George Washington: Commander, Founding Father and President
George Washington was an American military commander, statesman, and one of the founding fathers of the United States of America. He was the Commanding General of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and helped the colonies gain independence from Britain. After the success of the war, he won the election to be named the first President of the United States of America and was sworn in on April 30, 1789.
Washington would eventually serve two four-year terms as president, having been re-elected in 1792. At the end of the second term, Washington retired from political life, setting a precedent for future presidents of the United States.
Where was George Washington born?
Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Pope’s Creek, his family’s plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Most of his early years were spent at Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, where the Washington family moved in 1738, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Although we know little about Washington’s childhood, colorful stories fill in some gaps, including the famous moral tale of the “Cherry Blossom,” which is meant to demonstrate what an honest boy he was.
The story, as sketched by the Washington Library, states that a six-year-old George Washington received a hatchet as a gift and, using it, damaged his father’s cherry tree. When challenged, Washington reportedly said, “I can’t lie…I cut him with my hatchet”, after which he was praised for his honesty in the face of the punishment.
The story was dismissed as a “complete fabrication” by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Washington biographer Joseph J Ellis in “His Excellency: George Washington(Vintage, 2005), but it remains a popular fable about the General’s early life. What is known is that Washington received a limited education, focusing on his chosen career as a surveyor, and Ellis relates that his first job was on a surveying expedition in the Shenandoah Valley in 1748.
Washington’s Military Experience
Washington gained extensive experience during the French and Indian War of 1754-1763, which Ellis describes as a “crash course in soldiering”. Most notably, he served under British General Edward Braddock and witnessed a disastrous defeat at the Battle of the Monongahela in 1755. He later served as a militia officer and was praised for his effective leadership. He attempted to have his regiment integrated into the regular British Army, but was unsuccessful.
Washington became an effective commander, but he had to learn on the job, having received no formal military training. He made mistakes at the start of the Revolutionary War. Ellis claims that his decision to remain in Manhattan after the capture of Long Island by the British in 1776 was “militarily inexplicable and tactically suicidal”, but he kept his small army intact.
For years he was unable to secure the decisive large-scale victory for which he aspired, suffering defeats on Long Island (1776) and on the Brandywine outside Philadelphia (1777), but his occasional small successes scale (notably at the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776) kept morale at an acceptable level in his army. His finest hour may have been at Trenton, at the end of the campaign of 1776, when he won an important victory against an isolated outpost of Hessian soldiers (German troops engaged by the British). He is best remembered, however, for orchestrating the capture of an entire British army at Yorktown in 1781, ultimately achieving victory on a large scale.
Tragically, his younger sister Mildred died two years later and his father Augustine Washington died in 1743, when George was 11 years old.
According to Ellis, Washington began courting the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis in 1758. Martha had inherited an estate worth £30,000 (£5.7/$7.5 million with inflation according to the Bank of England) and covering 18,000 acres. Ellis thinks Washington most likely proposed to Martha in June of that year, but also thinks Washington was actually in love with another woman (Sally Fairfax, his best friend’s wife) at the same time. Nevertheless, Washington and Martha were married on January 6, 1759.
Washington is believed to have been rendered infertile by a bout of smallpox, and Martha also struggled to give birth to her daughter, Patsy, from her previous marriage and may not have been able to have more children. Whatever the reason, the couple had no children, although they raised Patsy and her older brother, John, known to the family as Jacky together. Ellis claims that Washington particularly wanted John to receive the kind of education he had missed in his youth.
Martha’s two children died relatively young: Patsy of a seizure in 1773, aged just 17, and John of a fever in 1781, aged 26. John died after the siege of Yorktown, where he served as an aide to his stepfather – his two youngest children (of seven), Eleanor and George, were later raised by the Washingtons.
Washington crossing the Delaware
Crossing the Delaware was part of Washington’s success at the Battle of Trenton and went down in history as one of his most iconic moments. Washington actually crossed the Delaware River several times, most famously on Christmas night 1776. After leading 2,400 men down the river (which was made treacherous by floating ice), he launched a surprise attack on Trenton , capturing almost the entire garrison of over 1,000 men.
Related: Why the British Were Doomed in the American Revolutionary War
The attack was a gamble. In fact, Ellis describes it as “an all-or-nothing bet”, but with the help of a little luck, the gamble paid off. Three days later, on December 29, Washington again crossed the river and won another victory, this time against British troops led by Lord Cornwallis.
Washington as President
Washington served two terms as president, being elected unanimously (the only president who can make this claim) in 1789 by the Electoral College. Four years later he was persuaded to serve a second term, although he wanted to return to his private life at Mount Vernon. His second term (beginning in 1793) coincided with the French Revolution, and Washington’s insistence that America not get involved in European disputes set the tone for American foreign policy for more than a century.
It was his intention to “keep himself and his presidency above the political fray,” Ellis wrote. “He possessed an almost uncanny ability to remain silent while everyone around him squirmed under social pressure to fill the silence with gossipy conversation.” It was something his vice president, John Adams, described as his greatest political asset.
Washington died on December 14, 1799, and was buried in the family grave at Mount Vernon three days later. The cause of death appears to have been a fever, exacerbated by being caught in a sudden downpour while out on horseback.
Refusing to change his wet clothes, as it would have made him late for dinner, he fell ill that night. Medical remedies at the time stretched little more than bloodletting and enemas, which undoubtedly did nothing to help the former president, and he died within two days.
Washington and slavery
As plantation owners in the American South, the Washington family relied on slave labor to produce their crops. This continued when George owned his own estate at Mount Vernon. He owned around 500 slaves during his lifetime, but his thinking on the subject evolved throughout his life.
Ellis claims that “he was deeply suspicious of any idealistic agenda that floated above the realities of power on the ground,” and as president he was against an emancipation plan. However, he increasingly questioned the legitimacy of the institution and, although he never went so far as to campaign for abolition, his will freed the 123 slaves he owned at the time of his death. He also insisted that anyone who had aged or suffered from any type of disability should be taken care of by his estate, while younger slaves should be educated and cared for until they were 25 years old.
If you want to know more about the life of George Washington, you might like to know whether or not he really had wooden teeth.
To learn more about the ideas that helped bring about the American Revolution, you should also read on the Clarification.