George Washington

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

George Washington (February 22, 1732[b][c] – December 14, 1799) was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and served as the nation’s first President (1789−1797). In the American Revolutionary War he commanded Patriot forces to victory against the British and their allies. He presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which established the new federal government, and he has been known by compatriots as the "Father of His Country".

Washington was born to a moderately prosperous Virginian family of colonial planters and slaveholders. 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 joined the Virginia militia and fought in the French and Indian War. During the American Revolutionary War, Washington was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, leading an allied campaign to victory at the Siege of Yorktown to end the war. His devotion to Republicanism, and revulsion for tyrannical power, impelled him to decline further authority after victory, and he resigned as commander-in-chief in 1783.

As one of the country’s premier statesmen, Washington was unanimously chosen as president by the Electoral College in the first two national elections. He promoted and oversaw implementation of a strong, well-financed national government. He remained impartial in the fierce rivalry between two cabinet secretaries, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, though he adopted Hamilton's economic plans. When the French Revolution plunged Europe into war, Washington assumed a policy of neutrality to protect American ships—although the controversial Jay Treaty of 1795 normalized trade relations with Great Britain. He set precedents still in use today, such as the Cabinet advisory system, the inaugural address, the title "Mr. President", and the concept of a two-term office limit. In his Farewell Address he gave a historic primer on civic virtue, warning of partisanship, sectionalism, and involvement in foreign wars.

Washington inherited slaves at age eleven, prospered from slavery most of his life, and as late as 1793 officially supported other slaveholders. Eventually he became troubled with slavery and in his last will in 1799 he freed all his slaves. He is renowned for his religious toleration; his religious beliefs and devotion to Freemasonry have been debated. Upon his death, Washington was famously eulogized as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen". He has been widely memorialized by monuments, art, places, stamps, and currency, and has been consistently ranked by scholars among the top 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 a common subject of the British Empire at that time, under the reign of George II.[3] Washington was descended primarily from English gentry of Sulgrave, England. His great-grandfather, John Washington, immigrated to Virginia in 1656; was a tobacco planter, who accumulated land and slaves, as did his son Lawrence and his grandson Augustine.[4]

Washington was reared in the rich open farmlands of Virginia's Tidewater region.[5] His father, Augustine, was a moderately wealthy planter, justice of the peace, and county sheriff, who had many children—four by his first marriage to Jane Butler and six by his second marriage to Mary.[6] Washington was one of seven surviving children: older half-brothers Lawrence and Augustine, and his full siblings Samuel, Elizabeth (Betty), John Augustine, and Charles.[7][d]

At age three, Washington and his family moved to Epsewasson, a 2,500-acre plantation his father purchased on the bluffs of the Potomac River. At age six, Washington and his family moved to Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg.[9] He spent much of his boyhood here; this was said to be the location of the Parson Weems cherry tree fable. At age eleven, Washington's father died (aged 48) of a sudden illness on April 12, 1743. He was then kept under the strict care of his mother Mary (aged 35).[10] Brother Lawrence, a colonial soldier, inherited Epsewasson and changed the name to Mount Vernon in honor of British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, while Washington inherited Ferry Farm and 10 slaves.[11]

Washington's total education spanned over 8 years, and he was initially taught by his father and Lawerence. Washington did not attend England's Appleby Grammar School, since Mary could not afford the cost. [12] 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.[13] By early adulthood Washington was able to write with precision and considerable force.[14] He was taught mathematics, trigonometry and surveying by school master Henry Williams, and had a natural talent in draftsmanship and map making.[15] Washington purchased books on military affairs, agriculture, history, and popular novels.[16] At the age of fourteen, in September 1746, Mary rejected a plan for him to join the Royal Navy.[17]

Lawrence, who had married into Virginia's powerful Fairfax family in 1743, became Washington's idolized surrogate father.[18] At the age of seventeen, Washington moved into Mount Vernon, with his brother Lawrence and his wife Ann Fairfax.[19] William Fairfax's son George was a close friend and associate of Washington.[20] His wife Sally was also a friend of Washington, as well as an early romantic interest, and they maintained correspondence when she moved to England with her father.[21]

In 1748, at the age of sixteen, Washington and George William Fairfax, accompanied surveyor James Genn, sent out by Lord Fairfax, to survey for a month, the Shenandoah lands, where he worked hard and gained valued experience.[22] In 1749, at age seventeen, Washington received a commission and surveyor's license from the College of William & Mary, and was appointed surveyor of Culpepper, due to Fairfax's influence.[23] After a preliminary survey of eastern Culpepper County, Washingtion primarily surveyed for Lord Fairfax, in the Blue Ridge Mountains.[24] In the Spring of 1750 Washington packed his surveying equipment and made repeated surveys of the Shenandoah Valley, where he became accustomed to the wilderness. In October, Washington bought almost fifteen hundred acres of valuable land in the Shenandoah Valley, his first large investment. Having made enough money with his surveying business he resigned his commission of Culpepper County surveyor. At the age of eighteen, Washington had accumulated a vast wealth of land, 2,315 acres, in the Shenandoah Valley. [25]

Although Washington stopped surveying within a few years, he would continue to purchase lands. During his lifetime he acquired over 70,000 acres of land, located within would later be seven states plus the District of Columbia. It took Washington 25 years to expand his Mount Vernon estate from 2,000 acres to 8,000 acres.[26] While the Federal City that would bear his name was being built, Washington bought more parcels of land to spur development. Rather than sell multiple lots to large investors, Washington sold individual lots to middle income investors, believing they were more likely to make committed improvements.[27]

In 1751, Washington made his only trip abroad when he traveled with Lawrence, to Barbados, in the hope that the climate would be beneficial to Lawrence's tuberculosis.[28] During the trip, Washington contracted smallpox which immunized him but left his face slightly scarred.[29] Lawrence's health continued to decline and he returned to Mount Vernon, where he died on July 26, 1752.[30] Washington inherited Lawrence's Mount Vernon estate after the deaths of Lawrence's wife Ann and their daughter.[31]

Personal life[]

Washington was generally the silent type, yet he had a strong presence among company. Though he made speeches and announcements as required, he was not known as an orator or a debater.[32] He was taller than most of his contemporaries.[33] 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.[34] He had wide hips, a slim waist, a broad chest, narrow shoulders, muscular thighs, long strong arms, and exceptionally large hands. He had piercing grey-blue eyes, fair skin, and light reddish-brown hair, and wore his hair powdered in the fashion of a whig.[35] He had a rugged and dominating presence that ensured respect from his male peers. Washington suffered commonly from severe tooth decay, ultimately losing all but one tooth. He had several sets of false teeth made, which he went through during his presidency; contrary to some accounts, none were made of wood. Dental problems left him in constant pain, for which he took laudanum.[36] As a public figure, Washington steadfastly demanded from his dentist that his dental care remain absolutely private.[37]

Washington was an above average equestrian early in life. He collected thoroughbreds at Mount Vernon, and his two favorite gift horses were Blueskin and Nelson.[38] Fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson said Washington was "the best horseman of his age and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback."[39] Washington hunted "foxes, dear, ducks," and other animals.[40] He was an excellent dancer, and attended the theater frequently. He was known to be an exceptionally strong man, in one instance he pitched an iron bar a long distance. In another instance, Washington threw a rock the height of 215 feet.[41] He drank in moderation but was morally opposed to excessive drinking, gambling, tobacco smoking, and profanity.[42]

Colonial soldier (1752–1758)[]

Washington Expions 1753–1754
Major George Washington
Washington's Map

The death of Washington's brother Lawrence left vacant his position as Adjutant General. Inspired by Lawrence's service with Admiral Edward Vernon, Washington began his pursuit of a military life.[43] Trained in musters and drills, Washington was appointed adjutant to the Southern district by Robert Dinwiddie, in December 1752. Later he was appointed to the Northern and Eastern districts.[16] In February 1753, Dindwiddie appointed him to the rank of Major at an annual salary of 100 pounds, then appointed him as British military ambassador to the French officials and Indians as far north as Erie, Pennsylvania.[44] Washington was just twenty-one. 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.[16]

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.[45] Washington and six frontiersmen reached the Ohio River that November, but the French had withdrawn. He met with Tanacharison ("Half-King") and other Six Nations Iroquois chiefs at Logstown and secured their support against the French if needed, and 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 in its capital at Quebec City.[46] Washington’s diary of the expion was printed by William Hunter according to Dinwiddie’s order, giving Washington name recognition in Virginia and England;[47] it also helped him obtain a commission to raise a company of men.[48]

French and Indian War[]

In 1753, the French military advanced into the Ohio Country, territory disputed by France and Britain. Virginia's Ohio Company, created to encourage British settlement of the land, had an economic interest in the region. Dinwiddie and Washington were stockholders. The land that joined the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, modern day Pittsburgh, was highly prized by the French and British.[49] The competing stakes led to the French and Indian War (1754–62) and contributed to the start of the global Seven Years' War (1756–63), and it was Washington who ordered the first shot fired in that war, in 1754.[50]

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 the age of twenty-one, and sent him to confront French forces at Pittsburgh. Dindwiddie ordered Washington to take prisoners, destroy, or kill those who resisted British control of the region.[49] 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. 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 allies in an ambush against the French on May 28 in the Battle of Jumonville Glen.[47] 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, and Tanacharison nicknamed Washington the "Town Destroyer".[51]

In July 1754, the French responded by attacking Fort Necessity in a ten-hour battle which ended in Washington's only surrender and the return of his force to Virginia—but only after he signed a falsely translated surrender document saying that he had "assassinated" Jumonville,[52][53] and this mistranslated false confession became the pretext to blame him for starting a war.[52] Historian Joseph Ellis concludes that the episode demonstrated Washington's bravery and initiative, as well as his inexperience and impetuosity.[54] Upon his return to Virginia, Washington refused to accept a demotion to the rank of captain, and resigned his commission.[55] Washington's expion into the Ohio Country had international consequences. The French accused him of assassinating Jumonville, claiming that Jumonville was only on a diplomatic mission.[54] Both France and Great Britain were set to fight for control of the region, both sending in troops in 1755; war was formally declared in 1756.[56]

Battle of Monogahela

In 1755, the British Crown sent General Edward Braddock and regulars to take Fort Duquesne.[57] This was the largest British expion to the colonies, intended to expel the French from the Ohio Country. [58] Braddock offered Washington the position of aide on his staff, who accepted.[57] Washington recommended that Braddock split the army into two divisions—a primary column and a second, more lightly equipped mobile offensive "flying column".[59] 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 the British general was mortally wounded.[59] The British suffered devastating casualties and retreated in panic, with two-thirds killed or wounded, but Washington rallied his forces in an organized retreat—though he was suffering from a fever and headache.[60] Washington's had two horses shot from beneath him, and his hat and coat were bullet-pierced.[57] His conduct under fire redeemed his reputation among critics of his command in the Battle of Fort Necessity.[61] Washington was not included by the succeeding commander Colonel Thomas Dunbar in planning subsequent operations.[60]

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.[62] Washington was twenty-three, in charge of defending 300 miles, while having only 300 men. [62] Savage costly frontier battles took place, 20 battles in ten months, between Washington's Virginia Regiment and the Indians. [63] Washington desired to wear the coveted red coat of officer rank, but this eluded him. Washington was convinced that Braddock would have recommended him for a regular commission in the British army, so he appealed to Braddock's successor Lord Loudoun.[64] The martinet British general refused Washington's request but did agree to transfer responsibility for Fort Cumberland from Virginia to Maryland.[64] Washington resented the unsuccessful encounter with Louden. [65] Washington's command increased to a thousand soldiers, while he emphasized discipline and training. Virginia's frontier population suffered less than that of other colonies as a result of his strenuous efforts, and Ellis concludes that "it was his only unqualified success" during the French and Indian War.[66] Washington sympathized with the plight of Virginia.[62]

Engraving depicting the British arrival at the remains of Fort Duquesne

Washington continued to advocate the capture of French Fort Duquesne.[67] In 1758, the British crown sent Commanding General John Forbes, Colonel Thomas Gage, and British regulars to take the post.[67] Washington was promoted honorary Brigadier General, while he and two regiments under his command, were ordered to cooperate. [68] During the expion, Washington suggested an Indian-style warfare method be incorporated but this was ignored.[68] Washington was involved in only one battle during the campaign.[67]Forbes had devised a plan for an assault on Fort Duquesne and assigned Washington to lead one of three brigades. Washington was the only colonial officer among the British forces. Forbes was alerted to an enemy reconnaissance party in the area and sent Colonel George Mercer and a contingent of several hundred Virginians to investigate. When "hot firing" was heard in the distance Washington's unit responded, but they found themselves in a friendly-fire incident when reinforcements also arrived, each contingent thinking that the other was the French enemy and resulting in minor casualties.[69]

In late November, for the final assault on the fort, Forbes assembled 2,500 men and promoted Washington to honorary brevet brigadier general to head the operation. Shortly thereafter, on the 25th, Washington and his army arrived, only to find an abandoned charred fort for the capture.[70] The British did score 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, while the French and Indian War was concluded in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris.[71] Although Washington never gained a Royal commission that he sought, he acquired military, political, and leadership skills which would prove invaluable during the American Revolution.[72] Historians ascribe his support of a strong national government and a vigorous executive to his frustrations with officials in these and later interactions.[73][74][e] 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.[76][77]

Religion and the Enlightenment[]

Washington's religious views were complex and subject to debate. Washington was the great-great grandson of Anglican minister Lawrence Washington, whose troubles with the Church, may have caused Lawrence's heirs to migrate to America.[78] Washington was a devoted member of the Anglican Church and was infant Christian baptized in April 1732.[79][f] In 1762 Washington served as a vestryman and as church warden for both Fairfax Parish in Alexandria and Truro Parish, a post he maintained for twenty-two years.[81] Although Washington privately prayed and read the Bible daily, he publicly encouraged people and the nation to pray.[82] Washington may have taken communion before the Revolutionary War, but afterwards he did not receive communion after being admonished by pastor Abercrombie for not setting an example.[83]

George Washington as Master of his Lodge, 1793

Theologically, Washington believed in a "wise, inscrutable, and irresistible" Creator God who was active in the Universe.[78] Washington referred to this God by the Enlightenment terms Providence, The Creator, or The Almighty.[84] Unlike a traditional Deist Washington believed in a divine power that watched over American battlefields, was involved in the outcome of North American/Colonial wars, was protecting his life, and was involved in North American politics, specifically, the creation of the United States.[85] Washington avoided evangelistic Christianity, or hellfire and brimstone speech, and communion, or anything that would "flaunt his religiosity, and never used his religion as a device for partisan purposes or in official undertakings."[86] No mention of Jesus Christ has been found in Washington's private correspondence, and rarely found in his public writings.[87] Washington often quoted or paraphrased from the Bible, and often referenced the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.[88] There is debate on whether Washington was a Christian or theistic rationalist, or both.[89]

Historians overwhelmingly agree that Washington exhibited religious toleration. He attended services of different denominations, and suppressed anti-Catholic celebrations in the Army.[90] Washington permitted Jews, Muslims, Christians of any denomination, and atheists to work at Mount Vernon. While president, he saluted twenty-two major religious sects and gave speeches on religious toleration.[91] Washington was deeply rooted in the ideas, values, and modes of thinking of the Enlightenment, more than his contemporaries.[92] Washington harbored no contempt of organized Christianity and its clergy, and quotes him as saying: "being no bigot myself to any mode of worship".[92] In 1793, Washington proclaimed "We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition."[93]

Like many activists in the Enlightenment in Europe and the colonies, Washington became a member of the Freemasons. Also known as Masonry, it was a socially acceptable institution in the late 18th century that advocated "moral teachings".[94] He was attracted by the movement's 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.[95] A new Masonic lodge was established in Fredericksburg in September 1752 and he was initiated two months later as one of its first Entered Apprentices. Within a year, he progressed through its ranks to become a Master Mason.[96] Before and during the American Revolution, Washington used Masonic lodges as meeting places to plot against the British.[97] Although Washington had a high regard for the Masonic Order, 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 commitment leading the Continental Army. After 1782, however, Washington kept in active correspondence with Masonic lodges and members.[97] In 1788, he was listed as Master in the Virginia charter of Alexandria Lodge No. 22.[98]

Marriage and civilian life (1759–1774)[]

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

On January 6, 1759, Washington, at age 27, married the wealthy Martha Dandridge Custis, aged 28 and widow of Daniel Parke Custis. The marriage ceremony took place at the Custis mansion. Martha was intelligent, gracious and experienced in managing a planter's estate, and they made a harmonious marriage.[99] The couple raised her children from a previous marriage, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke (Patsy) Custis, and they later raised grandchildren Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. They had no children together; his 1751 bout with smallpox may have made him sterile, but he grieved privately over not having his own children.[100] 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.[101]

Washington’s marriage also made him one of Virginia's wealthiest men and increased his social standing. He acquired control over Martha’s one-third dower interest in the 18,000-acre (73 km2) Custis estate, worth approximately $100,000, and he managed the remaining two-thirds on behalf of Martha's children.[102] He also acquired 84 slaves through the marriage, brought to Mount Vernon from the estate.[103]

Dinwiddie had promised land bounties in 1754 to the soldiers and officers who volunteered during the French and Indian War,[104] and Washington prevailed upon Governor Lord Botetourt, who fulfilled Dinwiddie's promise in 1769–70.[105] Washington received title to 23,200 acres (94 km2) where the Kanawha River flows into the Ohio River in West Virginia;[106] he also bought additional land, doubled the size of Mount Vernon to 6,500 acres (26 km2), and increased its slave population to more than 100 by 1775.[107]

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.[107] 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 Expion.[108] 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.[109]

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

Washington lived an aristocratic lifestyle, and his favorite activities included fox hunting, dances and parties, the theater, races, and cockfights. He also was known to play cards, backgammon, and billiards.[110] Like most Virginia planters, he imported luxuries and other goods from England and paid for them by exporting his tobacco crop. By 1764, a poor tobacco market left him ₤1,800 in debt.[111] 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 he further diversified operations to include flour milling, fishing, horse breeding, hog production, spinning, and weaving.[112] In the 1790s, he erected a distillery for whiskey production which yielded more than 1,000 US gallons (3,800 l) a month.[113]

In the fall of 1770, Washington inspected the bounty lands in the Ohio and Great Kanawha regions, promised to French and Indian War veterans. He secured the appointment of William Crawford to make a survey of the lands, who gave Washington 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; while many veterans were happy with the sale, others felt they had been duped.[114]

Washington's step-daughter Patsy Custis died in his arms on June 19, 1773 after suffering from epileptic attacks for five years. The following day, he wrote to Burwell Bassett: "It is easier to conceive, than to describe, the distress of this Family..."[115] He cancelled all business activity and was not away from Martha for a single night for the next three months.[116] Patsy's death enabled him to pay off his British crors, however, since half of her inheritance passed to him.[117]

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".[118] He became more politically active in 1769, presenting legislation in the Virginia Assembly to establish an embargo on goods from Great Britain.[119]

American Revolution[]

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

Washington played a leading political and military role in the American Revolution. Washington's feelings of indifference towards England began when he was passed over for a commission in the British Army in 1755.[120] In 1763, Washington and colonists were angered by a Royal Proclamation that banned American settlement West of the Alleghany Mountains, to protect the British fur trade.[121][g] Washington believed the Stamp Act, imposed on the colonies by Parliament in 1765, was an "Act of Oppression", and celebrated with the colonists, after its appeal the following year.[123][h] In March 1766, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, that asserted Parliamentary law was absolute over colonial law.[125] He helped to lead the widespread colonial protests against the Townshend Acts, passed by Parliament in 1767 on the colonies. In May 1769, he introduced a proposal drafted by George Mason which called for Virginia to boycott English goods until the Acts were repealed; Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts in 1770.[126]

Washington regarded the passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774, issued as punitive measures for the Boston Tea Party, as "an Invasion of our Rights and Privileges",[127] He also 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".[128] In July 1774, George Mason arrived at Mount Vernon with a list of resolutions which he and Washington worked on overnight to refine. The next day they were presented to the Fairfax County committee, chaired by Washington, which adopted the Fairfax Resolves calling for a Continental Congress, among other things.[129] In August, he attended the First Virginia Convention where he was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.[130] On July 4, 1776 the Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence from Britain, afterwards Patriots attacked symbols of monarchy, and toppled an equestrian statue of George III in New York City, five days later.[131]

Revolutionary War (1775–1783)[]

General George Washington, commander of the Continental Army

The Revolutionary War with Great Britain began April 19, 1775, at the initial Battles of Lexington and Concord, while the Continentals sieged the British at Boston.[132] On June 14, the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army, Samuel Adams and John Adams nominated Washington as supreme commander, and he was unanimously elected the next day.[133][i]

Washington appeared at the Congress, poised for war in a military uniform.[135] He declined a salary in his acceptance speech but received reimbursement of expenses for which he fully accounted.[136] The American colonists were divided between the Patriots, who broke from the King and his Parliament, and the Loyalists, who favored an imperial government system.[137]

The Patriot Continental Congress chose capable subordinate officers to aid Washington, 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.[138] 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.[139]

On July 2, 1775, Washington inspected his new army at Cambridge, Massachusetts and was astonished to find a ragtag assembly of undisciplined, poorly sheltered, and badly outfitted soldiers.[140] On July 3, Washington formerly took command; he immediately initiated reforms; he drilled soldiers and imposed strict discipline, including fines, floggings, and incarceration. [141] He ordered his officer staff to familiarize themselves with their recruits so as to understand the military duties best suited to them, to respect civilians, and to read military manuals.[142] He removed cowardly or incompetent officers, and told Congress that it was a "most necessary Work".[143] On August 23, King George III proclaimed that rebellious American colonists were traitors.[144]

Quebec, Boston, and Long Island[]

Washington at Dorchester Heights
Gilbert Stuart 1806

In September 1775, Washington sent staff officer Arnold and 1,000 troops to Canada to aid General Richard Montgomery's siege of British-held Quebec and to secure the northern flank.[145] Quebec was reinforced by 7,000 British troops, and the American siege collapsed, forcing the Continental Army to make a hasty retreat.[146] Later that month, an impatient Washington called a council of war and proposed an attack on the besieged British Army in Boston.[147] However, his generals declined the ambitious plan, concerned over high casualties on an entrenched enemy. [148] In late 1775, Washington sent staff officer Knox to Fort Ticonderoga for gunpowder and cannons.

In January 1776, Washington started again with new recruits, since soldiers left the Army after their enlistments expired.[144] By mid-January, his army was half-strength at 9,600 men, and the colonial militia that fought in the French and Indian War was summoned to fill in the gaps.[149][j] 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.[147] In February 1776, Knox returned 1776 with 59 cannons and 14 mortars.

On March 4, during the night, Washington seized and fortified Dorchester Heights, that threatened bombardment of Boston and endangered the British fleet.[151] On March 17, British general William Howe evacuated Boston, that included 10,000 troops and 1,100 loyalists.[152] Washington marched his Army to New York, initiated fortification, and correctly predicted the British would return and attack in full force.[151]

Resupplied in Nova Scotia, Howe and the British fleet headed for New York City, considered the key to securing the continent, and assembled in New York Bay, that included over 100 ships and thousands of troops.[153] 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.[154] 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.[155] On August 22, Howe landed 20,000 troops at Gravesend, Brooklyn and approached Washington's fortifications; Washington chose to fight despite the objections of his generals.[156] Washington had received false information that Howe's army had only 8,000 to 9,000 troops.[157] On August 27, Howe assaulted Washington's flank and inflicted 1,500 Patriot casualties, while the British suffered 400 casualties.[158] Washington and his generals decided to retreat, and he instructed General William Heath to make available every flat-bottomed riverboat and sloop in the area. General William Alexander held off the British Army, allowing the Continental Army’s retreat. In little time, Washington's army safely crossed the East River under the cover of darkness to Manhattan Island without loss of life or material, although Alexander was captured by the British.[159]

Battle of Long Island
Alonzo Chappel 1858

General 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 if they were captured as rebels, 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.[160]

The British navy bombarded unstable earthworks on lower Manhattan Island that had been constructed by the Patriots.[161] Washington considered abandoning the island, including Fort Washington, but he heeded the advice of Generals Greene and Putnam to defend the fort. They were unable to hold it, however, and Washington abandoned the fort in spite of General Lee's objections; his army retired north to White Plains.[162] However, with Howe in pursuit, Washington was forced to retreat across the Hudson River to Fort Lee and 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 Nathaniel Greene. Loyalists in New York considered Howe a liberator and had spread a rumor that Washington had set fire to the city.[163] The morale in the Patriot army was at its lowest ebb, as General Lee was captured by the British while having an affair with his mistress.[164]

Crossing the Delaware[]

Washington Crossing the Delaware December 25, 1776
Emanuel Leutze 1851[k]

Washington's defeated Patriot army retreated through northeast New Jersey, reduced to 5,400 troops.[166] Howe broke off pursuit on December 14, delayed his advance on Philadelphia, and set up winter quarters in New York.[167] Washington crossed the Delaware River, while Lee's replacement John Sullivan and 2,000 troops joined him in Pennsylvania.[168] The future of the Continental Army was in doubt due to lack of basic supplies, expiring enlistments, and desertions. Washington was disappointed that many New Jersey residents were revealed to be Loyalists, or simply skeptical about the prospect of Independence.[169] Howe had split up his British Army and posted a Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey to hold western New Jersey and the east shore of the Delaware.[170]

Washington learned of the complacency of Howe and his Hessian mercenaries, and he was facing desperate conditions and diminishing numbers, so he met with his generals on Christmas Eve and devised a plan to cross the icy Delaware at night and surprise the enemy. Washington crossed the river in advance and staked out a landing zone for his troops on the New Jersey shore. He ordered a 60-mile search along the Delaware for barges, particularly Durham boats,[l] to transport his army, and ordered vessels that could be used by the British destroyed.[172] With his plan on the verge of failure Washington led his army across the Delaware, on the night of December 25–26, 1776, with 18 pieces of artillery, struggling with rapid currents, and ice hindering their way. Washington divided his forces into three groups, and two of them failed to make it across the river.[173]

Trenton and Princeton[]

The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776
John Trumbull 1786–1828

The American troops crossed the next morning in heavy sleet and snow; scouts reported the location of the Hessian forward positions about one mile from Trenton in New Jersey. Washington divided his army into three groups 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 and was given food and drink at a nearby home while his senior officers gathered for a council of war. Moving on, the three divisions divided at the Birmingham crossroads, with General Nathanael Greene's division taking the upper Ferry Road and General John Sullivan's advancing on River Road.[174] In coordinated effort Washington advanced on Trenton in a surprise attack at about 8 a.m., still dark from heavy cloud cover. He personally led the charge, aided by Major-General Henry Knox and his artillery, and captured some 850 prisoners[175] with Hessian Colonel Johann Rall being mortally wounded during the short battle.[176]

Washington’s Trenton victory was followed by another over British regulars at Princeton on January 3, with only forty Americans killed or wounded while the British forces suffered 273 killed or captured.[177][178] American Generals Hugh Mercer and John Cadwalader were already present and being driven back by the British, then Mercer was mortally wounded. Washington arrived at the scene and rallied Mercer's and Cadwalader's men to counterattack, with Washington out front advancing to within thirty yards from the British line.[179] The remaining British troops retreated after making a brief stand, some evacuating Princeton and others taking refuge in Nassau Hall. Alexander Hamilton brought three cannons, and began firing at the building where the British were held up. Washington's troops charged, and the British put out the white flag of surrender; 194 soldiers walked out of the building and laid down their arms.[180] The other British retreated to New York City and its environs, which they held until the Treaty of Paris (1783).

The depleted Continental army took up winter headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey after their victory at Princeton, rather than retreating to Pennsylvania; this allowed Washington to disrupt British supply lines and drive them from parts of New Jersey. He later admitted that the British could easily have defeated his thinly guarded encampment if they had counter-attacked before his troops were dug in.[181]

Washington's victories were pivotal for the revolution and wrecked the British strategy of showing overwhelming force, then offering generous terms. Henceforth, the Americans would negotiate for nothing short of independence.[182] However, the British Army remained in force, while many Patriot soldiers did not re-enlist or deserted during the harsh winter. Washington and Congress responded with increased rewards for re-enlisting, and punishment for desertion, which effected greater troop numbers for later battles.[183]

Brandywine, Germantown, and Saratoga[]

Belligerents at the Battle of Saratoga

In February 1777, Washington, encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, became convinced that smallpox inoculation was required to prevent the destruction of his Army—by some accounts this drastically reduced deaths by the disease.[184] That summer, British General John Burgoyne led a major invasion army south from Quebec, planning to sever rebellious New England. But in a strategic blunder, General Howe in New York took his army south to Philadelphia instead of going up the Hudson River to join Burgoyne near Albany. Meanwhile, Washington rushed to Philadelphia to engage Howe, while he closely supervised the action in upstate New York, where the Patriots were led by General Philip Schuyler and his successor Horatio Gates. The pitched battles at Philadelphia were too complex for Washington's less experienced men who were defeated.[185]

At the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, Howe outmaneuvered Washington and in two-weeks' time marched unopposed into the American capital at Philadelphia. Washington's army unsuccessfully attacked the British garrison at Germantown in early October. Washington's loss at Philadelphia prompted some members of Congress to consider removing him from command. Termed the Conway Cabal, they failed after Washington's supporters rallied behind him.[186]

Meanwhile, during the Saratoga campaign to the north, Washington's strategy improved the situation for Gates' army. Washington was most concerned about the movements of General Howe and was aware that Burgoyne was also moving south toward Saratoga from Quebec. In July Washington took some risks and sent reinforcements north commanded by Major General Benedict Arnold, his most aggressive field commander, and Major General Benjamin Lincoln. After two attempts to take Bemis Heights, Burgoyne, beyond the reach of help from Howe, was trapped and was forced to retreat to Saratoga and ultimately surrendered after the Battles of Saratoga. The British defeat at Saratoga led to Howe's resignation, in May 1778. This was a major turning point militarily and diplomatically — the French responded to Burgoyne's defeat by entering the war, allying with America and expanding the Revolutionary War into a worldwide affair.[187]

As rival generals, Washington was concerned that Gate's victory was going to given impetus to his critics.[188] Biographer Alden relates, "it was inevitable that the defeats of Washington's forces and the concurrent victory of the (Gates') forces in upper New York should be compared." The zealous admiration of Washington waned, with John Adams giving him little cr. [189]

Valley Forge[]

Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge
John Ward Dunsmore 1907

Washington's army of 11,000 went into winter quarters at Valley Forge north of Philadelphia in December 1777, and in six months suffered thousands of deaths. Most were from disease, compounded by lack of food and proper clothing, poor shelter, and the extreme cold. Historians’ estimates range from 2,000 to over 3,000 men lost.[190] The British were comfortably quartered in Philadelphia and paid for their supplies in sterling. In contrast, Washington had difficulty procuring supplies with depreciating American paper currency, and the woodlands were soon exhausted of game. By February Washington was faced with the task of maintaining morale and discouraging desertion.[191]

Washington had repeatedly petitioned the Continental Congress for badly needed provisions but with no success. Finally, on January 24, 1778, five Congressmen came to Valley Forge to check the conditions of the Continental Army. Washington expressed the urgency of the situation, exclaiming, "Something must be done. Important alterations must be made." He also recommended Congress take control of the army supply system, pay for supplies, and hasten them to the troops. In response to Washington's urgent appeal, Congress gave full support to funding the supply lines of the army, which also resulted in reorganizing the commissary department that controlled gathering the supplies for the army. By late February, there were adequate supplies arriving at the camp.[150]

Washington recruited men into the regular army and assigned their training to Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, whose incessant drilling soon transformed Washington's army into a disciplined fighting force.[192] Washington's army had endured the winter many feared would dissolve it. Washington's birthday was publicly celebrated for the first time that winter.[193] The next spring, a revitalized army emerged from Valley Forge.[194] von Steuben was promoted to Major General for his effort and became Washington's chief of staff for the rest of the war.[195]


Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth
Emanuel Leutze 1851–1854

In May 1778, the Continental Congress ratified the Treaty of Alliance with Louis XVI, King of France, that allied the French military and navy with America to defeat the British.[196] The British evacuated Philadelphia for New York in June 1778, and Washington summoned a council of war with Generals Lee, Greene, Wayne, and 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. On June 28, absent Washington's knowledge, Lee and Lafayette moved with 4,000 men and bungled their first attack. After sharp criticism, Washington relieved Lee and continued fighting to an effective draw in one of the war's largest battles. Nightfall came and the British continued their retreat to New York, where Washington moved his army outside the city.[197] Monmouth was the last major battle 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.[198]

Sullivan expion 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.[199] In June 1779, the Indian warriors joined with Tory rangers led by Walter Butler and slew over 200 frontiersmen, using barbarities normally shunned, and laid waste to the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania.[200] In August 1779, prompted by massacres and many attacks on American civilians, Washington ordered General John Sullivan, to lead a military operation and affect "the total destruction and devastation" of all Iroquois villages, and to take their women and children as hostages. Those that managed to escape fled to British protection in Canada.[201] Sullivan later reported that the expion had been accomplished, referring to the Iroquois as "inhuman barbarians".[202]

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

Southern campaigns[]

In late 1778, British General Clinton sent 3,000 troops by ship to Georgia from New York and launched a Southern invasion. [203] Reinforced by 2,000 British and Loyalist troops, Clinton seized Savannah, and repelled a joint Patriot-French naval forces attack. [203] The success bolstered the British War effort.[203] In January 1780, Clinton had assembled 12,500 troops and attacked Charlestown, and defeated Patriot General Lincoln, who only had 5,100 Continental troops. [204] The British went on to occupy the South Carolina Piedmont in June, with almost no Patriot resistance. [204] Clinton returned to New York, victorious, and left 8,000 troops commanded by Lord Cornwallis.[205] Congress replaced Lincoln with Gates, despite Washington's recommendation of Greene. Gates failed in South Carolina, was replaced by Greene, and the British seemed to have the South in their grasp. Despite this news, Washington was encouraged when he learned in mid-1780 that Lafayette had returned from France with more ships, men and supplies.[206]

West Point espionage[]

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

Washington had worked hard to develop a successful espionage system to detect British locations and plans. Washington has been called "Americas First Spymaster".[207] In 1778, he ordered Major Benjamin Tallmadge to form the Culper Ring to collect information about the British in New York.[208] Washington was usually mindful of treachery, but he ignored incidents of disloyalty by Benedict Arnold, his admired and trusted Continental Army officer, who had distinguished himself in many battles, but was deeply angered by being passed over for promotion.[209]

In early May 1779, Arnold and loyalist leaning wife Peggy Shippen, met with Philadelphia merchant Joseph Stransbury to discuss defection. On May 10, Stransbury secretly relayed this information to Clinton's British spymaster John André in New York.[210] Historians have noted several reasons for Arnold's treachery: £6,000 British payment; his anger at losing promotions to junior officers and the repeated slights from Congress;[211] his war profiteering, for which he faced court martial; and his indebtedness.[212][m]

During the summer of 1780, Arnold began his plot of treason, supplying André with sensitive information intended to compromise Washington and capture West Point, a key American defensive position on the Hudson River.[214] By August, after repeated requests from Arnold, Washington appointed him commander of West Point.[215] On September 21, Arnold met André on the banks of the Hudson and gave him the plans to take over the garrison,[216] but was soon captured by militia forces who discovered Arnold's plans. While expecting Washington, Arnold took flight on horseback and escaped to New York.[213] Upon receiving the news, an outraged Washington immediately recalled all the commanders under Arnold at key positions around the fort as a precaution against any complicity on their part; however, he did not suspect Arnold's wife at this time.[217] Washington assumed personal command of West Point and worked earnestly reorganizing the order of command and strengthening defensive positions.[218]

André was tried by a military court for spying and was sentenced to death. Washington offered to return him to the British in exchange for Arnold, but Clinton refused. André then asked Washington to be executed by firing squad. Washington was inclined to grant his wish, but he changed his mind under pressure to make an example of the enemy spymaster. André was hanged in Tappan, New York on October 2, 1780.[219]

Victory at Yorktown[]

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

Washington's army went into winter quarters at New Windsor in 1780 and suffered again from extreme cold and for lack of supplies, prompting Washington to prevail upon Congress and state officials to come to their aid with provisions. He sympathized with their suffering, saying that he hoped that the army would not "continue to struggle under the same difficulties they have hitherto endured ...".[220]

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

In July 1780, 5,000 veteran French troops led by the comte de Rochambeau arrived at Newport, Rhode Island.[221] French naval forces then landed, led by Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse, and Washington encouraged Rochambeau to move his fleet south, to launch a joint land-naval attack on Arnold's troops.[222]

By December British General Clinton sent Benedict Arnold, now a Brigadier General in the British Army, with about 1,700 troops to Virginia to capture Portsmouth and spread terror throughout the state. Washington responded by sending Lafayette south with a small army to counter Arnold's efforts but the effort was generally ineffective.[223] At first Washington hoped to bring the allied fight to New York drawing off British forces from Virginia, and to end the war there, but Rochambeau advised de Grasse that Cornwallis in Virginia was the better target. Admiral de Grasse followed this advice and arrived off the Virginia coast. Washington immediately saw the advantage created, made a feinting move with his force towards Clinton in New York, and then headed south to Virginia.[224]

Bolstered by $20,000 in French gold and troops, Washington's Continental Army delivered the last blow in 1781, after a French naval victory allowed allied forces to trap a British army in Virginia, preventing reinforcement by Clinton from the North.[225] The surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781 marked the end of major fighting in North America.[226] Washington took great satisfaction at the surrender, but displayed no outward sign.[227] Cornwallis failed to appear at the official surrender ceremony, claiming illness, and sent General Charles O'Hara as his proxy; Washington then had General Benjamin Lincoln accept the surrender in his place.[228] American slaves were returned by the British Army to their American owners, including Washington, who retained two house slaves, Lucy and Esther.[229]

Demobilization and resignation[]

Decisive combat had ended but not the war, with a treaty of peace months away. In addition to their powerful fleet, the British still had 26,000 troops occupying New York City, Charleston, and Savannah. The French army and navy departed, so the Americans were on their own in 1782–83. The American treasury was empty, and unpaid soldiers, restive to the point of mutiny, forced an adjournment of the Congress. Washington dispelled unrest among officers by suppressing the Newburgh Conspiracy in March 1783, and Congress promised the officers a five-year bonus.[230] Washington later submitted a formal detailed account of about $450,000 in military expenses that he advanced to the army in his tenure. It was allegedly vague about large sums, and included wife Martha's expenses incurred in visits to his headquarters, as well as his agreed compensation.[231]

With the peace treaty initially ratified in April 1783, a Congressional committee under Hamilton was arranging a peacetime army. On May 2, 1783, Washington submitted the Army’s position to the Committee in his Sentiments on a Peace Establishment.[232] The Committee’s proposals were defeated in Congress by three votes, in May 1783, October 1783, and April 1784.[233]

In the Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783, Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States. Washington disbanded his army and gave an eloquent farewell address to his soldiers on November 2.[234] On November 25, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington and the governor took possession. Only a few trusted members of Congress, including Thomas Jefferson, knew of Washington's decision to resign his commission as Commander-in-chief. At Fraunces Tavern on December 4, after leading the Continental Army for eight and a half years,[235] Washington bade his officers farewell, and resigned his commission on December 23, 1783.[236] In the Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House he gave a brief statement to the Continental Congress, saying "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."[237]

Historian Gordon S. Wood concluded that "The greatest act of [Washington's] life, the one that gave him his greatest fame, was his resignation as commander in chief of the American forces."[238] In 1783, Henry Knox formed the still-extant Society of the Cincinnati in honor of Washington, who served as its first president until his death.[21] The Society, and Washington, likened himself to the heroic Roman consul Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, who relinquished his military power after securing victory.[239]

In August 1783, at Rocky Hill, Washington, not wanting to leave the new nation vulnerable, advised Congress to keep a standing army, create a "national militia", formed of separate state units, set up a navy, and a national military academy. Washington circulated his "Farewell" orders that discharged his troops, whom he called "one patriotic band of brothers." Before his return to Mount Vernon, Washington oversaw the evacuation of British forces in New York, and was greeted by parades and celebrations where Washington announced that Henry Knox was promoted the new commander of the Continental Army.[240]

After his retirement, and return to Mount Vernon, Washington made an exploratory trip to the western frontier in 1784 and inspected his land holdings that had been earned decades earlier for his service in the French and Indian War.[241] He also facilitated the creation of the Potomac Company, a public–private partnership that financed a canal that linked the Potomac River with the Ohio River. He was elected president of the company, for which he proselytized extensively. It served as a model for large-scale canal-building but technical and financial challenges rendered it unprofitable.[242]

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. Valuing Washington's influence, however, James Madison earnestly attempted to persuade him to attend the Constitutional Convention. When Shay's rebellion broke out in Massachusetts Washington was finally convinced that he could no longer ignore political matters and the looming unrest that threatened the stability of the Union and appeared at the convention as a delegate from Virginia. During the summer of 1787; he was unanimously elected as its president.[243] 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.[244] Washington's 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 supply the military. The general populace, however, did not share Washington's inclination for a strong federal government binding the states together, fearing it would become overbearing as the British Parliament they had just overthrown.[245]

Washington was reserved during the debates and voting, lending his prestige to the good will 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."[246]

Following the Convention, his support convinced many to vote for ratification. He unsuccessfully lobbied anti-federalist Patrick Henry, saying that "the adoption of it under the present circumstances of the Union is in my opinion desirable;" he declared that the only alternative would be anarchy. Nevertheless, he did not consider it proper to cast his vote in favor of adoption for Virginia, since he was expected to be nominated president under it.[247] The new Constitution was ultimately ratified by all thirteen states. Washington and Madison then retired to Mount Vernon for four days and evaluated the transition of the new constitutional government.[248]

The delegates to the 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.[249][n] The delegates counted slaves to represent three-fifths of the population, that increased Southern representation in the House and Electoral College.[252]

The state electors, under the new Constitution, voted for the President on February 4, 1789; while the official vote-counting was delayed until Congress achieved a quorum in New York, Washington suspected most Republican electors had not voted for him.[253] Congress reached a quorum on April 6, and Washington was elected President, unanimously winning the majority of every legally eligible state's electoral votes, while John Adams received the next highest vote total, and was elected vice president.[254]

Presidency (1789–1797)[]

President George Washington
Gilbert Stuart 1795

The Constitution provided that the Inauguration be held March 4, but it was delayed by the Congress’ failure to timely conclude the official vote count. Washington received notification of his election and departed from Mount Vernon on April 23.[255]

At the age of fifty-seven, Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, taking the first presidential oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City.[256][o] 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 crowd of 10,000 people attended.[258] Washington, with his hand upon a Bible provided by the nearby Masonic lodge, was administered the oath by Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, after which he was given a thirteen-gun salute.[259] Returning to the Senate Chambers, he read a 1,200–word speech, asking that an "Almighty Being" bless the "important revolution".[260] He declined a salary in his speech, but Congress later set an annual salary of $25,000. He accepted the amount to defray costs of the presidency.[261] Washington was aware that everything he did set a precedent, and he attended carefully to the pomp and ceremony of office, making sure that the titles and trappings were suitably republican and never emulated European royal courts.[262][p] To that end, he preferred the title "Mr. President" over more majestic names proposed by the Senate.[263]

Washington had planned to resign during his first term, but his overwhelming support and admiration inspired him to remain in office.[264] He was an able administrator and established many precedents for the presidency, including messages to Congress and the cabinet form of the executive branch.[265] He established a tolerance 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.[266] He was an excellent delegator and judge of talent and character; he talked regularly with department heads and listened to their advice before making a final decision.[267]

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 taxing power.[268] The United States was not completely unified. Washington was tasked with assembling a nascent executive department; he relied on Tobias Lear for advice selecting its officers.[269] At this time Great Britain refused to relinquish its forts in the American West.[268] Additionally, the United States Army was minuscule and the United States Navy had not materialized.

Cabinet and executive departments[]

Washington and his cabinet, left to right:Washington, Knox, Hamilton (standing), Jefferson, and Randolph

Congress created executive departments during Washington's first months in office in 1789, including the State Department on July 27, the Department of War in early August, and the Treasury Department on September 2. The President also received two additional officers without departments: the Attorney General and Postmaster General. Washington appointed Richmond lawyer Edmund Randolph as Attorney General and Samuel Osgood as Postmaster General. He also appointed fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson to be Secretary of State and Henry Knox as Secretary of War. Finally, he appointed Alexander Hamilton to head the Treasury Department.[270] Washington's cabinet eventually developed into a consultation and advisory body, although this was not mandated by the Constitution.[271]

Washington's cabinet members were known for their dissension, forming rival parties with sharply opposing views, most fiercely illustrated between Hamilton and Jefferson.[272] 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 played an active role advising Congress, including written reports and using influence over congressional committee leaders.[268]

Domestic issues[]

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

Washington was not aligned with a political party and opposed their formation, fearing conflict that would undermine republicanism.[273] 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 cr 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. Hamilton's fiscal recommendations created bitter controversy during Washington's presidency.[274]

To encourage national unity, Washington, on October 3, 1789, with his signature, proclaimed November 26, 1789 to be the first Thanksgiving. 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, Washington fasted while visiting debtors in prison, providing prisoners with food and beer.[275]

The most pressing fiscal problem of the new administration was the public cr of the United States. 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 the movement of the nation’s capitol to the South, near Georgetown on the Potomac River.[274] This settled a deadlock in the 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, and provided funding through customs duties and excise taxes.[276]

Hamilton created more controversy among Washington's Cabinet members when he advocated the establishment of the Bank of the United States. Although Madison and Jefferson objected, the bank easily passed Congress and the law was presented to Washington for signing on February 14, 1791. Washington sought advice from his cabinet; Jefferson and Randolph strongly opposed the new bank constitutionally, while Hamilton believed 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 between Hamilton and Jefferson widened and became openly hostile.[277]

Under Washington, the young American nation experienced its first financial crisis in March 1792 when federalists under Hamilton used large loans to gain control of U.S. debt securities, causing a run on the new national bank.[278][q] By mid-April the markets returned to normal.[280] Jefferson believed Hamilton was part of the scheme, in spite of latter's efforts to ameliorate, and informed Washington who found himself in the middle of a feud.[281]

Jefferson and Hamilton, bitter rivals

Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, 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 the government should be primarily under the direction of the states and the farm element, and 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.[282] 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.[283] A few weeks later, Hamilton demanded that Jefferson resign if he could not support Washington.[284] Rather than respond publicly, Jefferson told Washington that Hamilton's fiscal system would lead to the overthrow of the republic.[285]

Washington pleaded with his two secretaries by letters to stop the open warfare for the sake of the nation, but Hamilton and Jefferson politely ignored the president's advice.[286] Washington reluctantly reversed his decision to retire after his first term, when it became clear this would be essential in minimizing party strife, but the feud continued after his reelection [285] Jefferson's political actions, his support of Freneau's National Gazette,[287] 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.[288] The feud between Hamilton and Jefferson led to the well-defined Federalist and Republican parties. By 1794, party affiliation was necessary for election to Congress.[289]

Washington remained aloof from congressional attacks on Hamilton, but he did not write a public statement to protect him. The Reynolds Affair embarrassed Hamilton, but Washington held him in "very high esteem" and viewed him as the dominant force in establishing federal law and government.[290]

In March 1791, Alexander Hamilton promoted and Congress imposed an excise tax on distilled spirits to help pay the national debt; grain farmers strongly protested in frontier districts, especially the westernmost counties of Pennsylvania, saying they were unrepresented and were unfairly shouldering too much of the debt. Threats and violence against tax collectors escalated into full-scale defiance of federal authority in 1794, known as the Whiskey Rebellion. The federal army was too small to meet the task, so Washington invoked the Militia Act of 1792 to summon militias from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey.[291] The governors sent the troops, with Washington taking initial command. He subsequently named Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee as field commander to lead the troops into the rebellious districts. The rebels dispersed and there was no fighting. Washington's forceful action demonstrated that the new government could protect itself and its tax collectors. This represented the premier instance of the federal government using military force to exert authority over the states and citizens[292] and was the only time that a sitting U.S. president 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.[293]

Indian affairs[]

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

Washington's most pressing problem at the start of his presidency was the British occupation of forts in the Northwest frontier[294] and their concerted efforts to turn Indians against American settlers. British were also protecting their interests in the Canadian fur trade, while Indian tribes also warred with each other over hunting ground. Washington as early as 1789 told General Arthur St. Clair, first governor of the Northwest Territory, that he preferred a peace treaty with the hostile Indians of the Ohio Country. Tribes of Indians formed a confederacy led by Little Turtle and other chiefs and were conducting numerous attacks and depredations against settlers and roamed largely uncontested throughout the territory. In 1790 Washington sent Brigadier General Josiah Harmar to control the situation, but he was defeated twice and forced to withdraw.[295]

Using guerrilla warfare the Indian Confederacy was an effective force against the sparsely manned American army, comprised mostly of undisciplined militia, some with their families along. In 1791, with the encouragement of General Knox, who disliked militias, Washington sent St. Clair from Fort Washington on an expion to restore peace in the territory. On November 4, St. Clair's forces, despite Washington's warning of surprise attacks, were ambushed and overwhelmingly defeated with few survivors. Outraged over the brutality and the manner in which captured survivors, including women and children, were executed, Washington was prompted by Knox and others to re-augment and form a new army that didn't rely on state militias.[296] Congress vindicated St. Clair's management of the battle, however, to restore the Army's reputation, Washington forced St. Clair's resignation and replaced him with Revolutionary War hero General Anthony Wayne, who instructed his troops in Indian warfare tactics. So determined to instill the discipline in the new army that was lacking under St. Clair, Wayne sometimes shaved, branded or whipped soldiers to sharpen their performance,[297] while three men were executed.[298] On August 24, 1784, Wayne defeated the Northwest Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and the Ohio Country was opened up for American cession.[299] Uniquely for the time, Washington equated killing Native Americans to that of whites; and he desired a policy to protect their property, and integrate Indians into American culture.[300]

Foreign affairs[]

In April 1792, the French Revolutionary Wars broke out between Great Britain and its allies and revolutionary France; Washington, with cabinet approval, declared America’s neutrality. 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 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 and received the French recall of Genêt.[301]

   John Jay
Negotiator of the Jay Treaty

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;[302] John Jay negotiated and signed the treaty on November 19, 1794. Jeffersonians supported France and strongly attacked the treaty. Washington listened to both sides, then announced his support for the treaty, mostly because it avoided war with Britain.[303] However he was deeply disappointed, claiming that its provisions were overwhelmingly on the side of Great Britain.[298] The treaty mobilized public opinion and secured ratification in the Senate by June the following year.[304] Washington was not immune from Republican criticism after he signed the Jay Treaty and was subjected to the worst and most frequent criticism he had ever experienced during the war and as president.[305]

The British agreed to depart from their forts around the Great Lakes, and the United States-Canada boundary had to be modified. Numerous pre-Revolutionary debts were liquidated, and the British opened their West Indies colonies to American trade. Most importantly, the treaty delayed war with Great Britain and brought a decade of prosperous trade. Jefferson claimed that the treaty angered France and only "invited rather than avoided" war.[306] Relations with France deteriorated after the Jay Treaty was signed, leaving succeeding president John Adams with the prospect of war.[307] Two days before Washington's term ended, the French withdrew from their embassy in America.

Second term[]

Washington remained popular approaching the Election of 1792; Alexander Hamilton strongly urged a reluctant Washington to run for a second term. Washington's silence about this upon his return to Mount Vernon, in October 1792, was considered an acquiescence and consent for his being the only viable candidate to assume the presidency during this unstable period. On February 13, 1793 the Electoral College unanimously elected Washington president for a second term. John Adams was reelected Vice President by a vote of seventy-seven to fifty.[300][r]

Criticized by the National Gazette and political adversaries over his birthday celebration and for appearing as a "monarchist", Washington kept a low profile, arriving at his inauguration in plain form and alone in a simple carriage. The second inauguration was held in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia, on Monday, March 4, 1793. The presidential oath of office was administered to Washington by Associate Justice William Cushing This was the first inauguration to take place in Philadelphia, the nation's capital at this time. After the swearing in ceremony Washington maintained his low profile and delivered the shortest inaugural address on record.[309]

In 1793, Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act which allowed slave owners to cross state lines and retrieve runaway slaves.[310] He also signed into law the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which limited American involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.[311]

Washington appointed Oliver Wolcott, Jr. as Secretary of the Treasury in 1795, replacing Alexander Hamilton who resigned in the aftermath of the whiskey rebellion for which he was criticized, wishing to return home to his wife who suffered a miscarriage in his absence. The affair strengthened Washington's bond with Hamilton while it distanced him from Knox.[312]

In the months that led up to the end of his presidency, Washington was relentlessly assailed by his political foes and a largely partisan press, accusing him of being ambitious and greedy. Washington pointed out that he had taken no salary during the entire war and risked his life in numerous battles. He came to regard 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.[313]

Farewell Address[]

Washington's Farewell Address (September 19, 1796)

Washington had planned to retire after his first term as President and in 1792, he had James Madison draft a farewell message for his first term. However, upon his reelection, Washington had put Madison's draft in a drawer of his presidential desk.[314] On May 15, 1796 Washington gave Madison's draft to Alexander Hamilton, and additional text written by Washington, to complete the message, the sentiment and theme of the address being Washington's.[315] The final version of Washington's Farewell Address, was first published on September 19, 1796, by David Claypool's American Daily Advertiser, and then published by three other Philadelphia newspapers.[316]

Washington's address warned against foreign alliances and their influence in domestic affairs, and against bitter partisanship in domestic politics. He also called for men to move beyond partisanship and serve the common good, [317] 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 which was largely embraced by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.[318] He stressed the importance of religion claiming that "...religion and morality are indispensable supports..." in a republic.[319] The address, however, did not quell bi-partisan politics, but only served to aggravate them, setting the tone for the coming 1796 election, with Washington lending his support to John Adams.[317]

On December 7, 1796 Washington read his Eighth Annual Address to Congress. Washington 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.[320] He advocated a military academy be created, expounded on how the British had left the Northwest Forts, and how Algiers had released American prisoners. The speech for the most part was well received. [321]

Washington's Farewell Address proved to be one of the most influential statements on republicanism.[322] 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". "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."[323]


Washington as Farmer at Mount Vernon
Junius Brutus Stearns, 1851

Washington was born into a world accustomed to slavery, and he fully embraced it without question until the American Revolution.[324] Eighteenth-century colonial Virginia instituted an economic plantation slavery system fed by the British slave trade.[325] Washington's ownership of African slaves spanned 56 years of his lifetime.[103] Although troubled by slavery, Washington enjoyed the prosperity it brought him and his family.[326] He often spoke of ending slavery, but never publicly, lest the issue threaten the unity of the new nation.[327] Realizing that slavery was morally unsound and that posterity would judge him harshly as a slavemaster, Washington sought to end the practice.[328]

Prior to 1775 Washington had no qualms about slavery and held traditional views that blacks were an inferior race.[329] During the war, his views on slavery moderated under the influence of anti-slavery aides and officers.[330] He initially forbade Africans from becoming Patriot soldiers, but relented after Governor Dinwiddie freed slaves in Virginia to fight for the British. In January, 1776, Washington allowed blacks to serve in the Continental Army.[331]

There are conflicting reports of slave treatment at Mount Vernon. While one visitor said Washington treated his slaves "far more humanely" than other Virginia slave owners, he also noted that the slaves "work all week, not having a single day for themselves except holidays. One sees by that that the condition of our peasants [in Poland] is infinitely happier."[332][s] Another visitor indicated Washington's neighbors felt that he treated his slaves "with more severity than any other man."[333][t]

Although Washington discouraged cruelty, there are records of harsh punishments, that included whippings, inflicted on male and female slaves by overseers, some of whom were slaves. In some cases runaway slaves were put in shackles.[334][335] When he was president, Washington maintained close supervision of Mount Vernon through letters to his overseers,[336][335] though there is only one account from him authorizing a whipping, given to a slave for badly beating his wife.[337] Washington 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.[338] In severe circumstances, he shipped unruly slaves to the West Indies. He also used non-violent forms of discipline, including "admonition and advise", cash payments, and material incentives.[335]

Washington sometimes personally cared for ill or injured slaves, and provided physicians and mid-wives. By the Revolutionary War he had all his slaves inoculated for smallpox. He ordered his slaves to work from dawn to dusk.[339] While his slaves were often poorly clothed and housed, they were well fed and received two hours off during the work day for meals. They worked shorter days in the winter months, and we’re given time off on Sundays, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.[340][341]

After the war Washington ceased his slavetrading, and supported many slaves too young or too old to work, greatly increasing Mount Vernon's slave population, and causing the plantation to operate at a loss.[342] By 1799, there were 317 slaves living at Mount Vernon; he owned 124 outright, and held 153 for his wife’s dower interest.[103] His manager noticed there were nearly 300 slaves at Mount Vernon, but only 100 needed for profitable operation.[343] At times, Mount Vernon slaves ran away to find freedom, encouraged by Quaker abolitionists.[103][344] Washington used earnest and secretive methods to return them rather than post public advertisements in the North.[345] In 1796, the President privately ordered the capture of his wife's fugitive slave Ona Judge.[344]

During the summer of 1799, he resolved his personal struggle with slaveholding by making a new will, which directed his 124 slaves be freed upon the death of his wife Martha.[346] He was among the few slave-holding Founders to do so.[347] From his death bed, Washington ordered his old 1775 slave will to be burned, reiterating the finality of his new emancipation will.[348] 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 Washington's slaves on January 1, 1801. Historian John Ferling said Washington's will and the freeing of his slaves was "an act of atonement for a lifetime of concurrence in human exploitation."[346]

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.[349] His plantation operations were only minimally profitable.[350] 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. Running a deficit, Washington attempted to sell off these holdings but failed to obtain the price that he desired.[351]

Once in retirement, Washington became an even more committed Federalist. He was vocal in his support of the Alien and Sion Acts, and convinced Federalist John Marshall to run for Congress, to weaken the Jeffersonian hold on Virginia.[352]

Prompted by tensions with France, Washington grew restless of retirement and wrote to Secretary of War James McHenry offering to organize Adams' army.[353] By 1798, when French privateers began seizing U.S. ships, relations with France had deteriorated resulting in the Quasi-War. President 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, a major general, including active leadership of the army. No French army invaded the United States during this period, and Washington did not assume a field command [354][u]

Most Americans assumed that he was rich because of the well-known "glorified façade of wealth and grandeur" at Mount Vernon;[355] nearly all of Washington's wealth was tied up in land and slaves. Historians estimate that this estate was worth about $1 million in 1799 dollars, equivalent to about $19.9 million in 2014.[356]

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. The following day, despite having a sore throat, he again went out in freezing snowy weather to mark trees for cutting. That evening Washington complained of a sore throat and chest congestion, but he remained cheerful. On Saturday morning, Washington 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 his times. His personal physicians[v] were also summoned.[357]

Doctor Brown thought that Washington had "quinsey" or "quincy", while Dick thought that the condition was a more serious "violent inflammation of the throat".[358] When medieval remedies, continued blood-letting (over 80 ounces total), were unsuccessful, Doctor Dick proposed an emergency tracheotomy to save Washington's life. The other two doctors, unfamiliar with the new procedure, disapproved and it was not used.[359] Washington instructed doctors Brown and Dick to stop their attempts to save his life and leave the room, while he assured Doctor Craik, "Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go".[360] Sensing his eminent death, Washington's last instructions were let his body lie three days before entombment, to prevent being buried alive.[361][w]

Washington's illness and later death came swiftly and unexpectedly.[363] With Martha calmly composed at the foot of his bed, at the age of 67, Washington died peacefully without further struggle at home around 10 p.m. on Saturday, December 14, 1799. In his journal, Washington's personal secretary Tobias Lear recorded his last words as "'Tis well." Funeral arrangements were made by Washington's Masonic lodge of Alexandria. When news of Washington's death reached Congress, which was in session, they immediately adjourned for the day, and the next morning the Speaker's chair was shrouded in black.[364]

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, all of whom had served under Washington during the revolution, served as the pallbearers. The Mount Vernon funeral service was restricted mostly to family and friends. Congress chose Henry Lee III to deliver the eulogy, a Continental Army officer and loved by Washington. Word of Washington's death traveled slowly; church-bells rang in the various cities, and many places of business closed when word finally arrived.[365] Throughout much of the world, people admired Washington and were saddened by his death. In the United States, memorial processions were held in major cities. Martha Washington wore a black mourning cape for one year. To protect their privacy, Martha burned the correspondence which they had exchanged; only five letters between the couple are known to have survived, two letters from Martha to George and three from him to her.[366]

Subsequent diagnoses[]

The diagnosis of Washington's illness and the immediate cause of his death have been subjects of debate since the day he died. In the days immediately following his death, Craik and Dick's published account stated that they felt that his symptoms had been consistent with cynanche trachealis, a term of that period used to describe severe inflammation of the structures of the upper airway. Even at that early date, there were accusations of medical malpractice, with some believing that Washington had been bled to death.[359] Various modern medical authors have speculated that Washington probably died from a severe case of epiglottitis complicated by the given treatments (all accepted medical practice in Washington's day), most notably the massive deliberate blood loss, which almost certainly caused hypovolemic shock.[x]


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. The decrepit vault was in need of repair, prompting Washington to leave instructions in his will for the construction of a new vault.[370]

In 1830 a disgruntled ex-employee of the estate attempted to steal Washington's skull.[371] The next year the new vault was constructed at Mount Vernon to receive George and Martha Washington's remains, along with those of other relatives.[372] A joint Congressional committee debated the removal of President Washington's body from Mount Vernon to a crypt in the Capitol in early 1832. The crypt had been built by architect Charles Bulfinch in the 1820s during the reconstruction of the burned-out capital after the British had set it afire in August 1814, during the Burning of Washington. Southern opposition was intense, antagonized by an ever-growing rift between North and South, who were concerned Washington's remains could end up on "a shore foreign to his native soil" should the country become divided.[373]

On October 7, 1837 George Washington's remains, still in the original lead coffin, were placed within a marble sarcophagus designed by William Strickland and constructed by John Struthers earlier that year.[374][375] The sarcophagus was sealed and encased with planks while an outer vault was constructed around it.[374] The outer vault has the sarcophagi of George and Martha Washington, the inner vault has the remains of other Washington family members and relatives.[372]

Historical reputation and legacy[]

The Constable-Hamilton Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

George Washington's legacy endures as one of the most influential in American history, since Washington served as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and a hero of the Revolution, and later as the first President of the United States.[y] Congressman Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, a Revolutionary War comrade, famously eulogized Washington, "First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen".[376] Lee's words became the hallmark by which Washington's overwhelming reputation was impressed upon the American memory, with biographers hailing Washington as the great exemplar of republicanism. He set many precedents for the national government, and the presidency in particular, and as early as 1778 was called the "Father of His Country".[377][z] Congress proclaimed Washington's Birthday a federal holiday in the United States.[379] Describing his personality, biographer Douglas Southall Freeman concluded, "the great big thing stamped across that man is character." By character, says David Hackett Fischer, "Freeman meant integrity, self-discipline, courage, absolute honesty, resolve, and decision, but also forbearance, decency, and respect for others." [380]

Washington became an international icon for liberation and nationalism, as the leader of the first successful revolution against a colonial empire. The Federalists made him the symbol of their party but, for many years, the Jeffersonians continued to distrust his influence and delayed building the Washington Monument.[381] On January 31, 1781, Washington was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[382]

During the United States Bicentennial year, George Washington was posthumously appointed to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States by the congressional joint resolution Public Law 94-479 passed on January 19, 1976, with an effective appointment date of July 4, 1976.[241] This restored his place as the highest-ranking military officer in U.S. history.[aa]

The most popular childhood story about Washington is that he "chopped down" his father's favorite cherry tree and admitted the deed when questioned: "I can't tell a lie, ..."[384] The anecdote was first reported by biographer Parson Weems, based on the posthumous memories of people who knew him as a child.[385] However, Weems never asserted that the tree was actually "chopped down", but that the young Washington instead had merely removed some of the tree bark (called "barking") with his hatchet.[ab] Weems' account of the incident has never been proven or disproven.[387]

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. The state of Washington is the only state to be named after a United States president.[388]

Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln are depicted in stone at the Mount Rushmore Memorial. The Washington Monument was built in his honor and the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia was constructed between 1922 and 1932 with contributions from the Freemasons.[389]

After Washington's death, Congress authorized a memorial in the national capital, but the decision was reversed when the Democratic-Republicans took control of Congress in 1801. The Democratic-Republicans were dismayed that Washington had become the symbol of the Federalist Party.[390] Delayed by politics and funding problems, construction of the 555-foot (169 m) memorial did not begin until 1848. It was not completed until 1885.[391]

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).[392]

Statues, monuments, and sculptures


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).[393] The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799 (1931–44) is a 39 volume set ed by John C. 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.[394] The definitive letterpress ion 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.[395]

George Washington's personal annotated copy of the "Acts Passed at a Congress of the United States of America" from 1789 includes the Constitution of the United States and a draft of the Bill of Rights. It was sold on June 22, 2012, at Christie's for $9,826,500 (with fees added to the final cost) to The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. This was the record for a document sold at auction.[396]

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.[397]

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

Gallery of paintings[]

See also: Gallery of Washington portraits

See also[]


  1. ^ March 4 is the official start of the first presidential term. April 6 is when Congress counted the votes of the Electoral College and certified a president. April 30 is when Washington was sworn in.
  2. ^ Old style: February 11, 1731
  3. ^ Contemporaneous records used the Julian calendar and the Annunciation Style of enumerating years, recording his birth as February 11, 1731. The provisions of the British Calendar (New Style) Act 1750, implemented in 1752, altered the official British dating method to the Gregorian calendar with the start of the year on January 1 (it had been March 25). These changes resulted in dates being moved forward 11 days, and an advance of one year for those between January 1 and March 25. For a further explanation, see Old Style and New Style dates.[2]
  4. ^ Three siblings died before adulthood: sister Mildred at age one, half-brother Butler in infancy, and half-sister Jane at age 12.[8]
  5. ^ Ellis and Ferling, for example, point to his negative experiences dealing with the Continental Congress during the Revolution, and Don Higginbotham places Washington's first formal advocacy of a strong central government in 1783.[75]
  6. ^ There are claims that Washington requested to be baptized again, in the Baptist tradition, by complete submersion in the Delaware River, by a Baptist chaplain, John Gano; but there is no corroborating evidence Gano was then at Valley Forge beyond claims of Gano's family.[80]
  7. ^ In the late 1760's Washington secretly instructed Captain William Crawford, of the Ohio Country, to scout out forbidden lands, beyond the Kings' Royal Proclamation Line.[122]
  8. ^ In a letter of September 20, 1765, Washington protested to Robert Cary & Co. of the low prices he received for his tobacco, and for the inflated prices he was forced to pay on second rate goods from London.[124]
  9. ^ On June 17, 1775, the British took Bunker Hill from the Continental Army, but at a high casualty loss, that deterred the British from future frontal assaults.[134]
  10. ^ In June 1776, Congress initially attempted to direct the war effort with the committee known as "Board of War and Ordnance"; this was succeeded by the Board of War in July 1777, which eventually included members of the military.[150]
  11. ^ This painting has received both acclaim and criticism.[165] See Emanuel Leutze article for details.
  12. ^ Durham Boats were built for the Durham Iron Works to carry iron ore, lumber, or grain on the upper Delaware.[171]
  13. ^ There is no indication that Arnold's decision to betray his countrymen was prompted by the British.[213]
  14. ^ Starting in 1774, fourteen persons served as President of the Continental Congress, but bore no relationship to the presidency established under Article II of the Constitution. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress called its presiding officer "President of the United States in Congress Assembled", but this position had no national executive powers.[250][251]
  15. ^ There has been debate and controversy over whether Washington added "So help me God" to the end of the oath.[257]
  16. ^ Washington wrote to James Madison: "As the first of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent, it is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents be fixed on true principles." Washington to James Madison, May 5, 1789, cited by Unger, 2013, p. 76.
  17. ^ Hamilton's former Treasury assistant, William Duer, had misappropriated $200,000 in Treasury funds that enabled him to speculate on securities, which triggered a financial crisis. Unable to repay the $200,000, Duer was arrested, prosecuted and sent to debtor's prison by the New York District Attorney, with Hamilton's blessing.[279]
  18. ^ Washington refused to run for a third term in 1796, establishing the tradition of two terms for a president, which was solidified by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.[308]
  19. ^ The visitor was Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a Polish noble.
  20. ^ This visitor was Richard Parkinson, an English farmer who lived near Mount Vernon.
  21. ^ He was the only former President who later served as an presidential appointee until 1921, when President Warren G. Harding appointed former President William Howard Taft as Chief Justice of the United States.
  22. ^ Dr. James Craik, Dr. Gustavus Brown and Dr. Elisha Dick
  23. ^ There is discrepancy among historians as to the number of days that lapsed: Betts, 2013, claims two days passed; Chernow, 2010, claims it was three.[362]
  24. ^ Modern experts (including Drs Wallenborn in 1999,[367] Cheatham in 2008, [368] and Vadakan in 2005[369]) have concluded that Washington most probably died from acute bacterial epiglottitis complicated by the administered treatments. These treatments included multiple doses of calomel (a cathartic or purgative), and extensive bloodletting (2.365 total liters of blood taken, almost half of a normal adult's blood volume).
  25. ^ Historians Jay A. Parry and Andrew M. Allison declare that Washington "was the dominant personality in three of the most critical events in that founding: the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, and the first national administration. Had he not served as America's leader in those three events, all three likely would have failed. And America as we know it today would not exist." Parry, 1991, p. xi.
  26. ^ The earliest known image in which Washington is identified as the Father of His Country is in the frontispiece of a 1779 German-language almanac, with calculations by David Rittenhouse and published by Francis Bailey in Lancaster County Pennsylvania. Der Gantz Neue Verbesserte Nord-Americanische Calendar has Fame appearing with an image of Washington holding a trumpet to her lips, from which come the words "Der Landes Vater" (translated as "the father of the country" or "the father of the land").[378]
  27. ^ In Portraits & Biographical Sketches of the United States Army's Senior Officer,[383] William Gardner Bell states that Washington was recalled back into military service from his retirement in 1798, and "Congress passed legislation that would have made him General of the Armies of the United States, but his services were not required in the field and the appointment was not made until the Bicentennial in 1976, when it was bestowed posthumously as a commemorative honor." How many U.S. Army five-star generals have there been and who were they? states that with Public Law 94–479, President Ford specified that Washington would "rank first among all officers of the Army, past and present. "General of the Armies of the United States" is associated with only two people... one being Washington and the other being John J. Pershing.
  28. ^ Weems' actual story, first published in 1806, reads:
    (excerpt) "One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother's pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don't believe the tree ever got the better of it."[386]
  29. ^ (from left to right): George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington, Eleanor Parke Custis, Martha Washington, and an enslaved servant, probably William Lee or Christopher Sheels


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  335. ^ a b c Slave Control.
  336. ^ Chernow 2010, p. 640.
  337. ^ Schenawolf 2015.
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  341. ^ Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, Slave Labor
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  364. ^ Irving 1869, p. 359.
  365. ^ Chernow 2010, pp. 810–811; Betts 2013, pp. 146–149.
  366. ^ Chernow 2010, p. 814.
  367. ^ Wallenborn 1999.
  368. ^ Cheatham 2008.
  369. ^ Vadakan 2005.
  370. ^ Chernow 2010, pp. 810–811.
  371. ^ Craughwell 2009, pp. 77–79.
  372. ^ a b Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, New Tomb
  373. ^ Boorstin 1965, pp. 349–50.
  374. ^ a b Strickland 1840, pp. 11–14.
  375. ^ Carlson 2016, p. chapter one.
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  381. ^ Cunliffe 1958, pp. 24–26.
  382. ^ Willard 2017.
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Book sources

Primary sources

Online sources

External links[]

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