1732-02-22 to 1779-12-14
U.S.George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799) was an American political leader, military general, statesman, and Founding Father who served as the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797. Previously, he led Patriot forces to victory in the nation's War for Independence. He presided at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which established the U.S. Constitution and a federal government. Washington has been called the "Father of His Country" for his manifold leadership in the formative days of the new nation.
Washington's great-grandfather John Washington immigrated in 1656 from Sulgrave, England, to the British Colony of Virginia where he accumulated 5,000 acres (2,000 ha) of land, including Little Hunting Creek on the Potomac River.
Washington did not have the formal education his elder brothers received at Appleby Grammar School in England, but he did learn mathematics, trigonometry, and land surveying. He was a talented draftsman and map-maker. By early adulthood he was writing with "considerable force" and "precision", however his writing displayed little wit or humor. In pursuit of admiration, status, and power, he tended to attribute his shortcomings and failures to someone else's ineffectually.
Washington often visited Mount Vernon and Belvoir, the plantation that belonged to Lawrence's father-in-law William Fairfax. Fairfax became Washington's patron and surrogate father, and Washington spent a month in 1748 with a team surveying Fairfax's Shenandoah Valley property.
He received a surveyor's license the following year from the College of William & Mary; Fairfax appointed him surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia, and he thus familiarized himself with the frontier region, resigning from the job in 1750.
In 1751 Washington made his only trip abroad when he accompanied Lawrence (older half-brother) to Barbados, hoping the climate would cure his brother's tuberculosis. Washington contracted smallpox during that trip, which immunized him but left his face slightly scarred.
Washington set out for the Forks with half the regiment in April but soon learned a French force of 1,000 had begun construction of Fort Duquesne there. In May, having set up a defensive position at Great Meadows, he learned that the French had made camp seven miles (11 km) away; he decided to take the offensive.
The Battle of Jumonville Glen, also known as the Jumonville affair, was the opening battle of the French and Indian War, fought on May 28, 1754, near present-day Hopwood and Uniontown in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. A company of colonial militia from Virginia under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, and a small number of Mingo warriors led by Tanacharison (also known as "Half King"), ambushed a force of 35 Canadiens under the command of Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville.
The full Virginia Regiment joined Washington at Fort Necessity the following month with news that he had been promoted to command of the regiment and to colonel upon the death of the regimental commander. The regiment was reinforced by an independent company of 100 South Carolinians led by Captain James Mackay, whose royal commission outranked that of Washington, and a conflict of command ensued. On July 3, a French force attacked with 900 men, and the ensuing battle (Battle of Fort Necessity) ended in Washington's surrender. In the aftermath, Colonel James Innes took command of intercolonial forces, the Virginia Regiment was divided, and Washington was offered a captaincy which he refused, with resignation of his commission.
In 1755, Washington served voluntarily as an aide to General Edward Braddock, who led a British expedition to expel the French from Fort Duquesne and the Ohio Country. On Washington's recommendation, Braddock split the army into one main column and a lightly equipped "flying column". Suffering from a severe case of dysentery, Washington was left behind, and when he rejoined Braddock at Monongahela the French and their Indian allies ambushed the divided army. The British suffered two-thirds casualties, including the mortally wounded Braddock. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage, Washington, still very ill, rallied the survivors and formed a rear guard, allowing the remnants of the force to disengage and retreat. During the engagement he had two horses shot from under him, and his hat and coat were bullet-pierced. His conduct under fire redeemed his reputation among critics of his command in the Battle of Fort Necessity, but he was not included by the succeeding commander (Colonel Thomas Dunbar) in planning subsequent operations.
Washington, impatient for an offensive against Fort Duquesne, was convinced Braddock would have granted him a royal commission, and pressed his case in February 1756 with Braddock's successor, William Shirley, and again in January 1757 with Shirley's successor, Lord Loudoun. Shirley ruled in Washington's favor only in the matter of Dagworthy; Loudoun humiliated Washington, refused him a royal commission and agreed only to relieve him of the responsibility of manning Fort Cumberland.
In 1758, the Virginia Regiment was assigned to Britain's Forbes Expedition to take Fort Duquesne. Washington disagreed with General John Forbes' tactics and chosen route. Forbes nevertheless made Washington a brevet brigadier general and gave him command of one of the three brigades that would assault the fort. The French abandoned the fort and the valley before the assault was launched; Washington saw only a friendly-fire incident which left 14 dead and 26 injured. The war lasted another four years, but Washington resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon.
On January 6, 1759, Washington, at age 26, married Martha Dandridge Custis, the 28-year-old widow of wealthy plantation owner Daniel Parke Custis. The marriage took place at Martha's estate; she was intelligent, gracious, and experienced in managing a planter's estate, and the couple created a happy marriage.
Washington played a central role before and during the American Revolution. His disdain for the British military had begun when he was abashedly passed over for promotion into the Regular Army. Opposed to taxes imposed by the British Parliament on the Colonies without proper representation, He and other colonists were also angered by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which banned American settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains and protected the British fur trade.
Washington helped lead widespread protests against the Townshend Acts passed by Parliament in 1767, and he introduced a proposal in May 1769 drafted by George Mason which called Virginians to boycott English goods; the Acts were mostly repealed in 1770.
Parliament sought to punish Massachusetts colonists for their role in the Boston Tea Party in 1774 by passing the Coersive Acts, which Washington referred to as "an invasion of our rights and privileges". He said Americans must not submit to acts of tyranny since "custom and use shall make us as tame and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway". That July, he and George Mason drafted a list of resolutions for the Fairfax County committee which Washington chaired, and the committee adopted the Fairfax Resolves calling for a Continental Congress.
Early in 1775, in response to the growing rebellious movement, London sent British troops, commanded by General Thomas Gage, to occupy Boston. They set up fortifications about the city, making it impervious to attack. Various local militias surrounded the city and effectively trapped the British, resulting in a standoff.
The colonists were divided over breaking away from British rule and split into two factions: Patriots who rejected British rule, and Loyalists who desired to remain subject to the King. General Thomas Gage was commander of British forces in America at the beginning of the war. Upon hearing the shocking news of the onset of war, Washington was "sobered and dismayed", and he hastily departed Mount Vernon on May 4, 1775, to join the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
Congress created the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, and Samuel and John Adams nominated Washington to become its commander in chief. Washington was chosen over John Hancock because of his military experience and the belief that a Virginian would better unite the colonies. He was considered an incisive leader who kept his "ambition in check". He was unanimously elected commander in chief by Congress the next day.
Congress appointed Washington "General & Commander in chief of the army of the United Colonies and of all the forces raised or to be raised by them", and instructed him to take charge of the siege of Boston on June 22, 1775.
He was commissioned on June 19 and was roundly praised by Congressional delegates, including John Adams, who proclaimed that he was the man best suited to lead and unite the colonies.
In June 1775, Congress ordered an invasion of Canada. It was led by Benedict Arnold, who, despite Washington's strong objection, drew volunteers from the latter's force during the Siege of Boston. The move on Quebec failed, with the American forces being reduced to less than half and forced to retreat.
Congress chose his primary staff officers, including Major General Artemas Ward, Adjutant General Horatio Gates, Major General Charles Lee, Major General Philip Schuyler, Major General Nathanael Greene, Colonel Henry Knox, and Colonel Alexander Hamilton. Washington was impressed by Colonel Benedict Arnold and gave him responsibility for invading Canada. He also engaged French and Indian War compatriot Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. Henry Knox impressed Adams with ordnance knowledge, and Washington promoted him to colonel and chief of artillery.
Upon arrival on July 2, 1775, two weeks after the Patriot defeat at nearby Bunker Hill, he set up his Cambridge, Massachusetts headquarters and inspected the new army there, only to find an undisciplined and badly outfitted militia.
Washington initially protested enlistment of slaves in the Continental Army, but later he relented when the British emancipated and used theirs. On January 16, 1776, Congress allowed free blacks to serve in the militia. By the end of the war one-tenth of Washington's army were blacks.
The Continental Army, further diminished by expiring short-term enlistments, and by January 1776 reduced by half to 9,600 men, had to be supplemented with militia, and was joined by Knox with heavy artillery captured from Fort Ticonderoga.
On March 17, 9,000 British troops and Loyalists began a chaotic ten-day evacuation of Boston aboard 120 ships. Soon after, Washington entered the city with 500 men, with explicit orders not to plunder the city. He ordered vaccinations against smallpox to great effect, as he did later in Morristown, New Jersey.
Washington then proceeded to New York City, arriving on April 13, 1776, and began constructing fortifications there to thwart the expected British attack. He ordered his occupying forces to treat civilians and their property with respect, to avoid the abuse suffered by civilians in Boston at the hands of British troops.
Howe's troop strength totaled 32,000 regulars and Hessians, and Washington's consisted of 23,000, mostly raw recruits and militia. In August, Howe landed 20,000 troops at Gravesend, Brooklyn, and approached Washington's fortifications, as King George III proclaimed the rebellious American colonists to be traitors.
Howe's pursuit forced Washington to retreat across the Hudson River to Fort Lee to avoid encirclement. Howe landed his troops on Manhattan in November and captured Fort Washington, inflicting high casualties on the Americans. Washington was responsible for delaying the retreat, though he blamed Congress and General Greene. Loyalists in New York considered Howe a liberator and spread a rumor that Washington had set fire to the city. Patriot morale reached its lowest when Lee was captured.
Washington crossed the Delaware River at sunset on Christmas Day, December 25, 1776, and risked capture staking out the Jersey shoreline. His men followed across the ice-obstructed river in sleet and snow at McKonkey's Ferry, with 40 men per vessel. Wind churned up the waters, and they were pelted with hail, but by 3:00 a.m. they made it across with no losses.
In July 1777, British General John Burgoyne led the Saratoga campaign south from Quebec through Lake Champlain and recaptured Fort Ticonderoga with the objective of dividing New England, including control of the Hudson River. But General Howe in British-occupied New York blundered, taking his army south to Philadelphia rather than up the Hudson River to join Burgoyne near Albany.
Howe outmaneuvered Washington at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, and marched unopposed into the nation's capital at Philadelphia. A Patriot attack failed against the British at Germantown in October. Major General Thomas Conway prompted some members of Congress (referred to as the Conway Cabal) to consider removing Washington from command because of the losses incurred at Philadelphia. Washington's supporters resisted and the matter was finally dropped after much deliberation. Once exposed, Conway wrote an apology to Washington, resigned, and returned to France.
On October 7, 1777, Burgoyne tried to take Bemis Heights but was isolated from support by Howe. He was forced to retreat to Saratoga and ultimately surrendered after the Battles of Saratoga. As Washington suspected, Gates' victory emboldened his critics.
Washington's army of 11,000 went into winter quarters at Valley Forge north of Philadelphia in December 1777. They suffered between 2,000 and 3,000 deaths in extreme cold over six months, mostly from disease and lack of food, clothing, and shelter.
Washington became "America's first spymaster" by designing an espionage system against the British. In 1778, Major Benjamin Tallmadge formed the Culper Ring at Washington's direction to covertly collect information about the British in New York. Washington had disregarded incidents of disloyalty by Benedict Arnold, who had distinguished himself in many battles.
In late 1778, General Clinton shipped 3,000 troops from New York to Georgia and launched a Southern invasion against Savannah, reinforced by 2,000 British and Loyalist troops. They repelled an attack by Patriots and French naval forces, which bolstered the British war effort.
Washington's army went into winter quarters at New Windsor, New York in December 1780, and Washington urged Congress and state officials to expedite provisions in hopes that the army would not "continue to struggle under the same difficulties they have hitherto endured".
By late September, Patriot-French forces completely surrounded Yorktown, trapped the British army, and prevented British reinforcements from Clinton in the North, while the French Navy was victorious at the Battle of the Chesapeake. The final American offensive was begun with a shot fired by Washington.
The Siege of Yorktown, Virginia was a decisive allied victory by the combined forces of the Continental Army commanded by General Washington, the French Army commanded by the General Comte de Rochambeau, and the French Navy commanded by Admiral de Grasse, in the defeat of Cornwallis' British forces. On August 19, the march to Yorktown led by Washington and Rochambeau began, which is known now as the "celebrated march". Washington was in command of an army of 7,800 Frenchmen, 3,100 militia, and 8,000 Continentals. Lacking in experience in siege warfare, Washington often deferred judgment to Rochambeau, effectively putting him in command; however, Rochambeau never challenged Washington's authority.
After the surrender at Yorktown a situation developed that threatened relations between the new American nation and Britain. Following a series of retributive executions between Patriots and Loyalists, Washington, on May 18, 1782, wrote in a letter to General Moses Hazen that a British Captain would be executed for the execution of Joshua Huddy a popular patriot leader among volunteers, who was hung at the direction of Loyalist Captain Lippincott. Washington wanted Lippincott himself to be executed but was declined.
Subsequently, Charles Asgill was chosen instead, by a drawing of lots from a hat. This was a violation of the 14th article of the Yorktown Articles of Capitulation, which protected prisoners of war from acts of retaliation. Later, Washington's feelings on matters changed and in a letter of November 13, 1782, to Asgill, he acknowledged Asgill's letter and situation, expressing his desire not to see any harm come to him. After much consideration between the Continental Congress, Alexander Hamilton, Washington, and appeals from the French Crown, Asgill was finally released, where Washington issued Asgill a pass that allowed his passage to New York.
Before returning to private life in June 1783, Washington called for a strong union. Though he was concerned that he might be criticized for meddling in civil matters, he sent a circular letter to all the states maintaining that the Articles of Confederation was no more than "a rope of sand" linking the states. He believed the nation was on the verge of "anarchy and confusion", was vulnerable to foreign intervention and that a national constitution would unify the states under a strong central government.
Washington advised Congress in August 1783 to keep a standing army, create a "national militia" of separate state units, and establish a navy and a national military academy. He circulated his "Farewell" orders that discharged his troops, whom he called "one patriotic band of brothers". Before his return to Mount Vernon, he oversaw the evacuation of British forces in New York and was greeted by parades and celebrations, where he announced that Knox had been promoted commander-in-chief.
Washington resigned as commander-in-chief once the Treaty of Paris was signed, and he planned to retire to Mount Vernon. The treaty was ratified in April 1783, and Hamilton's Congressional committee adapted the army for peacetime. Washington gave the Army's perspective to the Committee in his Sentiments on a Peace Establishment. The Treaty was signed on September 3, 1783, and Great Britain officially recognized the independence of the United States. Washington then disbanded his army, giving an eloquent farewell address to his soldiers on November 2.
Washington was longing to return home after spending just 10 days at Mount Vernon out of 8 1⁄2 years of war. He arrived on Christmas Eve, delighted to be "free of the bustle of a camp and the busy scenes of public life". He was a celebrity and was fêted during a visit to his mother at Fredericksburg in February 1784, and he received a constant stream of visitors wishing to pay their respects to him at Mount Vernon.
Some nationalists feared that the new republic had descended into lawlessness, and they met together on September 11, 1786, at Annapolis to ask Congress to revise the Articles of Confederation. One of their biggest efforts, however, was getting Washington to attend.
On December 4, 1786, Washington was chosen to lead the Virginia delegation, but he declined on December 21. He had concerns about the legality of the convention and consulted James Madison, Henry Knox, and others. They persuaded him to attend it, however, as his presence might induce reluctant states to send delegates and smooth the way for the ratification process.
Washington arrived in Philadelphia on May 9, 1787, though a quorum was not attained until Friday, May 25. Benjamin Franklin nominated Washington to preside over the convention, and he was unanimously elected to serve as president general. The convention's state-mandated purpose was to revise the Articles of Confederation with "all such alterations and further provisions" required to improve them, and the new government would be established when the resulting document was "duly confirmed by the several states".
Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia introduced Madison's Virginia Plan on May 27, the third day of the convention. It called for an entirely new constitution and a sovereign national government, which Washington highly recommended.
The delegates to the Convention anticipated a Washington presidency and left it to him to define the office once elected. The state electors under the Constitution voted for the president on February 4, 1789, and Washington suspected that most republicans had not voted for him. The mandated March 4 date passed without a Congressional quorum to count the votes, but a quorum was reached on April 5. The votes were tallied the next day, and Congressional Secretary Charles Thomson was sent to Mount Vernon to tell Washington he had been elected president. Washington won the majority of every state's electoral votes; John Adams received the next highest number of votes and therefore became vice president.
Congress created executive departments in 1789, including the State Department in July, the Department of War in August, and the Treasury Department in September. Washington appointed fellow Virginian Edmund Randolph as Attorney General, Samuel Osgood as Postmaster General, Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, and Henry Knox as Secretary of War. Finally, he appointed Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. Washington's cabinet became a consulting and advisory body, not mandated by the Constitution.
During the Fall of 1789, Washington had to contend with the British military occupation in the Northwest frontier and their concerted efforts to incite hostile Indian tribes to attack American settlers. The Northwest tribes under Miami chief Little Turtle allied with the British Army to resist American expansion, and killed 1,500 settlers between 1783 and 1790.
Hamilton created controversy among Cabinet members by advocating the establishment of the First Bank of the United States. Madison and Jefferson objected, but the bank easily passed Congress. Jefferson and Randolph insisted that the new bank was beyond the authority granted by the constitution, as Hamilton believed. Washington sided with Hamilton and signed the legislation on February 25, and the rift became openly hostile between Hamilton and Jefferson.
Washington proclaimed November 26 as a day of Thanksgiving in order to encourage national unity. "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." He spent that day fasting and visiting debtors in prison to provide them with food and beer.
In 1790, Washington sent Brigadier General Josiah Harmar to pacify the Northwest tribes, but Little Turtle routed him twice and forced him to withdraw. The Western Confederacy of tribes used guerrilla tactics and were an effective force against the sparsely manned American Army. Washington sent Major General Arthur St. Clair from Fort Washington on an expedition to restore peace in the territory in 1791. On November 4, St. Clair's forces were ambushed and soundly defeated by tribal forces with few survivors, despite Washington's warning of surprise attacks. Washington was outraged over what he viewed to be excessive Native American brutality and execution of captives, including women and children.
In the Southwest, negotiations failed between federal commissioners and raiding Indian tribes seeking retribution. Washington invited Creek Chief Alexander McGillivray and 24 leading chiefs to New York to negotiate a treaty and treated them like foreign dignitaries. Knox and McGillivray concluded the Treaty of New York on August 7, 1790 in Federal Hall, which provided the tribes with agricultural supplies and McGillivray with a rank of Brigadier General Army and a salary of $1,500.
On August 2, Washington assembled his cabinet to discuss how to deal with the situation. Unlike Washington who had reservations about using force, Hamilton had long waited for such a situation and was eager to suppress the rebellion by use of Federal authority and force.
On August 7, Washington issued his first proclamation for calling up state militias. After appealing for peace, he reminded the protestors that, unlike the rule of the British crown, the Federal law was issued by state-elected representatives.
St. Clair resigned his commission, and Washington replaced him with the Revolutionary War hero General Anthony Wayne. From 1792 to 1793, Wayne instructed his troops on Indian warfare tactics and instilled discipline which was lacking under St. Clair.
The nation's first financial crisis occurred in March 1792. Hamilton's Federalists exploited large loans to gain control of U.S. debt securities, causing a run on the national bank; the markets returned to normal by mid-April. Jefferson believed Hamilton was part of the scheme, in spite of Hamilton's efforts to ameliorate, and Washington again found himself in the middle of a feud.
In April 1792, the French Revolutionary Wars began between Great Britain and France, and Washington declared America's neutrality. The revolutionary government of France sent diplomat Citizen Genêt to America, and he was welcomed with great enthusiasm. He created a network of new Democratic-Republican Societies promoting France's interests, but Washington denounced them and demanded that the French recall Genêt.