George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797
|1st President of the United States|
April 30, 1789[lower-alpha 1] – March 4, 1797
|Vice President||John Adams|
|Preceded by||Inaugural Holder|
|Succeeded by||John Adams|
|Senior Officer of the Army|
July 13, 1798 – December 14, 1799
|Appointed by||John Adams|
|Preceded by||James Wilkinson|
|Succeeded by||Alexander Hamilton|
|Commander-in-Chief of the
June 15, 1775 – December 23, 1783
|Appointed by||Continental Congress|
|Preceded by||Inaugural Holder|
|Succeeded by||Henry Knox (Senior Officer of the Army)|
|Delegate to the Second Continental Congress from Virginia|
May 10, 1775 – June 15, 1775
|Preceded by||Inaugural Holder|
|Succeeded by||Thomas Jefferson|
|Delegate to the First Continental Congress
September 5, 1774 – October 26, 1774
|Preceded by||Inaugural Holder|
|Succeeded by||Position Abolished|
|Member of the Virginia House of Burgesses|
February 22, 1732|
Bridges Creek, Colony of Virginia, British America
|Died||December 14, 1799 (aged 67)
Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.
|Resting place||Washington Family Tomb, Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.|
|Spouse(s)||Martha Dandridge (m. 1759)|
|Awards||Congressional Gold Medal
Thanks of Congress
|Allegiance|| Great Britain
|Service/branch|| Colonial Militia
United States Army
|Years of service||1752–58 (British Militia)
1775–83 (Continental Army)
1798–99 (U.S. Army)
|Rank||General of the Armies (promoted posthumously: 1976, by an Act of Congress)|
|Commands||Virginia Colony's regiment
United States Army
President of the United States
George Washington (/ /; February 22, 1732 [O.S. February 11, 1731][lower-alpha 2][lower-alpha 3] – December 14, 1799) was an American politician and soldier who served as the first President of the United States from 1789 to 1797 and was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He served as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and later presided over the 1787 convention that drafted the United States Constitution. He is popularly considered the driving force behind the nation's establishment and came to be known as the "father of the country," both during his lifetime and to this day.
Washington was widely admired for his strong leadership qualities and was unanimously elected president by the Electoral College in the first two national elections. He oversaw the creation of a strong, well-financed national government that maintained neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars, suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion, and won acceptance among Americans of all types. Washington's 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 after two terms established a tradition that lasted until 1940 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term. The 22nd Amendment (1951) now limits the president to two elected terms.
He was born into the provincial gentry of Colonial Virginia to a family of wealthy planters who owned tobacco plantations and slaves, which he inherited. In his youth, he became a senior officer in the colonial militia during the first stages of the French and Indian War. In 1775, the Second Continental Congress commissioned him as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolution. In that command, Washington forced the British out of Boston in 1776 but was defeated and nearly captured later that year when he lost New York City.
After crossing the Delaware River in the middle of winter, he defeated the British in two battles (Trenton and Princeton), retook New Jersey, and restored momentum to the Patriot cause. His strategy enabled Continental forces to capture two major British armies at Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown in 1781. Historians laud Washington for the selection and supervision of his generals; preservation and command of the army; coordination with the Congress, state governors, and their militia; and attention to supplies, logistics, and training. In battle, however, Washington was repeatedly outmaneuvered by British generals with larger armies.
After victory had been finalized in 1783, Washington resigned as commander-in-chief rather than seize power, proving his opposition to dictatorship and his commitment to American republicanism. Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which devised a new form of federal government for the United States. Following his election as president in 1789, he worked to unify rival factions in the fledgling nation. He supported Alexander Hamilton's programs to satisfy all debts, federal and state, established a permanent seat of government, implemented an effective tax system, and created a national bank. In avoiding war with Great Britain, he guaranteed a decade of peace and profitable trade by securing the Jay Treaty in 1795, despite intense opposition from the Jeffersonians. He remained non-partisan, never joining the Federalist Party, although he largely supported its policies. Washington's Farewell Address was an influential primer on civic virtue, warning against partisanship, sectionalism, and involvement in foreign wars. He retired from the presidency in 1797, returning to his home and plantation at Mount Vernon.
Upon his death, Washington was eulogized as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen" by Representative Henry Lee III of Virginia. He was revered in life and in death; scholarly and public polling consistently ranks him among the top three presidents in American history. He has been depicted and remembered in monuments, public works, currency, and other dedications to the present day.
Early life (1732–1753)
George Washington was the first child of Augustine Washington (1694–1743) and his second wife Mary Ball Washington (1708–1789), born on their Pope's Creek Estate near present-day Colonial Beach in Westmoreland County, Virginia. 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.[lower-alpha 2][lower-alpha 3]
Washington was of primarily English gentry descent, especially from Sulgrave, England. His great-grandfather John Washington emigrated to Virginia in 1656 and began accumulating land and slaves, as did his son Lawrence and his grandson, George's father Augustine. Augustine was a tobacco planter who also tried his hand in iron-manufacturing ventures. In George's youth, the Washingtons were moderately prosperous members of the Virginia gentry, of "middling rank" rather than one of the leading planter families.
Six of George's siblings reached maturity, 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. Three siblings died before adulthood: his full sister Mildred died when she was about one, his half-brother Butler died in infancy, and his half-sister Jane died at age twelve, when George was about two. His father died of a sudden illness in April 1743 when George was eleven years old, and his half-brother Lawrence became a surrogate father and role model. William Fairfax was Lawrence's father-in-law and the cousin of Virginia's largest landowner Thomas, Lord Fairfax, and he was also a formative influence.
Washington's father was the Justice of the Westmoreland County Court. George spent much of his boyhood at Ferry Farm in Stafford County near Fredericksburg. Lawrence Washington inherited another family property from his father, a plantation on the Potomac River at Little Hunting Creek which he named Mount Vernon, in honor of his commanding officer Admiral Edward Vernon. George inherited Ferry Farm upon his father's death and eventually acquired Mount Vernon after Lawrence's death.
The death of his father prevented Washington from an education at England's Appleby School such as his older brothers had received. He achieved the equivalent of an elementary school education from a variety of tutors, as well as from a school run by an Anglican clergyman in or near Fredericksburg. There was talk of securing an appointment for him in the Royal Navy when he was 15, but it was dropped when his widowed mother objected.
In 1751, Washington traveled to Barbados with Lawrence, who was suffering from tuberculosis, with the hope that the climate would be beneficial to Lawrence's health. Washington contracted smallpox during the trip, which left his face slightly scarred but immunized him against future exposures to the dreaded disease. Lawrence's health failed to improve, and he returned to Mount Vernon where he died in the summer of 1752. Lawrence's position as Adjutant General (militia leader) of Virginia was divided into four district offices after his death. Washington was appointed by Governor Dinwiddie as one of the four district adjutants in February 1753, with the rank of major in the Virginia militia. During this period, Washington became a Freemason while in Fredericksburg, although his involvement was minimal.
Washington's introduction to surveying began at an early age through school exercises that taught him the basics of the profession, followed by practical experience in the field. His first experiences at surveying occurred in the territory surrounding Mount Vernon. His first opportunity as a surveyor occurred in 1748 when he was invited to join a survey party organized by his neighbor and friend George Fairfax of Belvoir. Fairfax organized a professional surveying party to lay out large tracts of land along the border of western Virginia, where the young Washington gained invaluable experience in the field.
Washington began his career as a professional surveyor in 1749 at the age of 17. He subsequently received a commission and surveyor's license from the College of William and Mary[lower-alpha 4] and became the official surveyor for the newly formed Culpeper County. He was appointed to this well-paid official position thanks to his brother Lawrence's connection to the prominent Fairfax family. He completed his first survey in less than two days, plotting a 400-acre parcel of land, and was well on his way to a promising career. He was subsequently able to purchase land in the Shenandoah Valley, the first of his many land acquisitions in western Virginia.
For the next four years, Washington worked surveying land in Western Virginia and for the Ohio Company, a land investment company funded by Virginia investors. He came to the notice of the new lieutenant governor of Virginia Robert Dinwiddie, thanks to Lawrence's position as commander of the Virginia militia. He was hard to miss; at over six feet,[lower-alpha 5] he was taller than most of his contemporaries. In October 1750, Washington resigned his position as an official surveyor, though he continued to work diligently over the next three years at his new profession. He continued to survey professionally for two more years, mostly in Frederick County, before receiving a military appointment as adjutant for southern Virginia. By 1752, Washington completed close to 200 surveys on numerous properties totaling more than 60,000 acres. He continued to survey at different times throughout his life and as late as 1799.
French and Indian War
Washington began his military service in the French and Indian War[lower-alpha 6] as a major in the militia of the British Province of Virginia. In 1753, he was sent as an ambassador from the British crown to the French officials and Indians as far north as present-day Erie, Pennsylvania. The Ohio Company was an important vehicle through which British investors planned to expand into the Ohio Valley, opening new settlements and trading posts for the Indian trade. In 1753, the French themselves began expanding their military control into the Ohio Country, a territory already claimed by the British colonies of Virginia and Pennsylvania. These competing claims led to a war in the colonies called the French and Indian War (1754–62) and contributed to the start of the global Seven Years' War (1756–63). By chance, Washington became involved in its beginning.
Beginnings of War
Deputy governor of colonial Virginia Robert Dinwiddie was ordered by the British government to guard the British territorial claims, including the Ohio River basin. In late 1753, Dinwiddie ordered Washington to deliver a letter asking the French to vacate the Ohio Valley; he was eager to prove himself as the new adjutant general of the militia, appointed by the Lieutenant Governor himself only a year before. During his trip, Washington met with Tanacharison (also called "Half-King") and other Iroquois chiefs allied with England at Logstown to secure their support in case of a military conflict with the French. He delivered the letter to local French commander Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, who politely refused to leave. Washington kept a diary during his expedition which was printed by William Hunter on Dinwiddie's order and which made Washington's name recognizable in Virginia. This increased popularity helped him to obtain a commission to raise a company of 100 men and start his military career.
Dinwiddie sent Washington back to the Ohio Country to safeguard an Ohio Company's construction of a fort at present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Before he reached the area, a French force drove out colonial traders and began construction of Fort Duquesne. A small detachment of French troops led by Joseph Coulon de Jumonville was discovered by Tanacharison and a few warriors east of present-day Uniontown, Pennsylvania. On May 28, 1754, Washington and some of his militia unit, aided by their Mingo allies, ambushed the French in what has come to be called the Battle of Jumonville Glen. Exactly what happened during and after the battle is a matter of contention, but several primary accounts agree that the battle lasted about 15 minutes, that Jumonville was killed, and that most of his party were either killed or taken prisoner. It is not completely clear whether Jumonville died at the hands of Tanacharison in cold blood, or was somehow shot by an onlooker with a musket as he sat with Washington, or by another means. Following the battle, Washington was given the epithet Town Destroyer by Tanacharison.
The French responded by attacking and capturing Washington at Fort Necessity in July 1754. They allowed him to return with his troops to Virginia. Historian Joseph Ellis concludes that the episode demonstrated Washington's bravery, initiative, inexperience, and impetuosity. Upon his return to Virginia, Washington refused to accept a demotion to the rank of captain, and resigned his commission. Washington's expedition into the Ohio Country had international consequences; the French accused Washington of assassinating Jumonville, who they claimed was on a diplomatic mission. 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.
Braddock disaster 1755
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. Washington initially sought an appointment as a major from Braddock, but he agreed to serve as a staff volunteer upon advice that no rank above captain could be given except by London. During the passage of the expedition, Washington fell ill with severe headaches and fever; nevertheless, he recommended to Braddock that the army be split into two divisions when the pace of the troops continued to slow: a primary and more lightly equipped "flying column" offensive which could move at a more rapid pace, to be followed by a more heavily armed reinforcing division. Braddock accepted the recommendation (likely made in a council of war including other officers) and took command of the lead division.
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 in disarray. Washington rode back and forth across the battlefield, rallying the remnants of the British and Virginian forces into an organized retreat. In the process, he demonstrated bravery and stamina, despite his lingering illness. He had two horses shot from underneath him, while 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.
Washington was not included by the succeeding commander Col. Thomas Dunbar in planning subsequent force movements, whatever responsibility rested on him for the defeat as a result of his recommendation to Braddock.
Commander of Virginia Regiment
Lt. Governor Dinwiddie rewarded Washington in 1755 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. He happily accepted the commission, but the coveted red coat of officer rank (and the accompanying pay) continued to elude him. Dinwiddie as well pressed in vain for the British military to incorporate the Virginia Regiment into its ranks.
In command of a thousand soldiers, Washington was 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. Washington's strenuous efforts meant that Virginia's frontier population suffered less than that of other colonies; Ellis concludes that "it was his only unqualified success" in that war.
In 1758, Washington participated in the Forbes Expedition to capture Fort Duquesne. He was embarrassed by a friendly fire episode in which his unit and another British unit each thought that the other was the French enemy and opened fire, with 14 dead and 26 wounded in the mishap. Washington was not involved in any other major fighting on the expedition, and the British scored a major strategic victory, gaining control of the Ohio Valley when the French abandoned the fort. Following the expedition, he retired from his Virginia Regiment commission in December 1758. He did not return to military life until the outbreak of the revolution in 1775.
Washington never gained the commission in the British army that he yearned for, but in these years he gained valuable military, political, and leadership skills. He closely observed British military tactics, gaining a keen insight into their strengths and weaknesses that proved invaluable during the Revolution. Washington learned to organize, train, drill, and discipline his companies and regiments. He learned the basics of battlefield tactics from his observations, readings, and conversations with professional officers, as well as a good understanding of problems of organization and logistics. He gained an understanding of overall strategy, especially in locating strategic geographical points.
Washington demonstrated his resourcefulness and courage in the most difficult situations, including disasters and retreats. He developed a command presence, given his size, strength, stamina, and bravery in battle, which demonstrated to soldiers that he was a natural leader whom they could follow without question. Washington's fortitude in his early years was sometimes manifested in less constructive ways. Biographer John R. Alden contends that Washington offered "fulsome and insincere flattery to British generals in vain attempts to win great favor" and on occasion showed youthful arrogance, as well as jealousy and ingratitude in the midst of impatience.
Historian Ron Chernow is of the opinion that his frustrations in dealing with government officials during this conflict led him to advocate the advantages of a strong national government and a vigorous executive agency that could get results; other historians tend to ascribe Washington's position on government to his later American Revolutionary War service.[lower-alpha 7] He developed a very negative idea of the value of militia, who seemed too unreliable, too undisciplined, and too short-term compared to regulars. On the other hand, his experience was limited to command of at most 1,000 men and came only in remote frontier conditions that were far removed from the urban situations that he faced during the Revolution at Boston, New York, Trenton, and Philadelphia.
Between the wars: Mount Vernon (1759–1774)
On January 6, 1759, Washington married wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis, then 28 years old. Surviving letters suggest that he may have been in love at the time with Sally Fairfax, the wife of a friend. Nevertheless, George and Martha made a compatible marriage, because Martha was intelligent, gracious, and experienced in managing a planter's estate.
Together they raised her children from her previous marriage, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke (Patsy) Custis. Later, they raised Martha's grandchildren Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. George and Martha never had any children together; his earlier bout with smallpox in 1751 may have made him sterile.[lower-alpha 8] The newlywed couple moved to Mount Vernon, near Alexandria, where he took up the life of a planter and political figure.
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 upon his marriage, worth approximately $100,000, and managed the remainder on behalf of Martha's children, for whom he sincerely cared.
In 1754, Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie had promised land bounties to the soldiers and officers who volunteered to serve during the French and Indian War. Washington prevailed upon Lord Botetourt, the new governor, and he finally fulfilled Dinwiddie's promise in 1769–1770, with Washington subsequently receiving title to 23,200 acres (94 km2) where the Kanawha River flows into the Ohio River, in what is now western West Virginia. He also frequently bought additional land in his own name. By 1775, Washington had doubled the size of Mount Vernon to 6,500 acres (26 km2), and had increased its slave population to over 100.
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. In the 1758 election, he plied the voters with 170 gallons of rice punch, beer, wine, hard cider, and brandy, though he was largely absent while serving on the Forbes Expedition. With the help of several local elites, Washington won election with roughly forty percent of the vote, defeating three other candidates for the seat. Early in his legislative career, Washington rarely spoke, but he became a prominent critic of Britain's taxation and mercantilist policies in the 1760s.
Washington lived an aristocratic lifestyle—fox hunting was a favorite leisure activity. He also enjoyed going to dances and parties, in addition to the theater, races, and cockfights. He also was known to play cards, backgammon, and billiards. Like most Virginia planters, he imported luxuries and other goods from England and paid for them by exporting his tobacco crop. By 1764, these luxuries, coupled with a poor tobacco market, left Washington ₤1,800 in debt. He began to pull himself out of debt in the mid-1760s by diversifying his previously tobacco-centric business interests into other ventures and paying more attention to his affairs, especially in the form of buying fewer imported luxuries.
In 1766, he started switching Mount Vernon's primary cash crop away from tobacco to wheat, a crop that could be processed and then sold in various forms in the colonies, and further diversified operations to include flour milling, fishing, horse breeding, hog production, spinning, and weaving, and (in the 1790s) he erected a distillery for whiskey production which yielded more than 1,000 gallons a month.
After a history of epileptic attacks, Patsy Custis died suddenly in Washington's arms in 1773. The day following Patsy's death, Washington wrote to Burwell Bassett: "It is an 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 aflicted path she hitherto has trod." Washington cancelled all business activity and, for the next three months, was not away from Martha for a single night. Patsy's death enabled Washington to pay off his British creditors, since half of her inheritance passed to him.
Washington was a successful planter of tobacco and wheat, and also 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". As for people not of high social status, his advice 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". In 1769, he became more politically active, presenting the Virginia Assembly with legislation to ban the importation of goods from Great Britain.
American Revolution (1775–1783)
Washington played a leading military and political role in the American Revolution. His involvement began in 1767, when he first took political stands against the various acts of the British Parliament. He opposed the 1765 Stamp Act, the first direct tax on the colonies imposed by the British Parliament, which included no representatives from the colonies; he began taking a leading role in the growing colonial resistance when protests became widespread against the Townshend Acts (enacted in 1767). In May 1769, he introduced a proposal, drafted by his friend George Mason and calling for Virginia to boycott English goods until the Acts were repealed.
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". He told 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."
In July 1774, he chaired the meeting at which the "Fairfax Resolves" were adopted, which called for the convening of a Continental Congress, among other things. In August, Washington attended the First Virginia Convention, where he was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.
Commander in Chief
The colonies went to war after the Battles of Lexington and Concord near Boston in April 1775. Washington appeared at the Second Continental Congress in a military uniform, signaling that he was prepared for war. He had the prestige, military experience, charisma, and military bearing of a military leader and was known as a strong patriot. Virginia was the largest colony and deserved recognition, and New England—where the fighting began—realized that it needed Southern support. Washington did not explicitly seek the office of commander and said that he was not equal to it, but there was no serious competition. Congress created the Continental Army on June 14, 1775. Washington was nominated by John Adams of Massachusetts, then appointed as a full General and Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Washington's refusal to accept a salary earned him a reputation as a "noble and disinterested" commanding officer.
The British then articulated the peril of Washington and his army; on August 23, 1775, Britain issued a Royal proclamation labeling American Patriots as traitors. If they resorted to force, they faced confiscation of their property, and their leaders were subject to execution upon the scaffold.
General Washington essentially assumed three roles during the war. First, he provided leadership of troops against the main British forces in 1775–77 and again in 1781. He lost many of his battles, but he never surrendered his army during the war, and he continued to fight the British relentlessly until the war's end. He plotted the overall strategy of the war, in cooperation with Congress.
Second, he was charged with organizing and training the army. He recruited regulars and assigned Baron von Steuben to train them, a veteran of the Prussian general staff. The war effort and getting supplies to the troops were under the purview of Congress, but Washington pressured the Congress to provide the essentials. In June 1776, Congress' first attempt at running the war effort was established 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. The command structure of the armed forces was a hodgepodge of Congressional appointees (and Congress sometimes made those appointments without Washington's input) with state-appointments filling the lower ranks. The results of his general staff were mixed, as some of his favorites (such as John Sullivan) never mastered the art of command.
Eventually, he found capable officers, such as General Nathanael Greene, General Daniel Morgan ("the old wagoner" with whom he had served in The French and Indian War), Colonel Henry Knox (chief of artillery), and Colonel Alexander Hamilton (chief of staff). The American officers never equaled their opponents in tactics and maneuver, and consequently, they lost most of the pitched battles. The great successes at Boston (1776), Saratoga (1777), and Yorktown (1781) came from trapping the British far from base with much larger numbers of troops. Daniel Morgan's annihilation of Banastre Tarleton's legion of dragoons at Cowpens in February 1781 came as a result of Morgan's employment of superior line tactics against his British opponent, resulting in one of the very few double envelopments in military history, another being Hannibal's defeat of the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC.
The decisive defeat of Col. Patrick Ferguson's Tory Regiment at King's Mountain demonstrated the superiority of the riflery of American "over-mountain men" over British-trained troops armed with musket and bayonet. These "over-mountain men" were led by a variety of elected officers, including the 6'6" William Campbell who had become one of Washington's officers by the time of Yorktown. Similarly, Morgan's Virginia riflemen proved themselves superior to the British at Saratoga, a post-revolutionary war development being the creation of trained "rifle battalions" in the European armies.
Washington's third and most important role in the war effort was the embodiment of armed resistance to the Crown, the representative man of the Revolution. His long-term strategy was to maintain an army in the field at all times, and eventually this strategy worked. His enormous personal and political stature and his political skills kept Congress, the army, the French, the militias, and the states all pointed toward a common goal. Furthermore, he permanently established the principle of civilian supremacy in military affairs by voluntarily resigning his commission and disbanding his army when the war was won, rather than declaring himself monarch. He also helped overcome the distrust of a standing army by his constant reiteration that well-disciplined professional soldiers counted for twice as much as erratic militias. (This was clearly demonstrated in the rout at Camden, where only the Maryland and Delaware Continentals held firm under Baron DeKalb.)
Victory at Boston
Washington assumed command of the Continental Army in the field at Cambridge, Massachusetts in July 1775 during the ongoing siege of Boston. He recognized his army's desperate shortage of gunpowder and sought new sources. American troops raided British arsenals, including some in the Caribbean, and some manufacturing was attempted. They obtained a barely adequate supply (about 2.5 million pounds) by the end of 1776, mostly from France.
Washington reorganized the army during the long standoff in Boston and forced the British to withdraw by putting artillery on Dorchester Heights overlooking the city. The British evacuated Boston in March 1776 and Washington moved his army to New York City.
British newspapers disparaged most of the Patriots, but praised Washington's personal character and qualities as a military commander despite his opposition to Britain, which some believed would ruin the empire.
Defeat at New York
In August 1776, British General William 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. 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. 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.
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. He belatedly retreated farther 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. Biographer Alden claims that "although Washington was responsible for the decision to delay the patriots' retreat, he tried to ascribe blame for the decision to defend Fort Washington to the wishes of Congress and the bad advice of Nathaniel Greene."
Crossing the Delaware
Washington then continued his flight across New Jersey; the future of the Continental Army was in doubt due to expiring enlistments and the string of losses. On the night of December 25, 1776, he led his army across the Delaware River. The next morning, the troops launched a surprise attack on a Hessian outpost in Trenton, New Jersey, capturing nearly 1,000 prisoners. Washington followed up his victory at Trenton with another over British regulars at Princeton on January 3. The British retreated to New York City and its environs, which they held until the peace treaty of 1783.
Washington's victories wrecked the British carrot-and-stick strategy of showing overwhelming force then offering generous terms. The Americans would not negotiate for anything short of independence. These victories alone were not enough to ensure ultimate Patriot victory, however, since many soldiers did not reenlist 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.
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. He ordered the inoculation of all troops and, by some reports, death by smallpox in the ranks dropped from 17% of all deaths to 1% of all deaths.
Historians debate whether Washington preferred to fight major battles or to utilize a Fabian strategy[lower-alpha 9] to harass the British with quick, sharp attacks followed by a retreat so that the larger British army could not catch him.[lower-alpha 10] His southern commander Greene did use Fabian tactics in 1780–81; Washington did so only in fall 1776 to spring 1777, after losing New York City and seeing much of his army melt away. Trenton and Princeton were Fabian examples. By summer 1777 Washington had rebuilt his strength and his confidence; he stopped using raids and went for large-scale confrontations, as at Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, and Yorktown.
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. 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. 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 Washington from command. This movement termed the Conway Cabal, failed after Washington's supporters rallied behind him. 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. John Adams was never a fan of the southern delegation to the Continental Congress, and he wrote that "Congress will appoint a thanksgiving; and one cause of it ought to be that the glory of turning the tide of arms is not immediately due to the commander-in-chief nor to southern troops. If it had been, idolatry and adulation would have been unbounded.... Now we can allow a certain citizen to be wise, virtuous, and good, without thinking him a deity or a savior."
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. 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.
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, which controlled gathering the supplies for the army. By late February, there were adequate supplies flowing throughout camp.
The next spring, a revitalized army emerged from Valley Forge in good order, thanks in part to a full-scale training program supervised by General von Steuben. The British evacuated Philadelphia for New York in June, 1778. Washington summoned a council of war with Generals Lee, Greene, and Wayne and Lafayette, and he decided to make a partial attack on the retreating British at the Battle of Monmouth. On June 28, Lee and Lafayette moved with 4,000 men and without Washington's immediate knowledge; they attempted to launch but bungled the first attack at the British rear guard. Clinton came about and offered stiff resistance, also with 4,000 men and waiting in anticipation, keeping the Americans in check. 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.
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. 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. Indeed, 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." 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."
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. The British, led by Howe's successor Sir Henry Clinton, made a move up the Hudson against American posts at Verplanck's Point and Stony Point, and both places succumbed; but a counter-offensive was briefly successful by the patriots led by General Anthony Wayne. Clinton was able to shut off Kings Ferry in the end, but it was a strategic loss; he could proceed no farther up the river due to American fortifications and Washington's army. The skirmishes at Verplanck's Point and at Stony Point demonstrated that the continental infantry had become quite formidable and were an enormous boost to morale.
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, leaving Cornwallis in the south. 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 to learn in mid-1780 that Lafayette had returned from France with additional naval assets and forces.
In the summer of 1778, George Washington ordered Major Benjamin Tallmadge to form the Culper Ring. This group was composed of a select few trustworthy individuals whose purpose was to collect information about the British movements and activities in New York City. The Ring is famous for uncovering Benedict Arnold's intentions of treason, which shocked Washington because Arnold was someone who had contributed significantly to the war effort. Arnold was embittered by his dealings with Congress over rank and finances, as well as the alliance with France, so he conspired with the British in a plan to seize the post that he commanded at West Point. Washington just missed apprehending him, but did capture his co-conspirator Major John André, a British intelligence officer under Clinton who was hanged by order of a court-martial called by Washington.
Difficulties during the winter of 1780-1781
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".
Victory at Yorktown
In July 1780, 5,000 veteran French troops led by the comte de Rochambeau arrived at Newport, Rhode Island to aid in the war. French naval forces then landed, led by Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse. At first Washington hoped to bring the allied fight to New York 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.
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. The surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, marked the end of major fighting in North America. Cornwallis failed to appear at the official surrender ceremony, and sent General Charles Oharrow as his proxy; Washington then had General Benjamin Lincoln accept the surrender in his place.
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 the 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.
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 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.
By the Treaty of Paris signed that September, 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. On November 25, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington and the governor took possession. At Fraunces Tavern on December 4, Washington formally bade his officers farewell and he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief on December 23, 1783. "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." Historian Gordon Wood concludes that the greatest act in his life was his resignation as commander of the armies.  King George III called Washington "the greatest character of the age" because of this.
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.
Washington's retirement to personal business at Mount Vernon was short-lived. He made an exploratory trip to the western frontier in 1784 and inspected his land holdings in Western Pennsylvania that had been earned decades earlier for his service in the French and Indian War. 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. He also facilitated the creation of the Potomac Company, a public–private partnership that sought to link the Potomac River with the Ohio River, but technical and financial challenges rendered the company unprofitable.
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. 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. 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.
Washington's participation in the debates was minor, 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." 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. The new Constitution was subsequently ratified by all thirteen states. 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.
The Electoral College unanimously elected Washington as the first president[lower-alpha 11] in 1789[lower-alpha 12] and again in 1792. He remains the only president to receive the totality of electoral votes.[lower-alpha 13] John Adams received the next highest vote total and was elected vice president. Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, taking the first presidential oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. The oath, as follows, was administered by Chancellor Robert R. Livingston: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." Historian John R. Alden indicates that Washington added the words "so help me God."
The 1st United States Congress voted to pay Washington a salary of $25,000 a year—a large sum in 1789, valued at about $340,000 in 2015 dollars.[lower-alpha 14] Washington faced financial troubles then, yet he initially declined the salary. At the urging of Congress, he ultimately accepted the payment to avoid setting a precedent whereby the presidency would be perceived as limited only to independently wealthy individuals who could serve without any salary. The president was aware that everything which 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.[lower-alpha 15] To that end, he preferred the title "Mr. President" to the more majestic names proposed by the Senate.
Washington proved an able administrator and established many precedents in the functions of the presidency, including messages to Congress and the cabinet form of government. He set the standard for tolerance of opposition voices, despite fears that a democratic system would lead to political violence, and conducted a smooth transition of power to his successor. 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. 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." After reluctantly serving a second term, Washington refused to run for a third, establishing the tradition of a maximum of two terms for a president, which was solidified by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Washington was not a member of any political party and hoped that they would not be formed, fearing conflict that would undermine republicanism. His closest advisors formed two factions, setting the framework for the future First Party System. Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton had bold 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. Jefferson's political actions, his support of Philip Freneau's National Gazette, and his attempt to undermine Hamilton nearly led George Washington to dismiss him from his cabinet, though he ultimately left the cabinet voluntarily. Washington never forgave him and never spoke to him again.
In early 1790, Hamilton devised a plan with the approval of Washington, culminating in The Residence Act of 1790, that established the creditworthiness of the new government, as well as its permanent location. Congress had previously issued almost $22 million to suppliers in certificates of debt during the war; some of the states had incurred debt, as well (more so in the North). In accordance with the plan, Congress authorized the assumption and payment of these debts, and provided funding through customs duties and excise taxes. The proposal was largely favored in the North and opposed in the South. Hamilton obtained the approval of the southern states in exchange for an agreement to place the new national capitol on the Potomac River.
The national debt increased as a result during Hamilton's service as Secretary of the Treasury, but the nation established its good credit. Many in the Congress and elsewhere in the government profited from trading in the debt paper which was assumed. Many of Washington's fellow Virginians and others were vexed by this, but he considered that they had adequate redress through their Congressional representatives.
The Revenue Act authorized the president to select the specific location on the Potomac River for the seat of the government. He was to appoint three commissioners to survey and acquire property for it, and Washington personally oversaw this effort throughout his term in office. In 1791, the commissioners named the permanent seat of government "The City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia" to honor Washington. In 1800, the Territory of Columbia became the District of Columbia when the federal government moved to the site, according to the provisions of the Residence Act.
In 1791, Congress imposed an excise tax on distilled spirits, partly as a result of the Copper Panic of 1789, and this led to protests in frontier districts, especially Pennsylvania. Washington ordered the protesters to appear in U.S. district court, but the protests turned into full-scale defiance of federal authority in 1794 known as the Whiskey Rebellion. The federal army was too small to be used, so Washington invoked the Militia Act of 1792 to summon militias from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey. 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, as Washington's forceful action proved that the new government could protect itself. This represented the premier instance of the federal government using military force to exert authority over the states and citizens and is also the only time that a sitting U.S. president personally commanded troops in the field.
In April of 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.
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; 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.
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. Relations with France deteriorated after the treaty was signed, leaving succeeding president John Adams with the prospect of war.
Washington's Farewell Address was issued as a public letter in 1796 and was one of the most influential statements of republicanism, drafted primarily by Washington himself with help from Hamilton. It gives advice on the necessity and importance of national union, the value of the Constitution and 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", and said, "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." The address warned against foreign influence in domestic affairs and 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. He cautioned against "permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world", saying that the United States must concentrate primarily on American interests. He counseled friendship and commerce with all nations, but advised against involvement in European wars and entering into long-term "entangling" alliances, while advancing the general idea of non-involvement in foreign affairs. The Farewell Address made no clear distinction between domestic and foreign policies; John Quincy Adams interpreted Washington's policy as advocating a strong nationalist foreign policy while not limiting America's international activities. 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.
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. Chernow 2010 explains that his plantation operations were only minimally profitable. The lands out west 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 a glut of unproductive slaves, which he declined to sell due to a desire to keep families intact, and due to questions as to whether the slaves rightfully belonged to him or to Martha.
Most Americans assumed that he was rich because of the well-known "glorified façade of wealth and grandeur" at Mount Vernon, nearly all his 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 purchasing power.
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 seventeen months later. He participated in the 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, including active leadership of the army, to Hamilton, who was then serving as a major general in the U.S. Army. No French army invaded the United States during this period, and Washington did not assume a field command.
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, remained in command of 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. Poet Philip Freneau remarked on Washington's resignation in December 1783 and his decision to retire to Mount Vernon:
- Thus He, whom Rome's proud legions sway'd
- Return'd, and sought his sylvan shade.
On Thursday, December 12, 1799, Washington spent several hours inspecting his plantation on horseback, in snow, hail, and freezing rain; that evening, he ate his supper without changing from his wet clothes. He awoke the next morning with a severe sore throat and became increasingly hoarse as the day progressed, yet still rode out in the heavy snow, marking trees that he wanted cut on the estate. Some time around 3 a.m. that Saturday, he suddenly awoke with severe difficulty breathing and almost completely unable to speak or swallow. He was a firm believer in bloodletting, which was a standard medical practice of that era which he had used to treat various ailments of slaves on his plantation. He ordered estate overseer Albin Rawlins to remove half a pint of his blood.
Three physicians were 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". By the time that the three physicians finished their treatments and bloodletting of the president, there had been a massive volume of blood loss—half or more of his total blood content was removed over the course of just a few hours. Dr. Dick recognized that the bloodletting and other treatments were failing, and he proposed performing an emergency tracheotomy, a procedure that few American physicians were familiar with at the time, as a last-ditch effort to save Washington's life, but the other two doctors disapproved.
Washington died at home around 10 p.m. on Saturday, December 14, 1799, aged 67. In his journal, Tobias Lear recorded Washington's last words as "'Tis well."
A funeral was held at Mount Vernon on December 18, 1799 where Washington's body was interred. Congress passed a joint resolution to construct a marble monument for his body in the planned crypt below the rotunda of the center section of the Capitol (then still under construction), a plan acquiesced to by Martha. 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.
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. Ships of the British Royal Navy's Channel Fleet lowered their flags to half mast to honor his passing.
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.
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. Various modern medical authors have speculated that Washington probably died from a severe case of epiglottitis which was 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.[lower-alpha 16]
Move to new burial site
In 1830 a disgruntled ex-employee of the estate attempted to steal Washington's skull from the original tomb.  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.
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 structure after the British 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."
On October 7, 1837 George Washington's remains, still in its original lead coffin, were placed within a marble sarcophagus designed by William Strickland and constructed by John Struthers. The sarcophagus was sealed and encased with planks while an outer vault was constructed around it. The outer vault contains the sarcophagi of George and Martha Washington, the inner vault contains the remains of other Washington family members and relatives.
As a young man, Washington had red hair. A popular myth is that he wore a wig, as was the fashion among some at the time. Washington did not wear a wig; instead, he powdered his hair, as is represented in several portraits, including the well-known, unfinished Gilbert Stuart depiction called the "Athenaeum Portrait".
Washington's height was variously recorded as 6 ft (1.83 m) to 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m). He registered six feet three and one-half inches when measured for his coffin. He had unusually great physical strength that amazed younger men. Jefferson called Washington "the best horseman of his age", and both American and European observers praised his riding; the horsemanship benefited his hunting, a favorite hobby. Washington was an excellent dancer and frequently attended the theater, often making Shakespearean references in his letters. He drank in moderation and precisely recorded gambling wins and losses, but 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."
Washington suffered from problems with his teeth throughout his life, and historians have tracked his experiences in great detail. He lost his first adult tooth when he was twenty-two and had only one left by the time that he became president. 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. He had several sets of false teeth made, four of them by a dentist named John Greenwood. None of the sets were 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, likely ones that he purchased from "several unnamed 'Negroes,' presumably Mount Vernon slaves" in 1784. Dental problems left Washington in constant pain, for which he took laudanum. This distress may be apparent in many of the portraits painted while he was still in office, including the one still used on the $1 bill.[lower-alpha 17]
For his entire life, Washington was affiliated with the Anglican Church, later called the Episcopal Church. He served as a vestryman and as church warden for both Fairfax Parish in Alexandria and Truro Parish. These were administrative positions like all positions in Virginia while it had an official religion, in that they required one to swear that he would not speak or act in a way that did not conform to the tenets of the Church. Numerous historians have suggested that, theologically, Washington agreed largely with the Deists, but he never spoke about any particular Deist beliefs which he may have had. He often used words for the deity, such as "God" and "Providence", while avoiding using the words "Jesus" and "Christ." In his collected works, they appear in an official letter to Indians that might have been drafted by an aide.
At the time, Deism was a theological outlook, not an organized denomination, and was compatible with being an Episcopal. Historian Gregg Frazer argues that Washington was not a deist but a "theistic rationalist." This theological position rejected core beliefs of Christianity, such as the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, and original sin. Unlike the deists, the theological rationalists believed in the efficacy of prayer to God. Theologian Peter A. Lillback argues that Washington was neither a deist nor a "theistic rationalist" but a Christian who accepted the core beliefs of Christianity.
Washington frequently accompanied his wife to church services. Third-hand reports say that he took communion, although he is usually characterized as never or rarely participating in the rite. He would regularly leave services before communion with the other non-communicants (as was the custom of the day), until he ceased attending at all on communion Sundays after being admonished by a rector.
Washington 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."
It is generally conceded that Washington was a Christian, although the exact nature of his religious beliefs has been debated by some historians and biographers for over two hundred years. Washington 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. 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". Washington, as commander of the army and as president, was a vigorous promoter of tolerance for all religious denominations. He believed that religion was an important support for public order, morality, and virtue. He often attended services of different denominations, and he suppressed anti-Catholic celebrations in the Army.
Michael Novak and Jana Novak suggest that it may have been "Washington's intention to maintain a studied ambiguity (and personal privacy) regarding his own deepest religious convictions, so that all Americans, both in his own time and for all time to come, might feel free to approach him on their own terms—and might also feel like full members of the new republic, equal with every other." They conclude:
He was educated in the Episcopal Church, to which he always adhered; and my[sic] conviction is, that he believed in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity as usually taught in that Church, according to his understanding of them; but without a particle of intolerance, or disrespect for the faith and modes of worship adopted by Christians of other denominations.
Washington was initiated into Freemasonry in 1752. 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 that made the European lodges so controversial. In 1777, a convention of Virginia lodges recommended Washington to be the Grand Master of the newly established Grand Lodge of Virginia. He declined, due to his responsibility in leading the Continental Army at a critical stage. He also did not consider it Masonically legal to serve as Grand Master because he had never been installed as Master or Warden of a lodge. In 1788, Washington was named Master in the Virginia charter of Alexandria Lodge No. 22, with his personal consent.
Washington was the only prominent Founding Father to arrange in his will for the manumission (freeing) of all his slaves following his death. He privately opposed slavery as an institution which he viewed as economically unsound and morally indefensible. He also regarded the divisiveness of his countrymen's feelings about slavery as a potentially mortal threat to the unity of the nation. He never publicly challenged the institution of slavery, possibly because he wanted to avoid provoking a split in the new republic over so inflammatory an issue, but he did pass the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which limited American involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.
Washington had owned slaves since the death of his father in 1743, when he inherited 10 slaves at the age of eleven. At the time of his marriage to Martha Custis in 1759, he personally owned at least 36 slaves, which meant that he had achieved the status of a major planter. The wealthy widow Martha brought at least 85 "dower slaves" to Mount Vernon by inheriting a third of her late husband's estate. Using his wife's great wealth, Washington bought more land, tripling the size of the plantation at Mount Vernon, and purchased the additional slaves needed to work it. By 1774, he paid taxes on 135 slaves (this figure does not include the "dowers"). The last record of a slave purchase by him was in 1772, although he later received some slaves in repayment of debts. Washington also used some hired staff and white indentured servants; in April 1775, he offered a reward for the return of two runaway white servants.
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.[lower-alpha 18] 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".
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.[lower-alpha 19] Washington's Birthday is a federal holiday in the United States. 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."
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. On January 31, 1781, he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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. This restored his position as the highest-ranking military officer in U.S. history.[lower-alpha 20]
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. 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.
Monuments and memorials
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. Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the tallest mountain in the Northeast, was named soon after the American Revolution by Colonel John Whipple.
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 voluntary contributions from all 52 local governing bodies of the Freemasons in the United States.
There have been many proposals to build a monument to Washington, starting after victory in the Revolution. After his death, Congress authorized a suitable 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. 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.
Postage and currency
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. 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. Washington's presidential inauguration at Federal Hall in New York City was celebrated on its 150th anniversary on April 30, 1939.
- Selected Issues
- Selected currency
Perhaps 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, Pa." The anecdote was first reported by biographer Parson Weems, who interviewed people after Washington's death who knew him as a child over a half-century earlier. The Weems text was very widely reprinted throughout the 19th century, for example in McGuffey Readers. Adults wanted children to learn moral lessons from history, especially as taught by example from the lives of great national heroes like Washington. After 1890 historians insisted on scientific research methods to validate every statement, and there was no documentation for this anecdote apart from Weems' report that he learned it from one of the neighbors who knew the young Washington. Joseph Rodman claimed in 1904 that Weems plagiarized other Washington tales from published fiction set in England, but no one has found an alternative source for the cherry tree story. Austin Washington, a descendent of George Washington, maintains that it is unlikely that Parson Weems, a man of the clergy, would write an account about truth and honesty and then lie about such a story. He further maintains that, if Weems was making up a story, he would have more dramatically depicted the young Washington chopping down the cherry tree, not merely "barking it" (i.e., removing some of the bark), as Weems never claimed that the tree was chopped down. There has been much conjecture and ad hominem attacks from some historians about Weems and his story, but none have proven or disproven the story.
Personal property auction record
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.
- Culper Ring, the spy ring organized by Benjamin Tallmadge and supervised by Washington
- American gentry
- Conotocaurious (Town Destroyer), a nickname given to Washington by Iroquois Native Americans
- Electoral history of George Washington
- List of federal judges appointed by George Washington
- List of notable Freemasons
- List of Presidents of the United States, sortable by previous experience
- List of United States militia units in the American Revolutionary War
- Where's George?, a website that tracks the circulation of American paper money
- 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.
- 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.
- Engber 2006
- 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.
- Accounts of Washington's height vary from 6' 0'' to 6' 3''.
- Also referred to as the Seven Years' War and The French War
- Ellis and Ferling, for example, do not discuss this stance in reference to Washington's French and Indian War service, and cast it almost exclusively in terms of his negative experiences dealing with the Continental Congress during the Revolution. See Ellis 2004, p. 218; Ferling 2009, pp. 32–33, 200, 258–72, 316. Don Higginbotham places Washington's first formal advocacy of a strong central government in 1783. Higginbotham 2002, p. 37.
- Washington may not have been able to admit to his own sterility while privately he grieved over not having his own children. Bumgarner 1994, pp. 1–8
- The term comes from the Roman strategy used by General Fabius against Hannibal's invasion in the Second Punic War.
- Ferling and Ellis argue that Washington favored Fabian tactics, and Higginbotham denies it. Ferling 2010, pp. 212, 264; Ellis 2004, p. 11; Higginbotham 1971, p. 211.
- Washington's being childless was a great help to his candidacy. Because he had no heirs, Americans who were concerned about a president who might have plans for a hereditary monarchy had their fears allayed. In addition, many religious Americans believed that God had deliberately deprived Washington of children, the better to serve as Father of His Country.
- Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress called its presiding officer "President of the United States in Congress Assembled". The position had no executive powers, but the similarity of titles has confused some into thinking that there were other presidents before Washington.
- The system in place at the time dictated that each elector cast two votes, with the winner becoming president and the runner-up vice president. Every elector in the elections of 1789 and 1792 cast one of his votes for Washington; thus, it may be said that he was elected president unanimously. James Monroe was re-elected unopposed in 1820 but a "faithless elector" cast a single vote for John Quincy Adams, depriving Monroe of unanimous election.
- The Coinage Act of 1792 sets the value of $1 USD equal to 24.1g of silver. With the price of silver at $15.95/oz as of June 13, 2015, the value of 25,000 in silver dollars in 1792 value (24.1g/$1) is $338,750.
- Washington was aware that his actions would set precedents for later American presidents. He 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.
- At least three modern medical authors (Wallenborn 1997, 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 Vadakan 2005, Footnotes 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) of their treatment of Washington during his fatal illness.
- The Smithsonian Institution states in "The Portrait—George Washington: A National Treasure" that Stuart admired the sculpture of Washington by French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon, probably because it was based on a life mask and therefore extremely accurate. Stuart explained, "When I painted him, he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face. Houdon's bust does not suffer from this defect. I wanted him as he looked at that time." Stuart preferred the Athenaeum pose, except for the gaze, and used the same pose for the Lansdowne painting.
- 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.
- 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 Nord-Americanishe 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").
- In Bell 2005, 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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...in doing this, I need not, I cannot, say what a sacrifice of individual feeling I make to a sense of public duty.
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- —— (1985). George Washington and the American Military Tradition. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0-8203-0786-6.
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- —— (2002). George Washington: Uniting a Nation. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 0-7425-2208-3.
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- George Washington's Mount Vernon
- American President: George Washington (1732–1799) at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia
- George Washington: A Resource Guide at the Library of Congress
- George Washington Resources at the University of Virginia Library
- Original Digitized Letters of George Washington Shapell Manuscript Foundation
- The Papers of George Washington at the Avalon Project
- The Papers of George Washington, subset of Founders Online from the National Archives
- George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Virginia from the National Park Service
- Copies of the wills of General George Washington: the first president of the United States and of Martha Washington, his wife (1904), edited by E. R. Holbrook
- "What Made George Washington a Good Military Leader?". EDSITEment: Lesson Plans. National Endowment for the Humanities.
- Works by George Washington at Project Gutenberg
- Works by George Washington at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- George Washington Personal Manuscripts