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George Washington
— 1st President of the United States —
 

 

George Washington was the victorious commander in chief of the American military during the revolutionary war, the presiding officer at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and the first President of the United States. Without Washington's leadership the country might have remained a British colony and evolved into a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. And without Washington's work at the convention there would be no office of the Presidency as we know it today.

 

 

ELECTED FROM: Virginia
POLITICAL PARTY: Federalist
TERM: April 30, 1789 to March 3, 1797

BORN: February 22, 1732
BIRTHPLACE: Pope's Creek, Westmoreland County, Virginia
DIED: December 14, 1799, Mount Vernon, Virginia
OCCUPATION: Planter, soldier
MARRIED: Martha Dandridge Custis, 1759
CHILDREN: Stepchildren - Jacky, Patsy
Adopted children - Nelly and George Washington Park Custis

George Washington was born on a farm in Virginia in the winter of 1732. The farm was on land his grandfather had settled after emigrating from England. He was interested in school, and he especially liked arithmetic, so he was able to use his math abilities to become a surveyor. He later joined the British army and served under General Braddock in the French and Indian War. Soon after, at age 27, he married a widow, Martha Custis, and moved to her home, Mount Vernon, in Virginia.

His life as a farmer at Mount Vernon was a struggle because of the taxes and regulations imposed by the British. Washington was chosen to represent Virginia in the Continental Congress. This congress decided he was the right man to lead the colonial forces after the Declaration of Independence brought about the War of Independence from England, called the Revolutionary War. As Commander in Chief, he was often criticized for being timid and conservative. During this time, Washington demonstrated his great leadership abilities. On a cold Christmas night in 1776, he led his troops across the Delaware River into New Jersey, where they surprised the British and defeated them soundly. Those troops, with Washington as their leader, went on to win the war.

In 1787, Washington called for representatives of all the states to meet in a convention where they would write a constitution for the newly independent colonies. The purpose of this constitution was to ensure that a binding contract between all the states could be created in order to keep the country strong by making the states stick together as one nation. The result was the Constitution of the United States of America.

On April 30, 1789, the federal government was sanctioned by the Constitution, and George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States of America. President Washington was 57 on the day he became president. The first thing he did as president was appoint his cabinet. Two of these cabinet members were famous Americans Thomas Jefferson was the first Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury. The federal judiciary system and the office of Attorney General were also created during his term. Kentucky, Tennessee, and Vermont were given statehood, and the District of Columbia was established while George Washington was president.

One of the most important events that took place while Washington was president was that 10 amendments were added to the Constitution. These 10 amendments are known as the Bill of Rights.

President George Washington died at age 67 on December 14, 1799.
 


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George Washington (1732-1799) was commander in chief of the American and French forces in the American Revolution and became the first president of the United States.

George Washington was born at Bridges Creek, later known as Wakefield, in Westmoreland County, Va., on Feb. 22, 1732. His father died when George was eleven years old, and the boy spent the next few years with his mother at Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, with relatives in Westmoreland, and with his half brother at Mount Vernon. By the time he was 16 he had a rudimentary education, studying mathematics, surveying, reading, and the usual subjects of his day. In 1749 Washington was appointed county surveyor, and his experience on the frontier led to his appointment as a major in the Virginia militia in 1752.


French and Indian War

Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie appointed the 21-year-old Washington to warn the French moving into the Ohio Valley against encroaching on English territory. Washington published the results of this expedition, including the French rejection of the ultimatum, in the Journal of Major George Washington … (1754). Dinwiddie then commissioned Washington a lieutenant colonel with orders to dislodge the French at Ft. Duquesne, but a superior French force bested the Virginia troops. This conflict triggered the French and Indian War, and Great Britain dispatched regular troops under Gen. Edward Braddock in 1755 to oust the French. Braddock appointed Washington as aide-de-camp.

Later in the year, after Braddock's death, Dinwiddie promoted Washington to colonel and made him commander in chief of all Virginia troops. Throughout 1756 and 1757 Washington pursued a defensive policy, fortifying the frontier with stockades, recruiting men, and establishing discipline. In 1758, with the title of brigadier, he accompanied British regulars on the campaign that forced the French to abandon Ft. Duquesne. With the threat of frontier violence removed, Washington resigned his commission, soon married the widow Martha Custis, and devoted himself to life at Mount Vernon.

Washington took seriously his role of stepfather and guardian of Martha's two children; it was his duty, he wrote, to be "generous and attentive, " and he was. His stepdaughter's death at 17 was an emotional shock to him. When his stepson died in 1781, after serving in the Virginia militia at Yorktown, Washington virtually adopted two of his four children.


Early Political Career

Washington inherited local prominence from his family, just as he inherited property and social position. His grandfather and great-grandfather had been justices of the peace, a powerful county position in 18th-century Virginia, and his father had served as sheriff and church warden, as well as justice of the peace. His half brother Lawrence had been a representative from Fairfax County, and George Washington's entry into politics was based on an alliance with the family of Lawrence's father-in-law, Lord Fairfax.

Washington was elected as a representative to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758 from Frederick County. From 1760 to 1774 he served as a justice of Fairfax County, and he was a longtime vestryman of Truro parish. His experience on the county court and in the colonial legislature molded his views on Parliamentary taxation of the Colonies after 1763. He opposed the Stamp Act in 1765, arguing that Parliament "hath no more right to put their hands into my pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into yours for money." As a member of the colonial legislature, he backed nonimportation as a means of reversing British policy in the 1760s, and in 1774 he attended the rump session of the dissolved Assembly, which called for a Continental Congress to take united colonial action against the Boston Port Bill and other "Intolerable Acts" directed against Massachusetts.

In July 1774 Washington presided at the county meeting which adopted the Fairfax Resolves, which he had helped write. These resolves influenced the adoption of the Continental Association, the plan devised by the First Continental Congress for enforcing nonimportation of British goods. They also proposed the creation in each county of a militia company independent of the royal governor's control, the idea from which the Continental Army developed. By May 1775 Washington, who headed the Fairfax militia company, had been chosen to command the companies of six other counties. The only man in uniform when the Second Continental Congress met after the battles of Lexington and Concord, he was elected unanimously as commander in chief of all Continental Army forces. From June 15, 1775, until Dec. 23, 1783, he commanded the Continental Army and, after the French alliance of 1778, the combined forces of the United States and France in the War of Independence against Great Britain.


Revolutionary Years

Throughout the Revolutionary years Washington developed military leadership, administrative skills, and political acumen, functioning from 1775 to 1783 as the de facto chief executive of the United States. His wartime experiences gave him a continental outlook, and his Circular Letter to the States in June 1783 made it clear that he favoured a strong central government.

Washington returned to Mount Vernon at the end of the Revolution. "I have not only retired from all public employments, " he wrote his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, "but I am retiring within myself." But there was little time for sitting "under the shadow of my own vine and my own fig tree." He kept constantly busy with farming, western land interests, and navigation of the Potomac. Finally, Washington presided at the Federal Convention in 1787 and supported ratification of the Constitution in order to "establish good order and government and to render the nation happy at home and respected abroad."


First American President

The position of president of the United States seemed shaped by the Federal Convention on the assumption that Washington would be the first to occupy the office. In a day when executive power was suspect - when the creation of the presidency, as Alexander Hamilton observed in The Federalist, was "attended with greater difficulty" than perhaps any other - the Constitution established an energetic and independent chief executive. Pierce Butler, one of the Founding Fathers, noted that the convention would not have made the executive powers so great "had not many of the members cast their eyes toward General Washington as President, and shaped their ideas of the Powers to be given a President, by their opinions of his Virtue."

After his unanimous choice as president in 1789, Washington helped translate the new constitution into a workable instrument of government: the Bill of Rights was added, as he suggested, out of "reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen"; an energetic executive branch was established, with the executive departments - State, Treasury, and War - evolving into an American Cabinet; the Federal judiciary was inaugurated; and the congressional taxing power was utilized to pay the Revolutionary War debt and to establish American credit at home and abroad.

As chief executive, Washington consulted his Cabinet on public policy, presided over their differences - especially those between Thomas Jefferson and Hamilton - with a forbearance that indicated his high regard for his colleagues, and he made up his mind after careful consideration of alternatives. He approved the Federalist financial program and the later Hamiltonian proposals - funding of the national debt, assumption of the state debts, the establishment of a Bank of the United States, the creation of a national coinage system, and an excise tax. He supported a national policy for disposition of the public lands and presided over the expansion of the Federal union from eleven states (North Carolina and Rhode Island ratified the Constitution after Washington's inaugural) to 16 (Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee were admitted between 1791 and 1796). Washington's role as presidential leader was of fundamental importance in winning support for the new government's domestic and foreign policies. "Such a Chief Magistrate, " Fisher Ames noted, "appears like the pole star in a clear sky….His Presidency will form an epoch and be distinguished as the Age of Washington."

Despite his unanimous election, Washington expected that the measures of his administration would meet opposition, and they did. By the end of his first term the American party system was developing. When he mentioned the possibility of retirement in 1792, therefore, both Hamilton and Jefferson agreed that he was "the only man in the United States who possessed the confidence of the whole" and "no other person … would be thought anything more than the head of a party." "North and South, " Jefferson urged, "will hang together if they have you to hang on."


Creation of a Foreign Policy

Washington's second term was dominated by foreign-policy considerations. Early in 1793 the French Revolution became the central issue in American politics when France, among other actions, declared war on Great Britain and appointed "Citizen" Edmond Genet minister to the United States. Determined to keep "our people in peace, " Washington issued a neutrality proclamation, although the word "neutrality" was not used. His purpose, Washington told Patrick Henry, was "to keep the United States free from political connections with every other country, to see them independent of all and under the influence of none. In a word, I want an American character, that the powers of Europe may be convinced we act for ourselves and not for others."

Citizen Genet, undeterred by the proclamation of neutrality, outfitted French privateers in American ports and organized expeditions against Florida and Louisiana. For his undiplomatic conduct, the Washington administration requested and obtained his recall. In the midst of the Genet affair, Great Britain initiated a blockade of France and began seizing neutral ships trading with the French West Indies. Besides violating American neutral rights, the British still held posts in the American Northwest, and the Americans claimed that they intrigued with the Indians against the United States.

Frontier provocations, ship seizures, and impressment made war seem almost inevitable in 1794, but Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to negotiate a settlement of the differences between the two nations. Although Jay's Treaty was vastly unpopular - the British agreed to evacuate the Northwest posts but made no concessions on neutral rights or impressment - Washington finally accepted it as the best treaty possible at that time. The treaty also paved the way for Thomas Pinckney's negotiations with Spanish ministers, now fearful of an Anglo-American entente against Spain in the Western Hemisphere. Washington happily signed Pinckney's Treaty, which resolved disputes over navigation of the Mississippi, the Florida boundary, and neutral rights.

While attempting to maintain peace with Great Britain in 1794, the Washington administration had to meet the threat of domestic violence in western Pennsylvania. The Whiskey Rebellion, a reaction against the first Federal excise tax, presented a direct challenge to the power of the Federal government to enforce its laws. After a Federal judge certified that ordinary judicial processes could not deal with the opposition to the laws, Washington called out 12, 000 state militiamen "to support our government and laws" by crushing the rebellion. The resistance quickly melted, and Washington showed that force could be tempered with clemency by pardoning the insurgents.


Washington's Contributions

Nearly all observers agree that Washington's 8 years as president demonstrated that executive power was completely consistent with the genius of republican government. Putting his prestige on the line in an untried office under an untried constitution, Washington was fully aware, as he pointed out in his First Inaugural Address, that "the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people."

Perhaps Washington's chief strength - the key to his success as a military and a political leader - was his realization that in a republic the executive, like all other elected representatives, would have to measure his public acts against the temper of public opinion. As military commander dealing with the Continental Congress and the state governments during the Revolution, Washington had realized the importance of administrative skills as a means of building public support of the army. As president, he applied the same skills to win support for the new Federal government.

Despite Washington's abhorrence of factionalism, his administrations and policies spurred the beginnings of the first party system. This ultimately identified Washington, the least partisan of presidents, with the Federalist party, especially after Jefferson's retirement from the Cabinet in 1793. Washington's Farewell Address, though it was essentially a last will and political testament to the American people, inevitably took on political coloration in an election year. Warning against the divisiveness of excessive party spirit, which tended to separate Americans politically as "geographical distinctions" did sectionally, he stressed the necessity for an American character free of foreign attachments. Two-thirds of his address dealt with domestic politics and the baleful influence of party; the rest of the document laid down a statement of firs principles of American foreign policy. But even here, Washington's warning against foreign entanglements was especially applicable to foreign interference in the domestic affairs of the United States.


His Retirement

Washington's public service did not end with his retirement from the presidency. During the "half war" with France, President John Adams appointed him commander in chief, and Washington accepted with the understanding that he would not take field command until the troops had been recruited and equipped. Since Adams settled the differences with France by diplomatic negotiations, Washington never assumed actual command. He continued to reside at Mount Vernon, where he died on Dec. 14, 1799, after contracting a throat infection.

At the time of Washington's death, Congress unanimously adopted a resolution to erect a marble monument in the nation's capital "to commemorate the great events of his military and political life"; Congress also directed that "the family of General Washington be requested to permit his body to be deposited under it." The Washington Monument was finally completed in 1884, but Washington's remains were never moved there.
 


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George Washington was the victorious commander in chief of the American military during the revolutionary war, the presiding officer at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and the first President of the United States. Without Washington's leadership the country might have remained a British colony and evolved into a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. And without Washington's work at the convention there would be no office of the Presidency as we know it today.

George Washington was born on one of six plantations owned by his father, Augustine Washington. George's father died in 1743, leaving the family 10, 000 acres and 50 slaves. Thereafter George was raised by his half-brother Lawrence, who was 14 years his senior, at the Epsewasson plantation at Little Hunting Creek, which Lawrence renamed Mount Vernon. His schooling ended at age 15, when he became a plantation supervisor and land surveyor. After Lawrence married a daughter of Colonel William Fairfax, one of the largest and most powerful landowners in Virginia, George was invited to survey Fairfax lands in the Shenandoah Valley, receiving 550 acres in compensation. Between 1749 and 1751 he was surveyor of Culpeper County. In 1752, after Lawrence died, George inherited the 2, 500-acre estate (with its 18 slaves) at Mount Vernon, becoming a large plantation owner at age 20.

Washington was soon influential in public affairs. In February 1753 he was named a major and adjutant of the Virginia Militia. In October he was sent by Governor Robert Dinwiddie to the frontier on Lake Erie to warn the French against occupying lands claimed by Great Britain, but the French rejected the ultimatum. The following year he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel and returned to the West. On May 28 he fought an engagement with the French that led to his promotion to colonel. He then constructed Fort Necessity and awaited a French counterattack. On July 4 the superior French forces captured the fort, accepted Washington's surrender, and let him return to Virginia, but only after he signed capitulation papers (written in French) admitting that he had fired on French officers while they had been under a flag of truce—a statement Washington later disavowed, saying he had not understood the language. These battles marked the start of the French and Indian War in the Americas and of the Seven Years War throughout the world.

Washington accompanied General Edward Braddock on an expedition against Fort Duquesne—near where Pittsburgh stands today—in 1755. The general disregarded Washington's advice on how to fight the Indians allied with the French. On July 9 Braddock was killed during the fighting, and Washington prevented the British defeat from becoming a complete rout. “I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me,” Washington later wrote. On his return he was named commander of the Virginia Militia. By 1758 he had defeated the French at Fort Duquesne and renamed it Fort Pitt.

In 1759 Washington resigned his commission with the rank of brigadier general and married a widow named Martha Dandridge Custis, who had two children by her previous marriage and plantations of 15, 000 acres, much of the land near Williamsburg, Virginia. Washington resumed tobacco farming, served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, and was a justice of the peace. He began opposing British colonial policies, particularly the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which discouraged settlement in the West (where Washington owned land in the Ohio Valley), and the Stamp Act of 1765, which taxed imports. After the governor disbanded the House of Burgesses for protesting the Stamp Act, Washington played a major role in their unauthorized meetings at Raleigh Tavern in 1770 (when it drew up resolutions calling on people not to import British goods, so that they would not pay the hated stamp tax) and in 1774 (when it called for a meeting of a continental congress). He was a delegate to the First Continental Congress of 1774, where he declared, “I will raise one thousand men, subsist them at my own expense, and march myself at their head for the relief of Boston.” On June 15, 1775, the Second Continental Congress named Washington commander in chief of the Continental Army. He refused to take any pay for the position.

Washington assumed command of his volunteers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 3, 1775, shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill. He forced the British to evacuate Boston in March 1776 and concentrate their forces in New York. Washington was defeated at the Battle of Long Island in August and at the Battles of Manhattan and White Plains. He retreated into New Jersey and then into Pennsylvania. On Christmas night, 1776, he crossed the Delaware River and defeated British forces at Trenton, New Jersey. Then he captured Princeton and Morristown. But British reinforcements forced his withdrawal, and he was defeated at Brandywine Creek and Germantown, leading to the loss of Philadelphia. The Conway Conspiracy, a plot to replace Washington with General Horatio Gates, the hero of the Battle of Saratoga, went nowhere, as Congress reaffirmed its support for the beleaguered commander. Washington's forces regrouped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in October 1777. Three thousand of his troops deserted.

Although badly supplied, the troops who stuck it out during the harsh winter emerged from Valley Forge in the spring of 1778 as a disciplined army with superb morale. And the French had decided to help the Americans. With the British withdrawing from Philadelphia and regrouping in New York to await the arrival of a French fleet, Washington won the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778. He then surrounded and kept British forces in New York at bay while other military units fought in the South and won in the North west. But in 1780 there were new defeats: Charleston, South Carolina, fell and General Gates lost the Battle of Camden. Some troops mutinied when rations were cut.

In 1781 Washington's forces feigned preparations for an attack on New York. He and the French general Rochambeau secretly went south to face the British in Virginia. They joined up with another French general who was commanding American troops, the Marquis de Lafayette, and lay siege to the British. The arrival of a French fleet in the midst of the York-town campaign of 1781 forced British general Lord Charles Cornwallis to surrender his 8, 000-man force on October 19, 1781. This defeat ended hostilities. Washington then took his army to Newburgh, New York, to await the articles of peace, which were signed in November 1782, to become effective January 20, 1783. On March 15, 1783, Washington quelled a mutiny by senior officers who wished to disperse Congress and name Washington as an American king. His refusal to join the “Newburgh mutiny” and his insistence on preserving civil government made him the most influential political figure in the country.

Washington retired from the army on December 4, 1783, bidding farewell to his officers at Fraunces' Tavern in New York City. He resumed farming at Mount Vernon and toured the lands Congress had given him in the West. In 1785 Mount Vernon was the setting for a conference between representatives from Maryland and Virginia, who settled issues involving navigation on the Potomac River. That meeting led to the Annapolis Convention of 1786, which, in turn, called for a new constitutional convention for the following year.

In 1787 James Madison and others prevailed upon Washington to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and on May 25 he was named presiding officer. His participation ensured the success of the enterprise, especially because Washington played the key role in ensuring ratification of the new constitution by Virginia.

By unanimous vote of the electoral college on February 4, 1789, Washington was elected the first President of the United States. On April 30, he was inaugurated on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. In his inaugural address to Congress he appealed for a Bill of Rights to be added to the Constitution. He refused to accept a salary as President.

Washington had several goals for his Presidency. The first was to establish precedents, or set examples, that would preserve a republican form of government after his term of office. He also aimed to put the finances of the nation on a sound footing, to normalize relations with the British, and to develop the frontier. The methods that he and his Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, devised to achieve these goals created divisions within his administration.

Hamilton wanted a “strong and energetic executive” who would dominate Congress and take control of policy-making. He wanted to levy taxes on whiskey and other goods to raise revenues and pay government debts. He also wanted an alliance (or at least a treaty of friendship) with the British in order to encourage British investment in new U.S. industries.

The President generally supported Hamilton in his plans for industrialization, assumption of the states' revolutionary war debts, creation of a national bank, protective tariffs on imported goods to help U.S. industry, excise taxes on whiskey to raise revenue, and strict neutrality in the wars between Great Britain and France. Hamilton was opposed on many of these policies by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who proposed closer relations with the French and disagreed with Hamilton's revenue measures, his idea of a national bank, and his plans to industrialize the nation.

Near the end of his first term, Washington accepted Jefferson's resignation. Now firmly in the camp of the Federalists organized by Hamilton, Washington was re-elected by a unanimous vote of the electoral college in February 1793. He then allowed Hamilton to raise revenues through a whiskey excise tax. When Western farmers rebelled against paying the tax, Washington and Hamilton used military force to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in the summer of 1794. Washington cemented the alliance with Great Britain with Jay's Treaty, ratified in 1795. He accepted the resignation of his new secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, because Randolph had been bribed by the French to oppose the treaty. Washington's strong government secured the West as well: the new frontier state of Kentucky was created in 1792, and Tennessee joined the Union in 1796.

Washington retired after his second term at the age of 64, publishing a farewell address to the nation on September 17, 1796, that warned of the perils of “foreign entanglements” and of “the baneful effects of the spirit of party” in domestic affairs. On July 4, 1798, in the midst of a crisis with France, Congress named him commander in chief of the Army of the United States, but he never took actual command of forces. For the last years of his life he pursued agricultural interests at Mount Vernon and enjoyed his family, especially Martha's grandchildren, two of whom he adopted after the death of their father. He died of pulmonary complications suffered during a snowstorm on December 14, 1799. In Philadelphia, one of his officers, Henry Lee, gave the famous eulogy, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 17 December, 2008