(17321799), revolutionary army officer and president of the United States of America
, was born on 11 February 1732 at his family's plantation near Pope's Creek, Westmoreland county, Virginia, the first of six children of Augustine Washington (16941743), planter, and his second wife, Mary (1708/91789), daughter of Joseph Ball, an English emigrant and planter, and his wife, Mary. His great-grandfather John Washington had moved from the family home, Sulgrave Manor, Northamptonshire, to Virginia in 1657 as a partner in a trading voyage and had settled on a plantation given to his new wife, Anne Pope, by her father, Nathaniel Pope. That region of Virginia, known as the Northern Neck, is a peninsula lying between the Potomac River and the Rappahannock River, which flow into Chesapeake Bay. Augustine Washington and his first wife, Jane Butler (16991729), had four children; the most important to George was the second son, Lawrence (17181752), who acted as a surrogate father after Augustine's death when George was eleven years old.
In 1735 Augustine Washington moved his family to property he owned on Little Hunting Creek, overlooking the Potomac, later the site of the estate which Lawrence named Mount Vernon and which George subsequently acquired. Leaving Lawrence there, the rest of the family moved in 1738 to Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock near the town of Fredericksburg, where Augustine Washington's twenty slaves worked his tobacco. He had ample furnishings, china, and silverware for his six-room frame house. George received some education at home from private tutors, with an emphasis on geometry and trigonometry, later useful in surveying. One of his copybook exercises was Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation
, maxims for correct gentlemanly bearing and conduct originally compiled in the sixteenth century.
After Augustine Washington's death in April 1743, George divided his time, living with his mother but also visiting relatives in Westmoreland county and his half-brother Lawrence. Lawrence Washington had inherited Mount Vernon, which he named for Admiral Edward Vernon after taking part in the British expedition against Cartagena during the War of Jenkins's Ear. In 1743 Lawrence married Anne Fairfax, daughter of Colonel William Fairfax, a member of the family which had received from Charles II a vast proprietary grant of land in northern Virginia. Colonel Fairfax became another surrogate father to George, securing for him in 1744 an offer of a commission in the Royal Navy. Mary Washington, on the advice of her half-brother in England, declined to give her son permission to enter the navy.
The inheritor of the proprietary, Thomas Fairfax, sixth Lord Fairfax of Cameron, a cousin of Colonel William Fairfax, moved to Virginia in 1747. During the following year George Washington assisted a surveying party which marked lines within the grant in the Shenandoah valley. In July 1749 he received a commission as county surveyor for Culpeper county, and ran surveys in the Fairfax proprietary in Winchester county. Aged eighteen, he began to buy land as an investment, a practice he continued for many years.
Afflicted with tuberculosis, Lawrence Washington decided in September 1751 to consult a physician in Bridgetown, Barbados; George accompanied him. There George contracted smallpox, recovering after four weeks. The disease left him pockmarked, but he was thereafter immune. Lawrence sailed to Bermuda; George returned to Virginia, reaching Mount Vernon early in February 1752. Lawrence returned in June and died on 26 July. He bequeathed a life interest in Mount Vernon to his widow, Anne, who soon remarried and moved to Westmoreland county. On 17 December 1754 George Washington leased the Mount Vernon estate and house from her and her husband. The property became Washington's after her death.
Military career and the Seven Years' War
Washington's military career began with his seeking one of the adjutancies of the Virginia militia with the rank of major. In 1753 he became the adjutant of the region south of the James River; in the following year he exchanged that position for the adjutancy of the Northern Neck. His first assignment came from the resident royal governor of Virginia, Lieutenant-Governor Robert Dinwiddie. The French claimed the region west of the Appalachian mountains, from Quebec to New Orleans. As British traders moved into the Ohio River valley and British colonists sought grants of land there, the governor of New France, Ange de Menneville, Marquis Du Quesne, ordered French troops to occupy the site where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers flow together to form the Ohio (present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania).
Dinwiddie, obeying orders from London, sent Washington on two missions to the French. In the first, at the end of 1753, Washington delivered to French officers a letter from Dinwiddie asserting Britain's claim to the transmontane west. With the aid of American Indian guides, Washington reached Fort Le Bœuf near Lake Erie and, after presenting the letter, endured a difficult return trek. In the second mission, during spring 1754, Washington commanded fewer than 300 militiamen, with orders to take Fort Duquesne at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahelaa position already occupied by the French. He did not reach the site. After killing ten members of a detached French party in May, Washington and his men took refuge in a new fort, named Necessity, about six miles north of the Pennsylvania border. There they were surrounded by a superior force of French and allied American Indians; Washington surrendered on 4 July. By signing the capitulation, written in French, Washington acknowledgedunknowingly, he afterwards insistedthe Assassination of the French officer killed earlier (Papers
, Colonial ser., 1.1657). These were the opening hostilities of the Seven Years' War.
In the following year the British government sent two regiments of infantry to Virginia, under the command of Major-General Edward Braddock, with orders to expel the French from Fort Duquesne. That summer Washington accompanied Braddock as an unpaid volunteer on the general's staff, anticipating that the general would reward him with, Washington wrote, preferment equal to my Wishes (Papers
, Colonial ser., 4.89). As the British column drew within an easy march of Fort Duquesne, Braddock detached 1200 men to move more rapidly. On 9 July 1755, along the Monongahela within 8 miles of the fort, this advance party walked into an ambush by 250 Frenchmen and Canadians with 640 American Indian allies. In the confused fighting, more than two-thirds of the British were killed or wounded. Washington, though on horseback and under fire, escaped injury; however, Braddock was mortally wounded, whereupon a general retreat began. Braddock died on 14 July and was buried in an unmarked grave in the road not far from the Maryland border. Others criticized Braddock for arrogance and inflexibility, but Washington blamed the defeat on the soldiers' lack of discipline, a concern which stayed with him throughout his military career.
After Braddock's defeat American Indians allied to the French attacked some of the westernmost British settlements in Virginia. Dinwiddie reconstituted Virginia's provincial regiment for the defence of the Shenandoah valley, and in autumn 1755 Washington accepted the command, with the rank of colonel. For the following three years he worked, with frequent setbacks, to recruit and retain soldiers, to secure adequate funds and supplies, to establish forts, and to claim the precedence of his rank in the British military establishment. Despite travelling to Massachusetts to meet William Shirley, commander of British forces in America, and despite his later approach to John Campbell, fourth earl of Loudoun, in Philadelphia, Washington failed in his efforts to obtain a royal commission and to have himself and his regiment incorporated into the British army. His official letters of the period were often querulous and fault-finding. He too was criticized in Virginia both for exaggerating the danger posed by the French and the American Indians and for his inadequacies as a commander. The Virginia house of burgesses, however, twice voted him its thanks. He wished for a bold assault upon Fort Duquesne, but the position did not fall to the British until November 1758, after the French abandoned it, having lost their neighbouring American Indian allies. At the end of the year, Washington resigned.
Marriage and family life
In spring 1758 Washington and Martha Custis, née
Dandridge (17311802), a widow a few months his senior, agreed to marry. The ceremony took place on 6 January 1759. In July 1758 Washington won election to the house of burgesses, the colonial Virginian legislative, from Frederick county, having failed in two earlier candidacies in 1755 and 1757. The death of Martha's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, in 1757 had provided her and her two children, John and Martha, with a sizeable inheritance of land, property, and slaves valued at £4853 14s
. sterling, or £23,632 13s
. Virginia currency, the disposition of which George Washington directed. Marrying into this inheritance involved Washington in an already long-running suit in the court of chancery by which heirs of Daniel Parke Custis's late grandfather in Antigua, Governor Daniel Parke, tried to force Custis's estate to pay debts owed by the late governor's estate. Washington was still paying attorneys' fees fifty years after the inception of the suit.
In summer 1768 Washington's stepdaughter Martha first showed symptoms of epilepsy. She died during a seizure on 19 June 1773. Her estate, originally one-third of her late father's estate, was divided evenly between her brother and her mother. The latter half enabled George Washington to pay his debts to British merchants. John Parke Custis was often a trial to his stepfather. Frequently idle in his studies, Custis at the age of eighteen chose a wife without consulting the Washingtons. During the American War of Independence he visited the revolutionaries' headquarters at Yorktown, Virginia, where he contracted a disease which proved fatal. George Washington reached his stepson's bedside not long before he died, aged twenty-seven, on 5 November 1781.
When the Washingtons were in Virginia's colonial capital, Williamsburg, for sessions of the house of burgesses, they lived in Francis Street in a house that Martha Washington inherited from her first husband. At Mount Vernon, George Washington expanded and improved their home while their slaves and tenants cultivated tobacco on five farms, totalling about 4500 acres. Washington's land never produced tobacco of the best quality; between 1764 and 1766 he converted his crops primarily to wheat, abandoning tobacco. Though he later said that he thought slave auctions inhumane, in the 1760s he bought slaves. He owned eighty-seven in 1770. He purchased few after 1772, but the number of his slaves continued to grow by natural increase.
Washington wished to emulate successful Virginians of the early eighteenth century by enlarging his estate. In June 1767 he considered in writing:
how the greatest Estates we have in this Colony were made; Was it not by taking up & purchasing at very low rates the rich back Lands which were thought nothing of in those days, but are now the most valuable Lands we possess? Undoubtedly it was. (Papers, Colonial ser., 8.3)
He acquired acreage in the Shenandoah valley and along rivers flowing into the Ohio; in addition, he joined the Mississippi Company, which sought a royal grant of 2.5 million acres stretching eastwards from the Mississippi River. As an incentive to army recruits, Governor Dinwiddie in 1754 had promised to divide 200,000 acres in the Ohio valley among those who enlisted in the Virginia regiment. For twenty years Washington worked to have the promised grant surveyed and to have title to it confirmed by the British government. He induced veterans to sell their portions to him, and he secured appointment of his agent, William Crawford, as surveyor. Ultimately, Washington acquired 20,147 acres, 10 per cent of the grant.
Road to revolution
Beginning in 1765, Washington represented Fairfax county in the house of burgesses. Virginia's politicians, with those of other seaboard colonies, quarrelled with governments in Londonfirst George Grenville's and later Lord North'sabout parliament's levy of new taxes on North American colonists. Washington called the stamp tax of 1765 ill judgd (Papers
, Colonial ser., 7.395), and he was a leader of the burgesses' resistance to the Revenue Act
of 1767. After the burgesses passed resolutions on 16 May 1769, declaring that only colonial legislatures could levy such taxes, the governor, Norborne Berkeley, fourth Baron Botetourt, dissolved the general assembly. The burgesses then met in a Williamsburg tavern, where Washington presented the text, prepared by George Mason, of an association to boycott many British goods. This stated that British taxes were designed to reduce colonists from a free and happy People to a wretched and miserable State of Slavery (Van Schreeven, Scribner, and Tarter, 1.74). Agreements to curtail importation from Britain were intended to hurt British merchants and to induce them to bring about repeal of the taxes. This approach, combined with colonists' refusal to allow the law to be implemented, succeeded in the case of the stamp tax, and on 21 February 1766 a large majority in the House of Commons voted for its repeal. Washington welcomed this removal of an Act of Oppression (Papers
, Colonial ser., 8.15). The taxes in the Revenue Act
of 1767, except the duty on tea, were repealed on 12 April 1770.
Events in 1774 brought Washington to prominence among those willing to defy the government in London. In the spring of that year parliament, responding to defiance of the Tea Act
of 1773 (expressed most notably in Boston's Tea Party), enacted punitive laws to close that town's port, change the government of Massachusetts, revise operations of courts, and allow army officers to quarter soldiers on property owned by colonists. Such a direct attack on colonial self-government alarmed the political leaders of other colonies; they agreed to convene in Philadelphia what they called a continental congress. Virginia legislators met in an extra-legal session, identifying themselves as the Virginia convention, and elected seven delegates, including Washington, to the congress. In August he wrote that parliament was trampling upon the Valuable Rights of Americans and that we must assert our Rights, or Submit to every Imposition that can be heap'd upon us; till custom and use, will make us as tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway (Papers
, Colonial ser., 10.155). He believed that the British government had formed a regular Systematick Plan to break down American resistance and that only the colonies' unanimity and firmness could defeat the British intent to rule the Colonies with a high hand (ibid., 10.156). The continental congress met during September and October 1774 and adopted a statement of the colonies' rights, with a list of grievances, attacking parliament's assertion of an authority to raise revenue in America and denouncing the recent coercive legislation. The delegates set dates for ending all trade with Britain as a means to force repeal of the objectionable measures. They discussed possible forms of political union among the colonies.
Before returning to Philadelphia in May 1775 for a second continental congress, Washington spent six months at Mount Vernon. During this period a campaign of preparation for forcible resistance spread through the thirteen colonies. Volunteer companies and militia units drilled, paraded, and armed themselves. Washington supervised the training of Fairfax county's volunteers and lent money to the county for the purchase of ammunition. At the same time Lord North's ministry augmented the army and Royal Navy, sending larger forces to North America. Fighting between a detachment of British troops and Massachusetts militiamen began on 19 April at Lexington. The militia soon surrounded British forces in Boston and began a siege. Word of the outbreak of combat reached Virginia before Washington left for Philadelphia.
In June the second continental congress, in response to a request from Massachusetts, adopted the troops around Boston as the continental army and summoned men from other colonies to strengthen it. On 15 June congress chose Washington as its general and commander-in-chief. Although his nomination encountered opposition and debate, his status as the chief military man from the most populous colony made his final, unanimous selection predictable. He wrote to his wife three days later: I was apprehensive I could not avoid this appointment (Papers
, Revolutionary War ser., 1.4). He took command of the army outside Boston on 3 July.
Throughout his eight years and six months as commander-in-chief, Washington strove to make his army resemble as much as possible a regular, professional, European army in administration, discipline, and combat. He argued that he and his men were serving in a glorious Cause (Papers
, Revolutionary War ser., 1.1), and he relied in large measure, especially after congress declared the independence of the United States in July 1776, on soldiers' patriotism for the cohesion and perseverance of the army during many hardships. All the while his military ideal was an army whose operations were as smooth and orderly as clockwork. From his first weeks near Boston, when he could not obtain accurate reports of how many men he had, until the disbandment of the army in November 1783, when he could not give soldiers the pay due them, Washington never fully attained in practice his vision of an efficiently functioning continental army. Keeping the army intact, rebuilding parts of it after defeat, and sustaining its ability to contest British occupation of sections of the seaboard were the chief military achievements of Washington and his soldiers.
Not until 1777 did congress authorize enlisting soldiers for a term of three years or the duration of the war. In the first two years Washington had to devote much attention to finding replacements for soldiers and militiamen whose short terms of service expired. In the camp outside Boston during the autumn and winter 17756 many who had rallied to besiege the British went home as new recruits arrived. Washington was forced to mobilize a new army, then rebuild it. At its peak, later in the war, the continental army in all its detachments numbered about 35,000. Washington never commanded in person more than about one-third of that number.
In March 1776 William Howe, commander of British forces in Boston since October 1775, evacuated the city. In the following month he was made commander-in-chief of the British army in the thirteen rebellious colonies. Howe and his army, eventually numbering 30,000, attacked New York city and its environs in the summer. During the last six months of 1776 Washington experienced a series of reverses and losses of men. Defeated on Long Island on 27 August, he withdrew to Manhattan Island, where he unwisely tried to hold a fortified position, in which he left 2600 men, captured by the British on 16 November. Washington retreated into New Jersey. He had operated under many difficulties in New York, including inferior numbers and poorly trained soldiers, but he had contributed to his defeats by dispersing his forces, by leaving his army open to flank attacks, and by trying to hold indefensible positions. Howe's critics at the time and later said that a more aggressive British campaign would have crushed Washington's army.
Washington's units in New Jersey were scattered. About 3000 men were with him as he retreated across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania on 7 December. Posting detachments at several points in New Jersey, including Trenton on the Delaware, Howe announced that his army would go into winter encampment. In a private letter Washington wrote that if recruitment of a new army in 1777 failed, I think the game will be pretty well up (Papers
, Revolutionary War ser., 7.291). Far from despondent, however, the commander-in-chief decided on a surprise counter-attack. On 25 and 26 December he recrossed the Delaware with more than 2000 men and attacked the garrison at Trentoncomprising 1200 Hessians from among the German auxiliaries hired by the crown. He captured the bulk of the garrison without losing any of his men. In the next week by a surprise march he expelled the British from Princeton. Howe withdrew from his most advanced positions in New Jersey, and the Americans went into winter encampment at Morristown. Though fought by small units with few casualties, these engagements had great importance, restoring public confidence in the continental army, in Washington, and in the prospects for success.
During 1777 Washington began to build a more reliable, longer-serving army. In that year the British mounted two separate, unco-ordinated offensives. One, under Major-General John Burgoyne, advanced southwards from Canada towards New York city along the Lake ChamplainHudson River route. In the other, Howe took 15,000 men by transport vessels to the head of Chesapeake Bay and marched against the American capital, Philadelphia. Burgoyne encountered Major-General Horatio Gates, commanding the continental army of the northern department and its militia auxiliaries. Washington confronted Howe with about 11,000 men, a number which fell to 6000 during autumn operations. As in the New York campaign of 1776, Howe outflanked Washington in the battle of Brandywine (11 September 1777) and outmanoeuvred Washington's efforts to cover Philadelphia. The city fell to the British on 26 September. An audacious American attack on a detachment of Howe's army at Germantown (4 October) relied upon Washington's overly complex, synchronized night-time advance from different directions; it ended in a rout of the Americans. By this date Burgoyne's invasion had reached Saratoga, New York, where his army was surrounded. He surrendered on 17 October.
Howe's army spent the winter of 17778 in Philadelphia. Having asked the ministry to relieve him of command, he awaited his successor. Washington's army camped in huts at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 20 miles from Philadelphia. In late autumn and early winter he received reports which led him to believe that criticisms in congress of his 1777 campaign were an attempt by certain members to remove him from command and replace him with, perhaps, Horatio Gates. However, few modern historians have concluded that the recriminations and private censure amounted to a concerted attack on Washington's position as commander-in-chief. Throughout his life Washington reacted angrily to criticism, and in this instance he sought to expose the supposed machinations. In effect he demanded from congress a statement of its confidence in him. He emerged from the episode strengthened in his role as the most important leader of the movement for American independence.
Although the winter was not severe, many soldiers at Valley Forge suffered from intermittent shortages of food and clothing, consequences not only of logistical and financial difficulties but also of misjudgement and maladministration in congress and the army, compounded by corruption among suppliers. Soldiers' willingness to stay with Washington under these conditions, while receiving little or no pay, became a story central to the army's pride, tradition, and future cohesion. In March 1778 Washington began a programme of drill, training, and discipline, led by a Prussian officer, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. Since the continental soldiers were veterans of combat who had seen the consequences of inadequate co-operation on the battlefield, Steuben and his deputies were able to convince them of the advantages of conforming to conventional methods of march, manoeuvre, and engagement. The success of this training was first demonstrated in the battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, on 28 June 1778. Sir Henry Clinton, commander of British forces, marched from Philadelphia towards New York city. The engagement was inconclusive, but it demonstrated the continental army soldiers' improved ability to encounter British regulars. This was the last significant battle of the war to take place north of Virginia.
Later conflict and victory
British forces launched no significant offensives for eighteen months after Clinton's withdrawal to New York. Even amid Washington's mistakes and reverses on the battlefield in 1776 and 1777, he had revealed a preference for audacity and for aggressive engagement of the enemy. The numbers and effectiveness of the British army, as well as the continental army's many difficulties, forced upon him a Fabian strategy: he kept his army intact, fought occasional skirmishes, and covered the countryside beyond British lines. Washington outlasted the British war effort. He was aided by other impediments to British success. The North ministry found the war expensive and, concerned about other theatres of conflict with France and Spain, was unable to send adequate numbers of soldiers to America as replacements for casualties and prisoners. Furthermore, the American militia and local governments usually suppressed Americans loyal to the crown by intimidation and violence. Thus the British, despite having occupied every important American city at some time in the war, never established effective control beyond the lines of their army.
This difficulty became more apparent when Sir Henry Clinton, urged on by the ministry, began a campaign in South Carolina, expecting to rally widespread loyalist support. He led it in person until the capture of Charles Town (12 May 1780), where the British took more than 2500 continental soldiers prisoner. Thereafter operations in the southern states were led by Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis, second Earl Cornwallis. Congress, rather than Washington, appointed Horatio Gates commander of the southern department. After Gates's defeat by the British at Camden (16 August 1780), the rebuilt continental force in the south was commanded by Washington's trusted and chosen subordinate, Major-General Nathanael Greene, beginning on 14 October 1780. Although unable to defeat Cornwallis in battle, Greene's army rendered British operations in South and North Carolina ineffective in holding the region. A civil war between loyalists and revolutionaries further thwarted Clinton's plan. In May 1781 Cornwallis abandoned the original strategy and marched northwards into Virginia.
As Washington inspected American fortifications along the Hudson River, he learned on 25 September 1780 that Major-General Benedict Arnold, commander of the most important post, West Point, was in the pay of the British and had agreed to British seizure of the fort. The plot was revealed with the capture behind American lines of Sir Henry Clinton's aide, Major John André, while carrying incriminating papers and dressed in civilian clothes. Arnold fled to New York city, where Clinton commissioned him brigadier-general. André was condemned as a spy, then hanged on 2 October 1780. Washington declined to pardon him or to allow military execution by firing squad. In the didactic moral lessons drawn from the War of Independence by American writers, Arnold became the antithesis of WashingtonArnold the epitome of treason, Washington the paragon of patriotism.
From an early point in the war the French government, through intermediaries, had assisted the Americans. The defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga and the resilience of Washington's army helped convince the French to recognize the independence of the United States in treaties signed on 6 February 1778 and to provide more financial assistance, as well as the overt aid of the French army and navy. Rejecting a British peace overture early in 1778, the continental congress ratified the French alliance on 4 May.
Co-operation between French and American forces near New York city in 1778 and 1779 achieved little. The arrival of 5500 French soldiers at Rhode Island in July 1780, under the command of Lieutenant-General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, made possible combined infantry operations against the British. Washington and Rochambeau worked together but could not threaten the British position in New York without the aid of a large naval force. In August 1781 Washington learned that Rear-Admiral François Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse, would bring twenty-nine warships and 3000 soldiers to Chesapeake Bay to co-operate in capturing Cornwallis's army. Washington now abandoned his plan to take New York city, and with 4000 French and 2500 American soldiers marched for Virginia. They arrived at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay on 5 September, the day that de Grasse prevented Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves and the British fleet from entering Chesapeake Bay.
After Cornwallis moved his force of more than 9000 men into Virginia, he received conflicting orders from Sir Henry Clinton and from the ministry in London. In both cases, however, he was to occupy a defensible position accessible to the Royal Navy. He chose Yorktown on the York River and Gloucester on the opposite bank. His army was fortified there on 22 August 1781. Four days later de Grasse arrived off the Virginia coast. Washington and Rochambeau, joined by other continental army units, militia, and augmented French forces, began to encircle the defences of Yorktown on 28 September. Negotiations for Cornwallis's surrender began on 17 October. The North ministry fell in March 1782, and the king's speech at the opening of the December session of parliament acknowledged that the treaty of peace must recognize the independence of the United States.
Washington continued as commander-in-chief until after the withdrawal from New York of the last British forces, under the command of Lieutenant-General Guy Carleton, on 25 November 1783. In March of that year Washington single-handedly quelled a disturbance among some of his officers in the camp at Newburgh, New York. Proposals were circulated, suggesting that the officers make threats to congress in order to secure arrears of pay and a promised pension. Washington's meeting with the officers on 15 March and his denunciation of the proposals ended the agitation. In December Washington travelled to Annapolis, Maryland, where congress was meeting, and returned his commission as commander-in-chief on 23 December. This ceremony loomed large in his subsequent reputation. Although his army had already disbanded, his voluntary surrender of his command nevertheless established him in the minds of Americans as a citizen general, respectful towards civilian authority, happy to return to his former life at war's end, unlike tyrants of the past who had used their victorious armies to impose dictatorships.
Washington had agreed on 19 June 1783 to serve as president-general of the newly created Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary order of former continental army officers, officers of Rochambeau's army, and their eldest male descendants. Many Americans censured the organization as a group of crypto-aristocrats, who might subvert republican institutions by creating a nobility. At a general meeting on 5 May 1784 Washington agitatedly told the members in a long speech that the society must accommodate itself to public opinion or he would resign. The society survived by avoiding publicity. Washington remained its leader until his death.
Upon his return to Mount Vernon at the end of 1783, Washington wrote: I am not only retired from all public employments, but I am retireing within myself; & shall be able to view the solitary walk, & tread the paths of private life with heartfelt satisfaction (Papers
, Confederation ser., 1.88). His house, which he continued to expand, needed work. He had decided during the war that he wished to get quit of Negroes (Writings
, 12.328); rather he now preferred that his land be farmed by tenants or contract labour. Yet he also became principled agt. selling negros, as you would do cattle in the market (ibid., 34.47). He remained a slaveholder; had he ceased to be one, he still would have supervised his wife's slaves, and ties of marriage and children closely connected the two groups of blacksties that Washington did not wish to sunder. He was a demanding master; as did other slaveholders, he complained about the delinquencies of his white overseers and the malingering of his slaves, who would not work as hard as he wished. Other evidence of his assiduousness includes a 680 mile round trip which he made in September 1784 to inspect some of his land near the Ohio River. He began litigation, which he later won, to expel people who had settled on his property and had built houses and barns. He eventually owned about 45,000 acres in the present-day states of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky.
Washington was especially preoccupied with the commercial and political future of the trans-Appalachian west. Migration to the region swelled after the war. He feared that, unless convenient channels of trade linked the Ohio valley with the eastern seaboard, people in the west would look to the Mississippi River, the mouth of which was in the hands of Spain, and contemplate political separatism. He thought that the Potomac could become the main channel of trade if a canal bypassed the falls 20 miles upriver from Mount Vernon and if improvements in the river bed brought the navigable extent of the upper Potomac within 20 or 30 miles of the tributaries of the Ohio. Virginians had begun such plans before the war, and Washington was among the most eager proponents of their renewed efforts. He was a director of the Potomac Company, which undertook the canal. A similar design was formed for the James River, with plans for another canal to connect Albemarle Sound in North Carolina with the Elizabeth River and the port of Norfolk, Virginia. The Mind can scarcely take in at one view all the benefits which will result therefrom, he wrote with regard to the proposal (Papers
, Confederation ser., 3.420). None of these enterprises reached fruition during his lifetime.
To American politicians of the era of the revolution, the union of the thirteen states and the survival of republican institutions had no assurance of permanence. George Washington was one of the prominent men in the 1780s who concluded that the continental congress, operating under the wartime articles of confederation, was inadequate. It lacked power to tax or coerce; state governments were able to ignore its mandates, a few delegates could forestall important legislation, and a single state could prevent congress from expanding its powers. Washington joined those who wished to adopt a new United States constitution. In May 1787 he travelled to Philadelphia for the convention to draft the constitution and he presided over its deliberations until it concluded its work on 17 September. The new government was to take effect as soon as special conventions ratified it in nine states. Virginia's did so on 25 June 1788. Washington often expressed his wish that all states would join the new union. Conversations at Mount Vernon touched on demagogues winning power in state elections, on the powerlessness of the old continental congress, and on the danger of anarchy and civil war in the absence of a stronger government.
One feature of the new federal institutions was an executive branch headed by a chief executive, the president of the United States, to be chosen by electors who were in turn chosen by the states. This office was an innovation, since state legislatures and, before the revolution, colonial legislatures had curtailed executive power, which they associated with the government in London and with threats to liberty. The constitution gave the president control of foreign relations, as well as the power to appoint diplomats, federal judges, and other federal officials; the office-holder was also to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces and to serve a four-year term with no restrictions on re-election.
Those who designed this office at the constitutional convention foresaw that Washington would be its first incumbent. He was elected unanimously on 4 February 1789, with John Adams as vice-president. The votes became official when the new congress convened in New York city in April and counted them formally. Washington travelled to New York and took the oath of office on 30 April.
Washington had foreseen his election, and he had come to regard his acceptance of the presidency as a necessity for the successful establishment of the new government. His personal importance as a symbol of national unification appeared in his extensive travels in autumn and winter 178990 and spring 1791. He went as far north as Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and as far south as Savannah, Georgia. These movements, like his trip to New York in April 1789, were an almost constant series of public greetings by local officials and crowds of citizens, with ceremonial addresses, militia honour guards, parades, and music. Washington's eminence, popularity, and public services were supposed to reassure both supporters of the new constitution and critics of centralized power who had opposed ratification that the federal government was in safe hands.
Washington correctly anticipated that his serving as president was more likely to lessen than enhance his popularity. He would have to make decisions, especially in choosing office-holders, which would displease many people. Knowing that he would be criticized whatever his actions, he nevertheless did not meet opposition with equanimity; he interpreted it as an impugning of his motives. Early divisions were caused by the economic programme proposed by the secretary of the treasury, Washington's former aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton. In 1790 Hamilton submitted to congress reports with plans to fund both the national debt incurred by the late continental congress and the states' remaining wartime public debts. He further envisioned a national bank, modelled on the Bank of England, and, in December 1791, a programme of tariffs and incentives designed to encourage the growth of manufacturing in the United States. Washington took no part in drafting these proposals, but his approval was crucial to their enactment.
To Washington's secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, and to many other Americans, Hamilton's measures looked sinister. They would enrich holders of the public debt, more than 80 per cent of whom lived in the northern states, at the disproportionate expense of people in the south. And Jefferson likened Hamilton's plans for America to the European, especially the British, polity which he thought the United States ought to eschew: urban concentrations of population, great disparities of wealth, masses of dependent wage workers, a powerful central bank making the executive less dependent upon elected representatives of the people, and discriminatory taxes by which government benefited the few at the expense of the many. Eventually critics asserted that Hamilton, Washington, and their supporters conspired to subvert republican institutions and to create a facsimile of monarchy. During his first term as president, Washington several times relied upon James Madison, a drafter and proponent of the constitution and a leader in the house of representatives, for advice and drafts of state papers. That connection ended as Washington turned more often to Hamilton and as Madison allied with Jefferson. The opposition to Washington began to describe themselves as republicans, implying that federaliststhe name originally attached to supporters of the constitutionwere disloyal to republican principles. Notwithstanding their objections to the treasury programme, allies of Jefferson enabled Hamilton's provisions for the public debts to become law through an agreement that the new national capitalthe District of Columbia, to replace Philadelphia in 1800would be on the banks of the Potomac River.
Washington wished to leave the presidency at the end of his four-year term. In addition to his desire to return to Mount Vernon, he was concerned that serving a second term might suggest a sense of ambition and political careerism, in violation of the principle established by his resignation of his commission as commander-in-chief of the continental army in 1783. However, the intensifying political hostility, as well as concerns about the economy and relations with Britain and France, made Washington's continuance in office an imperative not only to Hamilton and Madison, but also to Jefferson and many others. Washington's acceptance often prompted him to look on his second administration with regret. Shortly after his re-election, reacting to newspaper criticism which portrayed him as a king who deserved the guillotine, he claimed to have never repented but once … having slipped the moment of resigning his office, & that was every moment since (Writings of Thomas Jefferson
, 1.254). While the imagery of the French Revolution offered a means to criticize Washington, actual events of 1789, followed by the European war from 1793, also provided an important stimulus to the development of political parties during Washington's presidency and to his own partisanship. The early phases of the revolution aroused sympathy in the United States. By 1793, however, the rise of the Jacobins and war on behalf of atheistic revolution alarmed many Americans, though the pro-France opinions of others remained unchanged. Washington's advisers were divided. Hamilton, for example, did not wish the United States to recognize the national assembly as the government of France. He urged Washington to proclaim neutrality in the war and to prevent Americans from aiding France. Jefferson, by contrast, recommended recognition, in the belief that the survival of republicanism in France would assure the security of republican government in the United States and the spread of liberty in Europe. Although Washington agreed to recognize the French regime, he took Hamilton's advice and asserted the president's right to proclaim the nation's neutrality, a power Jefferson wished to reserve to congress. After Washington's proclamation (22 April 1793), Jefferson's republicans denounced him for an unconstitutional aggrandizement of the executive and a betrayal of Americans' moral obligations to the French. Privately, Washington wrote of the French: those in whose hands the G[overnmen]t is entrusted are ready to tare each other to pieces, and will, more than probably prove the worst foes the Country has (Writings
, 32.450). Jefferson resigned as secretary of state at the end of the year. By August 1795 Washington's cabinet contained only federalists. Although Alexander Hamilton had stepped down as secretary of the treasury in January, he continued to wield influence with Washington and the cabinet.
One of George Washington's most controversial acts as president was to send Chief Justice John Jay to Britain to negotiate a treaty in 1794. Hamilton's plan for the public credit of the United States depended upon revenue from tariffs on imported goods, and therefore upon the continuation of trade between the United States and Britain. When Washington chose Jay as minister-plenipotentiary, Hamilton drafted Jay's instructions and privately assured the British minister in Philadelphia that the United States would not join neutral European nations in an armed threat to enforce the trading rights of neutrals. Jay's treaty secured little for the United States except continued peace with Britain, the withdrawal of British troops from posts in the far north-west of the United States, and minor trade concessions. Yet Jay acquiesced in British restrictions on neutrals' trade, gave Britain the status of most favoured nation in American ports, and closed American ports to the navies and privateers of Britain's enemies. The federalists' majority in the United States senate allowed them to ratify the treaty on 24 June 1795. Washington had hesitated to submit the document; but French diplomatic dispatches shown by the British minister convinced him that his secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, had solicited bribes from the French. Washington concluded that only the Jay treaty could forestall dangerous French influence in American politics. Republican denunciation of the treaty included abuse of the president, who was accused of usurpation and of having the aims of a tyrant. Even before this round of criticism, Jefferson had written of Washington: He is also extremely affected by the attacks made & kept up on him in the public papers. I think he feels those things more than any person I ever yet met with (Writings of Thomas Jefferson
Further republican censure of Washington arose in summer 1794. Some residents of western Pennsylvania denounced the federal excise tax on privately distilled whisky, forcibly resisting its collection and stopping some federal judicial proceedings. Washington interpreted these activities not as an objection to the tax but as a product of republican attacks on his administration and of incitement by pro-France political clubs. He mobilized into federal service 13,000 militiamen from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. This force marched into western Pennsylvania in November 1794, encountering no resistance. About twenty men were arrested; two were convicted of crimes and afterwards pardoned by Washington. To republicans this excessive show of force and the effort to link republican political activity with lawlessness marked Washington as a federalist partisan, a view confirmed in their minds by his support of the Jay treaty.
Early in 1796 Washington decided not to accept a third term as president. He brooded about republicans who had convinced many Americans that his administration threatened their liberties. He wrote privately: These things … fill my mind with much concern and with serious anxiety. He believed that he had only a short time to live, during which ease and retirement were indispensably necessary for both mind and body (Writings
, 35.37). Washington published a farewell address in newspapers on 19 September 1796. He relied upon an outline written by Alexander Hamilton, incorporating elements of a draft written by James Madison in 1792, when Washington had contemplated leaving the presidency the first time. He left his readers with three admonitions: first, that the union of the states must be preserved by quelling sectional animosities; second, that political parties were dangerous, subordinating citizens to leaders of factions and thereby threatening liberty; and finally, that the interests of the United States would best be served by avoiding intense attachments or aversions to other nations. The subsequent presidential electionwon by John Adams, with Thomas Jefferson, who received the second largest number of electoral votes, as vice-presidentshowed that Americans were not abandoning political parties. Nor did posterity follow Washington's advice on sectional antagonism or on foreign relations. This was the outcome he expected. His address, though wishing his country well, was pessimistic in tone. Of his own warnings he had little hope that they will make the strong and lasting impression, I could wish; that they will controul the usual current of the passions, or prevent our Nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the Destiny of Nations (ibid., 35.236). To Washington and his contemporaries the course run by past nations had ended in decadence and dictatorship. Leaving the presidency, Washington put on record his assertion that if American history later led to that destiny, the fault was not his.
From 1791 through his years of retirement, Washington was active in establishing the new national capital, the District of Columbia, a distinct jurisdiction of 100 square miles, the site chosen by Washington and extracted from Maryland and Virginia. He owned almost 1200 acres within the district, but inclusion of this tract was not a source of profit to him. Surveys of the boundaries began in February 1791. In August the French engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant submitted to the president a design for the city which would be named Washingtona bold scheme of radial avenues superimposed on a grid of streets. The capitol and the presidential mansion, on hills a mile apart, were to be the city's focal points and its first permanent buildings. President Washington appointed commissioners who superintended design, construction, and the sale of city lots, and on 18 September 1793 he laid the cornerstone of the capitol. The commissioners paid for the public buildings by selling real estate in the projected city to speculators who hoped to profit by resale. Fewer people bought lots than the commissioners and speculators had anticipated. Remittances were irregular, slowing construction. In his last annual message to congress, Washington repeated his recommendation that a national university be established in the capital. He saw such an institution as a force for union and as a school of republican principles. His plan was not fulfilled.
In his last year as president and in retirement Washington spent much time on repairing his home at Mount Vernon. He said that he planned to build a separate house for the security of my Papers of a public nature and to amuse myself in Agricultural and rural pursuits (Papers
, Retirement ser., 1.142). He doubted that he would ever again travel more than 20 miles from home. As he had begun to do while president, he tried to sell his western land, wishing to convert it to cash, then buy safe securities. But his prices attracted few buyers after the speculative bubble in western land collapsed in 1796.
Retirement did not remove Washington from political life. After federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts
in June and July 1798 to counteract supposed pro-France subversion, Washington censured the Virginia legislature's opposition to these laws and its challenge to the federal government's power expressed in the Virginia resolutions, written by James Madison and passed by the legislature in December 1798. Washington urged Patrick Henry to come out of political retirement to be a federalist candidate, and he supported the election of Virginia federalists John Marshall and Henry Lee to the United States house of representatives in 1798.
As the French government grew more openly hostile to the United States during the Adams administration, federalists allied with Alexander Hamilton anticipated war with France. Congress authorized an army of 10,000 men and a provisional force of 50,000 to be mobilized in the event of conflict. Adams invited Washington to become commander of the newly enlarged army. Washington chose its officers, and, much to Adams's displeasure, he made Alexander Hamilton senior major-generalin effect, the army's field commander. Washington took his last trip to Philadelphia at the end of 1798 to spend about a month dealing with routine military matters. Fortunately for Adams, who wished to avoid war with France, Washington did not share the eagerness of Hamilton and other federalists for war. In February 1799 Washington lent support to Adams's willingness to send a new emissary to France. Relations between the two countries turned to negotiations rather than to war.
After a sudden drop in temperature in northern Virginia on 12 and 13 December 1799, during which Washington spent several hours outdoors, he contracted a swelling of the throat and congestion of fluid in his lungs. His symptoms were consistent with a modern diagnosis of streptococcus infection. On 14 December he underwent a variety of unhelpful medical procedures, including four bleedings, a gargle, a purgative, and a laxative. From the onset of his illness he believed that it was fatal. He died in the evening, at Mount Vernon. His last words, after instructions about disposition of his body, were: 'Tis well (Papers
, Retirement ser., 4.551). His last action was to take his own pulse as it fell. His body was buried in the family vault at Mount Vernon on 18 December.
Washington had completed a new will on 9 July 1799. He bequeathed to his widow a life interest in all his estate. He directed that the 124 slaves belonging to him be freed upon Martha Washington's death, making provision for support of the old and infirm, with tenancy or apprenticeship for the others. The 153 slaves belonging to his wife would be inherited by her grandson, the heir-at-law of her first husband. Martha Washington died on 22 May 1802. George Washington's will ordered that his real estate other than Mount Vernon be sold, with a division of the proceeds among members of his and his wife's families. He drew up a list of his land holdings and set a value on each one. By this calculation his land was worth a little less than $500,000, or about £121,000. For tracts sold within three years of his death, his estimates proved sound. But the estate still held part of the land in the early decades of the nineteenth century, unable to find buyers at Washington's price. Washington's papers were purchased from the family by the United States government in 1834 and 1849. In 1860 the mansion and 202 acres of Mount Vernon were purchased by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, the organization which still owns the property.
Personality and legacy
In late middle age George Washington stood 6 feet 3 inches tall; he weighed 209 pounds. He suffered from toothache and tooth decay, and experimented with a variety of false teeth. He began to use reading glasses in his forties. An able horseman, he rode to hounds and spent much of each day at Mount Vernon on horseback, visiting his farms and supervising work. He set a high value on system and method, reviewed his plans daily, and kept precise business and household accounts. He tried, not always successfully, to stay out of debt. He believed himself to be just and correct in his dealings with others. Any suggestion to the contrary made him angry and risked a harsh rebuke. Many of his letters complained about the conduct of otherssubordinates, tenants, debtors, slaves, employees, business associates, public officials, merchants. He often felt aggrieved. Washington strove to maintain an even demeanour; observers described his gravity and dignity. However, he was also a man of strong feelings who sometimes lost his self-control, as in a cabinet meeting on 2 August 1793, during his second term as president of the United States: The Presidt was much inflamed, got into one of those passions when he cannot command himself (Writings of Thomas Jefferson
, 1.254). He had a dry witoften directed at persons he deemed self-importantso subtle that people easily missed it. In a letter addressed to Nathaniel Sackett, one of his clandestine intelligence operatives during the war, he wrote in closing: It runs in my head that I was to corrispond with you by a fictitious nameif so I have forgot the name & must be reminded of it again (Papers
, Revolutionary War ser., 9.95).
Washington felt most comfortable in an active, outdoor life, concerned with tangible things such as soil, crops, horses, farm buildings, and machinery. Under the pressures of wartime command and peacetime public office, one of his chief diversions was to make detailed plans for improvements at Mount Vernon. He maintained a correspondence with Arthur Young, the British writer on agriculture. In the tradition of hospitality, Washington and his wife entertained at Mount Vernon not only invited guests but also strangers who appeared at the door in growing numbers after the war. In 1787 he likened his house to a well resorted tavern (Papers
, Confederation ser., 5.35). Washington found the volume of his correspondence burdensome, and in 1785 he recruited a secretary, Tobias Lear. At the same time he was well aware that his personal papers were important for the history of the United States and for his posthumous reputation. In addition to his plans for a new property to house his work, in later life he revised copies of letters in his letter-books from the 1750s to enhance their seriousness of tone and to improve his prose.
Washington was a communicant of the Church of England (and later of the American Episcopal church). As was customary for men of his social standing, he served as a vestryman, but he was not assiduous in attending church. He was also a freemason and an avid theatregoer. He received the honorary degree of doctor of laws from Harvard College in April 1776 and from Yale College in April 1781. From 16 January 1788 until his death he held the honorary post of chancellor of the College of William and Mary.
George Washington always paid close attention to his stature in the eyes of the publicfirst in Virginia, then in the whole of America. In his thirties he engaged in some sharp practices while acquiring land; in his sixties he became more partisan amid American political rivalries. Yet he saw himself and wished to be seen as a man of unquestioned probity and disinterested patriotism. Even American politicians who had a more complex view of Washington, such as Thomas Jefferson, understood the importance of Washington's public reputation in sustaining and validating the war for American independence and the new national government. He was, wrote Jefferson after Washington's death, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man (Writings of Thomas Jefferson
Many shared Jefferson's assessment. In late December 1799 and in January 1800 speeches, sermons, and public writings throughout the United States eulogized George Washington. The most often quoted words were spoken by Henry Lee in his oration before members of congress: First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life (H. Lee, A Funeral Oration on the Death of General Washington
, 1800, 19). Washington's enjoyment of private life, his readiness to return to it, his professed preference for it exalted him in the esteem of advocates of liberty. Robert Burns, William Blake, and Lord Byron wrote verses contrasting him with men of imperial ambition. In Francis Bailey's Lancaster [Pennsylvania] Almanac for 1779
(1778) he was first hailed as the father of his country. Public celebration of his birthday began as early as 1779; for almost 200 years the day was a national holiday in the United States, a distinction shared by only one other president. For many years a portrait of Washington was a fixture in school classrooms. When the southern states attempted in 18615 to establish an independent Confederate States of America, they placed an image of George Washington on their new great seal as a symbolic assertion that they were the true heirs of the American War of Independence. Likenesses of Washington have been ubiquitous in American lifeon postage stamps, coins, currency, and in many other forms. The capital city of the United States, one of the fifty states, thirty-one counties, and many towns, neighbourhoods, natural features, and institutions bear the name of Washington.
In the nineteenth century the life of Washington attracted such biographers as John Marshall (18047) and Washington Irving (18559), while Jared Sparks published a twelve-volume edition of Washington's papers (18347). However, the work which exerted the most widespread influence on Americans' conception of Washington was A History, of the Life and Death, Virtues, and Exploits of General George Washington
(1800) by the Revd Mason Locke Weems which went through many printings and was regularly adapted for schoolbooks. Weems's depiction, which included fictitious episodes and imagined dialogue, presented Washington as an exemplar of private virtue and public patriotism, inviting emulation by subsequent generations, who inherited the duty to preserve the republic.
In the twentieth century scholarly historians, following the example of Charles A. Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States
(1913), turned their attention to Washington as a man of his time and place rather than as a unique leader and patriot. His land speculation, political ambition, slaveholder's practices, conduct towards American Indians, and federalist politics received scrutiny. At the same time the most knowledgeable writers of the second half of the twentieth century continued to stress the distinctive importance of Washington's public service, as well as his uncommon gravity, courage, and sound judgement under many trying circumstances. Most books about him published during these years were narrative biographies, specialized topical monographs, or studies of Washington as an icon in American political or popular culture. Some popular writers tried to accommodate George Washington to the more egalitarian ethos of the twentieth century, as in Maxwell Anderson's play Valley Forge
(1934). However, efforts to present Washington as a familiar, accessible figure largely failed. A story about Washington's reserved and aristocratic demeanourfirst published late in the nineteenth century, though surely as fictitious as Anderson's playsummarized the impression of Washington which has endured. At the constitutional convention in 1787 one of the delegates, Gouverneur Morris, to win a bet, supposedly shook Washington's hand while clapping him on the shoulder with the left hand and telling him that he looked well. Washington withdrew his hand, stepped suddenly back, fixed his eye on Morris for several minutes with an angry frown, until the latter retreated abashed, and sought refuge in the crowd (J. Parton, Life of Thomas Jefferson
, 1874, 369). Though praised for his domestic virtues, Washington, to posterity, was primarily a general, a president, and, in those capacities, the most important founder of his nation.