George Washington

American Revolution Commander in Chief of theContinental Army George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799) was an American political leader, military general, statesman, and Founding Father, who also served as the first President of the United States from 1789 to 1797. Washington commanded Patriot forces in the new nation's vital American Revolutionary War, and led them to victory over the British. Washington also presided at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which established the new federal government. For his manifold leadership during the American Revolution, he has been called the "Father of His Country".



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George Washington
1st President of the United States
In office
April 30, 1789[lower-alpha 1]  March 4, 1797
Vice PresidentJohn Adams
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byJohn Adams
7th Senior Officer of the
United States Army
In office
July 13, 1798  December 14, 1799
PresidentJohn Adams
Preceded byJames Wilkinson
Succeeded byAlexander Hamilton
1st Commander-in-Chief
of the Continental Army
In office
June 14, 1775  December 23, 1783
Appointed byContinental Congress
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byHenry Knox (as Senior Officer)
Delegate to the Continental Congress
from Virginia
In office
May 10, 1775  June 15, 1775
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byThomas Jefferson
ConstituencySecond Continental Congress
In office
September 5, 1774  October 26, 1774
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byOffice abolished
ConstituencyFirst Continental Congress
Member of the
Virginia House of Burgesses
In office
May 18, 1761  May 6, 1776
Preceded byUnknown
Succeeded byOffice abolished
ConstituencyFairfax County
In office
July 24, 1758  May 18, 1761
Preceded byThomas Swearingen
Succeeded byGeorge Mercer
ConstituencyFrederick County
Personal details
Born(1732-02-22)February 22, 1732
Popes Creek, Colony of Virginia, British America
DiedDecember 14, 1799(1799-12-14) (aged 67)
Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.
Political partyIndependent
Martha Dandridge (m. 1759)
ParentsAugustine Washington
Mary Ball Washington
AwardsCongressional Gold Medal
Thanks of Congress[2]
SignatureCursive signature in ink
Military service
Allegiance Kingdom of Great Britain
 United States
Branch/serviceKingdom of Great Britain Colonial Militia
United States Continental Army
 United States Army
Years of service1752–58 (British Militia)
1775–83 (Continental Army)
1798–99 (U.S. Army)
RankColonel (British Army)
General and Commander-in-Chief (Continental Army)
Lieutenant general (United States Army)
General of the Armies (promoted posthumously: 1976, by an Act of Congress)
CommandsVirginia Colony's regiment
Continental Army
United States Army

George Washington (February 22, 1732[lower-alpha 2][lower-alpha 3] December 14, 1799) was an American political leader, military general, statesman, and Founding Father, who also served as the first President of the United States from 1789 to 1797. Washington commanded Patriot forces in the new nation's vital American Revolutionary War, and led them to victory over the British. Washington also presided at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which established the new federal government. For his manifold leadership during the American Revolution, he has been called the "Father of His Country".

Washington succeeded a prosperous family of slave-holding planters in colonial Virginia. He had educational opportunities and launched a favorable career as a surveyor. He then became a leader of the Virginia militia in the French and Indian War. During the Revolutionary War he was a delegate to the Continental Congress, was unanimously appointed commander-in-chief of the Army, and with help from France, led an allied campaign which ended victoriously at the Siege of Yorktown. Once victory was in hand in 1783, he resigned as commander-in-chief.

Washington was unanimously elected president by the Electoral College in the first two national elections. He promoted and oversaw implementation of a strong, well-financed national government, but remained impartial in the fierce rivalry between subordinates Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. In the French Revolution, Washington proclaimed a policy of neutrality while sanctioning the Jay Treaty. He set enduring precedents for the office of president, including the title "President of the United States". Washington's Farewell Address was widely regarded as one of the most influential statements on republicanism and has been read in the Senate every year on his birthday since 1862 as part of one of the Senate's most enduring traditions[4].

Washington owned, worked, and traded African slaves, but became troubled with the institution, and freed them by his 1799 will. He was a member of the Anglican Church and the Freemasons, and urged tolerance for all religions in his roles as general and president. Upon his death, he was eulogized as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Washington has been memorialized by monuments, art, various locales, stamps, and currency. Many scholars and polls rank Washington in among the top U.S. presidents.

Early years (1732–1752)

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, at Popes Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia.[5] He was the first child of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington, Augustine's second wife.[6] Washington's paternal family's origins were English gentry of Sulgrave.[7] His great-grandfather John Washington settled in Virginia in 1657, established Popes Creek tobacco plantation, and accumulated land and slaves, as did his son Lawrence, and his grandson Augustine. [8] Washington's father, Augustine, was a Justice of the Peace and a prominent public figure who had 10 children, 4 by his first marriage to Jane Butler, and 6 by Mary, including Washington.[9]

Washington grew up in Virginia's Tidewater region.[10] When he was three, the family moved from Popes Creek plantation to the Epsewasson plantation on the Potomac River. Three years later, they relocated to Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg.[11] On April 12, 1743 Augustine died, leaving Washington under the care of his mother Mary.[12] Washington inherited Ferry Farm and ten slaves, while his older half-brother Lawrence inherited Epsewasson and changed its name to Mount Vernon.[13] Washington's planned study at England's Appleby Grammar School was scrapped.[14] For two to three years Washington received his formal education at the Fredericksburg school of Anglican clergyman James Mayre. [15]

Washington's total education spanned over 8 years and was initially taught by his father and Lawerence. He was taught mathematics, trigonometry and surveying, and was talented in draftsmanship and map-making. He did not attend England's Appleby Grammar School, since his mother could not afford the cost. Initially he was not the best writer, but by early adulthood was writing with "considerable force" and "precision."[16]}}

Washington was strongly influenced by his visits to his brother Lawrence at Mount Vernon, and Belvoir, William Fairfax's slave plantation.[17] Washington desired to live the life of wealthy planter aristocracy. Fairfax observed promise in the young Washington and became his patron and surrogate father.[18] In 1748, Fairfax sent Washington with a surveying party to survey Fairfax's Shenandoah property. [19] Washington, however, abandoned the party, after a month of hardship, and returned home.[20]

In 1749, Washington received a surveyor's license from the College of William & Mary, and was appointed surveyor of Culpeper, Virginia, with Fairfax's influence.[21] He made numerous surveys of the Shenandoah Valley, primarily for Fairfax, and became accustomed to the wilderness. In October 1750, Washington had bought almost 1,500 acres (600 ha) in the Shenandoah Valley, when he resigned his Culpeper commission. By 1752 he accumulated 2,315 acres (937 ha) in the Valley.[22]

In 1751, Washington made his only trip abroad with Lawrence to Barbados, hoping the climate would be beneficial to his brother's tuberculosis.[23] During the trip, Washington contracted smallpox which immunized him but left his face slightly scarred.[24] Lawrence's health continued to decline and he died on July 26, 1752.[25] Washington inherited his Mount Vernon estate in 1754 after the deaths of Lawrence's wife and daughter.[26]

Early military career (1752–1758)

A Young Washington in military uniform and hat, with right hand inserted in front of shirt in traditional pose
Major Washington in 1754

Washington's brother Lawrence was an adjutant general at death, and this inspired Washington to pursue his own military career.[27] He was initially trained in musters and drills; subsequently, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, appointed him adjutant, first to the Southern district in December 1752 and later to the Northern and Eastern districts as well.[28] In February 1753 Dindwiddie appointed Washington as district adjunct general at an annual salary of £100, then promoted him to major, functioning as the British military envoy to the French officials directing them to vacate the British claimed territory. Thirty years later Washington reflected "that so young and inexperienced a person should have been employed".[29]

The British government had ordered Dinwiddie to guard British territorial claims in the Ohio River basin, to secure trade activity with the Indians and settlers.[30] In 1753 Dindwiddie dispatched Washington to make peace with the Six Nations, gain any intelligence they could offer, and to deliver a letter which requested French commander Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre at Fort Le Boeuf, to vacate the Ohio Valley, and offered him safe escort to Lake Erie.[31] Washington and six frontiersmen reached the Ohio River that November, but the French had withdrawn. He met with Half-King Tanacharison and other Iroquois chiefs at Logstown, secured their promise of support against the French, then continued to Venango to meet the French who refused the letter. Washington then reached Fort Le Boeuf, delivered the letter to the commander, and accepted his reply requesting that Dinwiddie send his demand to the Major General of New France in Quebec.[32] By Dinwiddie's order, Washington's diary of the expedition was printed by William Hunter, giving Washington name recognition in Virginia and England;[33] it also helped him obtain a commission to raise a company of men.[34]

French and Indian War

French forces advanced into the Ohio Country in 1753, threatening Britain's trade with the Indians, and prompting a British response. Both sides were allied with various Indian tribes in the territory. The competition over the land that joined the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers [lower-alpha 4] led to the French and Indian War (1754–62), begun with a shot ordered by Washington, and further led to the Seven Years' War (1756–63).[35]

Night scene depicting Washington at center, standing among officers and Indians, around a lamp, holding a war council
Lt. Col. Washington holding night council at Fort Necessity

On October 31, 1753, Governor Dinwiddie commissioned Washington (lieutenant colonel in the newly formed Virginia Regiment) to peaceably confront French forces at the Ohio forks, or capture or kill those resisting British control of the region.[36] By April 2 Washington set out with 150 men, with news the French had ejected colonial traders and begun construction of Fort Duquesne. Half-King Tanacharison discovered a detachment of French troops east of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, led by Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, so Washington built an entrenched camp at Great Meadows, called Fort Necessity. He then led his unit and Mingo (Iroquois) allies in an ambush against the French on May 28 in the brief Battle of Jumonville Glen.[33] Jumonville was killed, and most of his party taken prisoner or killed; Tanacharison therefore labeled Washington Conotocaurius ("Town Destroyer").[37]

The French responded by attacking the fort in the ten-hour Battle of Fort Necessity in July 1754, which ended in Washington's surrender. The drafted surrender document was translated to falsely state that Washington had specifically "assassinated" Jumonville; this became the pretext to blame him for starting a war.[38] Joseph Ellis concludes the episode demonstrated Washington's bravery and initiative, as well as his inexperience and impetuosity.[39] However, Washington was blamed for the defeat and was replaced by colonel James Innes. Upon his return to Virginia, Washington refused to accept a demotion to the rank of captain and resigned his commission.[40] The outcome, and Washington's part in it, drew international attention—the French alleged that the assassinated Jumonville had merely been there to warn Washington about encroaching on French-claimed territory.[41] France and Great Britain then began to fight for control of Ohio Country by sending in troops and declaring war in 1756.[42] Dinwiddie and Washington were among stockholders in Virginia's Ohio Company, created for British settlement there in its landholdings.[35]

Washington on horseback in the middle of a battle scene with other soldiers
Washington the Soldier
Painting of Lt. Col. Washington on horseback during the Battle of the Monongahela — Reǵnier, 1834

The British Crown sent its largest expedition to the colonies, in 1755, led by General Edward Braddock and regulars, to take Fort Duquesne and expel the French from the Ohio Country.[43] Braddock offered Washington a position on his staff, and he accepted.[44] Washington recommended that Braddock split the army into two divisions, with a primary column and a second, lightly equipped "flying column".[45] During the march, Washington became severely ill and was left behind; he rejoined Braddock at Monongahela. The next day, the French and their Indian allies ambushed Braddock's divided forces, and Braddock was mortally wounded in the Battle of the Monongahela.[45] The British suffered devastating casualties and retreated with two-thirds killed or wounded, but Washington rallied his forces in an organized retreat while suffering from a fever and headache.[46] He had two horses shot from under him, and his hat and coat were bullet-pierced.[44] His conduct under fire redeemed his reputation among critics of his command in the Battle of Fort Necessity,[47] but he was not included by the succeeding commander Colonel Thomas Dunbar in planning subsequent operations.[46]

Dinwiddie appointed Washington colonel and commander-in-chief of the Virginia Regiment by August 1755, to defend 300 miles (480 km) of frontier from Indian attacks, with only 300 men.There were 20 battles in 10 months.[48] Washington was convinced that Braddock would have recommended him for a regular commission in the British Army had he survived, so he appealed to Braddock's successor Lord Loudoun.[49] Loudoun refused the request but agreed to transfer responsibility for Fort Cumberland from Virginia to Maryland.[49] Washington's command increased to a thousand soldiers; he emphasized discipline and training, and Virginia's frontier population suffered less than that of other colonies as a result, and was considered Washington's "only unqualified success" during this war.[50]

The British declared war on France in 1756. The same year the North American conflict spread to Europe, known as the Seven Years' War.[51] Washington continued to advocate the capture of Fort Duquesne,[52] and the British crown sent Commanding General John Forbes, Colonel Thomas Gage, and British regulars to take the post in 1758.[52] Washington was promoted to honorary brigadier general and his two regiments were ordered to cooperate.[53] Washington commanded the First Virginia regiment and was assigned to Forbes functioning as a line officer.[lower-alpha 5] A dispute over command arose but was finally settled when it was decided that colonial officers could only be commanded by their regular commanders, which was satisfactory to Washington, although he continued his effort for a regular commission. He was the only colonial officer among the British forces and was involved in only one battle during the campaign.[55]

During the Forbes Expedition, Washington's suggestion to employ Indian-style warfare was ignored.[56] Washington disagreed with Forbes' plan to cut an entirely new western road, starting in Pennsylvania, rather than improve on Braddock's old road.[57]

Pursuant to Forbes’ assault plan on the fort, Washington lead one of three brigades, was alerted to enemy reconnaissance in the area, and sent Colonel George Mercer with several hundred Virginians to investigate. Gunshots were heard in the distance, Washington's unit responded, and friendly fire resulted when reinforcements arrived; minor casualties resulted.[58]

Washington became an honorary brigadier general, leading a final 2,500-man assault. His army arrived November 25 to find Fort Duquesne abandoned and burned by the French.[59] The British had won a strategic victory by gaining control of the Ohio Valley, but Washington retired from his Virginia Regiment commission in December 1758 and returned to Mount Vernon. The French and Indian War was finally concluded by two treaties in 1763: North American Theater and European Theater.[60] Although Washington did not obtain a regular commission in the British Army, he gained valued knowledge of British fighting tactics, "a lasting reservoir of self-confidence," leadership skills, and most of all, he became a believer of a strong central government.[61] During this era, however, Washington also gained first-hand experience of the destructive competition and infighting among shortsighted colonial politicians that would recur among Patriot governments in the American Revolution.[62]

Marriage, civilian and political life (1759–1774)

Painting of Washington, by Charles Wilson Peale, standing in a formal pose, in a colonel's uniform, with right hand inserted in shirt
Colonel George Washington, by Charles Willson Peale, 1772

At age 27, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, the 28-year-old wealthy widow of Daniel Parke Custis. Martha was intelligent and gracious, and experienced in managing a planter's estate, and they effected an agreeable marriage.[63] They raised John Parke Custis and Martha Parke (Patsy) Custis, children from her previous marriage, and later their grandchildren Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. Washington's 1751 bout with smallpox is thought to have rendered him sterile, and they lamented they had no children together.[64] They moved to Mount Vernon, near Alexandria, where he took up life as a planter of tobacco and wheat and emerged as a political figure.[65]

The marriage gave Washington control over Martha's one-third dower interest in the 18,000-acre (7,300 ha) Custis estate, worth about £40,000 (equivalent to about $10 million in 2018), and he managed the remaining two-thirds for Martha's children; he also acquired 84 slaves through the marriage. He became one of Virginia's wealthiest men and thus increased his social standing.[66]

At Washington's urging, Governor Lord Botetourt fulfilled Dinwiddie's 1754 promise of land bounties to all volunteer militia during the French and Indian War.[67] In late 1770, Washington inspected the lands in the Ohio and Great Kanawha regions, and engaged surveyor William Crawford who allotted to Washington 23,200 acres (9,400 ha) of the best acreage. Washington told the veterans their land was hilly and unsuitable for farming, and agreed to purchase 20,147 acres (8,153 ha); many were happy with the sale, but others felt they had been duped.[68][69] He also doubled the size of Mount Vernon to 6,500 acres (2,600 ha) and increased its slave population to more than 100 by 1775.[70]

As a respected military hero and large landowner, he held local office and was elected to the Virginia provincial legislature, representing Frederick County in the House of Burgesses for seven years beginning in 1758.[70] In the election that year, he plied the voters with beer, brandy, and other beverages — even though he was absent while serving on the Forbes Expedition.[71] He won election with roughly 40 percent of the vote, defeating three other candidates with the help of several local elites. He rarely spoke in his early legislative career, but he became a prominent critic of Britain's taxation and mercantilist policies in the 1760s.[72]

A mezzotint of Martha Washington, standing, wearing a formal gown,  based on a 1757 portrait by John Wollaston
Martha Washington
based on a 1757 portrait by John Wollaston

Washington was an aristocrat and his activities including fox hunting, fishing, dances and parties, theater, races, and cockfights. He also played cards, backgammon, and billiards.[73] By occupation Washington was a planter.[74] He imported luxuries and other goods from England and paid for them by tobacco exports. In 1764, when a poor tobacco market left him £1,800 in debt, he diversified, concentrated on finances, and reduced imported luxuries.[75] He changed Mount Vernon's primary cash crop from tobacco to wheat, and further diversified operations to include flour milling, fishing, horse breeding, hog production, spinning, and weaving.[76] In the 1790s, he erected a distillery for substantial whiskey production.[77]

Washington's step-daughter Patsy Custis suffered from epileptic attacks from age 12, and she died in his arms in 1773. The following day, he wrote to Burwell Bassett: "It is easier to conceive, than to describe, the distress of this Family...."[78] He canceled all business activity and remained with Martha every night for three months.[79] His half of Patsy's inheritance allowed him to pay off British creditors.[80]

Washington soon was counted among the political and social elite in Virginia. From 1768 to 1775, he invited some 2,000 guests to his Mount Vernon estate, mostly those whom he considered "people of rank". His advice regarding people who were not of high social status was to "treat them civilly" but "keep them at a proper distance, for they will grow upon familiarity, in proportion as you sink in authority".[81] He became more politically active in 1769, presenting legislation in the Virginia Assembly to establish an embargo on goods from Great Britain.[82]

American Revolution

Washington played a central role before and during the American Revolution. A prideful man, Washington's disdain for the British military had begun when he was humiliatingly passed over for promotion into the Regular Army. He was opposed to the continuing taxes imposed by the British Parliament on the Colonies, without proper representation.[83] He and other colonists were also angered by a Royal Proclamation in 1763 banning American settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains, and protecting the British fur trade.[lower-alpha 6][85] He believed the Stamp Act of 1765 was an "Act of Oppression", and celebrated with fellow colonists its repeal the following year.[lower-alpha 7][87] In March 1766, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, asserting that Parliamentary law superseded colonial law.[88] Washington helped to lead widespread protests against the Townshend Acts passed by Parliament in 1767, and he introduced a proposal in May 1769 drafted by George Mason that called for Virginia to boycott English goods until the Acts were repealed in 1770.[89]

Parliament sought to punish Massachusetts colonists for their role in the Boston Tea Party in 1774 with the passage of the Intolerable Acts, which Washington referred to as "an Invasion of our Rights and Privileges".[90] He said that 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".[91] That July, George Mason and Washington drafted a list of resolutions for the Fairfax County committee, chaired by Washington, which adopted the Fairfax Resolves, calling for a Continental Congress.[92] On August 1, he attended the First Virginia Convention where he was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.[93]

Revolutionary War (1775–1783)

Formal painting of General George Washington, standing in uniform, as commander of the Continental Army
General Washington
Commander of the Continental Army


The Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775, with the battles of Lexington and Concord, and the Siege of Boston.[94] The colonists were divided over breaking away from British rule and split into two factions, Patriots who rejected British rule, and Loyalists to the British King, protected by the British Army and Navy.[95] The North American British commander at the outbreak of war was Thomas Gage.[96] Upon hearing the shocking news of the onset of war, Washington was "sobered and dismayed."[97] On May 4, 1775, Washington quickly left Mount Vernon by his chariot to join the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.[98]

Commander in chief

Congress created the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, and Washington was nominated commander in chief by Samuel Adams and John Adams. Washington, chosen over John Hancock, was selected for his military experience and the belief a Virginian would better unite the colonies. He was considered an incisive leader who kept his "ambition in check."[99] The next day, Washington was unanimously elected commander in chief by Congress.[100]

Washington appeared before Congress in uniform and gave an acceptance speech on June 16, declining a salary, though he was later reimbursed expenses. Commissioned on June 19, Washington was roundly praised by Congressional delegates, including John Adams who proclaimed Washington was the best man suited to lead and unite the colonies.. [101] Congress chose his primary officer staff, 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.[102] 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, who also impressed Adams with ordnance knowledge, was promoted to colonel and chief of artillery by Washington.[103]

Anticipating what awaited them, Washington and his party headed to Boston to engage the British for the first time. In the process he was becoming an embodiment of the revolution as he was greeted by local officials and statesmen along the way, some addressing him as "your excellency". Historian Garry Wills noted, "before there was a nation—before there was any symbol of that nation (a flag, a Constitution, a national seal)—there was Washington."[104]

On July 2, 1775, Washington inspected the new army at Cambridge, Massachusetts, only to find soldiers who were undisciplined, badly outfitted and unsheltered.[105] He consulted with Benjamin Franklin and initiated his suggested reforms by drilling soldiers and imposing strict discipline, including fines, floggings, and incarceration.[106] As ordered, his officer staff scrutinized military manuals and the individual skills of recruits to insure military effectiveness.[107] He removed cowardly or incompetent officers and demanded respect for civilians. All of this, he told Congress, was a "most necessary Work".[108] On August 23, King George III proclaimed that rebellious American colonists were traitors to the Crown.[109]

Quebec, Boston, and Long Island

Painting of George Washington at Dorchester Heights, standing next to his white horse
Washington at Dorchester Heights, Gilbert Stuart (1806)

In September 1775, Washington sent Benedict Arnold and 1,000 troops to British-held Quebec to support General Richard Montgomery's siege and to secure the northern flank.[110] The British outnumbered the American siege, which collapsed, forcing the Continental Army to make a hasty retreat.[111] Later that month Washington called a war council, proposing an attack on the besieged British Army in Boston, but his generals declined, to prevent high casualties in attacking an entrenched enemy.[112] Fortunately, the British commander at Boston, General William Howe, who had replaced Gage, did not attack the burgeoning Continental Army.[113]

In late 1775, Washington sent staff officer Henry Knox to the recently captured Fort Ticonderoga for gunpowder and cannons. By January, with expiring enlistments exceeding recruits, the army dropped to half, at 9,600 men, and was supplemented with previous war militia.[114]

In February 1776, Knox returned with the cannons, and per Washington's order they were transported at night to Dorchester Heights. The next morning, Howe discovered Boston was under siege by Washington's army, and his fleet was vulnerable to Patriot cannon fire. Fearing high casualties from a direct assault, Howe opted to withdraw. Howe evacuated Boston with 10,000 troops and 1,100 Loyalists, and the Patriots reclaimed the city. Washington then marched his army to New York, initiated fortification, and correctly predicted that the British would return and attack in full force.[115][lower-alpha 8]

Washington prepared for an attack on New York City and tensions mounted; a plot (the precise nature of which is unknown) to assassinate or capture Washington failed[117] and his personal guard Thomas Hickey was hanged for mutiny and sedition, and may have played a role in the assassination plot.[118] Howe resupplied in Nova Scotia and headed with the British naval fleet for the city, considered the key to securing the continent. George Germain, Secretary for the American Colonies, who ran the British war effort from England, believed the war could be won with one "decisive blow."[119] The British forces included over 100 ships and thousands of troops.[120] Howe's army landed unopposed on Staten Island on July 2 for a siege of the city as additional British ships and troops continued to arrive.[121] The Declaration of Independence from Great Britain was adopted on July 4, 1776; on July 9, the Patriots toppled an equestrian statue of King George III in New York City, melting it down to manufacture 40,000 bullets to shoot at British troops.[122] In his general orders, on July 9, Washington informed his troops that Congress had declared the united colonies were "free and independent states." [123]

Howe's troop strength totaled 32,000 regulars, including 8,000 Hessians; Washington's troop strength consisted of 23,000, 19,000 of whom were raw recruits and militia.[124] On August 22, Howe landed 20,000 troops at Gravesend, Brooklyn, and approached Washington's fortifications. Washington overruled his generals and chose to fight, based on false information that Howe's army had only 8,000 to 9,000 troops.[125] Howe assaulted Washington's flank on August 27 and inflicted 1,500 Patriot casualties; the British suffered 400 casualties.[126] Washington and his generals decided to retreat, and Washington instructed General William Heath to make available every flat-bottomed riverboat and sloop in the area. General William Alexander held off the British army and covered the retreat, and the army safely crossed the East River under the cover of darkness to Manhattan Island without loss of life or material—although the British did capture General Alexander.[127]

Painting by Alonzo Chappel, 1858, showing frantic battle scene of Battle of Long Island, with smoke in the background
Battle of Long Island
Alonzo Chappel (1858)

Howe was emboldened by his victory at Long Island and sent a dispatch addressed to "George Washington, Esq." attempting to negotiate peace. Washington declined the overture and demanded that he be addressed as a general and recognized as a fellow belligerent, not as a "rebel". He was concerned that his men would be hanged as rebels if they were captured, and he believed it his duty to insist that his men and the newly established United States be recognized with proper diplomatic protocol. The attempts at negotiation failed.[128]

The British navy bombarded unstable earthworks built by the Patriots on lower Manhattan Island.[129] Washington initially considered abandoning the island, including Fort Washington, but heeded the advice of Generals Greene and Israel Putnam to defend the fort. When they were unable to hold it, Washington abandoned it despite General Charles Lee's objections, and his army retired north to White Plains.[130] Howe pursued, and Washington was forced to retreat across the Hudson River to Fort Lee to avoid encirclement. Howe took the offensive; he landed his troops on the island on November 16, surrounded and captured Fort Washington, and inflicted high casualties on the Americans. Washington was responsible for the decision to delay the retreat, but he also faulted the Congress and Nathanael Greene. Loyalists in New York considered Howe a liberator and spread a rumor that Washington had set fire to the city.[131] The morale in the Patriot army was at its lowest ebb, as British Cornet Banastre Tarleton captured General Lee while he took a detour to visit his mistress Mary White.[132]

Crossing the Delaware, Trenton, and Princeton

Famous 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze, depicting  Washington, standing in boat with his troops, crossing the icy Delaware river, with soldiers pushing away chunks of ice
Washington Crossing the Delaware, December 25, 1776, Emanuel Leutze (1851)[lower-alpha 9]

Washington's army, reduced to 5,400 troops, retreated through New Jersey, as Howe broke off pursuit December 14, delayed his advance on Philadelphia, and set up winter quarters in New York.[134] Washington crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, where Lee's replacement John Sullivan and 2,000 troops joined him.[135] The future of the Continental Army was in doubt for lack of supplies, a harsh winter, expiring enlistments, and desertions. Washington was disappointed that many New Jersey residents were Loyalists or skeptical about the prospect of independence.[136] Howe had split up his British Army and posted a Hessian garrison at Trenton, to hold western New Jersey and the east shore of the Delaware.[137]

Howe's army showed some complacency and Washington met with his generals on Christmas Eve to devise a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton.[138] Code named "Victory or Death", the plan was for the army to make separate crossings of the Delaware in three divisions, one led by Washington (2,400 troops), another by General James Ewing (700), and the third by Colonel John Cadwalader (1,500), all reaching the Hessians at Trenton. Washington's force would then be split, with him taking the Pennington Road, and General Sullivan traveling south on the river's edge.[139] Washington first ordered a 60-mile search for barges to transport his army, particularly Durham boats, and ordered the destruction of vessels that could be used by the British.[140]

Washington initially crossed the Delaware at sunset Christmas Day and, risking capture, staked 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.[141] They made it across, without losing a man, at 3:00 A.M.. Henry Knox had been delayed, managing frightened horses and about 18 field guns on flat-bottomed ferries. Cadwalader and Ewing failed to cross due to the ice and heavy currents. While he awaited them, Washington grew doubtful of his planned attack on Trenton. Once Knox made it, Washington proceeded to Trenton an hour later.[142] Rather than return his army to Pennsylvania and risk being spotted, Washington chose to take his troops alone against the Hessians.[143]

Hessian positions were spotted a mile from Trenton, so Washington, after consulting with his officers, split his force into two columns with words of encouragement to his men: "Soldiers keep by your officers. For God's sake, keep by your officers." The two columns were separated at the Birmingham crossroads, with General Nathanael Greene's force, led by Washington, taking the upper Ferry Road, while General John Sullivan's advanced on River Road. (See map.)[144] Veiled by sleet and snowfall, the Americans proceeded toward Trenton; many soldiers were shoeless, with bloodied feet, and two died of exposure. At sunrise, they made a coordinated surprise attack on the Hessians, with Washington leading the charge, aided by Major General Henry Knox and artillery. Hessian Colonel Johann Rall was mortally wounded during the short battle.[145]

Painting showing Washington on horseback, accepting surrender of Hessian troops after the Battle at Trenton, N.J.
The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776
John Trumbull

The Hessians had 22 killed, 83 wounded, with 850 captured with many supplies. After retreating across the Delaware to Pennsylvania,[146] Washington returned to New Jersey on January 3, launching an attack on British regulars at Princeton, with 40 Americans killed or wounded versus British losses of 273 killed or captured.[147] American Generals Hugh Mercer and John Cadwalader were being driven back by the British when Mercer was mortally wounded, then Washington arrived and led the men in a counterattack which advanced to within 30 yards (27 m) of the British line.[148]

The remaining British troops retreated after a brief stand, while others took refuge in Nassau Hall. Colonel Alexander Hamilton brought three cannons and began firing at the hall. Washington's troops charged, and in less than an hour the British put out the white flag of ceasefire; 194 soldiers laid down their arms.[149] Howe retreated to New York City where his army remained inactive until early the next year.[150] Washington's depleted Continental Army took up winter headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey, while disrupting British supply lines and expelling them from parts of New Jersey. Washington later said the British could have successfully counter-attacked his encampment before his troops were dug in.[151]

The British still controlled New York, and after the harsh winter campaign, many Patriot soldiers did not reenlist or had deserted. Increased rewards for re-enlisting and punishments for desertion were instituted, in an effort to effect greater troop numbers.[152] Strategically, Washington's victories were pivotal for the Revolution and quashed the British strategy of showing overwhelming force followed by offering generous terms.[150][153] In February 1777 word of American victories at Trenton and Princeton reached London, and brought with it the realization that the Patriots were in a position to demand unconditional independence.[154] That month while encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, Washington determined smallpox inoculation could prevent deaths from the disease, and employed it for the army to great effect.[155]

Brandywine, Germantown, and Saratoga

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 .[156] Meanwhile, Washington and Lafayette rushed to Philadelphia to engage Howe and were shocked to learn of Burgoyne's progress in upstate New York, where the Patriots were led by General Philip Schuyler and successor Horatio Gates. Washington's army of less experienced men were defeated in the pitched battles at Philadelphia.[157]

Howe outmaneuvered Washington at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, and marched unopposed into the nation's capital at Philadelphia. An October Patriot attack on the British at Germantown failed. Because of the losses incurred at Philadelphia, Major General Thomas Conway prompted some members of Congress, referred to as the Conway Cabal, to consider removing Washington from command. Washington's supporters resisted and after much deliberation, the matter was dropped.[158] Once exposed, Conway later wrote an apology to Washington, resigned, and returned to France.[159]

During the Saratoga campaign to the north, Washington was concerned with Howe's movements and also aware that Burgoyne was moving south toward Saratoga from Quebec. Washington took some risks to support Gates’ army, sending reinforcements north with Generals Benedict Arnold, his most aggressive field commander, and Benjamin Lincoln. 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's victory emboldened his critics.[160] 20th-century biographer John Alden maintains, "It was inevitable that the defeats of Washington's forces and the concurrent victory of the forces in upper New York should be compared." The admiration for Washington was waning, including little credit from John Adams.[161] British commander Howe resigned in May 1778, left America forever, and was replaced by Sir Henry Clinton.[162]

Valley Forge and Monmouth

Painting showing Washington and Lafayette on horseback in a winter setting, at Valley Forge
Washington and Lafayette
Valley Forge

Washington's army of 11,000 went into winter quarters at Valley Forge north of Philadelphia in December 1777. They suffered 2,000–3,000 deaths in extreme cold over six months, mostly from disease, lack of food, clothing, and shelter.[163] Meanwhile, the British were comfortably quartered in Philadelphia, paying for supplies in pounds sterling, while Washington struggled with a devalued American paper currency. The woodlands were soon exhausted of game, and by February morale and increased desertions ensued.[164]

Washington's repeated petitions to the Continental Congress for provisions were futile. He received a congressional delegation to check the Army's conditions, and expressed the urgency of the situation, proclaiming: "Something must be done. Important alterations must be made." He recommended that Congress expedite supplies and Congress agreed to strengthen and fund the army's supply lines by reorganizing the commissary department. By late February, there were adequate supplies arriving at the camp.[116]

Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth, Emanuel Leutze (1851–1854)

Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s incessant drilling soon transformed Washington’s recruits into a disciplined fighting force.[165] The revitalized army emerged from Valley Forge early the following year.[166] Von Steuben was promoted to Major General and became Washington's chief of staff.[167]

In early 1778, the French responded to Burgoyne's defeat and entered into a Treaty of Alliance with the Americans. In May, 1778, the Continental Congress ratified the treaty, that officially amounted to a French declaration of war against Britain, which in effect created a world war.[168] The British evacuated Philadelphia for New York that June, and Washington summoned a war council of American and French Generals. He chose a partial attack on the retreating British at the Battle of Monmouth; the British were commanded by Howe's successor, General Henry Clinton. Generals Charles Lee and Lafayette moved with 4,000 men, without Washington's knowledge, and bungled their first attack on June 28. Washington relieved Lee and achieved a draw after an expansive battle. At nightfall, the British continued their retreat to New York, and Washington moved his army outside the city.[169] Monmouth was Washington’s last battle in the North; he prioritized the safety of his army over that of towns with little value to the British.[170]

West Point espionage

Washington became "America's first spymaster", for his successful design of an espionage system against the British.[171] In 1778, Major Benjamin Tallmadge therefore formed the Culper Ring, to covertly collect information about the British in New York.[172] A vigilant Washington had disregarded incidents of disloyalty by Benedict Arnold who had distinguished himself in many battles.[173]

During mid-1780, Arnold began supplying British spymaster John André with sensitive information intended to compromise Washington and capture West Point, a key American defensive position on the Hudson River.[174] Arnold repeatedly asked for command of West Point, and Washington finally agreed in August.[175] Arnold met André on September 21, giving him plans to take over the garrison. Arnold was variously motivated, by a £6,000 British payment, as well as his anger at being passed over and at personal Congressional slights.[176] He was deeply in debt, profiteering, and facing a court-martial.[177]

Militia forces captured André and discovered the plans but Arnold escaped to New York.[178] An outraged Washington recalled the commanders positioned under Arnold at key points around the fort to prevent this complicity, but did not suspect Arnold's wife Peggy Shippen.[179] Washington assumed personal command and reorganized West Point.[180]

André's trial for espionage ended in a death sentence, and Washington offered to return him to the British in exchange for Arnold, but Clinton refused. André was hanged on October 2, 1780, despite his request to face a firing squad, to deter other spies.[181]

Yorktown victory

Generals Washington and Rochambeau, standing in front of HQ tent, giving last orders before the attack on Yorktown
Siege of Yorktown, Generals Washington and Rochambeau give last orders before the attack

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.[182]

In mid-1779, Washington attacked Iroquois warriors of the Six Nations in order to force Britain's Indian allies out of New York, from which they had assaulted New England settlements.[183] The Indian warriors joined with Tory rangers led by Walter Butler and viciously slew more than 200 frontiersmen in June, laying waste to the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania.[184] In response, Washington ordered General John Sullivan to lead an expedition to effect "the total destruction and devastation" of Iroquois villages and take their women and children hostage. Those who managed to escape fled to Canada.[185] Sullivan's report of mission accomplished referred to the Iroquois as "inhuman barbarians".[186]

Washington's troops went into quarters at Morristown, New Jersey during the harsh winter of 1779—1780 and suffered their worst during the war, with temperatures well below freezing. New York Harbor was frozen over, snow and ice covered the ground for weeks, and the troops again lacked provisions.[187]

Painting showing French King Louis XVI, standing, wearing formal King's robe
French King Louis XVI allied with Washington and Patriot American colonists

Clinton assembled 12,500 troops and attacked Charlestown (modern Charleston) in January 1780, defeating General Benjamin Lincoln, who only had 5,100 Continental troops.[188] The British went on to occupy the South Carolina Piedmont in June, with no Patriot resistance.[188] Clinton returned to New York and left 8,000 troops commanded by General Charles Cornwallis.[189] Congress replaced Lincoln with Horatio Gates, who failed in South Carolina and was replaced by Washington's choice Greene; but the British had the South in their grasp. Washington was reinvigorated when upon learning in mid-1780 that Lafayette had returned from France with more ships, men, and supplies.[190]

In July 1780, 5,000 veteran French troops led by Marshal Rochambeau, arrived at New Port, Rhode Island.[191] French naval forces then landed, led by Admiral Grasse, and Washington encouraged Rochambeau to move his fleet south to launch a joint land–naval attack on Arnold's troops.[192]

Washington's army went into winter quarters at New Windsor, New York, in December 1780, where they again suffered and Washington urged Congress and state officials to expedite provisions. He sympathetically said he hoped the army would not "continue to struggle under the same difficulties they have hitherto endured".[193] On March 1, 1781, Congress ratified the Articles of Confederation, but the new government, that took effect on March 2, did not have the power to levy taxes, and loosely held the states together.[194]

General Clinton sent Arnold, now a British Brigadier General, to Virginia with 1,700 troops to capture Portsmouth and from there spread terror; Washington responded, sending Lafayette south to counter Arnold's efforts.[195] Washington initially hoped to bring the fight to New York, drawing off British forces from Virginia and ending the war there, but Rochambeau advised Grasse that Cornwallis in Virginia was the better target. Grasse's fleet arrived off the Virginia coast. Washington saw the advantage, and feinted towards Clinton in New York before heading south to Virginia.[196]

After the French won a naval victory in the Battle of the Chesapeake, Patriot forces trapped the British army in Virginia without reinforcement by Clinton from the North.[197] The surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781 marked the end of major fighting.[198] Washington took great satisfaction but kept his taciturn composure.[199] Cornwallis, claiming illness, failed to appear at the ceremony of surrender, sending General Charles O'Hara as his proxy; Washington then had General Benjamin Lincoln accept the surrender.[200] In 1782, British commander Clinton was replaced by Sir Guy Carleton.

Demobilization and resignation

Painting by John Trumbull, depicting General Washington, standing in Maryland State House hall, surrounded by statesmen and others, resigning his commission
General George Washington Resigning His Commission
John Trumbull, 1824

As peace negotiations started, the British gradually evacuated troops from Savannah, Charlestown, and New York by 1783, and the French army and navy likewise departed.[201] The American treasury was empty, unpaid and mutinous soldiers forced adjournment of the Congress, and Washington dispelled unrest by suppressing the Newburgh Conspiracy in March 1783; Congress promised officers a five-year bonus.[202] Washington submitted an account of $450,000 in expenses he advanced to the army (equivalent to $10 million in 2018). The account was settled, though it was allegedly vague about large sums, and included his wife Martha's expenses incurred through visits to his headquarters, as well as his agreed compensation.[203]

Washington's resignation as Commander in Chief followed the Treaty of Paris, and he planned to retire to Mount Vernon. With the treaty ratified in April 1783, Hamilton’s Congressional committee adapted the army for peacetime. Washington learned of the treaty two months later,[204] and gave the Army's perspective to the Committee in his Sentiments on a Peace Establishment.[205] The Committee's proposals were defeated by Congress on three occasions.[206] The Treaty was signed on September 3, 1783, and Great Britain officially recognized the independence of the United States. Washington disbanded his army, giving an eloquent farewell address to his soldiers on November 2.[207] On November 25, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington and Governor George Clinton took possession. Only a few trusted delegates of the Continental Congress, including Thomas Jefferson, knew of Washington's decision to resign his commission.[208]

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.[209]

After leading the Continental Army for eight and a half years, Washington bade farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in December 1783, and resigned his commission days later, refuting Loyalist claims he would not relinquish his military command.[210] In a final appearance in uniform, he gave a statement to the Congress: "I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life, by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping."[211] Washington's resignation was acclaimed at home and abroad and designed to show a skeptical world that the new republic would not degenerate into chaos.[212][lower-alpha 10] The same month, Washington was appointed president general of the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary fraternity, and served for the remainder of his life.[214][lower-alpha 11]

Early republic (1784–1789)

Return to Mount Vernon

Shortly after Washington resigned his commission, he returned to Mount Vernon on a snowy Christmas Eve, older at age 52, and relieved of his burdens while he was military commander. In a letter to his close friend, Lafayette, he expressed this sentiment.[216]

I am not only retired from all public employments but I am retiring within myself, and shall be able to view the solitary walk and tread the paths of private life with heartfelt satisfaction. ... I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my fathers.[217]

Though Washington was eager to retire from military life, he could not at first relax in stillness, and gave much thought to the affairs of his estate and other personal matters.[218] In February 1784, Washington visited his aged and ill mother at Fredricksburg, much to popular acclaim.[219] During this time Washington became an American celebrity and was visited by many people, however, his health had deteriorated somewhat from lack of general activity.[220][lower-alpha 12]

Washington found Mount Vernon severely neglected, while his debtors paid him in deflated American currency.[222] In September 1784, strapped for cash, Washington returned to the western frontier to inspect his land holdings, and to collect his lost rents.[223] On Washington's rugged journey, he crossed the Appalachian Mountains, roughing it, sleeping outside in the rain. Washington noted his own personal fatigue in his diaries. [224] Urged by Jefferson, Washington, who was president of the Potomac Company, revived his project to link the Potomac River to the Ohio River by canal, but the project proved unprofitable and was never completed.[225]

Reaching Berkeley Springs, Washington endorsed James Rumsey's invention of a mechanical steamboat that could travel upstream. [226] On October 4, Washington returned to Mount Vernon, completed his 680-mile journey, while he obtained a better understanding on how to develop the Ohio Country.[227]

Shays' Rebellion confirmed for Washington the need to overhaul the Articles of Confederation.

Washington was convinced that the Articles of Confederation, ratified earlier in 1781, was a weak foundation for the country and that the independent states needed to unify under a strong central government.[228] He believed the nation was on the verge of "anarchy and confusion," and that his retirement would be cut short.[229] On August 29, 1786 Shays' Rebellion started in Massachusetts over taxation and property ownership, further convincing Washington that a national constitution was needed.[230] On September 11, 1786, nationalists, who feared the new republic had descended into lawlessness, met together at Annapolis and requested that Congress revise the Articles of Confederation. One of their biggest efforts, however, was getting Washington to attend.[231] Congress agreed to a Constitutional Convention, to be held in the Spring of 1787 at Philadelphia. Each of the sovereign states were to choose delegates to attend the convention.[232]

Washington had pledged to the several states not to reenter politics after the Revolutionary War, which had left him in debt with his plantations in bad need of repair. He also had various concerns about his health and an earlier declined obligation he made to the Cincinnatus Society. On December 4, 1786, Washington was chosen to lead the Virginia delegation, but he hesitated, and eventually declined on December 21. Washington also had concerns about the legality of the convention, which would ultimately create an office that he would come to occupy. After consulting friends James Madison, Henry Knox, and others, he was persuaded to attend the convention in that his presence would help to induce reluctant states to send delegates and smooth the way for the ratification process.[233] On March 28, Washington told Governor Edmund Randolph he would attend the convention, but made it clear he did so involuntarily at the requests of his friends.[234]

Constitutional Convention (1787)

Painting by Howard Chandler Christy, depicting the signing of the Constitution of the United States, with Washington as the presiding officer standing at right
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940. Washington, presiding officer, stands at right.

Washington arrived in Philadelphia on May 9, 1787, a quorum convened on Friday, May 25, and Washington was nominated by Benjamin Franklin, then unanimously chosen the convention's president general.[235] 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 “when agreed to by [Congress], and then duly confirmed by the several states”, the new government would be established in place of the existing Articles government.[236]

Washington felt that a national Constitution was overdue, would unify the nation and bring closure to the Revolution.[237] To him, the Articles of Confederation were no more than "a rope of sand," linking the states of the nation, and sought a more centralized federal government.[238] Regardless of the twelve state legislatures sending delegations for the publicly stated purpose of the Philadelphia Convention, some historians have determined that the populace electing them generally disagreed, fearing a strong central power would be just as overbearing as the British Parliament they had just forsaken.[239][lower-alpha 13]

On May 27, the third day of the convention, Randolph introduced the Virginia Plan, prepared by Madison, that called for more than just simple amendments to the Articles, but for the drafting of an entirely new constitution and a sovereign national government, which Washington highly recommended.[240]

Washington lent his prestige to the goodwill and work of the other delegates. After a couple of months, he shared with Alexander Hamilton his anxiety over his sole unification of the delegates: "I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of our convention and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business."[241] Following the Convention, he unsuccessfully lobbied many to support ratification of the Constitution, such as anti-federalist Patrick Henry, to whom he said "the adoption of it under the present circumstances of the Union is in my opinion desirable", declaring the alternative would be anarchy.[242] Washington and Madison then spent four days at Mount Vernon evaluating the transition of the new government.[243]

First presidential election

The delegates to the Convention anticipated a Washington presidency and allowed him to define the office once elected. He thought the completed achievements were monumental.[244][lower-alpha 14]

The state electors under the Constitution voted for the president on February 4, 1789, with Washington suspecting most republicans had not voted for him.[247] The mandated March 4 date passed without a Congressional quorum to count the votes. A quorum was finally reached on April 5, and the votes were tallied the next day.[248] 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 vote and was elected Vice President.[249] Washington had "anxious and painful sensations" over leaving the "domestic felicity" of Mount Vernon, but he departed for New York City on April 23 to be inaugurated.[250]

Presidency (1789–1797)

Painting by Gilbert Stuart (1795), formal portrait of President George Washington
President George Washington, Gilbert Stuart (1795)

Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, taking the oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City.[251][lower-alpha 15] His coach was led by militia and a marching band, followed by statesmen and foreign dignitaries in an inaugural parade, with a crowd of 10,000.[253] Chancellor Robert R. Livingston administered the oath, using a Bible provided by the Masons, after which he was given a 13-gun salute.[254] In the Senate Chamber he read his speech, asking that "that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations—and whose providential aids can supply every human defect consecrate the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States" with his blessing.[255] He declined a salary, but Congress later provided $25,000 per year (equivalent to about $715,000 in 2018), and he accepted, to defray costs of the presidency.[256]

Washington wrote to James Madison: "As the first of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent, it is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents be fixed on true principles."[257] To that end, he preferred the title "Mr. President" over more majestic names proposed by the Senate, including "His Excellency" and "His Highness the President".[258] His republican precedents also included the inaugural address, messages to Congress, and the cabinet form of the executive branch.[259]

Washington had planned to resign after his first term, but the political strife in the nation convinced him that he should remain in office.[260] He was an able administrator, judge of talent and character, and talked regularly with department heads to get their advice.[261] He tolerated opposing views, despite fears that a democratic system would lead to political violence, and he conducted a smooth transition of power to his successor.[262] Washington remained non-partisan throughout his presidency and opposed the divisiveness of political parties, but he favored a strong central government, was sympathetic to a Federalist form of government, and leery of the Republican opposition.[263]

Washington dealt with major problems. The old Confederation lacked the powers to handle its workload, had weak leadership, no executive, a small bureaucracy of clerks, a large debt, worthless paper money, and no power to establish taxes.[264] He had the task of assembling an executive department, and relied on Tobias Lear for advice selecting its officers.[265] Great Britain refused to relinquish its forts in the American West,[264] and Barbary pirates preyed on American merchant ships in the Mediterranean while the U.S. Army was minuscule, and the Navy nonexistent.[266]

Cabinet and executive departments

The Washington Cabinet
PresidentGeorge Washington17891797
Vice PresidentJohn Adams17891797
Secretary of StateJohn Jay17891790
Thomas Jefferson17901793
Edmund Randolph17941795
Timothy Pickering17951797
Secretary of TreasuryAlexander Hamilton17891795
Oliver Wolcott Jr.17951797
Secretary of WarHenry Knox17891794
Timothy Pickering17941796
James McHenry17961797
Attorney GeneralEdmund Randolph17891794
William Bradford17941795
Charles Lee17951797

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 his commanding successor 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.[267]

Washington's cabinet members formed rival parties with sharply opposing views, most fiercely illustrated between Hamilton and Jefferson.[268] He restricted cabinet discussions to topics of his choosing, without participating in debate. He occasionally requested cabinet opinions in writing and expected department heads to agreeably carry out his decisions. Hamilton played an active, influential role advising Congress and its leaders.[264]

Domestic issues

Washington was apolitical and opposed the formation of parties, suspecting that conflict would undermine republicanism.[269] His closest advisors formed two factions, portending the First Party System. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton formed the Federalist Party to promote the national credit and a financially powerful nation. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson opposed Hamilton's agenda, and founded the Jeffersonian Republicans. Washington favored Hamilton's agenda, which went into effect and resulted in bitter controversy.[270]

Washington proclaimed November 26 as a day of Thanksgiving, in order to encourage national unity saying, "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." On his appointed Thanksgiving Day (which later became an annual holiday), he fasted while visiting debtors in prison, but provided them with food and beer.[271]

National Bank

Engraving of President Washington's House in Philadelphia, his residence from 1790 to 1797
The President's House in Philadelphia was Washington's residence from 1790 to 1797

The establishment of public credit became a primary challenge for the federal government;[272] Hamilton submitted a report of the matter to a deadlocked Congress, and later he, Madison, and Jefferson reached the Compromise of 1790 in which Jefferson agreed to Hamilton's debt proposals in exchange for moving the nation's capitol temporarily to Philadelphia and then south near Georgetown on the Potomac River.[270] The terms were legislated in the Funding Act and the Residence Act, both of which Washington signed into law. Congress authorized the assumption and payment of the nation's debts, with funding provided by customs duties and excise taxes.[273]

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 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; the rift between the latter and Jefferson became openly hostile.[274]

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;[275] the markets returned to normal by mid-April.[276] Jefferson believed Hamilton was part of the scheme, in spite of the latter's efforts to ameliorate, and Washington again found himself in the middle of a feud.[277]

Jefferson–Hamilton feud

Jefferson and Hamilton, bitter rivals

Jefferson and Hamilton adopted diametrically opposed political principles. Hamilton believed in a strong national government requiring a national bank and foreign loans to function, while Jefferson believed the government should be primarily directed by the states and the farm element; he also resented the idea of banks and foreign loans. To Washington's dismay, persistent disputes and infighting between the two men ensued.[278] Hamilton demanded that Jefferson resign if he could not support Washington, and rather than respond publicly, Jefferson told Washington that Hamilton's fiscal system would lead to the overthrow of the Republic.[279]

Washington urged the two secretaries to call a truce for the nation's sake, but they ignored him.[280] Washington reversed his decision to retire after his first term, to minimize party strife but the feud continued after his re-election.[279] Jefferson's political actions, his support of Freneau's National Gazette,[281] and his attempt to undermine Hamilton nearly led Washington to dismiss him from the cabinet; Jefferson ultimately resigned his position in December 1793 and was thereafter forsaken by Washington.[282]

The feud led to the well-defined Federalist and Republican parties, and party affiliation became necessary for election to Congress by 1794.[283] Washington remained aloof from congressional attacks on Hamilton, but he did not publicly protect him. The Hamilton–Reynolds sex scandal opened Hamilton to disgrace, but Washington continued to hold him in "very high esteem" as the dominant force in establishing federal law and government.[284]

Whiskey Rebellion

In March 1791, Congress imposed an excise tax on distilled spirits to help curtail the national debt; grain farmers strongly protested in Pennsylvania's frontier districts, saying they were unrepresented and were shouldering too much of the debt, comparing their situation to excessive British taxation during the revolution. Washington assembled his cabinet to discuss how to deal with the situation and then called on Pennsylvania officials to take the initiative, but they declined to take military action. 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. Threats and violence against tax collectors escalated into defiance of federal authority in 1794 giving rise to the Whiskey Rebellion. On September 25, Washington issued a final proclamation, threatening the use of military force. [285] The federal army wasn't up to the task, so Washington invoked the Militia Act to summon state militias.[286] Governors sent troops, with Washington taking command, then gave command to Light-Horse Harry Lee to lead the troops into the rebellious districts. The rebels dispersed, and there was no fighting.[287]

Washington's forceful action demonstrated that the government could protect itself and its tax collectors. This represented the first use of federal military force against the states and citizens,[288] and remains the only time a sitting president has commanded troops in the field. Washington justified his action against "certain self-created societies" whom he regarded as "subversive organizations" that threatened the national union. He did not dispute their right to protest but insisted their dissent not violate federal law. Congress agreed and extended their congratulations to him, with only Madison and Jefferson expressing indifference.[289]

Foreign affairs

Gilbert Stuart portrait of Chief Justice John Jay in robes, seated and holding a law book
John Jay, negotiator of the Jay Treaty

In April 1792, the French Revolutionary Wars began between Great Britain and France, and Washington, with the cabinet's assent, declared America's neutrality. The revolutionary government of France sent diplomat Citizen Genêt to America. He was welcomed with great enthusiasm and began promoting the case for France, using a network of new Democratic-Republican Societies in major cities. He even issued French letters of marque and reprisal to French ships manned by American sailors so that they could capture British merchant ships. Washington denounced the societies and demanded that the French recall Genêt.[290] On August 26, 1792, during the early stages of the French Revolution, the National Assembly of France granted honorary French Citizenship to George Washington.[291]

Hamilton formulated the Jay Treaty, to normalize trade relations with Great Britain while removing them from western forts, and also to resolve financial debts remaining from the Revolution.[292] Chief Justice John Jay, acting as Washington's negotiator, signed the treaty on November 19, 1794; adamantly critical Jeffersonians supported France. Washington deliberated, then supported the treaty because it avoided war with Britain;[293] he was deeply disappointed that its provisions favored Great Britain.[294] After he mobilized public opinion and secured ratification in the Senate,[295] Washington was subjected to severe and frequent public criticism.[296]

The British agreed to depart their forts around the Great Lakes, and the United States–Canada boundary was subsequently modified. Numerous pre-Revolutionary debts were liquidated, and the British opened their West Indies colonies to American trade. The treaty secured peace with Britain and a decade of prosperous trade. Jefferson claimed it angered France and "invited rather than avoided" war.[297] Relations with France deteriorated afterwords, leaving succeeding president John Adams with prospective war.[298] When James Monroe, American Minister to France, was recalled by Washington for his opposition to the Treaty, the French refused to accept his replacement, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and two days before Washington's term ended, the French Directory declared the authority to seize American ships. [299]

Indian affairs

Portrait of Senaca Chief Sagoyewatha, Washington's peace emissary
Seneca Chief Sagoyewatha was Washington's peace emissary with the Indian Northwestern Confederation

An early issue for Washington was the British occupation in the northwest frontier and their concerted efforts to turn incite Indians against settlers.[300] The Northwest Indians allied with the British under Miami chief Little Turtle to resist American expansion, and from 1783 to 1790 1,500 settlers were killed by the Indians.[301]

Washington decided Indian affairs would be "directed entirely by the great principles of Justice and humanity".[302] He provided that their land interests be negotiated by treaties.[302] The administration regarded powerful tribes as foreign nations, and Washington even smoked a peace pipe and drank wine with them at the Philadelphia presidential house.[303]

Washington made numerous attempts to conciliate the Indians;[304] he equated the killing of Indians with that of Whites, and sought to integrate them into American culture.[305] Secretary of War Henry Knox attempted to encourage agriculture among the tribes.[304]

In the Southwest, negotiations failed between federal commissioners and raiding Indian tribes seeking retribution. Washington invited Creek Chief Alexander McGillivray and twenty-four leading chiefs to New York, to negotiate a treaty; he was treated as a foreign dignitary. On August 7, 1790, in Federal Hall, Knox and McGillivray concluded the Treaty of New York, which provided the tribes with agricultural supplies, and McGillivray with a rank of Brigadier General Army and a salary of $1,500.[306]

A R.F. Zogbaum scene of the Battle of Fallen Timbers includes Indians taking aim as cavalry soldiers charge with raised swords and one soldier is shot and loses his mount.
Battle of Fallen Timbers by R. F. Zogbaum, 1896. The Ohio Country was ceded to America in its aftermath.

In 1790, Washington sent Brigadier General Josiah Harmar to pacify the Northwest Indians; Harmar was twice routed by Little Turtle and forced to withdraw.[307][301] The Western Confederacy of tribes used guerrilla tactics and was 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 with few survivors, despite Washington's warning of surprise attacks. Washington was outraged over the Indians' brutality and execution of captives, including women and children.[308]

St. Clair resigned his commission, and Washington replaced him with Revolutionary War hero General Anthony Wayne. From 1792 to 1793, Wayne instructed his troops on Indian warfare tactics and instilled discipline lacking under St. Clair.[309] In August 1794, Washington sent Wayne into the troubled Indian territory with authority to drive them out by burning their villages and crops in the Maumee Valley.[310] On August 24, the American army under Wayne's leadership defeated the western confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. In August 1795, two-thirds of the Ohio Country was opened up for American settlement under the Treaty of Greenville.[311]

Second term

Approaching the election of 1792, Hamilton urged the popular Washington to run for a second term. Many took his silence on this topic as assent, viewing him as the only viable candidate. The Electoral College unanimously re-elected him President on February 13, 1793, and John Adams as Vice President by a vote of 77 to 50.[305]

After criticism over his birthday celebration and giving a "monarchist" impression, Washington arrived alone at his inauguration in a simple carriage. The inauguration was held in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia on Monday, March 4, 1793, and the oath of office was administered by Associate Justice William Cushing. This was the first inauguration to take place in the temporary capitol of Philadelphia. Washington also delivered the shortest inaugural address on record, at just 135 words, in four sentences.[312]

The feuding Jefferson and Hamilton agreed on one thing, that Washington remains in office for a second term. Differences of opinion centered around the French Revolution, with Washington remaining neutral, and over a national bank, which he strongly supported.[313] This was known as the Federalist Era.[314]

Painting of the frigate USS Constitution with three masts
USS Constitution
Commissioned and named by President Washington in 1794.

In the final months of his presidency, Washington was assailed by his political foes and a partisan press who accused him of being ambitious and greedy. He argued he had taken no salary during the war and risked his life in battle; he regarded the press as a disuniting, "diabolical" force of falsehoods. This influenced his Farewell Address, which related the troubling years of infighting and character assassination by much of the press.[315]

In 1793, Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act, allowing slave owners to cross state lines and retrieve runaway slaves.[316] He also signed the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which limited American involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.[317] In 1794, he signed the Naval Act that created the United States Navy to combat Barbary pirates before the Barbary Wars. Washington appointed Oliver Wolcott, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury in 1795, replacing Hamilton, who resigned in the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion. The upshot of the Rebellion strengthened Washington's bond with Hamilton, distancing him from Knox who resigned.[318]

At the end of his second term, Washington retired for personal and political reasons, fatigued and disgusted with personal attacks, and to assure a truly contested presidential election could be held. He did not feel bound to a two-term limit, but his retirement ultimately set precedent. The two-term limit to the presidency was formalized with the 1951 adoption of the Twenty-second Amendment to the United States Constitution. Washington is often credited with setting the principal of a two-term presidency, but it was Thomas Jefferson who first refused to run for a third term on political grounds.[319]

Farewell Address

Newspaper showing Washington's Farewell Address
Washington's Farewell Address (September 19, 1796)

Washington planned to retire after his first term and in 1792 he had James Madison draft a farewell message with a given sentiment and theme; after his reelection, he and Madison finalized it.[320] The final version was published on September 19, 1796, by David Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser and three other Philadelphia newspapers.[321] It warned against foreign alliances and their influence in domestic affairs, and against bitter partisanship in domestic politics. It also called for men to move beyond partisanship and serve the common good, stressing that the United States must concentrate on its own interests.[322] He counseled friendship and commerce with all nations, but advised against involvement in European wars.[323] He stressed the importance of religion, asserting that "religion and morality are indispensable supports" in a republic.[324]

Washington's address, influenced by Hamilton, only aggravated bipartisan politics, setting the tone for the coming 1796 election, which pitted Jefferson against Adams. Washington favored Federalist ideology, is said to have supported Adams, but without endorsement.[325] On December 7, 1796, Washington read his eighth annual address to Congress. He spoke before the House, wore a black velvet suit, and donned his sword, and was well received by "the largest assemblage of citizens" in the crowded gallery. He advocated for a military academy, and celebrated the British departure from Northwest forts, and that Algiers had released American prisoners—an event that would facilitate the Department of the Navy.[326] On February 8, 1797, Adams was elected President, and Jefferson Vice President.[327]

Washington's Farewell Address proved to be one of the most influential statements on republicanism.[328] It stressed the necessity and importance of national union, the value of the Constitution, the rule of law, the evils of political parties, and the proper virtues of a republican people. He referred to morality as "a necessary spring of popular government", maintaining, "Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason, and experience, both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."[329]

Before its closing remarks, the address expressed this sentiment:

"Though in reviewing the incidents of my Administration I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence, and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest."[330]

Retirement (1797–1799)

Upon his retirement in March 1797 to Mount Vernon, Washington devoted time to his plantations and other business interests, including his distillery.[331] His plantation operations were only minimally profitable,[332] and his lands in the west (Piedmont), under Indian attacks, yielded little income, with the squatters there refusing to pay rent. He attempted to sell these off but without success.[333] He became an even more committed Federalist, vocal in his support of the Alien and Sedition Acts, convincing Federalist John Marshall to run for Congress to weaken the Jeffersonian hold on Virginia.[334]

Washington grew restless in retirement, prompted by tensions with France, and wrote to Secretary of War James McHenry offering to organize President Adams' army.[335] French privateers began seizing American ships in 1798, relations with France deteriorated and led to the "Quasi-War". Adams offered Washington a commission as lieutenant general on July 4, 1798, and as commander-in-chief of the armies. He accepted, replacing James Wilkinson[336] and served as the commanding general from July 13, 1798, until his death 17 months later. He participated in planning for a provisional army but avoided involvement in details. In advising McHenry of potential officers for the army, he appeared to make a complete break with Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans, “ could as soon scrub the blackamoor white, as to change the principles of a profest Democrat; and that he will leave nothing unattempted to overturn the government of this country.“[337] Washington delegated the active leadership of the army to Hamilton as major general. No army invaded the United States during this period, and Washington did not assume a field command.[338]

Washington was thought to be rich because of the well-known "glorified façade of wealth and grandeur" at Mount Vernon,[339] but nearly all of his wealth was in the form of land and slaves rather than ready cash. Historians estimate that the estate was worth about $1 million in 1799 dollars, equivalent to about $20 million in 2018.[340] To spur development around the new Federal City, named in his honor, Washington bought land parcels. Rather than selling multiple lots to large investors, he sold individual lots to middle-income investors, believing they would more likely commit to making improvements.[341]

Final days and death

The scene of Washington on his deathbed with doctors and family surrounding.
Washington on his Deathbed
Junius Brutus Stearns 1799

On Thursday, December 12, 1799, Washington inspected his farms on horseback in snow and sleet and was late for dinner, but refused to change out of his wet clothes, not wanting to keep his guests further waiting. He had a sore throat the following day but again went out in freezing, snowy weather to mark trees for cutting. That evening, he complained as well of chest congestion but was cheerful. On Saturday, he awoke to an inflamed throat with difficulty breathing, ordered estate overseer George Rawlins to remove nearly a pint of his blood, a practice of the time, and several physicians were summoned: James Craik, Gustavus Richard Brown, and Elisha C. Dick.[342] (Dr. William Thornton arrived some hours after Washington died.[343])

Dr. Brown thought Washington had quinsy; Dick thought the condition was a more serious "violent inflammation of the throat".[344] Continued bloodletting (approximately five pints) was futile, and his condition deteriorated. Dick unsuccessfully proposed a tracheotomy, unknown to the other two doctors who disapproved.[345] Washington instructed Brown and Dick to leave the room, while he assured Craik, "Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go."[346]

Washington's illness and death came more swiftly than expected.[347] He instructed his private secretary Tobias Lear to wait three days before his burial, out of fear of being entombed alive.[348] Washington asked Lear, "Do you understand me ?". "Yes," responded Lear. Washington said, "Tis well."[349] Washington died peacefully with Martha composed at the foot of his bed around 10 p.m. on Saturday, December 14, 1799 at age of sixty-seven. Funeral arrangements included Washington's Masonic lodge of Alexandria, Virginia, various members of the clergy, Dr. Craik, military officers, and various members of the Fairfax family. When news of his death reached Congress, they immediately adjourned for the day and the Speaker's chair was shrouded in black the next morning.[350]

The funeral was held four days after Washington's death on December 18, 1799, at Mount Vernon, where his body was interred. Cavalry and foot soldiers led the procession, and six colonels served as the pallbearers. The Mount Vernon funeral service was restricted mostly to family and friends.[351] Reverend Thomas Davis read the funeral service by the vault with a brief address, followed by a ceremony performed by various members of Washington's Masonic lodge in Alexandria.[352] Congress chose Light-Horse Harry Lee, a Continental Army officer loved by Washington, to deliver the eulogy. Word of his death traveled slowly; church bells rang in the cities, and many places of business closed.[353] People worldwide admired Washington and were saddened by his death, and memorial processions were held in major cities of the United States. Martha wore a black mourning cape for one year, and she burned their correspondence to protect their privacy. Only five letters between the couple are known to have survived, two letters from Martha to George and three from him to her.[354]

The diagnosis of Washington's illness and the immediate cause of his death have been subjects of debate since the day that he died. The published account of Drs. Craik and Brown[lower-alpha 16] stated that his symptoms had been consistent with cynanche trachealis (tracheal inflammation), a term of that period used to describe severe inflammation of the structures of the upper windpipe, including quinsy. Accusations have persisted since Washington's death concerning medical malpractice, with some believing that he had been bled to death.[345] Various modern medical authors have speculated that he died from a severe case of epiglottitis complicated by the given treatments (which were all accepted medical practice in that day), most notably the massive deliberate blood loss, which almost certainly caused hypovolemic shock.[356][lower-alpha 17]

Burial and aftermath

A picture of the two sarcophagi of George (at right) and Martha Washington at the present tomb at Mount Vernon.
The sarcophagi of George (right) and Martha Washington at the present tomb's entrance

Washington was buried in the old family vault at Mount Vernon, situated on a grassy slope covered with juniper and cypress trees. It contained the remains of his brother Lawrence and other family members, but the decrepit vault was in need of repair, prompting Washington to leave instructions in his will for the construction of a new vault.[353]

In 1830, a disgruntled ex-employee of the estate attempted to steal what he thought was Washington's skull, prompting the construction of a more secure vault.[361] The next year, the new vault was constructed at Mount Vernon to receive the remains of George and Martha and other relatives.[362] In 1832, a joint Congressional committee debated moving his body from Mount Vernon to a crypt in the Capitol. The crypt had been built by architect Charles Bulfinch in the 1820s during the reconstruction of the burned-out capital, after the Burning of Washington by the British during the War of 1812. Southern opposition was intense, antagonized by an ever-growing rift between North and South; many were concerned that Washington's remains could end up on "a shore foreign to his native soil" should the country become divided, and Washington's remains stayed in Mount Vernon.[363]

On October 7, 1837, Washington's remains were placed, still in the original lead coffin, within a marble sarcophagus designed by William Strickland and constructed by John Struthers earlier that year.[364] The sarcophagus was sealed and encased with planks, and an outer vault was constructed around it.[365] The outer vault has the sarcophagi of both George and Martha Washington; the inner vault has the remains of other Washington family members and relatives.[362]

Personal life

Washington was somewhat reserved in personality, but he generally had a strong presence among others. He made speeches and announcements when required, but he was not a noted orator or debater.[366] He was taller than most of his contemporaries;[367] accounts of his height vary from 6 ft (1.83 m) to 6 ft 3.5 in (1.92 m) tall, and he weighed between 210–220 pounds (95–100 kg) as an adult.[368] He had wide hips, a slim waist, a broad chest, narrow shoulders, muscular thighs, and exceptionally large hands, and he was widely known for his great strength—particularly in his long arms.[369] He had piercing grey-blue eyes, fair skin, and light reddish-brown hair, which he wore powdered in the fashion of the day.[370] He had a rugged and dominating presence, which garnered respect from his male peers. He suffered frequently from severe tooth decay, and ultimately lost all his teeth but one. He had several sets of false teeth made which he wore during his presidency—none of which were made of wood, contrary to common lore. These dental problems left him in constant pain, for which he took laudanum.[371] As a public figure, he relied upon the strict confidence of his dentist.[372]

Washington was a talented equestrian early in life. He collected thoroughbreds at Mount Vernon, and his two favorite horses were Blueskin and Nelson.[373] Fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson said that Washington was "the best horseman of his age and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback";[374] he also hunted foxes, deer, ducks, and other game.[375] He was an excellent dancer and attended the theater frequently. He drank in moderation but was morally opposed to excessive drinking, the smoking of tobacco, gambling, and profanity.[376]


Washington the farmer is shown standing on his plantation talking to an overseer as children play and slaves work. Work is by Junius Stearns.
Washington as Farmer at Mount Vernon
Junius Brutus Stearns, 1851

Washington had no animosity toward owning slaves prior to 1775. During the Revolutionary War, however, his views moderated under the influence of anti-slavery officers he was friendly with, such as Lafayette.[377] In 1775, Washington initially allowed only 200 blacks to serve in the Continental Army, but by January 1778, he endorsed the New England states plan to recruit enslaved blacks, their eventual emancipation, and compensation to their slave owners. On October 19, 1781 Washington ordered that recaptured runaway slaves that sided with the British should be returned to their American masters. [378] By the end of the war, Washington's integrated army was composed of one-tenth blacks.[379] Washington allowed black American soldiers, who had been promised freedom, to be returned to their masters.[378] Although Washington insisted American runaway slaves be returned, British Major General Sir Guy Carleton would not return American slaves who enlisted into the British Army. [380]

Washington supported many slaves who were too young or too old to work, greatly increasing Mount Vernon's slave population and causing the plantation to operate at a loss in the process.[381] He spoke privately often of freeing his slaves, but never publicly condemned slavery, believing the issue would divide the new nation.[382] At the Constitutional Convention, Washington received public criticism in Massachusetts for his silence on slavery.[383]

While President, Washington maintained close supervision of Mount Vernon through letters to his overseers;[384] there is one account from him authorizing a whipping that was given to a slave who had badly beaten his wife.[378] At times, Mount Vernon slaves ran away to find freedom.[385][386] To avoid any controversy, Washington often used secretive methods to return them rather than post public advertisements in the North.[387][lower-alpha 18] However, between 1760 and 1771, Washington placed ads for the recapture of five runaways, offering handsome rewards for their apprehension. In 1766, tired of a slave who ran away once too often, Washington wrote to Captain John Thompson, asking him to sell one Washington's slaves, whom he described as "a rogue and a run-away". Expressing little concern for the slave's comfort, Washington recommended that Thompson keep him "handcuffed until you get to sea or in the bay."[388][389]

On his Mount Vernon plantation farms, Washington discouraged cruelty, yet there are records of harsh punishments, including whipping inflicted on male and female slaves by their overseers, some of whom were also slaves. He directed that a warning be given to first offenders before resorting to whipping, which was then subject to his prior approval; this was not always enforced, due to his prolonged absences.[390] In other circumstances, he shipped "misbehaving" slaves to the West Indies, selling one recalcitrant slave for "one pipe and quarter cask of wine from the West Indies".[391][392] He also used nonviolent forms of discipline, including cash payments, material incentives, and "admonition and advice".[393] Washington sometimes personally cared for ill or injured slaves, and he provided physicians and midwives. Washington's slaves were inoculated for smallpox, worked from dawn to dusk, but were poorly clothed and housed. His slaves received two hours off for meals during the workday, and were not put to work on Sundays (the Sabbath), Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost.[394] However, Washington believed that black people were incapable of understanding what freedom entailed. In 1798, he justified keeping black slaves by telling John Bernard that, "Till the mind of the slave has been educated to perceive what are the obligations of a state of freedom, and not confound a man’s with a brute’s, the gift would insure its abuse." Washington also expressed the view that when his slaves claimed to be sick, they were often "lazy" and "idle".[395][391]

Washington condemned slaves for taking up arms in their fight for freedom in St Domingue, in a conflict that would result in independent Haiti in 1804. Washington offered sympathy and money to the French slaveholders in St Domingue.[391]

By 1799, there were 317 slaves living at Mount Vernon; he owned 124 outright and held 153 for his wife's dower interest.[386] During the summer, Washington made a new will that directed his 124 slaves be freed upon the death of Martha.[396] He was among the few slave-holding Founding Fathers to do so.[397] He provided that old and young freed people be taken care of indefinitely; younger ones were to be taught to read and write and placed in suitable occupations. Martha freed his slaves on January 1, 1801, a year after Washington's death and a year before her own. Modern historian John E. Ferling has posited that Washington's freeing of his slaves through his will was "an act of atonement for a lifetime of concurrence in human exploitation".[396]

Religion and Freemasonry

Washington descended from Anglican minister Lawrence Washington (his great-great-grandfather), whose troubles with the Church of England may have prompted his heirs to emigrate to America.[398] Washington was baptized as an infant in April 1732 and became a devoted member of the Church of England (the Anglican Church).[399] He served for over twenty years as a vestryman and churchwarden for Fairfax Parish and Truro Parish.[400] He privately prayed and read the Bible daily, and he publicly encouraged people and the nation to pray.[401] He may have taken communion on a regular basis prior to the Revolutionary War, but he did not do so following the war, for which he was admonished by Pastor James Abercrombie.[402]

Washington is shown presiding as Master Mason over a lodge meeting.
George Washington as Master of his Lodge, 1793

Washington believed in a "wise, inscrutable, and irresistible" Creator God who was active in the Universe, contrary to deistic thought.[398] He referred to this God by the Enlightenment terms Providence, the Creator, or the Almighty, and also as the Divine Author or the Supreme Being.[403] He believed in a divine power who watched over battlefields, was involved in the outcome of war, was protecting his life, and was involved in American politics—and specifically in the creation of the United States.[404][lower-alpha 19] Modern historian Ron Chernow has posited that Washington avoided evangelistic Christianity or hellfire-and-brimstone speech along with communion and anything inclined to "flaunt his religiosity". Chernow has also said Washington "never used his religion as a device for partisan purposes or in official undertakings".[406] No mention of Jesus Christ appears in his private correspondence, and such references are rare in his public writings.[407] He often quoted from the Bible or paraphrased it, and often referred to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.[408] There is debate on whether he is best classed as a Christian, a theistic rationalist, or both.[409]

Washington emphasized religious toleration in a nation with numerous denominations and religions. He publicly attended services of different Christian denominations and prohibited anti-Catholic celebrations in the Army.[410] He engaged workers at Mount Vernon without regard for religious belief or affiliation. While President, he acknowledged major religious sects and gave speeches on religious toleration.[411] He was distinctly rooted in the ideas, values, and modes of thinking of the Enlightenment,[412] but harbored no contempt of organized Christianity and its clergy, "being no bigot myself to any mode of worship".[412] He proclaimed in 1793, "We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition."[413]

Freemasonry was a widely accepted institution in the late 18th century, known for advocating moral teachings.[414] Washington was attracted to the Masons' dedication to the Enlightenment principles of rationality, reason, and brotherhood. The American lodges did not share the anti-clerical perspective of the controversial European lodges.[415] A Masonic lodge was established in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in September 1752, and Washington was initiated two months later at the age of 20 as one of its first Entered Apprentices. Within a year, he progressed through its ranks to become a Master Mason.[416] Before and during the American Revolution he used Masonic lodges as meeting places to plot against the British. Washington had a high regard for the Masonic Order, but his personal lodge attendance was sporadic. In 1777, a convention of Virginia lodges asked him to be the Grand Master of the newly established Grand Lodge of Virginia, but he declined due to his commitments leading the Continental Army. After 1782, he corresponded frequently with Masonic lodges and members,[417] and in 1788 he was listed as Master in the Virginia charter of Alexandria Lodge No. 22.[418]

Historical reputation and legacy

portrait of Washington seated facing left by Gilbert Stuart
The Constable-Hamilton Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

Washington's legacy endures as one of the most influential in American history, since he served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, a hero of the Revolution, and the first president of the United States. Various historians maintained that Washington was a dominant factor in America's founding, the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention. Congressman Light-Horse Harry Lee, a Revolutionary War comrade, eulogized Washington: "First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen."[419] Lee's words became the hallmark by which Washington's reputation was impressed upon the American memory, with some biographers regarding him as the great exemplar of republicanism. Washington set many precedents for the national government and the presidency in particular, and he was called the "Father of His Country" as early as 1778.[420][lower-alpha 20]

In 1885, Congress proclaimed Washington's birthday to be a federal holiday.[422] Twentieth-century biographer Douglas Southall Freeman concluded, "The great big thing stamped across that man is character." Modern historian David Hackett Fischer has expanded upon Freeman's assessment, defining Washington's character as "integrity, self-discipline, courage, absolute honesty, resolve, and decision, but also forbearance, decency, and respect for others".[423]

Washington became an international symbol for liberation and nationalism, as the leader of the first successful revolution against a colonial empire. The Federalists made him the symbol of their party, but the Jeffersonians continued to distrust his influence for many years and delayed building the Washington Monument.[424] On January 31, 1781 (before he had even begun his presidency), he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[425] During the United States Bicentennial, to ensure Washington would never be outranked, Washington was posthumously appointed to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States by the congressional joint resolution Public Law 94-479 passed on January 19, 1976, with an effective appointment date of July 4, 1976.[426][lower-alpha 21] Parson Weems's hagiographical account The Life of Washington (1809) helped elevate Washington to heroic legendary status.[429] The authenticity of Weems's anecdotes, which include the story of Washington cutting down the cherry tree as a child and his utterance "I cannot tell a lie", is unknown.[430][lower-alpha 22]

Historian Gordon S. Wood concluded that "the greatest act of his life, the one that gave him his greatest fame, was his resignation as commander-in-chief of the American forces."[431] According to historian Ron Chernow, Washington was in part "burdened by public life" and divided by "unacknowledged ambition mingled with self-doubt." [432]

Historian Joseph Ellis and many scholars have concluded Washington was one of the best among U.S. Presidents. Washington essentially created the Presidency, defined vaguely in the Constitution. Washington gave the office executive power, created the first presidential cabinet, and defined "the primary role of the executive branch in the making of foreign policy." According to Ellis, although Washington was a president who owned slaves, he freed them by his will, and was quiet on the devisive institution to keep the new nation unified. [433]

C-SPAN's Presidential Historians Survey 2017 ranked Washington number 2 overall.[434][435] Siena College Research Institutes' 2018 6th Presidential Ranking Poll ranked Washington number 1 overall.[436][437]


The serious collection and publication of Washington's documentary record began with the pioneer work of Jared Sparks in the 1830s in Life and Writings of George Washington (12 vols., 1834–1837).[438] The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799 (1931–44) is a 39-volume set edited by John Clement Fitzpatrick who was commissioned by the George Washington Bicentennial Commission. It contains over 17,000 letters and documents and is available online from the University of Virginia.[439][440]

Monuments and memorials

A dusk picture of the Washington Monument obelisk with flags around the base, in Washington, D.C.
Washington Monument, Washington, DC

Many places and monuments have been named in honor of Washington, most notably the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. (which is also indirectly named for Christopher Columbus, "D.C." standing for "District of Columbia"). The state of Washington is the only state to be named after a president.[441]

Postage and currency

George Washington appears on contemporary U.S. currency, including the one-dollar bill and the quarter-dollar coin (the Washington quarter).

Washington and Benjamin Franklin appeared on the nation's first postage stamps in 1847. Since that time, Washington has appeared on many postage issues, more than any other person.[442]

Washington, general issue of 1861, 24c
Washington issue of 1862
Washington-Franklin Issue of 1917, 5c
Washington-Franklin issue of 1917
quarter dollar
Washington on the 1928 dollar bill

See also



  1. April 6 is when Congress counted the votes of the Electoral College and certified a president. April 30 is when Washington was sworn in.[1]
  2. Old style: February 11, 1731
  3. Contemporaneous records used the Julian calendar and the Annunciation Style of enumerating years, recording his birth as February 11, 1731. The British Calendar (New Style) Act 1750, implemented in 1752, altered the official British dating method to the Gregorian calendar with the start of the year on January 1 (it had been March 25). These changes resulted in dates being moved forward 11 days, and an advance of one year for those between January 1 and March 25. For a further explanation, see Old Style and New Style dates.[3]
  4. the Forks of the Ohio, and future site of Pittsburgh
  5. The Second Virginia regiment was constituted and raised under Colonel William Byrd III; it also was placed under Forbes.[54]
  6. Washington secretly instructed Captain William Crawford of the Ohio Country to scout out forbidden lands in the 1760s, beyond the Kings' Royal Proclamation Line.[84]
  7. In a letter of September 20, 1765, Washington protested to "Robert Cary & Co." of the low prices that he received for his tobacco, and for the inflated prices that he was forced to pay on second-rate goods from London.[86]
  8. Congress initially attempted to direct the war effort in June 1776 with the committee known as "Board of War and Ordnance"; this was succeeded by the Board of War in July 1777, which eventually included members of the military.[116]
  9. This painting has received both acclaim and criticism;[133] see Emanuel Leutze article for details.
  10. While Jefferson denounced the Society of Cincinnati’s hereditary membership, he praised Washington for his "moderation and virtue" in relinquishing command. Washington's revolutionary adversary, King George III, reportedly praised Washington for this act.[213]
  11. In May 1783, Henry Knox formed the Society of the Cincinnati to carry on the memory of the War of Independence and establish a fraternity of officers. The Society was named after Cincinnatus, a famous Roman military leader, who relinquished his position after his Roman victory at Algidus (458 BC). However, he had reservations about some of the society's precepts, including heredity requirements for membership and the receiving of money from foreign interests.[215]
  12. Washington was also suffering from severe rheumatism and by April 1787 couldn't raise his arm to his head and had to keep it in a sling.[221]
  13. At Founders Online, National Archives “List of State Acts Granting Congress Regulatory Powers”, From February to April 1787 under the Articles of Confederation, at least twelve of the thirteen states contemplated ceding Congress power to regulate commerce for 15-25 years: either 1) outright (RI) or 2) when “other States” agreed (MA, SC-GA - excepting slavery), 3) when “nine States” agreed (CT, NJ, PA, DE, MD, VA), or 4) only when “all the States” had given “similar powers” (NH,NC) — [NY, no record in the National Archives].
  14. Starting in 1774, 14 men served as President of the Continental Congress but bore no relationship to the presidency established under Article II of the Constitution. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress called its presiding officer "President of the United States in Congress Assembled", but this position had no national executive powers.[245][246]
  15. There has been debate over whether Washington added "so help me God" to the end of the oath.[252]
  16. The first account of Washington's death was written by Doctors Craik and Brown, published in The Times of Alexandria five days after his death on December 19, 1799. The complete text can be found in The Eclectic Medical Journal (1858)[355]
  17. Modern experts have concluded that Washington probably died from acute bacterial epiglottitis complicated by the administered treatments, including Morens and Wallenborn in 1999,[357][358] Cheatham in 2008, [359] and Vadakan in 2005.[360] These treatments included multiple doses of calomel (a cathartic or purgative) and extensive bloodletting.
  18. For example, Washington privately ordered the capture of Martha's fugitive slave Oney Judge in 1796; the effort failed.[385]
  19. After the Constitution’s adoption, when it was under attack in Pennsylvania, Washington wrote to Richard Peters, “It would seem from the public Gazettes that the minority in your State are preparing for another attack of the now adopted Government; how formidable it may be, I know not. But that Providence which has hitherto smiled on the honest endeavours of the well meaning part of the People of this Country will not, I trust, withdraw its support from them at this crisis.”[405]
  20. The earliest known image in which Washington is identified as the Father of His Country is in the frontispiece of a 1779 German-language almanac, with calculations by David Rittenhouse and published by Francis Bailey in Lancaster County Pennsylvania. Der Gantz Neue Verbesserte Nord-Americanische Calendar has Fame appearing with an image of Washington holding a trumpet to her lips, from which come the words "Der Landes Vater" (translated as "the father of the country" or "the father of the land").[421]
  21. In Portraits & Biographical Sketches of the United States Army's Senior Officer,[427] William Gardner Bell states that Washington was recalled back into military service from his retirement in 1798, and "Congress passed legislation that would have made him General of the Armies of the United States, but his services were not required in the field and the appointment was not made until the Bicentennial in 1976, when it was bestowed posthumously as a commemorative honor." In 1976, President Gerald Ford specified that Washington would "rank first among all officers of the Army, past and present."[428]
  22. The idea of Washington "cutting down" the cherry tree is a revision of Weem's original account, where he maintains that only "barking" (removal of bark from the tree) occurred. Weems' story has never been proven or disproven.[430]


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