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George Washington

GEORGE WASHINGTON (1732–1799)

George Washington (1732–1799), Marble Statue by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1785–1792. State Artwork Collection, Library of Virginia.

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. When he was just eleven years old, in 1743, his father, Augustine Washington, died. His share of the estate did not leave him with enough resources to continue a life among Virginia's gentry, although he did receive a limited education training as a land surveyor. Washington went to work surveying vast tracts of land claimed by Lord Fairfax in the Northern Neck. Later, in 1748 he received a commission as the official surveyor of Culpeper County.

After the death of his elder half-brother, Lawrence Washington, the younger Washington requested and in 1752 received his brother's post as adjutant general of the colony's militia for the Southern District and later held the post for the Northern Neck and Eastern Shore. In 1757, Washington volunteered to deliver a message from Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie to French forces in the Ohio River Valley to request that they vacate the area claimed by the British. Washington confronted the French again in 1754, only more directly, and the French response resulted in the outbreak of the French and Indian War. While serving in the conflict, Washington gained valuable military experience under the leadership of General Edward Braddock and garnered a reputation for bravery and honesty.

At the conclusion of hostilities in Virginia, Washington turned his attention to his domestic affairs. He retired from the military, married the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis, and the couple settled at his estate, Mount Vernon in Fairfax County. There Washington focused on the management of his farm and enslaved workforce. In 1758 he had been elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses from Frederick County, and he served in that body for sixteen years. In later years he served as a justice for the Fairfax County Court and as a trustee for Alexandria.

As the rumblings of discord arose between American colonists and the British in the 1770s, Washington became a leader in the protest against unfair taxation. He, along with George Mason, drafted the Fairfax Resolves. Washington later supported nonimportation agreements in the first Virginia Convention in Williamsburg, as well as the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, in which he served as a delegate from Virginia. The Fairfax Resolves became the basis of similar nonimportation actions.

Washington also participated in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Because of his prior military experience, as well as his demeanor and the respect he commanded, Washington was nominated and in June 1775 accepted the commission to be commander in chief of the Continental forces. For the next eight years Washington doggedly pursued victory on the battlefield against the British and weathered the added difficulties of fighting a war with too few soldiers and resources. In 1781, Washington received the surrender of the British at Yorktown. He promptly resigned from the position of commander in chief at the official conclusion of hostilities in 1783.

Feeling the need to protect the independence and sovereignty that had been won at such a high cost during the Revolution, Washington again left retirement for public service. In 1787 he attended the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, presiding over the body, in an effort to address the existing problems with the Articles of Confederation. Convinced of the need for a strong central government, Washington supported the effort to revise the Articles but also championed the Constitution that was created by the convention. Returning home, Washington did not participate in the Virginia ratifying convention, but instead used his influence to promote approval of the document. After the U.S. Constitution was ratified by the requisite number of states, Washington was unanimously elected by the Electoral College in 1789 as the first president of the United States and again for a second term beginning in 1793.

Overall, Washington's two terms as president were characterized by a desire to establish a sound and functioning government for the new nation, as well as to leave a lasting example of restrained leadership for future occupants of the presidency. Washington diplomatically negotiated the internal threats to the new nation, such as the Whiskey Rebellion and the growing factionalism between members of his own cabinet, and external discord with Britain and France. His famous Farewell Address of 1797 admonished the leaders who would come behind him to avoid both internal strife and foreign entanglements. Washington died at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799.

Suggested Reading:

Ferling, John E. The First of Men: A Life of George Washington. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988.

Ellis, Joseph. His Excellency George Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Related Links:

Lesson Plan: Land Survey by George Washington