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George Washington
This article is about the first president of the United States (April 30, 1789 – March 4, 1797)
American Presidents
58 min read

George Washington

George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799) stood as a towering figure in American history, revered as a Founding Father, military leader, statesman, and the inaugural President of the United States, serving from 1789 to 1797. Initially appointed by the Second Continental Congress to lead the Continental Army in 1775, Washington steered Patriot forces to triumph in the American Revolutionary War. His pivotal role continued as he presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, shaping the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution, thereby laying the foundation for the federal government. Consequently, he earned the esteemed title of the "Father of the Nation."

Beginning his public service as a surveyor in Culpeper County, Virginia, from 1749 to 1750, Washington embarked on a journey that intertwined military prowess and political leadership. Rising through the ranks, he assumed command of the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War before venturing into politics as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and later as a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. His pivotal appointment as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army marked the onset of his legendary military career, culminating in the decisive victory over the British in the Revolutionary War and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Paris, securing American sovereignty and independence. With the conclusion of the war in 1783, Washington resigned his commission, embodying the principle of civilian control over the military.

Washington's legacy extended beyond the battlefield to the halls of governance. Instrumental in the adoption and ratification of the Constitution, he assumed the presidency unanimously elected by the Electoral College. Throughout his tenure, Washington advocated for a robust national government, maintaining impartiality amid the burgeoning rivalry between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, his cabinet members. Amid international turmoil, including the French Revolution, he steered a course of neutrality while navigating diplomatic waters, exemplified by the Jay Treaty. Establishing enduring precedents, Washington shaped the presidency, emphasizing republicanism, peaceful transitions of power, and the limitation of terms to two, laying the groundwork for future leaders.

His farewell address in 1796 stands as a testament to his vision for the nation, emphasizing the importance of national unity and warning against the perils of regionalism, partisanship, and foreign entanglements. Beyond his political achievements, Washington's iconic status permeates American culture, immortalized through monuments, a federal holiday, media portrayals, and geographical landmarks, including the nation's capital and the State of Washington. Recognized posthumously in 1976 with the rank of general of the Armies, Washington continues to resonate as one of America's preeminent leaders, consistently lauded in both public opinion and scholarly assessments as one of the greatest presidents in the nation's history.

Early life (1732–1752)

George Washington's journey began on February 22, 1732, at Popes Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia, where he was born to Augustine and Mary Ball Washington, the eldest of six siblings. His father, a prominent public figure and justice of the peace, had additional children from a previous marriage. The family relocated to Little Hunting Creek in 1734 before settling in Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Following Augustine's passing in 1743, Washington inherited Ferry Farm and several slaves, while his older half-brother Lawrence inherited Little Hunting Creek, renaming it Mount Vernon. Washington's paternal lineage traced back to Sulgrave Manor, an estate in Northamptonshire, England.

Despite lacking the formal education received by his elder brothers at England's Appleby Grammar School, Washington attended the Lower Church School in Hartfield, where he honed skills in mathematics, trigonometry, and land surveying. He demonstrated talent in drafting and mapmaking, coupled with precise and forceful writing abilities from an early age. During his teenage years, Washington compiled a set of social rules, titled "Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation," as part of his penmanship practice.

Washington frequently visited Mount Vernon and Belvoir, the plantation owned by William Fairfax, Lawrence's father-in-law, who became Washington's mentor and father figure. In 1748, Washington joined a surveying team tasked with assessing Fairfax's Shenandoah Valley property. The subsequent year, he obtained a surveyor's license from the College of William & Mary, despite not undergoing the customary apprenticeship. Appointed as the surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia, by Fairfax, Washington familiarized himself with the frontier region, conducting surveys beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains until his resignation in 1750. By 1752, he had amassed significant landholdings in the Valley.

In 1751, Washington embarked on his sole trip abroad, accompanying Lawrence to Barbados in hopes of curing his brother's tuberculosis. However, Washington contracted smallpox during the journey, resulting in minor facial scarring. Following Lawrence's demise in 1752, Washington leased Mount Vernon from his widow, Anne, ultimately inheriting the estate upon her passing in 1761.

Colonial military career (1752–1758) 

Lawrence Washington's role as adjutant general of the Virginia militia served as a catalyst for George Washington's military aspirations. Virginia's lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie, recognizing Washington's potential, appointed him as a major and tasked him with commanding one of the four militia districts. The backdrop to this appointment was the fierce competition between the British and French for dominance in the Ohio Valley, marked by the construction of forts along the Ohio River by the British and French encroachment between the Ohio River and Lake Erie.

In October 1753, Dinwiddie entrusted Washington with a critical diplomatic mission. Washington was dispatched to demand the withdrawal of French forces from territory claimed by the British. Additionally, he was charged with negotiating peace with the Iroquois Confederacy and gathering intelligence on French military activities. Meeting with Half-King Tanacharison and other Iroquois chiefs at Logstown, Washington gleaned valuable information regarding French fortifications and captured individuals. Tanacharison bestowed upon Washington the moniker "Conotocaurius," meaning "devourer of villages," a title previously given to Washington's great-grandfather by the Susquehannock tribe.

In November 1753, Washington's expedition reached the Ohio River, where they encountered a French patrol. Escorted to Fort Le Boeuf, Washington presented the British demand to the French commander, Saint-Pierre, who, despite the cordial reception, refused to comply. After a brief delay, Saint-Pierre provided Washington with his official response, along with provisions and winter clothing for the journey back to Virginia. Completing the perilous mission in 77 days amid harsh winter conditions, Washington earned recognition upon the publication of his report in Virginia and London, solidifying his reputation for resourcefulness and resilience.

French and Indian War

In February 1754, George Washington's rising military career took a significant leap when Robert Dinwiddie, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, promoted him to lieutenant colonel and appointed him second-in-command of the 300-strong Virginia Regiment. Washington was charged with the crucial task of confronting French forces at the Forks of the Ohio. Setting out in April with half of the regiment, Washington soon discovered that a sizable French force of 1,000 men was constructing Fort Duquesne in the area. Establishing a defensive position at Great Meadows, Washington learned of a nearby French camp and decided to take the initiative.

On May 28, with a small force of Virginians and Indian allies, Washington launched a daring ambush against the French detachment, numbering around 50 men. The ambush resulted in the death of several French soldiers, including their commander Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, who carried a diplomatic message. The French, upon discovering their fallen comrades scalped, accused Washington of brutality, igniting tensions.

The full Virginia Regiment joined Washington at Fort Necessity the following month, bringing news of his promotion to regimental commander and colonel following the death of the previous commander. However, a conflict of command emerged when Captain James Mackay, leading an independent company of South Carolinians with a superior royal commission, clashed with Washington's authority. On July 3, a French force of 900 men attacked Fort Necessity, resulting in Washington's eventual surrender after a fierce battle. Washington unwittingly accepted responsibility for Jumonville's death in the surrender document, which became a pivotal event, sparking the French and Indian War, a precursor to the broader conflict known as the Seven Years' War.

In 1755, Washington volunteered as an aide to General Edward Braddock in a British expedition aimed at ousting the French from Fort Duquesne. Despite suffering from severe dysentery, Washington played a crucial role in the ill-fated campaign. After Braddock's death in an ambush, Washington rallied the surviving troops and orchestrated a strategic retreat, displaying remarkable courage and leadership under fire.

Following these military engagements, Washington's leadership abilities and strategic acumen were recognized, leading to his appointment as commander of the reconstituted Virginia Regiment in August 1755. Despite facing challenges over seniority and differences in military strategy with superior officers, Washington's tenure saw significant improvements in the regiment's professionalism and effectiveness in defending the frontier against numerous Indian attacks.

Although Washington failed to secure a royal commission, his experiences during this period shaped his leadership style, instilling in him self-confidence, tactical expertise, and a keen understanding of British military tactics. Additionally, the political rivalries and administrative inefficiencies he witnessed among colonial politicians fueled his later advocacy for a strong central government.

Marriage, civilian, and political life (1755–1775)

 On January 6, 1759, George Washington, then 26 years old, entered into matrimony with Martha Dandridge Custis, a 27-year-old widow of the affluent plantation owner Daniel Parke Custis. Their union was celebrated at Martha's estate, where she showcased her intelligence, grace, and proficiency in managing a planter's estate, laying the foundation for a happy marriage. The newlyweds relocated to Mount Vernon, situated near Alexandria, where George transitioned into the life of a planter, cultivating tobacco and wheat while gradually emerging as a notable political figure.

George's encounter with smallpox in 1751 is believed to have rendered him sterile, although it's also speculated that Martha's possible injury during the birth of their final child, Patsy, may have contributed to their inability to conceive additional children. Despite this, George and Martha lovingly raised Martha's two children, John Parke Custis (Jacky) and Martha Parke Custis (Patsy), along with Jacky's two youngest children, Eleanor Parke Custis (Nelly) and George Washington Parke Custis (Washy), alongside numerous nieces and nephews.

Their marriage endowed George with control over Martha's one-third dower interest in the extensive 18,000-acre Custis estate, further enhancing his status as one of Virginia's wealthiest individuals. He effectively managed the remaining two-thirds of the estate for Martha's children, which also included ownership of 84 slaves, solidifying his social standing.

At George's behest, Governor Lord Botetourt fulfilled Robert Dinwiddie's 1754 promise of land bounties to all-volunteer militia during the French and Indian War. In late 1770, George undertook an inspection of lands in the Ohio and Great Kanawha regions, subsequently engaging surveyor William Crawford to subdivide the land. Although there were some misunderstandings regarding land allotments among veterans, George doubled the size of Mount Vernon to 6,500 acres by 1775, significantly increasing its slave population as well.

As a revered military hero and prominent landowner, George held various local offices and was elected to the Virginia provincial legislature, representing Frederick County in the House of Burgesses for seven years starting in 1758. Despite facing initial electoral setbacks, George's perseverance and strategic campaigning, which sometimes involved treating voters with beverages, secured him victory in subsequent elections.

While initially reticent in legislative sessions, George later emerged as a vocal critic of Britain's taxation policies and mercantilist approach toward the American colonies, marking the beginning of his active political engagement in the 1760s. Despite facing financial challenges due to low tobacco prices and profligate spending, George diversified Mount Vernon's operations, transitioning its primary cash crop from tobacco to wheat in 1765.

George's growing influence and stature in Virginia society were reflected in his extensive social engagements at Mount Vernon, where he hosted numerous distinguished guests and partook in various leisure activities. However, amidst the social festivities, personal tragedies struck the family, including the untimely death of Martha's daughter, Patsy, in 1773, which left them profoundly distressed, prompting George to cancel all business activities and remain by Martha's side for an extended period of mourning.

Opposition to the British Parliament and Crown

 Washington played a pivotal role both before and during the American Revolution. His skepticism of the British military stemmed from being overlooked for promotion into the Regular Army. He, along with other colonists, strongly opposed taxes imposed by the British Parliament without adequate representation. Additionally, the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which restricted American settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains, further fueled discontent among colonists, including Washington, as it aimed to protect the British fur trade.

Washington denounced the Stamp Act of 1765 as oppressive and celebrated its eventual repeal in 1766. However, Parliament's passage of the Declaratory Act the same year, asserting its supremacy over colonial law, intensified tensions. In the late 1760s, British interference in American western land speculation, an enterprise in which Washington was actively involved, contributed to the growing sentiment for revolution. He played a significant role in protests against the Townshend Acts and advocated for boycotting British goods, leading to the partial repeal of the Acts in 1770.

The passage of the Coercive Acts by Parliament in 1774, in response to the Boston Tea Party, further incensed Washington, who viewed them as a violation of American rights. He adamantly opposed tyranny and called for resistance, highlighting the need to preserve American liberties. In July of that year, Washington collaborated with George Mason to draft resolutions condemning British actions and calling for an end to the Atlantic slave trade.

Washington's involvement in revolutionary activities intensified as tensions escalated. He attended the First Virginia Convention in August 1774, where he was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. In the lead-up to the outbreak of hostilities in 1775, Washington played a crucial role in training militias in Virginia and enforcing the Continental Association boycott of British goods.

Upon learning of the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the Siege of Boston in April 1775, Washington was deeply affected and swiftly departed Mount Vernon to join the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. His sense of duty and commitment to the cause of American independence propelled him into a central leadership role in the ensuing war for freedom.

Commander in chief (1775–1783) 

On June 14, 1775, the Continental Congress established the Continental Army, with John Adams nominating George Washington as its commander-in-chief. This decision was largely influenced by Washington's extensive military experience and the belief that a Virginian leader would effectively unite the colonies. The following day, Washington was unanimously elected by Congress. On June 16, he appeared before Congress in his uniform and delivered an acceptance speech, expressing his gratitude and declining a salary, although he later received reimbursement for expenses.

Washington received his commission on June 19 and was formally appointed by Congress as the "General & Commander in chief of the army of the United Colonies and of all the forces raised or to be raised by them." He was tasked with taking command of the Siege of Boston on June 22, 1775.

Congress appointed key staff officers to assist Washington, including Major General Artemas Ward, Adjutant General Horatio Gates, Major General Charles Lee, Major General Philip Schuyler, and Major General Nathanael Greene. Recognizing their talents, Washington promoted individuals like Henry Knox, a bookkeeper with expertise in ordnance, to colonel and chief of artillery. He also appointed Alexander Hamilton as his aide-de-camp, impressed by Hamilton's intelligence and bravery.

Initially, Washington prohibited the enlistment of both free and enslaved blacks into the Continental Army. However, as manpower shortages became critical by late 1777, he reversed his stance. Eventually, around one-tenth of Washington's army consisted of black soldiers.

During the war, the British attempted to exploit divisions within the colonies by offering freedom to slaves who joined their ranks. In response, Washington sought to reclaim slaves freed by the British after their surrender. However, when he requested their return to servitude from Sir Guy Carleton on May 6, 1783, Carleton instead issued 3,000 freedom certificates, allowing former slaves in New York City to leave before the British evacuation in late November 1783.

Siege of Boston

 In early 1775, as tensions escalated, London dispatched British troops to occupy Boston under the command of General Thomas Gage, who led British forces in America. Establishing formidable fortifications, the British made the city virtually impregnable. Surrounding militias effectively trapped the British troops, leading to a standoff.

George Washington's march towards Boston was met with anticipation, and he quickly became a symbol of the Patriot cause. Upon his arrival on July 2, 1775, two weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill, he established headquarters in Cambridge. Upon inspecting the army, Washington found undisciplined militia forces. Following consultation, he implemented reforms suggested by Benjamin Franklin, focusing on drilling soldiers and enforcing strict discipline. Washington also directed his officers to assess the skills of recruits to ensure military readiness and removed incompetent officers. Additionally, he appealed to General Gage to release captured Patriot officers from prison and treat them with humanity. In October 1775, King George III declared the colonies in open rebellion and relieved Gage of command, replacing him with General William Howe.

By January 1776, the Continental Army, reduced to just 9,600 men due to expiring enlistments, needed supplementation with militia forces. They were soon joined by Henry Knox, who brought heavy artillery captured from Fort Ticonderoga. Washington, eager to storm Boston, initially faced opposition from General Gates and others who doubted the effectiveness of untrained militia against well-fortified positions. Instead, Washington agreed to secure Dorchester Heights, strategically positioned 100 feet above Boston, with Knox's artillery to pressure the British.

Under the cover of darkness on March 9, Washington's troops bombarded British ships in Boston harbor. Subsequently, on March 17, 9,000 British troops and Loyalists embarked on a chaotic ten-day evacuation aboard 120 ships. Washington entered the city soon after with 500 men, strictly instructing against looting. He refrained from imposing military authority, leaving civilian matters to local authorities.

Battle of Long Island 

Following the triumph in Boston, George Washington correctly anticipated the British retaliation and their return to New York City, a bastion of Loyalist support. Arriving there on April 13, 1776, he immediately ordered the construction of fortifications to repel the anticipated British assault. Washington also emphasized the respectful treatment of civilians and their property by his occupying forces, aiming to avoid the abuses suffered by Bostonians under British rule.

General Howe transported his resupplied army, along with the British fleet, from Halifax to New York City. The British leadership, including George Germain overseeing the war effort in England, believed victory could be achieved swiftly with a decisive blow. British forces, numbering more than a hundred ships and thousands of troops, began arriving on Staten Island on July 2, initiating the siege of the city. After the unanimous adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, Washington informed his troops of Congress's declaration of the colonies as "free and independent states" on July 9.

Howe's forces, bolstered by Hessian auxiliaries, outnumbered Washington's raw recruits and militia. In August, Howe landed troops at Gravesend, Brooklyn, and approached Washington's fortifications. Despite receiving inaccurate information regarding Howe's troop strength, Washington opted to confront the British forces. In the ensuing Battle of Long Island, Howe outflanked Washington's defenses, resulting in significant Patriot casualties. Washington tactically retreated, orchestrating a nighttime crossing of the East River to Manhattan without loss of life or equipment. Despite Howe's victory on Long Island, Washington steadfastly declined futile peace negotiations, demanding diplomatic protocol be observed.

The Royal Navy bombarded Manhattan's unstable earthworks, prompting Washington to evacuate Fort Washington and retreat north to White Plains. Howe's pursuit forced Washington to cross the Hudson River to Fort Lee to evade encirclement. By November, Howe landed troops on Manhattan and captured Fort Washington, inflicting heavy casualties on the Americans. Washington, facing criticism for delays in the retreat, led his diminished army through New Jersey as Howe established winter quarters in New York.

Crossing the Delaware, Trenton, and Princeton

 After crossing the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, where General John Sullivan joined him with additional troops, Washington faced numerous challenges. The Continental Army was plagued by a lack of supplies, harsh winter conditions, expiring enlistments, and desertions. Moreover, Washington encountered resistance from many New Jersey residents who remained loyal to the British Crown or were skeptical about the Patriot cause.

Meanwhile, General Howe, leading the British forces, strategically positioned a Hessian garrison at Trenton to maintain control over western New Jersey and the east shore of the Delaware River. Determined to secure a much-needed victory, Washington devised a daring plan for a surprise attack on Trenton. Dividing his army into three divisions, Washington personally oversaw the risky operation, braving hazardous conditions and the threat of capture. Despite challenges such as ice-obstructed rivers and adverse weather, Washington and his men successfully crossed the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776.

The Patriots marched through sleet and snowfall to Trenton, where they launched a surprise attack on the Hessian positions. Washington's strategic maneuvers and rallying cries spurred his men forward, resulting in a resounding victory over the unsuspecting Hessians. Following the triumph at Trenton, Washington led another successful attack on British regulars at Princeton, further bolstering Patriot morale and disrupting British supply lines.

These victories at Trenton and Princeton were instrumental in revitalizing Patriot morale and altering the trajectory of the war. They demonstrated the resilience and determination of the Continental Army, inspiring greater confidence among the Patriots and forcing the British to reassess their strategy. By early 1777, news of the American victories reached London, prompting the British to recognize the Patriots as a formidable adversary capable of demanding unconditional independence. Washington's strategic brilliance and leadership during these pivotal battles solidified his reputation as a visionary military commander and galvanized the Patriot cause.

Brandywine, Germantown, and Saratoga 

The events of July and September 1777 marked a challenging period for Washington and the Patriot cause. British General John Burgoyne's Saratoga campaign, aimed at dividing New England and gaining control of the Hudson River, posed a significant threat. However, General Howe's decision to divert his army south to Philadelphia instead of supporting Burgoyne near Albany proved to be a strategic blunder.

In response to Howe's movements, Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette rushed to Philadelphia to engage the British forces. Despite their efforts, Howe outmaneuvered Washington and successfully marched into Philadelphia, the nation's capital, after the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777. A subsequent Patriot attack on the British at Germantown in October also ended in failure.

Meanwhile, in Upstate New York, General Horatio Gates led the Patriots against Burgoyne's advancing army. Concerned about Burgoyne's movements, Washington sent reinforcements north, including Generals Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Lincoln. The pivotal Battles of Saratoga in October 1777 saw Burgoyne's forces isolated from support by Howe and ultimately forced to retreat and surrender.

Despite the Patriots' victory at Saratoga, Washington faced criticism and waning admiration from some quarters. Comparisons between the defeats suffered by Washington's forces and the concurrent victory in upper New York were inevitable. This criticism, coupled with the lack of credit from prominent figures like John Adams, contributed to a challenging period for Washington's leadership.

Despite these setbacks, Washington remained resolute and focused on maintaining the morale and determination of his troops. The events of 1777 underscored the complexities and challenges of the Revolutionary War, highlighting the importance of strategic decisions and effective leadership in the face of adversity.

Valley Forge and Monmouth

 The winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge was a challenging time for Washington and his Continental Army. Despite being north of Philadelphia, where the British were comfortably quartered, the Patriots faced dire conditions, including disease, lack of food, clothing, and shelter. Between 2,000 and 3,000 men perished during this harsh winter, further exacerbated by the devalued American currency and dwindling local resources.

In addition to these external challenges, Washington had to contend with internal dissent among his officers, notably led by Major General Thomas Conway. Some members of Congress even considered removing Washington from command. However, Washington's supporters rallied to his defense, and after the plot was exposed, Conway resigned and returned to France.

Throughout this trying period, Washington made repeated appeals to Congress for provisions, emphasizing the urgency of the situation. Eventually, supplies began to arrive, and the presence of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben proved invaluable. Von Steuben's rigorous drilling transformed the raw recruits into a disciplined fighting force by the end of the winter camp, earning him a promotion to Major General and the position of chief of staff.

The situation improved in early 1778 with the entry of the French into a Treaty of Alliance with the Americans, further bolstering their cause against Britain. Following Howe's resignation, Sir Henry Clinton assumed command of the British forces, leading to the evacuation of Philadelphia for New York in June 1778.

In response to the British retreat, Washington convened a war council comprising American and French generals. Despite some setbacks, such as the bungled attack led by Generals Charles Lee and Lafayette at the Battle of Monmouth, Washington managed to achieve a draw. This battle marked Washington's last major engagement in the North before shifting his focus to other strategic objectives.

West Point espionage 

Washington's role as America's first spymaster was crucial in gathering intelligence against the British during the Revolutionary War. He recognized the need for covert operations and espionage to gain an advantage over the enemy. In 1778, Major Benjamin Tallmadge established the Culper Ring under Washington's direction to gather intelligence in New York, then under British control.

Despite his success in espionage, Washington faced challenges, including incidents of disloyalty within his own ranks. Benedict Arnold, a celebrated military leader who had distinguished himself in several campaigns, including the invasion of Quebec and the Battle of Saratoga, turned traitor in 1780. Arnold began supplying sensitive information to British spymaster John André, aiming to betray West Point, a vital American stronghold on the Hudson River.

Historians speculate on various motives for Arnold's defection, including personal grievances such as perceived slights from Congress and Washington, financial troubles, and a desire for revenge. Arnold's treachery was discovered when André was captured by American militia carrying plans of West Point. Upon learning of Arnold's betrayal, Washington acted swiftly, recalling commanders under Arnold's authority and assuming personal command at West Point to secure its defenses.

Despite Washington's efforts to exchange André for Arnold, the British refused, and André was hanged as a spy. The event served as a stark warning against treason and espionage, underscoring Washington's determination to maintain the integrity and security of the revolutionary cause.

Southern theater and Yorktown

 In late 1778, General Clinton initiated a Southern invasion by sending troops to Georgia, reinforced by British and Loyalist forces. They successfully repelled attacks by American and French forces in Savannah, bolstering the British war effort. Additionally, in June 1778, Iroquois warriors and Loyalist rangers launched a devastating attack on the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, killing over 200 settlers.

In response to these attacks, Washington ordered General John Sullivan to lead an expedition to drive the Iroquois out of New York. The campaign, known as the Sullivan Expedition, aimed to destroy Iroquois villages and food stocks, resulting in the displacement of thousands of Iroquois people. While the campaign directly led to the deaths of several hundred Iroquois, its overall impact has been described by some historians as genocidal, as it significantly reduced the Iroquois population and their ability to survive.

The winter of 1779-1780 was particularly harsh for Washington's troops, as they faced freezing temperatures and lacked provisions while stationed in Morristown, New Jersey. Meanwhile, General Clinton launched a successful attack on Charles Town, South Carolina, leading to British occupation of the South Carolina Piedmont.

Despite these setbacks, Washington received reinforcements from France, including troops led by Marshal Rochambeau and naval forces led by Admiral de Grasse. With the French support, Washington's army went into winter quarters at New Windsor, New York in December 1780, while plans were made to confront the British in Virginia.

In response to Benedict Arnold's raids in Virginia, Washington sent Lafayette to counter his efforts. Initially considering an attack on New York, Washington ultimately decided to focus on Virginia after Rochambeau advised that Cornwallis in Virginia presented a better target. De Grasse's fleet arrived off the Virginia coast, allowing Washington to make a strategic move towards Virginia, ultimately leading to the decisive Siege of Yorktown in 1781.

Yorktown

 The siege of Yorktown was indeed a pivotal moment in the American Revolutionary War, marking a decisive victory for the combined American and French forces led by Washington, Rochambeau, and de Grasse. The successful encirclement of Yorktown and the French naval victory at the Battle of the Chesapeake played critical roles in securing the surrender of the British Army under General Cornwallis.

Washington's leadership during the siege was characterized by cooperation with Rochambeau and a reliance on his advice, despite his own limited experience in siege warfare. Rochambeau, in turn, respected Washington's overall command authority and did not challenge it during the battle.

The surrender of Cornwallis and his troops on October 19, 1781, marked the effective end of major military operations in the Revolutionary War. Washington's role in negotiating the terms of surrender demonstrated his diplomatic skill and leadership on the battlefield and in matters of statecraft.

Following the victory at Yorktown, Washington moved the army to New Windsor, New York, where they remained stationed until the formal end of the war with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783. While the peace treaty was not finalized until two years after the battle, Yorktown effectively brought an end to significant hostilities, leading to the eventual recognition of American independence by the British Parliament in March 1782.

Demobilization and resignation 

The period following the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783 was marked by significant transitions and Washington's continued leadership in shaping the future of the United States.

With peace negotiations underway, both the British and French began evacuating their forces, while the American treasury remained empty, leading to unrest among unpaid and mutinous soldiers. Washington successfully quelled the Newburgh Conspiracy, a planned mutiny by American officers, in March 1783, ensuring stability during this tumultuous period. Congress promised each soldier a five-year bonus to address their grievances.

Washington, ever mindful of the nation's future security, submitted his expenses of $450,000, equivalent to $9.15 million in 2022, which he had advanced to the army during the war. Despite some controversy over vague accounting and expenses incurred by his wife, Martha, Washington's account was settled.

In August 1783, Washington presented his "Sentiments on a Peace Establishment" to a Congressional committee led by Alexander Hamilton. This document advised Congress to maintain a standing army, establish a "national militia" composed of state units, create a navy, and establish a national military academy.

The Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, officially recognizing American independence. Washington disbanded the Continental Army and bid farewell to his soldiers on November 2, overseeing the evacuation of British forces from New York City and formally taking possession of the city on November 25.

In early December 1783, Washington bid farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern and resigned as commander-in-chief, delivering a solemn statement to Congress. His resignation was celebrated both at home and abroad, demonstrating the stability and strength of the new republic.

Later that month, Washington was appointed president-general of the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary fraternity of Revolutionary War officers, a position he held for the rest of his life. This appointment reflected the enduring respect and admiration for Washington's leadership and contributions to the nation's founding.

Early republic (1783–1789)

Return to Mount Vernon

Returning home to Mount Vernon after the long years of war, George Washington found solace in the tranquility of his estate. Despite being a celebrity and receiving constant visitors eager to pay their respects, Washington sought refuge from the "bustle of camp and the busy scenes of public life."

Eager to revitalize his estate and make it profitable again, Washington reactivated his interests in various projects, including the Great Dismal Swamp and Potomac canal projects. However, these ventures did not yield the expected dividends. Additionally, Washington embarked on a 34-day journey covering 680 miles to inspect his land holdings in the Ohio Country.

Facing financial challenges, Washington took measures to improve the profitability of Mount Vernon. He oversaw the completion of remodeling work on the estate, transforming it into the iconic mansion that stands today. Despite his efforts, Washington's financial situation remained precarious. He received payments from creditors in depreciated wartime currency, owed significant amounts in taxes and wages, and experienced poor crop yields due to pestilence and adverse weather conditions.

In an attempt to boost agricultural productivity, Washington implemented a new landscaping plan and began breeding mules after receiving a Spanish jack from King Charles III of Spain in 1784. Believing that mules could revolutionize agriculture and transportation in the United States, Washington saw this endeavor as a potential solution to his estate's financial woes.

Constitutional Convention of 1787

 Before returning to private life in June 1783, George Washington expressed his concerns about the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and the need for a stronger union. Despite his apprehensions about meddling in civil matters, Washington sent a circular letter to the states, warning that the current system was insufficient and vulnerable to anarchy, confusion, and foreign intervention. He advocated for a national constitution that would unify the states under a strong central government.

Washington's conviction for a national constitution was further reinforced by events like Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts, which highlighted the need for a more cohesive and effective government. When nationalists convened in Annapolis in September 1786 to discuss revising the Articles of Confederation, Washington's presence was deemed crucial for legitimacy and to encourage reluctant states to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in Spring 1787.

Initially hesitant, Washington ultimately agreed to attend the convention after consulting with James Madison, Henry Knox, and others. He arrived in Philadelphia in May 1787 and was unanimously elected to preside over the convention. While he harbored doubts about the outcome, Washington actively participated in the convention's proceedings, lending his prestige to the deliberations and lobbying for support for the new constitution.

Despite his concerns, Washington's leadership and influence helped guide the convention to a successful conclusion. On September 17, 1787, the delegates signed the final version of the Constitution, laying the foundation for the strong central government that Washington had advocated for.

Chancellor of William & Mary 

In 1788, the Board of Visitors of the College of William & Mary made the decision to re-establish the position of Chancellor, and George Washington was elected to this esteemed office on January 18. Samuel Griffin, the College Rector, extended an invitation to Washington to accept the position, and Washington officially agreed in a letter dated April 30, 1788. This appointment made Washington the 14th Chancellor of the College of William & Mary.

Washington continued to serve as Chancellor of the College of William & Mary throughout his presidency and until his passing on December 14, 1799. This position reflected his ongoing commitment to education and his dedication to serving the country in various capacities even during his tenure as President of the United States.

First presidential election 

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention indeed anticipated a Washington presidency, recognizing his leadership and character as crucial for the new nation. They left it to him to define the office once elected, reflecting their trust in his judgment and commitment to the country's welfare.

George Washington

Following the procedures outlined in the newly ratified Constitution, state electors cast their votes for the president on February 4, 1789. Although Washington suspected that most Republicans had not voted for him, he still won the majority of every state's electoral votes. The mandated inauguration date of March 4 passed without a Congressional quorum to count the votes, but a quorum was eventually reached on April 5. The votes were tallied the next day, confirming Washington's election as president. He was formally informed of his election by Congressional Secretary Charles Thomson.

John Adams, who received the next highest number of votes, was elected vice president. Despite feeling torn about leaving Mount Vernon, where he felt "anxious and painful sensations," Washington departed for New York City on April 16 to prepare for his inauguration as the first President of the United States.

Presidency (1789–1797)

Washington's presidency began with his inauguration on April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall in New York City, where he took the oath of office. Accompanied by militia and a marching band, Washington's coach led an inaugural parade through the streets, with statesmen and foreign dignitaries joining in the festivities. A crowd of around 10,000 people gathered to witness the historic event. Chancellor Robert R. Livingston administered the oath, using a Bible provided by the Masons, and a 13-gun salute followed.

In his inaugural address delivered in the Senate Chamber, Washington invoked the blessings of the Almighty for the liberties and happiness of the American people. Although he initially wished to serve without a salary, Congress insisted that he accept compensation, providing him with $25,000 per year to cover the expenses of the presidency.

Throughout his presidency, Washington sought to establish precedents based on true principles. He preferred the simple title of "Mr. President" over more extravagant alternatives proposed by the Senate. His executive actions, including the inaugural address, regular messages to Congress, and the establishment of the cabinet, set important precedents for future administrations.

George Washington

Initially planning to resign after one term, Washington was persuaded to remain in office due to political strife. He demonstrated strong administrative skills, regularly consulting with department heads and tolerating opposing views. Despite his non-partisan stance, Washington favored a strong central government and was cautious of political division.

Washington faced numerous challenges during his presidency, including the need to strengthen the federal government, address financial issues inherited from the Confederation, and deal with foreign threats such as Britain's refusal to relinquish forts in the American West and Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean.

Cabinet and executive departments

  In 1789, Congress established executive departments to assist in the administration of the new government. These included the State Department in July, the War Department in August, and the Treasury Department in September. Washington appointed key figures to lead these departments, forming his cabinet: Edmund Randolph as Attorney General, Samuel Osgood as Postmaster General, Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Henry Knox as Secretary of War, and Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury.

Washington's cabinet served as a consulting and advisory body, despite not being mandated by the Constitution. However, the cabinet quickly became a forum for the expression of sharply contrasting views and rivalries among its members, most notably between Hamilton and Jefferson. Their differing perspectives on issues such as the national debt, the role of government, and foreign policy led to intense debates within the cabinet.

Washington adopted a hands-off approach to cabinet discussions, typically setting the agenda and observing rather than actively participating in debates. He occasionally sought the written opinions of his cabinet members and expected them to carry out his decisions once made, regardless of their personal viewpoints. Despite the disagreements within his cabinet, Washington maintained a sense of unity and cohesion among his administration, ensuring that the government functioned effectively during its formative years.

Domestic issues 

Washington's presidency marked the emergence of political factions that would eventually evolve into the First Party System. Despite his apolitical stance and opposition to party formation, his closest advisors, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, became the leaders of two opposing factions.

Hamilton founded the Federalist Party, advocating for a strong national government and policies to promote economic growth and national credit. Jefferson, on the other hand, opposed Hamilton's centralizing agenda and championed states' rights and agrarian interests, leading to the formation of the Jeffersonian Republicans.

While Washington preferred Hamilton's vision for the nation, he attempted to maintain unity within his administration and the country at large. However, the contentious debates between Hamilton and Jefferson's factions led to bitter controversies.

Washington's efforts to foster national unity included declaring November 26, 1789, as a day of Thanksgiving. In his proclamation, he emphasized the importance of acknowledging divine providence, expressing gratitude for blessings, and seeking divine protection and favor. On that day, Washington himself fasted and visited debtors in prison, providing them with food and beer as a gesture of compassion and unity.

African Americans

 During Washington's presidency, the issue of slavery continued to deeply divide the nation, leading to a series of legislative measures that reflected the prevailing racist attitudes and the political realities of the time.

In response to threats of civil war from slaveholders in Georgia and South Carolina following antislavery petitions, Washington and Congress implemented measures that reinforced the institution of slavery. These included denying naturalization to black immigrants, barring blacks from serving in state militias, and allowing the expansion of slavery into new territories such as the Southwest Territory (later Tennessee). Additionally, two new slave states, Kentucky and Tennessee, were admitted to the Union during Washington's presidency.

On February 12, 1793, Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law, which empowered slave owners and their agents to recapture escaped slaves even in free states, overriding state laws and courts. This law was deeply criticized by many free blacks in the North, who feared its implications for their own freedom and safety.

Despite these measures, Washington also took steps that somewhat mitigated the expansion of slavery. He signed a reenactment of the Northwest Ordinance in 1789, which prohibited slavery in federal territories north of the Ohio River. Additionally, he signed the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which placed limitations on American participation in the transatlantic slave trade.

Amidst these conflicting policies, Congress admitted Vermont as the 14th state in 1791, marking a significant development in the nation's expansion while also highlighting the ongoing tensions surrounding the issue of slavery.

National Bank 

During George Washington's first term as president, the economic challenges facing the new federal government took center stage. Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, played a pivotal role in addressing these challenges through his ambitious financial policies.

One of the primary issues was the establishment of public credit. Hamilton submitted a comprehensive report to Congress outlining his proposals, but the divided Congress could not reach a consensus. To break the deadlock, Hamilton, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson brokered the Compromise of 1790. In exchange for Jefferson's support for Hamilton's debt proposals, the nation's capital was temporarily moved to Philadelphia and then ultimately to a site along the Potomac River, near Georgetown. This compromise was enshrined in legislation, including the Funding Act of 1790 and the Residence Act, both of which Washington signed into law. These measures authorized the assumption and payment of the nation's debts, funded by customs duties and excise taxes.

One of Hamilton's most controversial proposals was the establishment of the First Bank of the United States. Despite objections from Jefferson and Madison, Congress passed legislation creating the bank. Jefferson and Randolph argued that the federal government was overstepping its constitutional bounds, while Hamilton contended that the bank fell within the government's implied powers. Ultimately, Washington sided with Hamilton and signed the bank legislation into law in February 1791. This decision further strained the relationship between Hamilton and Jefferson, leading to open hostility between the two.

The nation faced its first financial crisis in March 1792, as Hamilton's Federalists took advantage of large loans to gain control of U.S. debt securities, causing a run on the national bank. Despite suspicions from Jefferson that Hamilton was involved in the scheme, the markets stabilized by mid-April, although tensions between the two factions persisted.

Jefferson–Hamilton feud

 The stark differences between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton's political philosophies led to intense conflicts and infighting during George Washington's presidency. Hamilton advocated for a strong national government, emphasizing the need for institutions like a national bank and foreign loans to ensure the functioning of the government. On the other hand, Jefferson believed in a more decentralized system where states and agrarian interests played a primary role in governance. He opposed the idea of banks and foreign loans, viewing them as threats to republican ideals.

Washington, dismayed by the persistent disputes between his two key advisors, urged them to set aside their differences for the sake of the nation. However, their conflicts only escalated. Hamilton even went as far as demanding Jefferson's resignation if he couldn't support Washington, while Jefferson warned Washington that Hamilton's fiscal system would lead to the downfall of the republic.

Jefferson's support for Philip Freneau's National Gazette and his efforts to undermine Hamilton further strained his relationship with Washington. Eventually, in December 1793, Jefferson resigned from his position in the cabinet, and Washington, feeling forsaken by Jefferson, let him go.

The feud between Jefferson and Hamilton laid the groundwork for the formation of the Federalist and Republican parties, with party affiliation becoming crucial for election to Congress by 1794. While Washington remained neutral in the public eye, he did not actively defend Hamilton against congressional attacks. Even amidst the Hamilton–Reynolds sex scandal, which tarnished Hamilton's reputation, Washington continued to hold him in high regard.

Whiskey Rebellion 

In March of 1791, under Hamilton's persuasion and with Madison's support, Congress implemented an excise tax on distilled spirits to alleviate the national debt, which became effective in July. This decision sparked strong opposition from grain farmers in Pennsylvania's frontier regions, who felt unfairly burdened by the tax and likened their plight to pre-Revolution British taxation.

On August 2, facing escalating tensions, Washington convened his cabinet to address the situation. While Washington approached the issue cautiously, Hamilton advocated for federal intervention to quell the rebellion. Initially, Washington sought to involve Pennsylvania state officials but was met with refusal. Consequently, on August 7, he issued a proclamation calling up state militias in an attempt to restore order. He emphasized the legitimacy of federal law, enacted by duly elected representatives, as opposed to British rule.

Despite Washington's efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully, threats and violence against tax collectors persisted, leading to the escalation of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. Despite Washington's final warning on September 25, which threatened military intervention, the situation remained unresolved. Facing a lack of federal troops, Washington invoked the Militia Act of 1792 to mobilize state militias. Troops, initially under Washington's command, were later led by Henry Lee into the rebellious districts, resulting in the capture of 150 rebels and the dispersal of the remaining insurgents. Although two rebels were sentenced to death, Washington exercised his Constitutional authority to pardon them.

This decisive action by Washington demonstrated the federal government's ability to protect itself and enforce its laws, marking the first instance of federal military force deployed against citizens. Washington justified his actions as necessary to counter "subversive organizations" threatening national unity, while affirming citizens' right to protest within the bounds of federal law. Congress applauded Washington's actions, although Madison and Jefferson remained indifferent.

Foreign affairs 

In April of 1792, amidst the onset of the French Revolutionary Wars between Britain and France, President Washington declared America's neutrality. The French revolutionary government dispatched diplomat Edmond-Charles Genêt to America, where he was warmly received and established a network of Democratic-Republican Societies to promote French interests. However, Washington strongly opposed these societies and demanded Genêt's recall. Despite this, the National Assembly of France honored Washington with honorary French citizenship on August 26, 1792, amid the early stages of the French Revolution.

Meanwhile, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton devised the Jay Treaty to normalize trade relations with Britain, secure the removal of British forces from western forts, and address lingering financial debts from the Revolution. Chief Justice John Jay served as Washington's negotiator, finalizing the treaty on November 19, 1794. Although criticized by Jeffersonians who favored France, Washington supported the treaty as a means to avoid war with Britain, despite disappointment over its provisions favoring Britain. Despite facing public backlash, Washington rallied public support and secured Senate ratification.

Under the terms of the treaty, Britain agreed to evacuate forts around the Great Lakes, while the United States adjusted its boundary with Canada. Additionally, the United States settled numerous pre-Revolutionary debts, and Britain granted access to the British West Indies for American trade. The treaty ushered in a decade of peace and prosperity in trade relations. However, Jefferson argued that it provoked France and risked war.

Following the treaty's implementation, relations with France soured, leading to escalating tensions. Just before Washington's presidency ended, the French Directory asserted the authority to seize American ships, leaving his successor, John Adams, facing the looming threat of war with France.

Native American affairs 

During the autumn of 1789, President Washington faced challenges as the British refused to vacate their forts in the Northwest frontier and actively encouraged Indian tribes to launch attacks against American settlers. The tribes in the Northwest, led by Miami chief Little Turtle, formed alliances with the British to resist American expansion, resulting in the deaths of 1,500 settlers between 1783 and 1790.

Washington asserted that the United States government was committed to conducting Indian affairs with justice and humanity, emphasizing the importance of negotiating treaties to address land interests. Viewing powerful tribes as foreign nations, Washington personally engaged in diplomacy, even participating in traditional ceremonies such as smoking a peace pipe and sharing wine with indigenous leaders at the President's House in Philadelphia. He made numerous efforts to reconcile differences and advocated for the integration of indigenous peoples into American society.

In the Southwest, negotiations faltered between federal commissioners and raiding Indian tribes seeking retribution. Washington extended an invitation to Creek Chief Alexander McGillivray and 24 other chiefs to New York for treaty negotiations, treating them as foreign dignitaries. The resulting Treaty of New York, signed on August 7, 1790, provided tribes with agricultural assistance and bestowed upon McGillivray the rank of Brigadier General, along with an annual salary.

In 1790, Washington dispatched Brigadier General Josiah Harmar to pacify the Northwest tribes, but Little Turtle's forces inflicted two defeats on him, compelling his retreat. Employing guerrilla tactics, the Northwestern Confederacy effectively countered the undermanned American Army. To address the escalating conflict, Washington replaced St. Clair with Revolutionary War hero Anthony Wayne, who from 1792 to 1793, trained his troops in Native American warfare tactics and enforced discipline.

In August 1794, Washington authorized Wayne to take aggressive action against the tribes, resulting in the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 24, where the American army decisively defeated the Northwestern Confederacy. The subsequent Treaty of Greenville in August 1795 opened up two-thirds of the Ohio Country for American settlement, marking a significant victory in securing the Northwest frontier.

Second term 

Initially, President Washington intended to retire after his first term, feeling worn out by the demands of office and his declining health. Additionally, dealing with internal conflicts within his cabinet and facing criticism from partisan opponents left him with little enthusiasm for a second term, a sentiment shared by his wife Martha. Compounding his desire to step down was the critical illness of his nephew George Augustine Washington, who managed Mount Vernon in his absence.

Despite his reluctance, Washington was urged by many to seek re-election. James Madison warned him that his absence could exacerbate the political divisions within his cabinet and the House of Representatives. Thomas Jefferson pleaded with him to remain in office, agreeing to cease his attacks on Alexander Hamilton and even offering to retire alongside Washington if he chose to do so. Hamilton argued that Washington's absence would be detrimental to the country's well-being. Ultimately, Washington yielded to the pressure and decided to run for a second term in the upcoming 1792 election.

On February 13, 1793, the Electoral College unanimously re-elected Washington as president and John Adams as vice president. He took the oath of office on March 4, 1793, in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia, administered by Associate Justice William Cushing. Following a brief address, Washington retired to the President's House.

As the French Revolutionary Wars erupted on April 22, 1793, Washington issued a proclamation declaring American neutrality. Despite his initial recognition of France's revolutionary government, he eventually requested the recall of French minister Edmond-Charles Genêt due to his disruptive actions, which violated Washington's neutrality policy.

Over the course of his second term, Washington faced resignations from key members of his cabinet, including Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, both of whom departed for personal reasons. Additionally, tensions with Secretary of War Henry Knox escalated amid rumors of financial impropriety, leading to Knox's resignation.

In the face of mounting criticism from political opponents and a hostile press, Washington chose to retire at the end of his second term, dismayed by the personal attacks he endured. His retirement set a significant precedent, demonstrating the peaceful transfer of power and establishing the tradition of presidential term limits.

Farewell Address 

In 1796, President Washington made the decision not to seek a third term in office. As he prepared for retirement, he tasked James Madison with drafting a "valedictory address", which eventually became known as the "Farewell Address". Originally penned in May 1792, Washington sent the manuscript to Alexander Hamilton for extensive revisions. After final edits by Washington himself, the address was published in its final form on September 19, 1796, in David Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser.

In his address, Washington emphasized the importance of national unity, asserting that a united America was essential for safeguarding freedom and prosperity. He cautioned against three significant dangers: regionalism, partisanship, and foreign entanglements, stressing the significance of the collective American identity. Washington urged citizens to prioritize the common good over partisan interests and warned against foreign alliances interfering in domestic affairs, as well as the divisive nature of political parties.

Washington advocated for friendly relations and trade with all nations but advised against entangling the United States in European conflicts. He underscored the significance of religion and morality in maintaining a republican government, stating that they were indispensable pillars of society.

The address reflected Hamilton's Federalist ideology and economic policies, favoring a strong central government. Washington concluded by reflecting on his own legacy, acknowledging the possibility of errors in his administration and expressing hope for his country's continued prosperity and forgiveness for any shortcomings.

Upon its publication, the Farewell Address received criticism from Republicans, including Madison, who viewed it as an anti-French campaign document and believed Washington to be strongly pro-British. However, over time, the address gained acclaim and recognition for its political wisdom and enduring influence. Historians have praised it as one of the most influential statements on republicanism, alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address.

Post-presidency (1797–1799)

Retirement 

In March 1797, President Washington retired to his beloved Mount Vernon, where he focused on managing his plantations and other business endeavors. Despite his aspirations, his plantation operations yielded minimal profits, especially in the face of Indian attacks on his lands in the west, which further diminished his income. Attempts to sell these lands were unsuccessful, compounded by squatters who refused to pay rent.

Throughout retirement, Washington's commitment to Federalist principles deepened. He actively supported the Alien and Sedition Acts and strategically encouraged Federalist candidates like John Marshall to challenge the Jeffersonian dominance in Virginia.

However, retirement did not bring complete tranquility for Washington. Tensions with France, particularly amid the "Quasi-War" and French privateers seizing American ships, prompted him to offer his services to President Adams. Consequently, he was nominated for a lieutenant general commission and appointed as commander-in-chief of the armies, a position he held until his death 17 months later.

Washington's wealth, primarily tied up in land and slaves rather than liquid assets, prompted him to explore additional sources of income. He erected a distillery for whiskey production and strategically purchased land parcels to stimulate development around the newly established Federal City, now Washington, D.C.

Final days and death 

In his final days, Washington's health deteriorated rapidly. On December 12, 1799, after inspecting his farms in the cold and damp weather, he developed a sore throat. Despite efforts to alleviate his symptoms, including bloodletting, his condition worsened. Washington passed away on December 14, 1799, at the age of 67. His death prompted a national outpouring of grief, with Congress adjourning, and memorial processions held across the country. The diagnosis of his illness and the cause of his death have been subjects of debate, with modern medical experts attributing it to severe epiglottitis compounded by medical treatments such as bloodletting.

Burial, net worth, and aftermath

Following his death, George Washington was interred in the old Washington family vault at Mount Vernon. At the time, his estate was valued at approximately $780,000 in 1799, equivalent to $13.72 million in today's currency. Washington's peak net worth was estimated at $587 million, primarily comprised of land and over 300 enslaved individuals.

In 1830, an attempt to steal what was believed to be Washington's skull prompted the construction of a more secure vault. Washington's will had already instructed the construction of a new vault due to the deterioration of the old one. Consequently, a new vault was built at Mount Vernon the following year to accommodate the remains of George and Martha Washington, along with other family members.

In 1832, a Congressional committee debated relocating Washington's body to a crypt in the Capitol. However, strong Southern opposition, fueled by concerns of a growing North-South divide and the possibility of Washington's remains being removed from his native soil, led to the decision to keep Washington at Mount Vernon.

On October 7, 1837, Washington's remains, still in their original lead coffin, were placed within a marble sarcophagus designed by William Strickland and constructed by John Struthers. The sarcophagus was sealed and encased with planks, with an outer vault constructed around it. Both George and Martha Washington are interred within the outer vault, while the inner vault houses the remains of other Washington family members and relatives.

Personal life

George Washington was known for his reserved personality but commanded a strong presence. While not a noted orator or debater, he was capable of delivering speeches and announcements when necessary. Standing taller than most of his contemporaries, Washington's height ranged from 6 feet to 6 feet 3.5 inches, with a weight between 210 to 220 pounds. He possessed a robust physique and was admired for his great strength.

With grey-blue eyes and long reddish-brown hair, Washington adopted the fashion of the time by wearing his hair curled, powdered, and tied in a queue, rather than opting for a powdered wig.

Throughout his life, Washington battled severe tooth decay, ultimately losing all but one of his teeth. Contrary to popular belief, his false teeth were not made of wood but consisted of various materials including metal, ivory, bone, and human teeth, possibly obtained from slaves. These dental issues caused him constant pain, which he managed with the use of laudanum.

A skilled equestrian, Washington was described by Thomas Jefferson as "the best horseman of his age". He took pleasure in collecting thoroughbred horses at Mount Vernon, with Blueskin and Nelson being among his favorites. In addition to horseback riding, Washington enjoyed hunting foxes, deer, ducks, and other game.

Washington also possessed a refined social life, frequently attending the theater and displaying his talents as an excellent dancer. While he drank alcohol in moderation, he held strong moral convictions against excessive drinking, smoking tobacco, gambling, and the use of profanity.

Religious and spiritual views

George Washington's religious beliefs and affiliations were deeply ingrained in his life and worldview. He came from a lineage that included Anglican minister Lawrence Washington, whose experiences with the Church of England possibly influenced the family's decision to immigrate to America. Baptized as an infant in April 1732, Washington remained a devoted member of the Anglican Church throughout his life. He served as a vestryman and churchwarden for over two decades at various parishes in Virginia.

Privately, Washington was known to pray and read the Bible daily, and he publicly encouraged others to do the same. His religious beliefs centered on a belief in a wise and active Creator God, contrary to deistic thought of the time. He often referred to God using terms such as Providence, the Creator, or the Almighty, believing in a divine power that intervened in human affairs, including the outcome of wars and the creation of the United States.

While Washington's religious convictions were evident, he avoided using religion for partisan purposes or in official capacities. He rarely mentioned Jesus Christ in his private correspondence and public writings, although he frequently quoted from the Bible and referred to Anglican liturgical texts.

Washington emphasized religious toleration, attending services of different Christian denominations and prohibiting anti-Catholic celebrations in the Army. He believed in the importance of acknowledging and respecting the diverse religious beliefs present in the nation. Rooted in Enlightenment ideals, he valued reason and rationality but did not hold contempt for organized Christianity or its clergy.

As a Freemason, Washington was attracted to the organization's moral teachings and principles of brotherhood. While he held high regard for the Masonic Order, his lodge attendance was sporadic due to his numerous commitments. However, he maintained correspondence with Masonic lodges and members throughout his life and was listed as a Master in the Virginia charter of Alexandria Lodge No. 22.

Overall, Washington's religious beliefs reflected a blend of Enlightenment rationality, Christian morality, and a commitment to religious tolerance and pluralism.

Slavery

During George Washington's lifetime, slavery was deeply entrenched in the economic and social structure of the Colony of Virginia. This practice persisted even after the American Revolution and the establishment of Virginia as a state. Slavery was legal throughout all of the Thirteen Colonies prior to the Revolution, with the institution playing a significant role in shaping the labor force and economy of the region.

Washington's slaves

George Washington's relationship with slavery was complex and evolved over time. He owned and rented enslaved African Americans throughout his life, with over 577 slaves living and working at Mount Vernon at various points. Washington acquired slaves through inheritance, marriage, and purchase, eventually renting some of them.

While Washington initially held views on slavery typical of Virginia planters of his time, his perspective began to change in the 1760s. Economic factors, such as the transition from tobacco to grain crops, prompted him to question the efficiency of the institution. Additionally, his exposure to revolutionary principles and influences from friends like Lafayette and Hamilton further fueled his growing opposition to slavery.

However, despite his evolving attitudes, Washington remained dependent on slave labor to run his farms. Contemporary reports on the treatment of slaves at Mount Vernon vary, with some suggesting frugality and strict control, while others describe adequate living conditions and occasional time off.

George Washington

Washington faced increasing debts associated with maintaining his slave population. While he held a sense of racial superiority, he did not harbor personal animosity toward African Americans. Some enslaved families were allowed to visit each other on days off, and slaves received time off for meals, Sundays, and religious holidays.

While Washington reportedly opposed flogging, it was sometimes used as a last resort for discipline. He employed a mix of reward and punishment strategies to encourage productivity and discipline among his slaves. Despite his efforts, some slaves attempted escape, such as Ona Judge and Hercules Posey.

Washington's slave population at Mount Vernon grew over the years, including individuals too young or old to work, leading to financial strain on the plantation. Despite his personal conflicts and attempts to navigate the complexities of slavery, Washington's actions ultimately perpetuated the institution within his own life and holdings.

Abolition and manumission 

George Washington's views on slavery evolved throughout his life, influenced by his experiences and the changing social and political climate of the time. While he initially held typical Virginia planter attitudes toward slavery, his perspective began to shift during the Revolutionary War. By the late 1780s, Washington privately expressed support for gradual emancipation and engaged in discussions with abolitionists.

Although he refrained from public advocacy for abolitionism during his presidency, Washington privately expressed his repugnance toward slavery and his desire to see it ended. In his later years, he took concrete steps toward emancipation by including provisions in his will to free his slaves upon Martha's death. This decision reflected his moral qualms about the institution and his commitment to ensuring the welfare of those he enslaved.

George Washington

Ultimately, Washington's will emancipated 123 slaves, making him one of the few large slave-holding Virginians of his time to take such action. His decision was significant, demonstrating a willingness to confront the contradictions between the ideals of liberty and the reality of slavery. Even after his death, Martha Washington carried out his wishes by signing an order to free his slaves, ensuring that they were provided for and allowed to remain in the area if they wished.

Washington's journey toward abolitionism underscores the complexities of grappling with deeply entrenched social and economic systems, as well as the moral imperative to confront injustice and pursue equality. While he may not have fully realized his ideals during his lifetime, his actions left a lasting legacy in the struggle for freedom and justice for all Americans.

Historical reputation and legacy

George Washington's legacy remains deeply ingrained in American history, representing a foundational figure in the nation's founding and development. As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he led the nation to victory in the Revolutionary War, establishing himself as a hero and symbol of liberation. His leadership as the first president of the United States set numerous precedents for the office and the federal government, earning him the title "Father of His Country."

Throughout history, Washington has been celebrated for his integrity, courage, and leadership, with phrases like "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen" becoming synonymous with his name. Congress proclaimed his birthday a federal holiday, and he was posthumously appointed as General of the Armies of the United States, a testament to his enduring significance.

George Washington

However, in the 21st century, Washington's legacy has faced critical scrutiny, particularly regarding his attitudes and actions toward Native Americans and his ownership of enslaved people. While some historians emphasize his attempts to maintain peace and fairness in dealings with Native Americans, others highlight his involvement in policies and campaigns that led to the dispossession and mistreatment of indigenous peoples.

Likewise, Washington's ownership of enslaved individuals has prompted reevaluation of his character and legacy. Despite expressing personal reservations about slavery and taking steps toward emancipation in his later years, he did not actively advocate for abolition or support initiatives to end the institution. This aspect of his legacy has sparked debates and calls for the removal of his name and statues from public spaces by some activists.

Overall, George Washington's legacy reflects the complexities of American history, encompassing both his significant contributions to the nation's founding and his involvement in contentious issues that continue to shape contemporary discourse. As society grapples with these complexities, Washington's role in American history remains a subject of ongoing examination and debate.

Places, namesakes, and monuments

Indeed, George Washington's influence extends to contemporary American currency and postage stamps. His likeness graces the one-dollar bill, the Presidential one-dollar coin, and the quarter-dollar coin, commonly known as the Washington quarter. This widespread presence on currency reflects his enduring status as a foundational figure in American history and a symbol of the nation's identity.

Washington's image also holds significance in the realm of postage stamps. He and Benjamin Franklin were featured on the nation's first postage stamps in 1847, and Washington has since appeared on numerous postage issues, surpassing any other individual in terms of frequency. This continued presence on postage stamps underscores his significance in shaping the United States' cultural and historical landscape, serving as a reminder of his lasting impact on the nation.

George Washington

Currency and postage

George Washington's influence is evident in the numerous places and monuments named in his honor, reflecting his enduring legacy as a pivotal figure in American history:

George Washington

Washington, D.C.: The capital of the United States was named after George Washington, serving as a testament to his central role in the nation's founding and development.

George Washington

State of Washington: Washington is the only U.S. state named after a president, further highlighting his significance in American history.

George Washington

Washington Monument: This iconic marble obelisk, standing at 555 feet tall on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., serves as a prominent tribute to George Washington's leadership and legacy. It was dedicated on February 21, 1885, and was the tallest structure in the world at the time of its completion.

George Washington

Mount Rushmore: George Washington is immortalized alongside three other U.S. presidents—Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln—on the colossal Mount Rushmore sculpture in South Dakota, created by sculptor Gutzon Borglum.

George Washington

Educational Institutions: Numerous secondary schools and universities bear George Washington's name, including George Washington University and Washington University in St. Louis. These institutions serve as reminders of his contributions to education and scholarship.

These landmarks and institutions stand as enduring tributes to George Washington's leadership, character, and profound impact on the United States and its history.

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