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George Washington

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

George Washington
Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington.jpg
George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797
1st President of the United States
In office
April 30, 1789[a] – March 4, 1797
Vice President John Adams
Preceded by office established
Succeeded by John Adams
Senior Officer of the U.S. Army
In office
July 13, 1798 – December 14, 1799
Appointed by John Adams
Preceded by James Wilkinson
Succeeded by Alexander Hamilton
Commander-in-Chief of the
Continental Army
In office
June 15, 1775 – December 23, 1783
Appointed by Continental Congress
Preceded by office established
Succeeded by Henry Knox (as Senior Officer of the Army)
Delegate to the Second Continental Congress from Virginia
In office
May 10, 1775 – June 15, 1775
Preceded by office established
Succeeded by Thomas Jefferson
Delegate to the First Continental Congress
from Virginia
In office
September 5, 1774 – October 26, 1774
Preceded by office established
Succeeded by office abolished
Personal details
Born (1732-02-22)February 22, 1732
Popes Creek, Colony of Virginia, British America
Died December 14, 1799(1799-12-14) (aged 67)
Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.
Cause of death Epiglottitis and hypovolemic shock
Resting place Washington Family Tomb, Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.
Political party None
Spouse(s) Martha Dandridge (m. 1759)[1]
Parents Augustine Washington
Mary Ball Washington
Awards Congressional Gold Medal
Thanks of Congress
Cursive signature in ink
Military service
Allegiance  Kingdom of Great Britain
 United States
Service/branch Colonial Militia
Continental Army
 United States Army
Years of service 1752–58 (British Militia)
1775–83 (Continental Army)
1798–99 (U.S. Army)
Rank Colonel (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)
Commands Virginia Colony's regiment
Continental Army
United States Army

George Washington (February 22, 1732[b][c] – December 14, 1799) was an American statesman and soldier who served as the first President of the United States from 1789 to 1797. As one of the leading Patriots, he was among the new nation's Founding Fathers and served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He presided over the 1787 Constitutional Convention. He also came to be known as the "Father of His Country."

Washington was born into Colonial Virginia gentry to a family of wealthy planters, vested with tobacco plantations and slaves which he later inherited. His early education was simple, which included mathematics and surveying, which he soon put into practice. He joined the colonial militia at the start of the French and Indian War and became a senior Virginia officer. He grew in his opposition to Britain’s rule by its Parliament, which allowed no representation from the American colonies yet began to levy direct taxes on them. The Second Continental Congress made him commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775, and he drove the British out of Boston in 1776; he was subsequently defeated, however, and lost New York City. He crossed the Delaware River in mid-winter and defeated the British in two battles, retook New Jersey, and restored momentum to the Patriot cause. Washington's strategy, field command, development of the army, and alliance with the French all combined to defeat British forces in every theater, climaxing with the allied victory at the Siege of Yorktown. Historians attribute his success to his mastery of military command on the job, and his respect for civilian control of the military through coordination with congressional and state officials.

Once victory was in hand in 1783, Washington resisted further power and resigned as commander-in-chief, affirming his devotion to American Republicanism. He was unanimously chosen to lead the Constitutional Convention in 1787 which devised the new Federal government. He was also admired for his strong nationalist leadership qualities and was unanimously elected as President by the Electoral College in the first two national elections, in which he worked to unify rival factions in the fledgling nation. But by 1794, Congress was divided between rival parties founded by two of his cabinet secretaries: Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party. Washington remained non-partisan and never joined the Federalists—though he largely supported their policies. He adopted Hamilton's programs to satisfy federal and state debts, to establish a permanent seat of government, to implement an effective tax system, and to create a national bank.

Washington avoided another war with Great Britain by securing the Jay Treaty of 1795, guaranteeing a decade of peace and profitable trade despite intense opposition from the Democratic-Republicans. He oversaw the creation of a strong, well-financed national government that maintained neutrality during the French Revolution, suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion, and won wide acceptance of the new Federal government among Americans. His incumbency established many precedents still in use today, such as the Cabinet system, the inaugural address, and the title "Mr. President". His retirement from office in 1797 after two terms established a traditional two-term limit to the presidency which was eventually made formal policy. Washington's Farewell Address was an influential primer on civic virtue, warning against partisanship, sectionalism, and involvement in foreign wars. Upon his death, he was famously eulogized as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen". Scholarly and public polling consistently rank him among the top three presidents in American history, and he has been depicted and honored in numerous monuments, public works, currency, and other dedications to the present day.


Early years (1732–1752)

George Washington was the first child of Augustine Washington and his second wife Mary Ball Washington, born at Wakefield on their Popes Creek Estate in Westmoreland County, Virginia.[3] He was born on February 11, 1731, according to the Julian calendar and Annunciation Style of enumerating years then in use in the British Empire. The Gregorian calendar was adopted within the British Empire in 1752, and it renders a birth date of February 22, 1732.[4][c]

 Wakefield, Popes Creek Estate, Washington's birthplace
Wakefield, Popes Creek Estate, Washington's birthplace

Washington was descended primarily from English gentry of Sulgrave, England. His great-grandfather John Washington immigrated to Virginia in 1656 and began accumulating land and slaves, as did his son Lawrence and his grandson Augustine, George's father. Augustine was a tobacco planter who also tried his hand at iron manufacturing,[5] and later was the Justice of the Westmoreland County Court.[6][d] In Washington's youth, his moderately prosperous family was among the members of Virginia's "country level gentry" of "middling rank," rather than one of the wealthy elite planter families.[8] When Washington was 3, the family left Popes Creek (the home was destroyed by fire in 1779) and moved to Epsewasson, a more prosperous plantation which his father purchased on the bluffs of the Potomac River.[9]

Washington was one of seven surviving children of Augustine's two marriages, including older half-brothers Lawrence and Augustine from his father's first marriage to Jane Butler Washington, and full siblings Samuel, Elizabeth (Betty), John Augustine, and Charles.[3] Three siblings died before adulthood; his sister Mildred died when she was about one, his half-brother Butler died in infancy, and his half-sister Jane died at age 12 when George was about 2.[10]

When Washington was 6, his family moved to a home on Ferry Farm in Stafford County, Virginia near Fredericksburg. The family kept 10 slaves in the main farmhouse and outbuildings, and another 20 near the farm. He spent much of his boyhood here, and he is said to have damaged his father's cherry tree on Ferry Farm, according to American folk legend.[11] Washington's father died of a sudden illness in April 1743 when George was 11, and his half-brother Lawrence became his surrogate father and role model.

Washington grew up under the patronage of the powerful Fairfax family.[12] Lawrence had married Ann Fairfax, daughter of William Fairfax, a wealthy Virginia plantation owner.[13] William Fairfax's son George was a close friend and associate of Washington.[14] His wife Sally was also a friend of Washington, as well as an early romantic interest, and they maintained correspondence when she moved to England with her father.[15]

Lawrence Washington inherited Epsewasson from their father, and he changed the name to Mount Vernon in honor of his commanding officer Vice Admiral Edward Vernon. Washington inherited Ferry Farm upon his father's death and eventually acquired Mount Vernon after Lawrence's death on July 26, 1752.[16]

The death of his father prevented Washington from a formal education at England's Appleby Grammar School such as his older brothers had received.[18] He had two or three years of education from a variety of tutors, and also attended a school run by an Anglican clergyman in Fredericksburg.[19] His education totaled seven or eight years, while he lived with various relatives in and around Mount Vernon in Virginia. He was trained in mathematics, trigonometry, and surveying and had a natural talent in draftsmanship and map making. He was an avid reader and purchased books on military affairs, agriculture, and history, as well as the popular novels of his time.[20] There was talk of securing an appointment for him in the Royal Navy when he was 15, but the idea was abandoned at the objection of his widowed mother.[21]

In 1751, Washington traveled with Lawrence to Barbados (his only trip abroad) in the hope that the climate would be beneficial to Lawrence's declining health, as he was suffering from tuberculosis.[22] Washington contracted smallpox during the trip, which left his face slightly scarred but immunized him against future exposures to the disease.[23] Lawrence's health failed to improve, and he returned to Mount Vernon where he died in the summer of 1752.[24] That year, Washington became a member of the Freemasons while in Fredericksburg, though his involvement was minimal.[25]

Colonial surveyor

Washington was introduced to surveying through school exercises followed by practical experience in the field. His initial surveying occurred in the territory surrounding Mount Vernon; in 1748, he joined a survey party organized by his neighbor George William Fairfax to lay out large tracts of land along the border of western Virginia, where he gained valuable experience.[26] He began his professional career in 1749 at age 17 when he received a commission and surveyor's license from the College of William & Mary and was appointed Surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia.[20][e] He completed his first survey in less than two days, plotting a 400-acre parcel of land. He was consequently able to purchase land in the Shenandoah Valley, the first of his many land acquisitions in western Virginia. On March 23, he recorded his first encounter with Indians when his surveying crew met a war party of 13 returning from a battle; Washington noted that the men in the crew were "agreeably surprised".[28]

Washington also surveyed land in Western Virginia for the Ohio Company, a land investment firm funded by Virginia investors. The new Lieutenant governor Robert Dinwiddie took notice of him thanks to brother Lawrence's position as commander of the Virginia militia. In October 1750, Washington resigned his position as an official surveyor, though he continued to survey professionally for two more years. By 1752, he had completed close to 200 surveys on numerous properties totaling more than 60,000 acres, and he continued to survey at different times throughout his life.[29]

Colonial military career (1752–1758)

Washington Expeditions 1753–1754
Washington's map accompanying his Journal to the Ohio (1753–54)
Major George Washington 1754

Washington's military career began immediately after his older brother Lawrence died, which left vacant the position of Adjutant General. Washington decided to give up surveying, begin a soldier's life, and pursue the position; his military ambition had been inspired by Lawrence's service with Admiral Edward Vernon.[30] The Province of Virginia was divided into four districts, with an adjutant in charge of each district. He wanted to oversee the Northern District, but he was assigned to the less prestigious Southern District on December 13, 1752 by Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie. However, William Fitzhugh decided to move to Maryland and resigned as adjutant to the Northern District, and Washington immediately lobbied for the position. He was chosen as a military ambassador for the British crown to the French officials and Indians as far north as Erie, Pennsylvania (the Northern District) in 1753. He was only 21 and was eager to prove himself, so he immediately accepted the mission.[31]

The British government had ordered Dinwiddie to guard British territorial claims in the Ohio River basin, protecting trade activity with the Indians and others in the various settlements.[20] He ordered Washington to deliver a letter in late 1753, asking French commander Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre at Fort Le Boeuf to vacate the Ohio Valley, and providing him with a safe escort to Lake Erie. Washington was also to make peace with the Six Nations.[32]

Washington and six frontiersmen reached the Ohio River that November, but the French had withdrawn. He met with Tanacharison (also called "Half-King") and other Six Nations Iroquois chiefs at Logstown and secured their support against the French if needed, and then continued 60 miles and met the French at Venango—but the letter was refused.[33] Washington then reached Fort Le Boeuf and delivered the letter to its commander, who told Dinwiddie to send his demand to the Major General of New France in its capital at Quebec City.[34] Washington’s diary of the expedition was printed by William Hunter according to Dinwiddie’s order, giving Washington name recognition in Virginia and England;[35][36] it also helped him obtain a commission to raise a company of men.[37]

French and Indian War

 An engraved depiction of Lieutenant Colonel George Washington's evening council at Fort Necessity
An engraved depiction of Lieutenant Colonel George Washington's evening council at Fort Necessity

In 1753, the French expanded their military control into the Ohio Country, a territory already claimed by the British colonies of Virginia and Pennsylvania. These competing claims led to the French and Indian War (1754–62) and contributed to the start of the global Seven Years' War (1756–63). Washington became involved in it by chance in 1754, and it was his first battle experience.[38]

On March 15, 1754, Governor Dinwiddie commissioned Washington as a Lieutenant Colonel in the newly formed Virginia Regiment and sent him on his second Ohio Country expedition to safeguard construction of a fort at Pittsburgh. He set out on April 2 with 150 men, but he received news en route that a French force had driven out colonial traders and begun construction of Fort Duquesne. Tanacharison and a few warriors discovered a small detachment of French troops east of Uniontown, Pennsylvania led by Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. Washington built an entrenched camp at Great Meadows, Pennsylvania which he called Fort Necessity and, with some of his militia unit and their Mingo allies, he ambushed the French on May 28 in the Battle of Jumonville Glen.[36] There are discrepancies, but several primary accounts agree that the battle only lasted about 15 minutes; Jumonville was killed and most of his party were taken prisoner or killed.[39] Following the battle, Tanacharison gave Washington the nickname Town Destroyer.[40]

The French responded by attacking Fort Necessity in July 1754 in a ten-hour battle[36] which culminated in Washington's only surrender.[41] The French allowed him to return to Virginia with his troops, but he signed a French surrender document due to faulty translation which said that he had "assassinated" Jumonville—and this became a pretext to blame him for starting a war.[36] Historian Joseph Ellis concludes that the episode demonstrated Washington's bravery and initiative, as well as his inexperience and impetuosity.[42] Upon his return to Virginia, Washington refused to accept a demotion to the rank of captain, and resigned his commission.[43]

Washington's expedition into the Ohio Country had international consequences; the French accused him of assassinating Jumonville according to the surrender document, and they further claimed that Jumonville was only on a diplomatic mission.[42] Both France and Great Britain were ready to fight for control of the region and both sent troops to North America in 1755; war was formally declared in 1756.[44]

Braddock expedition and disaster (1755)

 19th-century engraving of Major-General Braddock's death in the Battle of the Monongahela
19th-century engraving of Major-General Braddock's death in the Battle of the Monongahela

In 1755, Washington became the senior American aide to British General Edward Braddock on the ill-fated Braddock expedition. This was the largest British expedition to the colonies and was intended to expel the French from the Ohio Country; the first objective was the capture of Fort Duquesne.[45] Washington initially sought an appointment as a major from Braddock, but he agreed to serve as a staff volunteer when he learned that no rank above captain could be given except by London. He recommended to Braddock that the army be split into two divisions when the pace of the troops began to slow, forming a primary and more lightly equipped "flying column" offensive which could move more rapidly.[46]

In the Battle of the Monongahela, the French and their Indian allies ambushed Braddock's reduced forces, and the general was mortally wounded. After suffering devastating casualties, the British panicked and retreated. Washington rallied his forces into an organized retreat, demonstrating bravery and stamina despite suffering a persistent illness of fever and headache. He had two horses shot from beneath him, and his hat and coat were pierced by several bullets. Two-thirds of the British force of 976 men were killed or wounded in the battle. Washington's conduct in the battle redeemed his reputation among many who had criticized his command in the Battle of Fort Necessity.[47] However, he was not included by the succeeding commander Colonel Thomas Dunbar in planning subsequent force movements, possibly as a result of his recommendation to form the flying column offensive.[48]

Commander of Virginia Regiment (1755)

On August 14, 1755, Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie rewarded Washington with a commission as "Colonel of the Virginia Regiment and Commander in Chief of all forces now raised in the defense of His Majesty's Colony" and gave him the task of defending Virginia's frontier. The Virginia Regiment was the first full-time American military unit in the colonies, as opposed to part-time militias and the British regular units. He was ordered to "act defensively or offensively" as he thought best.[49] He happily accepted the commission, but the coveted red coat of officer rank continued to elude him—along with the accompanying pay. Dinwiddie urged the British military to incorporate the Virginia Regiment into its ranks, but to no avail.[50]

Washington was in command of a thousand soldiers, and he was known to be a disciplinarian who emphasized training. He led his men in brutal campaigns against the Indians in the west; his regiment fought 20 battles in 10 months and lost a third of its men. As a result of his strenuous efforts, Virginia's frontier population suffered less than that of other colonies; Ellis concludes that "it was his only unqualified success" in that war.[51]

Forbes expedition and retirement (1758)

 Engraving depicting the British arrival at the remains of Fort Duquesne
Engraving depicting the British arrival at the remains of Fort Duquesne

In 1758, Colonel Washington participated in the Forbes Expedition under the command of John Forbs to capture the French Fort Duquesne in Pennsylvania. Washington was eager to earn recognition and improve his military standing, as he was younger than most of his peers, and to this end he had corresponded with Forbes and Colonel Thomas Gage for the opportunity. However, he was disappointed when he was only assigned to oversee construction of a road that would connect Forts Fredrick and Cumberland in preparation for the advance on Fort Duquesne.[52]

Washington was only involved in one battle during the expedition, and it was an episode that did little to help his reputation. His unit responded to an enemy raiding party, but they found themselves involved in a friendly fire incident when reinforcements arrived, each contingent thinking that the other was the French enemy and resulting in minor casualties.[53] The British did score a strategic victory by gaining control of the Ohio Valley when the French finally abandoned the fort, but Washington retired from his Virginia Regiment commission in December 1758 and did not return to military life until the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775.[54]

Lessons learned

Washington never gained the commission in the British army that he yearned for, but in these years he acquired military, political, and leadership skills that proved invaluable during the Revolution,[55] aided by his observations, readings, and conversations with professional officers.[56] Some historians ascribe his views on the advantages of a strong national government and a vigorous executive agency to his frustrations in dealing with government officials during this conflict[57] (although others point to his later American Revolutionary War service).[58][f] He developed a very negative view of an undisciplined militia compared to regular troops,[60] although his experience was limited to command of 1,000 men in remote frontier conditions, far removed from the urban situations that he faced during the Revolution.[61]

Marriage and civilian life (1759–1774)

 Colonel George Washington Provincial Troops, Virginia Regiment, by Charles Willson Peale, 1772
Colonel George Washington
Provincial Troops, Virginia Regiment, by Charles Willson Peale, 1772

On January 6, 1759, Washington married wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis, aged 28. George and Martha made a compatible marriage; she was intelligent, gracious, and experienced in managing a planter's estate.[62] The couple raised her children from a previous marriage, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke (Patsy) Custis, and they later raised grandchildren Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. They had no children together; his bout with smallpox in 1751 may have made him sterile.[63][g] They moved to Mount Vernon near Alexandria, where he took up life as a successful planter of tobacco and wheat and quickly emerged as a political figure.[65]

Washington's marriage to Martha greatly increased his property holdings and social standing and made him one of Virginia's wealthiest men. He acquired one-third of the 18,000-acre (73 km2) Custis estate, worth approximately $100,000, and he managed the remainder on behalf of Martha's children for whom he sincerely cared.[66] He also acquired 84 slaves through the marriage, brought to Mount Vernon from the Custis Estate.[67]

Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie had promised land bounties in 1754 to the soldiers and officers who volunteered during the French and Indian War.[68] Washington prevailed upon Governor Lord Botetourt, and he fulfilled Dinwiddie's promise in 1769–70;[69] Washington received title to 23,200 acres (94 km2) where the Kanawha River flows into the Ohio River in West Virginia.[70] He also bought additional land, doubled the size of Mount Vernon to 6,500 acres (26 km2), and increased its slave population to over 100 by 1775.[71]

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.[71] In the election that year, he plied the voters with 170 gallons of rice punch, beer, wine, hard cider, and brandy—even though he was absent because he was serving on the Forbes Expedition.[72] 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.[73]

 A mezzotint of Martha Washington based on a 1757 portrait by Wollaston
A mezzotint of Martha Washington based on a 1757 portrait by Wollaston

Washington lived an aristocratic lifestyle, and his favorite activities included fox hunting, dances and parties, the theater, races, and cockfights. He also was known to play cards, backgammon, and billiards.[74] Like most Virginia planters, he imported luxuries and other goods from England and paid for them by exporting his tobacco crop. By 1764, however, these luxuries and a poor tobacco market left him ₤1,800 in debt.[75] He gradually pulled himself out of debt in the mid-1760s by diversifying his business interests, paying more attention to his finances, and reducing imported luxuries. He changed Mount Vernon's primary cash crop from tobacco to wheat, which could be processed and then sold in various forms in the colonies, and he further diversified operations to include flour milling, fishing, horse breeding, hog production, spinning, and weaving. In the 1790s, he erected a distillery for whiskey production which yielded more than 1,000 gallons a month.[76]

Washington's step-daughter Patsy Custis died in his arms on June 19, 1773 after suffering from epileptic attacks for five years. The following day, he wrote to Burwell Bassett: "It is easier to conceive, than to describe, the distress of this Family, especially that of the unhappy Parent of our Dear Patcy Custis, when I inform you that yesterday re-moved the Sweet, Innocent Girl into a more happy & peaceful abode than any she has met with, the afflicted path she hitherto has trod."[77] He cancelled all business activity and was not away from Martha for a single night for the next three months.[78] Patsy's death enabled him to pay off his British creditors, however, since half of her inheritance passed to him.[79]

Washington became a political figure and soon emerged as a leader in the 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".[80] He became more politically active in 1769, presenting legislation in the Virginia Assembly to establish an embargo on goods from Great Britain.[81]

American Revolution

Washington played a leading military and political role in the American Revolution. His first-hand involvement began in 1767 when he took political stands against acts of the British Parliament such as the Stamp Act, the first direct tax on the colonies, enacted with no colonial representation. He assumed a leading role in the widespread colonial protests against the Townshend Acts enacted in 1767. In May 1769, he introduced a proposal drafted by his friend George Mason, calling for Virginia to boycott English goods until the Acts were repealed.[82] Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts in 1770.

Washington regarded the passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774 as "an Invasion of our Rights and Privileges",[83] telling his friend Bryan Fairfax, "I think the Parliament of Great Britain has no more right to put their hands in my pocket without my consent than I have to put my hands into yours for money." He also said that Americans must not submit to acts of tyranny "till custom and use shall make us as tame and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway."[84] In July 1774, he chaired a committee which adopted the Fairfax Resolves calling for a Continental Congress, among other things. In August, he attended the First Virginia Convention where he was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.[85]

Revolutionary War (1775–1783)

 General George Washington commander of the Continental Army
General George Washington
commander of the Continental Army

The colonies formally went to war with Great Britain after initial armed conflicts in the Battles of Lexington and Concord near Boston in April 1775. On June 14, Congress created the Continental Army, and Samuel Adams and John Adams of Massachusetts nominated Washington to be its supreme commander;[86][87] he was unanimously elected to that position the next day.[88] He declined a salary in his acceptance speech but accepted reimbursement for expenses, of which he kept an account over the next eight years.[89]

Washington appeared at the Second Continental Congress in a military uniform, marking his preparation for war.[90] Congress appointed him commander over 13 generals,[91] and he found capable officers such as General Nathanael Greene, Colonel Henry Knox, and Colonel Alexander Hamilton. Washington was impressed by the enthusiasm of Benedict Arnold and gave him the responsibilities of invading Canada. He also engaged General Daniel Morgan, with whom he had served in the French and Indian War.[92]

Washington immediately made reforms in the army and imposed strict discipline, including stockades, floggings, and fines. [93] He trained his officer staff during his initial months of command, and ordered them to familiarize themselves with their recruits so as to understand what military duties best suited them.[94] He impressed upon them the importance of being prepared and of respecting civilians, and he urged them to read military manuals.[95] He removed officers whom he thought to be cowardly or incompetent, and he told Congress that it was a "most necessary Work".[96] He urged recruits to remain in the army if their enlistments were about to expire, but this failed.

Washington only had 3,500 men for the 1776 campaign. By mid-January, his army was half-strength at 9,600 men; the colonial militia that fought in the French and Indian War was summoned to fill in the gaps.[97][h] Fortunately for Washington and the burgeoning Continental Army, General William Howe, the British commander in Boston, refused to attack.[99]

Boston and New York

 Washington at Dorchester Heights, by Gilbert Stuart 1806
Washington at Dorchester Heights, by Gilbert Stuart 1806

In September 1775, Washington, impatient with all the inactivity, called for a council of war, and proposed an attack on the besieged British Army in Boston.[99] Most of his generals were aghast at such a proposal believing Howe's British Army, supported by the British Navy, was firmly entrenched and it would only result in high casualties.[100] To bypass his generals, Washington ordered Colonel Knox to Fort Ticonderoga to procure artillery for the Continental Army. Having fifty-two cannon and fourteen mortars, Washington's generals consented to the bombarding of British forces from Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston. Howe refused to attack Washington at Dorchester Heights, believing he would suffer high casualties, such as at Bunker Hill. On March 1776, the British Army and Navy evacuated Boston.[101] Knowing the British were not defeated, Washington moved the Army to New York City, correctly predicting the British would return in full force.[102]

Beginning in June, 1776, British General William Howe, based on Staten Island, had amassed a large force of British and Hessian troops in preparation for an all out siege on New York City, which was considered the key to securing the continent. Before the attack Howe attempted to negotiate peace terms with Washington and sent him a dispatch which he addressed to George Washington, Esq. Washington refused the letter, demanding that he be recognized and addressed as a General and a belligerent, not as a rebel. He was also concerned that, as rebels, his men could be hanged if captured, and considered it his duty to insist that his men and the newly established United States be recognized and addressed with the proper protocol. After a few attempts, the negotiations failed.[103]

 Battle of Long Island Alonzo Chappel 1858
Battle of Long Island
Alonzo Chappel 1858

In the weeks leading up to the siege British naval and land forces were increasing in strength. In August 1776, Howe launched a massive naval and land campaign designed to seize New York. Many of Washington's generals preferred retreating from the city and engaging in a defensive strategy, but he believed it better to engage in a major pitched battle.[104] The Continental Army under Washington engaged the enemy for the first time as an army of the United States at the Battle of Long Island, the largest battle of the entire war. The Americans were heavily outnumbered, many men deserted, and Washington was badly defeated. He and his generals determined on a course of retreat, and Washington instructed General William Heath to make available every flat-bottom riverboat and sloop in the area. General William Alexander (Lord Stirling) held off the British Army, that allowed Washington and the Continental Army to retreat. In little time, Washington's army crossed the East River safely under the cover of darkness to Manhattan Island and did so without loss of life or materiel, although Lord Stirling was captured by the British.[105]

Washington had considered abandoning the island and Fort Washington, but he heeded Generals Greene and Putnam's recommendation to attempt a defense of the fort. Unable to hold there Washington, with strong objections from Lee, abandoned the fort and retreated further north to White Plains.[106] However, with Howe in pursuit he was unable to secure that position and was forced to retreat across the Hudson to Fort Lee to avoid encirclement. With the Americans in retreat, Howe was able to take the offensive; he landed his troops on the island on November 16 and surrounded and captured Fort Washington, resulting in high Continental casualties. As commander Washington was responsible for the decision to delay the retreat, but he also faulted the wishes of Congress and the bad advice of Nathaniel Greene."[107]

Crossing the Delaware

 Washington Crossing the Delaware December 25, 1776 Emanuel Leutze 1851[i]
Washington Crossing the Delaware December 25, 1776
Emanuel Leutze 1851[i]

Retreating from his defeat in New York, Washington continued his flight across New Jersey, with Howe's troops pursuing most of the way.[109] The future of the Continental Army was in doubt due to poor supply, lack of adequate clothing and boots along with expiring enlistments and many desertions along the way. He was disappointed to find that many New Jersey residents were Loyalists, or simply very skeptical about the prospect of Independence.[110]

Later he prepared to make his move across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. The over confident General Howe assumed that Washington and his men would never be able to cross the Delaware, decided not to advance on Philadelphia and instead bided his time and took up winter quarters in Trenton, New Jersey situated on the east shore of the Delaware. Learning about the complacency of Howe and his Hessian mercenaries, and prompted by desperate conditions and expiring enlistments, Washington gathered with his generals on Christmas Eve at the home of Samuel Merrick and devised a plan to cross the icy Delaware at night and surprise the British/Hessian garrison encamped there. By sundown stormy weather was increasing and a light rain began to fall. Before the mass crossing, Washington had already crossed the river and staked out an area on the New Jersey shore where his troops would land. In the mean time, he had his men search along the Delaware for sixty miles for sturdy boats and barges suitable for transporting troops and supply across the river, commandeer any rivercraft that could be used for the crossing, and to destroy any that could later be used by the British. Many Durham boats[j] were found and used in the crossing. Washington ordered some of the extra boats found to be hidden away in creeks for future use.[112] However, at about midnight, his plan was on the verge of failure with serious delays from the artillery teams assembling at the point of departure. On the night of December 25–26, 1776, he led his army across the Delaware, with eighteen pieces of artillery, while struggling with rapid currents and ice hindering their way. Washington divided his forces into three groups, with two of them failing to make it across the river.[113]

Trenton and Princeton

 Battle of Trenton Charles McBarron 1975
Battle of Trenton
Charles McBarron 1975

The American troops crossed the next morning with stormy weather and heavy sleet and snow still coming down, and his scouts reported the location of the Hessian outposts and forward positions about one mile from Trenton in New Jersey. Washington divided his army into three groups and rode about on horseback giving words of encouragement to his men: "Soldiers keep by your officers. For God's sake, keep by your officers." Still on his mount, Washington stopped briefly and was given food and drink at a nearby home while his senior officers gathered around for a council of war. Moving on, the three divisions divided at the Birmingham crossroads, with General Nathanael Greene's division taking the upper Ferry Road and General John Sullivan's division advancing on River Road.[114] In coordinated effort Washington advanced on Trenton in a surprise attack at about 8 a.m., still dark from heavy cloud cover. He led the charge himself, aided by Major-General Henry Knox and his artillery, and captured some 850 prisoners.[115]

Washington followed up his victory at Trenton with another over British regulars at Princeton on January 3,[116] with only forty Americans killed or wounded while the British forces suffered 273 killed or captured.[117] American Generals Hugh Mercer and John Cadwalader were already present and being driven back by the British, with Mercer fallen and mortally wounded. Washington, mounted on his white horse, arrived at the scene and rallied Mercer's and Cadwalader's men to counterattack, with Washington out in front advancing to some thirty yards from the British front line.[118] The other British troops retreated after making a brief stand, some evacuating Princeton and others taking refuge in Nassau Hall. Hessian commander Colonel Johann Rall was mortally wounded during the short battle.[119] Alexander Hamilton was present at the battle; he brought three cannons and began firing at the building where the British were held up. Washington's troops charged the building, and the British put out a white flag and surrendered; 194 soldiers walked out of the building and laid down their arms.[120] The other British retreated to New York City and its environs, which they held until the Treaty of Paris (1783).

The depleted Continental army took up winter headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey after their victory at Princeton, rather than retreating back to Pennsylvania; this allowed him to disrupt British supply lines and drive them from parts of New Jersey. Washington admitted some years later that the British could easily have defeated his thinly guarded encampment if they had counter-attacked before his troops were dug in.[121]

Washington's victories marked a turning point in the revolution and wrecked the British strategy of showing overwhelming force, then offering generous terms. The Americans would not negotiate for anything short of independence.[122] These victories alone were not enough to ensure ultimate Patriot victory, however, since many soldiers did not re-enlist or deserted during the harsh winter. Washington and Congress reorganized the army with increased rewards for staying and punishment for desertion, which raised troop numbers effectively for subsequent battles.[123]

Brandywine, Germantown, and Saratoga

In February 1777 while encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, Washington became convinced that only smallpox inoculation by variolation would prevent the destruction of his Army, which by some accounts drastically reduced deaths by the disease.[124] In late summer of 1777, British General John Burgoyne led a major invasion army south from Quebec, with the intention of splitting off rebellious New England. But General Howe in New York took his army south to Philadelphia instead of going up the Hudson River to join with Burgoyne near Albany—a major strategic mistake. Meanwhile, Washington rushed to Philadelphia to engage Howe, while closely following the action in upstate New York, where the patriots were led by General Philip Schuyler and his successor Horatio Gates. The ensuing pitched battles at Philadelphia were too complex for Washington's relatively inexperienced men and they were defeated.[125]

At the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, Howe outmaneuvered Washington and marched into the American capital at Philadelphia unopposed on September 26. Washington's army unsuccessfully attacked the British garrison at Germantown in early October. Meanwhile, to the north, Burgoyne was beyond the reach of help from Howe, trapped and forced to surrender after the Battles of Saratoga.[125] This was a major turning point militarily and diplomatically—the French responded to Burgoyne's defeat by entering the war, allying with America and expanding the Revolutionary War into a major worldwide affair.

Washington's loss at Philadelphia prompted some members of Congress to consider removing him from command. This movement termed the Conway Cabal, failed after Washington's supporters rallied behind him.[126] Biographer Alden relates, "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 zealous admiration of Washington indeed inevitably waned, with John Adams giving Washington little credit.[127]

Valley Forge

 Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge John Ward Dunsmore 1907
Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge
John Ward Dunsmore 1907

Washington's army of 11,000 went into winter quarters at Valley Forge north of Philadelphia in December 1777. Over the next six months, the deaths in camp numbered in the thousands, the majority being from disease, compounded by lack of food and proper clothing, poor shelter, and the extreme cold. Historians' death toll estimates range from 2,000 to over 3,000 men.[128] The British were comfortably quartered in Philadelphia and paid for their supplies in sterling. In contrast, Washington had difficulty procuring supplies from the few farmers in the area who would not accept rapidly depreciating American paper currency, while the woodlands about the valley had soon been exhausted of game. As conditions worsened, Washington was faced with the task of maintaining morale and discouraging desertion, which had become common by February.[129]

Washington had repeatedly petitioned the Continental Congress for badly needed provisions but with no success. Finally, on January 24, 1778, five Congressmen came to Valley Forge to examine the conditions of the Continental Army. Washington expressed the urgency of the situation, exclaiming, "Something must be done. Important alterations must be made." At this time, he also contended that Congress should take control of the army supply system, pay for its supplies, and promptly expedite them as they became necessary. In response to Washington's urgent appeal, Congress gave full support to funding the supply lines of the army, which also resulted in reorganizing the commissary department that controlled gathering the supplies for the army. By late February, there were adequate supplies flowing throughout camp.[98]

Washington recruited regulars and assigned Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben to train them, whose incessant drilling soon transforming Washington's army into a disciplined and effective fighting force.[130] Washington's army had endured the winter when many feared it would have dissolved. Washington's birthday was publicly celebrated for the first time that winter.[131] The next spring, a revitalized army emerged from Valley Forge in good order, thanks in great part to a full-scale training program supervised by General von Steuben, a veteran of the Prussian general staff,[132], who was promoted to Major General for his effort and became Washington's chief of staff for the remainder of the war.[133]

Monmouth and Sullivan expedition

 Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth Emanuel Leutze 1851–1854
Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth
Emanuel Leutze 1851–1854

The British evacuated Philadelphia for New York in June 1778. Washington summoned a council of war with Generals Lee, Greene, Wayne, and Lafayette. He decided to make a partial attack on the retreating British at the Battle of Monmouth. The British were commanded by Sir Henry Clinton, Howe's successor. On June 28, Lee and Lafayette moved with 4,000 men, without Washington's immediate knowledge and bungled their first attack. After sharp words of criticism, Washington relieved Lee and continued fighting to an effective draw in one of the war's largest battles. When nightfall came, the fighting came to a stop and the British continued their retreat and headed towards New York, where Washington soon moved his army just outside the city.[134] Monmouth was the last major battle Washington fought in the north. It was after this battle that he came to realize that it was best to protect his army than to try and keep the British from occupying towns, as they rarely had anything to offer that helped the effectiveness of the British army.[135]

In the summer of 1779, Washington and Congress decided to strike the Iroquois warriors of the "Six Nations" in a campaign to force Britain's Indian allies out of New York, which they had used as a base to attack American settlements around New England.[136] In June 1779, the Indian warriors joined with Tory rangers led by Colonel William Butler and slew over 200 frontiersmen, using barbarities normally shunned, and laid waste to the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. One British officer who witnessed the Tory brutality said that the redcoats on return to England would "scalp every son of a bitch of them."[137] In August 1779, General John Sullivan led a military operation that destroyed at least 40 Iroquois villages, burning all available crops. Few people were killed as the Indians fled to British protection in Canada. Sullivan later reported that "the immediate objects of this expedition are accomplished, viz: total ruin of the Indian settlements and the destruction of their crops, which were designed for the support of those inhuman barbarians."[138]

Hudson River and Southern battles

Washington at this time moved his headquarters from Middlebrook in New Jersey up to New Windsor on the Hudson, with an army of 10,000, to thwart any British advances up this river. On October 8, 1777, Washington sent a letter to New Jersey Governor William Livingston. “Sir: I yesterday received certain intelligence, that the enemy had proceeded up Hudson’s River ..." with the objective of taking Kings Ferry, the southern most crossing point on the Hudson above New York. Both Washington and Clinton saw the area as of vital strategic importance. On October 5, Clinton, had disrupted American positions, but the patriots led by General Wayne counter-attacked, regaining their position. Clinton was able to shut off Kings Ferry in the end, but it was a strategic loss and he could proceed no farther up the river due to Washington's entrenched army. The skirmishes demonstrated that the continental infantry had become quite formidable with an enormous boost to morale.[139]

Washington went into quarters at Morristown during the winter of 1779–1780, which represented the worst suffering for the army during the war. The temperatures fell to 16 below zero, the New York Harbor was frozen over, and snow and ice covered the ground for weeks, with the troops again lacking provisions for a time as at Valley Forge. In late 1779, Clinton moved his forces south to Charleston for an offensive against the patriots led by Benjamin Lincoln. After his success there, Clinton returned victorious to New York. Congress replaced Lincoln with Gates, despite Washington's recommendation of Greene. Gates failed in South Carolina and was then replaced by Greene. The British at the time seemed to have the South almost in their grasp. Despite this news, Washington was encouraged when he learned in mid-1780 that Lafayette had returned from France with additional naval assets and forces.[140]

West Point plot and treachery

 A page from the Culper Ring's codebook, listing the men whom Washington gathered to be agents
A page from the Culper Ring's codebook, listing the men whom Washington gathered to be agents

Washington had worked hard to develop a successful espionage system to detect British locations and plans. In 1778, he ordered Major Benjamin Tallmadge to form the Culper Ring to collect information about the British in New York.[141] Washington was usually mindful of treachery, but he ignored evidences of disloyalty by Benedict Arnold, his trusted Continental Army officer, who had distinguished himself in many battles and had gained Washington's respect and admiration.[142]

Arnold had recently been wounded in battle and was unable to ride horseback and command an army in combat,[143] so Washington appointed him to the position of military governor of Philadelphia on June 18, 1778. Arnold met with Philadelphia merchant Joseph Stransbury in early May 1779, under the enticement of his loyalist-leaning wife Peggy Shippen.[144] Stransbury was told that Arnold wanted to defect to the British,[145] and he relayed Arnold's message to British spymaster John André in New York on May 10.[146] Historians have noted several possible reasons for Arnold's treachery: his anger at losing promotions to junior officers and the repeated slights from Congress;[147] his war profiteering, for which he faced court martial; and his spending debts.[148] There is no indication that Arnold's decision to betray his countrymen was prompted by the British.[149]

During the summer of 1780, Arnold began his treasonable plot with his wife's help by supplying André with sensitive information aimed at compromising Washington and capturing West Point, a key defensive position situated above New York on the Hudson River.[150] By August, after repeated requests from Arnold, Washington appointed him commander of West Point.[151] On September 21, Arnold met André on the banks of the Hudson and gave him the plans to take over the garrison—and André hid them in his boot.[152] Two days later, André was captured by militia forces along the Hudson who discovered Arnold's plans. Colonel Alexander Hamilton sent in reinforcements to keep West Point secured. While expecting Washington to arrive at the home of his personal secretary Richard Varick, Arnold took flight on horseback and made his way to the awaiting sloop on the Hudson and escaped.[149] Upon receiving the news, an outraged Washington immediately recalled all the commanders under Arnold at key positions around the fort as a precaution against any complicity on their part; however, he did not suspect Arnold's wife at this time.[153] Washington assumed personal command of West Point and worked earnestly into the night reorganizing the order of command and strengthening defensive positions. British General Clinton had lost the element of surprise, gave up hope, and never attempted to capture the fortress.[154]

Arriving in New York, Arnold was paid £6,315 by Clinton, became a senior British commander, and fought the Patriots in Virginia and Connecticut.[155] André was tried by a military court for spying and was sentenced to death. Washington offered to return him to the British in exchange for Arnold, but Clinton refused. André then asked Washington to be executed by firing squad. Washington was inclined to grant his wish, but he changed his mind under pressure to make an example of the enemy spymaster. André was hanged in Tappan, New York on October 2, 1780.[156]

Victory at Yorktown

 Siege of Yorktown Generals Washington and Rochambeau give last orders before the attack.
Siege of Yorktown
Generals Washington and Rochambeau give last orders before the attack.

Washington's army went into winter quarters at New Windsor in 1780 and suffered again for lack of supplies. Washington prevailed upon Congress as well as state officials to come to their aid with provisions. He sympathized with their suffering, saying that he hoped that the army would not "continue to struggle under the same difficulties they have hitherto endured, which I cannot help remarking seem to reach the bounds of human patience".[157]

In July 1780, 5,000 veteran French troops led by the comte de Rochambeau arrived at Newport, Rhode Island to aid in the war.[158] French naval forces then landed, led by Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse. Washington then encouraged Rochambeau to move his fleet south, and launch a joint land-naval attack on Arnold's troops.{{sfn|Alden|1993|p=197-199, 206}

In December 1780, British General Sir Henry Clinton sent Benedict Arnold, now a Brigadier General in the British Army, with about 1,700 troops to Virginia to capture Portsmouth and spread terror throughout the state. Washington responded by sending Lafayette south with a small army to counter Arnold's efforts but the effort was generally ineffective.[159] This was the first encounter Arnold had with Washington since his treasonous abandonment of the Continental Army. At first Washington hoped to bring the allied fight to New York drawing off British forces from Virginia, and to end the war there, but Rochambeau advised de Grasse that Cornwallis in Virginia was the better target. Admiral de Grasse followed this advice and arrived off the Virginia coast. Washington immediately saw the advantage created, made a feinting move with his force towards Clinton in New York, and then headed south to Virginia.[160]

Washington's Continental Army, also newly funded by $20,000 in French gold, delivered the final blow to the British in 1781, after a French naval victory allowed American and French forces to trap a British army in Virginia, preventing reinforcement by Clinton from the North.[161] The surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, marked the end of major fighting in North America.[162] Washington took great satisfaction at seeing the once formidable British army surrender, but displayed no outward sign of it.[163] Cornwallis failed to appear at the official surrender ceremony, claiming illness, and sent General Charles O'Hara as his proxy; Washington then had General Benjamin Lincoln accept the surrender in his place.[164]

Demobilization and resignation

Substantial combat had ended but the war had not, and a formal treaty of peace was months away. The British still had 26,000 troops occupying New York City, Charleston, and Savannah, and had a powerful fleet. The French army and navy departed, so the Americans were on their own in 1782–83. Money matters fed anxiety; the treasury was empty, and the unpaid soldiers were growing restive almost to the point of mutiny. At one point, they forced an adjournment of the Congress from Philadelphia to Princeton. Washington dispelled unrest among officers by suppressing the Newburgh Conspiracy in March 1783, and Congress came up with the promise of a five-year bonus.[165]

With the initial peace treaty articles ratified in April 1783, a recently formed Congressional committee under Hamilton was considering needs and plans for a peacetime army. On May 2, 1783, the Commander in Chief submitted his Sentiments on a Peace Establishment[166] to the Committee, essentially providing an official Continental Army position. The original proposal was defeated in Congress in two votes (May 1783, October 1783), with a truncated version also being rejected in April 1784.[167]

By the Treaty of Paris signed on September 3, 1783, Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States. Washington disbanded his army and gave an eloquent farewell address to his soldiers on November 2.[168] On November 25, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington and the governor took possession. Only a few trusted members of Congress, including Thomas Jefferson, knew of Washington's decision to resign his commission as Commander-in-chief. At Fraunces Tavern on December 4, after leading the Continental Army for eight and a half years,[169] Washington formally bade his officers farewell, and he resigned his commission on December 23, 1783, to the Continental Congress in the Old Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House in Annapolis, Maryland.[170]

"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."[171] Historian Gordon S. Wood concludes 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."[172] King George III called Washington "the greatest character of the age" because of this.[173]

Washington later submitted a formal account of the expenses that he had personally advanced the army over the eight-year conflict of about $450,000. It is said to have been detailed regarding small items and vague concerning large ones, and included the expenses incurred from Martha's visits to his headquarters, as well as his compensation for service—none of which had been drawn during the war.[174]

Constitutional Convention and presidential election

Washington made an exploratory trip to the western frontier in 1784 and inspected his land holdings that had been earned decades earlier for his service in the French and Indian War.[175] There he confronted squatters, including David Reed and the Covenanters; they vacated, but only after losing a court decision heard in Washington, Pennsylvania in 1786.[176] He also facilitated the creation of the Potomac Company, a public–private partnership that linked the Potomac River with the Ohio River. He was elected president of the company, for which he proselytized extensively. It served as a model for large-scale canal-building but technical and financial challenges rendered it unprofitable.[177]

After much reluctance, he was persuaded to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 as a delegate from Virginia, where he was unanimously elected as president of the Convention.[178] He held considerable criticism of the Articles of Confederation of the thirteen colonies, for the weak central government which it established, referring to the Articles as no more than "a rope of sand" to support the new nation.[179] Washington's view for the need of a strong federal government grew out of the recent war, as well as the inability of the Continental Congress to rally the states to provide for the needs of the military, as was clearly demonstrated for him during the winter at Valley Forge. The general populace, however, did not share Washington's views of a strong federal government binding the states together, comparing such a prevailing entity to the British Parliament that previously ruled and taxed the colonies.[180]

Washington remained silent during the debates, instead showing his sentiments, for or against, by smiling or frowning.[181] Although he cast his vote when called upon; his prestige facilitated the collegiality and productivity of the delegates. After a couple of months into the task, Washington told Alexander Hamilton, "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."[182] Following the Convention, his support convinced many, but not all of his colleagues, to vote for ratification. He unsuccessfully lobbied anti-federalist Patrick Henry, saying that "the adoption of it under the present circumstances of the Union is in my opinion desirable;" he declared that the only alternative would be anarchy. Nevertheless, he did not consider it appropriate to cast his vote in favor of adoption for Virginia, since he was expected to be nominated president under it.[183] The new Constitution was subsequently ratified by all thirteen states.[184] The delegates to the convention designed the presidency with Washington in mind, allowing him to define the office by establishing precedent once elected. Washington thought that the achievements were monumental once they were finally completed.[182][k]

The state electors, under the new Constitution, voted for the President on February 4, 1789, while the official counting of the votes was reserved when Congress met in New York and achieved a quorum.[187] During this delay, Washington feared that most Republican electors had not voted for him.[188]

Presidency (1789–1797)

 President George Washington Gilbert Stuart 1795
President George Washington
Gilbert Stuart 1795

Although the Constitution provided that the Inauguration to be on March 4, the meeting of the First Congress in New York was delayed and very slow, due to travel and other concerns. It was not until April 6 that Congress reached a quorum. Washington was elected President, unanimously winning each state's electoral votes, while John Adams received the next highest vote total and was elected vice president.[189][190] The counting of the electorial votes, the notification of Washington of his election, and his departure from Mount Vernon, did not culminate until April 23, and his Inauguration was set for April 30.[191]

At the age of fifty-seven, Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, taking the first presidential oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City.[192][l] He arrived in a coach led by militia and a marching band, followed by a long line of statesmen and foreign dignitaries in the nation's first inaugural parade. As he stepped onto the balcony, he was greeted by a cheering crowd of some 10,000 people.[194] As Washington was administered the oath by Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, he was given a thirteen-gun salute.[195] Returning to the Senate Chambers, Washington read a modest 1,200–word speech, asking that an "Almighty Being" bless the "important revolution".[196] Washington declined a salary in his speech, but Congress later voted him a salary of $25,000 annually.[197] Washington accepted the amount to defray costs of the presidency.[198] Washington was aware that everything he did set a precedent, and he attended carefully to the pomp and ceremony of office, making sure that the titles and trappings were suitably republican and never emulated European royal courts.[199][m] To that end, he preferred the title "Mr. President" to the more majestic names proposed by the Senate.[200]

Washington originally planned to resign during his first term, but because of his overwhelming support and admiration felt obligated to remain in office.[201] He proved an able administrator and established many precedents in the functions of the presidency, including messages to Congress and the cabinet form of government.[202] He set the standard for tolerance of opposition voices, despite fears that a democratic system would lead to political violence, and he conducted a smooth transition of power to his successor.[203] As president he was an excellent delegator and judge of talent and character; he talked regularly with department heads and listened to their advice before making a final decision.[204] In handling routine tasks, he was "systematic, orderly, energetic, solicitous of the opinion of others… but decisive, intent upon general goals and the consistency of particular actions with them."[205]

During his first term in office, Washington had to contend with major problems, old and new. The United States was not completely unified; North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet formally joined the Union, and the status was uncertain of the independent Vermont Republic. He was faced with the task of assembling a yet to be formed executive department, of which he relied heavily on Tobias Lear for advice on selecting its officers and incorporating the department into the new government.[206] At this time Great Britain had refused to relinquish its forts in the American West.[207] Additionally, the United States Army was minuscule and the United States Navy did not exist. The old Confederation lacked the powers to handle the needed workload. It had weak leadership, no executive, a small bureaucracy of clerks, a large debt, worthless paper money, and no taxing power.[207]

Cabinet and executive departments

 Washington and His Cabinet Left to right:Washington, Knox, Hamilton (standing), Jefferson, and Randolph
Washington and His Cabinet
Left to right:Washington, Knox, Hamilton (standing), Jefferson, and Randolph

Congress created executive departments during Washington's first months in office in 1789, including the State Department on July 27, the Department of War in early August, and the Treasury Department on September 2. The President also received two additional officers without departments: the Attorney General and Postmaster General. Washington appointed Richmond lawyer Edmund Randolph as Attorney General and Samuel Osgood as Postmaster General. He also appointed fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson to be Secretary of State and Henry Knox as Secretary of War. Finally, he appointed Alexander Hamilton to head the Treasury Department.[195] Washington's cabinet eventually developed into a consultation and advisory body, although this was not mandated by the Constitution.[208]

During Washington's administration, the President was given broad powers for removing officials in the executive branch. Congress passed a bill sponsored by James Madison that gave the President the power to remove public officials whose appointments mandated Senatorial approval. In 1789, Vice President John Adams cast the deciding vote in the Senate against a bill that would have mandated senatorial consent for the removal of Senate-confirmed federal and cabinet appointments. The bill had been sponsored by Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay.[209]

Washington's cabinet members were known for their dissension, forming rival parties and having sharply divided views, the most fierce between Hamilton and Jefferson.[210] Jefferson described his relationship with Hamilton as being "daily pitted… like two cocks." Knox almost always sided with Hamilton, while Randolph tried to remain neutral but tended to side more with Jefferson, his fellow Virginian. Washington restricted cabinet discussions to topics of his own choosing, without participating in debate. He occasionally requested cabinet opinions in writing, and he expected his department heads to carry out his decisions without complaint. Hamilton played an active role advising Congress, including written reports and using influence over congressional committee leaders.[207]

Domestic issues

 The President's House in Philadelphia was Washington's official residence from 1790 to 1797
The President's House in Philadelphia was Washington's official residence from 1790 to 1797

Washington was not a member of any political party and hoped that they would not be formed, fearing conflict that would undermine republicanism.[211] His closest advisors formed two factions, however, thereby setting the framework for the future First Party System. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had plans to establish the national credit and to build a financially powerful nation, and he formed the basis of the Federalist Party. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was the founder of the Jeffersonian Republicans, and he strenuously opposed Hamilton's agenda. Washington typically favored Hamilton over Jefferson, and it was Hamilton's agenda that went into effect and became law. Hamilton's fiscal recommendations, created bitter controversy, during Washington's presidency.[212]

Public credit and National Bank

The most pressing fiscal problem of the new administration was the public credit of the United States. On January 14, 1790, Hamilton submitted his Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit to Congress which culminated in the Funding Act of 1790 and the Residence Act, both of which Washington signed into law on August 4. Congress authorized the assumption and payment of these debts, and provided funding through customs duties and excise taxes.[213]

Congress reached a compromise concerning the location of the nation's capital, to be situated in Philadelphia for a decade and then permanently located near Georgetown on the Potomac River.[212] Hamilton created more controversy among Washington's Cabinet members when he advocated the establishment of the Bank of the United States. Although Madison and Jefferson objected, the bank easily passed Congress and the law was presented to Washington for signing on February 14, 1791. Washington asked for advise from his cabinet, Jefferson and Randolph strongly opposed the new bank constitutionally, while Hamilton believed it would legally be operated on the government's enumerated powers. Washington sided with Hamilton and signed the legislation on February 25, however, the rift between Hamilton and Jefferson widened and became openly hostile.[214]

Under Washington, the young American nation experienced its first financial crisis in March 1792 when federalists under Hamilton used large loans to gain control of the U.S. debt securities, causing a run on the new national bank.[215][n] By mid-April the markets returned to normal.[217] Jefferson believed Hamilton was part of the scheme, in spite of Hamilton's efforts to remedy matters, and informed Washington who was caught in the middle of what was the beginning of a long-standing feud between his two secretaries, Hamilton and Jefferson.[218]

Hamilton-Jefferson feud

Jefferson and Hamilton, bitter rivals

Two of Washington's Cabinet members, Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, were diametrically opposed in political principles. Hamilton believed in a strong national government that needed a national bank and foreign loans to function, while Jefferson believed the government should be primarily under the direction of the states and the farm element and deeply resented the idea of banks and foreign loans. This difference was the cause of many disputes and infighting between the two, much to Washington's dismay.[219] In 1791, Jefferson and Congressman James Madison encouraged revolutionary poet Philip Freneau to form the National Gazette, a newspaper to counter the pro-Hamilton press.[220] A few weeks later, Hamilton demanded that Jefferson resign if he could not support Washington.[221] Rather than respond publicly, Jefferson told Washington that Hamilton's fiscal system would undermine and allow the overthrow the republic.[222]

Washington pleaded with his two secretaries by letters to stop the open warfare for the sake of the nation, but Hamilton and Jefferson politely ignored the president's advice.[223] To keep party strife under control, Washington gave up hope that he would retire after his first term.[222] The feud continued after Washington's reelection and into his second term in office.[221] Jefferson's political actions, his support of Freneau's National Gazette,[224] and his attempt to undermine Hamilton nearly led Washington to dismiss him from his cabinet, though Jefferson ultimately resigned office voluntarily in December, 1793.[225][o] The feud between Hamilton and Jefferson led to the well-defined Federalist and Republican parties.[227]

Washington remained aloof from attacks on Hamilton launched in Congress, but he did not write a public statement that protected him. The Reynolds Affair embarrassed Hamilton; nevertheless Washington held him in "very high esteem" and who still viewed Hamilton as the dominate force in establishing federal law and government. By 1794, party affiliation was necessary for election to Congress.[228]

Whiskey Rebellion

In March 1791, Congress imposed an excise tax on distilled spirits to help pay the national debt; grain farmers strongly protested in frontier districts, especially the westernmost counties of Pennsylvania, saying they were unrepresented and were unfairly shouldering too much of the debt. Threats and violence against tax collectors escalated into full-scale defiance of federal authority in 1794, known as the Whiskey Rebellion. The federal army was too small to meet the task, so Washington invoked the Militia Act of 1792 to summon militias from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey.[229] The governors sent the troops, with Washington taking initial command. He subsequently named Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee as field commander to lead the troops into the rebellious districts. The rebels dispersed and there was no fighting. Washington's forceful action demonstrated that the new government could protect itself and its tax collectors. This represented the premier instance of the federal government using military force to exert authority over the states and citizens[230] and was the only time that a sitting U.S. president personally 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 was not disputing their right to protest, but insisted that their dissent should not take the form of flagrant violation of federal law. Congress overwhelmingly agreed and extended their congratulations to him, with only Madison and Jefferson expressing their indifference.[231]

Foreign and Indian affairs

 Battle of Fallen Timbers The Ohio Country was ceded to America in its aftermath.
Battle of Fallen Timbers
The Ohio Country was ceded to America in its aftermath.

Washington's most pressing foreign problem at the start of his presidency was the British occupation of forts on the American western frontier.[227] Indian tribes roamed largely uncontrolled and used guerrilla warfare, that presented an effective force against the sparsely manned American army. In the Northwest frontier Indians were aided by British allies to protect the British-Canadian fur trade, while Indian tribes warred with each other. [232] In 1791, to restore peace, Washington sent General Arthur St. Clair from Fort Washington on a punitive expedition against warring tribes into present day Indiana.[233] On November 4, St. Clair's forces, despite Washington's warning, were ambushed and overwhelmingly defeated by a confederated Indian army. [233] St. Clair resigned, and Washington replaced him with General Anthony Wayne, who between 1792 and 1793, instructed his troops in Indian warfare tactics.[233] On August 24, 1784, Wayne defeated the Northwest Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and the Ohio Country was opened up for American cession.[234] Uncommon for his times, Washington equated killing Native Americans, to those of whites, and he desired a policy to protect their property, and integrate Indians into American culture.[233]

In April 1792, the French Revolutionary Wars broke out between Great Britain and its allies and revolutionary France; Washington, with cabinet approval, proclaimed American neutrality. The revolutionary government of France sent diplomat Edmond-Charles Genêt to America, called "Citizen Genêt". He was welcomed with great enthusiasm and began promoting the case for France, using a network of new Democratic 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 government recall Genêt, which they did.[235]

Hamilton formulated the Jay Treaty to normalize trade relations with Great Britain, remove them from western forts, and resolve financial debts remaining from the Revolution;[236] John Jay negotiated and signed the treaty on November 19, 1794. Jeffersonians supported France and strongly attacked the treaty. Washington listened to both sides, then announced his strong support, which mobilized public opinion and was pivotal in securing ratification in the Senate on June 24, 1795 by the requisite two-thirds majority.[237] Washington himself was not immune from open Republican criticism after he had signed the Jay Treaty, that was believed to favor the British. Additionally, Washington was charged with withdrawing more than his allotted $25,000 annual salary, but he made no public reply. [238]

The British agreed to depart from their forts around the Great Lakes, and the United States-Canada boundary had to be re-adjusted. Numerous pre-Revolutionary debts were liquidated, and the British opened their West Indies colonies to American trade. Most importantly, the treaty delayed war with Great Britain and instead brought a decade of prosperous trade. The treaty angered the French and became a central issue in many political debates.[239] Relations with France deteriorated after the treaty was signed, leaving succeeding president John Adams with the prospect of war.[240]

Second term

Washington remained popular and unopposed during the Election of 1792, while no one dared to run against him, Alexander Hamilton strongly urged a reluctant Washington to run for a second term. Washington's silence on the election upon his return to Mount Vernon, in October 1792, was considered an acquiescence and consent for his being the only viable candidate to assume the presidency during this unstable period. On February 13, 1793 the Electoral College unanimously elected Washington president for a second term. John Adams was reelected Vice President by a vote only of seventy-seven to fifty.[233][p]

Criticized by the National Gazette and political adversaries over his birthday celebration and for appearing as a "monarchist", Washington kept a low profile, arriving at his inauguration in plain form and alone in a simple carriage. The second inauguration was held in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia, on Monday, March 4, 1793. The presidential oath of office was administered to Washington by Associate Justice William Cushing This was the first inauguration to take place in Philadelphia, the nation's capital at this time. After the swearing in ceremony Washington maintained his low profile and delivered the shortest inaugural address on record.[242]

In 1793 Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act which allowed slave owners to cross state lines and retrieve runaway slaves.[243] He did sign into law the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which limited American involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.[244]

Farewell Address

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

In the months that led up to the end of Washington's presidency, he was relentlessly assailed by his political foes and a largely partisan press, which was highly critical of his numerous successes and Federalist leanings, accusing him of being ambitious and greedy. Washington pointed out that he had taken no salary during the entire war and risked his life in numerous battles. He came to regard the press as an erosive and disuniting force that spread numerous falsehoods, referring to them as "diabolical". This also had a great influence in his Farewell Address, which expressed how troubled he was by the years of infighting and character assassination by much of the press.[245]

Washington's Farewell Address was first published in the American daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796 and was one of the most influential statements on republicanism. The sentiment and theme of the address was Washington's, but the actual wording was mostly that of Alexander Hamilton.[246] 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". "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."[247]

The address warned against foreign alliances and their influence in domestic affairs, American meddling in European affairs, and against bitter partisanship in domestic politics. He also called for men to move beyond partisanship and serve the common good, [248] stressing that the United States must concentrate on its own interests. He counseled friendship and commerce with all nations, but advised against involvement in European wars. The Farewell Address made no clear distinction between domestic and foreign policies; The address quickly set American values regarding foreign affairs. Washington's policy of non-involvement in the foreign affairs of the Old World was largely embraced by the founding generation of American statesmen, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.[249]

Washington's Farewell address, however, did not quell bi-partisan politics, but only served to aggravate them, setting the tone for the coming 1796 election, with Washington lending his support for John Adams.[248]

Personal life

 Washington and his family by Edward Savage, painted between 1789 and 1796.[q]
Washington and his family by Edward Savage, painted between 1789 and 1796.[q]

Washington was a tall man endowed with great physical strength that often amazed his subordinates and younger men. He was mostly silent during times of debate, yet he exhibited a commanding and sometimes domineering presence without having to speak.[250] His height was variously recorded as 6 ft (1.83 m) to 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m), although he registered 6 ft 3½ in when measured for his coffin.[251]

As a young man, Washington had red hair. It is often assumed that he wore a wig, as was the fashion among some at the time, but he did not. Instead, he powdered his hair.[252]

Washington was a very skilled horseman; Jefferson called him "the best horseman of his age", and both American and European observers praised his riding. The horsemanship benefited his hunting, a favorite hobby. He was an excellent dancer, and he also attended the theater frequently and would make Shakespearean references in his letters.[253] He drank in moderation and precisely recorded gambling wins and losses. He disliked the excessive drinking, gambling, smoking, and profanity that were common in colonial Virginia. He grew tobacco but he eventually stopped smoking and considered drunkenness a man's worst vice. He was glad that post-Revolutionary Virginia society was less likely to force guests "to drink and to make it an honor to send them home drunk."[254]

Washington suffered from problems with his teeth most of his life, and historians have tracked his experiences in great detail.[255] He lost his first adult tooth when he was 22, and had only one left by the time that he became president.[256] John Adams claimed that he lost them because he used them to crack Brazil nuts, but modern historians suggest that mercury oxide probably contributed to the loss, which he was given to treat illnesses such as smallpox and malaria.[257] He had several sets of false teeth made, four of them by a dentist named John Greenwood, and he went through several sets during his presidency. However, none of the sets was made from wood. The set made when he became president was carved from hippopotamus and elephant ivory, held together with gold springs. Prior to these, he had a set made with real human teeth. Dental problems left him in constant pain, for which he took laudanum, procured for him by Tobias Lear.[258]


For his entire life, Washington was affiliated with the established Anglican Church of Great Britain. It was dis-established in Southern states following the Revolution and reorganized as the Episcopal Church. In 1762 Washington served as a vestryman and as church warden for both Fairfax Parish in Alexandria and Truro Parish, a post he maintained for twenty-two years.[259][260] Numerous historians have suggested that Washington's theology agreed largely with the Deists, but he never expressed any particular Deist beliefs. He often used words for the deity such as "God" and "Providence", while avoiding using the names "Jesus" and "Christ." In his collected works, such terms appear in an official letter to Indians which might have been drafted by an aide. At the time, Deism was a theological outlook, not an organized denomination. It was compatible with being an Episcopalian. There is speculation among some historians about how committed Washington was to Christianity as compared to Deism.[261]

Washington devoted private time for prayer before breakfast,[262] and frequently accompanied his wife to church services. Third-hand reports say that he took communion,[263] although he is usually characterized as never or rarely participating in the rite.[264] He would regularly leave services before communion with the other non-communicants (as was the custom of the day). He ceased attending on communion Sundays after being admonished by a rector.[265] He regarded religion as a protective influence for America's social and political order, and recognized the church's "laudable endeavors to render men sober, honest, and good citizens, and the obedient subjects of a lawful government."[266]

It is generally concluded that Washington was a Christian, although the exact nature of his religious beliefs has been debated by some historians and biographers for over 200 years. Biographer Don Higginbotham notes that, in such instances, people with diametrically opposing opinions frequently base their views of Washington's beliefs on their own beliefs.[267] Higginbotham claims that Washington harbored no contempt of organized Christianity and its clergy, and quotes him as saying: "being no bigot myself to any mode of worship".[268] Washington was a vigorous promoter of tolerance for all religious denominations as commander of the army and as president. He often attended services of different denominations, and suppressed anti-Catholic celebrations in the Army.[269] Michael Novak suggests that Washington did not assert his particular religious conviction, so that all Americans would feel free to approach him on their own terms—and might also feel like full members of the new republic.[270] He concludes that Washington was educated in and adhered to the Episcopal Church and believed in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, with no indifference to other forms of Christianity.[271]

Enlightenment and Freemasonry

Historians have emphasized that Washington was deeply rooted in the ideas, values, and modes of thinking in the Age of Enlightenment. Biographer Don Higginbotham maintains that Washington was a self made hero and a man of his age who embraced Enlightenment values more seriously than most of his contemporaries.[272] In 1793, Washington proclaimed "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."[273] The economic ideas of Adam Smith were attractive to him, opposing mercantilism and favoring free trade. He wrote in 1786 that he looked forward to that "not very remote" time "when the benefits of a liberal and free commerce will, pretty generally, succeed to the devastations and horrors of war."[274]

Like many activists in the Enlightenment in Europe and the colonies, Washington favored the Freemasonry movement. A new Masonic lodge was established in Fredericksburg in September, 1752 and he was initiated two months later as one of its first apprentices. Within a year, he progressed through its ranks to become a Master Mason,[275] and eventually was the highest ranking Mason in the United States.[276] He had a high regard for the Masonic Order and often praised it, but he seldom attended lodge meetings. He was attracted by the movement's dedication to the Enlightenment principles of rationality, reason, and fraternalism. The American lodges did not share the anti-clerical perspective which made the European lodges so controversial.[277] 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 responsibility in leading the Continental Army at a critical stage. In 1788, he was named Master in the Virginia charter of Alexandria Lodge No. 22, with his consent.[278]

Washington regularly attended the established Church of England, but he grew indifferent with its form of worship and refrained from using the term God, substituting terms frequently used in Enlightenment doctrine such as The Creator or The Almighty in his correspondence and as Commander in Chief during the Revolution.[276]


Although Washington owned slaves for 56 years of his life, he struggled with the institution of slavery, and spoke frequently of his desire to end the practice.[67] At the end of his life in 1799, Washington took the bold step to free all of his slaves, 123 individuals, in his will, one of only a few Founders to do so.[279][67][r] He privately opposed slavery as an institution, which he viewed as economically unsound and morally indefensible. He believed that the divisiveness of his countrymen's feelings about slavery was a potentially mortal threat to the unity of the nation,[281] causing him to never publicly challenge the institution.[282]

Prior to the Revolutionary War, Washington was a typical Virginia slave owner, buying and selling slaves, while he believed blacks were ignorant and dishonest.[283] As Commander of the Continental Army, Washington's views on slavery were mediated by his young aides and officers who detested slavery, including Alexander Hamilton, Marquis de Lafayette, and others.[284] By 1784, Washington had acquired 255 slaves, that worked on his five plantations. Washington enjoyed the material benefits slavery brought and wished to bestow an inheritance. Subsequently for the next 15 years after the War of Independence, Washington never broke from the institution.[285] In one act of humanity, Washington refused to separate families by the sale of slaves.[286]

Washington's slaves were well fed and clothed, but were poorly housed.[287] A visiting Polish nobleman Julian Niemcewicz, while touring the plantation, observed that Washington treated his slaves far more humanely than most planters did and were never gloomy or sad. When discipline was called for Niemcewicz noted that it was not Washington's desire to resort to severe treatment, to both male and female, but sometimes a necessity, while he discouraged any excesses of overseers, some of whom were mulattoes. Washington's manager, James Anderson, maintained that there were nearly 300 slaves at Mount Vernon, but only 100 were available for hard work.[288] Like most white farmers of this era, his slaves were expected to work diligently from dawn to dusk, with much time off during the winter months.[289] Washington allowed his household slaves a measure of freedom, allowing them to go into town and visit the theater, among other such things.[290]

It was not until 1799, that Washington finally resolved his dilemma with slavery, in his new will, which stipulated that all his slaves be freed after the demise of his wife Martha.[291] He directed that the old and young slaves be taken care of indefinitely. The younger slaves were to be taught to read and write and find suitable occupations.[291] He also stipulated that none of his freed slaves would be forced to leave Virginia, "under any pretense whatsoever." Washington's will was meant to be an act of atonement for a lifetime spent in human exploitation, while he hoped it would serve as an example to other slave holders, and hasten the end of American slavery.[291]

American Cincinnatus

During the Revolutionary and Early Republican periods of American history, many commentators compared Washington with Roman aristocrat and statesman Cincinnatus. The comparison arose as Washington, like Cincinnatus, commanded the Continental Army only until the British had been defeated. Thereafter, he returned as quickly as possible to cultivating his lands instead of seeking great political power.[292] Lord Byron's Ode to Napoleon also lionized Washington as "the Cincinnatus of the West".[293]

Retirement (1797–1799)

 A map of the Mount Vernon plantation and lands
A map of the Mount Vernon plantation and lands

Washington retired from the presidency in March 1797 and returned to Mount Vernon with a profound sense of relief. He devoted much time to his plantations and other business interests, including his distillery, which produced its first batch of spirits in February 1797.[294] His plantation operations were only minimally profitable.[29] His lands in the west (Piedmont) yielded little income because they were under attack by Indians, and the squatters living there refused to pay him rent. Washington attempted to sell off these holdings but failed to obtain the price that he desired. Meanwhile, he was losing money at Mount Vernon due to an excess of unproductive slaves, some of which originally belonged to Martha, which they declined to sell due to a desire to keep families intact.[295]

Once in retirement, Washington became an even more committed Federalist. He vocally supported the Alien and Sedition Acts and convinced Federalist John Marshall to run for Congress in order to weaken the Jeffersonian hold on Virginia.[296]

By 1798, relations with France had deteriorated to the point that war seemed imminent. President Adams offered Washington a commission as lieutenant general on July 4, 1798, and as Commander-in-chief of the armies raised or to be raised for service in a prospective war. He accepted and served as the senior officer of the United States Army from July 13, 1798 until his death 17 months later. He participated in planning for a Provisional Army to meet any emergency that might arise but avoided involvement in details as much as possible. He delegated most of the work to Hamilton, including active leadership of the army; Hamilton was serving as a major general in the U.S. Army at the time. No French army invaded the United States during this period, and Washington did not assume a field command [297][s]

Most Americans assumed that he was rich because of the well-known "glorified façade of wealth and grandeur" at Mount Vernon,[298] but nearly all of Washington's wealth was tied up in land or slaves. Historians estimate that his estate was worth about $1 million in 1799 dollars, equivalent to about $19.9 million in 2014.[299]

Final days

On Thursday, December 12, 1799, Washington spent several hours inspecting his plantation on horseback, in snow, hail and freezing rain; that evening, not wanting to keep his guests waiting, he ate his supper without changing from his wet clothes. The next day the weather worsened with heavy snow. Now nursing a sore throat, he trudged down the hill towards the Potomac to mark some trees he wanted cleared. That evening he complained of chest congestion and hoarseness, but his mood remained cheerful. Some time around 3 a.m. that Saturday, he suddenly awoke with severe difficulty breathing and almost completely unable to speak or swallow.[300] He was a firm believer in bloodletting, which was a standard medical practice of that era, and he had used it to treat various ailments of slaves on his plantation. He ordered estate overseer Albin Rawlins to remove nearly a pint of his blood.[301] Three physicians were also summoned, including Washington's personal physician Dr. James Craik, along with Dr. Gustavus Brown and Dr. Elisha Dick. Craik and Brown thought that Washington had "quinsey" or "quincy", while Dick thought that the condition was more serious or a "violent inflammation of the throat".[302] By the time that the three physicians finished their treatments and bloodletting of the president, half or more of his total blood content was removed over the course of just a few hours.[300] Dick recognized that the bloodletting and other treatments were failing, and he proposed performing an emergency tracheotomy as a last-ditch effort to save Washington's life. Few American doctors were then familiar with this procedure and the other two doctors disapproved.[303] Washington finally instructed doctors Brown and Dick to cease their attempts in trying to save his life and leave the room, while he assured Doctor Craik, "Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go".[304]

 Published regulations for the funeral procession in honor of Washington (in New York City)
Published regulations for the funeral procession in honor of Washington (in New York City)

Washington's illness and subsequent death came swiftly and unexpectedly.[305] His final instructions were, "Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put in the vault in less than three days after I am dead."[306][t] In his journal, Washington's personal secretary Tobias Lear recorded his last words as "'Tis well." With Martha calmly composed at the foot of his bed, Washington died peacefully without further struggle five hours later at home around 10 p.m. on Saturday, December 14, 1799, aged 67.[308] Funeral arrangements were made by Washington's Masonic lodge of Alexandria. The funeral was held on December 18, 1799 at Mount Vernon, where his body was interred. Leading the procession were foot soldiers and cavalry; the pallbearers were six Colonels, all of whom had served under Washington during the revolution. The service was restricted mostly to family, friends, and neighbors. Congress chose Henry Lee III to deliver the eulogy, a Continental Army officer and loved by Washington.[309] Word traveled slowly concerning his death; church-bells rang in the various cities, and many places of business closed when word arrived.[310]

In December 1800, the House passed an appropriations bill for $200,000 to build the mausoleum, which was to be a pyramid with a 100-foot (30 m) square base. Southern representatives and senators opposed the plan and defeated the measure because they felt that it was best to have Washington's body remain at Mount Vernon.[311]

Throughout the world, people admired Washington and were saddened by his death. In the United States, memorial processions were held in major cities and thousands wore mourning clothes for months. Martha Washington wore a black mourning cape for one year. In France, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte ordered ten days of mourning throughout the country.[312] Ships of the British Royal Navy's Channel Fleet lowered their flags to half mast to honor his passing.[313] To protect their privacy, Martha Washington burned the correspondence which they had exchanged; only five letters between the couple are known to have survived, two letters from Martha to George and three from him to her.[314]

Subsequent diagnoses

The diagnosis of Washington's final illness and the immediate cause of his death have been subjects of debate since the day he died. In the days immediately following his death, Craik and Dick's published account stated that they felt that his symptoms had been consistent with cynanche trachealis, a term of that period used to describe severe inflammation of the structures of the upper airway. Even at that early date, there were accusations of medical malpractice, with some believing that Washington had been bled to death.[303] Various modern medical authors have speculated that Washington probably died from a severe case of epiglottitis complicated by the given treatments (all of which were accepted medical practice in Washington's day), most notably the massive deliberate blood loss, which almost certainly caused hypovolemic shock.[u]

Move to new burial site

The Washington family tomb at Mount Vernon
The sarcophagi of George (right) and Martha (left) Washington at the entrance to the Washington family tomb

In 1830 a disgruntled ex-employee of the estate attempted to steal Washington's skull from the original tomb.[317] The next year a new vault was constructed at Mount Vernon to receive George and Martha Washington's remains, along with other relatives buried in the original tomb.[318]

A joint Congressional committee debated the removal of President Washington's body from Mount Vernon to a crypt in the Capitol in early 1832. The crypt was built by architect Charles Bulfinch in the 1820s during the reconstruction of the burned-out capitol after the British had set it afire in August 1814, during the Burning of Washington. Southern opposition was intense, antagonized by an ever-growing rift between North and South. Congressman Wiley Thompson of Georgia expressed the Southerners' fear when he said, "Remove the remains of our venerated Washington from their association with the remains of his consort and his ancestors, from Mount Vernon and from his native State, and deposit them in this capitol, and then let a severance of the Union occur, and behold the remains of Washington on a shore foreign to his native soil."[311]

On October 7, 1837 George Washington's remains, still in the original lead coffin, were placed within a marble sarcophagus designed by William Strickland and constructed by John Struthers.[319][320] The sarcophagus was sealed and encased with planks while an outer vault was constructed around it.[319] The outer vault contains the sarcophagi of George and Martha Washington, the inner vault contains the remains of other Washington family members and relatives.[318]

Historical reputation and legacy

 The Constable-Hamilton Portrait by Gilbert Stuart
The Constable-Hamilton Portrait by Gilbert Stuart

George Washington's legacy remains among the two or three greatest in American history, as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, hero of the Revolution, and the first President of the United States.[v] Congressman Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, a Revolutionary War comrade, famously eulogized Washington, "First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen".[321] Lee's words set the standard by which Washington's overwhelming reputation was impressed upon the American memory. Biographers hailed him as the great exemplar of republicanism. Washington set many precedents for the national government, and the presidency in particular, and was called the "Father of His Country" as early as 1778.[322][323][w] Washington's Birthday is a federal holiday in the United States.[325] In terms of personality, biographer Douglas Southall Freeman concluded, "the great big thing stamped across that man is character." By character, says David Hackett Fischer, "Freeman meant integrity, self-discipline, courage, absolute honesty, resolve, and decision, but also forbearance, decency, and respect for others." [326]

Washington became an international icon 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, for many years, the Jeffersonians continued to distrust his influence and delayed building the Washington Monument.[327] On January 31, 1781, he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[328]

During the United States Bicentennial year, George 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.[175] This restored his position as the highest-ranking military officer in U.S. history.[x]

The best-known story about Washington's childhood is that he chopped down his father's favorite cherry tree and admitted the deed when questioned: "I can't tell a lie, ..."[330] The anecdote was first reported by biographer Parson Weems, based on his interviews after Washington's death of people who knew him as a child.[331]


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). The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799 (1931–44) is a 37 volume set edited by John C. Fitzpatrick. It contains over 17,000 letters and documents and is available online from the University of Virginia.[332] The definitive letterpress edition of his writings was begun by the University of Virginia in 1968, and today comprises 52 published volumes, with more to come. It contains everything written by Washington or signed by him, together with most of his incoming letters. Part of the collection is available online from the University of Virginia.[333]

George Washington's personal annotated copy of the "Acts Passed at a Congress of the United States of America" from 1789 includes the Constitution of the United States and a draft of the Bill of Rights. It was sold on June 22, 2012, at Christie's for $9,826,500 (with fees added to the final cost) to The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. This was the record for a document sold at auction.[334]

Monuments and memorials

 Washington Monument, Washington, DC
Washington Monument, Washington, DC

Many places and entities have been named in honor of Washington. His name became that of the nation's capital Washington, D.C. The state of Washington is the only state to be named after a United States president.[335]

Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln are depicted in stone at the Mount Rushmore Memorial. The Washington Monument was built in his honor, one of the best-known American landmarks. The George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia was constructed between 1922 and 1932 with contributions from the Freemasons.[336]

After Washington's death, Congress authorized a memorial in the national capital, but the decision was reversed when the Democratic-Republicans took control of Congress in 1801. The Democratic-Republicans were dismayed that Washington had become the symbol of the Federalist Party.[337] Construction of the 554 foot memorial didn't begin until 1848. It was completed in 1885. There are many other "Washington Monuments" in the United States, including two well-known equestrian statues, one in Manhattan and one in Richmond, Virginia. The first statue to show Washington on horseback was dedicated in 1856 and is located in Manhattan's Union Square.[338]

The George Washington Bridge, is named in his honor. Several naval vessels are named in Washington's honor, including the USS George Washington.[339]

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 all other presidents combined.[340]

Washington's victory over Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown was commemorated with a two-cent stamp on the battle's 150th anniversary on October 19, 1931.[341] The 150th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution with George Washington as presiding officer was celebrated with a three-cent issue on September 17, 1937, adapted from the painting by Julius Brutus Stearns.[342] Washington's presidential inauguration at Federal Hall in New York City was celebrated on its 150th anniversary on April 30, 1939.[343]

Selected issues
Washington, general issue of 1862, 24c
issue of 1862
Washington-Franklin Issue of 1917, 5c
Washington-Franklin, issue of 1917
Washington at Prayer, Valley Forge, issue of 1928, 2c
Washington at Valley Forge, issue of 1928
President, Constitutional Convention,issue of 1937 3c
Washington as President of the Constitutional Convention, issue of 1937
Selected currency
 George Washington quarter dollar
George Washington
quarter dollar
 George Washington on the 1928 dollar bill
George Washington on the 1928 dollar bill

Portrait gallery

See also


  1. ^ March 4 is the official start of the first presidential term. April 6 is when Congress counted the votes of the Electoral College and certified a president. April 30 is when Washington was sworn in.
  2. ^ Old style: February 11, 1731
  3. ^ a b Contemporaneous records used the Julian calendar and the Annunciation Style of enumerating years, recording his birth as February 11, 1731. The provisions of 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.[2]
  4. ^ Augustine’s namesake and maternal grandfather Augustine Warner Jr. was also a direct ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II through her mother, the late Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.[7]
  5. ^ Washington received his license through the college, whose charter gave it the authority to appoint Virginia county surveyors. There is no evidence that he actually attended classes there.[27] This lucrative appointment was due to his connection with the prominent Fairfax family through his brother Lawrence.
  6. ^ Ellis and Ferling, for example, point to his negative experiences dealing with the Continental Congress during the Revolution, and Don Higginbotham places Washington's first formal advocacy of a strong central government in 1783.[59]
  7. ^ Washington may not have been able to admit to his own sterility, but he grieved privately over not having his own children.[64]
  8. ^ In June 1776, Congress made its first attempt at running the war effort with the committee known as "Board of War and Ordnance", succeeded by the Board of War in July 1777, a committee which eventually included members of the military.[98]
  9. ^ This painting has received both acclaim and criticism.[108] See Emanuel Leutze article for details.
  10. ^ Durham Boats were so named as they were built for the Durham Iron Works to carry iron ore lumber or grain on the upper Delaware.[111]
  11. ^ Starting in 1774, fourteen persons 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 executive powers of national authority.[185][186]
  12. ^ There is historical debate and some controversy over whether Washington added "So help me God" to the end of the oath.[193]
  13. ^ 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." Washington to James Madison, May 5, 1789, cited by Unger, 2013, p. 76.
  14. ^ Hamilton's appointed former Treasury assistant, William Duer, had misappropriated $200,000 Treasury funds, that enabled him to speculate on securities, which triggered a financial crisis. Unable to repay the $200,000, Duer was arrested, prosecuted and sent to debtor's prison by the New York District Attorney, with Hamilton's blessing.[216]
  15. ^ Washington never forgave him and never spoke to him again.[226]
  16. ^ Washington refused to run for a third term in 1796, establishing the tradition of a maximum of two terms for a president, which was solidified by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.[241]
  17. ^ (from left to right): George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington, Eleanor Parke Custis, Martha Washington, and an enslaved servant, probably William Lee or Christopher Sheels
  18. ^ Virginians such as Washington, Robert Carter, Joseph Mayo, and John Pleasants also emancipated all of their slaves.[280]
  19. ^ This was the only instance where a former President later served as an official presidential appointee up until 1921, when President Warren G. Harding appointed former President William Howard Taft to the position of Chief Justice of the United States.
  20. ^ There is some discrepancy among some historians as to the number of days: Betts, 2013, claims two days were to pass before being placed in the burial vault, Chernow, 2010, claims it was three.[307]
  21. ^ At least three modern medical authors (Wallenborn 1999[315], Shapiro 1975, Scheidemandel 1976) concluded that Washington most probably died from acute bacterial epiglottitis complicated by the administered treatments. These treatments included multiple doses of calomel (a cathartic or purgative), and extensive bloodletting (with at least 2.365 total liters of blood being taken, which is slightly less than half of a normal adult's blood volume).
    • See A Physician Looks At The Death of Washington[316] for Shapiro and Scheidemandel references. Vadakan's article also directly quotes Doctors Craik and Dick's account (as published in the Times of Alexandria newspaper) concerning their treatment of Washington during his fatal illness.
  22. ^ Historians Jay A. Parry and Andrew M. Allison declare that Washington "was the dominant personality in three of the most critical events in that founding: the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, and the first national administration. Had he not served as America's leader in those three events, all three likely would have failed. And America as we know it today would not exist." Parry, 1991, p. xi.
  23. ^ 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").[324]
  24. ^ In Portraits & Biographical Sketches of the United States Army's Senior Officer,[329] 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." How many U.S. Army five-star generals have there been and who were they? states that with Public Law 94-479, President Ford specified that Washington would "rank first among all officers of the Army, past and present. "General of the Armies of the United States" is associated with only two people... one being Washington and the other being John J. Pershing.


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  252. ^ Krulwich, Robert (June 9, 2015). "George Washington's Oh-So-Mysterious Hair". National Geographic Society. Retrieved June 23, 2018. The powder was sometimes applied with a handheld bellows. An attendant would pump a cloud of powder from a small nozzle and let it settle on the hair. But Washington, says biographer Ron Chernow, would dip a puff, a snakelike bunch of silk striplings—into a powder bag, then do a quick shake over his bent head. 
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Book sources

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Online sources

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Military offices
New creation Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army
Succeeded by
Henry Knox
as Senior Officer of the U.S. Army
Preceded by
James Wilkinson
Senior Officer of the U.S. Army
Succeeded by
Alexander Hamilton
Political offices
New office President of the United States
Succeeded by
John Adams
This page was last edited on 23 June 2018, at 12:03
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