George Washington (1732-99) was commander in chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) and served two terms as the first U.S. president, from 1789 to 1797. The son of a prosperous planter, Washington was raised in colonial Virginia. As a young man, he worked as a surveyor then fought in the French and Indian War (1754-63). During the American Revolution, he led the colonial forces to victory over the British and became a national hero. In 1787, he was elected president of the convention that wrote the U.S. Constitution. Two years later, Washington became America’s first president. Realizing that the way he handled the job would impact how future presidents approached the position, he handed down a legacy of strength, integrity and national purpose. Less than three years after leaving office, he died at his Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, at age 67.
Explore George Washington's life in our interactive timeline
George Washington's Early Years
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, at his family’s plantation on Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County, in the British colony of Virginia, to Augustine Washington (1694-1743) and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington (1708-89). George, the eldest of Augustine and Mary Washington’s six children, spent much of his childhood at Ferry Farm, a plantation near Fredericksburg, Virginia. After Washington’s father died when he was 11, it’s likely he helped his mother manage the plantation.
Few details about Washington’s early education are known, although children of prosperous families like his typically were taught at home by private tutors or attended private schools. It’s believed he finished his formal schooling at around age 15.
As a teenager, Washington, who had shown an aptitude for mathematics, became a successful surveyor. His surveying expeditions into the Virginia wilderness earned him enough money to begin acquiring land of his own.
In 1751, Washington made his only trip outside of America, when he travelled to Barbados with his older half-brother Lawrence Washington (1718-52), who was suffering from tuberculosis and hoped the warm climate would help him recuperate. Shortly after their arrival, George contracted smallpox. He survived, although the illness left him with permanent facial scars. In 1752, Lawrence, who had been educated in England and served as Washington’s mentor, died. Washington eventually inherited Lawrence’s estate, Mount Vernon, on the Potomac River near Alexandria, Virginia.
An Officer and Gentleman Farmer
In December 1752, Washington, who had no previous military experience, was made a commander of the Virginia militia. He saw action in the French and Indian War and was eventually put in charge of all of Virginia’s militia forces. By 1759, Washington had resigned his commission, returned to Mount Vernon and was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, where he served until 1774. In January 1759, he married Martha Dandridge Custis (1731-1802), a wealthy widow with two children. Washington became a devoted stepfather to her children; he and Martha Washington never had any offspring of their own.
In the ensuing years, Washington expanded Mount Vernon from 2,000 acres into an 8,000-acre property with five farms. He grew a variety of crops, including wheat and corn, bred mules and maintained fruit orchards and a successful fishery. He was deeply interested in farming and continually experimented with new crops and methods of land conservation.
George Washington During the American Revolution
By the late 1760s, Washington had experienced firsthand the effects of rising taxes imposed on American colonists by the British, and came to believe that it was in the best interests of the colonists to declare independence from England. Washington served as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774 in Philadelphia. By the time the Second Continental Congress convened a year later, the American Revolution had begun in earnest, and Washington was named commander in chief of the Continental Army.
Washington proved to be a better general than military strategist. His strength lay not in his genius on the battlefield but in his ability to keep the struggling colonial army together. His troops were poorly trained and lacked food, ammunition and other supplies (soldiers sometimes even went without shoes in winter). However, Washington was able to give them the direction and motivation. His leadership during the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge was a testament to his power to inspire his men to keep going.
Over the course of the grueling eight-year war, the colonial forces won few battles but consistently held their own against the British. In October 1781, with the aid of the French (who allied themselves with the colonists over their rivals the British), the Continental forces were able to capture British troops under General Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805) in the Battle of Yorktown. This action effectively ended the Revolutionary War and Washington was declared a national hero.
America’s First President
In 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris between Great Britain and the U.S., Washington, believing he had done his duty, gave up his command of the army and returned to Mount Vernon, intent on resuming his life as a gentleman farmer and family man. However, in 1787, he was asked to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and head the committee to draft the new constitution. His impressive leadership there convinced the delegates that he was by far the most qualified man to become the nation’s first president.
At first Washington balked. He wanted to, at last, return to a quiet life at home and leave governing the new nation to others. But public opinion was so strong that eventually he gave in. The first presidential election was held on January 7, 1789, and Washington won handily. John Adams (1735-1826), who received the second-largest number of votes, became the nation’s first vice president. The 57-year-old Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, in New York City. Because Washington, D.C., America’s future capital city wasn’t yet built, he lived in New York and Philadelphia. While in office, he signed a bill establishing a future, permanent U.S. capital along the Potomac River—the city later named Washington, D.C., in his honor.
George Washington’s Accomplishments
The United States was a small nation when Washington took office, consisting of 11 states and approximately 4 million people, and there was no precedent for how the new president should conduct domestic or foreign business. Mindful that his actions would likely determine how future presidents were expected to govern, Washington worked hard to set an example of fairness, prudence and integrity. In foreign matters, he supported cordial relations with other countries but also favored a position of neutrality in foreign conflicts. Domestically, he nominated the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Jay (1745-1829), signed a bill establishing the first national bank, the Bank of the United States, and set up his own presidential cabinet.
His two most prominent cabinet appointees were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), two men who disagreed strongly on the role of the federal government. Hamilton favored a strong central government and was part of the Federalist Party, while Jefferson favored stronger states’ rights as part of the Democratic-Republican Party, the forerunner to the Democratic Party. Washington believed that divergent views were critical for the health of the new government, but he was distressed at what he saw as an emerging partisanship.
George Washington’s presidency was marked by a series of firsts. He signed the first United States copyright law, protecting the copyrights of authors. He also signed the first Thanksgiving proclamation, making November 26 a national day of Thanksgiving for the end of the war for American independence and the successful ratification of the Constitution.
During Washington’s presidency, Congress passed the first federal revenue law, a tax on distilled spirits. In July 1794, farmers in Western Pennsylvania rebelled over the so-called “whiskey tax.” Washington called in over 12,000 militiamen to Pennsylvania to dissolve the Whiskey Rebellion in one of the first major tests of the authority of the national government.
Under Washington’s leadership, the states ratified the Bill of Rights, and five new states entered the union: North Carolina (1789), Rhode Island (1790), Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792) and Tennessee (1796).
In his second term, Washington issued the proclamation of neutrality to avoid entering the 1793 war between Great Britain and France. But when French minister to the United States Edmond Charles Genet—known to history as “Citizen Genet”—toured the United States, he boldly flaunted the proclamation, attempting to set up American ports as French military bases and gain support for his cause in the Western United States. His meddling caused a stir between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, widening the rift between parties and making consensus-building more difficult.
In 1795, Washington signed the “Treaty of Amity Commerce and Navigation, between His Britannic Majesty; and The United States of America,” or Jay’s Treaty, so-named for John Jay, who had negotiated it with the government of King George III. It helped the U.S. avoid war with Great Britain, but also rankled certain members of Congress back home and was fiercely opposed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Internationally, it caused a stir among the French, who believed it violated previous treaties between the United States and France.
Washington’s administration signed two other influential international treaties. Pinckney’s Treaty of 1795, also known as the Treaty of San Lorenzo, established friendly relations between the United States and Spain, firming up borders between the U.S. and Spanish territories in North America and opening up the Mississippi to American traders. The Treaty of Tripoli, signed the following year, gave American ships access to Mediterranean shipping lanes in exchange for a yearly tribute to the Pasha of Tripoli.
George Washington’s Retirement to Mount Vernon and Death
In 1796, after two terms as president and declining to serve a third term, Washington finally retired. In Washington’s farewell address, he urged the new nation to maintain the highest standards domestically and to keep involvement with foreign powers to a minimum. The address is still read each February in the U.S. Senate to commemorate Washington’s birthday.
Washington returned to Mount Vernon and devoted his attentions to making the plantation as productive as it had been before he became president. More than four decades of public service had aged him, but he was still a commanding figure. In December 1799, he caught a cold after inspecting his properties in the rain. The cold developed into a throat infection and Washington died on the night of December 14, 1799 at the age of 67. He was entombed at Mount Vernon, which in 1960 was designated a national historic landmark.
Washington left one of the most enduring legacies of any American in history. Known as the “Father of His Country,” his face appears on the U.S. dollar bill and quarter, and dozens of U.S. schools, towns and counties, as well as the state of Washington and the nation’s capital city, are named for him.
George Washington: Facts, Revolution and Presidency - HISTORY
Please note: The audio information from the video is included in the text below.
Portrait of George Washington
Author: Gilbert Stuart
George Washington was the First President of the United States.
Served as President: 1789-1797
Vice President: John Adams
Age at inauguration: 57
Born: February 22, 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia
Died: December 14, 1799 in Mount Vernon, Virginia
Married: Martha Dandridge Washington
Children: none (2 stepchildren)
Nickname: Father of His Country
What is George Washington most known for?
One of the most popular Presidents of the United States, George Washington is known for leading the Continental Army in victory over the British in the American Revolution. He also was the first President of the United States and helped to define what the role of the president would be going forward.
Crossing the Delaware River by Emanuel Leutze
George grew up in Colonial Virginia. His father, a landowner and planter, died when George was just 11 years old. Fortunately, George had an older brother named Lawrence who took good care of him. Lawrence helped to raise George and taught him how to be a gentleman. Lawrence made sure that he was educated in the basic subjects like reading and math.
When George turned 16 he went to work as a surveyor, where he took measurements of new lands, mapping them out in detail. A few years later George became a leader with the Virginia militia and became involved in the start of the French and Indian War. At one point during the war, he narrowly escaped death when his horse was shot out from under him.
Before the Revolution
After the French and Indian War George settled down and married the widow Martha Dandridge Custis. He took over the estate of Mount Vernon after his brother Lawrence died and raised Martha's two children from her former marriage. George and Martha never had kids of their own. George became a large landowner and was elected to the Virginian legislature.
Soon George and his fellow landowners became upset with unfair treatment by their British rulers. They began to argue and fight for their rights. When the British refused they decided to go to war.
Mount Vernon was where George and Martha Washington lived
for several years. It was located in Virginia on the Potomac River.
Source: National Parks Service
The American Revolution and Leading the Army
George was one of Virginia's delegates at the First and Second Continental Congress. This was a group of representatives from each colony who decided to fight the British together. In May of 1775 they appointed Washington as general of the Continental Army.
General Washington did not have an easy task. He had a ragtag army of colonial farmers to fight trained British soldiers. However, he managed to hold the army together even during tough times and losing battles. Over the course of six years George led the army to victory over the British. His victories include the famous crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas and the final victory at Yorktown, Virginia. The British Army surrendered in Yorktown on October 17, 1781.
The two terms that Washington served as president were peaceful times. During this time, George established many roles and traditions of the President of the United States that still stand today. He helped build and guide the formation of the actual US Government from the words of the Constitution. He formed the first presidential cabinet which included his friends Thomas Jefferson (Secretary of State) and Alexander Hamilton (Secretary of the Treasury).
George stepped down from the presidency after 8 years, or two terms. He felt it was important that the president not become powerful or rule too long, like a king. Since then only one president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, has served more than two terms.
The Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Ducksters
Just a few years after leaving the office of president, Washington caught a bad cold. He was soon very sick with a throat infection and died on December 14, 1799.
Military Action in the French and Indian War
In 1754, at the age of 21, Washington led the skirmish at Jumonville Glen, and at the Battle of Great Meadows, after which he surrendered to the French at Fort Necessity. It was the only time he surrendered to an enemy in battle. The losses contributed to the start of the French and Indian War, which took place from 1756 to 1763.
During the war, Washington became aide-de-camp to General Edward Braddock. Braddock was killed during the war, and Washington was recognized for keeping calm and holding the unit together.
The French and Indian War
George Washington was at the center of the French and Indian War. The French had begun to try to expand.
When this began to happen Washington was sent by Governor Dinwiddie to give a message to the French Commander that showed British claims of the land that the French were expanding into.
Along the way, he became friends with Tanacharison, an influential Indian leader, and tried to secure an alliance in case War was to break out.
The French would politely refuse to leave which resulted in General Dinwiddle sending Washington back on a 2nd trip to help support an Ohio Company that was building Fort Duquesne near modern-day Pittsburgh.
A small French detachment would be discovered by Tanacharison and Washington would attack them by surprise. The attack left Jumonville dead. The French retaliated by attacking and capturing Washington at Fort Necessity.
He would be allowed to return with his force. These events had international consequences and resulted in the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War.
Washington was with General Edward Braddock when the French ambushed them at Battle of the Monongahela. The ambush was a disaster for the British.
General Braddock was mortally wounded and the British were never able to get their bearings enough to fight back. Washington bravely rode up and down the battlefield rallying the British and Virginia troops to an organized retreat.
In 1755 Governor Dinwiddle promoted Washington to&rdquo Colonel of the Virginia Regiment and Commander-in-Chief of all forces raised in His Majesty&rsquos Colony.&rdquo
This was the first full-time military unit in the American colonies. Washington was charged with protecting the frontier. He fought 20 battles in which he lost one-third of his men.
He successfully defended the frontier and Virginia took fewer casualties than any of the other colonies during the war.
Colonel Washington would take part in the Forbes Expedition and then retired from the military afterward
He learned British tactics, logistics, and strategy. Although he was never granted a British commission that he wanted this experience would set up him to lead the Continental Army later in his life.
10 Facts about Washington and the Revolutionary War
Despite having little experience in commanding large, conventional military forces, Washington’s strong leadership presence and fortitude held the American military together long enough to secure victory at Yorktown and independence for his new nation.
1. Washington was appointed commander of the Continental Army on June 14, 1775
On June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress, responding to the growing crisis near Boston, directed that one of its own constituents &ndash George Washington &ndash take command of the newly designated Continental Army. Not only did Washington have the most military experience amongst the Congressional delegates, but as John Adams pointed out there were also great political advantages in having a someone outside of New England take command of a military force that was congregated around Boston and largely made up of New Englanders.
Arriving shortly after the conclusion of the Battle of Bunker Hill, Washington moved swiftly to assume command of the ragtag forces surrounding besieging the British garrison within the city of Boston. What Washington did not realize at the time was that it would be six long years of battle, marching, siege, crises, and winter encampments before Washington had an opportunity to return to his beloved Mount Vernon. In September 1781, as the combined American and French forces made their way down to Yorktown, Virginia, Washington was able to make a brief visit to his home along the Potomac River. During this visit, Washington and Rochambeau refined their plan for defeating Charles Cornwallis&rsquo forces trapped on the York Peninsula.
2. Prior to his appointment as head of the Continental Army, Washington had never commanded a large army in the field
George Washington was but one of only a handful of candidates considered by the Second Continental Congress who possessed any significant military experience. But by European standards Washington&rsquos experience in commanding large conventional armies was non-existent. Leading up to the French & Indian War, Washington had ably commanded the Virginia Regiment, but this provincial military unit never had more than 2,000 men in its ranks. In 1754 Washington commanded roughly 100 regulars and 300 militia at the ill-fated Battle of Fort Necessity.
Despite this seeming lack of experience in managing large army formations, Washington brought a number of strengths to his new position as commander of the Continental Army. Washington had learned many important command principles from the British regular officers that he marched with during the French & Indian War and British army manuals that he studied. He also witnessed, firsthand, how vulnerable British formations could be in the rough, timbered frontier land that predominated in North America. His verve, impressive physical presence, and command instincts helped to hold together an ill-equipped force that outlasted his more experienced opponents. And as Benjamin Franklin would famously state, &ldquo[a]n American planter, who had never seen Europe, was chosen by us to Command our Troops, and continued during the whole War. This man sent home to you, one after another, five of your best generals, baffled, their Heads bare of Laurels, disgraced even in the Opinion of their Employers.&rdquo
So much for conventional experience.
3. Washington and the Continental army narrowly escaped total destruction in the New York campaign of 1776
Unlike the successful Siege of Boston, the efforts to defend the city of New York ended in near disaster for the Continental Army and the cause of independence. In what proved to be the largest battle of the Revolutionary War in terms of total combatants, Washington&rsquos forces on August 22, 1776, were flanked out of their positions atop the Gowanus Heights (part of today&rsquos modern Brooklyn) and soundly defeated by William Howe's roughly 20,000 man force on Long Island.
Confronted by a powerful British army to his front and the East River to his back, Washington rapidly formulated a risky plan to save his threatened army atop Brooklyn Heights. With the constant threat that the Royal Navy would enter the East River and block his avenue of retreat, Washington ordered that all available flatboats be brought down to his position so that the army could be moved to nearby Manhattan on the night of August 29-30, 1776. Aided by a providential fog that hid the evacuation, Washington was able to successfully move all 9,000 of his troops to Manhattan without losing a man &ndash a remarkable military feat that astounded his British enemy.
As the New York campaign progressed, Washington&rsquos forces were subsequently defeated at the Battle of White Plains on October 28, 1776, and later at Fort Washington on November 16, 1776. The debacle at Fort Washington cost the Americans 59 killed and another 2,837 captured. Chased from New York, Washington&rsquos fractured and demoralized army retreated all the way across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.
It was during these dark days at the close of 1776 that Thomas Paine&rsquos words from the recently published American Crisis rang most true - &ldquoThese are the times that try men&rsquos souls&hellipthe summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.&rdquo
4. Washington crossed the Delaware River twice in December 1776
Washington&rsquos great triumph against the Hessian forces at Trenton on December 26, 1776, is one of the best-known episodes of the Revolutionary War. (Map: Battle of Trenton) Fearing a counterattack by British regulars, Washington hustled his tired warriors and frozen Hessian captives back to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.
Would this single victory over a Hessian garrison be enough to sustain the morale and inspiration of the beleaguered Patriot cause? Encouraged by reports of the enemies&rsquo general confusion in New Jersey and a successful campaign to extend the enlistments of many soldiers ready in his ranks, Washington decided to seize the initiative once more. Determined to expand upon his initial success Washington shuttled his army and artillery back across the frozen Delaware on December 30, 1776, and into a strong position along the Assunpink Creek outside of Trenton. It was here that Washington awaited the arrival of Gen. Charles Cornwallis&rsquo force of 8,000 Redcoats and Hessians.
Disdaining any complicated maneuvers, a confident Cornwallis ordered three successive frontal assaults on January 2, 1777, by his Hessian grenadiers and British Regulars. Each attack across the narrow Assunpink bridges and fords was driven back with heavy loss of life. The casualties were so heavy that one soldier remarked that the bridge to his front &ldquolooked red as blood, with their killed and wounded and their red coats.&rdquo (Map: Battle of Second Trenton)
With the rapid onset of an early winter&rsquos eve, Cornwallis ordered a cessation of offensive actions. Certain of a victory the following day, the British general boasted that &ldquowe've got the old fox safe now. We'll go over and bag him in the morning." Unfortunately for Cornwallis, the morning sun that illuminated the empty American camps proved that the &ldquoold fox&rdquo was gone. Washington during the night had stolen a march and had marched his army north to Princeton where the Americans proved victorious once more on January 3, 1777 (Map: Battle of Princeton).
The victories at Trenton and Princeton, not only helped to bolster the morale of the American army and encourage recruitment, but these bold actions also greatly impressed the French who were actively weighing their involvement in the war.
5. Washington&rsquos smallpox inoculation program was one of his best decisions of the war
Up until modern times, disease, not bullets, bayonets, or cannon fire, had been the great killer of soldiers in all armies. In 1775, smallpox had so devastated the American army in Canada that John Adams bemoaned that &ldquo&hellipsmallpox is ten times more terrible than the British, Canadians and Indians together.&rdquo
Having survived his own bout with smallpox in 1751, Washington was altogether familiar with how disease could rob the cause of a viable army. Not only would smallpox kill off soldiers in the ranks, but the threat of infection also scared away many of the recruits that Washington&rsquos army depended upon.
Starting during the winter of 1777 in Morristown, New Jersey, Washington took the bold and controversial move to have soldiers in his army inoculated against smallpox infection using a technique called variolation. Later during the winter encampment at Valley Forge, Washington went even further, demanding that his entire army be inoculated &ndash an action that required great secrecy since inoculated soldiers were incapacitated for a period of time. By some reports, death by smallpox in the ranks dropped from 17% of all deaths to a low of 1% of all reported deaths &ndash a tremendous reduction.
Historian Elizabeth Fenn, author of Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782, claims that &ldquoWashington's unheralded and little-recognized resolution to inoculate the Continental forces must surely rank with the most important decisions of the war&hellip"
6. Supply issues became one of Washington&rsquos greatest challenges
One of the oldest of military adages is that amateurs study tactics while professional warriors study logistics. As with all military campaigns, providing for the vast material needs of an army in the field requires a focus on organization and effective supply management. Unfortunately for Washington and the Continental Army, a poor supply chain became a chronic issue that negatively impacted combat effectiveness. Biographer Ron Chernow states that &ldquo[s]eldom in history has a general been handicapped by such constantly crippling conditions&hellipHe repeatedly had to exhort Congress and the thirteen states to remedy desperate shortages of men, shoes, shirts, blankets, and gunpowder. This meant dealing with selfish, apathetic states and bureaucratic incompetence in Congress. He labored under a terrible strain that would have destroyed a lesser man.&rdquo
Nowhere were supply troubles more evident and onerous than during the Valley Forge winter encampment of 1777-1778. Rather than snow and frigid temperatures, it was actually the rainy, temperate weather at Valley Forge that turned the surrounding roads to mud, further hindering an already tenuous supply network.
Local farmers were more likely to send their foodstuffs and supplies to the nearby British who had hard currency to offer in return. The Continental Army, by comparison, could only offer payment in greatly devalued paper currency or through IOUs. Washington became so concerned over the poor state of supply that he appointed Gen. Nathanael Greene as his new quartermaster. Greene, who was initially concerned about taking this thankless job, overhauled the inefficient supply system and greatly improved the state of the Continental Army through his efforts.
7. Mount Vernon escaped destruction in 1781, but the method used to gain its security alarmed Washington
In April of 1781, the British sloop of war HMS Savage anchored menacingly in the Potomac River near George Washington&rsquos plantation home at Mount Vernon. The Savage, under the command of Captain Thomas Graves, had been raiding up and down the Potomac and now demanded that the General&rsquos estate provide the sloop with &ldquoa large supply of provisions.&rdquo If the order to provide supplies was actively resisted, Mount Vernon was likely to have been put to the torch as other nearby plantation homes had been.
While the Savage was anchored close to shore, seventeen intrepid Mount Vernon slaves made their way down to the ship and gained their freedom as they arrived on the warship&rsquos deck. Lund Washington, George Washington&rsquos distant cousin and estate manager, first thought to resist this ultimatum per his master&rsquos instruction, but later agreed to provide sheep, hogs, and &ldquoan abundant supply of other articles&rdquo to the Savage, partially in an attempt to win back the escaped slaves. Captain Graves gladly accepted the supplies, spared the plantation, and refused to return the slaves.
Washington, once he learned of Lund&rsquos decision to provide supplies to the enemy, was incensed. From his headquarters in New Windsor, New York, he wrote Lund and dismissed any significant concern over the escaped slaves, but noted that &ldquoIt would have been a less painful circumstance to me, to have heard, that in consequence of your non-compliance with [the HMS Savage&rsquos request], they had burnt my House, and laid the Plantation in ruins.&rdquo
8. Prior to its decisive victory at Yorktown, the American military teetered upon total collapse
Years of rampant military spending, economic mismanagement, and hyperinflation fueled by a successful British campaign to flood the colonies with counterfeit paper money had left the American financial coffers bare. Washington, in a letter to John Laurens in France, declared in January 1781 that he could not even pay the teamsters that were required to bring supplies to his troops. A gloomy and frustrated Washington admitted that &ldquowe are at the end of our tether, and that now or never our deliverance must come.&rdquo French setbacks in Rhode Island, news of British successes in the Southern theater, and intelligence reports indicating a possible French exit in 1781 all added to the sense of impending defeat.
In late May 1781 Washington&rsquos situation and the fate of the American cause began to rapidly improve. Comte de Rochambeau, the commander of the French troops in America, informed Washington that France had made a 6,000,000 livre gift to the Continental Army. But it was the news that Rochambeau did not initially share with Washington that made an even bigger impact. The French fleet, now operating in strength in North American waters, had been secretly directed to the Chesapeake and a real opportunity to defeat Cornwallis&rsquo force now existed. Washington, who had been stubbornly fixated on attacking the British base at New York City, rallied to Rochambeau&rsquos plan and moved his army south to Virginia. On September 5, 1781, the French fleet under the command of Admiral de Grasse drove off the British fleet sent to relieve Cornwallis. The trap was now set. The siege of Yorktown began on September 28, 1781, and ended with a Franco-American victory on October 19, 1781 &ndash the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War.
9. Washington deftly put down a growing military rebellion
Despite having achieved a decisive victory at the Battle of Yorktown in October of 1781, threats to the Patriotic cause continued. In March of 1783, a growing number of American military officers, discouraged by lack of regular pay and ongoing financial support, began to openly discuss options that included a wanton disbandment of the army or possibly even a military show of force pointed directly at Congress.
Washington, who learned of the &ldquoNewburgh Conspiracy&rdquo through a printed camp circular, appeared at a March 15, 1783 meeting and challenged the gathered group of officers. &ldquoMy God! What can this writer have in view, by recommending such measures! Can he be a friend to the army? Can he be a friend to this country? Rather is he not an insidious foe?&rdquo Towards the end of his address, Washington reached into his pocket to retrieve a pair of spectacles and in a theatrical gesture remarked that &ldquo&hellipI have not only grown gray, but almost blind in service to my country.&rdquo This display of self-sacrifice from their longstanding leader deeply affected many of the officers who in turn abandoned their treasonous thoughts and returned the obvious affection of their leader.
10. Washington&rsquos greatest display of power was his surrender of power
On December 23, 1783, Washington strode into the statehouse at Annapolis, Maryland and surrendered his military commission to a grateful Congress. In front of the gathered congressmen, Washington declared, &ldquoHaving now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action&mdashand bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.&rdquo
History is filled with example after example of military commanders seizing political power during times of revolution &ndash Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mao Zedong, and Muammar Gaddaffi are just some of the better-known examples. We take it for granted today that the United States Armed Forces are subordinated to civilian rule, but in the 18th century, it was far from certain that any general would simply surrender power to a civilian authority. But for George Washington, civilian control of the military was a core part of his beliefs. Washington&rsquos resignation signaled to the world and the American people that this new nation would be founded on different principles.
A More Perfect Union
Watch our animated video presentation about George Washington and forming the U.S. Constitution.
The Yorktown Campaign
Learn more about Washington's 1781 victory at the Battle of Yorktown.
The Winter Patriots
Learn why Washington's crossing of the Delaware River was just the beginning of a glorious campaign against the British.
Little is known about Washington&aposs childhood, which fostered many of the fables later biographers manufactured to fill in the gap. Among these are the stories that Washington threw a silver dollar across the Potomac and after chopping down his father&aposs prize cherry tree, he openly confessed to the crime.
It is known that from age seven to 15, Washington was home-schooled and studied with the local church sexton and later a schoolmaster in practical math, geography, Latin and the English classics.
But much of the knowledge he would use the rest of his life was through his acquaintance with woodsmen and the plantation foreman. By his early teens, he had mastered growing tobacco, stock raising and surveying.
Washington’s father died when he was 11 and he became the ward of his half-brother, Lawrence, who gave him a good upbringing. Lawrence had inherited the family&aposs Little Hunting Creek Plantation and married Anne Fairfax, the daughter of Colonel William Fairfax, patriarch of the well-to-do Fairfax family. Under her tutelage, Washington was schooled in the finer aspects of colonial culture.
In 1748, when he was 16, Washington traveled with a surveying party plotting land in Virginia’s western territory. The following year, aided by Lord Fairfax, Washington received an appointment as the official surveyor of Culpeper County.
For two years he was very busy surveying the land in Culpeper, Frederick and Augusta counties. The experience made him resourceful and toughened his body and mind. It also piqued his interest in western land holdings, an interest that endured throughout his life with speculative land purchases and a belief that the future of the nation lay in colonizing the West.
In July 1752, Washington&aposs brother, Lawrence, died of tuberculosis, making him the heir apparent of the Washington lands. Lawrence’s only child, Sarah, died two months later and Washington became the head of one of Virginia&aposs most prominent estates, Mount Vernon. He was 20 years old.
Throughout his life, he would hold farming as one of the most honorable professions and he was most proud of Mount Vernon. Washington would gradually increase his landholdings there to about 8,000 acres
6. Washington bought human teeth from African Americans
Deep within one of Washington&rsquos account books is an entry which details Washington&rsquos purchase of nine teeth from &ldquoNegroes&rdquo for 122 shillings. Whether the teeth provided by the Mount Vernon enslaved persons were simply being sold to dentist Dr. Jean-Pierre Le Mayeur or whether they were intended for George Washington, is unknown at this time. Since Washington paid for the teeth it suggests that they were either for his own use or for someone in his family. It is important to note that while Washington paid these enslaved people for their teeth it does not mean they had a real option to refuse his request.
Prerevolutionary military and political career of George Washington
Traditions of John Washington’s feats as Indian fighter and Lawrence Washington’s talk of service days helped imbue George with military ambition. Just after Lawrence’s death, Lieut. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie appointed George adjutant for the southern district of Virginia at £100 a year (November 1752). In 1753 he became adjutant of the Northern Neck and Eastern Shore. Later that year, Dinwiddie found it necessary to warn the French to desist from their encroachments on Ohio Valley lands claimed by the crown. After sending one messenger who failed to reach the goal, he determined to dispatch Washington. On the day he received his orders, October 31, 1753, Washington set out for the French posts. His party consisted of a Dutchman to serve as interpreter, the expert scout Christopher Gist as guide, and four others, two of them experienced traders with the Indians. Theoretically, Great Britain and France were at peace. Actually, war impended, and Dinwiddie’s message was an ultimatum: the French must get out or be put out.
The journey proved rough, perilous, and futile. Washington’s party left what is now Cumberland, Maryland, in the middle of November and, despite wintry weather and impediments of the wilderness, reached Fort LeBoeuf, at what is now Waterford, Pennsylvania, 20 miles (32 km) south of Lake Erie, without delay. The French commander was courteous but adamant. As Washington reported, his officers “told me, That it was their absolute Design to take possession of the Ohio, and by God they would do it.” Eager to carry this alarming news back, Washington pushed off hurriedly with Gist. He was lucky to have gotten back alive. An Indian fired at them at 15 paces but missed. When they crossed the Allegheny River on a raft, Washington was jerked into the ice-filled stream but saved himself by catching one of the timbers. That night he almost froze in his wet clothing. He reached Williamsburg, Virginia, on January 16, 1754, where he hastily penned a record of the journey. Dinwiddie, who was labouring to convince the crown of the seriousness of the French threat, had it printed, and when he sent it to London, it was reprinted in three different forms.
The enterprising governor forthwith planned an expedition to hold the Ohio country. He made Joshua Fry colonel of a provincial regiment, appointed Washington lieutenant colonel, and set them to recruiting troops. Two agents of the Ohio Company, which Lawrence Washington and others had formed to develop lands on the upper Potomac and Ohio rivers, had begun building a fort at what later became Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dinwiddie, ready to launch into his own war, sent Washington with two companies to reinforce this post. In April 1754 the lieutenant colonel set out from Alexandria with about 160 men at his back. He marched to Cumberland only to learn that the French had anticipated the British blow they had taken possession of the fort of the Ohio Company and had renamed it Fort Duquesne. Happily, the Indians of the area offered support. Washington therefore struggled cautiously forward to within about 40 miles (60 km) of the French position and erected his own post at Great Meadows, near what is now Confluence, Pennsylvania. From this base, he made a surprise attack (May 28, 1754) upon an advance detachment of 30 French, killing the commander, Coulon de Jumonville, and nine others and taking the rest prisoners. The French and Indian War had begun.
Washington at once received promotion to a full colonelcy and was reinforced, commanding a considerable body of Virginia and North Carolina troops, with Indian auxiliaries. But his attack soon brought the whole French force down upon him. They drove his 350 men into the Great Meadows fort ( Fort Necessity) on July 3, besieged it with 700 men, and, after an all-day fight, compelled him to surrender. The construction of the fort had been a blunder, for it lay in a waterlogged creek bottom, was commanded on three sides by forested elevations approaching it closely, and was too far from Washington’s supports. The French agreed to let the disarmed colonials march back to Virginia with the honours of war, but they compelled Washington to promise that Virginia would not build another fort on the Ohio for a year and to sign a paper acknowledging responsibility for “l’assassinat” of de Jumonville, a word that Washington later explained he did not rightly understand. He returned to Virginia, chagrined but proud, to receive the thanks of the House of Burgesses and to find that his name had been mentioned in the London gazettes. His remark in a letter to his brother that “I have heard the bullets whistle and believe me, there is something charming in the sound” was commented on humorously by the author Horace Walpole and sarcastically by King George II.
The arrival of Gen. Edward Braddock and his army in Virginia in February 1755, as part of the triple plan of campaign that called for his advance on Fort Duquesne and in New York Gov. William Shirley’s capture of Fort Niagara and Sir William Johnson’s capture of Crown Point, brought Washington new opportunities and responsibilities. He had resigned his commission in October 1754 in resentment of the slighting treatment and underpayment of colonial officers and particularly because of an untactful order of the British war office that provincial officers of whatever rank would be subordinate to any officer holding the king’s commission. But he ardently desired a part in the war “my inclinations,” he wrote a friend, “are strongly bent to arms.” When Braddock showed appreciation of his merits and invited him to join the expedition as personal aide-de-camp, with the courtesy title of colonel, he therefore accepted. His self-reliance, decision, and masterfulness soon became apparent.
At table he had frequent disputes with Braddock, who, when contractors failed to deliver their supplies, attacked the colonials as supine and dishonest while Washington defended them warmly. His freedom of utterance is proof of Braddock’s esteem. Braddock accepted Washington’s unwise advice that he divide his army, leaving half of it to come up with the slow wagons and cattle train and taking the other half forward against Fort Duquesne at a rapid pace. Washington was ill with fever during June but joined the advance guard in a covered wagon on July 8, begged to lead the march on Fort Duquesne with his Virginians and Indian allies, and was by Braddock’s side when on July 9 the army was ambushed and bloodily defeated.
In this defeat Washington displayed the combination of coolness and determination, the alliance of unconquerable energy with complete poise, that was the secret of so many of his successes. So ill that he had to use a pillow instead of a saddle and that Braddock ordered his body servant to keep special watch over him, Washington was, nevertheless, everywhere at once. At first he followed Braddock as the general bravely tried to rally his men to push either forward or backward, the wisest course the circumstances permitted. Then he rode back to bring up the Virginians from the rear and rallied them with effect on the flank. To him was largely due the escape of the force. His exposure of his person was as reckless as Braddock’s, who was fatally wounded on his fifth horse Washington had two horses shot out from under him and his clothes cut by four bullets without being hurt. He was at Braddock’s deathbed, helped bring the troops back, and was repaid by being appointed, in August 1755, while still only 23 years old, commander of all Virginia troops.
But no part of his later service was conspicuous. Finding that a Maryland captain who held a royal commission would not obey him, he rode north in February 1756 to Boston to have the question settled by the commander in chief in America, Governor Shirley, and, bearing a letter from Dinwiddie, had no difficulty in carrying his point. On his return he plunged into a multitude of vexations. He had to protect a weak, thinly settled frontier nearly 400 miles (650 km) in length with only some 700 ill-disciplined colonial troops, to cope with a legislature unwilling to support him, to meet attacks on the drunkenness and inefficiency of the soldiers, and to endure constant wilderness hardships. It is not strange that in 1757 his health failed and in the closing weeks of that year he was so ill of a “bloody flux” (dysentery) that his physician ordered him home to Mount Vernon.
In the spring of 1758 he had recovered sufficiently to return to duty as colonel in command of all Virginia troops. As part of the grand sweep of several armies organized by British statesman William Pitt the Elder, Gen. John Forbes led a new advance upon Fort Duquesne. Forbes resolved not to use Braddock’s road but to cut a new one west from Raystown, Pennsylvania. Washington disapproved of the route but played an important part in the movement. Late in the autumn the French evacuated and burned Fort Duquesne, and Forbes reared Fort Pitt on the site. Washington, who had just been elected to the House of Burgesses, was able to resign with the honorary rank of brigadier general.
Although his officers expressed regret at the “loss of such an excellent Commander, such a sincere Friend, and so affable a Companion,” he quit the service with a sense of frustration. He had thought the war excessively slow. The Virginia legislature had been niggardly in voting money the Virginia recruits had come forward reluctantly and had proved of poor quality—Washington had hanged a few deserters and flogged others heavily. Virginia gave him less pay than other colonies offered their troops. Desiring a regular commission such as his half brother Lawrence had held, he applied in vain to the British commander in North America, Lord Loudoun, to make good a promise that Braddock had given him. Ambitious for both rank and honour, he showed a somewhat strident vigour in asserting his desires and in complaining when they were denied. He returned to Mount Vernon somewhat disillusioned.
Revolutionary leadership of George Washington
The choice of Washington as commander in chief of the military forces of all the colonies followed immediately upon the first fighting, though it was by no means inevitable and was the product of partly artificial forces. The Virginia delegates differed upon his appointment. Edmund Pendleton was, according to John Adams, “very full and clear against it,” and Washington himself recommended Gen. Andrew Lewis for the post. It was chiefly the fruit of a political bargain by which New England offered Virginia the chief command as its price for the adoption and support of the New England army. This army had gathered hastily and in force about Boston immediately after the clash of British troops and American minutemen at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. When the second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on May 10, one of its first tasks was to find a permanent leadership for this force. On June 15, Washington, whose military counsel had already proved invaluable on two committees, was nominated and chosen by unanimous vote. Beyond the considerations noted, he owed being chosen to the facts that Virginia stood with Massachusetts as one of the most powerful colonies that his appointment would augment the zeal of the Southern people that he had gained an enduring reputation in the Braddock campaign and that his poise, sense, and resolution had impressed all the delegates. The scene of his election, with Washington darting modestly into an adjoining room and John Hancock flushing with jealous mortification, will always impress the historical imagination so also will the scene of July 3, 1775, when, wheeling his horse under an elm in front of the troops paraded on Cambridge common, he drew his sword and took command of the army investing Boston. News of Bunker Hill had reached him before he was a day’s journey from Philadelphia, and he had expressed confidence of victory when told how the militia had fought. In accepting the command, he refused any payment beyond his expenses and called upon “every gentleman in the room” to bear witness that he disclaimed fitness for it. At once he showed characteristic decision and energy in organizing the raw volunteers, collecting provisions and munitions, and rallying Congress and the colonies to his support.
The first phase of Washington’s command covered the period from July 1775 to the British evacuation of Boston in March 1776. In those eight months he imparted discipline to the army, which at maximum strength slightly exceeded 20,000 he dealt with subordinates who, as John Adams said, quarrelled “like cats and dogs” and he kept the siege vigorously alive. Having himself planned an invasion of Canada by Lake Champlain, to be entrusted to Gen. Philip Schuyler, he heartily approved of Benedict Arnold’s proposal to march north along the Kennebec River in Maine and take Quebec. Giving Arnold 1,100 men, he instructed him to do everything possible to conciliate the Canadians. He was equally active in encouraging privateers to attack British commerce. As fast as means offered, he strengthened his army with ammunition and siege guns, having heavy artillery brought from Fort Ticonderoga, New York, over the frozen roads early in 1776. His position was at first precarious, for the Charles River pierced the centre of his lines investing Boston. If the British general, Sir William Howe, had moved his 20 veteran regiments boldly up the stream, he might have pierced Washington’s army and rolled either wing back to destruction. But all the generalship was on Washington’s side. Seeing that Dorchester Heights, just south of Boston, commanded the city and harbour and that Howe had unaccountably failed to occupy it, he seized it on the night of March 4, 1776, placing his Ticonderoga guns in position. The British naval commander declared that he could not remain if the Americans were not dislodged, and Howe, after a storm disrupted his plans for an assault, evacuated the city on March 17. He left 200 cannons and invaluable stores of small arms and munitions. After collecting his booty, Washington hurried south to take up the defense of New York.
Washington had won the first round, but there remained five years of the war, during which the American cause was repeatedly near complete disaster. It is unquestionable that Washington’s strength of character, his ability to hold the confidence of army and people and to diffuse his own courage among them, his unremitting activity, and his strong common sense constituted the chief factors in achieving American victory. He was not a great tactician: as Jefferson said later, he often “failed in the field” he was sometimes guilty of grave military blunders, the chief being his assumption of a position on Long Island, New York, in 1776 that exposed his entire army to capture the moment it was defeated. At the outset he was painfully inexperienced, the wilderness fighting of the French war having done nothing to teach him the strategy of maneuvering whole armies. One of his chief faults was his tendency to subordinate his own judgment to that of the generals surrounding him at every critical juncture, before Boston, before New York, before Philadelphia, and in New Jersey, he called a council of war and in almost every instance accepted its decision. Naturally bold and dashing—as he proved at Trenton and Princeton, as well as at Germantown—he repeatedly adopted evasive and delaying tactics on the advice of his associates however, he did succeed in keeping a strong army in existence and maintaining the flame of national spirit. When the auspicious moment arrived, he planned the rapid movements that ended the war.
One element of Washington’s strength was his sternness as a disciplinarian. The army was continually dwindling and refilling, politics largely governed the selection of officers by Congress and the states, and the ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-paid forces were often half-prostrated by sickness and ripe for mutiny. Troops from each of the three sections, New England, the middle states, and the South, showed a deplorable jealousy of the others. Washington was rigorous in breaking cowardly, inefficient, and dishonest men and boasted in front of Boston that he had “made a pretty good sort of slam among such kind of officers.” Deserters and plunderers were flogged, and Washington once erected a gallows 40 feet (12 metres) high, writing, “I am determined if I can be justified in the proceeding, to hang two or three on it, as an example to others.” At the same time, the commander in chief won the devotion of many of his men by his earnestness in demanding better treatment for them from Congress. He complained of their short rations, declaring once that they were forced to “eat every kind of horse food but hay.”
The darkest chapter in Washington’s military leadership was opened when, reaching New York in April 1776, he placed half his army, about 9,000 men, under Israel Putnam, on the perilous position of Brooklyn Heights, Long Island, where a British fleet in the East River might cut off their retreat. He spent a fortnight in May with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, then discussing the question of independence though no record of his utterances exists, there can be no doubt that he advocated complete separation. His return to New York preceded but slightly the arrival of the British army under Howe, which made its main encampment on Staten Island until its whole strength of nearly 30,000 could be mobilized. On August 22, 1776, Howe moved about 20,000 men across to Gravesend Bay on Long Island. Four days later, sending the fleet under command of his brother Adm. Richard Howe to make a feint against New York City, he thrust a crushing force along feebly protected roads against the American flank. The patriots were outmaneuvered, defeated, and suffered a total loss of 5,000 men, of whom 2,000 were captured. Their whole position might have been carried by storm, but, fortunately for Washington, General Howe delayed. While the enemy lingered, Washington succeeded under cover of a dense fog in ferrying the remaining force across the East River to Manhattan, where he took up a fortified position. The British, suddenly landing on the lower part of the island, drove back the Americans in a clash marked by disgraceful cowardice on the part of troops from Connecticut and others. In a series of actions, Washington was forced northward, more than once in danger of capture, until the loss of his two Hudson River forts, one of them with 2,600 men, compelled him to retreat from White Plains across the river into New Jersey. He retired toward the Delaware River while his army melted away, until it seemed that armed resistance to the British was about to expire.
George Washington: Life Before the Presidency
John Washington, George's great-grandfather, reached the New World in 1657, settling in Virginia. Little definitive information exists on George's ancestors before his father, but what is known is that by the time George was born to Augustine and Mary Washington on February 22, 1732, the family was part of the lower echelon of Virginia's ruling class. He was the eldest child of Augustine's second marriage there were two sons from the first. Farming and land speculation had brought the family moderate prosperity. However, when George was eleven years old, his family was dealt a terrible setback. Augustine became mortally ill after surveying his lands during a long ride in bad weather—ironically, the same circumstances killed George almost seven decades later.
His mother, Mary, a tough and driven woman, fought to hold home and hearth together. She hoped to send George to school in England, but these plans were aborted and the boy never received more than the equivalent of an elementary school education. Although George was shy and not highly literate, he was a large, strong, and handsome child. His half brother Lawrence, fourteen years George's senior, looked out for him. Lawrence counseled the boy about his future and introduced him to Lord Fairfax, head of one of the most powerful families in Virginia.
Despite George's meager education, he had three great strengths: his mother's ambitious drive, a shy charm, and a gift for mathematics. Lord Fairfax discerned all three traits and invited the sixteen-year-old to join a team of men surveying Fairfax lands in the Shenandoah Valley region of the Virginia colony. It was the young man's first real trip away from home, and he proved his worth on the wilderness journey, helping the surveyors while learning their trade. Surveying offered George decent wages, travel opportunities, and time away from his strict and demanding mother. By the time he was seventeen, he went into the surveying business on his own.
However, the next year, tragedy visited the Washington family once again: George's beloved half brother and mentor, Lawrence, contracted an aggressive strain of tuberculosis. George accompanied Lawrence to the island of Barbados in the West Indies in the desperate hope that the tropical climate would help his brother. Unfortunately, it did not, and George returned to Virginia alone, concluding the one trip of his life outside America.
Lawrence had commanded a local militia in the area near the Washington family home. Soon after returning to Virginia, George, barely out of his teens, lobbied the colonial government for the same post and was awarded it. The young man possessed no military training whatsoever, and it soon showed in disastrous fashion.
Folly on the Ohio
England and France, vying for control of the American continent north of Mexico, were at odds over the Ohio River Valley. The French were entering the region from Canada and making alliances with Native Americans, and the English-based government in Virginia was determined to stop these incursions. Serving as a British military envoy, Washington led a group of volunteers to the remote area, gathered intelligence on enemy troop strengths, and delivered a message ordering the French to leave the region. They refused, and when Washington returned home, he proposed that a fort be built on the Ohio River in order to stop further French expansion into the area. In the spring of 1754, he put together a poorly trained and equipped force of 150 men and set out to reinforce troops building this stockade, which he called Fort Necessity. On the way, he encountered a small French force and promptly attacked it, killing ten of the French—an unknown young militiaman from Virginia had fired the first shots of the French and Indian War.
Because one of the men killed was a French envoy delivering a message to the British, Washington had taken part in the killing of an ambassador, a serious violation of international protocol. Repercussions of this rashness reached all the way to Westminster Palace and Versailles. Native Americans in the region, sensing British-American ineptitude, sided with the French. The joint Native American-French force attacked the small, ill-placed Fort Necessity and overwhelmed Washington and his men. They were forced to leave the area after signing a surrender document. The document was in French, and in it, Washington, who did not read French, supposedly admitted to breaches of military protocol, thus handing the French a great propaganda victory when the text of the document was released in Europe. Not long afterward, Washington was passed over for promotion, and he resigned from the army, bitter that the British had not defended his honor.
England decided that the best way to drive the French from the Ohio River Valley was to send in regular troops from the Royal Army. Their commander, General Edward Braddock, needed an aide with experience in the conflict and offered the post to Washington. Eager to regain favor with the English army, Washington accepted. In July of 1755, the British force approached the French stronghold at Fort Duquesne. Washington had warned Braddock that the French and Indian troops fought very differently than the open-field, formalized armies of Europe, but he was ignored. A few days later, the British were attacked by a large Native American force and completely routed. Washington fought bravely despite having two horses shot from under him. Braddock was killed, his terrified British troops fled into the forest, and his young aide barely escaped with his life.
Militia Command, Marriage, and Life as a Gentleman Farmer
London blamed the colonials for the fiasco. The colonials, refusing to be England's scapegoat, reacted by elevating Washington as a hero. To convey their approval of his leadership and abilities, the colonials gave him command of all Virginian forces and charged him mainly with defending the colony's western frontier from Native American attacks. Washington was only twenty-two years old. This sudden turn of events provided him with a superb apprenticeship for the supreme command that would come two decades later: Washington learned how to raise a force, train it, lead it into battle, and keep it from deserting. But the young commander was always short of recruits and money, and appeals to the English military authorities did little good. Washington became increasingly annoyed with their condescension and their rebuffs of his attempts to win a regular army commission.
After commanding a regiment that finally captured Fort Duquesne in 1758, he resigned from the military and went home to Mount Vernon, the farm he had inherited from Lawrence. A year later, Washington married a rich young widow named Martha Custis. He won a seat in the lower Virginia legislature and settled into the life of a Virginia planter. His early married years were happy ones. Washington worked hard and learned everything he could about farming, but his new occupation gave him another reason to resent the mother country. He found that he was largely at the mercy of a trade system that heavily favored British merchants buying tobacco, his major crop. Consequently, after a few years, he owed a significant debt.
By 1766, he abandoned tobacco farming and diversified Mount Vernon into crops that could be sold more easily in America. He also dabbled in light industry such as weaving and fishing. All of these ventures were aimed at making his plantation more self-sufficient, thus minimizing his business ties to England. Several hundred slaves labored at Mount Vernon. As Washington turned to crops that were less labor intensive than tobacco, he had more help than he needed. However, although he could pursue greater profits by minimizing labor expenses, he almost never sold or moved a slave to another property unless the slave wanted to leave. As he approached middle age, Washington expressed increasing qualms about the practice of slavery.
The Seeds of Revolution
By the mid-1760s, colonial resentment of British rule was widespread. To replenish its coffers that were drained for the war with the French, London imposed taxes on the colonies. Moreover, to force compliance, England established punitive laws against the colonials. Americans, who had no say in British parliamentary decisions, voiced their disdain for these tariffs that had suddenly raised the prices on necessities such as tea. As the controversy grew hotter, more British troops poured into the colonies, which only compounded the problem.
Generally, the southern colonies were less openly defiant toward England during the early stages of the independence movement. Like most Virginians, the master of Mount Vernon was slow to warm to revolutionary fervor, hoping that the British would end their oppressive ways. But a series of English provocations—the closure of Boston Harbor, new taxes, the shooting deaths of five colonials in an altercation with Royal troops, the abolition of the Massachusetts state charter—made Washington a firm believer in American independence by the early 1770s. He was one of the first leading citizens in Virginia to openly support resistance to English tyranny.
In 1774, the Virginia legislature voted him one of seven delegates to the First Continental Congress, an assembly devoted to resistance to British rule—interestingly, a thirty-one-year-old Virginian named Thomas Jefferson finished out of the running. Washington joined the majority of the assembly in voting for new economic reprisals against England. In April 1775, electrifying news came from the North. Local militias from towns around Boston had engaged British troops at Lexington and Concord. When Washington rode to the Second Continental Congress a month later, there was talk that he might be named commander of all the colonial forces. Washington, his confidence weakened by the misadventures against the French and Native Americans, resisted the appointment.
But he was the natural choice for several reasons: he was still considered a hero from the French and Indian War at forty-three, he was old enough to lead but young enough to withstand the rigors of the battlefield and northerners hoped a general from Virginia would help draw the reluctant South into the conflict. Above all, the leadership and charisma of the tall, quiet, stately Virginian was unsurpassed. Washington did not attend the congressional session that took the vote for the army's command. He was the last of its members to know that he had been chosen—by a unanimous vote. He refused a salary and told the Congress, "I beg it may be remembered that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with."
In accepting command of colonial forces, George Washington had crossed a deadly serious line. In the eyes of the English, he was now leading an armed insurrection against King George III. He was a traitor, and if the rebellion failed, he would soon find a rope around his neck.
Command of the Continental Army
Any military expert would have given the Continentals little chance. After all, King George's army was the best-trained, best-equipped fighting force in the Western world. The matchless Royal Navy could deliver an army to any shore and strangle enemy nations by blockade. England's forces were commanded by career soldiers who were veterans of wars all over the globe. In sharp contrast, the colonial force staring them down was less of an army than a large gang. Its soldiers came and went almost at will. The officers leading them had little command, let alone fighting experience. Furthermore, in the colonies, support for the rebellion was far from firm.
Washington's first duty was to turn this unruly crowd into a real army by instituting disciplinary regulations. To facilitate his efforts, he urged the Continental Congress to provide enough money to pay for longer enlistments for his soldiers. But when New Year's Day dawned in 1776, much of his army had gone home because their enlistments had ended. Washington first commanded American forces arrayed around Boston. Using cannon captured by Henry Knox from Fort Ticonderoga and heroically transported miles to Boston, Washington fortified a high point overlooking the city. Unnerved by the colonials' sudden tactical advantage, the British withdrew from Boston by sea. Washington, however, had no illusions that his enemy was finished. The question was where they would strike next.
By spring, it was plain that the British plan was to seize New York. It offered several advantages including a large port, the propaganda value of holding one of the rebels' biggest cities, and a route by which troops could be delivered to the American interior via the Hudson River. Washington moved to stop them. In July—a few days after the Declaration of Independence was signed—the British landed a huge force on Staten Island. By August, 30,000 troops marched on Washington's force.
On their first engagement late that month, much of the Continental army either surrendered or turned and fled in terror. On September 15, the British landed on Manhattan, and again Washington's troops ran away. Enraged, he shouted at them, "Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?" A day later, his troops were resolute in their defiance and won a small engagement in Harlem Heights. But by November, the British had captured two forts that the Continentals had hoped would secure the Hudson River. Washington was forced to withdraw into New Jersey and then Pennsylvania.
The British thought this signaled the end of the conflict and dug in for the winter, not bothering to chase the Americans. Washington now realized that by trying to fight open-field, firing-line battles with the British, he was playing to their strengths. He turned to tactics he had seen Native Americans use to great effect in the French and Indian War. On Christmas Day, he led his army through a ferocious blizzard, crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey, and surprised an enemy force at Trenton. A few days later, he took a British garrison at nearby Princeton. These actions were less large-scale battles than they were guerrilla raids. Nonetheless, these minor victories gave his army confidence, brightened the spirits of the American people, and told the British that they were in for a long and bitter struggle.
A Turning of the Tide: 1777
The Revolution's third year was its turning point. Another Continental force, commanded by Major General Horatio Gates, won the first significant American victory at Saratoga, New York. This victory convinced the French that the Revolution was winnable for the Americans. They began to consider an alliance with the colonial rebels—partly to get back at an old enemy, England, and partly to share in prizes from raids on British ships. At the same time, the English embarked on an unfortunate military strategy that included an invasion of the southern colonies, which subjected them to guerrilla warfare.
For Washington, however, 1777 was a profoundly trying year. He lost two major battles with the British and failed to keep them from taking Philadelphia, home to the new nation's government, which was forced into hiding. In response to such a loss, an attempt was made by some in Congress and the army to oust Washington as commander. The winter of 1777-1778 saw his army camped in freezing, wretched huts at Valley Forge. One of the army's doctors summed up the conditions in his diary: "Poor food—hard lodging—cold weather—fatigue—nasty clothes—nasty cookery—vomit half my time—smoked out of my senses—the devil's in it—I can't endure it."
Valley Forge to Yorktown
By springtime, things began to improve as the army drilled hard and marched out of Valley Forge a more disciplined fighting force. In May 1778, the French agreed to an alliance with the Americans, sending troops, munitions, and money. By mid-1779, 6,000 French troops were fighting alongside the Americans.
George Washington was not a great general but a brilliant revolutionary. Although he lost most of his battles with the British, year after year he held his ragtag, hungry army together. This was his most significant accomplishment as commander of the American forces. One French officer wrote: "I cannot insist too strongly how I was surprised by the American Army. It is truly incredible that troops almost naked, poorly paid, and composed of old men and children and Negroes should behave so well on the march and under fire." Knowing that one great victory by his army would undermine support in England for their endless foreign war, Washington patiently waited year after year for the right circumstances. The British relentlessly dared Continental forces to fight a line-to-line battle in the open. But Washington stayed with his own hit-and-run tactics, forcing the frustrated British to play the game by his rules. He kept their main army bottled up in New York much of the time, wary of fighting him.
The British altered their strategy in 1778 and invaded the South. The new plan was to secure the southern colonies and then march a large army northward, forcing the rebellion out of upper America. It was a mistake. While they captured Savannah, Georgia, in 1778 and Charleston, South Carolina, in 1779, the British found themselves fighting a guerrilla war, facing shadowy bands of expert snipers. An American soldier, fighting in and for his homeland, could work on his own while a Redcoat could not. Colonial troops could move twice as fast as their equipment-heavy enemies, and every English soldier killed or captured meant a new one had to be sent from England—a journey of several weeks that weakened British presence elsewhere in their empire. By 1781, the war was deeply unpopular in England.
That summer, Washington received the news for which he had been waiting. The British southern force, commanded by Lord Cornwallis, was camped near the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. Washington secretly hurried his army southward from New York. He deceived British spies with counterintelligence ruses that hid from them the mission's true objective. As usual, there was no money, and Washington had to talk many of his men out of quitting. A large French fleet, meanwhile, had left the West Indies, setting sail for the Virginia coast. On the way there, Washington stopped for a day at his Mount Vernon home—for the first time in six years.
"The World Turned Upside Down"
Yorktown was a port city on a peninsula, jutting out into the Chesapeake. On September 1, 1781, the French fleet formed a line off Yorktown, cutting off any chance of British escape by sea. Three days later, the first American and French ground forces were at the base of the peninsula, a perfectly coordinated campaign designed by Washington. On September 5, the French ships thwarted an English fleet attempting to evacuate Cornwallis's troops. The British fate was sealed. American and French troops squeezed the enemy against the sea and tormented them with a constant hail of cannon fire. On October 19, Cornwallis had seen enough. Stunned British troops, many in tears, surrendered as their band played "The World Turned Upside Down." Early the following spring in London, Parliament withdrew its support for the war in America. The British began to leave the colonies—but not without smuggling out a sizable number of American slaves.
Forging a Nation
The thirteen colonies had fought the Revolution as if they were thirteen different nations. After the war, there was much controversy as to whether the colonies would coalesce into one country or several and how all of it would be governed.
The war's end saw considerable maneuvering for personal power, and matters came to a head in the spring of 1783. Washington was approached by some senior army officers who proposed to make him king. A great many men—almost any man—would have jumped at the chance for such authority George Washington, however, was not one of them. He had spent the past decade ridding America of a monarch and was saddened and dismayed at the prospect of saddling the country with a monarchy. The officers set a meeting to advance their ambitions, but Washington preempted them with a meeting of his own.
Many people attending Washington's meeting favored the idea of installing some form of military dictatorship. If they had had their way, America might have disintegrated into rule by a pack of feudal warlords, ripe for anarchy or foreign takeover. Washington and his officers traded cold stares. Then the general began to read a letter supporting his viewpoint, but he stopped and put on a pair of spectacles—something few of them had ever seen him wear. Washington quietly said, "Gentlemen, I have grown gray in your service, and now I am going blind." In seconds, almost everyone was wiping away tears. The so-called Newburgh Mutiny had ended even before it began, thanks to Washington's meeting.
On April 19, 1783, Washington announced to his army that England had agreed to a cessation of hostilities with the United States. Eight years, to the day, had passed since Massachusetts' militia traded musket fire with Redcoats at Lexington Green. By the end of the year, the last English troops had shipped out of New York, and Washington came home to Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve. As far as he was concerned, his public life was over. Washington spent most of the next three years attempting to restore the fortunes of his property, which had declined in his years fighting the British.
During the years immediately following the war, America was governed according to the Articles of Confederation, which resulted in a weak and unstable government. Poor economic conditions led to conflict between indebted farmers and those lending them money, especially in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. In 1786, the government of Massachusetts put down an uprising of angry farmers led by former Revolutionary War officer Daniel Shay. Shays's Rebellion helped to convince the delegates of five states assembled at Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss a means of promoting interstate commerce and to call a national convention to strengthen the American government.
A meeting of all the states, known now as the Constitutional Convention, was held in Philadelphia in May 1787. Because the convention proceedings were secret, there was public apprehension about the fate of their fledgling country. It was obvious to the convention delegates that leadership was needed to soothe public doubts and to lend the proceedings credibility. Despite his reluctance, Washington was unanimously chosen to head the assembly that developed the Constitution, the foundation of American government. One of its provisions called for something known as a president, and immediately the delegates began whispering that there was only one man to consider for the position. Washington did not want the office, but he worked for over a year to ensure the Constitution's ratification, which was achieved in June of 1788.
George Washington: The Reluctant President
Editor’s note: Even as the Constitution was being ratified, Americans looked toward a figure of singular probity to fill the new office of the presidency. On February 4, 1789, the 69 members of the Electoral College made George Washington the only chief executive to be unanimously elected. Congress was supposed to make the choice official that March but could not muster a quorum until April. The reason—bad roads—suggests the condition of the country Washington would lead. In a new biography, Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow has created a portrait of the man as his contemporaries saw him. The excerpt below sheds light on the president’s state of mind as the first Inauguration Day approached.
The Congressional delay in certifying George Washington’s election as president only allowed more time for doubts to fester as he considered the herculean task ahead. He savored his wait as a welcome “reprieve,” he told his former comrade in arms and future Secretary of War Henry Knox, adding that his “movements to the chair of government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” His “peaceful abode” at Mount Vernon, his fears that he lacked the requisite skills for the presidency, the “ocean of difficulties” facing the country—all gave him pause on the eve of his momentous trip to New York. In a letter to his friend Edward Rutledge, he made it seem as if the presidency was little short of a death sentence and that, in accepting it, he had given up “all expectations of private happiness in this world.”
The day after Congress counted the electoral votes, declaring Washington the first president, it dispatched Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress, to bear the official announcement to Mount Vernon. The legislators had chosen a fine emissary. A well-rounded man, known for his work in astronomy and mathematics, the Irish-born Thomson was a tall, austere figure with a narrow face and keenly penetrating eyes. He couldn’t have relished the trying journey to Virginia, which was “much impeded by tempestuous weather, bad roads, and the many large rivers I had to cross.” Yet he rejoiced that the new president would be Washington, whom he venerated as someone singled out by Providence to be “the savior and father” of the country. Having known Thomson since the Continental Congress, Washington esteemed him as a faithful public servant and exemplary patriot.
Around noon on April 14, 1789, Washington flung open the door at Mount Vernon and greeted his visitor with a cordial embrace. Once in the privacy of the mansion, he and Thomson conducted a stiff verbal minuet, each man reading from a prepared statement. Thomson began by declaring, “I am honored with the commands of the Senate to wait upon your Excellency with the information of your being elected to the office of President of the United States of America” by a unanimous vote. He read aloud a letter from Senator John Langdon of New Hampshire, the president pro tempore. “Suffer me, sir, to indulge the hope that so auspicious a mark of public confidence will meet your approbation and be considered as a sure pledge of the affection and support you are to expect from a free and enlightened people.” There was something deferential, even slightly servile, in Langdon’s tone, as if he feared that Washington might renege on his promise and refuse to take the job. Thus was greatness once again thrust upon George Washington.
Any student of Washington’s life might have predicted that he would acknowledge his election in a short, self-effacing speech full of disclaimers. “While I realize the arduous nature of the task which is conferred on me and feel my inability to perform it,” he replied to Thomson, “I wish there may not be reason for regretting the choice. All I can promise is only that which can be accomplished by an honest zeal.” This sentiment of modesty jibed so perfectly with Washington’s private letters that it could not have been feigned: he wondered whether he was fit for the post, so unlike anything he had ever done. The hopes for republican government, he knew, rested in his hands. As commander in chief, he had been able to wrap himself in a self-protective silence, but the presidency would leave him with no place to hide and expose him to public censure as nothing before.
Because the vote counting had been long delayed, Washington, 57, felt the crush of upcoming public business and decided to set out promptly for New York on April 16, accompanied in his elegant carriage by Thomson and aide David Humphreys. His diary entry conveys a sense of foreboding: “About ten o’clock, I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity and, with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York. with the best dispositions to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.” Waving goodbye was Martha Washington, who wouldn’t join him until mid-May. She watched her husband of 30 years depart with a mixture of bittersweet sensations, wondering “when or whether he will ever come home again.” She had long doubted the wisdom of this final act in his public life. “I think it was much too late for him to go into public life again,” she told her nephew, “but it was not to be avoided. Our family will be deranged as I must soon follow him.”
Determined to travel rapidly, Washington and his entourage set out each day at sunrise and put in a full day on the road. Along the way he hoped to keep ceremonial distractions to a minimum, but he was soon disabused: eight exhausting days of festivities lay ahead. He had only traveled ten miles north to Alexandria when the townspeople waylaid him with a dinner, lengthened by the mandatory 13 toasts. Adept at farewells, Washington was succinctly eloquent in response. “Unutterable sensations must then be left to more expressive silence, while, from an aching heart, I bid you all, my affectionate friends and kind neighbors, farewell.”
Before long, it was apparent that Washington’s journey would form the republican equivalent of the procession to a royal coronation. As if already a seasoned politician, he left a trail of political promises in his wake. While in Wilmington, he addressed the Delaware Society for Promoting Domestic Manufacturers and imparted a hopeful message. “The promotion of domestic manufactures will, in my conception, be among the first consequences which may naturally be expected to flow from an energetic government.” Arriving in Philadelphia, he was met by local dignitaries and asked to mount a white horse for his entry into town. When he crossed a bridge over the Schuylkill, it was wreathed with laurels and evergreens, and a cherubic boy, aided by a mechanical device, lowered a laurel crown over his head. Recurrent cries of “Long Live George Washington” confirmed what his former aide James McHenry had already told him before he left Mount Vernon: “You are now a king under a different name.”
As Washington entered Philadelphia, he found himself, willy-nilly, at the head of a full-scale parade, with 20,000 people lining the streets, their eyes fixed on him in wonder. “His Excellency rode in front of the procession, on horseback, politely bowing to the spectators who filled the doors and windows by which he passed,” reported the Federal Gazette, noting that church bells rang as Washington proceeded to his old haunt, the City Tavern. After the bare-knuckled fight over the Constitution, the newspaper editorialized, Washington had united the country. “What a pleasing reflection to every patriotic mind, thus to see our citizens again united in their reliance on this great man who is, a second time, called upon to be the savior of his country!” By the next morning, Washington had grown tired of the jubilation. When the light horse cavalry showed up to accompany him to Trenton, they discovered he had left the city an hour earlier “to avoid even the appearance of pomp or vain parade,” reported one newspaper.
As Washington approached the bridge over Assunpink Creek in Trenton, the spot where he had stood off the British and Hessians, he saw that the townsfolk had erected a magnificent floral arch in his honor and emblazoned it with the words “December 26, 1776” and the proclamation “The Defender of the Mothers will also Defend the Daughters.” As he rode closer, 13 young girls, robed in spotless white, walked forward with flower-filled baskets, scattering petals at his feet. Astride his horse, tears standing in his eyes, he returned a deep bow as he noted the “astonishing contrast between his former and actual situation at the same spot.” With that, three rows of women—young girls, unmarried ladies and married ones—burst into a fervent ode on how he had saved fair virgins and matrons alike. The adulation only quickened Washington’s self-doubt. “I greatly apprehend that my countrymen will expect too much from me,” he wrote to Rutledge. “I fear, if the issue of public measures should not correspond with their sanguine expectations, they will turn the extravagant. praises which they are heaping upon me at this moment into equally extravagant. censures.” There was no way, it seemed, that he could dim expectations or escape public reverence.
By now sated with adulation, Washington preserved a faint hope that he would be allowed to make an inconspicuous entry into New York. He had pleaded with Gov. George Clinton to spare him further hoopla: “I can assure you, with the utmost sincerity, that no reception can be so congenial to my feelings as a quiet entry devoid of ceremony.” But he was fooling himself if he imagined he might slip unobtrusively into the temporary capital. Never reconciled to the demands of his celebrity, Washington still fantasized that he could shuck that inescapable burden. When he arrived at Elizabethtown, New Jersey, on April 23, he beheld an impressive phalanx of three senators, five congressmen and three state officials awaiting him. He must have intuited, with a sinking sensation, that this welcome would eclipse even the frenzied receptions in Philadelphia and Trenton. Moored to the wharf was a special barge, glistening with fresh paint, constructed in his honor and equipped with an awning of red curtains in the rear to shelter him from the elements. To nobody’s surprise, the craft was steered by 13 oarsmen in spanking white uniforms.
As the barge drifted into the Hudson River, Washington made out a Manhattan shoreline already “crowded with a vast concourse of citizens, waiting with exulting anxiety his arrival,” a local newspaper said. Many ships anchored in the harbor were garlanded with flags and banners for the occasion. If Washington gazed back at the receding Jersey shore, he would have seen that his craft led a huge flotilla of boats, including one bearing the portly figure of Gen. Henry Knox. Some boats carried musicians and female vocalists on deck, who serenaded Washington across the waters. “The voices of the ladies were. superior to the flutes that played with the stroke of the oars in Cleopatra’s silken-corded barge,” was the imaginative verdict of the New York Packet. These wafted melodies, united with repeated cannon roar and thunderous acclaim from crowds onshore, again oppressed Washington with their implicit message of high expectations. As he confided to his diary, the intermingled sounds “filled my mind with sensations as painful (considering the reverse of this scene, which may be the case after all my labors to do good) as they are pleasing.” So as to guard himself against later disappointment, he didn’t seem to allow himself the smallest iota of pleasure.
When the presidential barge landed at the foot of Wall Street, Governor Clinton, Mayor James Duane, James Madison and other luminaries welcomed him to the city. The officer of a special military escort stepped forward briskly and told Washington that he awaited his orders. Washington again labored to cool the celebratory mood, which burst forth at every turn. “As to the present arrangement,” he replied, “I shall proceed as is directed. But after this is over, I hope you will give yourself no further trouble, as the affection of my fellow-citizens is all the guard I want.” Nobody seemed to take the hint seriously.
The streets were solidly thronged with well-wishers and it took Washington a half-hour to arrive at his new residence at 3 Cherry Street, tucked away in the northeast corner of the city, a block from the East River, near the present-day Brooklyn Bridge. One week earlier, the building’s owner, Samuel Osgood, had agreed to allow Washington to use it as the temporary presidential residence. From the descriptions of Washington’s demeanor en route to the house, he finally surrendered to the general mood of high spirits, especially when he viewed the legions of adoring women. As New Jersey Representative Elias Boudinot told his wife, Washington “frequently bowed to the multitude and took off his hat to the ladies at the windows, who waved their handkerchiefs and threw flowers before him and shed tears of joy and congratulation. The whole city was one scene of triumphal rejoicing.”
Though the Constitution said nothing about an inaugural address, Washington, in an innovative spirit, contemplated such a speech as early as January 1789 and asked a “gentleman under his roof”—David Humphreys—to draft one. Washington had always been economical with words, but the collaboration with Humphreys produced a wordy document, 73 pages long, which survives only in tantalizing snippets. In this curious speech, Washington spent a ridiculous amount of time defending his decision to become president, as if he stood accused of some heinous crime. He denied that he had accepted the presidency to enrich himself, even though nobody had accused him of greed. “In the first place, if I have formerly served the community without a wish for pecuniary compensation, it can hardly be suspected that I am at present influenced by avaricious schemes.” Addressing a topical concern, he disavowed any desire to found a dynasty, citing his childless state. Closer in tone to future inaugural speeches was Washington’s ringing faith in the American people. He devised a perfect formulation of popular sovereignty, writing that the Constitution had brought forth “a government of the people: that is to say, a government in which all power is derived from, and at stated periods reverts to, them—and that, in its operation. is purely a government of laws made and executed by the fair substitutes of the people alone.”
This ponderous speech never saw the light of day. Washington sent a copy to James Madison, who wisely vetoed it on two counts: that it was much too long and that its lengthy legislative proposals would be interpreted as executive meddling with the legislature. Instead, Madison helped Washington draft a far more compact speech that avoided the tortured introspection of its predecessor. A whirlwind of energy, Madison would seem omnipresent in the early days of Washington’s administration. Not only did he help draft the inaugural address, he also wrote the official response by Congress and then Washington’s response to Congress, completing the circle. This established Madison, despite his role in the House, as a pre-eminent adviser and confidant to the new president. Oddly enough, he wasn’t troubled that his advisory relationship to Washington might be construed as violating the separation of powers.
Washington knew that everything he did at the swearing-in would establish a tone for the future. “As the first of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent,” he reminded Madison, “it is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.” He would shape indelibly the institution of the presidency. Although he had earned his reputation in battle, he made a critical decision not to wear a uniform at the inauguration or beyond, banishing fears of a military coup. Instead, he would stand there aglitter with patriotic symbols. To spur American manufactures, he would wear a double-breasted brown suit, made from broadcloth woven at the Woolen Manufactory of Hartford, Connecticut. The suit had gilt buttons with an eagle insignia on them to round out his outfit, he would wear white hosiery, silver shoe buckles and yellow gloves. Washington already sensed that Americans would emulate their presidents. “I hope it will not be a great while before it will be unfashionable for a gentleman to appear in any other dress,” he told his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, referring to his American attire. “Indeed, we have already been too long subject to British prejudices.” To burnish his image further on Inauguration Day, Washington would powder his hair and wear a dress sword on his hip, sheathed in a steel scabbard.
The inauguration took place at the building at Wall and Nassau streets that had long served as New York’s City Hall. It came richly laden with historical associations, having hosted John Peter Zenger’s trial in 1735, the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 and the Confederation Congress from 1785 to 1788. Starting in September 1788, the French engineer Pierre-Charles L’Enfant had remodeled it into Federal Hall, a suitable home for Congress. L’Enfant introduced a covered arcade at street level and a balcony surmounted by a triangular pediment on the second story. As the people’s chamber, the House of Representatives was accessible to the public, situated in a high-ceilinged octagonal room on the ground floor, while the Senate met in a second-floor room on the Wall Street side, buffering it from popular pressure. From this room Washington would emerge onto the balcony to take the oath of office. In many ways, the first inauguration was a hasty, slapdash affair. As with all theatrical spectacles, rushed preparations and frantic work on the new building continued until a few days before the event. Nervous anticipation spread through the city as to whether the 200 workmen would complete the project on time. Only a few days before the inauguration, an eagle was hoisted onto the pediment, completing the building. The final effect was stately: a white building with a blue and white cupola topped by a weather vane.
A little after noon on April 30, 1789, following a morning filled with clanging church bells and prayers, a contingent of troops on horseback, accompanied by carriages loaded with legislators, stopped at Washington’s Cherry Street residence. Escorted by David Humphreys and aide Tobias Lear, the president-elect stepped into his appointed carriage, which was trailed by foreign dignitaries and throngs of joyous citizens. The procession wound slowly through the narrow Manhattan streets, emerging 200 yards from Federal Hall. After alighting from his carriage, Washington strode through a double line of soldiers to the building and mounted to the Senate chamber, where members of Congress awaited him expectantly. As he entered, Washington bowed to both houses of the legislature—his invariable mark of respect—then occupied an imposing chair up front. A profound hush settled on the room. Vice President John Adams rose for an official greeting, then informed Washington that the epochal moment had arrived. “Sir, the Senate and House of Representatives are ready to attend you to take the oath required by the Constitution.” “I am ready to proceed,” Washington replied.
As he stepped through the door onto the balcony, a spontaneous roar surged from the multitude tightly squeezed into Wall and Broad streets and covering every roof in sight. This open-air ceremony would confirm the sovereignty of the citizens gathered below. Washington’s demeanor was stately, modest and deeply affecting: he clapped one hand to his heart and bowed several times to the crowd. Surveying the serried ranks of people, one observer said they were jammed so closely together “that it seemed one might literally walk on the heads of the people.” Thanks to his simple dignity, integrity and unrivaled sacrifices for his country, Washington’s conquest of the people was complete. A member of the crowd, the Count de Moustier, the French minister, noted the solemn trust between Washington and the citizens who stood packed below him with uplifted faces. As he reported to his government, never had a “sovereign reigned more completely in the hearts of his subjects than did Washington in those of his fellow citizens. he has the soul, look and figure of a hero united in him.” One young woman in the crowd echoed this when she remarked, “I never saw a human being that looked so great and noble as he does.” Only Congressman Fisher Ames of Massachusetts noted that “time has made havoc” upon Washington’s face, which already looked haggard and careworn.
The sole constitutional requirement for the swearing-in was that the president take the oath of office. That morning, a Congressional committee decided to add solemnity by having Washington place his hand on a Bible during the oath, leading to a frantic, last-minute scramble to locate one. A Masonic lodge came to the rescue by providing a thick Bible, bound in deep brown leather and set on a crimson velvet cushion. By the time Washington appeared on the portico, the Bible rested on a table draped in red.
The crowd grew silent as New York Chancellor Robert R. Livingston administered the oath to Washington, who was visibly moved. As the president finished the oath, he bent forward, seized the Bible and brought it to his lips. Washington felt this moment from the bottom of his soul: one observer noted the “devout fervency” with which he “repeated the oath and the reverential manner in which he bowed down and kissed” the Bible. Legend has it that he added, “So help me God,” though this line was first reported 65 years later. Whether or not Washington actually said it, very few people would have heard him anyway, since his voice was soft and breathy. For the crowd below, the oath of office was enacted as a kind of dumb show. Livingston had to lift his voice and inform the crowd, “It is done.” He then intoned: “Long live George Washington, president of the United States.” The spectators responded with huzzahs and chants of “God bless our Washington! Long live our beloved president!” They celebrated in the only way they knew, as if greeting a new monarch with the customary cry of “Long live the king!”
When the balcony ceremony was concluded, Washington returned to the Senate chamber to deliver his inaugural address. In an important piece of symbolism, Congress rose as he entered, then sat down after Washington bowed in response. In England, the House of Commons stood during the king’s speeches the seated Congress immediately established a sturdy equality between the legislative and executive branches.
As Washington began his speech, he seemed flustered and thrust his left hand in his pocket while turning the pages with a trembling right hand. His weak voice was barely audible in the room. Fisher Ames evoked him thus: “His aspect grave, almost to sadness his modesty, actually shaking his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention.” Those present attributed Washington’s low voice and fumbling hands to anxiety. “This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket,” said Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay in sniggering tones. “He trembled and several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before.” Washington’s agitation might have arisen from an undiagnosed neurological disorder or might simply have been a bad case of nerves. The new president had long been famous for his physical grace, but the sole gesture he used for emphasis in his speech seemed clumsy—“a flourish with his right hand,” said Maclay, “which left rather an ungainly impression.” For the next few years, Maclay would be a close, unsparing observer of the new president’s nervous quirks and tics.
In the first line of his inaugural address, Washington expressed anxiety about his fitness for the presidency, saying that “no event could have filled me with greater anxieties” than the news brought to him by Charles Thomson. He had grown despondent, he said candidly, as he considered his own “inferior endowments from nature” and his lack of practice in civil government. He drew comfort, however, from the fact that the “Almighty Being” had overseen America’s birth. “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the affairs of men, more than the people of the United States.” Perhaps referring obliquely to the fact that he suddenly seemed older, he called Mount Vernon “a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary, as well as more dear to me, by the addition of habit to inclination and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time.” In the earlier inaugural address drafted with David Humphreys, Washington had included a disclaimer about his health, telling how he had “prematurely grown old in the service of my country.”
Setting the pattern for future inaugural speeches, Washington didn’t delve into policy matters, but trumpeted the big themes that would govern his administration, the foremost being the triumph of national unity over “local prejudices or attachments” that might subvert the country or even tear it apart. National policy needed to be rooted in private morality, which relied on the “eternal rules of order and right” ordained by heaven itself. On the other hand, Washington refrained from endorsing any particular form of religion. Knowing how much was riding on this attempt at republican government, he said that “the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.“
After this speech, Washington led a broad procession of delegates up Broadway, along streets lined by armed militia, to an Episcopal prayer service at St. Paul’s Chapel, where he was given his own canopied pew. After these devotions ended, Washington had his first chance to relax until the evening festivities. That night Lower Manhattan was converted into a shimmering fairyland of lights. From the residences of Chancellor Livingston and General Knox, Washington observed the fireworks at Bowling Green, a pyrotechnic display that flashed lights in the sky for two hours. Washington’s image was displayed in transparencies hung in many windows, throwing glowing images into the night. This sort of celebration, ironically, would have been familiar to Washington from the days when new royal governors arrived in Williamsburg and were greeted by bonfires, fireworks and illuminations in every window.
Excerpted from Washington: A Life. Copyright © Ron Chernow. With the permission of the publisher, The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.