George Washington

Historical Figures: George Washington (Biography)

The life, times, and achievements of the first President of the USA.

George Washington (1732-1799), the eldest son of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington, was born on February 22, 1732, in Pope’s Creek Estate in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

Washington, who got homeschooled until the age 16, worked as a land surveyor for four years before taking over the post of district adjutant following the death of his younger brother, Lawrence.

One of the chief duties of an adjutant was training the conscripts of the local militia. It was here where Washington was first exposed to the art of leadership and military strategy.

At the onset of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), the British Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, promoted Washington to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the colonial militia based in Fort Necessity. Unfortunately, Lt. Col. Washington’s militia was defeated by the French forces in July 1754.

Governor Dinwiddie reassigned Lt. Col. Washington to be under the command of Major General Edward Braddock. The latter was sent from England by the British government to lead the counteroffensive against the French.

The battle to recapture Fort Duquesne ended with another defeat. Still, Lt. Col. Washington impressed everyone present with his bravery and intelligence, leading to his promotion to Commander-in-Chief of the Virginia militia, with the rank of Major. There were reports that Lt. Col. Washington braved the bullets and bayonets to carry a dying General Braddock off the field of battle.

Fort Duquesne Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Image Source: The New York Public Library via WikiMedia)

Major Washington, now back to civilian life, married the widow Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759 and established residence in her home in Mount Vernon. He took over the management of his family’s estate and became a gentlemen farmer.

For his service to the state in the French and Indian War, Governor Dinwiddie eventually paid him a bounty of around 23,000 acres of land. A year earlier, Major Washington got elected to the Virginia legislature, the House of Burgesses.

The war hero grew prosperous and became one of the most respected men in Virginia, a leading figure in the state’s social and political circles.

The introduction of the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767, a series of direct taxes created by the British Parliament to help pay the cost of soldiers stationed in the colonies, proved to be the catalyst of the burgeoning opposition movement.

However, the passing of the Intolerable Acts in 1774 proved to be the final straw for Major Washington, who considered the bill as an “invasion of our rights and privileges.”

Major Washington organized a meeting in Fairfax County, Virginia, in July 1774 which went on to adopt a series of resolutions rejecting the legality of the British Parliaments’ claim of authority over the American colonies.

A month later, he attended the First Virginia Convention, where he got chosen to represent the state in the First Continental Congress at the Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The First Continental Congress, 1774 (Image Source: US Capitol via Flickr)
The First Continental Congress, 1774 (Image Source: US Capitol via Flickr)

Eight months later, the Second Continental Congress convened. By then, the American Revolutionary War had already begun with the first military engagements taking place near Boston (Battles of Lexington and Concord).

The Congress created the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, and Major George Washington was promoted to General and subsequently appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

Despite General Washington’s average ability as a military strategist, he surprisingly managed to lead the inexperienced colonial soldiers and militia into successive victories against the British forces, often using tactics that bears some similarity to modern guerilla warfare.

After five years of brutal battle, the arrival of French troops in 1780 gave the American forces a second wind, and they steadily forced the British troops into retreat.

On October 19, 1781, British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown, Virginia.

Statue of George Washington outside the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, USA.
Statue of George Washington outside the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, USA.

The War of Independence was finally over, and General Washington was a national hero. There were even calls to crown him as King. Colonel Lewis Nicola, Commander of the Corps of Invalids, famously proposed that General Washington assumed the title of King George I of the United States. General Washington rejected the offer, sternly noting;

You could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.

General Washington retired from the Continental Army in 1783 and returned to his Mount Vernon estate. However, it soon became evident that General Washington was desperately needed to stabilize the fledgeling government in Philadelphia.

After much persuasion, he put his retirement on hold and travelled there in 1787. The delegates promptly elected him to chair the convention.

Although General Washington did not actively participate in the discussions, his mere presence gave the framers of the Constitution an air of legitimacy so lacking in the previous three years.

After the States ratified the Constitution, the members of the Electoral College unanimously elected General Washington to be the new nation’s first President.

Washington's Inauguration, 1789 (Image Source: US Capitol via Flickr)
Washington’s Inauguration, 1789 (Image Source: US Capitol via Flickr)

President George Washington took his oath of office on April 30, 1789, on the balcony of the Federal Hall in New York City.

After his oath, President Washington gave a speech to the attending masses, and in the process, establishing the tradition of the Inaugural Address.

As his term neared its end, President Washington informed his cabinet of his decision to retire and requested James Madison to prepare a farewell address. However, the combined persuasive powers of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, to name a few, succeeded in persuading Washington to lead the country for four more years.

General Washington once again was elected unanimously by members of the Electoral College on February 13, 1793. He could’ve easily served a third term in office, had he wanted to.

Instead, after his second term in 1797, President Washington returned to Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, his retirement proved to be a short-lived affair. President Washington passed away on December 14, 1799, at the age of 67 due to a throat infection.

The whole country was shocked by the news, and there were public outpouring of grief across the nation.

In France, Napoleon Bonaparte, who looked upon President Washington as a role model, ordered the nation to observe ten days of mourning.

Even the recently defeated Britain paid her respect, ordering the entire Royal Navy fleet to lower flags at half-mast.

A small funeral took place at Mount Vernon, where a small crowd of family and friends attended. However, mock funerals were held all over the country in the following days, weeks, and months.

Virginia Representative, Henry Lee III, a friend and fellow Revolutionary War veteran of President Washington, delivered the official eulogy.

First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life: Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting.

To his equals he was condescending; to his inferiors kind; and to the dear object of his affections exemplarily tender: Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand; the purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.

His last scene comported with the whole tenor of his life: Although in extreme pain, not a sigh, not a groan escaped him; and with undisturbed serenity he closed his well spent life. Such was the man America has lost! Such was the man for whom our nation mourns!

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