George Washington (1732-1799)

Washington, George

George Washington was the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and the first President of the United States. He was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on February 22, 1732, the son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball. His father died when he was eleven, leaving his education and the formation of his character in the hands of his mother; his older half-brother, Lawrence; and the Fairfax family into which Lawrence had married. While both brothers by his father's first marriage were educated in England, Washington was educated primarily at home. Lawrence was a middling planter and British army officer who named his home "Mount Vernon" after the commander under which he served in the War of Jenkins' Ear. He was also an especially strong personal influence on Washington, but he died in 1752 after returning from a trip to Barbados during which he was accompanied by Washington (it was the future president's only trip outside of the continent during his entire life). Washington first trained as a surveyor but turned to planting on Lawrence's death, when he began to lease Mount Vernon from Lawrence's widow. He also succeeded to Lawrence's role as a senior officer in the Virginia militia, a position young Washington relished.

In 1753, Major Washington undertook a mission for Virginia's lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie, to warn the French out of British territory in western Virginia and Pennsylvania. He returned to the frontier the next year as a Lieutenant Colonel in command of about 40 men to evict the French from Fort Duquesne (present day Pittsburgh). The result was a military and diplomatic disaster. On May 27, 1754, Native Americans under his command massacred 13 members of a small French detachment sent to observe Washington's movements, a party that included Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, whose brother commanded the French forces in the area. Believing that a larger attack by the French and their Native allies was imminent, Washington retreated to Great Meadows where he built Fort Necessity. He was reinforced there in June by several hundred Virginians and a detachment of 100 British regulars. A large combined French and Native force attacked Fort Necessity on July 3. A steady rain storm, mounting casualties, and Washington's clear military inexperience combined to put his troops in an impossible position and led him to surrender — to Jumonville's brother — on July 4. Included in the terms of capitulation, written in French, was an admission by Washington that he, an officer of the King of Great Britain, had assassinated Ensign Jumonville. Washington, who spoke no French, later claimed that his Dutch interpreter mistranslated the passage to him.

The entire affair caused a sensation in the Atlantic world — and led directly to the Seven Years War. Horace Walpole accurately stated, "The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire," while Voltaire exclaimed that "A cannon shot fired in America would give the signal that set Europe in a blaze." Washington himself brashly recorded "I heard the bullets whistle and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound," which made it into the London newspapers where it was read by King George II. An experienced battlefield veteran, the King retorted, "By God, he would not think bullets charming if he had been used to hear many." Washington returned to Virginia and a hero's welcome in Williamsburg but nevertheless resigned his commission in November 1754, protesting that it had "neither rank nor emolument annexed to it." In 1755, however, he joined Major General Edward Braddock's staff as an aide-de-camp for the expedition to Fort Duquesne in western Pennsylvania . When the fighting started, Washington avoided the thickest of the bloody Battle of the Monongahela on July 9, 1755, during which every senior British officer was killed or wounded so severely that it was left to Washington to bury Braddock and lead the remains of his force back to Virginia. Washington was then only 23 years old. Upon his return to Williamsburg, Washington was given a colonel's commission and placed in command of all Virginia forces. He spent the next three years defending western Virginia from Native attacks, although most of his time was spent dealing with recruiting, supply, and discipline problems at the forts he established along the Shenandoah Valley.

The House of Burgesses twice voted Washington their thanks for his efforts but, tiring of the constant challenges and despairing of any advancement in the regular army establishment, he resigned again in November 1758. That year marks the beginning of a new life for Washington, as he was first elected to the House of Burgesses (in which he would remain for the rest of the colonial period), began to court the woman he would marry the next year, Martha Dandridge Custis, and turned his attention to farming. For much of the next decade, Washington devoted himself to making the most of his tobacco crops and diversifying into other agricultural commodities, such as wheat intended for the more lucrative West Indies markets, and expanding his holding of western lands. During the growing constitutional crisis with Britain, he was a strong advocate for non-importation of British goods to oppose the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Revenue Act of 1767.

Washington took a more prominent role in the patriot movement after the passage of the Coercive Acts in 1774. Consequently, he was elected by successive Virginia conventions to represent the province in both the First and Second Continental Congresses. Silas Deane, a delegate from Connecticut, described him as having "a very young Look, & an easy Soldierlike Air." Because of his active leadership on several military committees, he emerged as the clear choice to command the Continental forces, a position to which Congress appointed him in June 1775.

From 1775 to 1778, New England and the middle colonies were the focus of British strategy to break the rebellion. Washington's army survived a number of major defeats, resulting in the loss of New York and Philadelphia, yet he kept his force intact and achieved enough small or tactical victories, such as at Trenton in December 1776 and Monmouth in June 1778, to maintain the faith of his troops and Congress. When British strategy shifted to the southern colonies, Washington was not directly engaged in a major campaign until the final thrust at Yorktown in the fall of 1781, where, in collaboration with a sizable French force, he forced the surrender of Charles Cornwallis' army on October 19. He remained in command of the American army until December 1783 (deftly staving off an attempt by its officers at Newburgh, New York, in March to march on Congress) when, the last British troops having withdrawn, he travelled to Annapolis where Congress was meeting and resigned his commission. Washington spent most of the next four years, as he put it, walking "the paths of private life with heartfelt satisfaction."

In 1787, Washington was recalled to public duties as president of the Constitutional Convention meeting in Philadelphia. Washington strongly supported a more robust federal union with a central government sufficiently powerful to protect America's economic and diplomatic interests. He worked for the final document's ratification and was elected unanimously to two terms as president under it. His accomplishments as America's first president were, perhaps, even more significant than his achievements as America's first general. He avoided a renewed war with Britain, oversaw treaties that managed to rebuild many transatlantic trade networks, and kept a lid on popular disaffection, such as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. He also built on the reputation he had garnered during the War for Independence as the personification of American virtue and liberty, providing a potent national symbol with which newly unified peoples of different states could identify. Having reluctantly served a second presidential term at the urging of others, he declined a third one in 1796 and closed his political career with a remarkable "Farewell Address" that presciently warned against both foreign entanglements and political partisanship.

Washington returned to Mount Vernon in 1797 but not necessarily to political retirement. For example, he publicly opposed James Madison's 1798 Virginia Resolves that brazenly challenged the authority of the federal government to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts and returned to command the American army in late 1798 when war with France threatened. Diplomacy, however, prevailed over military action in early 1799. Near the end of that year, he fell ill after being caught in the rain while riding and died on December 14.

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