) to The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. This was the record for a document sold at auction.[309]

Monuments and memorials

Washington Monument, Washington, DC

Many places and entities have been named in honor of Washington. His name became that of the nation's capital Washington, D.C. The state of Washington is the only state to be named after a United States president.[310] Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the tallest mountain in the Northeast, was named soon after the American Revolution by Colonel John Whipple.[311]

Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln are depicted in stone at the Mount Rushmore Memorial. The Washington Monument was built in his honor, one of the best-known American landmarks. The George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia was constructed between 1922 and 1932 with voluntary contributions from all 52 local governing bodies of the Freemasons in the United States.[312]

There have been many proposals to build a monument to Washington, starting after victory in the Revolution. After his death, Congress authorized a suitable memorial in the national capital, but the decision was reversed when the Democratic-Republicans took control of Congress in 1801. The Democratic-Republicans were dismayed that Washington had become the symbol of the Federalist Party.[313] Construction of the 554 foot memorial didn't begin until 1848. It was completed in 1885. There are many other "Washington Monuments" in the United States, including two well-known equestrian statues, one in Manhattan and one in Richmond, Virginia. The first statue to show Washington on horseback was dedicated in 1856 and is located in Manhattan's Union Square.[314]

The world's busiest bridge, the George Washington Bridge, is named in his honor. Several naval vessels are named in Washington's honor, including the USS George Washington.[315]


Postage and currency

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.[316]

Washington's victory over Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown was commemorated with a two-cent stamp on the battle's 150th anniversary on October 19, 1931.[317] The 150th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution with George Washington as presiding officer was celebrated with a three-cent issue on September 17, 1937, adapted from the painting by Julius Brutus Stearns.[318] Washington's presidential inauguration at Federal Hall in New York City was celebrated on its 150th anniversary on April 30, 1939.[319]

Selected issues
Washington, general issue of 1862, 24c
issue of 1862
Washington-Franklin Issue of 1917, 5c
Washington-Franklin, issue of 1917
Washington at Prayer, Valley Forge, issue of 1928, 2c
Washington at Valley Forge, issue of 1928
President, Constitutional Convention,issue of 1937 3c
Washington as President of the Constitutional Convention, issue of 1937
Selected currency
George Washington
quarter dollar
George Washington
presidential one dollar coin
George Washington on the 1928 dollar bill

Cherry tree

Parson Weems' Fable
Grant Wood, 1939

Perhaps the best-known story about Washington's childhood is that he chopped down his father's favorite cherry tree and admitted the deed when questioned: "I can't tell a lie, Pa." The anecdote was first reported by biographer Parson Weems, who interviewed people after Washington's death who knew him as a child over a half-century earlier. The Weems text was very widely reprinted throughout the 19th century, for example in McGuffey Readers. Adults wanted children to learn moral lessons from history, especially as taught by example from the lives of great national heroes like Washington. After 1890 historians insisted on scientific research methods to validate every statement, and there was no documentation for this anecdote apart from Weems' report that he learned it from one of the neighbors who knew the young Washington. Joseph Rodman claimed in 1904 that Weems plagiarized other Washington tales from published fiction set in England, but no one has found an alternative source for the cherry tree story.[320]

Austin Washington, a descendant of George Washington, maintains that it is unlikely that Parson Weems, a man of the clergy, would write an account about truth and honesty and then lie about such a story. He further maintains that, if Weems was making up a story, he would have more dramatically depicted the young Washington chopping down the cherry tree, not merely "barking it" (i.e., removing some of the bark), as Weems never claimed that the tree was chopped down. There has been much conjecture and ad hominem attacks from some historians about Weems and his story, but none have proven or disproven the story.[321]

Historical reputation and legacy

The Constable-Hamilton Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

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.[v] 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".[322] 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.[w][179][323][324]Washington's Birthday is a federal holiday in the United States.[325] 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." [326]

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.[327] On January 31, 1781, he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[328]

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.[86] This restored his position as the highest-ranking military officer in U.S. history.[x]

Portrait gallery


See also


  1. ^ March 4 is the official start of the first presidential term. April 6 is when Congress counted the votes of the Electoral College and certified a president. April 30 is when Washington was sworn in.
  2. ^ Old style: February 11, 1731
  3. ^ a b Contemporaneous records used the Julian calendar and the Annunciation Style of enumerating years, recording his birth as February 11, 1731. The provisions of the British Calendar (New Style) Act 1750, implemented in 1752, altered the official British dating method to the Gregorian calendar with the start of the year on January 1 (it had been March 25). These changes resulted in dates being moved forward 11 days, and an advance of one year for those between January 1 and March 25. For a further explanation, see Old Style and New Style dates.[2]
  4. ^ Washington received his license through the college, whose charter gave it the authority to appoint Virginia county surveyors. There is no evidence that he actually attended classes there.[23] This lucrative appointment was due to his connection to the prominent Fairfax family through his brother Lawrence.
  5. ^ Also referred to as the Seven Years' War and The French War
  6. ^ Ellis and Ferling, for example, do not discuss this stance in reference to Washington's French and Indian War service, and cast it almost exclusively in terms of his negative experiences dealing with the Continental Congress during the Revolution. See ;[54]
  7. ^ Washington may not have been able to admit to his own sterility while privately he grieved over not having his own children. [61]
  8. ^ Durham Boats were so named as they were built for the Durham Iron Works to carry iron ore lumber or grain on the upper Delaware.[108]
  9. ^ The term comes from the Roman strategy used by General Fabius against Hannibal's invasion in the Second Punic War.
  10. ^ Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress called its presiding officer "President of the United States in Congress Assembled". The position had no executive powers, but the similarity of titles has confused some into thinking that there were other presidents before Washington.[165]
  11. ^ The system in place at the time dictated that each elector cast two votes, with the winner becoming president and the runner-up vice president. Every elector in the elections of 1789 and 1792 cast one of his votes for Washington; thus, it may be said that he was elected president unanimously. James Monroe was re-elected unopposed in 1820, but a "faithless elector" cast a single vote for John Quincy Adams, depriving him of unanimous election.
  12. ^ There is historical debate and some controversy over whether Washington added "So help me God" to the end of the oath.[169]
  13. ^ Washington had several debts against him and he was compelled to borrow money to pay for local obligations and traveling expenses.[170]
  14. ^ Washington wrote to James Madison: ""As the first of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent, it is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents be fixed on true principles." Washington to James Madison, May 5, 1789, cited by Unger, 2013, p. 76.
  15. ^ Washington refused to run for a third term in 1796, establishing the tradition of a maximum of two terms for a president, which was solidified by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.[185]
  16. ^ In 1800, the Territory of Columbia became the District of Columbia when the federal government moved to the site, according to the provisions of the Residence Act.[195]
  17. ^ Hamilton's appointed former Treasury assistant, William Duer, had misappropriated $200,000 Treasury funds, that enabled him to speculate on securities, which triggered a financial crisis. Unable to repay the $200,000, Duer was arrested, prosecuted and sent to debtor's prison by the New York District Attorney, with Hamilton's blessing.[198]
  18. ^ Washington never forgave him and never spoke to him again.[208]
  19. ^ This was the only instance where a former President later served as an official presidential appointee up until 1921, when President Warren G. Harding appointed former President William Howard Taft to the position of Chief Justice of the United States.
  20. ^ There is some discrepancy among some historians as to the number of days: Betts, 2013, claims two days were to pass before being placed in the burial vault, Chernow, 2010, claims it was three.[293]
  21. ^ At least three modern medical authors, (Wallenborn 1999,[303] Shapiro 1975, Scheidemandel 1976) concluded that Washington most probably died from acute bacterial epiglottitis complicated by extensive bloodletting.
  22. ^ Historians Jay A. Parry and Andrew M. Allison declare that Washington "was the dominant personality in three of the most critical events in that founding: the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, and the first national administration. Had he not served as America's leader in those three events, all three likely would have failed. And America as we know it today would not exist." Parry, 1991, p. xi.
  23. ^ The earliest known image in which Washington is identified as the Father of His Country is in the frontispiece of a 1779 German-language almanac, with calculations by David Rittenhouse and published by Francis Bailey in Lancaster County Pennsylvania. Der Gantz Neue Nord-Americanishe Calendar has Fame appearing with an image of Washington holding a trumpet to her lips, from which come the words "Der Landes Vater" (translated as "the father of the country" or "the father of the land").
  24. ^ In Portraits & Biographical Sketches of the United States Army's Senior Officer,[329] William Gardner Bell states that Washington was recalled back into military service from his retirement in 1798, and "Congress passed legislation that would have made him General of the Armies of the United States, but his services were not required in the field and the appointment was not made until the Bicentennial in 1976, when it was bestowed posthumously as a commemorative honor." How many U.S. Army five-star generals have there been and who were they? states that with Public Law 94-479, President Ford specified that Washington would "rank first among all officers of the Army, past and present. "General of the Armies of the United States" is associated with only two people... one being Washington and the other being John J. Pershing.


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Military offices
New creation Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army
Succeeded by
Henry Knox
as Senior Officer of the Army
Preceded by
James Wilkinson
Senior Officer of the Army
Succeeded by
Alexander Hamilton
Political offices
New creation 1st President of the United States
Succeeded by
John Adams