George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799) was a founding father, the first president of the United States, military general, political leader, and statesman. He is known for being the “Father of His Country” after leaving one of the most enduring legacies of any American in history. He was indispensable to the success of the American Revolution, independence, and the birth of the nation – and he accomplished that before he was even a president. His presidency created a lot of firsts for the country.
Today, you can see his face appearing on the U.S. dollar bill and a quarter, plus hundreds of schools and towns in the U.S. and the nation’s capital city, are named after him. Many historians and scholars rank him among the greatest U.S. presidents.
Born in colonial Westmoreland County, Virginia, George Washington was the eldest of Augustine and Mary’s six children. A son of a prosperous planter, he belonged in Virginia’s middling class. Later on, Washington became a successful planter and entrepreneur himself. Little was known about Washington’s childhood, but his early experiences working as a surveyor helped shape him to become commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and the first president of the United States, serving from 1789 to 1797.
Pre-Revolutionary Military Career
As a teenager, Washington has shown an aptitude for mathematics, which helped him become a surveyor. At the age of 16, he traveled on a surveying party that plotted land in Virginia’s western territory. A year later, he received an appointment as the official surveyor of Culpeper County. The experience surveying land in three counties made him a resourceful man and toughened his body and mind. It also boosted his interest in western land holdings.
When his older half-brother Lawrence died in 1752, Washington inherited Lawrence’s estate, Mount Vernon. Lawrence, who was educated in England, served as Washington’s mentor. Later on, he expanded the property from 2,000 acres into 8,000 acres with five farms.
Washington showed signs of natural leadership. In 1752, Washington was made commander of the Virginia militia by Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor.
During the French and Indian War, Washington was given the honorary rank of colonel and joined forces with British General Edward Braddock’s army in Virginia in 1755. But during the encounter, the French and their allies ambushed Braddock, who was wounded and died. Washington escaped injury. Though he fought bravely, he led the defeated army back to safety.
After General Braddock died in 1755, Washington was made commander of all Virginia troops at the age of 23. However, it became a frustrating assignment for him, and his health failed, so he was sent home in 1757. He returned to duty the next year, but a friendly fire incident took place. He eventually resigned his commission in 1758 and returned to Mount Vernon. The same year, he entered politics and served at Virginia’s House of Burgesses.
In 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow with two children. He did not have any offspring with Martha, but he became a devoted stepfather to her children. Martha brought a considerable fortune to the marriage – an 18,000-acre estate.
By the late 1760s, Washington experienced the effects of rising taxes imposed on the American colonists by the British and decided that it was in the best interest of the colonists to declare independence from England. Washington was part of the first Continental Congress in 1774 in Philadelphia. By the time the second Continental Congress convened, the American Revolution was beginning, and Washington was named as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.
While he had no practical experience handling large formations of infantry, artillery, or commanding cavalry, Washington was courageous and determined. He may not be able to strategize well, but his leadership gave the men direction and motivation.
During the battle of the Valley Forge, where Washington allied with France, Washington and his French counterparts attacked British General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis and his men faced the combined French and Colonial armies, but he surrendered his forces in the end. The Yorktown victory brought the war to a close. Washington’s leadership in the Valley Forge was a testament to his power to inspire his men and keep them going.
After the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the Americans won their independence from Great Britain and established the United States. After the war, Washington resigned his position as commander-in-chief of the army and returned to Mount Vernon to become a gentleman farmer and a family man.
Washington was living a peaceful life in Mount Vermont when he was asked to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft the new constitution. His impressive leadership skills convinced the delegates to choose him unanimously to become the nation’s first president.
At first, Washington hesitated, but public opinion was too strong, and he eventually gave in. During the first presidential election in 1789, Washington won, and John Adams (the second man on the polls) became the first vice president. During that time, Washington D.C. wasn’t built yet, so he lived in New York and Philadelphia. While he was in office, he signed a bill to establish a permanent U.S. capital along the Potomac River, and that city was later named Washington, D.C.
Washington was an able administrator who delegated authority wisely and regularly consulted with his cabinet. In his two terms as president, he established his authority with the highest integrity and exercised power with honesty and restraint. Washington has set a standard rarely met by his successors.
These are some significant accomplishments under Washington’s presidency:
- He signed the bill establishing the first national bank.
- He nominated the first Chief of Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Jay.
- He set up his own presidential cabinet, with prominent appointees: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.
- He adopted a series of measures proposed by the Secretary of Treasury to reduce the nation’s debt.
- He signed the first United States copyright law to protect the copyrights of authors.
- He signed the first Thanksgiving proclamation, making November 26 a national day of Thanksgiving for the end of the war and for American independence.
- Congress passed the first federal revenue law, a tax on distilled spirits, which was so-called the Whiskey Tax.
- Congress ratified the Bill of Rights.
- Five new states entered the United States: Vermont, North Carolina, Kentucky, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.
- He issued the proclamation of neutrality, known as the Jay Treaty, to avoid entering the war between Britain and France. He also negotiated with the government of King George III.
- He signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo to establish friendly relations between the U.S. and Spain.
- He signed the Treaty of Tripoli to give American ships access to Mediterranean shipping lanes.
- He established peace treaties with Native American tribes.
Retirement and Legacy
After serving two terms as president and declining to serve a third one, Washington finally retired in 1796. He was feeling the decline of his health and returned to Mount Vernon and his farming. In his farewell address, Washington urged the newly-established nation to maintain high standards domestically and to keep involvement with foreign powers to a minimum. His address was still read every February in the U.S. Senate to commemorate his birthday.
Washington devoted the final years of his life, making the plantation productive. In December 1799, he caught a cold after going out to inspect his land in the rain. The cold later developed into a throat infection, which became the cause of his death by December 14.
Washington could have made himself a king, but he chose to be a citizen for the nation. He set many precedents for the national government and instituted the presidency’s power as part of the three branches of the government. He was a man of great integrity, a deep sense of duty, and honor.
- Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.
- Be not glad at the misfortune of another, though he may be your enemy.
- Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.
- I’ll die on my feet before I’ll live on my knees!
- Happiness depends more upon the internal frame of a person’s own mind than on the externals in the world.
- Human happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.
- Truth will ultimately prevail where there are pains to bring it to light.
- We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from the past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.
- Experience teaches us that it is much easier to prevent an enemy from posting themselves than it is to dislodge them after they have got possession.
- If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent, we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.
- I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.
- Observe good faith and justice towards all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all.
- The harder the conflict, the greater the triumph.
- Real men despise battle, but will never run from it.
- To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.
- I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.
- Paper money has had the effect in your state that it will ever have, to ruin commerce, oppress the honest, and open the door to every species of fraud and injustice.
- Associate yourself with men of good quality, if you esteem your own reputation; for ‘tis better to be alone than in bad company.
- Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.