A Brief Biography of George Washington
One of the most stirring quotes about George Washington comes from a eulogy written by a fellow Continental Army Veteran, Harry ” Light Horse” Lee. It was Lee who remarked,
“First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
And even today, over 200 hundred years and more than forty presidents later, the quote about Washington remains true.
While the United States’ first president could have turned into a despot whom the people hated, President Washington remains one of the most popular U.S. Presidents of all time. For many Americans, he will always be first in their hearts.
Why is George Washington so Popular?
So, what is the secret to George Washington’s enduring popularity among his countrymen? In short, the story of George Washington is in many ways still reflective of the country’s modern story. Americans respect Washington because he, in turn, respected what would become American ideals: Institutions such as economic and personal freedoms and self-governance through democracy. Even more so, he maintains respect for holding military power and not using it for his own personal gain.
Washington is known for relinquishing his power and allowing the people to attempt to govern themselves successfully.
Early Life 1732-1752
On February 22nd, 1732, George Washington was born to Augustine and Mary Bell Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Washington family was well off and owed their wealth largely thanks to profits from land speculation. George was the first of six children Augustine and Mary Bell would have, though George did have an older brother Lawrence whom he much admired. George was given many privileges thanks to his station at birth and connections his brother Lawrence made, especially to the local Fairfax gentry through marriage.
However, things became much more difficult for the Washington family after the untimely death of the patriarch Augustine in 1743 from complications due to a chill he caught during a sudden downpour at just 48 years of age.
While his father’s death at age eleven would rob George of the ability to study abroad in England like his older sibling, he nonetheless was able to learn much through self-study and the Colonial instruction available to him. He proved especially adept at mathematics, learning trigonometry, and was a skilled draftsman. These skills would serve him well when he was appointed a surveyor of sparsely populated Culpeper County in his native Virginia. Though he only would serve as a surveyor for a year, Washington would later use his area knowledge to complete beneficial land deals for himself.
Early Military Career 1752-1758
The military career of George Washington can largely be seen as a result of his relationship with his older half-brother, Lawerence Washington. Though George had shown an interest in the military from a young age, he could not enlist until much later in life than he may have wished. This is largely because, after his father’s death, George’s mother forbade him from joining the British Royal Navy.
Lawerence died in 1752 after a protracted battle against tuberculosis. George had accompanied his brother to the island of Barbados in hopes of combating the disease and had contracted smallpox himself. He would bear light facial scars for the rest of his life as a result.
When George returned to Virginia, he was inspired by Lawerence’s time as adjunct general to seek out a military commission of his own. Washington was soon commissioned and made a major and commander of one of Virginia’s four military districts, thus beginning his Colonial military career.
Colonial Military Career 1752-1758
Washington’s earliest military exploits came as a major in the British Province of Virginia when he was dispatched as an emissary of the British Crown to meet with French and Native American officials over what was considered The Ohio Country. The area was under multiple competing territorial claims from the French and British governments along the Ohio River in present-day Pennsylvania. Complicating the matter was the presence of the Native Americans, which included representatives from various tribes spread throughout the area, including from the Iroquois Confederacy.
French and Indian War
Washington took his role of emissary during the engagement seriously. He soon found that the local Native American populations were equally skeptical of British plans for settlement in the area as they were of the French’s own plans.
After Washington’s attempts at diplomacy were rejected by the French, he returned to Virginia. Still, he was soon sent back to the territory in defense of the fledgling Ohio Company that the British hoped to use to establish their presence in the area.
Braddock Disaster 1755
The Braddock Disaster resulted from the largest incursion of British forces into the colonies up until that point. Washington was intimately involved as the senior colonial aide to British General Edward Braddock, after whom the event is named for, which ended in over 900 causalities for their side. The large casualty total resulted from the chaos that ensued after the British forces came under surprise attack from French and Native American forces. Nevertheless, Washington is noted for successfully rallying his troops into an orderly retreat, likely saving lives in the process.
Commander in Chief 1775-1783
Thanks to skills that Washington developed during his early days in the Virginia military, he was a prime candidate to lead the Continental Army. So, with that in mind and a hope that he would also influence Southern states to join the cause, Washington was picked to be the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.
The Continental Army was clearly outmatched by the superior British forces and struggled mightily in the early parts of the Revolutionary War. However, Washington noted that his troops were a rag-tag and undisciplined group and set about reforming them by increasing drilling and weeding out incompetent officers.
After early struggles, like the Siege of Boston and the Battle of Long Island, things gradually improved for Washington’s rebel force. After crossing the Delaware River from Pennsylvania into New Jersey, Washington’s troops were able to defeat the British forces in the battles of Trenton and Princeton, respectively. The victories couldn’t have come at a more crucial time for Washington, as they provided a morale boost to his troops and the patriot cause as a whole when both were waning.
If the British Army was considered the most advanced fighting force of its time, how was Washington able to defeat them?
His success in the Revolutionary War can largely be attributed to two factors, superior military strategy and intelligence and, of course, the help of French forces fighting on behalf of the Continental side.
Washington’s role in developing and executing a successful intelligence network led to him often being called “America’s First Spymaster” and was a major reason he could stay one step ahead of his British counterparts. Of course, part of this advantage can be attributed to the Colonists’ previous knowledge of the land and British fighting habits. But in contrast to British espionage, which was poorly done, the American endeavor consistently provided quality information to Washington and his generals while successfully misdirecting their opponents.
The help of French forces decisively shifted the advantage to the Colonial forces later in the American Revolution. However, the biggest benefit that allying with the French provided was supplementing Washington’s own pitiful Colonial Navy. Without this assistance, the U.S. may never have overcome the clear naval advantage the British enjoyed.
Washington in Virginia: Career, Politics, Personal Life 1755-1775
In his military service years, Washington was eager to return to his native Virginia and live his life as a private citizen. However, life would continuously see him called to return to public service. Besides some local politicking, often supporting his friend’s political ambitions, Washington generally made his money on land speculation thanks to connections from his family and time in the military.
Washington was very active in politics during this time and was known for his anti-British Parliament stances. Washington often felt that taxes, such as the Townshend Acts or the Stamp Act of 1765, were repressive and draconian in nature and was a leading voice in protest against them.
At age 26, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow of a former plantation owner. The pair were happily married until they parted by death, and Washington raised Martha’s children from a previous marriage. The family took up residence at Mount Vernon, the estate included 84 slaves, which George used to help plant tobacco and wheat.
When Washington gave up command of his forces at the end of the Revolutionary War, he did so with the full expectation of retiring from public life. However, we know this wasn’t to be, as he was quickly drafted into service by the fledgling nation he had guided to victory in the war as its first President.
Washington was elected President of the United States twice, winning the Electoral College unanimously both times. Most noted about this transition is how Washington willingly gave up power when he disbanded his forces instead of using his military power to gain political control, as many may have been tempted to do.
The vast majority of Washington’s time as President was spent successfully building a functioning federal-style government, a completely novel undertaking for his time. While Washington couldn’t write legislation as President, his opinion often shaped the tone and tenor of the debate and greatly influenced the final form of the government.
Washington’s influence can be seen in the following examples:
>Washington filled the first Cabinet of the United States, setting a precedent for how the Executive Branch of government would function for years.
>Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton to the Treasury Department, ensuring the U.S. would have a strong Federal banking system.
>As a part of Hamilton’s work at the Treasury Department, Washington is responsible for the First National Bank.
>Dealt with taxation issues that resulted from events such as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 and its forceful suppression by Federal mandate.
The world was highly skeptical of the “American Experiment” at direct democracy, and many nations thought the U.S. was doomed to fail. It was against this backdrop that Washington introduced his country to the world.
Despite headwinds and the chaos of the time, Washington made the following foreign policy contributions during his time as President:
>Washington declared America’s neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars, as he knew the new nation couldn’t afford to continue to fight with larger and more powerful nations.
>Secured a peace treaty with the British that allowed for trade between the two nations and, briefly, led to peaceful relations between the two countries.
>Kept British settlers out of the Great Lakes region by convincing them to abandon their forts and trading posts in the area and modify Canada’s border.
>Implemented the policy of negotiating with Native Americans at a state-to-state level.
>Washington is described as even-handed in his dealings with Native Americans and advocating for their equitable treatment under the law and against the arbitrary confiscation of their lands.
Even in choosing to peacefully give up the presidency and transfer power to Thomas Jefferson, Washington set a powerful example and precedent for what the country would come to expect from its elected leaders.
When George Washington retired after his second term, he set the precedent of only holding office for two terms that held all the way until Franklin Roosevelt broke it by being elected four times. However, Washington’s precedent is now codified in law, and a President can’t hold office for more than two terms.
Retirement at Mount Vernon
Upon retirement, Washington eagerly returned to Mount Vernon to reunite with his beloved estate and relax with his wife, Martha. Washington looked forward to a more bucolic pace of life during retirement that a man of notoriety and stature could never fully attain. Nevertheless, the couple spent their remaining years rehabbing Mount Vernon and managing its crops, though they rarely were able to turn a profit.
George Washington died December 14, 1799, at age 67 from Epiglottitis, or inflammation of the base of the tongue, which often prevents eating.
He was survived by Martha, who died in 1802, both are buried at their beloved Mount Vernon.