Commander in chief of the Continental army in the American Revolution, called the Father of His Country.
He was born on Feb. 22, 1732 (Feb. 11, 1731, O.S.), the first son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington, on the family estate (later known as Wakefield) in Westmoreland co., Va. Of a wealthy family, Washington embarked upon a career as a surveyor and in 1748 was invited to go with the party that was to survey Baron Fairfax's lands W of the Blue Ridge. In 1749 he was appointed to his first public office, surveyor of newly created Culpeper co., and through his half-brother Lawrence Washington he became interested in the Ohio Company, which had as its object the exploitation of Western lands. After Lawrence's death (1752), George inherited part of his estate and took over some of Lawrence's duties as adjutant of the colony. As district adjutant, which made (Dec., 1752) him Major Washington at the age of 20, he was charged with training the militia in the quarter assigned him.
The French and Indian War
Washington first gained public notice late in 1753 when he volunteered to carry a message from Gov. Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia to the French moving into the Ohio country, warning them to quit the territory, which was claimed by the British. In delivering the message Washington learned that the French were planning a further advance. He hastened back to Virginia, where he was commissioned lieutenant colonel by Dinwiddie and sent with about 400 men to reinforce the post that Dinwiddie had ordered built at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.
The French, however, captured the post before he could reach it, and on hearing that they were approaching in force, Washington retired to the Great Meadows to build (July) an entrenched camp (Fort Necessity). Late in May he had won his first military victory (and his colonelcy) when he surprised (through the intelligence of his Native American allies) a small body of French troops. The French soon avenged this defeat, overwhelming him with a superior force at Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754. He surrendered on easy terms on July 4 and returned to Virginia with the survivors of his command. These battles marked the beginning of the last of the French and Indian Wars in America, in which Washington continued to figure.
As an aide to Edward Braddock he acquitted himself with honor in that general's disastrous expedition against Fort Duquesne in 1755. After the debacle he was appointed commander in chief of the Virginia militia to defend the frontier, and in 1758 he commanded one of the three brigades in the expedition headed by Gen. John Forbes that took an abandoned Fort Duquesne. With this episode his pre-Revolutionary military career ended.
The American Revolution
In 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a rich young widow, and settled on his estate at Mt. Vernon. He was a member (1759–74) of the house of burgesses, became a leader in Virginian opposition to the British colonial policy, and served (1774–75) as a delegate to the Continental Congress. After the American Revolution broke out at Concord and Lexington, the Congress organized for defense, and, largely through the efforts of John Adams, Washington was named (June 15, 1775) commander in chief of the Continental forces.
He took command (July 3, 1775) at Cambridge, Mass., and found not an army but a force of unorganized, poorly disciplined, short-term enlisted militia, officered by men who were often insubordinate. He was faced with the problem of holding the British at Boston with a force that had to be trained in the field, and he was constantly hampered by congressional interference. Washington momentarily overcame these handicaps with the brilliant strategic move of occupying Dorchester Heights, forcing the British to evacuate Boston on March 17, 1776.
Against his wishes the Continental Congress compelled him to attempt to defend New York City with a poorly equipped and untrained army against a large British land and sea force commanded by Sir William Howe. He was not yet experienced enough to conduct a large-scale action, and he committed a military blunder by sending part of his force to Brooklyn, where it was defeated (see Long Island, battle of) and surrounded. With the British fleet ready to close the only escape route, Washington saved his army with a masterly amphibious retreat across the East River back to Manhattan. Seeing that his position was completely untenable, he began a retreat northward into Westchester co., which was marked by delaying actions at Harlem Heights and White Plains and by the treacherous insubordination of Charles Lee. The retreat continued across the Hudson River through New Jersey into Pennsylvania, as Washington developed military skill through trial and error.
With colonial morale at its lowest ebb, he invaded New Jersey. On Christmas night, 1776, he crossed the Delaware, surrounded and defeated the British at Trenton, and pushed on to Princeton (Jan. 3, 1777), where he defeated a second British force. In 1777 he attempted to defend Philadelphia but was defeated at the battle of Brandywine (Sept. 11). His carefully planned counterattack at Germantown (Oct. 4, 1777) went awry, and with this second successive defeat certain discontented army officers and members of Congress tried to have Washington removed from command. Horatio Gates was advanced as a likely candidate to succeed him, but Washington's prompt action frustrated the so-called Conway Cabal.
After Germantown, Washington went into winter quarters at Valley Forge. Seldom in military history has any general faced such want and misery as Washington did in the winter of 1777–78. He proved equal to every problem, and in the spring he emerged with increased powers from Congress and a well-trained striking force, personally devoted to him. The attack (June 28, 1778) on the British retreating from Philadelphia to New York was vitiated by the actions of Charles Lee, but Washington's arrival on the field prevented a general American rout (see Monmouth, battle of). The fortunes of war soon shifted in favor of the colonial cause with the arrival (1780) of French military and naval forces, and victory finally came when General Cornwallis surrendered to Washington on Oct. 19, 1781. Washington made the American Revolution successful not only by his personal military triumphs but also by his skill in directing other operations.
At the war's end he was the most important man in the country. He retired from the army (at Annapolis, Md., Dec. 23, 1783), returned to Mt. Vernon, and in 1784 journeyed to the West to inspect his lands there. Dissatisfied with the weakness of the government (see Confederation, Articles of), he soon joined the movement intent on reorganizing it. In 1785 commissioners from Virginia and Maryland met at Mt. Vernon to settle a dispute concerning navigation on the Potomac. This meeting led to the Annapolis Convention (1786) and ultimately to the Constitutional Convention (1787). Washington presided over this last convention, and his influence in securing the adoption of the Constitution of the United States is incalculable.
After a new government was organized, Washington was unanimously chosen the first President and took office (April 30, 1789) in New York City. He was anxious to establish the new national executive above partisanship, and he chose men from all factions for the administrative departments. Thomas Jefferson became Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton Secretary of the Treasury. His efforts to remain aloof from partisan struggles were not successful. He approved of Hamilton's nationalistic financial measures, and although he was by no means a tool in the hands of the Secretary of the Treasury, he consistently supported Hamilton's policies. In the Anglo-French war (1793) he decided against Jefferson, who favored fulfilling the 1778 military alliance with France, and he took measures against Edmond Charles Édouard Genêt. Jefferson left the cabinet, and despite Washington's efforts to preserve a political truce the Republican party (later the Democratic party) and the Federalist party emerged.
Washington was unanimously reelected (1793), but his second administration was Federalist and was bitterly criticized by Jeffersonians, especially for Jay's Treaty with England. Washington was denounced by some as an aristocrat and an enemy of true democratic ideals. The Whiskey Rebellion and trouble with the Native Americans, British, and Spanish in the West offered serious problems. The crushing of the rebellion, the defeat of the Native Americans by Anthony Wayne at Fallen Timbers, and the treaty Thomas Pinckney negotiated with Spain settled some of these troubles. Foreign affairs remained gloomy, however, and Washington, weary with political life, refused to run for a third term. Washington's Farewell Address (Sept. 17, 1796), a monument of American oratory, contained the famous (and much misquoted) passage warning the United States against “permanent alliances” with foreign powers. Washington returned to Mt. Vernon, but when war with France seemed imminent (1798) he was offered command of the army. War, however, was averted. He died on Dec. 14, 1799, and was buried on his estate.
There are many portraits and statues of Washington, among them the familiar, idealized portraits by Gilbert Stuart; the statue by Jean Antoine Houdon, who also executed the famous portrait bust from a life mask; and paintings by Charles Willson Peale, John Trumbull, and John Singleton Copley. His figure also has bulked large in drama, poetry, fiction, and essays in American literature. The national capital is named for him; one state, several colleges and universities, and scores of counties, towns, and villages of the United States bear his name. Wakefield and Mt. Vernon are national shrines.
The University of Virginia is preparing a new edition of the complete writings of Washington. Under the editorship of Donald Jackson, W. W. Abbot, and Dorothy Twohig, 23 volumes have been published (1978–91). The long-standing edition of Washington's writings (39 vol., 1931–44) was edited by John C. Fitzpatrick. His journals—that of his Barbados journey in 1751–52 (1892), that of his journey to the West (1905), and his diaries (ed. by John C. Fitzpatrick, 4 vol., 1925)—were also edited separately. An old standard edition of his writings is that by Worthington C. Ford (14 vol., 1889–93), and Saxe Commins edited a one-volume selection, Basic Writings (1948). Other standard sources of his works are The Washington Papers (1955, repr. 1967), edited by Saul K. Padover, and The George Washington Papers (1964), edited by Frank Donovan. There have been innumerable editions of his Farewell Address and many separate editions of others of his works.
There have been a great many studies of phases and incidents of Washington's career and a continual stream of biographies; the definitive biography is by Douglas Southall Freeman (7 vol., 1948–57; abr. ed. 1968); Volume VII was written after Freeman's death by John Alexander Carroll and Mary Wells Ashworth of his staff. The biography (1940) begun by Nathaniel W. Stephenson and completed by Waldo H. Dunn is full and eminently useful; so is the four-volume biography by James T. Flexner (1965–72). The early biography by “Parson” M. L. Weems is important chiefly because it contained many of the now-famous Washington legends, such as that of the cherry tree. Biographies of Washington by eminent men of another day include those by John Marshall, Jared Sparks, Washington Irving, and Woodrow Wilson. Among the shorter biographies are those by P. L. Ford (1896, repr. 1971), Woodrow Wilson (1896, repr. 1969), John Corbin (1930, repr. 1972), L. M. Sears (1932), J. C. Fitzpatrick (1933, repr. 1970), and North Callahan (1972).