George Washington

George Washington (1732-1799) was commander in chief of the American and French forces in the American Revolution and became the first president of the United States.

George Washington was born at Bridges Creek, later known as Wakefield, in Westmoreland County, Va., on Feb. 22, 1732. His father died when George was eleven years old, and the boy spent the next few years with his mother at Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, with relatives in Westmoreland, and with his half brother at Mount Vernon. By the time he was 16 he had a rudimentary education, studying mathematics, surveying, reading, and the usual subjects of his day. In 1749 Washington was appointed county surveyor, and his experience on the frontier led to his appointment as a major in the Virginia militia in 1752.

French and Indian War

Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie appointed the 21-year-old Washington to warn the French moving into the Ohio Valley against encroaching on English territory. Washington published the results of this expedition, including the French rejection of the ultimatum, in the Journal of Major George Washington … (1754). Dinwiddie then commissioned Washington a lieutenant colonel with orders to dislodge the French at Ft. Duquesne, but a superior French force bested the Virginia troops. This conflict triggered the French and Indian War, and Great Britain dispatched regular troops under Gen. Edward Braddock in 1755 to oust the French. Braddock appointed Washington as aide-de-camp.

Later in the year, after Braddock's death, Dinwiddie promoted Washington to colonel and made him commander in chief of all Virginia troops. Throughout 1756 and 1757 Washington pursued a defensive policy, fortifying the frontier with stockades, recruiting men, and establishing discipline. In 1758, with the title of brigadier, he accompanied British regulars on the campaign that forced the French to abandon Ft. Duquesne. With the threat of frontier violence removed, Washington resigned his commission, soon married the widow Martha Custis, and devoted himself to life at Mount Vernon.

Washington took seriously his role of stepfather and guardian of Martha's two children; it was his duty, he wrote, to be "generous and attentive, " and he was. His stepdaughter's death at 17 was an emotional shock to him. When his stepson died in 1781, after serving in the Virginia militia at Yorktown, Washington virtually adopted two of his four children.

Early Political Career

Washington inherited local prominence from his family, just as he inherited property and social position. His grandfather and great-grandfather had been justices of the peace, a powerful county position in 18th-century Virginia, and his father had served as sheriff and church warden, as well as justice of the peace. His half brother Lawrence had been a representative from Fairfax County, and George Washington's entry into politics was based on an alliance with the family of Lawrence's father-in-law, Lord Fairfax.

Washington was elected as a representative to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758 from Frederick County. From 1760 to 1774 he served as a justice of Fairfax County, and he was a longtime vestryman of Truro parish. His experience on the county court and in the colonial legislature molded his views on Parliamentary taxation of the Colonies after 1763. He opposed the Stamp Act in 1765, arguing that Parliament "hath no more right to put their hands into my pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into yours for money." As a member of the colonial legislature, he backed nonimportation as a means of reversing British policy in the 1760s, and in 1774 he attended the rump session of the dissolved Assembly, which called for a Continental Congress to take united colonial action against the Boston Port Bill and other "Intolerable Acts" directed against Massachusetts.

In July 1774 Washington presided at the county meeting which adopted the Fairfax Resolves, which he had helped write. These resolves influenced the adoption of the Continental Association, the plan devised by the First Continental Congress for enforcing nonimportation of British goods. They also proposed the creation in each county of a militia company independent of the royal governor's control, the idea from which the Continental Army developed. By May 1775 Washington, who headed the Fairfax militia company, had been chosen to command the companies of six other counties. The only man in uniform when the Second Continental Congress met after the battles of Lexington and Concord, he was elected unanimously as commander in chief of all Continental Army forces. From June 15, 1775, until Dec. 23, 1783, he commanded the Continental Army and, after the French alliance of 1778, the combined forces of the United States and France in the War of Independence against Great Britain.

Revolutionary Years

Throughout the Revolutionary years Washington developed military leadership, administrative skills, and political acumen, functioning from 1775 to 1783 as the de facto chief executive of the United States. His wartime experiences gave him a continental outlook, and his Circular Letter to the States in June 1783 made it clear that he favored a strong central government.

Washington returned to Mount Vernon at the end of the Revolution. "I have not only retired from all public employments, " he wrote his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, "but I am retiring within myself." But there was little time for sitting "under the shadow of my own vine and my own fig tree." He kept constantly busy with farming, western land interests, and navigation of the Potomac. Finally, Washington presided at the Federal Convention in 1787 and supported ratification of the Constitution in order to "establish good order and government and to render the nation happy at home and respected abroad."

First American President

The position of president of the United States seemed shaped by the Federal Convention on the assumption that Washington would be the first to occupy the office. In a day when executive power was suspect—when the creation of the presidency, as Alexander Hamilton observed in The Federalist, was "attended with greater difficulty" than perhaps any other—the Constitution established an energetic and independent chief executive. Pierce Butler, one of the Founding Fathers, noted that the convention would not have made the executive powers so great "had not many of the members cast their eyes toward General Washington as President, and shaped their ideas of the Powers to be given a President, by their opinions of his Virtue."

After his unanimous choice as president in 1789, Washington helped translate the new constitution into a workable instrument of government: the Bill of Rights was added, as he suggested, out of "reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen"; an energetic executive branch was established, with the executive departments—State, Treasury, and War—evolving into an American Cabinet; the Federal judiciary was inaugurated; and the congressional taxing power was utilized to pay the Revolutionary War debt and to establish American credit at home and abroad.

As chief executive, Washington consulted his Cabinet on public policy, presided over their differences— especially those between Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton— with a forbearance that indicated his high regard for his colleagues, and he made up his mind after careful consideration of alternatives. He approved the Federalist financial program and the later Hamiltonian proposals—funding of the national debt, assumption of the state debts, the establishment of a Bank of the United States, the creation of a national coinage system, and an excise tax. He supported a national policy for disposition of the public lands and presided over the expansion of the Federal union from eleven states (North Carolina and Rhode Island ratified the Constitution after Washington's inaugural) to 16 (Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee were admitted between 1791 and 1796). Washington's role as presidential leader was of fundamental importance in winning support for the new government's domestic and foreign policies. "Such a Chief Magistrate, " Fisher Ames noted, "appears like the pole star in a clear sky….His Presidency will form an epoch and be distinguished as the Age of Washington."

Despite his unanimous election, Washington expected that the measures of his administration would meet opposition, and they did. By the end of his first term the American party system was developing. When he mentioned the possibility of retirement in 1792, therefore, both Hamilton and Jefferson agreed that he was "the only man in the United States who possessed the confidence of the whole" and "no other person … would be thought anything more than the head of a party." "North and South, " Jefferson urged, "will hang together if they have you to hang on."

Creation of a Foreign Policy

Washington's second term was dominated by foreign-policy considerations. Early in 1793 the French Revolution became the central issue in American politics when France, among other actions, declared war on Great Britain and appointed "Citizen" Edmond Genet minister to the United States. Determined to keep "our people in peace, " Washington issued a neutrality proclamation, although the word "neutrality" was not used. His purpose, Washington told Patrick Henry, was "to keep the United States free from political connections with every other country, to see them independent of all and under the influence of none. In a word, I want an American character, that the powers of Europe may be convinced we act for ourselves and not for others."

Citizen Genet, undeterred by the proclamation of neutrality, outfitted French privateers in American ports and organized expeditions against Florida and Louisiana. For his undiplomatic conduct, the Washington administration requested and obtained his recall. In the midst of the Genet affair, Great Britain initiated a blockade of France and began seizing neutral ships trading with the French West Indies. Besides violating American neutral rights, the British still held posts in the American Northwest, and the Americans claimed that they intrigued with the Indians against the United States.

Frontier provocations, ship seizures, and impressment made war seem almost inevitable in 1794, but Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to negotiate a settlement of the differences between the two nations. Although Jay's Treaty was vastly unpopular—the British agreed to evacuate the Northwest posts but made no concessions on neutral rights or impressment—Washington finally accepted it as the best treaty possible at that time. The treaty also paved the way for Thomas Pinckney's negotiations with Spanish ministers, now fearful of an Anglo-American entente against Spain in the Western Hemisphere. Washington happily signed Pinckney's Treaty, which resolved disputes over navigation of the Mississippi, the Florida boundary, and neutral rights.

While attempting to maintain peace with Great Britain in 1794, the Washington administration had to meet the threat of domestic violence in western Pennsylvania. The Whiskey Rebellion, a reaction against the first Federal excise tax, presented a direct challenge to the power of the Federal government to enforce its laws. After a Federal judge certified that ordinary judicial processes could not deal with the opposition to the laws, Washington called out 12, 000 state militiamen "to support our government and laws" by crushing the rebellion. The resistance quickly melted, and Washington showed that force could be tempered with clemency by pardoning the insurgents.

Washington's Contributions

Nearly all observers agree that Washington's 8 years as president demonstrated that executive power was completely consistent with the genius of republican government. Putting his prestige on the line in an untried office under an untried constitution, Washington was fully aware, as he pointed out in his First Inaugural Address, that "the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."

Perhaps Washington's chief strength—the key to his success as a military and a political leader—was his realization that in a republic the executive, like all other elected representatives, would have to measure his public acts against the temper of public opinion. As military commander dealing with the Continental Congress and the state governments during the Revolution, Washington had realized the importance of administrative skills as a means of building public support of the army. As president, he applied the same skills to win support for the new Federal government.

Despite Washington's abhorrence of factionalism, his administrations and policies spurred the beginnings of the first party system. This ultimately identified Washington, the least partisan of presidents, with the Federalist party, especially after Jefferson's retirement from the Cabinet in 1793. Washington's Farewell Address, though it was essentially a last will and political testament to the American people, inevitably took on political coloration in an election year. Warning against the divisiveness of excessive party spirit, which tended to separate Americans politically as "geographical distinctions" did sectionally, he stressed the necessity for an American character free of foreign attachments. Two-thirds of his address dealt with domestic politics and the baleful influence of party; the rest of the document laid down a statement of firs principles of American foreign policy. But even here, Washington's warning against foreign entanglements was especially applicable to foreign interference in the domestic affairs of the United States.

His Retirement

Washington's public service did not end with his retirement from the presidency. During the "half war" with France, President John Adams appointed him commander in chief, and Washington accepted with the understanding that he would not take field command until the troops had been recruited and equipped. Since Adams settled the differences with France by diplomatic negotiations, Washington never assumed actual command. He continued to reside at Mount Vernon, where he died on Dec. 14, 1799, after contracting a throat infection.

At the time of Washington's death, Congress unanimously adopted a resolution to erect a marble monument in the nation's capital "to commemorate the great events of his military and political life"; Congress also directed that "the family of General Washington be requested to permit his body to be deposited under it." The Washington Monument was finally completed in 1884, but Washington's remains were never moved there.

Further Reading on George Washington

The most thorough biography of Washington is Douglas Southall Freeman's monumental six-volume George Washington, completed in a seventh volume by John A. Carroll and Mary Wells Ashworth (1948-1957). The one-volume condensation of Freeman's work by Richard Harwell (1968) offers a well-rounded portrait of Washington as a person and as a public figure. Another major work is the splendidly written study by James Thomas Flexner, George Washington (1965-1972).

The best brief surveys are Esmond Wright, Washington and the American Revolution (1957); Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington: Man and Monument (1958); and James Morton Smith, ed., George Washington: A Profile (1969), a group of essays by 11 historians. Assessments of Washington by contemporaries and by historians appear in Morton Borden, comp., George Washington (1969). For details on the first presidential elections see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971).

Recommended for general historical background are Merrill Jensen, The New Nation: A History of the United States during the Confederation, 1781-1789 (1950), John C. Miller, Federalist Era, 1789-1801 (1960); and John Richard Alden, A History of the American Revolution (1969).