Washington was born on February 22, 1732, at Popes Creek farm in Westmoreland County on the Northern Neck. (By the Julian, or Old Style, calendar, in effect in England until 1752, he was born on February 11.) His father, Augustine Washington, owned nearly 3,000 acres of tobacco land (including the site of Mount Vernon, overlooking the Potomac River) and properties containing iron ore, while managing an iron furnace for an English company. After the death of his first wife, Augustine Washington married Mary Ball, whose first child was George.
When Washington was six his family moved to Ferry Farm, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. His older half-brothers, Lawrence and Austin, studied in England, but the death of Augustine Washington when George was eleven eliminated his chance for schooling abroad. He had an irregular education under different schoolmasters and tutors, and learned the basics of surveying. Many years later, John Adams directed an ungenerous remark at Washington, disparaging the first president as "too illiterate, unread, unlearned for his station." Washington himself admitted to his "consciousness of a defective education."
In 1751, Washington made his only journey outside the continent, traveling to Barbados with Lawrence Washington, who was seeking relief from tuberculosis. There Washington survived a case of smallpox, gaining immunity to a disease that became epidemic during the Revolution. It is often said that this dose of smallpox rendered him sterile, but the only modern medical study of smallpox and male infertility found no correlation between the two.
French and Indian War
Though the French rejected Dinwiddie's ultimatum, Washington returned to Williamsburg with valuable intelligence about the capability of their forces. In 1754 Washington set out with about 140 men for the Forks of the Ohio. In a brief skirmish the Virginians and their Indian allies killed several French soldiers and their commander, Joseph Jumonville, in an incident portrayed as an assassination by the French. The firefight in the woods elated Washington, who wrote to his brother, "I can with truth assure you, I heard Bulletts whistle and believe me there is something charming in the sound." The firefight also ignited the French and Indian War.
This engagement gave rise to the legend that the British had been slaughtered because Braddock refused to take Washington's advice to break ranks and fight as irregulars, "Indian-style." As the historian Edward G. Lengel has pointed out, the disaster resulted not from overly rigid discipline but from the collapse of discipline under fire. "Those who stood in formation like the Virginians," Lengel noted, "had more success in fending off the attackers."
Dinwiddie appointed Washington commander in chief of all militia forces in Virginia with authority over about fifty officers, many of them older and more experienced than Washington. He raised a fresh regiment, established supply lines, and conducted a three-year campaign along a 350-mile frontier defending against, in his words, "the cruel Incursions of a Crafty Savage Enemy." On the frontier, Washington honed the iron discipline that he imposed for the rest of his life on himself and on others. On one occasion he ordered a mass execution of deserters, but relented and hanged only two. He also squabbled with Dinwiddie, whose support he found fickle, and irritated the British chain of command by forcefully pushing his own plans while deriding those of superior officers. As Lengel observes: "Some unattractive facets of Washington's personality arose during the French and Indian War, and they would continue to mark his conduct twenty years later. Highly sensitive and easily hurt, he sometimes overreacted to his military, political, or social failures by lashing out at perceived enemies, or by falling into a despondency that made him yearn for the simplicity of farm life … only action could raise his spirits."
Marriage, Politics, and the Run-Up to War
The couple had no children, but Washington doted on his young stepchildren. Jacky Custis, indolent, willful, and spoiled by his mother, resisted Washington's attempts to instill discipline. Though a poor student, he enrolled at King's College in New York (later Columbia University), but abandoned his schooling to get married. Washington's stepdaughter, Patsy, suffered from epilepsy and succumbed to a seizure in 1773. Her death reduced Martha Washington "to the lowest ebb of Misery."
When Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, imposing a tax on every sheet of official paper and every newspaper, the colonies seethed, but Washington predicted it would be repealed if enough planters and lawyers defied it. If lawyers refused to buy tax stamps to affix to their legal papers, then no papers could be filed and court proceedings would halt, with the heaviest losers being British merchants suing for debts. As Washington had foreseen, the government revoked the Stamp Act when merchants complained that it cost them colonial revenue.
Parliament's enactment of the Townshend Revenue Act in 1767, imposing new levies on colonists, stirred Washington to support a boycott of British goods. The following year a British military force landed in Boston, Massachusetts, to compel compliance with the Townshend Acts. As relations between the colonies and the mother country grew worse, Washington raised the possibility that the inhabitants of America might have to take up arms. In a letter to George Mason in 1769 Washington wrote: "At a time when our lordly Masters in Great Britain will be satisfied with nothing less than the deprication of American freedom, it seems highly necessary that something shou'd be done to avert the stroke and maintain the liberty which we have derived from our Ancestors."
In 1774 Washington predicted that if war with Great Britain broke out, "more blood [would] be spilt [than] history has ever yet furnished instances of in the annals of North America." By the winter of 1775 he was drilling the Fairfax County militia for a possible confrontation. An English traveler wrote that the 150 men under Washington's command made "a formidable appearance." Amid "utmost confusion," the traveler described patriot committees seizing and reading foreign mail, intimidating tradesmen to stop buying British goods, and harassing suspected loyalists, who "have been tarred and feathered, others had their property burnt and destroyed by the populace."
When news reached Virginia in April 1775 that shots had been fired at Lexington and Concord, Washington wrote to his friend George William Fairfax, a loyalist, "you must, undoubtedly, have received an Account of the engagement in the Massachusetts Bay … General [Thomas] Gage [the British commander] acknowledges, that the detachment … was sent out to destroy private property; or, in other Words, to destroy a Magazine which self-preservation obliged the Inhabitants to establish … Unhappy it is … to reflect, that a Brother's Sword has been sheathed in a Brother's breast, and that, the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with Blood or Inhabited by Slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous Man hesitate in his choice?"
Washington traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the Second Continental Congress in May 1775 wearing his military uniform. After the delegates elected him commander in chief on the first ballot, Washington departed for Massachusetts to take charge of the Continental army at Cambridge. In a farewell letter to his wife he said he expected to be home for Christmas. In another letter he wrote, "I am now embarked on a tempestuous ocean, from, whence, perhaps, no friendly harbor is to be found."
After driving the British from Boston, Washington was ordered by Congress to defend New York, where the British landed a powerful invasion force that dealt Washington a disastrous defeat in a series of battles between August and November of 1776. Washington barely escaped with his army into New Jersey. With popular support for the war waning rapidly in the autumn of 1776 and enlistments about to expire, Washington gambled on a bold stroke, crossing the ice-choked Delaware River for a successful surprise attack on the Hessian outpost at Trenton, New Jersey, on December 26. He followed this victory with a thrust at Princeton, New Jersey, on January 3, 1777.
Washington's record as a field commander is decidedly mixed, and scholars still debate his qualities as a general, reflecting disagreements evident in Washington's time. Dissatisfied with Washington's leadership and seeking command for himself, the English-born general Charles Lee proposed to Congress that the army adopt guerrilla tactics. As historian John Shy writes, Lee "sought a war that would use the new light-infantry tactics already in vogue among the military avant-garde of Europe, the same tactics the free men at Lexington and Concord had instinctively employed." To Washington, however, "this was all madness. He never seriously considered resorting to a war of guerrilla bands drawn from the militia … A strategy of that kind would change the war for independence into a genuine civil war with all its grisly attendants—ambush, reprisal, counter-reprisal. It would tear the fabric of American life to pieces."
Washington also faced demands from Congress that he engage the British in a major battle that would quickly decide the war. Washington replied, "we should on all occasions avoid a general action or put anything to the risk, unless compelled by necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn." His aim, he said, was to "protract the war" until the British wearied of it.
In September 1777 the British soundly beat Washington at the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania, an engagement that his biographer Douglas Southall Freeman said Washington conducted "as if he had been in a daze." On October 4, Washington led 8,000 Continentals and 3,000 militia in a surprise attack on 9,000 British regulars camped at Germantown in Pennsylvania, trying to follow a complicated plan of coordinated maneuvers by different columns. But when a dense fog descended, the American units collided and fired on each other. What had promised to be an American victory dissolved into a panic-stricken rout.
Nevertheless, Washington's boldness and determination echoed across the Atlantic. The biographer James Thomas Flexner wrote: "In Europe, it seemed almost inconceivable that an untrained rabble would attack a mighty regular army so effectively and so soon after they had been defeated." In October 1777, American general Horatio Gates captured a British army under General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York—an enormous victory that stunned Europe and helped convince the French to enter the war on the American side the following spring. But in the meantime, Washington and his men had to endure a harrowing winter.
Washington's army emerged from Valley Forge stronger in several respects. Early in the war, Washington had banned all blacks from his army, then very quickly countermanded that order and accepted free blacks in 1776. At Valley Forge, desperate for manpower, Washington gave approval to recruit black troops in Rhode Island. Recognizing the pernicious effects of segregation in a fighting force, he ordered that black and white troops be mixed in the same units: "so arrange and model them, as to level the Regiments … abolish the name and appearance of a Black Corps."
Washington's circle of officers had been augmented the previous summer by the arrival of Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat burning with admiration for the cause of liberty. He was given command of a division of Virginia troops. The Prussian drill master Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge in February. His drills in the battlefield maneuvers of Europe transformed the army, as did fresh rations of food, clothing, and equipment, and the official announcement in May 1778 that France had joined the American side. Steuben's training stiffened the army's discipline and resolve at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, in June 1778. With the Americans fleeing in disorder, Washington exposed himself to enemy fire to rally his retreating troops, extracting a draw from looming defeat. The Battle of Monmouth was the last major engagement in the North as the British shifted their attentions south.
Constitutional Convention and Presidency
Chosen to be president of the convention, Washington occupied, both literally and figuratively, an august position. The historian Max Farrand described Washington as almost a godlike figure: "He sat on a raised platform; in a large, carved, high-backed chair, from which his commanding figure and dignified bearing exerted a potent influence on the assembly." Washington's direct influence on the formation of the Constitution can only be a matter of speculation, because as president of the convention he did not participate in the debates. But there can be little doubt that behind the scenes he exerted his influence to shape a strong central government. Inevitably, a clamor arose for him to become the first president of the newly constituted nation. The office, after all, had been tailored for him specifically. As Pierce Butler of South Carolina said, the delegates at the Constitutional convention had "cast their eyes toward General Washington as President and shaped their ideas of the powers to be given to a President, by their opinions of his virtue."
Washington dreaded assuming the presidency, and his two terms were filled with acrimony and punctuated by civil strife. The British refused to vacate their western forts and instigated Indian assaults on the U.S. frontier. Spain held the Mississippi. The French Revolution (1789–1799) stirred fears of violent mob action on these shores. The national and state governments faced bankruptcy from war debts—debts held largely by wealthy speculators whose interest payments had to be met by taxes that fell largely on farmers and workers, arousing bitter class conflict. A new federal excise tax provoked Pennsylvania's Whiskey Rebellion (1791–1794), an event easy to mischaracterize as a colorful uprising of moonshiners when it was actually an armed backcountry revolt against a crippling levy on a vital agricultural commodity. To suppress the rebellion, Washington called out a military force equal in size to the army he led against the British Crown.
Almost everything he did in office set a precedent. "I walk on untrodden ground," Washington wrote. "There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent." Respecting the separation of powers, he refrained from meddling in the legislative process and used his veto only twice. He guarded executive power, refusing a congressional request to share diplomatic instructions, declaring them to be privileged communications of the president. To grant Congress the right to examine "all the Papers respecting a negotiation with a foreign power, would be to establish a dangerous precedent."
For his secretaries of war, state, and the treasury, the president appointed Henry Knox, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson, who came to lead a party known as the Republicans, opposed Washington's core philosophy of strong central government, while Hamilton—the emblematic Federalist—championed it, along with fiscal policies anathema to Jefferson, such as a national bank. Jefferson reviled Hamilton as a crypto-monarchist and a tool of the British. In the conflict between these two brilliant men, Washington sided with Hamilton, prompting Jefferson to spread stories of a wily Hamilton manipulating an increasingly senile president.
Despite Washington's great popularity, the seeds of Jefferson's 1800 electoral triumph were planted during Washington's administration, when a grassroots democratic movement sprang up in opposition to the Federalists, who unabashedly promoted rule by an educated, propertied elite. Always claiming to be above partisanship and portraying himself as the disinterested champion of American unity, Washington nonetheless stood at the head of a partisan faction destined to be rejected in 1800 by a deeply divided electorate. Jefferson lost the election of 1796 to the Federalist vice president, John Adams, very narrowly.
During his long absences on public service, a constant stream of letters carried his detailed instructions to Mount Vernon's farm managers. Like Thomas Jefferson, another presidential plantation owner, Washington tried to manage from a distance, retaining an almost photographic mental image of his properties. In the 1780s Washington was so desperately short of cash that he could not pay his taxes and had to borrow money to get to his first inauguration in New York. Hordes of unwanted guests and curiosity seekers descended on him after the war and his presidency, imposing enormous expenses. Even though cash remained short, with his substantial landholdings Washington was unquestionably very wealthy.
Washington died on December 14, 1799, from an acute throat infection that occluded his windpipe, causing a slow death. His final day was agonizing: "I die hard," he murmured, "but I am not afraid to go." On his deathbed he looked over two wills he had written. One he ordered burned; the will he chose to execute contained a long, detailed clause that freed all his slaves. He was laid to rest in a temporary tomb and then moved to an imposing above-ground mausoleum at Mount Vernon, where his wife and other family members would also lie. Martha Washington refused requests to have him buried in the national capital.
Hailed in a eulogy as "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," George Washington retains his place as the preeminent Founding Father. Born in Virginia, he transcended sectional divides and interests, acquiring a national perspective that made him the agent and the symbol of the American union, the "indispensable man," as one biographer called him, in the formation of the United States.
February 22, 1732 - George Washington is born at Popes Creek farm in Westmoreland County on the Northern Neck, the son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington. By the Julian, or Old Style, calendar, in effect in England until 1752, Washington is born on February 11.
1748 - At the age of sixteen, George Washington accompanies surveyors working for William Fairfax on a month-long trek through the Shenandoah Valley.
1751 - George Washington makes his only journey outside North America, traveling to Barbados with his elder half-brother Lawrence Washington, who is seeking relief from tuberculosis. While in Barbados, Washington survives a case of smallpox, granting him a lifelong immunity to the disease.
November 6, 1752 - Virginia lieutenant governor Robert Dinwiddie appoints George Washington a district adjutant of the Virginia militia, with the rank of major.
October 31, 1753 - Virginia lieutenant governor Robert Dinwiddie dispatches George Washington, with only six frontiersmen at his side, to demand the departure of a French military force in the Ohio country, a region claimed by Britain.
July 3–4, 1754 - French forces under Louis Coulon de Villiers and their Indian allies defeat Virginia militia under George Washington and British regulars under James Mackay at the Battle of Fort Necessity in present-day Fayette County, Pennsylvania.
July 9, 1755 - At the Battle of Monongahela in Pennsylvania during the French and Indian War, George Washington acquits himself bravely even as French forces decisively rout the British, killing their commander, General Edward Braddock.
July 24, 1758 - On his third attempt at public office, George Washington is elected to the House of Burgesses, representing Frederick County in the Shenandoah Valley.
January 6, 1759 - George Washington and Martha Dandridge Custis marry at a Custis house on the Pamunkey River. Custis is the widow of Daniel Parke Custis and brings to the marriage his large estate and her two children.
February 10, 1763 - Great Britain, France, and Spain sign the Treaty of Paris, ending the Seven Years' War, known in North America as the French and Indian War.
April 5, 1764 - Parliament passes the Sugar Act, which imposes new taxes on mainland imports, and increases the authority of vice admiralty courts to hand down decisions regarding customs violations without a jury.
March 22, 1765 - Parliament passes the "Duties in American Colonies Act 1765," better known as the Stamp Act, a piece of legislation introduced by George Grenville, the British prime minister. It requires all printed materials in the American colonies to be produced on specially stamped paper manufactured in London, England.
March 18, 1766 - Parliament passes the Declatory Act, asserting its authority to make binding law for the American colonies.
June 29, 1767 - Parliament passes the Townshend Revenue Act, which taxes goods imported to the American colonies, such as paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea.
October 1768 - A British military force lands in Boston, Massachusetts, to compel compliance with the Townshend Acts, a series of taxes on goods imported into the American colonies.
September 5–October 26, 1774 - The First Continental Congress meets at Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Fifty-six representatives of twelve of the thirteen English colonies in North America debate the means by which to protest British taxation.
July 3, 1775 - George Washington takes command of the Continental army at Cambridge, Massachusetts. The army numbers 14,000 men instead of the 20,000 Washington expects.
December 25–26, 1776 - After crossing the Delaware River by night, George Washington and the Continental army attack and defeat Hessian forces under the command of Johann Rall at Trenton, New Jersey.
December 1777–June 1778 - The Continental army, under the command of George Washington, encamps for the winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
June 28, 1778 - The Continental army, under the command of George Washington, battles British forces under Sir Henry Clinton at Monmouth Court House, New Jersey.
October 19, 1781 - Combined American and French forces compel the surrender of a British army under Charles Cornwallis, first marquess Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, ending the major fighting in the Revolutionary War.
December 23, 1783 - George Washington presents his resignation as commander in chief of the Continental army to Congress in Annapolis, Maryland.
August 1786 - Shays' Rebellion, an armed revolt by debt-stricken farmers, begins in Massachusetts.
May 25, 1787 - The Constitutional Convention, convened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, elects George Washington to preside over its proceedings.
September 13, 1788 - The Continental Congress passes a resolution putting the newly ratified United States Constitution into effect.
April 30, 1789 - George Washington is inaugurated the first president of the United States at Federal Hall in New York City. Robert Livingston, the chancellor, or highest judicial officer, of New York, administers the oath of office.
December 5, 1792 - George Washington is, for the second time, unanimously elected president of the United States by electors chosen by votes of individual state assemblies.
March 4, 1793 - George Washington is inaugurated for a second term as president of the United States in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. William Cushing, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, administers the oath of office.
September 19, 1796 - "The Address of General Washington to the People of the United States" in published in David C. Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. George Washington's farewell address explains his reasons for quitting the presidency after two terms.
March 4, 1797 - George Washington's second term as U.S. president ends and he retires from public life.
December 14, 1799 - George Washington dies at Mount Vernon after a short illness.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wiencek, H. George Washington (1732–1799). (2014, June 5). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/George_Washington_1732-1799.
- MLA Citation:
Wiencek, Henry. "George Washington (1732–1799)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 5 Jun. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: October 27, 2011 | Last modified: June 5, 2014