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GEORGE WASHINGTON  Irving Brant: Member, Advisory Board, James Madison Papers, University of Chicago. Council Member, Institute of Early American History and Culture, 195962. Author of James Madison (6 vol.) and others

"First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

Many United States presidents are honored for their great work, but two stand above all others--George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is remembered for his great human qualities. Washington is beloved as the "father of his country."

Washington was a "father" in many ways. He was commander in chief of the American forces in the American Revolution, chairman of the convention that wrote the United States Constitution, and first president. He led the men who turned America from an English colony into a self-governing nation. His ideals of liberty and democracy set a standard for future presidents and for the whole country.

Over 6 feet tall, Washington was a handsome man, whose portraits fail to do him full justice. He was slim-waisted and big-shouldered, with a powerful body and a well-shaped head. He rode well and walked with a firm, vigorous stride.

His mind was equally strong. He learned quickly and put his learning to good use. In giving orders to farmers on his plantations or to soldiers in the field, he was exact, methodical, and complete. He was slow in giving commands, but once his mind was made up, he held to his decisions.

The Private and the Public Washington

Washington seemed somewhat cold and formal to the public. With his family and friends he often relaxed. He loved dancing, parties, and the theater and his dinner table was constantly surrounded by guests. He had a hot temper, held tightly in check. He seldom lost it and then only for good cause. He helped family and friends with gifts and loans, asking only that they would not reveal the donor. However, he was quick to say "no" when he felt imposed upon.

Washington's memory is held in honor by his fellow countrymen and by the world. The enemies and critics who attacked him in war and in peace are now largely forgotten. His name has become a byword for honor, loyalty, and love of country.

The New World Washingtons

John Washington was the great-grandfather of George Washington. He was an Englishman of good family who came to Virginia in 1657 and founded the American branch of the family. He obtained a grant of 150 acres in Westmoreland County on the Potomac River. He soon saw a future in the wilderness upriver. In 1674 he and a partner secured a second grant of 5,000 acres about 18 miles below the modern city of Washington, D.C. This was the site of Mount Vernon. John Washington was well known as a planter, businessman, and military leader. The hostile Indians called him Conotocarius--"destroyer of villages."

Little is known of John's son Lawrence, but his grandson Augustine left a clear record. He had many holdings--farms, businesses, mines, and land. He was a man of great energy. He added to the Westmoreland plantation until it included the whole peninsula between Popes Creek and Bridges Creek, small streams emptying into the Potomac.

Augustine Washington had four children by his first wife. His second wife was Mary Ball Washington. Her family had been settled in Virginia in about 1650 by her grandfather, Col. William Ball. She was born in 1708 and was orphaned at 13. She inherited 400 acres of Virginia land, some slaves and riding horses, jewelry, and household equipment.

George was the eldest child of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington. He was born on Feb. 22 (Feb. 11 on the calendar used then), 1732, at the Bridges Creek plantation, later called Wakefield. His five younger brothers and sisters were Elizabeth, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred (who died in infancy). George's two half brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, were 14 and 12 years older than he, but the three boys liked and respected one another.

Washington's Childhood

When George was 3 the family moved to the larger plantation farther up the Potomac. It was called Epsewasson, or Little Hunting Creek, from the name of the stream it faced. Young George grew to love the estate with a passion that lasted all his life.

Some years later Augustine bought a farm on the Rappahannock, opposite Fredericksburg, and moved his family there. Ferry Farm (or River Farm) was the scene of boyhood adventures described by "Parson" Mason Locke Weems in 'The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington'. This book was once much loved by boys and girls.

There, according to Weems, he chopped down the cherry tree, then admitted it to his father, stating that he could not tell a lie. There too he is said to have thrown a stone across the Rappahannock. Whether he performed such feats or not, he did live the normal life of a boy in the country. He galloped his horse across fields and meadows; he played at Indian wars with his brothers and sisters; and he dashed to the wharves when ocean ships came into the river port.

When George was 11, his father died. Ferry Farm was left to Mary Washington, to be given to George when she passed on. Epsewasson went to his half brother Lawrence; Wakefield, where George was born, was left to his other half brother, Augustine.

Lawrence had married a neighbor, rich and charming Anne Fairfax. He added to the house at Epsewasson and renamed the estate Mount Vernon, in honor of Admiral Vernon, under whom he had served in the West Indies. Augustine, a prosperous planter, had married also. George went to live with Augustine at Wakefield because Henry William's school, one of the best in the colony, was nearby.

Little is known of George Washington's schooling. He was probably tutored at home for a time, and he may have attended school in Fredericksburg before going to Henry William's school. At 15 he was ready to do practical surveying. He was good in mathematics; he was a neat penman; and he made accurate maps.

For a time his mother thought of sending him to sea to become a naval or merchant marine officer. However, she finally thought better of it and refused to let him go. At school he fell in love with a young lady known only as the "lowland beauty." To her he wrote sad, pompous poetry and grieved about his lost love.

In 1748 George went to live with his half brother Lawrence at Mount Vernon. There he found an interesting circle of friends and neighbors. One was Lord Fairfax, a cousin of Lawrence's wife and master of more than 5 million Virginia acres. Lord Fairfax took a liking to George and hired him to help survey his holdings beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. The work was hard and dangerous, but George did it well. The surveys took more than a year. Then, partly through Fairfax's influence, Washington was appointed surveyor of Culpeper County, his first public office. He took the oath of office on July 20, 1749.

Like any young man on his first real job, Washington considered his pay as a surveyor very important. To a friend he wrote, "A doubloon is my constant gain every day that will permit my going out, and sometimes six pistoles." A doubloon was worth about $15, and six pistoles made a doubloon and a half--very good pay for a youth of 17.

Between surveying trips Washington lived as a young country gentleman. In the outdoor life with its sport and adventure he was at his best. Tall, powerful, and erect, he took an active part in society. He loved good clothes, and he was constantly writing his London agents about his dress, his tableware, and ornaments for his drawing room. In a world at peace he might have continued to work hard and play hard with little thought of public service. The world was not to remain at peace much longer.

First Service as a Military Leader

Washington was a grown man at 20. He already owned his first plot of Virginia land, most likely bought with money borrowed from Lawrence. In 1753 Governor Dinwiddie made him a major of militia and sent him across the mountains with a message to the French commander of Fort Le Boeuf. The note protested the building of a chain of French forts between Lake Ontario and the Ohio River.

Major Washington delivered the message and brought back a full report on French activities. The perilous journey took ten weeks. Twice he nearly lost his life. Once an Indian shot at him from close range, but missed. A few days later he was thrown from a raft into an ice-filled stream.

In the French and Indian War

Soon Washington was made lieutenant colonel of Virginia militia. He was ordered to march with about 200 men to the colonial fort being built where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet. Before Washington's small force could reach the fort, however, the French took it and renamed it Fort Duquesne. Washington drew closer to the fort. On May 28, 1754, his men killed or captured all but one of a French scouting party. This action opened the French and Indian War.

Outnumbered by a much larger force, Washington and his men started to retreat, but the Virginians were soon surrounded. After a sharp fight they had to surrender and were allowed to go on only after they had given up their prisoners. Washington had done everything possible with the small group under his command. For this he was formally thanked by the Virginia House of Burgesses.

The next year Washington was on another expedition. This time he was aide to British Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock. Braddock's ignorance of Indian fighting led to a brutal butchery of his army by the French and Indians. Even Braddock himself was killed. Out of 1,400 officers and men, three fourths were killed or wounded.

In 1755 Governor Dinwiddie made Washington colonel and commander of all Virginia militia forces. This was a high and well-deserved honor for the 23-year-old officer. The colony expanded its forces to 1,000 men, who were to patrol and defend the whole 350-mile frontier. The task was almost impossible. Washington used his small militia skillfully and held down border clashes. In 1758 he and his men took possession of the ruins of Fort Duquesne, burned to the ground by the fleeing French. Washington's service in the French and Indian War was finally over.

Years of Peace and Plenty

In the spring of 1758 Washington met a young widow, Martha Dandridge Custis. On Jan. 6, 1759, they were married in grand style. Martha Washington brought her two small children Patty (or Patsy) and Jack into the family circle. She also brought 15,000 acres of farm and timber country, much of it valuable land near Williamsburg. Washington was living at Mount Vernon, although he did not become its legal owner until the death of Lawrence Washington's widow some years later.

In the years after his marriage Washington became one of the wealthiest and wisest of the Virginia landowners. He studied scientific farming and rode out daily to his farms to manage every detail. He was a vestryman in church and a member of the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg. During its sessions Virginia society gathered for festive times, and the Washingtons took a leading part.

At the same time Washington knew the problems of small farmers and colonial soldiers. He was admired for his kindliness, charm, and dignity by high society and by the common people. He had the confidence of colonial leaders who were beginning to talk of resistance to British rule.

Acts Leading to War

Soon the talk gave way to action, hesitant at first, but later building up to a powerful pattern of resistance. The Stamp Act of 1765 brought out a storm of protest and firm action by the colonists. The act was repealed the following year (see Stamp Act). Other British measures led to equally strong protests and further political action by the colonists. Finally in April of 1769 Washington presented a plan to the House of Burgesses for boycotting British-made goods.

Washington's personal life continued to be active and varied. His farms grew wheat and corn, his mills ground grain into flour, and his boats caught fish for export shipment. Patty, his stepdaughter, died in 1773 of epilepsy. Her brother Jack was married early the next year to Nellie Calvert.

Meantime the need for action drew closer. Washington drilled his Virginia volunteers. In 1774 he rode with the Virginia delegation to attend the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The next spring he attended the Second Continental Congress. He wore the uniform of a Virginia militia officer.

He was not yet in favor of separation from England. He lagged behind the New England extremists who demanded independence at once. However, he believed that the rights of Americans had been attacked and he was ready to fight. The Congress was considering the news of Concord and Lexington and of Gage's British troops hemmed in at Boston by the New England farmer militia. It soon became clear that there must be armed resistance throughout the colonies.

Recognizing Washington's military experience and leadership, the Continental Congress gave him command of the new army. He asked no pay beyond his actual expenses, saying that "as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to accept this arduous employment at the expense of my domestic ease and happiness, I do not wish to make any profit from it." He rode away at once to Cambridge, Mass., and in July 1775 took command of the Continental Army.

The Colonies Win Independence

For the next six years Washington helped to hold the 13 colonies together. Congress itself had no legal standing until the Articles of Confederation became effective in 1781. The poverty-stricken colonies were jealous and divided. Washington's job in those years was far harder and more complex than those of a general who only fights battles. First he had to build an army from untrained and often unpaid men. Then Congress gave his quarrelsome officers some cause for complaint by appointing foreign soldiers to high rank. Terms of enlistment or conscription were short. Washington often saw nearly his whole army melt from under him as men went home, their legal term of service over.

He never had an army large enough to risk outright battle, and at times he was close to total defeat. The cruel winter at Valley Forge would have made a poorer leader quit in despair. Undiscouraged, Washington turned defeat into resounding victory.

Washington's plan was always to make it costly for the British to hold ground. He forced them out of Boston, then out of Philadelphia, and penned them up in useless occupation of New York City. In 1781 the right moment came. With the help of a French army and a French fleet he cornered the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, in the peninsula at Yorktown, Va., and forced his surrender.

The fighting was over in 1781. The Continental Army was held together for two more years until the final peace was made. Army hotheads, angered by slow pay and an ungrateful Congress, talked of mutiny and of seizing the government. Washington, calm and patient, discouraged them. In 1783 he said good-bye to his soldiers and returned to Mount Vernon.

A tragedy marred his happy return. Jack Custis, his stepson, had died of camp fever in 1781. Jack's two small children, George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, were taken in by the Washingtons and reared as their own.

Short Years of Private Life

Washington's public life seemed to be over, and he settled down to his affairs as a private citizen. His ability as a farmer, trader, and land investor showed itself again. Throughout the war he had required written reports from his estate managers. He replied with detailed instructions on what should be done. Now he himself was back to give orders and make plans. Washington had inherited a love for the land from his English ancestors, and ownership of land meant security and well-being to him.

Washington was one of the first American scientific farmers. He exchanged letters with agricultural experimenters at home and in England. He imported plants, shrubs, and trees from many parts of the world. As early as 1760 he experimented with alfalfa. With Thomas Jefferson he was one of the first to set out pecan trees. He planted clover, rye, and timothy to enrich the soil. He tried crop rotation at a time when plenty of new land awaited men whose old lands were worn out.

He is thought to have been the first in America to try raising mules. He improved his breed of sheep and obtained more than double the average yield of wool. Steadily adding to Mount Vernon, he increased its holdings to 8,000 acres, divided into five farms. He complained of heavy losses in bad years, but in good years his profits were large.

New developments in the West beckoned to him. He could not forget the Ohio country where he first won fame as a young officer. He visited it once more and foresaw that great armies of settlers would soon bring Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio into the Union as states. He himself acquired more than 50,000 additional acres, scattered over several territories. The Potomac appeared to be the great water highway of the future, and Washington took active part in a company to develop the river as a thoroughfare for settlers and trade goods.

The New Constitution

Washington was a leader in the movement that led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. At first this meeting considered only changing the Articles of Confederation. When it became clear that the old Articles could not be successfully revised, he gave full support to building the new Constitution. Presiding over the long secret meetings, he spoke little but wisely and to the point. The new Constitution was finally offered to the states for acceptance. (See United States Constitution.)

After the Constitution was adopted Washington was the obvious man for the presidency. The electoral votes were cast in January and February 1789, and on April 6 the results were announced. Washington was unanimously chosen president. He received 69 electoral votes, the total number cast. John Adams was elected vice-president (see Adams, John).

Washington had already shown himself to be a great general and a great citizen. He was now to prove that he could be a great president.

Washington as President

There had never before been a government like the one Washington was called upon to organize in 1789. The states had once been wards of England, and they wanted no more of it. They had been in fact 13 independent republics, and they wanted no more of that either. No one knew how the new Constitution would work or how it would limit the freedom of the states. Washington was determined to build a real federal government for the United States.

The new government was launched April 30, 1789, when Washington took his oath as president in New York City, the first national capital. In 1792 the nation reelected him to a second term.

In appointing men to office Washington acted fairly and without favoritism. John Jay became chief justice of the Supreme Court and was also sent on many special missions (see Jay, John). Edmund Randolph was appointed attorney general. Thomas Jefferson, who became the third president of the United States, was secretary of state (see Jefferson). General Henry Knox became secretary of war, and Alexander Hamilton, a rising young statesman, took over the Department of the Treasury


Washington organized his Cabinet into an executive council, in much the same form as it is today. With the Cabinet and with Congress he moved slowly at first, feeling his way. Relationships were new and not especially happy. Each group, executive or legislative, was testing its own power.

One of the first problems he took up was national defense. "To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace," he said. Another problem was national finance. The government under the Articles of Confederation was unable to govern largely because it lacked the power to tax. The Constitution gave this power to Congress. A customs duty, or tariff, was laid upon imports and a direct tax was put on certain kinds of property. Money was soon paid into the treasury, and bills were settled. Congress even agreed to assume debts incurred by the individual states during the Revolution.

On tour Washington saw the results of careless farming and recommended a board "for the study and promotion of agriculture." In 1790 the site of the future federal capital, later to be named Washington, D.C., was fixed at the falls of the Potomac. Philadelphia was to be the temporary capital until 1800.

Settling Boundary Disputes

The British still held the trading posts and forts along the southern side of the Great Lakes which the peace treaty had given to the United States. The Canadians wanted to hold these for the fur trade. Britain kept them as a way of getting even with the United States for refusing to release the seized properties of American Tories still loyal to England.

In the south Spain held parts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. Without asking Spain, England had given the United States the east bank of the Mississippi River as far south as Natchez (the 31st parallel). Spain, in turn, claimed--either as part of Florida or by conquest from England--most of the country south of the Tennessee River.

By 1794 war with England and Spain threatened. Washington sent John Jay as a special minister to London to make a treaty of commerce and to settle boundary disputes. England agreed to give up Niagara, Detroit, Mackinac Island, and other places.

Another special minister, Thomas Pinckney, went to Madrid. In 1795 he secured from Spain agreements to respect the 31st parallel as the boundary between Florida and the United States, to open the Mississippi to American trade, and to open New Orleans as a duty-free port for Americans. With the boundary issues adjusted, Washington had made the United States master in its own house.

Peace with the Indians

This mastery was not complete, however, as long as Indian tribes went on rampages. American citizens too had to be taught to respect the government. Even before the Constitution was adopted, Congress had set up the country beyond the Ohio as the Northwest Territory. Settlers moved in below Pittsburgh and soon there was a chain of villages reaching down to Cincinnati. Their farms pushed up the Muskingum, the Scioto, and the Miami rivers.

On the border there was always war with the Indians. To them the westward movement of the white men meant death. Wild game disappeared, but the restless, wandering Indians could not settle down as farmers. In 1791 and 1792 soldiers were sent to the tribal villages along the Maumee River. Both times the army forces were surprised and beaten.

After the second defeat Washington placed Gen. "Mad Anthony" Wayne in charge.  He set up a chain of forts from Cincinnati north toward the Maumee, ending with Fort Defiance, which he built under the eyes of the British at Toledo Bay. Finally he defeated the Indians at Fallen Timbers. Never again was Ohio in danger, and the settling of the west went on. On the southern border, in Georgia and Tennessee, the Cherokees and Creeks were quieted. The admission as states of Kentucky in 1792 and Tennessee in 1796 stiffened the pioneer defenses.

The Whiskey Rebellion

When Washington's administration put a tax on whiskey, the western Pennsylvania farmers were angry. The tax was suggested by Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton to help retire the national debt. Whiskey was an important product on the frontier. Farmers could not sell grain near home, and high hauling costs prevented shipping it a great distance. They could make it into whiskey and sell it at a profit large enough to pay for shipment. Frontier towns had little cash, and men often took whiskey as payment.

The new tax seemed unjust. Many did not pay it and had to make expensive trips to eastern courts for trial. The small amount of tax money was not important, but the idea of legal taxation was. In 1794, as the Whiskey Rebellion grew, Washington called out 15,000 members of nearby state militias. He marched them to Bedford, Pa., and over the mountains. The rebels saw the militia and promptly gave up.

This type of law enforcement was unpopular in the west, and it helped turn westerners toward the new Democratic-Republican party of Jefferson. However, it established once and for all the power of the new government to raise money by taxation.

Peace and Neutrality in European Affairs

In 1793 a general European war broke out against France. There was serious danger that the United States might be drawn in. The United States owed France a debt for real assistance in its own revolution, and it had promised to help if France were ever attacked. However, the young nation was in no condition to enter another war, and to Washington it seemed that France had actually started the war.

The new French minister to the United States, Edmond Charles Genet, arrived in the United States in April 1793 and at once began to hire recruiting agents and to commission privateers for war on English shipping. Two weeks after Genet's arrival, Washington announced America's neutrality. The president refused to aid either England or France and asserted America's right to trade freely with both.

Genet continued to fit out privateers despite Secretary of State Jefferson's protests. Genet's ships captured about 50 English merchantmen, some in American waters. He declared that the Constitution did not give Washington the right to interfere. His objectionable conduct caused the French government to recall him in 1794. Fearing he would be tried and executed on his return, Genet did not go home. He settled quietly in the United States, the country whose principles he had defied. The Genet affair caused a great public uproar. It was one of the factors that led Thomas Jefferson to resign as secretary of state and start the Democratic-Republican party.

Another vital matter was the trouble with the Barbary pirates who demanded tribute money from American ships. The young United States had to pay, but not for long. Plans for a navy were made. One of Washington's last official acts was to sign the first commission in the United States Navy, making John Barry the first captain and commander of the frigate United States .

For the next 20 years the United States was constantly threatened with being mixed up in Europe's wars, but the presidents after Washington followed his idea of neutrality. The Monroe Doctrine, as stated by President James Monroe, was a clear-cut presentation of a neutrality policy started by Washington (see Monroe Doctrine).

Last Years as President

Today Washington's magnificent work as president is recognized and appreciated. Yet his last years in office were saddened by political opposition, especially to his policy of peace with England. Many harsh things were said about him personally. He sometimes feared that the peace of the young nation would be wrecked by civil war, and he could not understand why all honest men could not agree.

Despite all such opposition he might have been reelected for a third term; but he was tired to the bone. He also thought it unwise for one man to hold power so long. By refusing a third term he established a tradition which lasted (except for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's four terms) until it was made into law by the 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951.

"Much such a day as yesterday in all respects. Mercury at 41." This is the whole entry in Washington's diary for March 4, 1797, the day he turned over his office to the next president, John Adams.

His Last Years

The last years at Mount Vernon were busy and happy ones. The management of his farms and estates took a great deal of Washington's time and energy. He had other responsibilities as director of the bank at Alexandria, Va., and as officer or director of various land companies. In 1798 President John Adams appointed Washington lieutenant general in command of a United States army that was to be raised in expectation of war with France. The fear of war faded, however, and Washington never took command.

A visitor at Mount Vernon wrote that "they live in great style and with the utmost regularity. Breakfast is on the table at seven o'clock, dinner at three, tea at seven, and supper at nine. The President employs his mornings in riding over the farm. He is one of the most charming men in the world, always in good spirits, and makes it his chief duty to render all around him as happy as possible."

On Dec. 12, 1799, Washington rode over his farms for about five hours. It was snowing when he started out. Later it changed to hail and cold rain. Without changing his wet clothes on his return, he sat down to dinner. The next day he complained of a sore throat. During the night of the 13th he became seriously ill, but he would not disturb the household or allow Mrs. Washington to get up for fear she should catch cold. The next day his strength was sapped by frequent blood-lettings, and he grew steadily weaker. He died late that night, on Saturday, Dec. 14, 1799.

Washington was buried in the family vault on Mount Vernon. John Marshall summed up the national grief. He quoted the well-remembered words of Henry Lee that truly describe Washington's place in American history: "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

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