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George Washington

George Washington

first President of the United States
The basics
Occupation Cartographer Farmer Land surveyor Military personnel Officer Politician
Country United States of America
AKA Father of the United States
Date of birth Westmoreland County, Virginia, U.S.A.
Date of death Dec 14, 1799 Mount Vernon, Mount Vernon, Fairfax County, Virginia
Residence Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Brother(s): Samuel Washington John Augustine Washington Charles Washington Augustine Washington Jr. Lawrence Washington
Spouse: Martha Washington
Mother: Mary Ball Washington
Sister(s): Betty Washington Lewis
Children: John Parke Custis Martha Parke Custis
Father: Augustine Washington
Awards Thanks of Congress, Congressional Gold Medal
Notable works Mount Vernon
Political party nonpartisanism
Authority IMDB id NNDB id Openlibrary id All Movie id Library of congress id VIAF id ISNI id
The details

George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799) was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America and served as the nation's first president (1789–1797). In the American Revolutionary War, General Washington led Patriot forces to victory over the British and their allies. He presided at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which established the new federal government, and he has been called the "Father of His Country".

Washington was born to a moderately prosperous family of planters and slaveholders in colonial Virginia. He had early educational opportunities, learned mathematics, and soon launched a successful career as a surveyor which enabled him to make significant land investments. He then became a key leader of the Virginia militia in the French and Indian War. He was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, leading an allied campaign to victory at the Siege of Yorktown which ended the conflict. Once victory was in hand, in 1783 he resigned as commander-in-chief, declining further authority and power out of his devotion to republicanism.

As the country's premier statesman, Washington was unanimously elected President by the Electoral College in the first two national elections. He promoted and oversaw implementation of a strong, well-financed national government, using the economic plans of his Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, while remaining impartial in the fierce rivalry between him and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. When the French Revolution plunged Europe into war, Washington proclaimed a policy of neutrality to protect American ships, while the controversial Jay Treaty of 1795 normalized trade relations with Great Britain. He set numerous precedents that have endured, such as the cabinet advisory system, the inaugural address, and the title "Mr. President". His seminal Farewell Address strongly warned against political partisanship, sectionalism, and involvement in foreign wars.

Washington owned slaves throughout his life from age 11, but he became increasingly troubled by slavery and freed his slaves in his will. He was a member of the Anglican Church and the Freemasons, and he urged tolerance for all religions in his roles as general and President. Upon his death, he was famously eulogized as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen". Washington has been widely memorialized by monuments, art, places, stamps, and currency, and he has been consistently ranked by scholars among the four greatest American presidents.

Early years (1732–1752)

George Washington was born February 22, 1732, the first child of Augustine Washington and his wife Mary Ball Washington, at Wakefield on their Popes Creek Estate in the Colony of Virginia. He was then a subject of the British Empire, under the reign of George II, descended primarily from the gentry of Sulgrave, England. His great grandfather John Washington emigrated to Virginia in 1656. John was a tobacco planter who accumulated land and slaves, as did his son Lawrence and his grandson Augustine.

Washington was reared in the rich open farmlands of Virginia's Tidewater region. His father Augustine was a moderately wealthy planter, justice of the peace, and county sheriff who had 10 children, four by his first marriage to Jane Butler and six by his second marriage to Mary. Washington was one of seven surviving children, including older half-brothers Lawrence and Augustine, and full siblings Samuel, Elizabeth (Betty), John Augustine, and Charles.{{efn|Three siblings died before adulthood: sister Mildred at age one, half-brother Butler in infancy, and half-sister Jane at age 12.

At age 3, Washington and his family moved to Epsewasson, a 2,500-acre (1,000 ha) plantation that his father had purchased, on the bluffs of the Potomac River; when Washington was 6 they moved to Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg. He spent much of his boyhood there; it is said to be the setting for the legendary cherry tree anecdote reported by Parson Weems, based on the memories of people who knew him as a child, and often quoted, not always accurately, since then: A young George Washington amused himself by girdling his father's English cherry tree with his hatchet (or, according to many subsequent accounts, cutting it down). When Augustine asked George if he was responsible, the boy replied, "I cannot tell a lie; I cut it with my little hatchet." Weems' account of the incident has never been proven or disproven.

When Washington's father, then age 48, died of a sudden illness on April 12, 1743, 11 year-old George was then kept under the strict care of his mother Mary. He inherited Ferry Farm and 10 slaves, while his older half-brother Lawrence inherited Epsewasson and changed its name to Mount Vernon, in honor of British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, his commander during the War of Jenkins' Ear.

Washington's initial teachers were his father and Lawrence, in an education that spanned over 8 years. His mother could not afford the cost of England's Appleby Grammar School, so he was tutored by various masters including Mr. Hobby, his father's former tenant; he also attended the Fredericksburg school of Anglican clergyman James Mayre. He was taught mathematics, trigonometry, and surveying by school master Henry Williams, and he had a natural talent in draftsmanship and map-making. He purchased books on military affairs, agriculture, and history, as well as popular novels, and by early adulthood he was writing with cogency.

Washington's mother rejected a plan for him to join the Royal Navy in September 1746 when he was 14. His half-brother Lawrence in 1743 had married Anne Fairfax, the daughter of powerful Virginia statesman William Fairfax, who became Washington's idolized surrogate father. Washington moved to Mount Vernon with Lawrence and Ann when he was 17, and was close friends with William Fairfax's son George, whose wife Sally had been an early romantic interest; she maintained correspondence with Washington when she moved to England with her father.

Washington and George William Fairfax accompanied surveyor James Genn in 1748 when Washington was 16. Genn had been sent by Lord Fairfax to survey the Shenandoah lands, and Washington gained valuable experience during the month-long trip. He received a commission and surveyor's license from the College of William & Mary in 1749 when he was 17, and was appointed surveyor of Culpeper, Virginia, due to Fairfax's influence. He primarily surveyed for Lord Fairfax in the Blue Ridge Mountains, after a preliminary survey of eastern Culpeper County. He made numerous surveys of the Shenandoah Valley during the spring of 1750, and became accustomed to the wilderness. He bought almost 1,500 acres (600 ha) in the Shenandoah Valley in October 1750, his first large land investment, and accumulated 2,315 acres (937 ha) in the Shenandoah Valley by the time he was 18, when he resigned his commission of Culpeper County surveyor.

Washington stopped surveying within a few years but continued purchasing land. He acquired more than 70,000 acres (28,000 ha) in seven states and the District of Columbia in his lifetime; it took him 25 years to expand his Mount Vernon estate from 2,000 to 8,000 acres (800 to 3,200 ha). He bought more parcels of land to spur development around Federal City (modern Washington, D.C.). Rather than selling multiple lots to large investors, he sold individual lots to middle income investors, believing they would more likely commit to making improvements.

In 1751, Washington made his only trip abroad with Lawrence to Barbados in the hope that the climate would be beneficial to his brother's tuberculosis. During the trip, Washington contracted smallpox which immunized him but left his face slightly scarred. Lawrence's health continued to decline and he returned to Mount Vernon, where he died on July 26, 1752. Washington inherited his Mount Vernon estate after the deaths of Lawrence's wife Ann and their daughter.

Personal traits

Washington was somewhat taciturn in personality, though he generally had a strong presence among others. He made speeches and announcements when required, but he was not a noted orator or debater. He was taller than most of his contemporaries; accounts of his height vary from 6 ft (1.83 m) to 6 ft 3.5 in (1.92 m) tall, and he weighed between 210–220 pounds as an adult. He had wide hips, a slim waist, a broad chest, narrow shoulders, muscular thighs, and exceptionally large hands, and he was widely known for his great strength—particularly in his long arms. He had piercing grey-blue eyes, fair skin, and light reddish-brown hair, although he wore his hair powdered in the fashion of the day. He had a rugged and dominating presence, which garnered respect from his male peers. He suffered frequently from severe tooth decay, and ultimately lost all his teeth but one. He had several sets of false teeth made which he went through during his presidency—none of which were made of wood, contrary to common lore. These dental problems left him in constant pain, for which he took laudanum. As a public figure, he relied upon the strict confidence of his dentist.

Washington was a talented equestrian early in life. He collected thoroughbreds at Mount Vernon, and his two favorite horses were Blueskin and Nelson. Fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson said that Washington was "the best horseman of his age and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback"; he also hunted foxes, deer, ducks, and other game. He was an excellent dancer and attended the theater frequently. He drank in moderation but was morally opposed to excessive drinking, the smoking of tobacco, gambling, and profanity.

Colonial soldier (1752–1758)

Early military career

Washington Expeditions 1753–1754
Major George Washington (1754)
Washington's map of Ohio Country

Washington's brother Lawrence was an Adjutant General at the time of his death, and this inspired Washington to begin his own pursuit of a military life. He was trained in musters and drills before Robert Dinwiddie appointed him adjutant, first to the Southern district in December 1752 and later to the Northern and Eastern districts as well. In February 1753, when Washington was 21, Dindwiddie promoted him to the rank of Major at an annual salary of 100 pounds, then made him British military ambassador to the French officials and to the Iroquois and Algonquians, as far north as Erie, Pennsylvania (in "Ohio Country"). Thirty years later Washington reflected in amazement "that so young and inexperienced a person should have been employed" in such negotiations.

The British government had ordered Dinwiddie to guard British territorial claims in the Ohio River basin, protecting trade activity with the Indians and others in the various settlements. Dindwiddie ordered Washington to deliver a letter in late 1753 asking French commander Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre at Fort Le Boeuf to vacate the Ohio Valley, and offering him a safe escort to Lake Erie. Washington was also to make peace with the Six Nations. He and six frontiersmen reached the Ohio River that November, but the French had withdrawn. He met with Half-King Tanacharison and other Six Nations Iroquois chiefs at Logstown and secured their support against the French if needed, then continued 60 miles (97 km) and met the French at Venango—but the letter was refused. Washington then reached Fort Le Boeuf and delivered the letter to the commander, who replied that Dinwiddie should send his demand to the Major General of New France at its capital in Quebec. By Dinwiddie's order, Washington's diary of the expedition was printed by William Hunter, giving Washington name recognition in Virginia and England; it also helped him obtain a commission to raise a company of men.

French and Indian War

In 1753, the French military advanced into the Ohio Country, territory that both France and Britain sought. Virginia's Ohio Company, of which Dinwiddie and Washington were stockholders, was created to encourage British settlement of the land; it had an economic interest in the region. The land that joined the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers (the area that would become Pittsburgh) was highly prized by both nations; the competing stakes led to the French and Indian War (1754–62) as well as the onset of the Seven Years' War (1756–63). Washington ordered the first shot fired in the former war.

An engraved depiction of Lieutenant Colonel George Washington's evening council at Fort Necessity

On March 15, 1754, Governor Dinwiddie commissioned Washington Lieutenant Colonel in the newly formed Virginia Regiment at age 21 and sent him to confront French forces at Pittsburgh. Dindwiddie ordered Washington to take prisoners or kill those who resisted British control of the region. He set out on April 2 with 150 men, and received news en route that a French force had driven out colonial traders and begun construction of Fort Duquesne. Half-King Tanacharison and a few warriors discovered a small detachment of French troops east of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, led by Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, so Washington built an entrenched camp at Great Meadows, which he called Fort Necessity. He then led his unit and their Mingo (Iroquois) allies in an ambush against the French on May 28 in the Battle of Jumonville Glen. There are discrepancies, but primary accounts indicate that the battle lasted about 15 minutes. Jumonville was killed, and most of his party were taken prisoner or killed; for this battle, Tanacharison gave Washington the name Conotocaurius ("Town Destroyer").

In July 1754, the French responded by attacking the fort in the ten-hour Battle of Fort Necessity. The battle ended in Washington's only surrender and the return of his force to Virginia—but only after he had signed a surrender document which, when translated, stated that Washington had "assassinated" Jumonville (rather than killing him in battle); this mistranslated document became the pretext to blame him for starting a war. Modern historian Joseph Ellis concludes that the episode demonstrated Washington's bravery and initiative, as well as his inexperience and impetuosity. Upon his return to Virginia, Washington refused to accept a demotion to the rank of captain and resigned his commission. This expedition into the Ohio Country had international consequences. The French accused him of assassinating Jumonville; according to them, Jumonville had only been on a diplomatic mission to warn Washington about encroaching on French-claimed territory. In consequence, Washington was so vilified by the French that he was made the villain of an epic poem celebrating Jumonville, bringing the incident and Washington's part in it to international attention. France and Great Britain were now set to fight for control of Ohio Country, both sending in troops in 1755, and war was formally declared in 1756.

The Battle of the Monogahela

In 1755, the British Crown sent General Edward Braddock and regulars to take Fort Duquesne. This was the largest British expedition to the colonies, intended to expel the French from the Ohio Country. Braddock offered Washington the position of aide on his staff, and he accepted, joining the Braddock Expedition. Washington recommended that Braddock split the army into two divisions, with a primary column and a second, more lightly equipped mobile offensive "flying column". During the march, Washington became severely ill and was left behind, but he was able to rejoin Braddock at Monongahela. The next day, the French and their Indian allies ambushed Braddock's divided forces, and Braddock was mortally wounded in the Battle of the Monongahela. The British suffered devastating casualties and retreated in panic, with two-thirds killed or wounded, but Washington rallied his forces in an organized retreat even though he was suffering from a fever and headache. He had two horses shot from under him, and his hat and coat were bullet-pierced. His conduct under fire redeemed his reputation among critics of his command in the Battle of Fort Necessity. Nonetheless, he was not included by the succeeding commander Colonel Thomas Dunbar in planning subsequent operations.

On August 14, 1755, Dinwiddie appointed Washington colonel and commander in chief of all of Virginia's colonial military forces, to protect Virginia's frontier from Indian attacks. Washington was 23, in charge of defending 300 miles with only 300 men. Savage frontier battles took place, 20 battles in 10 months between Washington's Virginia Regiment and the Indians. Washington desired to wear the coveted red coat of officer rank, but this eluded him. He was convinced that Braddock would have recommended him for a regular commission in the British Army had he survived, so he appealed to Braddock's successor Lord Loudoun. Loudon refused the request but did agree to transfer responsibility for Fort Cumberland from Virginia to Maryland. Washington's command increased to a thousand soldiers, while he emphasized discipline and training, and Virginia's frontier population suffered less than that of other colonies as a result of his strenuous efforts. Historian Joseph Ellis concludes that this "was his only unqualified success" during the French and Indian War.

Engraving depicting the British arrival at the remains of Fort Duquesne

Washington continued to advocate the capture of Fort Duquesne, and the British crown sent Commanding General John Forbes, Colonel Thomas Gage, and British regulars to take the post in 1758. Washington was promoted to honorary Brigadier General, and he and two regiments under his command were ordered to cooperate. During the Forbes Expedition, Washington suggested using an Indian-style warfare method, but was ignored. He was the only colonial officer among the British forces and was involved in only one battle during the campaign.

Forbes had devised a plan for an assault on Fort Duquesne and assigned Washington to lead one of three brigades. He was alerted to an enemy reconnaissance party in the area and sent Colonel George Mercer with a contingent of several hundred Virginians to investigate. Gunshots were heard in the distance, Washington's unit responded, and friendly-fire was created when reinforcements arrived, each contingent thinking the other to be the French enemy; minor casualties resulted.

Forbes assembled 2,500 men in late November for the final assault on the fort, and promoted Washington to honorary brigadier general to head the operation. Washington and his army arrived on November 25 to find Fort Duquesne abandoned and burned by the French. The British had scored a strategic victory by gaining control of the Ohio Valley, but Washington retired from his Virginia Regiment commission in December 1758 and returned to Mount Vernon; the French and Indian War was concluded in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris. Washington never received the Royal commission he sought, but he acquired military, political, and leadership skills that proved invaluable during the American Revolution. Historians commonly ascribe his support of a strong national government and of a vigorous executive branch to his frustrations with officials in these and later interactions. He developed a distinct preference for regular troops over undisciplined militia, even though his command was limited during this war to smaller and more rural forces than during the Revolution to come.

Religion and the Enlightenment

Washington descended from Anglican minister Lawrence Washington (his great, great grandfather), whose troubles with the Church of England may have pompted his heirs to emigrate to America. Washington was baptized as an infant in April 1732 and became a devoted member of the Church of England (the Anglican Church). He served for over twenty years as a vestryman and churchwarden for Fairfax Parish and Truro Parish. He privately prayed and read the Bible daily, and he publicly encouraged people and the nation to pray. He may have taken communion on a regular basis prior to the Revolutionary War, but he did not do so following the war, for which he was admonished by Pastor James Abercrombie.

George Washington as Master of his Lodge, 1793

Washington believed in a "wise, inscrutable, and irresistible" Creator God who was active in the Universe, contrary to deistic thought. He referred to this God by the Enlightenment terms Providence, the Creator, or the Almighty, and also as the Divine Author or the Supreme Being. He believed in a divine power who watched over battlefields, was involved in the outcome of war, was protecting his life, and was involved in American politics—and specifically in the creation of the United States. Modern historian Ron Chernow has posited that Washington avoided evangelistic Christianity or hellfire-and-brimstone speech along with communion and anything inclined to "flaunt his religiosity". Chernow has also said Washington "never used his religion as a device for partisan purposes or in official undertakings". No mention of Jesus Christ appears in his private correspondence, and such references are rare in his public writings. He often quoted from the Bible or paraphrased it, and often referred to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. There is debate on whether he is best classed as a Christian, a theistic rationalist, or both.

Washington emphasized religious toleration in a nation with numerous denominations and religions. He attended services of different Christian denominations and prohibited anti-Catholic celebrations in the Army. He engaged workers at Mount Vernon without regard for religious belief or affiliation. While President, he acknowledged major religious sects and gave speeches on religious toleration. He was distinctly rooted in the ideas, values, and modes of thinking of the Enlightenment. He harbored no contempt of organized Christianity and its clergy, "being no bigot myself to any mode of worship". He proclaimed in 1793, "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."

Freemasonry was a widely accepted institution in the late 18th century, known for advocating moral teachings. Washington was attracted to the Masons' dedication to the Enlightenment principles of rationality, reason, and brotherhood. The American lodges did not share the anti-clerical perspective of the controversial European lodges. A Masonic lodge was established in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in September 1752, and Washington was initiated two months later at the age of 20 as one of its first Entered Apprentices. Within a year, he progressed through its ranks to become a Master Mason. Before and during the American Revolution he used Masonic lodges as meeting places to plot against the British. Washington had a high regard for the Masonic Order, but his personal lodge attendance was sporadic. 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 commitments leading the Continental Army. After 1782, he corresponded frequently with Masonic lodges and members, and in 1788 he was listed as Master in the Virginia charter of Alexandria Lodge No. 22.

Marriage and civilian life (1759–1774)

Colonel George Washington, Provincial Troops, Virginia Regiment, by Charles Willson Peale, 1772

On January 6, 1759, 27-year-old Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, age 28 and the wealthy widow of Daniel Parke Custis, in a ceremony at the Custis mansion. Martha was intelligent and gracious, and experienced in managing a planter's estate, and they effected an agreeable marriage. They raised John Parke Custis and Martha Parke (Patsy) Custis, her children from her previous marriage, and they later raised their grandchildren Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. They lamented that they had no children together; his 1751 bout with smallpox may have rendered him sterile. They moved to Mount Vernon, near Alexandria, where he took up life as a successful planter of tobacco and wheat and emerged as a political figure.

The marriage gave Washington control over Martha's one-third dower interest in the 18,000-acre (7,300 ha) Custis estate, worth about £40,000 in contemporary currency (or about $10 million in 2018), and he managed the remaining two-thirds on behalf of Martha's children. He thus became one of Virginia's wealthiest men and increased his social standing. He also acquired 84 slaves through the marriage, brought to Mount Vernon from the estate.

Dinwiddie had promised land bounties in 1754 to the soldiers and officers who volunteered during the French and Indian War; Washington prevailed upon Governor Lord Botetourt, and he fulfilled Dinwiddie's promise in 1769–70. In the fall of 1770, Washington inspected the lands, located in the Ohio and Great Kanawha regions, and in order to make a survey, obtained the appointment of William Crawford; Crawford allotted to Washington 23,200 acres (9,400 ha) of the best acreage on the tract. Washington told the veterans that their land was hilly and unsuitable for farming, and agreed to purchase 20,147 acres (8,153 ha); many veterans were happy with the sale, while others felt they had been duped. He also doubled the size of Mount Vernon to 6,500 acres (2,600 ha) and increased its slave population to more than 100 by 1775.

As a respected military hero and 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. In the election that year, he plied the voters with 170 US gallons (640 l) of rice punch, beer, wine, hard cider, and brandy while he was away serving on the Forbes Expedition. He won election with roughly 40 percent of the vote, defeating three other candidates with the help of several local elites. He rarely spoke publicly in his early legislative career, but he became a prominent critic of Britain's taxation and mercantilist policies in the 1760s.

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

Washington lived an aristocratic lifestyle, and his favorite activities included fox hunting, fishing, dances and parties, the theater, races, and cockfights. He also was known to play cards, backgammon, and billiards. Like most Virginia planters, he imported luxuries and other goods from England and paid for them by exporting his tobacco crop. By 1764, however, a poor tobacco market left him ₤1,800 in debt. He bolstered his solvency in the mid-1760s by diversifying, paying more attention to his finances, and reducing imported luxuries. He changed Mount Vernon's primary cash crop from tobacco to wheat, and 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 that yielded more than 1,000 US gallons (3,800 l) a month.

Washington's step-daughter Patsy Custis suffered from epileptic attacks from age 12, and after five years she died in his arms in 1773. The following day, he wrote to Burwell Bassett: "It is easier to conceive, than to describe, the distress of this Family…." He canceled all business activity and was not away from Martha for a single night for the next three months. Half of Patsy's inheritance passed to him, and with it he was able to pay off his British creditors.

Washington became a political figure and soon emerged as a leader among 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". His advice regarding people who were not of high social status 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". He became more politically active in 1769, presenting legislation in the Virginia Assembly to establish an embargo on goods from Great Britain.


Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y.C., July 9, 1776, Johannes Adam Simon Oertel (1859)

Washington's distrust of England began when he was passed over for a commission in the British Army in 1755, and he thereafter assumed a leading role in the American Revolution. He and other colonists were angered by a Royal Proclamation in 1763 banning American settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains, and protective of the British fur trade. He believed the Stamp Act of 1765 was an "Act of Oppression", and celebrated with fellow colonists after its appeal the following year. In March 1766, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which asserted that Parliamentary law held absolute sway over colonial law. Washington helped to lead the widespread colonial protests against the Townshend Acts passed by Parliament in 1767, and he introduced a proposal in May 1769 drafted by George Mason that called for Virginia to boycott English goods until the Acts were repealed. Parliament repealed them in 1770.

Parliament sought to punish the Boston Tea Party in 1774 with passage of the Intolerable Acts, which Washington referred to as "an Invasion of our Rights and Privileges". He said that Americans must not submit to acts of tyranny since "custom and use shall make us as tame and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway". That July, George Mason arrived at Mount Vernon with a list of resolutions, which he and Washington worked overnight to refine. The next day, they presented them to the Fairfax County committee, chaired by Washington, which adopted the Fairfax Resolves, calling in part for a Continental Congress. In August, he attended the First Virginia Convention where he was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. Two years hence, on July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence from Britain. Five days later, Patriots openly attacked symbols of monarchy—toppling an equestrian statue of King George III in New York City.

Revolutionary War (1775–1783)

General George Washington,
commander of the Continental Army

The Revolutionary War with Great Britain began April 19, 1775 at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and with a Patriot siege of the British in Boston. The Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia officially assumed command of the troops in Boston on June 14 and created the Continental Army. Samuel Adams and John Adams passed over John Hancock to nominate Washington as supreme commander, and he was unanimously elected the next day.

Washington appeared at the Congress, poised for war in a military uniform. He declined a salary in his acceptance speech but received reimbursement of expenses for which he fully accounted. The Congress chose capable officers to aid him, including Major General Artemas Ward, Adjutant General Horatio Gates, Major General Charles Lee, Major General Philip Schuyler, Major General Nathanael Greene, Colonel Henry Knox, and Colonel Alexander Hamilton. Washington was impressed by the enthusiasm of Colonel Benedict Arnold and gave him the responsibilities of invading Canada. He also engaged Brigadier General Daniel Morgan with whom he had served in the French and Indian War.

As the apprehensive Washington and party journeyed northward to Boston and the conflict awaiting him, he was greeted by various town officials, and received letters from statesmen and legislators addressing him as "your excellency"; Washington felt the title was too regal for a revolutionary leader. In the process, however, Washington was becoming an icon of the revolution. Historian Garry Wills noted, "before there was a nation—before there was any symbol of that nation (a flag, a Constitution, a national seal)—there was Washington."

On July 2, 1775, Washington inspected the new army at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was astonished to find a ragtag assembly of undisciplined, badly outfitted and unsheltered soldiers. Here he consulted with Benjamin Franklin who shared plans for managing the undisciplined men. Washington immediately initiated Franklin's reforms by drilling soldiers and imposing strict discipline, including fines, floggings, and incarceration. As ordered, his officer staff scrutinized military manuals and the individual skills of recruits, to ensure effective assignment of military duties. He removed cowardly or incompetent officers, and demanded respect for civilians. All of this, he told Congress, was a "most necessary Work". On August 23, King George III proclaimed that rebellious American colonists were traitors to the Crown.

Quebec, Boston, and Long Island

Washington at Dorchester Heights, Gilbert Stuart (1806)

In September 1775, Washington sent staff officer Benedict Arnold and 1,000 troops to Canada to aid General Richard Montgomery's siege of British-held Quebec and to secure the northern flank. Quebec was reinforced by 7,000 British troops and the American siege collapsed, forcing the Continental Army to make a hasty retreat. Later that month, an impatient Washington called a council of war, proposing an attack on the besieged British Army in Boston, but his generals, concerned about high casualties on an entrenched enemy, declined the ambitious plan, .

By mid January 1776, Washington's army had dropped to half-strength at 9,600 men due to expiring enlistments, despite the arrival of new recruits. The colonial militia who fought in the French and Indian War were summoned to fill in the gaps. The new British commander at Boston was General William Howe, but he did not attack during this time—which was probably fortunate for Washington and the burgeoning Continental Army.

In late 1775, Washington had sent staff officer Henry Knox to the recently captured Fort Ticonderoga for gunpowder and cannons. He transported them to Dorchester Heights in February where he was joined by Washington, who used them to drive the British out of Boston. General Howe immediately evacuated Boston with 10,000 troops and 1,100 Loyalists. Washington then marched his army to New York, initiated fortification, and correctly predicted that the British would return and attack in full force.

Howe resupplied in Nova Scotia and headed for New York City with the British fleet, as it was considered the key to securing the continent. The British forces assembled in New York Bay, including more than 100 ships and thousands of troops. Howe's army landed unopposed on Staten Island on July 2, and British ships continued to arrive from England and Carolina for a siege of the city. Howe's troop strength totaled 32,000 well-trained soldiers, including 8,000 Hessians, while Washington's troop strength consisted of 23,000 soldiers, 19,000 of whom were raw recruits and militia. On August 22, Howe landed 20,000 troops at Gravesend, Brooklyn, and approached Washington's fortifications. Washington overruled his generals and chose to fight, based on false information that Howe's army had only 8,000 to 9,000 troops. Howe assaulted Washington's flank on August 27 and inflicted 1,500 Patriot casualties, while the British suffered 400 casualties. Washington and his generals decided to retreat, and Washington instructed General William Heath to make available every flat-bottomed riverboat and sloop in the area. General William Alexander held off the British army and covered the retreat, and the army safely crossed the East River under the cover of darkness to Manhattan Island without loss of life or material—although the British did capture General Alexander.

Battle of Long Island
Alonzo Chappel (1858)

Howe was emboldened by his victory at Long Island and sent a dispatch addressed to "George Washington, Esq." attempting to negotiate peace. Washington declined the overture and demanded that he be addressed as a General and recognized as a fellow belligerent, not as a "rebel". He was concerned that his men would be hanged as rebels if they were captured, and he believed it his duty to insist that his men and the newly established United States be recognized with proper diplomatic protocol. The attempts at negotiation failed.

The British navy bombarded unstable earthworks built by the Patriots on lower Manhattan Island. Washington initially considered abandoning the island, including Fort Washington, but heeded the advice of Generals Greene and Israel Putnam to defend the fort. When they were unable to hold it, Washington abandoned it despite General Charles Lee's objections, and his army retired north to White Plains. Howe pursued, and Washington was forced to retreat across the Hudson River to Fort Lee to avoid encirclement. Howe took the offensive; he landed his troops on the island on November 16, surrounded and captured Fort Washington, and inflicted high casualties on the Americans. Washington was responsible for the decision to delay the retreat, but he also faulted the Congress and Nathanael Greene. Loyalists in New York considered Howe a liberator and spread a rumor that Washington had set fire to the city. The morale in the Patriot army was at its lowest ebb, as British Cornet Banastre Tarleton captured General Lee while he had taken a detour to visit his mistress Mary White.

Crossing the Delaware

Washington Crossing the Delaware, December 25, 1776, Emanuel Leutze (1851)

Washington's army, reduced to 5,400 troops, retreated through northeast New Jersey. Howe broke off pursuit on December 14, delayed his advance on Philadelphia, and set up winter quarters in New York. Washington crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, where Lee's replacement John Sullivan and 2,000 troops joined him. The future of the Continental Army was in doubt for lack of supplies, a harsh winter, expiring enlistments, and desertions. Washington was disappointed to discover that many New Jersey residents were Loyalists or simply skeptical about the prospect of independence. Howe had split up his British Army and posted a Hessian garrison at Trenton, to hold western New Jersey and the east shore of the Delaware.

Washington learned of a complacency within Howe's army and, believing the future of the country was riding on his shoulders, met with his generals on Christmas Eve and devised an intricate plan of surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton. Code named "Victory or Death", the campaign called for the army to make separate crossings of the Delaware in three divisions, one led by Washington (2,400 troops), another by General James Ewing (700), and the third by Colonel John Cadwalader (1,500), all reaching the Hessians at Trenton. Washington's force would then be split, with Washington taking the Pennington Road, and General Sullivan traveling south on the river's edge. Prior to the crossing, Washington ordered a 60-mile search for barges to transport his army, particularly Durham boats,, and ordered the destruction of vessels that could be used by the British.

At sunset on Christmas Day, Washington crossed the Delaware, and at risk of being captured, staked out the river on the Jersey shore. The weather turned into heavy sleet and snow, and the river was obstructed by ice, but Washington's men crossed at McKonkey's Ferry, with 40 men per vessel. A northeaster wind churned up the waters, and Washington's men were exposed to pelting hail in their boats. The troops finally made it across, without losing a man, at 3:00 A.M.. Henry Knox, in charge of transporting artillery, was delayed, managing frightened horses and as many as 18 field guns on flat-bottomed ferries. Cadwalader and Ewing, however, failed to cross the Delaware due to the ice and heavy currents. Washington waited in despair while Knox and the rest of the Army crossed the river, and feared he might have to abandon his attack on Trenton; by 4:00 A.M., Knox and his artillery regiments finally made it. Rather than return his army to Pennsylvania and risk being spotted, Washington chose to take his troops alone against the Hessians.

Trenton campaign

When scouts reported Hessian forward positions a mile from Trenton, Washington split his force into two columns and rode about, giving words of encouragement to his men: "Soldiers keep by your officers. For God's sake, keep by your officers." He stopped briefly near the home of Benjamin Moore, and his mounted officers gathered for a council of war while the family brought food and drink. Moving on, the two columns separated at the Birmingham crossroads, with General Nathanael Greene's force, led by Washington, taking the upper Ferry Road, while General John Sullivan's advanced on River Road. (See map.) Veiled by stormy weather, the Americans advanced on Trenton through the continuing snow, sleet, and hail. Many of the soldiers were shoeless, with bloodied feet, and two died of exposure. At sunrise, they made a coordinated and surprise attack on the Hessians. Washington personally led the charge, aided by Major General Henry Knox and his artillery. Hessian Colonel Johann Rall was mortally wounded during the short battle.

The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776
John Trumbull

Hessian casualties included 22 who were killed and 83 wounded. Washington also captured 850 British and Hessian troops and large amounts of supply before retreating back across the Delaware to Pennsylvania. On January 3, he returned to New Jersey, launching an attack on British regulars at Princeton, with only 40 Americans killed or wounded while the British forces suffered 273 killed or captured. American Generals Hugh Mercer and John Cadwalader were already present and being driven back by the British when Mercer was mortally wounded. Washington arrived at the scene and rallied the men by leading them in a counterattack which advanced to within 30 yards (25 m) of the British line.

The remaining British troops retreated after a brief stand; some evacuated Princeton while others took refuge in Nassau Hall. Colonel Alexander Hamilton brought three cannons and began firing at the building where the British were holed up. Washington's troops charged, and in less than an hour the British put out the white flag of ceasefire; 194 soldiers walked out of the building and laid down their arms. Howe retreated to New York City and its environs, where his army remained inactive until Spring. Washington's depleted Continental Army took up winter headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey, allowing them to disrupt British supply lines and drive the British from parts of New Jersey. Washington later admitted that the British could easily have defeated his thinly guarded encampment if they had counter-attacked before his troops were dug in.

The British still controlled New York, and after the winter campaign, many Patriot soldiers did not reenlist—or had already deserted during the harsh winter. Washington and Congress reacted with increased rewards for re-enlisting and punishments for desertion, in an effort to effect greater troop numbers. Strategically, Washington's victories were pivotal for the Revolution and quashed the British strategy of showing overwhelming force followed by offering generous terms. In February 1777 word of Washington's victories at Trenton and Princeton reached London, and brought with it the realization that the Patriots were in a position to demand unconditional independence.

Brandywine, Germantown, and Saratoga

In February 1777, while encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, Washington determined smallpox inoculation could prevent deaths from the disease, and employed it for the army to great effect. That summer, British General John Burgoyne led a major invasion army south from Quebec, planning to sever New England. But General Howe, then in British-occupied New York, blundered strategically, taking his army south to Philadelphia rather than up the Hudson River to join Burgoyne near Albany. Meanwhile, Washington rushed to Philadelphia to engage Howe, closely supervising the action in upstate New York where the Patriots were led by General Philip Schuyler and his successor Horatio Gates. Washington's army of less experienced men was defeated in the pitched battles at Philadelphia .

Howe outmaneuvered Washington at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, and marched unopposed into America’a capital, Philadelphia. The Patriots failed in an attempted attack on the British garrison at Germantown in early October, and their loss at Philadelphia prompted some members of Congress, referred to as the Conway Cabal, to consider removing Washington from command. His supporters rallied behind him, and the matter was dropped.

Meanwhile, Washington's strategy improved the situation for Gates's army during the Saratoga campaign to the north. He was most concerned about the movements of General Howe and was aware that Burgoyne was also moving south toward Saratoga from Quebec. Washington took some risks in July, sending reinforcements north commanded by Major General Benedict Arnold, his most aggressive field commander, and Major General Benjamin Lincoln. Burgoyne made two attempts to take Bemis Heights, but found himself trapped and beyond the reach of help from Howe. He was forced to retreat to Saratoga and ultimately surrendered after the Battles of Saratoga, leading to Howe's resignation in May 1778. This was a major turning point both militarily and diplomatically; the French responded to Burgoyne's defeat by entering the war, allying with America and expanding the Revolutionary War into more than a domestic affair.

Washington was concerned that Gates's victory was going to give impetus to his critics. 20th-century biographer John Alden maintains, "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 for Washington was waning; John Adams, for one, then gave him little credit.

Valley Forge, Monmouth, and Southern campaigns

Washington and Lafayette
Valley Forge

Washington's army of 11,000 went into winter quarters at Valley Forge north of Philadelphia in December 1777. They suffered a multitude of deaths in the extreme cold over the next six months, mostly from disease, exacerbated by the lack of food, clothing, and shelter; scholars believe 2,000–3,000 men or more were lost. The British, by contrast, were comfortably quartered in Philadelphia, and paying for supplies in pounds sterling, while Washington struggled with procurement using devalued American paper currency. The woodlands were soon exhausted of game, and by February Washington was burdened with sustaining morale and stemming desertion .

Washington had repeatedly petitioned the Continental Congress for badly needed provisions without success. Finally, five Congressmen came to Valley Forge on January 24, 1778, to check the conditions of the Continental Army. Washington expressed the urgency of the situation, proclaiming: "Something must be done. Important alterations must be made." He also recommended that Congress take control of the Army supply system, pay for supplies, and hasten them to the troops. In response to his urging, Congress agreed to fund the army's supply lines and reorganized the commissary department that gathered the supplies for the Army. By late February, there were adequate supplies arriving at the camp.

Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth, Emanuel Leutze (1851–1854)

Washington recruited men into the Regular Army and assigned their training to Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, whose incessant drilling soon transformed them into a disciplined fighting force. Washington's army, which many feared would dissolve over the harsh winter, endured, emerging from Valley Forge the following spring as a revitalized fighting force. Washington promoted Von Steuben to Major General for his effort and became Washington's chief of staff for the rest of the war.

In May 1778, the Continental Congress ratified the Treaty of Alliance with King Louis XVI of France, which allied the French army and navy with America. The British evacuated Philadelphia for New York in June 1778, and Washington summoned a council of war with Generals Lee, Greene, Wayne, and Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette. He chose a partial attack on the retreating British at the Battle of Monmouth; the British were commanded by Howe's successor, General Henry Clinton. Lee and Lafayette moved with 4,000 men, but without Washington's knowledge, and bungled their first attack on June 28. Washington relieved Lee and continued fighting, essentially to a draw, in one of the war's most expansive battles. At nightfall, the British continued their retreat to New York, and Washington moved his army outside the city. Monmouth was the last major battle that Washington fought in the North; he deemed it more important to protect his army than to keep the British from occupying towns, which rarely had anything to offer the British army.

In late 1778, General Clinton sent 3,000 troops by ship from New York to Georgia and launched a Southern invasion. He seized Savannah, reinforced by 2,000 British and Loyalist troops, and repelled an attack by Patriots and French naval forces, which bolstered the British war effort. Clinton assembled 12,500 troops and attacked Charlestown (modern Charleston) in January 1780, defeating General Benjamin Lincoln, who only had 5,100 Continental troops. The British went on to occupy the South Carolina Piedmont in June, with almost no Patriot resistance. Clinton returned to New York and left 8,000 troops commanded by Lord Charles Cornwallis. Congress replaced Lincoln with Horatio Gates, despite Washington's recommendation of Nathanael Greene. Gates failed in South Carolina and was replaced by Greene, and the British had the South in their grasp. Despite the bleak situation, Washington was encouraged when he learned in mid 1780 that the Marquis de Lafayette had returned from France with more ships, men, and supplies.

Sullivan expedition and Hudson River

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. The Indian warriors joined with Tory rangers led by Walter Butler and slew more than 200 frontiersmen in June, using barbarities normally shunned, and laid waste to the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. Prompted by massacres and many attacks on American civilians, Washington ordered General John Sullivan to lead a military operation in August and to effect "the total destruction and devastation" of all Iroquois villages and take their women and children hostage. Those who managed to escape fled to British protection in Canada. When Sullivan later reported that the expedition had been accomplished, he referred to the Iroquois as "inhuman barbarians".

Washington went into quarters at Morristown, New Jersey during the harsh winter of 1779 and 1780, which subjected the troops to some of their worst suffering during the war, with temperatures well below freezing. New York Harbor was frozen over, and snow and ice covered the ground for weeks. As at Valley Forge, the troops again lacked provisions for a time.

West Point espionage

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

Washington has been called "America's first spymaster", for having arduously developed a successful espionage system to detect British military locations and plans. In 1778, he ordered Major Benjamin Tallmadge to form the Culper Ring, tasked with covertly collecting information about the British in New York. General Washington, ever vigilant to spies, had disregarded prior incidents of disloyalty by Benedict Arnold, an admired and trusted officer of Washington's who had otherwise distinguished himself in many battles.

During the summer of 1780, Arnold began a plot of treason, supplying British spymaster John André with sensitive information intended to compromise Washington and capture West Point, a key American defensive position on the Hudson River. Arnold repeatedly asked for command of West Point, and Washington finally agreed in August. Arnold met André on September 21, giving him plans to take over the garrison. Several factors combined to motivate Arnold: He received a £6,000 British payment (equivalent to about $1.3 million in 2018); he was angry at losing promotions to junior officers and at repeated slights from Congress; he was profiteering from the war and faced a court-martial for it; and he was deeply in debt.

Militia forces captured André and discovered the plans; with only minutes to spare, he escaped on horseback and fled to New York. Washington was outraged, and immediately recalled the commanders positioned under Arnold at key points around the fort to prevent this complicity. He did not, however, then suspect Arnold's wife Peggy Shippen. Washington assumed personal command of West Point and worked diligently to reorganize the order of command and strengthen defensive positions.

André's military trial for espionage ended in a death sentence, and Washington offered to return him to the British in exchange for Arnold, but Clinton refused. André requested execution by firing squad rather than hanging; Washington was tempted to grant his request but resisted, under pressure to better deter other spies, and André was hanged on October 2, 1780.

Yorktown victory, peace treaty

Siege of Yorktown, Generals Washington and Rochambeau give last orders before the attack

Washington's army went into winter quarters at New Windsor, New York, in 1780, where they again suffered from extreme cold and lack of supplies, prompting Washington to prevail upon Congress and state officials to come to their aid with provisions. He sympathized with his soldiers' suffering, saying he hoped the army would not "continue to struggle under the same difficulties they have hitherto endured".

In July 1780, 5,000 veteran French troops led by Jean-Baptiste de Vimeur, the Comte de Rochambeau, arrived at New Port, Rhode Island. French naval forces then landed, led by Admiral François-Joseph de Grasse, and Washington encouraged Rochambeau to move his fleet south to launch a joint land–naval attack on Arnold's troops.

French King Louis XVI allied with Washington and Patriot American colonists.

Arnold was now a Brigadier General in the British Army, and General Clinton sent him to Virginia with about 1,700 troops to capture Portsmouth and spread terror throughout the state; Washington responded by sending Lafayette south with a small army to counter Arnold's efforts. At first, Washington hoped to bring the allied fight to New York, drawing off British forces from Virginia and ending the war there, but Rochambeau advised the Comte de Grasse that Cornwallis in Virginia was the better target. De Grasse followed this advice and arrived with his fleet off the Virginia coast. Washington immediately saw the advantage, and made a feint towards Clinton in New York before heading south to Virginia.

Washington's Continental Army delivered the last blow in 1781 after the French won a naval victory in the Battle of the Chesapeake, allowing Patriot forces to trap the British army in Virginia without reinforcement by Clinton from the North. The surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, marked the end of major fighting. Washington took great satisfaction in the surrender but kept his taciturn composure. Cornwallis, claiming illness, failed to appear at the official ceremony of surrender, sending General Charles O'Hara as his proxy; Washington had General Benjamin Lincoln accept the surrender.

Decisive combat ended and British troops began to demobilize in the months after Yorktown, while peace negotiations started. The British evacuated 2,000 troops from Savannah in July 1782 and 4,000 from Charlestown in December. They removed 18,000 troops from New York throughout the spring, summer, and fall of 1783; the French army and navy likewise departed. Unfortunately, the American treasury was then empty, and unpaid soldiers were restive to the point of mutiny, forcing an adjournment of the Congress. Washington dispelled unrest among officers by suppressing the Newburgh Conspiracy in March 1783, and Congress promised officers a five-year bonus. Washington later submitted an account of about $450,000 in military expenses he advanced to the army (equivalent to approximately $10 million in 2018). The account was settled, though allegedly vague about large sums, and included his wife Martha's expenses incurred through visitations to his headquarters, as well as his agreed compensation.

General George Washington Resigning His Commission
John Trumbull, 1824


Washington resigned his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army following the signing of the Treaty of Paris, and made immediate plans to retire to his home at Mount Vernon. With the peace treaty initially ratified in April 1783, a Congressional committee under Hamilton worked to adapt the army for peacetime; on May 2, Washington gave the Army's perspective to the Committee in his Sentiments on a Peace Establishment; the Committee's proposals were defeated by Congressional votes later that month, again in October, and also in April, 1784. The Treaty was signed on September 3, 1783, and Great Britain officially recognized the independence of the United States. Washington disbanded his army, giving an eloquent farewell address to his soldiers on November 2. On November 25, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington and Governor George Clinton 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 of the Continental Army.

Washington bade farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern on December 4, 1783, and resigned his commission on December 23, after leading the Continental Army for eight and a half years. Washington arrived at the Maryland State House wearing his military uniform for the last time, and was greeted by Charles Thomson, secretary of the Congress, who led him to his seat in the Senate Chamber. He gave a brief statement to the Continental Congress: "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." Praised by Thomas Jefferson for relinquishing power, Washington had refuted claims made by Loyalists that he would retain his position as Commander in Chief and rule as a dictator. Henry Knox also gave tribute to Washington and likened him to the Roman consul Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, who had also relinquished his military power after securing victory in ancient Rome. Knox had formed the Society of the Cincinnati (Cincinnati being the plural of Cincinnatus) in 1783 with this connection in mind, and Washington served as its first president until his death. Modern 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."

Washington advised Congress at Rocky Hill, New Jersey, in August 1783 to keep a standing army, create a "national militia" formed of separate state units, and establish a navy and a national military academy. He circulated his "Farewell" orders that discharged his troops, whom he called "one patriotic band of brothers". Before his return to Mount Vernon, he oversaw the evacuation of British forces in New York and was greeted by parades and celebrations, where he announced that Knox had been newly promoted commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.

Early republic (1784–1789)

Military retirement

After his retirement and return to Mount Vernon, in 1784 Washington, then 52, made an exploratory trip to the western frontier . He also inspected the land holdings he had earned decades earlier for his service in the French and Indian War. He also facilitated the creation of the Potomac Company, a public–private partnership that financed a project to improve the navigability of the Potomac River and to construct a canal linking the Potomac to the Ohio River. He was elected president of the company, for which he proselytized extensively. The project served as a model for large-scale canal building, but technical and financial challenges rendered it unprofitable, and the Potomac–Ohio Canal was not completed.

Constitutional Convention

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940. Washington, presiding officer, stands at right.

After the War, Washington did not wish to involve himself in the political matters of the nation. James Madison, however, valued his influence and urged him to attend the Constitutional Convention. Shay's rebellion broke out in Massachusetts and Washington was finally convinced that he could no longer ignore political matters and the looming unrest that threatened the stability of the Union. He appeared at the convention as a delegate from Virginia, and he was unanimously elected its president in 1787. He was critical of the Articles of Confederation for the weak central government it established, referring to them as no more than "a rope of sand" to unite the new nation. His view for the need of a strong federal government developed from his early years of frustration with British officials and his experience at Valley Forge when the Continental Congress failed to supply the military. The general populace, however, did not share his inclination for a strong federal government binding the states together, fearing that it would become as overbearing as the British Parliament from which they had just freed themselves.

Washington was reserved during the debates and voting, lending his prestige to the goodwill and work of the other delegates. After a couple of months, he wrote to Alexander Hamilton, expressing his anxiety that he was the only one holding the union of delegates together: "I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of our convention and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business." Following the Convention, however, his support convinced many to vote for ratification of the Constitution. 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", and he declared that the only alternative would be anarchy. Even so, he did not consider it proper to cast his vote in favor of adoption on behalf of Virginia as the state's representative, since he was expected to be nominated President if it was ratified. Washington and Madison then retired to Mount Vernon for four days and evaluated the transition of the new constitutional government.

First presidential election

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention designed the presidency with Washington in mind, allowing him to define the office once elected. He thought that the achievements were monumental when they were finally completed. The delegates counted slaves to represent three-fifths of the population, increasing Southern representation in the House and Electoral College.

The state electors under the Constitution voted for the President on February 4, 1789. Washington suspected that most republicans had not voted for him. The March 4 date mandated by the Constitution passed by without a Congressional quorum to count the votes, and Congress waited anxiously for other members to arrive to determine who won the election. A quorum was finally reached on April 5, and Congress counted the votes on April 6. Congressional Secretary Charles Thomson was sent to Mount Vernon to tell Washington that he had been elected the first President of the United States. Washington won the majority of every state's electoral votes, while Adams received the next highest vote total and was elected Vice President—originally a post given to the candidate with the second-highest portion of the vote. Washington had "anxious and painful sensations" over leaving the "domestic felicity" of Mount Vernon, but he departed Mount Vernon for New York City on April 23 to be inaugurated.

Presidency (1789–1797)

President George Washington, Gilbert Stuart (1795)

Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, at the age of 57, taking the first presidential oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City. He arrived in a coach led by militia and a marching band, followed by statesmen and foreign dignitaries in the first inaugural parade; an estimated 10,000 people attended. He stood with his hand on a Bible that was provided by the nearby Masonic lodge while the oath was administered by Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, after which he was given a 13-gun salute. He then returned to the Senate Chambers where he read a 1,200-word speech (in contrast to his later second inaugural speech), asking that "that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations—and whose providential aids can supply every human defect" would "consecrate the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States" with his blessing. He declined a salary in his speech, but Congress later set an annual salary of $25,000 (equivalent to about $715,000 in 2018), and he accepted the amount to defray costs of the presidency. Washington was aware that he would set a precedent with everything that he said and did, and he attended carefully to the pomp and ceremony of office, making sure that the titles and trappings were suitably republican and did not emulate European royal courts. To that end, he preferred the title "Mr. President" over more majestic names proposed by the Senate, including "His Excellency" and "His Highness the President". His precedents also included messages to Congress and the cabinet form of the executive branch.

New political parties emerged unexpectedly, which troubled Washington, and his two terms of office became known as the Federalist Era, when the newly formed Federalist Party dominated American politics. Although Washington officially remained non-partisan throughout his presidency and was opposed to the divisiveness of political parties in the new and unstable Union, he favored a strong central government, was largely sympathetic to a Federalist form of government, and was leery of the Republican opposition. He had planned to resign after his first term, but the unstable nation with its existing political strife convinced him that he should remain in office. He was an able administrator and judge of talent and character and established many precedents; he talked regularly with department heads and listened to their advice before making a final decision. He established a toleration of opposing views, despite fears that a democratic system would lead to political violence, and he conducted a smooth transition of power to his successor.

During his first term in office, Washington had to contend with major problems. The old Confederation had lacked the powers to handle its workload. It had weak leadership, no executive, a small bureaucracy of clerks, a large debt, worthless paper money, and no power to establish taxes. The United States was not completely unified, and Washington had the task of assembling an executive department; he relied on Tobias Lear for advice selecting its officers. Great Britain also refused to relinquish its forts in the American West, while Barbary pirates were preying on American merchant ships in the Mediterranean at a time when the United States' Army was minuscule, and the Navy had not yet been established.

Cabinet and executive departments

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, who had succeeded Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, as Secretary of War. Finally, he appointed Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. Washington's cabinet eventually developed into a consulting and advisory body, although this was not mandated by the Constitution.

Washington's cabinet members were known for their dissension, forming rival parties with sharply opposing views, most fiercely illustrated between Hamilton and Jefferson. Washington restricted cabinet discussions to topics of his 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 also played an active role advising Congress, including providing written reports and using his influence over congressional committee leaders.

Domestic issues

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

Washington was not aligned with a political party and opposed their formation, fearing that conflict that would undermine republicanism. His closest advisors formed two factions, however, 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 favored Hamilton's agenda, which went into effect and became law, but Hamilton's fiscal recommendations created bitter controversy during Washington's presidency.

Washington signed a proclamation on October 3, 1789, making November 26, 1789, to be the first Thanksgiving, in order to encourage national unity—although Thanksgiving was not established as an annual holiday until 1863. Washington said, "It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor." On his appointed Thanksgiving Day, he fasted while visiting debtors in prison, providing them with food and beer.

National Bank

The establishment of public credit was primary task of the new federal government. On January 14, 1790, Hamilton submitted a report to Congress on the matter. Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson then reached the Compromise of 1790 in which Jefferson agreed to Hamilton's debt proposals in exchange for moving the nation's capitol to the south near Georgetown on the Potomac River. This settled a deadlock in Congress, and the terms were legislated in the Funding Act and the Residence Act, both of which Washington signed into law on August 4. Congress authorized the assumption and payment of the nation's debts, providing funding through customs duties and excise taxes.

Hamilton created more controversy among Washington's Cabinet members when he advocated the establishment of the First Bank of the United States. Madison and Jefferson objected, but the bank easily passed Congress. Washington sought advice from his cabinet; Jefferson and Randolph strongly opposed the new bank constitutionally, while Hamilton believed that it was within the authority of the government's enumerated powers. Washington sided with Hamilton and signed the legislation on February 25; however, the rift widened between Hamilton and Jefferson and became openly hostile.

Under Washington, the young nation experienced its first financial crisis in March 1792 when Federalists under Hamilton used large loans to gain control of U.S. debt securities, causing a run on the new national bank, but the markets returned to normal by mid April. Jefferson believed that Hamilton was part of the scheme, in spite of Hamilton's efforts to ameliorate, and Washington found himself caught in the middle of a feud.

Jefferson–Hamilton feud

Jefferson and Hamilton, bitter rivals

Jefferson and Hamilton staked out diametrically opposed political principles. Hamilton believed in a strong national government that needed a national bank and foreign loans to function, while Jefferson believed that the government should be primarily under the direction of the states and the farm element, and he deeply resented the idea of banks and foreign loans. This difference was the cause of continued disputes and infighting between the two, much to Washington's dismay. 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. A few weeks later, Hamilton demanded that Jefferson resign if he could not support Washington. Rather than respond publicly, Jefferson told Washington that Hamilton's fiscal system would lead to the overthrow of the Republic.

Washington pleaded with his two secretaries by letters to stop the open attacks for the sake of the nation, but they both politely ignored the president's concerns. Washington reluctantly reversed his decision to retire after his first term when it became clear that this would be essential in minimizing party strife, but the feud continued after his re-election. Jefferson's political actions, his support of Freneau's National Gazette, and his attempt to undermine Hamilton nearly led Washington to dismiss him from the cabinet; Jefferson ultimately resigned his position in December 1793 and was thereafter forsaken by Washington. The feud between Hamilton and Jefferson led to the well-defined Federalist and Republican parties, and party affiliation had become necessary for election to Congress by 1794.

Washington remained aloof from congressional attacks on Hamilton, but he did not write a public statement to protect him. The Hamilton–Reynolds sex scandal opened Hamilton to public disgrace, but Washington continued to hold him in "very high esteem" and viewed him as the dominant force in establishing federal law and government.

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 that they were unrepresented and 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. The governors sent the troops, with Washington taking initial command. He subsequently named Light-Horse 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 and remains the only time a sitting president has personally commanded troops in the field. 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.

Foreign affairs

John Jay, negotiator of the Jay Treaty

In April 1792, the French Revolutionary Wars broke out between Great Britain and France, and Washington declared America's neutrality with the approval of his cabinet. The revolutionary government of France sent diplomat Citizen Genêt to America. He was welcomed with great enthusiasm and began promoting the case for France, using a network of new Democratic-Republican 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 recall Genêt.

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; John Jay, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, negotiated and signed the treaty on November 19, 1794. Jeffersonians, on the other hand, supported France and strongly criticized the treaty. Washington listened to both sides, then announced his support for the treaty, mostly because it avoided war with Britain; yet he was deeply disappointed in it and claimed that its provisions were overwhelmingly on the side of Great Britain. He mobilized public opinion and secured ratification in the Senate. Washington was not immune to Republican criticism after he signed the Jay Treaty, and was subjected to the most severe and frequent public criticism of his life.

The British agreed to depart from their forts around the Great Lakes, and the United States–Canada boundary was subsequently modified. Numerous pre-Revolutionary debts were liquidated, and the British opened their West Indies colonies to American trade. Most importantly, the treaty secured peace with Britain and brought a decade of prosperous trade. Jefferson claimed that it angered France and "invited rather than avoided" war. Relations with France deteriorated after the Jay Treaty was signed, leaving subsequent president John Adams with the prospect of war. Two days before Washington's term ended, the French withdrew from their embassy in America.

Indian affairs

Senaca Chief Sagoyewatha was Washington's peace emissary with the Indian Northwestern Confederation.

Washington's most pressing problem at the start of his presidency was the British occupation of forts in the northwestern frontier and their concerted efforts to turn Indians against American settlers. Native Americans posed an urgent national security risk, roamed the western frontier unopposed, and exploited their manpower and effective use of guerrilla warfare. From 1783 to 1790, an estimated 1,500 settlers were killed in isolated Indian attacks. Allied with the British, the Northwest Indians had formed a confederation under Little Turtle, a Miami chief, to resist American expansion.

Washington made Indian policy a high priority from the very start of his administration in 1789, determined that Indian affairs would be "directed entirely by the great principles of Justice and humanity". Rather than force Indians to relinquish their lands east of the Mississippi, as Congress demanded, his administration allowed them to be represented by treaties. Washington and his administration treated powerful tribes as foreign nations, and Washington even smoked a peace pipe and drank wine with them at the Philadelphia presidential house.

Washington had made numerous attempts to conciliate relations with Indians in an effort to have them co-exist with settlers. Washington equated killing Indians with killing Whites, and he desired a policy to protect their property and integrate Indians into American culture. Secretary of War Henry Knox offered farm tools and livestock to the northwest Indians to encourage an agricultural lifestyle among the tribes, but the Indian chiefs rejected the peace offerings.

In the Southwest, negotiations failed between federal commissioners and Indian tribes who were raiding American settlements in response to crimes committed by some of the settlers in the northeastern section of their territory. Henry Knox sympathized with the Indians and informed Washington of the situation. Subsequently, Washington and Knox invited Creek Chief Alexander McGillivray and twenty-four leading chiefs to New York, so they could negotiate a treaty with McGillivray directly, adopting the same policy Washington had practiced in 1753 with the Six Nations. Washington treated the Creek Chief as a foreign dignitary and presented him with gifts. On August 7, 1790 in Federal Hall, Knox and McGillivray finalized and agreed to the terms of the Treaty of New York, the first Indian treaty settled outside of Indian territory. The treaty also provided for the tribes with supplies and tools for agriculture. McGillivray was made a Brigadier General in the U.S. Army and paid an annual salary of $1,500.

Battle of Fallen Timbers by R. F. Zogbaum, 1896. The Ohio Country was ceded to America in its aftermath.

In 1790, Washington sent Brigadier General Josiah Harmar to pacify the Northwest Indians; Harmar was twice routed by Little Turtle and was forced to withdraw. The Western Confederacy of tribes used guerrilla tactics and was an effective force against the sparsely manned American Army, which was composed mostly of undisciplined militia, some with their families along. Washington sent Major General Arthur St. Clair from Fort Washington on an expedition to restore peace in the territory in 1791, with the encouragement of Washington's Secretary of War Henry Knox, who disliked militias. On November 4, St. Clair's forces were ambushed and overwhelmingly defeated with few survivors, despite Washington's warning of surprise attacks. Washington was outraged over the Indians' brutality and the fact that they executed captured survivors, including women and children. Subsequently, Knox and others prompted him to form a new army, the Legion of the United States, that did not rely on state militias.

St. Clair resigned his commission, and Washington replaced him with Revolutionary War hero General Anthony Wayne. From 1792 to 1793, Wayne instructed his troops on Indian warfare tactics and instilled discipline lacking under St. Clair. In August 1794, Washington sent Wayne into the troubled Indian territory with the authority to drive them out by burning their villages and crops in the Maumee Valley. On August 24, the American army under Wayne's leadership defeated the western confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. In August 1795, two-thirds of the Ohio Country was opened up for American settlement under the Treaty of Greenville.

Second term

Washington remained popular approaching the election of 1792, and Hamilton urged him to run for a second term. He said nothing about this upon his return to Mount Vernon in October 1792, and many took his silence as assent, viewing him as the only viable candidate during the unstable time. The Electoral College unanimously elected him President on February 13, 1793, for a second term. John Adams was re-elected Vice President by a vote of 77 to 50.

Washington was criticized by the National Gazette and political adversaries over his birthday celebration and for giving a "monarchist" appearance; as a consequence, he kept a low profile and arrived alone at his inauguration in a simple carriage. The inauguration was held in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia on Monday, March 4, 1793, and the presidential oath of office was administered by Associate Justice William Cushing. This was the first inauguration to take place in Philadelphia, the nation's temporary capital. Washington maintained his low profile after the ceremonies and delivered the shortest inaugural address on record, at 135 words or just four sentences.

In 1793, Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slave owners to cross state lines and retrieve runaway slaves. He also signed into law the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which limited American involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1794, the United States Navy was formed by act of congress to combat Barbary pirates, in what would become the Barbary Wars. Washington appointed Oliver Wolcott, Jr., as Secretary of the Treasury in 1795, replacing Alexander Hamilton, who resigned in the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion to spend time with his wife Elizabeth. The upshot of the Rebellion strengthened Washington's bond with Hamilton, while distancing him from Knox.

Washington was relentlessly assailed by his political foes and a largely partisan press in the final months of his presidency, who accused him of being ambitious and greedy. He pointed out that he had taken no salary during the entire war and risked his life in numerous battles; he regarded the press as an erosive and disuniting force that spread numerous falsehoods, 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.

At the end of his second term in 1792, Washington insisted on retiring out of both personal and political concern, feeling worn out and disgusted with the virulent personal attacks on his integrity, and believing America needed a contested presidential election with choice of candidates, which would not happen if he ran again. In the event that he won a third term but died before its completion, his vice president would ascend to the presidency without election, counteracting Washington's goal. (He in fact did die in 1799, two years into the new term). The election went forward and he remained neutral concerning rival candidates John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. He did not personally feel bound to a two-term limit, but in relinquishing power he again set precedent; the longstanding practice of a two-term limit to the presidency was finally made law when it was amended into the Constitution in 1951. Washington is often credited with founding the principal of a two-term presidency; however, it was Thomas Jefferson who first refused to run for a third term on political grounds. Term limits were not unheard of: About half of the states provided term limits for governors in the 1780s.

Farewell Address

Washington's Farewell Address (September 19, 1796)

Washington had planned to retire after his first term as President. He had James Madison draft a farewell message in 1792, the sentiment and theme being Washington's; upon reelection, he had stored the draft in a drawer of his presidential desk.. He gave the same draft to Hamilton to complete on May 15, 1796, for the end of his second term, with additional text he had written himself. The final version of the farewell address was published on September 19, 1796, by David Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser, and then published by three other Philadelphia newspapers. It warned against foreign alliances and their influence in domestic affairs and against bitter partisanship in domestic politics. It also called for men to move beyond partisanship and serve the common good, stressing that the United States must concentrate on its own interests. He counseled friendship and commerce with all nations, but advised against involvement in European wars. He stressed the importance of religion, asserting that "religion and morality are indispensable supports" in a republic. The address, however, did not quell bipartisan politics but instead served to aggravate them, setting the tone for the coming 1796 election, when Washington supported John Adams.

On December 7, 1796, Washington read his eighth annual address to Congress. He spoke before the House, wore a black velvet suit, and donned his sword, while he was well received by "the largest assemblage of citizens" in the crowded gallery. He advocated for the creation of a military academy, and expounded on the fact that the British had vacated the Northwest forts, and Algiers had released American prisoners—an event that would lead to the formation of the Department of the Navy. The speech was well received.

Washington's Farewell Address proved to be one of the most influential statements on republicanism. It stressed the necessity and importance of national union, the value of the Constitution, 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", maintaining, "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."

Before its closing remarks, the address expressed this sentiment:

"Though in reviewing the incidents of my Administration I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence, and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest."


Washington as Farmer at Mount Vernon
Junius Brutus Stearns, 1851

Washington was born into a world accustomed to slavery; he had no qualms about its practice prior to 1775 and held commonplace views that Blacks were an inferior race. During the war, however, his views moderated under the influence of anti-slavery officers he was close friends with, such as Lafayette. He spoke often of ending slavery following the war, but he never voiced those views publicly, fearing that the issue would divide the new nation.

There are conflicting reports of slave treatment at Mount Vernon. Washington discouraged cruelty, yet there are records of harsh punishments, including whipping inflicted on male and female slaves by their overseers, some of whom were also slaves. In some cases, runaway slaves were put in shackles. When he was President, Washington maintained distant supervision of Mount Vernon through letters to his overseers, though there is only one account from him authorizing a whipping that was given to a slave who had badly beaten his wife. He directed that a warning be given to first offenders before resorting to whipping, which was then subject to his prior approval; this wasn't always enforced due to his prolonged absences. In severe circumstances, he shipped unruly slaves to the West Indies. He also used nonviolent forms of discipline, including cash payments, material incentives, and "admonition and advice".

Washington sometimes personally cared for ill or injured slaves, and he provided physicians and midwives. By the Revolutionary War, he had all his slaves inoculated for smallpox. Slaves worked from dawn to dusk, but received two hours off for meals during the workday and were not put to work on Sundays (the Sabbath), Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost. They were often poorly clothed and housed, but were well fed and received two hours off for meals during the workday.

During the war, Washington initially forbade Blacks from becoming soldiers, but he allowed them to serve in the Continental Army beginning in January, 1776, in order to counter Loyalist Governor Dunmore's offer to free slaves if they fought for the British. After the war, Washington supported many slaves who were too young or too old to work, both greatly increasing Mount Vernon's slave population and causing the plantation to operate at a loss in the process.{{efn|Washington's manager made note that there were more than 300 slaves at Mount Vernon, but only 100 were needed for profitable operation. By 1799, there were 317 slaves living at Mount Vernon; he owned 124 outright and held 153 for his wife's dower interest. At times, Mount Vernon slaves ran away to find freedom, encouraged by Quaker abolitionists. To avoid any controversy Washington used secretive methods to return them rather than post public advertisements in the North. For example, he privately ordered the capture of his wife's fugitive slave Oney Judge in 1796, though the effort failed.

Washington never set any of his slaves free; however, in 1799 he addressed his personal struggle with slave-holding by making a new will that directed his 124 slaves be freed upon the death of Martha. He was among the few slave-holding Founding Fathers to do so. He provided that old and young freed people be taken care of indefinitely; younger ones were to be taught to read and write and placed in suitable occupations. Martha freed his slaves on January 1, 1801, a year after Washington's death and a year before her own. Modern historian John E. Ferling has posited that Washington's freeing of his slaves through his will was "an act of atonement for a lifetime of concurrence in human exploitation".

Retirement (1797–1799)

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. His plantation operations were only minimally profitable. 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. He attempted to sell off these holdings but failed to obtain the price he sought. Once in retirement, he became an even more committed Federalist. He was vocal in his support of the Alien and Sedition Acts and convinced Federalist John Marshall to run for Congress to weaken the Jeffersonian hold on Virginia.

Washington grew restless of retirement, prompted by tensions with France, and he wrote to Secretary of War James McHenry offering to organize President Adams' army. French privateers began seizing American ships in 1798, and relations with France deteriorated and led to the "Quasi-War". Adams offered Washington a commission as lieutenant general on July 4, 1798, and as commander-in-chief of the armies raised for service in that conflict. He accepted and served as the commanding general from July 13, 1798, until his death 17 months later. He participated in planning for a provisional army to meet any emergency but avoided involvement in details. He delegated most of the work to Hamilton, including active leadership of the army as a major general. No army invaded the United States during this period, and Washington did not assume a field command.

It is popularly assumed that Washington was rich because of the well-known "glorified façade of wealth and grandeur" at Mount Vernon, but nearly all of his wealth was in property (in the form of land and slaves) rather than ready cash. Historians estimate that this estate was worth about $1 million in 1799 dollars, equivalent to about $20 million in 2018.

Final days

Washington on his Deathbed
Junius Brutus Stearns 1799

On Thursday, December 12, 1799, Washington inspected his farms by horse while snow and sleet were falling. He returned late for dinner, his neck was wet, and snow matted his hair. He refused to change his wet clothes, not wanting to keep his guests waiting. He had a sore throat the following day but again went out in freezing, snowy weather to mark trees for cutting. That evening, he complained of a sore throat and chest congestion, but he remained cheerful. Early Saturday morning, he awoke to an inflamed throat and difficulty breathing. He ordered estate overseer George Rawlins to remove nearly a pint of his blood, a common practice of the time, and several physicians were summoned: James Craik, Gustavus Richard Brown, and Elisha C. Dick. (Dr. William Thornton arrived some hours after Washington died.

Dr. Brown thought that Washington had quinsy, while Dick thought that the condition was a more serious "violent inflammation of the throat". Continued bloodletting (approximately five pints) proved unsuccessful, and Washington's situation quickly deteriorated. Dick proposed an emergency tracheotomy, but the other two doctors were unfamiliar with the new procedure and disapproved, so it was not used. Washington instructed Brown and Dick to stop their attempts to save his life and leave the room, while he assured Craik, "Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go."

Washington's illness and death came swiftly and unexpectedly. He died peacefully with Martha calmly composed at the foot of his bed around 10 p.m. on Saturday, December 14, 1799 at age 67. His personal secretary Tobias Lear recorded his last words as: "'Tis well." Funeral arrangements were made by Washington's Masonic lodge of Alexandria, Virginia. When news of his death reached Congress, they immediately adjourned for the day and the Speaker's chair was shrouded in black the next morning.

The funeral was held on December 18, 1799, at Mount Vernon, where his body was interred. Cavalry and foot soldiers led the procession, while six colonels served as the pallbearers. The Mount Vernon funeral service was restricted mostly to family and friends. Congress chose Light-Horse Harry Lee, a Continental Army officer loved by Washington, to deliver the eulogy. Word of his death traveled slowly; church bells rang in the cities, and many places of business closed. People worldwide admired Washington and were saddened by his death, and memorial processions were held in major cities of the United States. Martha wore a black mourning cape for one year, and she burned their correspondence to protect their privacy. Only five letters between the couple are known to have survived, two letters from Martha to George and three from him to her.

The diagnosis of Washington's illness and the immediate cause of his death have been subjects of debate since the day that he died. In the days immediately following his death, Craik and Brown's published account stated that his symptoms had been consistent with cynanche trachealis (tracheal inflammation), a term of that period used to describe severe inflammation of the structures of the upper windpipe, including quinsy. Accusations have persisted since Washington's death concerning medical malpractice, with some believing that he had been bled to death. Various modern medical authors have speculated that he died from a severe case of epiglottitis complicated by the given treatments (which were all accepted medical practice in that day), most notably the massive deliberate blood loss, which almost certainly caused hypovolemic shock.


The Washington family tomb at Mount Vernon
The sarcophagi of George (right) and Martha (left) Washington at the present tomb's entrance

Washington was buried in the old family vault at Mount Vernon, situated on a grassy slope covered with juniper and cypress trees. It contained the remains of his brother Lawrence and other family members, but the decrepit vault was in need of repair, prompting Washington to leave instructions in his will for the construction of a new vault.

In 1830, a disgruntled ex-employee of the estate attempted to steal Washington's skull. The next year, the new vault was constructed at Mount Vernon to receive the remains of George and Martha and other relatives. In 1832, a joint Congressional committee debated moving his body from Mount Vernon to a crypt in the Capitol. The crypt had been built by architect Charles Bulfinch in the 1820s during the reconstruction of the burned-out capital, after the Burning of Washington by the British during the War of 1812. Southern opposition was intense, antagonized by an ever-growing rift between North and South; many were concerned that Washington's remains could end up on "a shore foreign to his native soil" should the country become divided, and Washington's remains stayed in Mount Vernon.

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

Historical reputation and legacy

The Constable-Hamilton Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

Washington's legacy endures as one of the most influential in American history, since he served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, a hero of the Revolution, and the first President of the United States. Modern historians Jay Parry and Andrew Allison have declared 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." Congressman Light-Horse Harry Lee, a Revolutionary War comrade, famously eulogized Washington: "First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Lee's words became the hallmark by which Washington's overwhelming reputation was impressed upon the American memory, with biographers hailing him as the great exemplar of republicanism. He set many precedents for the national government and the presidency in particular, and he was called the "Father of His Country" as early as 1778. In 1885, Congress proclaimed Washington's birthday to be a federal holiday. Twentieth-century biographer Douglas Southall Freeman famously concluded, "The great big thing stamped across that man is character." Modern historian David Hackett Fischer has expanded upon Freeman's assessment, defining Washington's character as "integrity, self-discipline, courage, absolute honesty, resolve, and decision, but also forbearance, decency, and respect for others".

Washington became an international icon for liberation and nationalism, as the leader of the first successful revolution against a colonial empire. The Federalists made him the symbol of their party, but the Jeffersonians continued to distrust his influence for many years and delayed building the Washington Monument. On January 31, 1781 (before he had even begun his presidency), he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

During the United States Bicentennial, Washington was posthumously appointed to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States by the congressional joint resolution Public Law 94-479 passed on January 19, 1976, with an effective appointment date of July 4, 1976. This restored his place as the highest-ranking military officer in U.S. history.

Parson Weems's hagiographical account The Life of Washington (1809) helped elevate Washington to heroic legendary status. The authenticity of Weems's anecdotes, which include the story of Washington cutting down the cherry tree as a child and his famous utterance "I cannot tell a lie", is unknown.


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 39-volume set edited by John Clement Fitzpatrick who was commissioned by the George Washington Bicentennial Commission. It contains over 17,000 letters and documents and is available online from the University of Virginia. 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.

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 at Christie's to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association on June 22, 2012, for $9,826,500 (plus fees; $10.8 million in 2018 currency). This was the record for a document sold at auction.

Monuments and memorials

Washington Monument, Washington, DC

Many places and monuments have been named in honor of Washington, most notably the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. (which is also named for Christopher Columbus, "D.C." standing for "District of Columbia"). The state of Washington is the only state to be named after a president. The George Washington Bridge is named in his honor, as are several naval vessels, including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73). Washington became a popular given name, borne in George Washington's honor by people such as painter Washington Allston (who, born in 1779, was named in Washington's lifetime), short-story writer Washington Irving (b. 1783, likewise in Washington's lifetime), botanist George Washington Carver (b. 1860s), and Brazilian president Washington Luís (b. 1869).

The heads of Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln are depicted in 60-foot stone effigies carved into Mount Rushmore, completed in 1941. The 555-foot-tall Washington Monument was built in his honor between 1848 and 1885; it was authorized by Congress in 1801, but the decision was reversed when Republicans took control of Congress in 1801, dismayed that Washington had become the symbol of the Federalist Party. The 333-foot-tall George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, was constructed between 1922 and 1932 with contributions from the Freemasons.

Statues and sculptures
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.

Selected issues
Washington, general issue of 1861, 24c
Washington 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
quarter dollar
one dollar coin
Washington on the 1928 dollar bill

Portraits gallery

See also: Gallery of Washington portraits

The contents of this page are sourced from a Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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