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George Washington
Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington.jpg
Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, March 1797
1st President of the United States
In office
April 30, 1789 [a] – March 4, 1797
Vice PresidentJohn Adams
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded by John Adams
Senior Officer of the United States Army
In office
July 13, 1798 – December 14, 1799
Appointed byJohn Adams
Preceded by James Wilkinson
Succeeded by Alexander Hamilton
In office
June 14, 1775 – December 23, 1783
Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army
Appointed by Continental Congress
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded by Henry Knox
Delegate to the Continental Congress
from Virginia
In office
May 10, 1775 – June 15, 1775
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded by Thomas Jefferson
Constituency Second Continental Congress
In office
September 5, 1774 – October 26, 1774
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byOffice abolished
Constituency First Continental Congress
Personal details
Born(1732-02-22)February 22, 1732
Popes Creek, Colony of Virginia, British America
DiedDecember 14, 1799(1799-12-14) (aged 67)
Mount Vernon, Virginia
Cause of death Epiglottitis and hypovolemic shock
Resting placeWashington Family Tomb, Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.
Political partyNone
Martha Dandridge ( m. 1759)
Parents Augustine Washington
Mary Ball Washington
AwardsCongressional Gold Medal
Thanks of Congress [3]
Signature Cursive signature in ink
Military service
Allegiance  Kingdom of Great Britain
  United States
Service/branch Kingdom of Great Britain Colonial Militia
  United States Continental Army
  United States Army
Years of service1752–58 (British Militia)
1775–83 (Continental Army)
1798–99 (U.S. Army)
RankColonel (British Army)
General and Commander-in-Chief (Continental Army)
Lieutenant General (United States Army)
General of the Armies (promoted posthumously: 1976, by an Act of Congress)
CommandsVirginia Colony's regiment
Continental Army
United States Army

George Washington (February 22, 1732 [b] [c] – December 14, 1799) was one of the Founding Fathers and the first President of the United States (1789–1797). He commanded Patriot forces in the new nation's American Revolutionary War and led them to victory over the British. Washington also presided at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which established the new federal government. For his leadership he has been called the " Father of His Country".

Washington was born to a successful family of planters and slaveholders in colonial Virginia. He had educational opportunities and at age seventeen launched a successful career as a land surveyor. He then became a leader of the Virginia militia in the French and Indian War. During the Revolutionary War he was a delegate to the Continental Congress, was unanimously appointed commander-in-chief of the Army, and led an allied campaign to victory at the Siege of Yorktown which ended the conflict. Once victory was in hand in 1783, he resigned as commander-in-chief.

Washington was unanimously elected President by the Electoral College in the first two national elections. He promoted and oversaw implementation of a strong, well-financed national government, but remained impartial in the fierce rivalry between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. In the French Revolution, Washington proclaimed a policy of neutrality while sanctioning the controversial Jay Treaty. As President he set enduring precedents for the office, including the title "The President of the United States". His Farewell Address warned against political partisanship and involvement in foreign wars.

Washington owned slaves from the age of 11; he became increasingly troubled by slavery and freed his slaves in his will. He was a member of the Anglican Church and the Freemasons, and urged tolerance for all religions in his roles as general and President. Upon his death, he was eulogized as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen". [5] Washington has been memorialized by monuments, art, places, stamps, and currency, and he has been ranked by scholars among the four greatest American presidents.

Early years (1732–1752)

George Washington was born February 22, 1732 in Wakefield in the Colony of Virginia, as the first child of Augustine and second wife Mary Ball Washington. [6] The family was descended primarily from the gentry of Sulgrave, England. His great-grandfather John Washington emigrated to Virginia in 1656, where he became a tobacco planter and accumulated land and slaves, as did his son Lawrence and his grandson Augustine. [7] His father, a moderately wealthy planter, justice of the peace, and county sheriff, had 10 children, 4 by his first marriage to Jane Butler, and 6 by Mary, including Washington. [8]

Washington grew up in Virginia's Tidewater region. [9] When he was three, the family moved from his birthplace at the Popes Creek Estate to the plantation Epsewasson on the Potomac River. Three years later, they relocated to Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg. [10] This is said to be the setting of an anecdote of Parson Weems, [11] who averred that Augustine once asked George whether he had damaged a cherry tree, and the boy replied, "I cannot tell a lie; I cut it with my little hatchet." [12] [d]

On April 12, 1743 Augustine died, leaving Washington under the strict care of his mother Mary with reduced finances. [15] He inherited Ferry Farm and ten slaves, while his older half-brother Lawrence inherited Epsewasson and changed its name to Mount Vernon. [16] His mother could not afford to send Washington to England's Appleby Grammar School, [17] and Washington received his primary education from a variety of tutors; he attended the Fredericksburg school of Anglican clergyman James Mayre. [18] Washington was taught mathematics, trigonometry, and surveying, by school master Henry Williams, and was talented in draftsmanship and map-making. [19] By early adulthood Washington was writing with "considerable force" and "precision." [20]

His brother Lawrence in 1743 had married Anne Fairfax, the daughter of Virginia statesman William Fairfax, who became Washington's surrogate father. [21] Washington moved to Mount Vernon with Lawrence and Anne, [22] and was friends with William Fairfax's son George, [23] whose wife Sally had been an early romantic interest. [24]

Washington and George accompanied surveyor James Genn in 1748 to survey Shenandoah lands of Lord Fairfax, and Washington gained valuable experience during the month-long trip. [25] In 1749, Washington received a surveyor's license from the College of William & Mary, and was appointed surveyor of Culpeper, Virginia, with Fairfax's influence. [26] He made numerous surveys of the Shenandoah Valley, primarily for Fairfax, and became accustomed to the wilderness. In October 1750, Washington had bought almost 1,500 acres (600 ha) in the Shenandoah Valley, when he resigned his Culpeper commission. By 1752 he accumulated 2,315 acres (937 ha) in the Valley. [27]

In 1751, Washington made his only trip abroad with Lawrence to Barbados, hoping the climate would be beneficial to his brother's tuberculosis. [28] During the trip, Washington contracted smallpox which immunized him but left his face slightly scarred. [29] Lawrence's health continued to decline and he died on July 26, 1752. [30] Washington inherited his Mount Vernon estate in 1754 after the deaths of Lawrence's wife and daughter. [31]

Early military career (1752–1758)

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

Washington's brother Lawrence was an adjutant general at death, and this inspired Washington to pursue his own military career. [32] He was initially trained in musters and drills, and Robert Dinwiddie then appointed him adjutant, first to the Southern district in December 1752 and later to the Northern and Eastern districts as well. [33] In February 1753 Dindwiddie promoted him to major at an annual salary of £100, then made him British military ambassador to the French officials and to the Iroquois and Algonquians, as far north as Erie, Pennsylvania. Thirty years later Washington reflected "that so young and inexperienced a person should have been employed". [34]

The British government had ordered Dinwiddie to guard British territorial claims in the Ohio River basin, to secure trade activity with the Indians and settlers. [33] In 1753 Dindwiddie dispatched Washington to make peace with the Six Nations, and to deliver a letter which requested French commander Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre at Fort Le Boeuf to vacate the Ohio Valley, and offered him safe escort to Lake Erie. [35] Washington and six frontiersmen reached the Ohio River that November, but the French had withdrawn. He met with Half-King Tanacharison and other Iroquois chiefs at Logstown, secured their promise of support against the French, then continued to Venango to meet the French who refused the letter. Washington then reached Fort Le Boeuf, delivered the letter to the commander, and accepted his reply requesting that Dinwiddie send his demand to the Major General of New France in Quebec. [36] By Dinwiddie's order, Washington's diary of the expedition was printed by William Hunter, giving Washington name recognition in Virginia and England; [37] it also helped him obtain a commission to raise a company of men. [38]

French and Indian War

Washington holding night council at
Fort Necessity

In 1753, the French military advanced into the Ohio Country, where both France and Britain sought to expel the Indians. Dinwiddie and Washington were among stockholders in Virginia's Ohio Company, created for British settlement there in its landholdings. The land that joined the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers (future Pittsburgh) was prized by both nations. [39] The competing stakes led to the French and Indian War (1754–62), beginning with a shot ordered by Washington, also to the Seven Years' War (1756–63). [40]

On March 15, 1754, Governor Dinwiddie commissioned Washington lieutenant colonel in the newly formed Virginia Regiment, to confront French forces at Pittsburgh, and capture or kill those resisting British control of the region. [39] By April 2 Washington set out with 150 men, with news the French had ejected colonial traders and begun construction of Fort Duquesne. Half-King Tanacharison discovered a detachment of French troops east of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, led by Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, so Washington built an entrenched camp at Great Meadows, called Fort Necessity. He then led his unit and Mingo (Iroquois) allies in an ambush against the French on May 28 in the brief Battle of Jumonville Glen. [37] Jumonville was killed, and most of his party taken prisoner or killed; Tanacharison therefore labeled Washington Conotocaurius ("Town Destroyer"). [41]

In July 1754, the French responded by attacking the fort in the ten-hour Battle of Fort Necessity, which ended in Washington's surrender. The executed surrender document was translated to falsely state Washington had specifically "assassinated" Jumonville; this became the pretext to blame him for starting a war. [42] Joseph Ellis concludes the episode demonstrated Washington's bravery and initiative, as well as his inexperience and impetuosity. [43] Upon his return to Virginia, Washington refused to accept a demotion to the rank of captain and resigned his commission. [44] The outcome, and Washington’s part in it, drew international attention—the French alleged the assassinated Jumonville had only been there to warn Washington about encroaching on French-claimed territory. [45] France and Great Britain then began to fight for control of Ohio Country by sending in troops and declaring war in 1756. [46]

Battle scene, showing soldiers, mostly on foot, clashing in a frantic battle
The Battle of the Monogahela

In 1755, the British Crown sent its largest expedition to the colonies, led by General Edward Braddock and regulars, to take Fort Duquesne and expel the French from the Ohio Country. [47] Braddock offered Washington a position on his staff, and he accepted. [48] Washington recommended that Braddock split the army into two divisions, with a primary column and a second, lightly equipped "flying column". [49] During the march, Washington became severely ill and was left behind; he rejoined Braddock at Monongahela. The next day, the French and their Indian allies ambushed Braddock's divided forces, and Braddock was mortally wounded in the Battle of the Monongahela. [49] The British suffered devastating casualties and retreated with two-thirds killed or wounded, but Washington rallied his forces in an organized retreat while suffering from a fever and headache. [50] He had two horses shot from under him, and his hat and coat were bullet-pierced. [48] His conduct under fire redeemed his reputation among critics of his command in the Battle of Fort Necessity, [51] but he was not included by the succeeding commander Colonel Thomas Dunbar in planning subsequent operations. [50]

In August of 1755, Dinwiddie appointed Washington colonel and commander-in-chief of the Virginia Regiment, to defend 300 miles (480 km) of frontier from Indian attacks, with only 300 men. [52] There were 20 battles in 10 months. [53] Washington was convinced that Braddock would have recommended him for a regular commission in the British Army had he survived, so he appealed to Braddock's successor Lord Loudoun. [54] Loudoun refused the request but agreed to transfer responsibility for Fort Cumberland from Virginia to Maryland. [54] Washington's command increased to a thousand soldiers; he emphasized discipline and training, and Virginia's frontier population suffered less than that of other colonies as a result of his strenuous efforts. Historian Joseph Ellis concludes that this "was his only unqualified success" during the French and Indian War. [55]

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

Washington continued to advocate the capture of Fort Duquesne, [56] and the British crown sent Commanding General John Forbes, Colonel Thomas Gage, and British regulars to take the post in 1758. [56] Washington was promoted to honorary brigadier general and his two regiments were ordered to cooperate. [57] During the Forbes Expedition, Washington’s suggestion to employ Indian-style warfare was ignored. [58] He was the only colonial officer among the British forces and was involved in only one battle during the campaign. [56]

Pursuant to Forbes’ assault plan on the fort, Washington lead one of three brigades, was alerted to enemy reconnaissance in the area, and sent Colonel George Mercer with several hundred Virginians to investigate. Gunshots were heard in the distance, Washington's unit responded, and friendly fire resulted when reinforcements arrived; minor casualties resulted. [59]

Washington became honorary brigadier general, leading a final 2,500-man assault. His army arrived November 25 to find Fort Duquesne abandoned and burned by the French. [60] The British had won a strategic victory by gaining control of the Ohio Valley, but Washington retired from his Virginia Regiment commission in December 1758 and returned to Mount Vernon; the French and Indian War was concluded in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris. [61] [e] Despite the lack of a royal commission, Washington acquired invaluable military, political, and leadership skills. [62] Historians commonly ascribe his support of a strong national government and of a vigorous executive branch to his frustrations with officials in these and later interactions. [63] [64] [f] He developed a preference for regular troops over undisciplined militia while leading smaller, rural forces than during the revolution to come. [66] [67]

Marriage, civilian life and political beginnings (1759–1774)

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

At age 27, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, the 28-year-old wealthy widow of Daniel Parke Custis. Martha was intelligent and gracious, and experienced in managing a planter's estate, and they effected an agreeable marriage. [68] They raised John Parke Custis and Martha Parke (Patsy) Custis, children from her previous marriage, and later their grandchildren Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. Washington's 1751 bout with smallpox is thought to have rendered him sterile, and they lamented they had no children together. [69] They moved to Mount Vernon, near Alexandria, where he took up life as a planter of tobacco and wheat and emerged as a political figure. [70]

The marriage gave Washington control over Martha's one-third dower interest in the 18,000-acre (7,300 ha) Custis estate, worth about £40,000 (equivalent to about $10 million in 2018), and he managed the remaining two-thirds for Martha's children; he also acquired 84 slaves through the marriage. He became one of Virginia's wealthiest men and thus increased his social standing. [71]

At Washington’s urging, Governor Lord Botetourt fulfilled Dinwiddie’s 1754 promise of land bounties to all volunteer militia during the French and Indian War. [72] In late 1770, Washington inspected the lands in the Ohio and Great Kanawha regions, and engaged surveyor William Crawford who allotted to Washington 23,200 acres (9,400 ha) of the best acreage. Washington told the veterans their land was hilly and unsuitable for farming, and agreed to purchase 20,147 acres (8,153 ha); many were happy with the sale, but others felt they had been duped. [73] [74] He also doubled the size of Mount Vernon to 6,500 acres (2,600 ha) and increased its slave population to more than 100 by 1775. [75]

Washington was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses for Frederick County in 1758 until 1765, and then for Fairfax County. [76] In the election that year, he plied the voters with rice punch, beer, wine, hard cider, and brandy while he was on the Forbes Expedition. [77] He won with roughly 40 percent of the vote, defeating three other candidates with the help of local elites. He rarely spoke publicly in his early legislative career, but became a critic of Britain's taxation and mercantilist policies in the 1760s. [78]

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

Washington was an aristocrat and his activities including fox hunting, fishing, dances and parties, theater, races, and cockfights. He also played cards, backgammon, and billiards. [79] He imported luxuries and other goods from England and paid for them by tobacco exports. In 1764, when a poor tobacco market left him £1,800 in debt, he diversified, concentrated on finances, and reduced imported luxuries. [80] He changed Mount Vernon's primary cash crop from tobacco to wheat, and further diversified operations to include flour milling, fishing, horse breeding, hog production, spinning, and weaving. [81] In the 1790s, he erected a distillery for substantial whiskey production. [82]

Washington's step-daughter Patsy Custis suffered from epileptic attacks from age 12, and she died in his arms in 1773. The following day, he wrote to Burwell Bassett: "It is easier to conceive, than to describe, the distress of this Family...." [83] He canceled all business activity and remained with Martha every night for three months. [84] His half of Patsy's inheritance allowed him to pay off British creditors. [85]

Washington soon was counted among the political and social elite in Virginia. From 1768 to 1775, he invited some 2,000 guests to his Mount Vernon estate, mostly those whom he considered "people of rank". His advice regarding people who were not of high social status was to "treat them civilly" but "keep them at a proper distance, for they will grow upon familiarity, in proportion as you sink in authority". [86] He became more politically active in 1769, presenting legislation in the Virginia Assembly to establish an embargo on goods from Great Britain. [87]

American Revolution

Washington played a central role before and during the American Revolution. He was opposed to the continuing taxes imposed your the British on the Colonies without their representation. His distrust of them had began when he was passed over in the British Army. [88] He and other colonists were also angered by a Royal Proclamation in 1763 banning American settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains, and protecting the British fur trade. [g] [90] He believed the Stamp Act of 1765 was an "Act of Oppression", and celebrated with fellow colonists its repeal the following year. [h] [92] In March 1766, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, asserting that Parliamentary law superseded colonial law. [93] Washington helped to lead widespread protests against the Townshend Acts passed by Parliament in 1767, and he introduced a proposal in May 1769 drafted by George Mason that called for Virginia to boycott English goods until the Acts were repealed in 1770. [94]

Parliament sought to punish Massachusetts colonists for their role in the Boston Tea Party in 1774 with passage of the Intolerable Acts, which Washington referred to as "an Invasion of our Rights and Privileges". [95] He said that Americans must not submit to acts of tyranny since "custom and use shall make us as tame and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway". [96] That July, George Mason and Washington drafted a list of resolutions for the Fairfax County committee, chaired by Washington, which adopted the Fairfax Resolves, calling for a Continental Congress. [97] On August 1, he attended the First Virginia Convention where he was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. [98]

Revolutionary War (1775–1783)

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

Commander in chief

The Revolutionary War against Britain began in April 1775, with the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and a Patriot siege of the British in Boston, and the Second Continental Congress officially created the Continental Army the next month. Samuel Adams and John Adams passed over John Hancock in nominating Washington as commander in chief, and he was unanimously elected the next day. [99]

Washington appeared before Congress in uniform and gave an acceptance speech, declining a salary, though he was later reimbursed expenses. [100] The Congress chose his primary officer staff, including Major General Artemas Ward, Adjutant General Horatio Gates, Major General Charles Lee, Major General Philip Schuyler, Major General Nathanael Greene, Colonel Henry Knox, and Colonel Alexander Hamilton. [101] Washington was impressed by Colonel Benedict Arnold and gave him responsibility for invading Canada. He also engaged French and Indian War compatriot Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. Henry Knox, who also impressed Adams with ordnance knowledge, was promoted to colonel and chief of artillery by Washington. [102]

As the apprehensive Washington and party headed to Boston, he was becoming an embodiment of the revolution—he was greeted by local officials and statesmen, some addressing him as "your excellency", a title he spurned. Historian Garry Wills noted, "before there was a nation—before there was any symbol of that nation (a flag, a Constitution, a national seal)—there was Washington." [103]

On July 2, 1775, Washington inspected the new army at Cambridge, Massachusetts, only to find soldiers who were undisciplined, badly outfitted and unsheltered. [104] He consulted with Benjamin Franklin and initiated his suggested reforms by drilling soldiers and imposing strict discipline, including fines, floggings, and incarceration. [105] As ordered, his officer staff scrutinized military manuals and the individual skills of recruits to insure military effectiveness. [106] He removed cowardly or incompetent officers, and demanded respect for civilians. All of this, he told Congress, was a "most necessary Work". [107] On August 23, King George III proclaimed that rebellious American colonists were traitors to the Crown. [108]

Quebec, Boston, and Long Island

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

In September 1775, Washington sent Benedict Arnold and 1,000 troops to British-held Quebec to support General Richard Montgomery's siege and to secure the northern flank. [109] The British outnumbered the American siege which collapsed, forcing the Continental Army to make a hasty retreat. [110] Later that month Washington called a war council, proposing an attack on the besieged British Army in Boston, but his generals declined, to prevent high casualties in attacking an entrenched enemy. [111] Fortunately, the British commander at Boston, General William Howe, did not attack the burgeoning Continental Army. [112]

In late 1775, Washington sent staff officer Henry Knox to the recently captured Fort Ticonderoga for gunpowder and cannons. By January, with expiring enlistments exceeding recruits, the army dropped to half, at 9,600 men, and was supplemented with previous war militia. [113]

In February 1776, Knox returned with the cannons, and per Washington’s order they were transported at night to Dorchester Heights. The next morning, Howe discovered Boston was under siege by Washington's army, and his fleet was vulnerable to Patriot cannon fire. Fearing high casualties with aa direct assault, Howe opted to withdraw. Howe evacuated Boston with 10,000 troops and 1,100 Loyalists, and the Patriots reclaimed the city. Washington then marched his army to New York, initiated fortification, and correctly predicted that the British would return and attack in full force. [114] [i]

Washington prepared for an attack on New York City and tensions mounted; his personal guard Thomas Hickey was hanged for mutiny and sedition. [116] Howe resupplied in Nova Scotia and headed with the British naval fleet for the city, considered the key to securing the continent. The British forces included over 100 ships and thousands of troops. [117] Howe's army landed unopposed on Staten Island on July 2 for a siege of the city as additional British ships and troops continued to arrive. [118] After adoption of the Declaration of Independence from Britain Patriots toppled an equestrian statue of King George III in the . [119] In his general orders, on July 9, Washington informed his troops that Congress had declared the united colonies were "free and independent states." [120]

Howe's troop strength totaled 32,000 regulars, including 8,000 Hessians; Washington's troop strength consisted of 23,000, 19,000 of whom were raw recruits and militia. [121] On August 22, Howe landed 20,000 troops at Gravesend, Brooklyn, and approached Washington's fortifications. Washington overruled his generals and chose to fight, based on false information that Howe's army had only 8,000 to 9,000 troops. [122] Howe assaulted Washington's flank on August 27 and inflicted 1,500 Patriot casualties; the British suffered 400 casualties. [123] Washington and his generals decided to retreat, and Washington instructed General William Heath to make available every flat-bottomed riverboat and sloop in the area. General William Alexander held off the British army and covered the retreat, and the army safely crossed the East River under the cover of darkness to Manhattan Island without loss of life or material—although the British did capture General Alexander. [124]

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

Howe was emboldened by his victory at Long Island and sent a dispatch addressed to "George Washington, Esq." attempting to negotiate peace. Washington declined the overture and demanded that he be addressed as a general and recognized as a fellow belligerent, not as a "rebel". He was concerned that his men would be hanged as rebels if they were captured, and he believed it his duty to insist that his men and the newly established United States be recognized with proper diplomatic protocol. The attempts at negotiation failed. [125]

The British navy bombarded unstable earthworks built by the Patriots on lower Manhattan Island. [126] Washington initially considered abandoning the island, including Fort Washington, but heeded the advice of Generals Greene and Israel Putnam to defend the fort. When they were unable to hold it, Washington abandoned it despite General Charles Lee's objections, and his army retired north to White Plains. [127] Howe pursued, and Washington was forced to retreat across the Hudson River to Fort Lee to avoid encirclement. Howe took the offensive; he landed his troops on the island on November 16, surrounded and captured Fort Washington, and inflicted high casualties on the Americans. Washington was responsible for the decision to delay the retreat, but he also faulted the Congress and Nathanael Greene. Loyalists in New York considered Howe a liberator and spread a rumor that Washington had set fire to the city. [128] The morale in the Patriot army was at its lowest ebb, as British Cornet Banastre Tarleton captured General Lee while he took a detour to visit his mistress Mary White. [129]

Crossing of the Delaware

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

Washington's army, reduced to 5,400 troops, retreated through New Jersey, as Howe broke off pursuit December 14, delayed his advance on Philadelphia, and set up winter quarters in New York. [131] Washington crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, where Lee's replacement John Sullivan and 2,000 troops joined him. [132] The future of the Continental Army was in doubt for lack of supplies, a harsh winter, expiring enlistments, and desertions. Washington was disappointed that many New Jersey residents were Loyalists or skeptical about the prospect of independence. [133] Howe had split up his British Army and posted a Hessian garrison at Trenton, to hold western New Jersey and the east shore of the Delaware. [134]

Howe's army showed some complacency and Washington met with his generals on Christmas Eve to devise a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton. [135] Code named "Victory or Death", the plan was for the army to make separate crossings of the Delaware in three divisions, one led by Washington (2,400 troops), another by General James Ewing (700), and the third by Colonel John Cadwalader (1,500), all reaching the Hessians at Trenton. Washington's force would then be split, with him taking the Pennington Road, and General Sullivan traveling south on the river's edge. [136] Washington first ordered a 60-mile search for barges to transport his army, particularly Durham boats, [k] and ordered the destruction of vessels that could be used by the British. [138]

Washington initially crossed the Delaware at sunset Christmas Day and, risking capture, staked out the Jersey shoreline. His men followed across the ice-obstructed river in sleet and snow at McKonkey's Ferry, with 40 men per vessel. Wind churned up the waters, and they were pelted with hail. [139] They made it across, without losing a man, at 3:00 A.M.. Henry Knox had been delayed, managing frightened horses and about 18 field guns on flat-bottomed ferries. Cadwalader and Ewing failed to cross due to the ice and heavy currents. While he awaited them, Washington grew doubtful of his planned attack on Trenton. Once Knox made it, Washington proceeded to Trenton an hour later. [140] Rather than return his army to Pennsylvania and risk being spotted, Washington chose to take his troops alone against the Hessians. [141]

Trenton and Princeton

Hessian positions were spotted a mile from Trenton, so Washington, after consulting with his officers, split his force into two columns with words of encouragement to his men: "Soldiers keep by your officers. For God's sake, keep by your officers." The two columns were separated at the Birmingham crossroads, with General Nathanael Greene's force, led by Washington, taking the upper Ferry Road, while General John Sullivan's advanced on River Road. ( See map.) [142] Veiled by sleet and snowfall, the Americans proceeded toward Trenton; many soldiers were shoeless, with bloodied feet, and two died of exposure. At sunrise, they made a coordinated surprise attack on the Hessians, with Washington leading the charge, aided by Major General Henry Knox and artillery. Hessian Colonel Johann Rall was mortally wounded during the short battle. [143]

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

The Hessians had 22 killed, 83 wounded, with 850 captured with many supplies. After retreating across the Delaware to Pennsylvania, [144] Washington returned to New Jersey on January 3, launching an attack on British regulars at Princeton, with 40 Americans killed or wounded versus British losses of 273 killed or captured. [145] American Generals Hugh Mercer and John Cadwalader were being driven back by the British when Mercer was mortally wounded, then Washington arrived and led the men in a counterattack which advanced to within 30 yards (27 m) of the British line. [146]

The remaining British troops retreated after a brief stand, while others took refuge in Nassau Hall. Colonel Alexander Hamilton brought three cannons and began firing at the hall. Washington's troops charged, and in less than an hour the British put out the white flag of ceasefire; 194 soldiers laid down their arms. [147] Howe retreated to New York City where his army remained inactive until early the next year. [148] Washington's depleted Continental Army took up winter headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey, while disrupting British supply lines and expelling them from parts of New Jersey. Washington later said the British could have successfully counter-attacked his encampment before his troops were dug in. [149]

The British still controlled New York, and after the harsh winter campaign, many Patriot soldiers did not reenlist, or had deserted. Increased rewards for re-enlisting and punishments for desertion were instituted, in an effort to effect greater troop numbers. [150] Strategically, Washington's victories were pivotal for the Revolution and quashed the British strategy of showing overwhelming force followed by offering generous terms. [148] [151] In February 1777 word of American victories at Trenton and Princeton reached London, and brought with it the realization that the Patriots were in a position to demand unconditional independence. [152]

Brandywine, Germantown, and Saratoga

In February 1777, while encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, Washington determined smallpox inoculation could prevent deaths from the disease, and employed it for the army to great effect. [153] That year, British General John Burgoyne led a major invasion army south from Quebec, through Lake Champlain and recaptured Fort Ticonderoga with the ultimate objective of dividing New England by taking control of the Hudson River further south. But General Howe, then in British-occupied New York, blundered strategically, taking his army south to Philadelphia rather than up the Hudson River to join Burgoyne near Albany. [154] Meanwhile, Washington, with Lafayette at his side, rushed to Philadelphia to engage Howe, where he was shocked to learn of Burgoyne's progress in upstate New York, where the Patriots were led by General Philip Schuyler and his successor Horatio Gates. Washington's army of less experienced men were defeated in the pitched battles at Philadelphia. [155]

Howe outmaneuvered Washington at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, and marched unopposed into America'a capital, Philadelphia. The Patriots failed in an attempted attack on the British garrison at Germantown in early October. Because of the losses incurred at Philadelphia Major General Thomas Conway prompted some members of Congress, referred to as the Conway Cabal, to consider removing Washington from command. Washington's supporters rallied behind him, and after much deliberation the matter was dropped. [156] Exposed for his complicity and correspondence to Congress over matters, Conway later wrote an apology to Washington, who did not respond. Conway resigned and returned to France. [157]

Washington's strategy improved the situation for Gates's army during the Saratoga campaign to the north. He was most concerned about the movements of General Howe and was aware that Burgoyne was also moving south toward Saratoga from Quebec. Washington took some risks in July, sending reinforcements north commanded by Major General Benedict Arnold, his most aggressive field commander, and Major General Benjamin Lincoln. Burgoyne made two attempts to take Bemis Heights, but found himself trapped and beyond the reach of help from Howe. He was forced to retreat to Saratoga and ultimately surrendered after the Battles of Saratoga, leading to Howe's resignation in May 1778. Washington was concerned that Gates's victory was going to give impetus to his critics. [158] 20th-century biographer John Alden maintains, "It was inevitable that the defeats of Washington's forces and the concurrent victory of the forces in upper New York should be compared." The zealous admiration for Washington was waning; John Adams, for one, then gave him little credit. [159]

This was a major turning point both militarily and diplomatically; the French responded to Burgoyne's defeat by entering the war, allying with America and expanding the Revolutionary War into more than a domestic affair. [160]

Valley Forge and Monmouth

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

Washington's army of 11,000 went into winter quarters at Valley Forge north of Philadelphia in December 1777. They suffered a multitude of deaths in the extreme cold over the next six months, mostly from disease, exacerbated by the lack of food, clothing, and shelter; scholars believe 2,000–3,000 men or more were lost. [161] The British, by contrast, were comfortably quartered in Philadelphia, and paying for supplies in pounds sterling, while Washington struggled with procurement using devalued American paper currency. The woodlands were soon exhausted of game, and by February Washington was burdened with sustaining morale and stemming desertion. [162]

Washington had repeatedly petitioned the Continental Congress for badly needed provisions without success. Finally, five Congressmen came to Valley Forge on January 24, 1778, to check the conditions of the Continental Army. Washington expressed the urgency of the situation, proclaiming: "Something must be done. Important alterations must be made." He also recommended that Congress take control of the Army supply system, pay for supplies, and hasten them to the troops. In response to his urging, Congress agreed to fund the army's supply lines and reorganized the commissary department that gathered the supplies for the Army. By late February, there were adequate supplies arriving at the camp. [115]

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

Washington recruited men into the Regular Army and assigned their training to Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, whose incessant drilling soon transformed them into a disciplined fighting force. [163] Washington's army, which many feared would dissolve over the harsh winter, endured, emerging from Valley Forge early the following year as a revitalized fighting force. [164] Washington promoted Von Steuben to Major General for his effort and became Washington's chief of staff for the rest of the war. [165]

In May 1778, the Continental Congress ratified the Treaty of Alliance with King Louis XVI of France, which allied the French army and navy with America. [166] The British evacuated Philadelphia for New York in June 1778, and Washington summoned a council of war with Generals Lee, Greene, Wayne, and Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette. He chose a partial attack on the retreating British at the Battle of Monmouth; the British were commanded by Howe's successor, General Henry Clinton. Lee and Lafayette moved with 4,000 men, but without Washington's knowledge, and bungled their first attack on June 28. Washington relieved Lee and continued fighting, essentially to a draw, in one of the war's most expansive battles. At nightfall, the British continued their retreat to New York, and Washington moved his army outside the city. [167] Monmouth was the last major battle that Washington fought in the North; he deemed it more important to protect his army than to keep the British from occupying towns, which rarely had anything to offer the British army. [168]

West Point espionage

Washington has been called "America's first spymaster", for having arduously developed a successful espionage system to detect British military locations and plans. [169] In 1778, he ordered Major Benjamin Tallmadge to form the Culper Ring, tasked with covertly collecting information about the British in New York. [170] General Washington, ever vigilant to spies, had disregarded prior incidents of disloyalty by Benedict Arnold, an admired and trusted officer of Washington's who had otherwise distinguished himself in many battles. [171]

During mid-1780, Arnold began a plot of treason, supplying British spymaster John André with sensitive information intended to compromise Washington and capture West Point, a key American defensive position on the Hudson River. [172] Arnold repeatedly asked for command of West Point, and Washington finally agreed in August. [173] Arnold met André on September 21, giving him plans to take over the garrison. Several factors combined to motivate Arnold: He received a £6,000 British payment; he was angry at losing promotions to junior officers and at repeated slights from Congress; [174] he was profiteering from the war and faced a court-martial for it; and he was deeply in debt. [175]

Militia forces captured André and discovered the plans; with only minutes to spare, he escaped on horseback and fled to New York. [176] Washington was outraged, and immediately recalled the commanders positioned under Arnold at key points around the fort to prevent this complicity. He did not then suspect Arnold's wife Peggy Shippen. [177] Washington assumed personal command of West Point and worked diligently to reorganize the order of command and strengthen defensive positions. [178]

André's military trial for espionage ended in a death sentence, and Washington offered to return him to the British in exchange for Arnold, but Clinton refused. André requested execution by firing squad rather than hanging; Washington was tempted to grant his request but resisted, under pressure to better deter other spies, and André was hanged on October 2, 1780. [179]

Yorktown victory

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

In late 1778, General Clinton sent 3,000 troops by ship from New York to Georgia and launched a Southern invasion. [180] He seized Savannah, reinforced by 2,000 British and Loyalist troops, and repelled an attack by Patriots and French naval forces, which bolstered the British war effort. [180]

In mid-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. [181] The Indian warriors joined with Tory rangers led by Walter Butler and slew more than 200 frontiersmen in June, using barbarities normally shunned, and laid waste to the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. [182] Prompted by massacres and many attacks on American civilians, Washington ordered General John Sullivan to lead a military operation in August and to effect "the total destruction and devastation" of all Iroquois villages and take their women and children hostage. Those who managed to escape fled to British protection in Canada. [183] When Sullivan later reported that the expedition had been accomplished, he referred to the Iroquois as "inhuman barbarians". [184]

Washington went into quarters at Morristown, New Jersey during the harsh winter of 1779—1780, which subjected the troops to some of their worst suffering during the war, with temperatures well below freezing. New York Harbor was frozen over, and snow and ice covered the ground for weeks. As at Valley Forge, the troops again lacked provisions for a time. [185]

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

Clinton assembled 12,500 troops and attacked Charlestown (modern Charleston) in January 1780, defeating General Benjamin Lincoln, who only had 5,100 Continental troops. [186] The British went on to occupy the South Carolina Piedmont in June, with almost no Patriot resistance. [186] Clinton returned to New York and left 8,000 troops commanded by Lord Charles Cornwallis. [187] Congress replaced Lincoln with Horatio Gates, despite Washington's recommendation of Nathanael Greene. Gates failed in South Carolina and was replaced by Greene, and the British had the South in their grasp. Despite the bleak situation, Washington was encouraged when he learned in mid 1780 that the Marquis de Lafayette had returned from France with more ships, men, and supplies. [188]

In July 1780, 5,000 veteran French troops led by Jean-Baptiste de Vimeur, the Comte de Rochambeau, arrived at New Port, Rhode Island. [189] French naval forces then landed, led by Admiral François-Joseph de Grasse, and Washington encouraged Rochambeau to move his fleet south to launch a joint land–naval attack on Arnold's troops. [190]

Washington's army went into winter quarters at New Windsor, New York, in December 1780, where they again suffered from extreme cold and lack of supplies, prompting Washington to prevail upon Congress and state officials to come to their aid with provisions. He sympathized with his soldiers' suffering, saying he hoped the army would not "continue to struggle under the same difficulties they have hitherto endured". [191]

Arnold was now a Brigadier General in the British Army, and General Clinton sent him to Virginia with about 1,700 troops to capture Portsmouth and spread terror throughout the state; Washington responded by sending Lafayette south with a small army to counter Arnold's efforts. [192] At first, Washington hoped to bring the allied fight to New York, drawing off British forces from Virginia and ending the war there, but Rochambeau advised the Comte de Grasse that Cornwallis in Virginia was the better target. De Grasse followed this advice and arrived with his fleet off the Virginia coast. Washington immediately saw the advantage, and made a feint towards Clinton in New York before heading south to Virginia. [193]

Washington's Continental Army delivered the last blow in 1781 after the French won a naval victory in the Battle of the Chesapeake, allowing Patriot forces to trap the British army in Virginia without reinforcement by Clinton from the North. [194] The surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, marked the end of major fighting. [195] Washington took great satisfaction in the surrender but kept his taciturn composure. [196] Cornwallis, claiming illness, failed to appear at the official ceremony of surrender, sending General Charles O'Hara as his proxy; Washington had General Benjamin Lincoln accept the surrender. [197]

Demobilization and resignation

Decisive combat ended and British troops began to demobilize in the months after Yorktown, as peace negotiations started. [198] The British evacuated 2,000 troops from Savannah in July 1782 and 4,000 from Charlestown in December. [199] They removed 18,000 troops from New York in 1783; [200] the French army and navy likewise departed. The American treasury was empty, and unpaid soldiers were restive to the point of mutiny, forcing an adjournment of the Congress. Washington dispelled unrest among officers by suppressing the Newburgh Conspiracy in March 1783, and Congress promised officers a five-year bonus. [201] Washington later submitted an account of about $450,000 in military expenses he advanced to the army (equivalent to approximately $10 million in 2018). The account was settled, though it was allegedly vague about large sums, and included his wife Martha's expenses incurred through visits to his headquarters, as well as his agreed compensation. [202]

Washington resigned his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army following the signing of the Treaty of Paris, and made immediate plans to retire to his home at Mount Vernon. With the peace treaty initially ratified in April 1783, a Congressional committee under Hamilton worked to adapt the army for peacetime; on May 2. Washington only found out about the treaty on November 1, two months later. [203] Washington gave the Army's perspective to the Committee in his Sentiments on a Peace Establishment; [204] the Committee's proposals were defeated by Congressional votes later that month, again in October, and also in April, 1784. [205] The Treaty was signed on September 3, 1783, and Great Britain officially recognized the independence of the United States. Washington disbanded his army, giving an eloquent farewell address to his soldiers on November 2. [206] On November 25, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington and Governor George Clinton took possession. Only a few trusted delegates of the Continental Congress, including Thomas Jefferson, knew of Washington's decision to resign his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. [207]

Washington bade farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern on December 4, 1783, and resigned his commission on December 23, after leading the Continental Army for eight and a half years. Washington arrived at the Maryland State House wearing his military uniform for the last time, and was greeted by Charles Thomson, secretary of the Congress, who led him to his seat in the Senate Chamber. [208] He gave a brief statement to the Continental Congress: "I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life, by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping." [209] Washington had refuted claims made by Loyalists that he would retain his position as Commander in Chief and rule as a dictator. [210] Henry Knox also gave tribute to Washington and likened him to the Roman consul Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, who had also relinquished his military power after securing victory in ancient Rome. [211] Knox had formed the Society of the Cincinnati (Cincinnati being the plural of Cincinnatus) in 1783 with this connection in mind, and Washington served as its first president until his death. [24] Although Thomas Jefferson denounced the Societies' allowance of hereditary membership, he praised Washington for his "moderation & virtue" in relinquishing his command. [210]

Washington advised Congress at Rocky Hill, New Jersey, in August 1783 to keep a standing army, create a "national militia" formed of separate state units, and establish a navy and a national military academy. He circulated his "Farewell" orders that discharged his troops, whom he called "one patriotic band of brothers". Before his return to Mount Vernon, he oversaw the evacuation of British forces in New York and was greeted by parades and celebrations, where he announced that Knox had been newly promoted commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. [212]

Early republic (1784–1789)

Military retirement

After his retirement and return to Mount Vernon, in 1784 Washington, then 52, made an exploratory trip to the western frontier. He also inspected the land holdings he had earned decades earlier for his service in the French and Indian War. [213] He also facilitated the creation of the Potomac Company, a public–private partnership that financed a project to improve the navigability of the Potomac River and to construct a canal linking the Potomac to the Ohio River. He was elected president of the company, for which he proselytized extensively. The project served as a model for large-scale canal building, but technical and financial challenges rendered it unprofitable, and the Potomac–Ohio Canal was not completed. [214]

Constitutional Convention

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

After the war, Washington did not wish to involve himself in the political matters of the nation. James Madison valued his influence and urged him to attend the Constitutional Convention. Shay's rebellion broke out in Massachusetts and Washington was finally convinced that he could no longer ignore political matters and the looming unrest that threatened the stability of the Union. He appeared at the convention as a delegate from Virginia and was unanimously elected its president in 1787. [215] He was critical of the Articles of Confederation for the weak central government it established, referring to them as no more than "a rope of sand" to unite the new nation. [216] His view for the need of a strong federal government developed from his early years of frustration with British officials and his experience at Valley Forge when the Continental Congress failed to supply the military. The general populace did not share his inclination for a strong federal government binding the states together, fearing that it would become as overbearing as the British Parliament from which they had just freed themselves. [217]

Washington was reserved during the debates and voting, lending his prestige to the goodwill and work of the other delegates. After a couple of months, he wrote to Alexander Hamilton, expressing his anxiety that he was the only one holding the union of delegates together: "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." [218] Following the Convention, his support convinced many to vote for ratification of the Constitution. 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", and he declared that the only alternative would be anarchy. Even so, he did not consider it proper to cast his vote in favor of adoption on behalf of Virginia as the state's representative, since he was expected to be nominated President if it was ratified. [219] Washington and Madison then retired to Mount Vernon for four days and evaluated the transition of the new constitutional government. [220]

The ratified Constitution that Washington signed protected slavery adopting the three-fifths clause and the fugitive slave clause, while extending the slave trade for twenty years. [221] Washington received public criticism in Massachusetts for his silence on slavery at the convention. [222]

First presidential election

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention designed the presidency with Washington in mind, allowing him to define the office once elected. He thought that the achievements were monumental when they were finally completed. [223] [l]

The state electors under the Constitution voted for the President on February 4, 1789. Washington suspected that most republicans had not voted for him. [226] The March 4 date mandated by the Constitution passed by without a Congressional quorum to count the votes, and Congress waited anxiously for other members to arrive to determine who won the election. A quorum was finally reached on April 5, and Congress counted the votes on April 6. [227] Congressional Secretary Charles Thomson was sent to Mount Vernon to tell Washington that he had been elected the first President of the United States. Washington won the majority of every state's electoral votes; John Adams received the next highest vote total and was elected Vice President. [228] Washington had "anxious and painful sensations" over leaving the "domestic felicity" of Mount Vernon, but he departed Mount Vernon for New York City on April 23 to be inaugurated. [229]

Presidency (1789–1797)

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

Washington was unanimously elected President by the electoral college on February 4, 1789 and was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, at the age of 57, taking the first presidential oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City. [230] [m] He arrived in a coach led by militia and a marching band, followed by statesmen and foreign dignitaries in the first inaugural parade; an estimated 10,000 people attended. [232] He stood with his hand on a Bible that was provided by the nearby Masonic lodge as Chancellor Robert R. Livingston administered the oath, after which he was given a 13-gun salute. [233] He then returned to the Senate Chambers where he read a 1,200-word speech (in contrast to his later second inaugural speech), asking that "that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations—and whose providential aids can supply every human defect" would " consecrate the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States" with his blessing. [234] He declined a salary in his speech, but Congress later set an annual salary of $25,000 (equivalent to about $715,000 in 2018), and he accepted the amount to defray costs of the presidency. [235]

Washington was aware that he would set a precedent with everything that he said and did, and he attended carefully to the pomp and ceremony of office, making sure that the titles and trappings were suitably republican and did not emulate European royal courts. [236] [n] To that end, he preferred the title "Mr. President" over more majestic names proposed by the Senate, including "His Excellency" and "His Highness the President". [237] His precedents also included the inaugural address, messages to Congress, and the cabinet form of the executive branch. [238]

Washington had planned to resign after his first term, but the unstable nation with its existing political strife convinced him that he should remain in office. [239] He was an able administrator and judge of talent and character and established many precedents; he talked regularly with department heads and listened to their advice before making a final decision. [240] He established a toleration of opposing views, despite fears that a democratic system would lead to political violence, and he conducted a smooth transition of power to his successor. [241] Washington officially remained non-partisan throughout his presidency and opposed the divisiveness of political parties in the new and unstable Union, but he favored a strong central government, was largely sympathetic to a Federalist form of government, and was leery of the Republican opposition. [242]

During his first term in office, Washington had to contend with major problems. The old Confederation had lacked the powers to handle its workload. It had weak leadership, no executive, a small bureaucracy of clerks, a large debt, worthless paper money, and no power to establish taxes. [243] The United States was not completely unified, and Washington had the task of assembling an executive department; he relied on Tobias Lear for advice selecting its officers. [244] Great Britain also refused to relinquish its forts in the American West, [243] and Barbary pirates were preying on American merchant ships in the Mediterranean at a time when the United States' Army was minuscule, and the Navy had not yet been established. [245]

Cabinet and executive departments

The Washington Cabinet
PresidentGeorge Washington1789–1797
Vice President John Adams1789–1797
Secretary of State John Jay1789–1790
Timothy Pickering1795–1797
Edmund Randolph1794–1795
Thomas Jefferson1790–1793
Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton1789–1795
Oliver Wolcott Jr.1795–1797
Secretary of War Henry Knox1789–1794
James McHenry1796–1797
Timothy Pickering1794–1796
Attorney General Edmund Randolph1789–1794
Charles Lee1795–1797
William Bradford1794–1795

Congress created executive departments during Washington's first months in office in 1789, including the State Department on July 27, the Department of War in early August, and the Treasury Department on September 2. The President also received two officers without departments: the Attorney General and Postmaster General. Washington appointed Richmond lawyer Edmund Randolph as Attorney General and Samuel Osgood as Postmaster General. He also appointed fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson to be Secretary of State and Henry Knox, who had succeeded Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, as Secretary of War. Finally, he appointed Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. [246] Washington's cabinet later developed into a consulting and advisory body, which was not mandated by the Constitution. [247]

Washington's cabinet members were known for their dissension, forming rival parties with sharply opposing views, most fiercely illustrated between Hamilton and Jefferson. [248] Washington restricted cabinet discussions to topics of his choosing, without participating in debate. He occasionally requested cabinet opinions in writing, and expected department heads to carry out his decisions without complaint. Hamilton played an active role advising Congress, providing written reports and using his influence with congressional committee leaders. [243]

Domestic issues

Washington was not aligned with a political party and opposed their formation, suspecting that conflict would undermine republicanism. [249] His closest advisors formed two factions, portending the First Party System. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton planned to establish the national credit and build a financially powerful nation; he employed these objectives as planks for the Federalist Party. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson strongly disapproved of Hamilton's agenda, and founded the Jeffersonian Republicans to take up the opposition. Washington favored Hamilton's agenda, which went into effect and became law; Hamilton's fiscal recommendations created bitter controversy during Washington's presidency. [250]

Washington signed a proclamation on October 3, 1789, designating November 26 as a day of Thanksgiving, in order to encourage national unity (Thanksgiving was established as an annual holiday in 1863.) Washington said, "It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor." On his appointed Thanksgiving Day, he fasted while visiting debtors in prison, but provided them with food and beer. [251]

National Bank

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

The establishment of public credit became a primary task of the new federal government; [252] Hamilton submitted a report of the matter to Congress on January 14, 1790. Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson then reached the Compromise of 1790 in which Jefferson agreed to Hamilton's debt proposals in exchange for moving the nation's capitol to the south near Georgetown on the Potomac River; Philadelphia was designated the nation's temporary capitol city. [250] This settled a deadlock in Congress, and the terms were legislated in the Funding Act and the Residence Act, both of which Washington signed into law on August 4. Congress authorized the assumption and payment of the nation's debts; funding was provided with customs duties and excise taxes. [253]

Hamilton created more controversy among Washington's Cabinet members when he advocated the establishment of the First Bank of the United States. Madison and Jefferson objected, but the bank easily passed Congress. When Washington sought advice from his cabinet, Jefferson and Randolph believed strongly that the new bank was beyond the authority granted by the constitution. Hamilton thought the bank was within the government's enumerated powers in the constitution. Washington sided with Hamilton and signed the legislation on February 25; the rift between Hamilton and Jefferson widened, and they became openly hostile. [254]

The young nation experienced its first financial crisis in March 1792. Hamilton's Federalists exploited large loans to gain control of U.S. debt securities, causing a run on the new national bank; [255] the markets returned to normal by mid-April. [256] Jefferson believed that Hamilton was part of the scheme, in spite of the latter's efforts to ameliorate, and Washington found himself in the middle of a feud. [257]

Jefferson–Hamilton feud

Jefferson and Hamilton, bitter rivals

Jefferson and Hamilton adopted diametrically opposed political principles. Hamilton believed in a strong national government requiring a national bank and foreign loans to function, while Jefferson believed the government should be primarily directed by the states and the farm element; he also resented the idea of banks and foreign loans. These differences caused continued disputes and infighting between the two men, much to Washington's dismay. [258] A few weeks later, when Hamilton demanded that Jefferson resign if he could not support Washington, rather than respond publicly, Jefferson told Washington that Hamilton's fiscal system would lead to the overthrow of the Republic. [259]

Washington pleaded with his two secretaries to stop the open attacks for the sake of the nation, but they both respectfully ignored him. [260] Washington reversed his decision to retire after his first term, as an essential measure in minimizing party strife—the feud continued after his re-election. [259] Jefferson's political actions, his support of Freneau's National Gazette, [261] and his attempt to undermine Hamilton nearly led Washington to dismiss him from the cabinet; Jefferson ultimately resigned his position in December 1793 and was thereafter forsaken by Washington. [262]

The feud between Hamilton and Jefferson led to the well-defined Federalist and Republican parties, and party affiliation had become necessary for election to Congress by 1794. [263] Washington remained aloof from congressional attacks on Hamilton, but he did not write a public statement to protect him. The Hamilton–Reynolds sex scandal opened Hamilton to public disgrace, but Washington continued to hold him in "very high esteem" and viewed him as the dominant force in establishing federal law and government. [264]

Whiskey Rebellion

In March 1791, Congress imposed an excise tax on distilled spirits to help pay the national debt; grain farmers strongly protested in frontier mostly in districts located in Pennsylvania, saying that they were unrepresented and unfairly shouldering too much of the debt and compared their situation to the unfair British taxation during the former revolution. Washington, after making numerous appeals, issued a final proclamation on September 25, threatening the use of military force, reminding the protestors that, unlike the rule of the British crown, the Federal law was issued by state elected representatives. [265] Threats and violence against tax collectors escalated into full-scale defiance of federal authority in 1794 giving rise to the Whiskey Rebellion. The federal army was too small for the task, so Washington invoked the Militia Act of 1792 to summon various state militias. [266] Governors sent the troops, with Washington taking initial command. He subsequently named Light-Horse Harry Lee as field commander to lead the troops into the rebellious districts. The rebels dispersed, and there was no fighting. Washington, at 62, became the first and only U.S. president to command troops in a combat situation. [267]

Washington's forceful action demonstrated that the new government could protect itself and its tax collectors. This represented the first instance of the federal government using military force to exert authority over the states and citizens [268] and remains the only time a sitting president has commanded troops in the field. Washington justified his action against "certain self-created societies" whom he regarded as "subversive organizations" that threatened the national union. He did not dispute their right to protest, but insisted that their dissent not flagrantly violate federal law. Congress overwhelmingly agreed and extended their congratulations to him, with only Madison and Jefferson expressing their indifference. [269]

Foreign affairs

Formal portrait of Chief Justice John Jay, wearing judge's robe
John Jay, negotiator of the Jay Treaty

In April 1792, the French Revolutionary Wars began between Great Britain and France, and Washington, with the cabinet's assent, declared America's neutrality. The revolutionary government of France sent diplomat Citizen Genêt to America. He was welcomed with great enthusiasm and began promoting the case for France, using a network of new Democratic-Republican Societies in major cities. He even issued French letters of marque and reprisal to French ships manned by American sailors so that they could capture British merchant ships. Washington denounced the societies and demanded that the French recall Genêt. [270]

Hamilton formulated the Jay Treaty, to normalize trade relations with Great Britain while removing them from western forts, and also to resolve financial debts remaining from the Revolution. [271] Chief Justice John Jay, acting as negotiator, signed the treaty on November 19, 1794; adamantly critical Jeffersonians supported France. Washington listened to both sides, then announced his support for the treaty, mostly because it avoided war with Britain; [272] yet he was deeply disappointed that its provisions overwhelmingly favored Great Britain. [273] After he mobilized public opinion and secured ratification in the Senate, [274] Washington was subjected to the most severe and frequent public criticism of his life. [275]

The British agreed to depart from their forts around the Great Lakes, and the United States–Canada boundary was subsequently modified. Numerous pre-Revolutionary debts were liquidated, and the British opened their West Indies colonies to American trade. Most importantly, the treaty secured peace with Britain and brought a decade of prosperous trade. Jefferson claimed that it angered France and "invited rather than avoided" war. [276] Relations with France deteriorated after the Jay Treaty was signed, leaving subsequent president John Adams with the prospect of war. [277] When James Monroe, American Minister to France, was recalled by Washington for his opposition to the Jay Treaty, the French refused to accept his replacement, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Two days before Washington's term ended, the French Directory declared the authority to seize American ships. [278]

Indian affairs

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

Washington's initial and most pressing problem had been the British occupation of forts in the northwestern frontier and their concerted efforts to turn Indians against American settlers, which posed an urgent national security risk. [279] The Northwest Indians allied with the British and formed a confederation under Miami chief Little Turtle to resist American expansion, and from 1783 to 1790 an estimated 1,500 settlers were killed in isolated Indian attacks. [280]

Washington made Indian policy a priority from the start of his administration in 1789, determined that Indian affairs would be "directed entirely by the great principles of Justice and humanity". [281] Rather than force Indians to relinquish their lands east of the Mississippi, as Congress demanded, his administration allowed them to be represented by treaties. [281] Washington and his administration regarded powerful tribes as foreign nations, and Washington even smoked a peace pipe and drank wine with them at the Philadelphia presidential house. [282]

Washington made numerous attempts to conciliate the Indians; [283] he equated the killing of Indians with that of Whites, and pursued a policy to protect their property and integrate Indians into American culture. [284] Secretary of War Henry Knox offered farm tools and livestock to the northwest Indians to encourage an agricultural lifestyle among the tribes, but the Indian chiefs rejected the peace offerings. [283]

In the Southwest, negotiations failed between federal commissioners and Indian tribes, then raiding American settlements in response to crimes committed by settlers in their northeastern territory. Washington, with Knox's initiative, invited Creek Chief Alexander McGillivray and twenty-four leading chiefs to New York, so they could negotiate a treaty with McGillivray directly; he was treated as a foreign dignitary and presented with gifts. On August 7, 1790 in Federal Hall, Knox and McGillivray concluded the Treaty of New York, which provided the tribes with supplies and tools for agriculture. McGillivray was made a Brigadier General in the U.S. Army and paid an annual salary of $1,500. [285]

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

In 1790, Washington sent Brigadier General Josiah Harmar to pacify the Northwest Indians; Harmar was twice routed by Little Turtle and forced to withdraw. [286] [280] The Western Confederacy of tribes used guerrilla tactics and was an effective force against the sparsely manned American Army, composed mostly of undisciplined militia accompanied by family. Washington sent Major General Arthur St. Clair from Fort Washington on an expedition to restore peace in the territory in 1791, with the encouragement of Washington's Secretary of War Henry Knox, who disliked militias. On November 4, St. Clair's forces were ambushed and soundly defeated with few survivors, despite Washington's warning of surprise attacks. Washington was outraged over the Indians' brutality and execution of captives, including women and children. Knox and others prompted him to form a new army, the Legion of the United States, that did not rely on state militias. [287]

St. Clair resigned his commission, and Washington replaced him with Revolutionary War hero General Anthony Wayne. From 1792 to 1793, Wayne instructed his troops on Indian warfare tactics and instilled discipline lacking under St. Clair. [288] In August 1794, Washington sent Wayne into the troubled Indian territory with authority to drive them out by burning their villages and crops in the Maumee Valley. [289] On August 24, the American army under Wayne's leadership defeated the western confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. In August 1795, two-thirds of the Ohio Country was opened up for American settlement under the Treaty of Greenville. [290]

Second term

Washington remained popular approaching the election of 1792, and Hamilton urged him to run for a second term. He said nothing about this upon his return to Mount Vernon in October 1792, and many took his silence as assent, viewing him as the only viable candidate during the unstable time. The Electoral College unanimously elected him President on February 13, 1793, for a second term. John Adams was re-elected Vice President by a vote of 77 to 50. [284]

Washington was criticized by the National Gazette and political adversaries over his birthday celebration and for giving a "monarchist" impression; as a consequence, he kept a low profile, arriving alone at his inauguration in a simple carriage. The inauguration was held in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia on Monday, March 4, 1793, and the presidential oath of office was administered by Associate Justice William Cushing. This was the first inauguration to take place in Philadelphia, the nation's temporary capital. Washington maintained his low profile after the ceremonies and delivered the shortest inaugural address on record, at just 135 words, in four sentences. [291]

During Washington's second term partisan politics for the first time emerged in his cabinet, with Jefferson and Hamilton agreeing only on one thing, that Washington remain in office for a second term. Differences of opinion centered around America's involvement in the French Revolution, with Washington remaining neutral, and over a national bank at the disposal of the federal government, which he strongly supported. [292] This was known as the Federalist Era. [293]

Painting of the frigate USS Constitution with three masts
USS Constitution
Commissioned and named by President Washington in 1794.
Michel Felice Corné, Attributed artist

In the final months of his presidency, Washington was relentlessly assailed by his political foes and a partisan press who accused him of being ambitious and greedy. He pointed out that he had taken no salary during the entire war and risked his life in numerous battles; he regarded the press as an erosive and disuniting force that spread numerous falsehoods, referring to them as "diabolical". This also had a great influence in his Farewell Address, which expressed how troubled he was by the years of infighting and character assassination by much of the press. [294]

In 1793, Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slave owners to cross state lines and retrieve runaway slaves. [295] He also signed into law the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which limited American involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. [296] In 1794, Washington signed into the law the Naval Act that created the United States Navy, to combat Barbary pirates in advance of the Barbary Wars. Washington appointed Oliver Wolcott, Jr., as Secretary of the Treasury in 1795, replacing Alexander Hamilton, who resigned in the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion to spend time with his wife Elizabeth. The upshot of the Rebellion strengthened Washington's bond with Hamilton, distancing him from Knox who resigned. [297]

At the end of his second term in 1797, Washington retired for personal and political reasons, fatigued and disgusted with the virulent attacks on his integrity, and believing that only without him could America realize a truly contested presidential election. He also speculated that a third term might end in his death, with his vice president succeeding him without a contest. He did not personally feel bound to a two-term limit, but in relinquishing power he again set precedent. The practice of a two-term limit to the presidency was finally formalized with the 1951 adoption of the Twenty-second Amendment to the United States Constitution. Washington is often credited with setting the principal of a two-term presidency, but it was Thomas Jefferson who first refused to run for a third term on political grounds. Term limits were not unheard of: About half of the states provided term limits for governors in the 1780s. [298] [299]

Farewell Address

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

Washington planned to retire after his first term as President, and in 1792 he had James Madison draft a farewell message with a given sentiment and theme; on his reelection, he stored the draft in his presidential desk. [300] He gave that draft, including text he added, to Hamilton to complete on May 15, 1796, for the end of his second term. [301] The final version was published on September 19, 1796, by David Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser, and then published by three other Philadelphia newspapers. [302] It warned against foreign alliances and their influence in domestic affairs, and against bitter partisanship in domestic politics. It also called for men to move beyond partisanship and serve the common good, stressing that the United States must concentrate on its own interests. [303] He counseled friendship and commerce with all nations, but advised against involvement in European wars. [304] He stressed the importance of religion, asserting that "religion and morality are indispensable supports" in a republic. [305]

Washington's address, influenced by Hamilton, did not quell bipartisan politics but instead served to aggravate them, setting the tone for the coming 1796 election, which pitted Jefferson against Adams. Washington favored Federalist ideology, and is said to have supported Adams, but he did not publicly endorse him. [306] On December 7, 1796, Washington read his eighth annual address to Congress. He spoke before the House, wore a black velvet suit, and donned his sword, and was well received by "the largest assemblage of citizens" in the crowded gallery. He advocated for the creation of a military academy, and expounded on the fact that the British had vacated the Northwest forts, and Algiers had released American prisoners—an event that would lead to the formation of the Department of the Navy. The speech was well received. [307] On February 8, 1797, Adams was elected President, and Jefferson Vice President. [308]

Washington's Farewell Address proved to be one of the most influential statements on republicanism. [309] It stressed the necessity and importance of national union, the value of the Constitution, the rule of law, the evils of political parties, and the proper virtues of a republican people. He referred to morality as "a necessary spring of popular government", maintaining, "Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason, and experience, both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." [310]

Before its closing remarks, the address expressed this sentiment:

"Though in reviewing the incidents of my Administration I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence, and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest." [311]

Retirement (1797–1799)

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. [312] His plantation operations were only minimally profitable. [313] His lands in the west ( Piedmont) yielded little income because they were under attack by Indians, and the squatters living there refused to pay him rent. He attempted to sell off these holdings but failed to obtain the price he sought. [314] Once in retirement, he became an even more committed Federalist. He was vocal in his support of the Alien and Sedition Acts and convinced Federalist John Marshall to run for Congress to weaken the Jeffersonian hold on Virginia. [315]

Washington grew restless of retirement, prompted by tensions with France, and he wrote to Secretary of War James McHenry offering to organize President Adams' army. [316] French privateers began seizing American ships in 1798, and relations with France deteriorated and led to the " Quasi-War". Adams offered Washington a commission as lieutenant general on July 4, 1798, and as commander-in-chief of the armies raised for service in that conflict. He accepted, replacing James Wilkinson [317] and served as the commanding general from July 13, 1798, until his death 17 months later. He participated in planning for a provisional army to meet any emergency but avoided involvement in details. In advising McHenry of potential officers for the army, he appeared to make a complete break with Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans, “ could as soon scrub the blackamoor white, as to change the principles of a profest Democrat; and that he will leave nothing unattempted to overturn the government of this country.“ [318] Washington delegated the active leadership of the army to Hamilton as major general. No army invaded the United States during this period, and Washington did not assume a field command. [319]

It is popularly assumed that Washington was rich because of the well-known "glorified façade of wealth and grandeur" at Mount Vernon, [320] but nearly all of his wealth was in property (in the form of land and slaves) rather than ready cash. Historians estimate that this estate was worth about $1 million in 1799 dollars, equivalent to about $20 million in 2018. [321] To spur development around the new Federal City, named in his honor, Washington bought land parcels. Rather than selling multiple lots to large investors, he sold individual lots to middle-income investors, believing they would more likely commit to making improvements. [322]

Final days and death

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

On Thursday, December 12, 1799, Washington inspected his farms on horseback while snow and sleet were falling. He returned late for dinner, his neck was wet, and snow matted his hair. He refused to change his wet clothes, not wanting to keep his guests waiting. He had a sore throat the following day but again went out in freezing, snowy weather to mark trees for cutting. That evening, he complained of a sore throat and chest congestion, but was cheerful. Early Saturday morning, he awoke to an inflamed throat and difficulty breathing. He ordered estate overseer George Rawlins to remove nearly a pint of his blood, a common practice of the time, and several physicians were summoned: James Craik, Gustavus Richard Brown, and Elisha C. Dick. [323] ( Dr. William Thornton arrived some hours after Washington died. [324])

Dr. Brown thought that Washington had quinsy; Dick thought the condition was a more serious "violent inflammation of the throat". [325] Continued bloodletting (approximately five pints) proved unsuccessful, and Washington's situation quickly deteriorated. Dick proposed an emergency tracheotomy, but the other two doctors were unfamiliar with the new procedure and disapproved, so it was not used. [326] Washington instructed Brown and Dick to stop their attempts to save his life and leave the room, while he assured Craik, "Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go." [327]

Washington's illness and death came more swiftly than expected. [328] Washington instructed his private secretary Tobias Lear to wait three days before his burial, in order not to be entombed alive. Washington asked Lear, "Do you understand me ?". "Yes," responded Lear. Washington said, "Tis well." [329] Washington died peacefully with Martha composed at the foot of his bed around 10 p.m. on Saturday, December 14, 1799 at age of sixty-seven. Funeral arrangements included Washington's Masonic lodge of Alexandria, Virginia, various members of the clergy, Dr. Craik, military officers, and various members of the Fairfax family. When news of his death reached Congress, they immediately adjourned for the day and the Speaker's chair was shrouded in black the next morning. [330]

The funeral was held four days after Washington's death on December 18, 1799, at Mount Vernon, where his body was interred. Cavalry and foot soldiers led the procession, and six colonels served as the pallbearers. The Mount Vernon funeral service was restricted mostly to family and friends. [331] Reverend Thomas Davis read the funeral service by the vault with a brief address, followed by a ceremony performed by various members of Washington's Masonic lodge in Alexandria. [332] Congress chose Light-Horse Harry Lee, a Continental Army officer loved by Washington, to deliver the eulogy. Word of his death traveled slowly; church bells rang in the cities, and many places of business closed. [333] People worldwide admired Washington and were saddened by his death, and memorial processions were held in major cities of the United States. Martha wore a black mourning cape for one year, and she burned their correspondence to protect their privacy. Only five letters between the couple are known to have survived, two letters from Martha to George and three from him to her. [334]

The diagnosis of Washington's illness and the immediate cause of his death have been subjects of debate since the day that he died. The published account of Drs. Craik and Brown [o] stated that his symptoms had been consistent with cynanche trachealis ( tracheal inflammation), a term of that period used to describe severe inflammation of the structures of the upper windpipe, including quinsy. Accusations have persisted since Washington's death concerning medical malpractice, with some believing that he had been bled to death. [326] Various modern medical authors have speculated that he died from a severe case of epiglottitis complicated by the given treatments (which were all accepted medical practice in that day), most notably the massive deliberate blood loss, which almost certainly caused hypovolemic shock. [336] [p]

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

Washington was buried in the old family vault at Mount Vernon, situated on a grassy slope covered with juniper and cypress trees. It contained the remains of his brother Lawrence and other family members, but the decrepit vault was in need of repair, prompting Washington to leave instructions in his will for the construction of a new vault. [333]

In 1830, a disgruntled ex-employee of the estate attempted to steal Washington's skull. [341] The next year, the new vault was constructed at Mount Vernon to receive the remains of George and Martha and other relatives. [342] In 1832, a joint Congressional committee debated moving his body from Mount Vernon to a crypt in the Capitol. The crypt had been built by architect Charles Bulfinch in the 1820s during the reconstruction of the burned-out capital, after the Burning of Washington by the British during the War of 1812. Southern opposition was intense, antagonized by an ever-growing rift between North and South; many were concerned that Washington's remains could end up on "a shore foreign to his native soil" should the country become divided, and Washington's remains stayed in Mount Vernon. [343]

On October 7, 1837, Washington's remains were placed, still in the original lead coffin, within a marble sarcophagus designed by William Strickland and constructed by John Struthers earlier that year. [344] The sarcophagus was sealed and encased with planks, and an outer vault was constructed around it. [345] The outer vault has the sarcophagi of both George and Martha Washington; the inner vault has the remains of other Washington family members and relatives. [342]

Personal life

Washington was somewhat reserved in personality, but he generally had a strong presence among others. He made speeches and announcements when required, but he was not a noted orator or debater. [346] He was taller than most of his contemporaries; [347] accounts of his height vary from 6 ft (1.83 m) to 6 ft 3.5 in (1.92 m) tall, and he weighed between 210–220 pounds (95–100 kg) as an adult. [348] He had wide hips, a slim waist, a broad chest, narrow shoulders, muscular thighs, and exceptionally large hands, and he was widely known for his great strength—particularly in his long arms. [349] He had piercing grey-blue eyes, fair skin, and light reddish-brown hair, which he wore powdered in the fashion of the day. [350] He had a rugged and dominating presence, which garnered respect from his male peers. He suffered frequently from severe tooth decay, and ultimately lost all his teeth but one. He had several sets of false teeth made which he wore through during his presidency—none of which were made of wood, contrary to common lore. These dental problems left him in constant pain, for which he took laudanum. [351] As a public figure, he relied upon the strict confidence of his dentist. [352]

Washington was a talented equestrian early in life. He collected thoroughbreds at Mount Vernon, and his two favorite horses were Blueskin and Nelson. [353] Fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson said that Washington was "the best horseman of his age and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback"; [354] he also hunted foxes, deer, ducks, and other game. [355] He was an excellent dancer and attended the theater frequently. He drank in moderation but was morally opposed to excessive drinking, the smoking of tobacco, gambling, and profanity. [356]


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

Washington was born into a society accustomed to slavery; he had no qualms about its practice prior to 1775 and held commonplace views that Blacks were an inferior race. During the war, his views moderated under the influence of anti-slavery officers he was friendly with, such as Lafayette. [357] He spoke often of ending slavery following the war, but he never voiced those views publicly, fearing that the issue would divide the new nation. [358]

There are conflicting reports of slave treatment at Mount Vernon. Washington discouraged cruelty, yet there are records of harsh punishments, including whipping inflicted on male and female slaves by their overseers, some of whom were also slaves. When he was President, Washington maintained distant supervision of Mount Vernon through letters to his overseers; [359] there is one account from him authorizing a whipping that was given to a slave who had badly beaten his wife. [360] He directed that a warning be given to first offenders before resorting to whipping, which was then subject to his prior approval; this was not always enforced, due to his prolonged absences. [361] In severe circumstances, he shipped unruly slaves to the West Indies. He also used nonviolent forms of discipline, including cash payments, material incentives, and "admonition and advice". [362]

Washington sometimes personally cared for ill or injured slaves, and he provided physicians and midwives. By the Revolutionary War, he had all his slaves inoculated for smallpox. Slaves worked from dawn to dusk, received two hours off for meals during the workday and were not put to work on Sundays (the Sabbath), Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost. They were often poorly clothed and housed, but were well fed and received two hours off for meals during the workday. [363]

During the war, Washington initially forbade Blacks from becoming soldiers, but he allowed them to serve in the Continental Army from January 1776, in order to counter Loyalist Governor Dunmore's offer to free slaves if they fought for the British. After the war, Washington supported many slaves who were too young or too old to work, greatly increasing Mount Vernon's slave population and causing the plantation to operate at a loss in the process. [364] By 1799, there were 317 slaves living at Mount Vernon; he owned 124 outright and held 153 for his wife's dower interest. [365] At times, Mount Vernon slaves ran away to find freedom. [366] [365] To avoid any controversy Washington used secretive methods to return them rather than post public advertisements in the North. [367] [q]

Washington never set any of his slaves free, [360] but in 1799, he made a new will that directed his 124 slaves be freed upon the death of Martha. [368] He was among the few slave-holding Founding Fathers to do so. [369] He provided that old and young freed people be taken care of indefinitely; younger ones were to be taught to read and write and placed in suitable occupations. Martha freed his slaves on January 1, 1801, a year after Washington's death and a year before her own. Modern historian John E. Ferling has posited that Washington's freeing of his slaves through his will was "an act of atonement for a lifetime of concurrence in human exploitation". [368]

Religion and Freemasonry

Washington descended from Anglican minister Lawrence Washington (his great-great-grandfather), whose troubles with the Church of England may have prompted his heirs to emigrate to America. [370] Washington was baptized as an infant in April 1732 and became a devoted member of the Church of England (the Anglican Church). [371] He served for over twenty years as a vestryman and churchwarden for Fairfax Parish and Truro Parish. [372] He privately prayed and read the Bible daily, and he publicly encouraged people and the nation to pray. [373] He may have taken communion on a regular basis prior to the Revolutionary War, but he did not do so following the war, for which he was admonished by Pastor James Abercrombie. [374]

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

Washington believed in a "wise, inscrutable, and irresistible" Creator God who was active in the Universe, contrary to deistic thought. [370] He referred to this God by the Enlightenment terms Providence, the Creator, or the Almighty, and also as the Divine Author or the Supreme Being. [375] He believed in a divine power who watched over battlefields, was involved in the outcome of war, was protecting his life, and was involved in American politics—and specifically in the creation of the United States. [376] Modern historian Ron Chernow has posited that Washington avoided evangelistic Christianity or hellfire-and-brimstone speech along with communion and anything inclined to "flaunt his religiosity". Chernow has also said Washington "never used his religion as a device for partisan purposes or in official undertakings". [377] No mention of Jesus Christ appears in his private correspondence, and such references are rare in his public writings. [378] He often quoted from the Bible or paraphrased it, and often referred to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. [379] There is debate on whether he is best classed as a Christian, a theistic rationalist, or both. [380]

Washington emphasized religious toleration in a nation with numerous denominations and religions. [381] He attended services of different Christian denominations and prohibited anti-Catholic celebrations in the Army. [382] He engaged workers at Mount Vernon without regard for religious belief or affiliation. While President, he acknowledged major religious sects and gave speeches on religious toleration. [383] He was distinctly rooted in the ideas, values, and modes of thinking of the Enlightenment. [384] He harbored no contempt of organized Christianity and its clergy, "being no bigot myself to any mode of worship". [384] He proclaimed in 1793, "We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition." [385]

Freemasonry was a widely accepted institution in the late 18th century, known for advocating moral teachings. [386] Washington was attracted to the Masons' dedication to the Enlightenment principles of rationality, reason, and brotherhood. The American lodges did not share the anti-clerical perspective of the controversial European lodges. [387] A Masonic lodge was established in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in September 1752, and Washington was initiated two months later at the age of 20 as one of its first Entered Apprentices. Within a year, he progressed through its ranks to become a Master Mason. [388] Before and during the American Revolution he used Masonic lodges as meeting places to plot against the British. Washington had a high regard for the Masonic Order, but his personal lodge attendance was sporadic. In 1777, a convention of Virginia lodges asked him to be the Grand Master of the newly established Grand Lodge of Virginia, but he declined due to his commitments leading the Continental Army. After 1782, he corresponded frequently with Masonic lodges and members, [389] and in 1788 he was listed as Master in the Virginia charter of Alexandria Lodge No. 22. [390]

Historical reputation and legacy

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

Washington's legacy endures as one of the most influential in American history, since he served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, a hero of the Revolution, and the first president of the United States. Various historians maintained that Washington was a dominant factor in America's founding, the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention. Congressman Light-Horse Harry Lee, a Revolutionary War comrade, eulogized Washington: "First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen." [5] Lee's words became the hallmark by which Washington's reputation was impressed upon the American memory, with some biographers regarding him as the great exemplar of republicanism. Washington set many precedents for the national government and the presidency in particular, and he was called the "Father of His Country" as early as 1778. [391]

In 1885, Congress proclaimed Washington's birthday to be a federal holiday. [392] Twentieth-century biographer Douglas Southall Freeman concluded, "The great big thing stamped across that man is character." Modern historian David Hackett Fischer has expanded upon Freeman's assessment, defining Washington's character as "integrity, self-discipline, courage, absolute honesty, resolve, and decision, but also forbearance, decency, and respect for others". [393]

Washington became an international symbol for liberation and nationalism, as the leader of the first successful revolution against a colonial empire. The Federalists made him the symbol of their party, but the Jeffersonians continued to distrust his influence for many years and delayed building the Washington Monument. [394] On January 31, 1781 (before he had even begun his presidency), he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. [395] During the United States Bicentennial, to ensure Washington would never by outranked, Washington was posthumously appointed to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States by the congressional joint resolution Public Law 94-479 passed on January 19, 1976, with an effective appointment date of July 4, 1976. [213] [r] Parson Weems's hagiographical account The Life of Washington (1809) helped elevate Washington to heroic legendary status. [398] The authenticity of Weems's anecdotes, which include the story of Washington cutting down the cherry tree as a child and his utterance "I cannot tell a lie", is unknown. [14] [s]

Historian Gordon S. Wood concluded that "the greatest act of his life, the one that gave him his greatest fame, was his resignation as commander-in-chief of the American forces." [399]


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). [400] The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799 (1931–44) is a 39-volume set edited by John Clement Fitzpatrick who was commissioned by the George Washington Bicentennial Commission. It contains over 17,000 letters and documents and is available online from the University of Virginia. [401] [402]

Monuments and memorials

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

Many places and monuments have been named in honor of Washington, most notably the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. (which is also indirectly named for Christopher Columbus, "D.C." standing for "District of Columbia"). The state of Washington is the only state to be named after a president. [403]

Postage and currency

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

Washington and Benjamin Franklin appeared on the nation's first postage stamps in 1847. Since that time, Washington has appeared on many postage issues, more than any other person. [404]

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

See also



  1. ^ April 6 is when Congress counted the votes of the Electoral College and certified a president. April 30 is when Washington was sworn in. [1]
  2. ^ Old style: February 11, 1731
  3. ^ Contemporaneous records used the Julian calendar and the Annunciation Style of enumerating years, recording his birth as February 11, 1731. The British Calendar (New Style) Act 1750, implemented in 1752, altered the official British dating method to the Gregorian calendar with the start of the year on January 1 (it had been March 25). These changes resulted in dates being moved forward 11 days, and an advance of one year for those between January 1 and March 25. For a further explanation, see Old Style and New Style dates. [4]
  4. ^ Biographer Parson Weems' account of the incident was published in 1806 [13] Weems' story has never been proven or disproven. [14]
  5. ^ Not to be confused with the Treaty of Paris (1783)
  6. ^ Joseph Ellis and John Ferling, for example, point to his negative experiences dealing with the Continental Congress during the Revolution, and Don Higginbotham places Washington's first formal advocacy of a strong central government in 1783. [65]
  7. ^ Washington secretly instructed Captain William Crawford of the Ohio Country to scout out forbidden lands in the 1760s, beyond the Kings' Royal Proclamation Line. [89]
  8. ^ In a letter of September 20, 1765, Washington protested to "Robert Cary & Co." of the low prices that he received for his tobacco, and for the inflated prices that he was forced to pay on second-rate goods from London. [91]
  9. ^ Congress initially attempted to direct the war effort in June 1776 with the committee known as "Board of War and Ordnance"; this was succeeded by the Board of War in July 1777, which eventually included members of the military. [115]
  10. ^ This painting has received both acclaim and criticism; [130] see Emanuel Leutze article for details.
  11. ^ Durham boats were built for the Durham Iron Works to carry iron ore, lumber, or grain on the upper Delaware. [137]
  12. ^ Starting in 1774, 14 men served as President of the Continental Congress but bore no relationship to the presidency established under Article II of the Constitution. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress called its presiding officer "President of the United States in Congress Assembled", but this position had no national executive powers. [224] [225]
  13. ^ There has been debate and controversy over whether Washington added "so help me God" to the end of the oath. [231]
  14. ^ Washington wrote to James Madison: "As the first of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent, it is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents be fixed on true principles." Washington to James Madison, May 5, 1789, cited by Unger, 2013, p. 76.
  15. ^ The first account of Washington's death was written by Doctors Craik and Brown, published in The Times of Alexandria five days after his death on December 19, 1799. The complete text can be found in The Eclectic Medical Journal (1858) [335]
  16. ^ Modern experts have concluded that Washington probably died from acute bacterial epiglottitis complicated by the administered treatments, including Morens and Wallenborn in 1999, [337] [338] Cheatham in 2008, [339] and Vadakan in 2005. [340] These treatments included multiple doses of calomel (a cathartic or purgative) and extensive bloodletting.
  17. ^ For example, Washington privately ordered the capture of Martha's fugitive slave Oney Judge in 1796; the effort failed. [366]
  18. ^ In Portraits & Biographical Sketches of the United States Army's Senior Officer, [396] William Gardner Bell states that Washington was recalled back into military service from his retirement in 1798, and "Congress passed legislation that would have made him General of the Armies of the United States, but his services were not required in the field and the appointment was not made until the Bicentennial in 1976, when it was bestowed posthumously as a commemorative honor." In 1976, President Gerald Ford specified that Washington would "rank first among all officers of the Army, past and present." [397]
  19. ^ The idea of Washington "cutting down" the cherry tree is a revision of Weem's original account, where he maintains that only "barking" (removal of bark from the tree) occurred. [14]


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Military offices
New creation Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army
Succeeded by
Henry Knox
as Senior Officer of the U.S. Army
Preceded by
James Wilkinson
Senior Officer of the U.S. Army
Succeeded by
Alexander Hamilton
Political offices
New office President of the United States
Succeeded by
John Adams