A Reference Resource
George Washington was born into a mildly prosperous Virginia farming family in 1732. After his father died when George was eleven, George's mother, Mary, a tough and driven woman, struggled to hold their home together with the help of her two sons from a previous marriage. Although he never received more than an elementary school education, young George displayed a gift for mathematics. This knack for numbers combined with his quiet confidence and ambition caught the attention of Lord Fairfax, head of one of the most powerful families in Virginia. While working for Lord Fairfax as a surveyor at the age of sixteen, the young Washington traveled deep into the American wilderness for weeks at a time.
British Army Service
Tragedy struck the young man with the death of his half brother Lawrence, who had guided and mentored George after his father's death. George inherited Mount Vernon from his brother, living there for the rest of his life. At the time, England and France were enemies in America, vying for control of the Ohio River Valley. Holding a commission in the British army, Washington led a poorly trained and equipped force of 150 men to build a fort on the banks of the Ohio River. On the way, he encountered and attacked a small French force, killing a French minister in the process. The incident touched off open fighting between the British and the French, and in one fateful engagement, the British were routed by the superior tactics of the French.
Although hailed as a hero in the colonies when word spread of his heroic valor and leadership against the French, the Royal government in England blamed the colonials for the defeat. Angry at the lack of respect and appreciation shown to him, Washington resigned from the army and returned to farming in Virginia. In 1759, he married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow, and thereafter devoted his time to running the family plantation. By 1770, Washington had emerged as an experienced leader—a justice of the peace in Fairfax County, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and a respected vestryman (a lay leader in his church). He also was among the first prominent Americans to openly support resistance to England's new policies of taxation and strict regulation of the colonial economy (the Navigation Acts) beginning in the early 1770s.
A Modest Military Leader
Washington was elected by the Virginia legislature to both the First and the Second Continental Congress, held in 1774 and 1775. In 1775, after local militia units from Massachusetts had engaged British troops near Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress appointed Washington commander of all the colonial forces. Showing the modesty that was central to his character, and would later serve the young Republic so well, Washington proclaimed, "I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with."
After routing the British from Boston in the spring of 1776, Washington fought a series of humiliating battles in a losing effort to defend New York. But on Christmas Day that same year, he led his army through a ferocious blizzard, crossed the Delaware into New Jersey, and defeated the Hessian forces at Trenton. In May 1778, the French agreed to an alliance with the Americans, marking the turning point of the Revolution. Washington knew that one great victory by his army would collapse the British Parliament's support for its war against the colonies. In October 1781, Washington's troops, assisted by the French Navy, defeated Cornwallis at Yorktown. By the following spring the British government was ready to end hostilities.
Following the war, Washington quelled a potentially disastrous bid by some of his officers to declare him king. He then returned to Mount Vernon and the genteel life of a tobacco planter, only to be called out of retirement to preside at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. His great stature gave credibility to the call for a new government and insured his election as the first President of the United States. Keenly aware that his conduct as President would set precedents for the future of the office, he carefully weighed every step he took. He appointed Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to his cabinet. Almost immediately, these two men began to quarrel over a wide array of issues, but Washington valued them for the balance they lent his cabinet. Literally the "Father of the Nation," Washington almost single-handedly created a new government—shaping its institutions, offices, and political practices.
Although he badly wanted to retire after the first term, Washington was unanimously supported by the electoral college for a second term in 1792. Throughout both his terms, Washington struggled to prevent the emergence of political parties, viewing them as factions harmful to the public good. Nevertheless, in his first term, the ideological division between Jefferson and Hamilton deepened, forming the outlines of the nation's first party system. This system was composed of Federalists, who supported expansive federal power and Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans, followers of Thomas Jefferson's philosophy of states' rights and limited federal power. Washington generally backed Hamilton on key issues, such as the funding of the national debt, the assumption of state debts, and the establishment of a national bank.
Throughout his two terms, Washington insisted on his power to act independent of Congress in foreign conflicts, especially when war broke out between France and England in 1793 and he issued a Declaration of Neutrality on his own authority. He also acted decisively in putting down a rebellion by farmers in western Pennsylvania who protested a federal whiskey tax (the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794). After he left office, exhausted and discouraged over the rise of political factions, Washington returned to Mount Vernon, where he died almost three years later.
Historians agree that no one other than George Washington could have held the disparate colonies and, later, the struggling young Republic together. To the Revolution's last day, Washington's troops were ragged, starving, and their pay was months in arrears. In guiding this force during year after year of humiliating defeat to final victory, more than once paying his men out of his own pocket to keep them from going home, Washington earned the unlimited confidence of those early citizens of the United States. Perhaps most importantly, Washington's balanced and devoted service as President persuaded the American people that their prosperity and best hope for the future lay in a union under a strong but cautious central authority. His refusal to accept a proffered crown and his willingness to relinquish the office after two terms established the precedents for limits on the power of the presidency. Washington's profound achievements built the foundations of a powerful national government that has survived for more than two centuries.
John Washington, George's great-grandfather, reached the New World in 1657, settling in Virginia. Little definitive information exists on George's ancestors before his father, but what is known is that by the time George was born to Augustine and Mary Washington on February 22, 1732, the family was part of the lower echelon of Virginia's ruling class. He was the eldest child of Augustine's second marriage; there were two sons from the first. Farming and land speculation had brought the family moderate prosperity. However, when George was eleven years old, his family was dealt a terrible setback. Augustine became mortally ill after surveying his lands during a long ride in bad weather—ironically, the same circumstances killed George almost seven decades later.
His mother, Mary, a tough and driven woman, fought to hold home and hearth together. She hoped to send George to school in England, but these plans were aborted and the boy never received more than the equivalent of an elementary school education. Although George was shy and not highly literate, he was a large, strong, and handsome child. His half brother Lawrence, fourteen years George's senior, looked out for him. Lawrence counseled the boy about his future and introduced him to Lord Fairfax, head of one of the most powerful families in Virginia.
Despite George's meager education, he had three great strengths: his mother's ambitious drive, a shy charm, and a gift for mathematics. Lord Fairfax discerned all three traits and invited the sixteen-year-old to join a team of men surveying Fairfax lands in the Shenandoah Valley region of the Virginia colony. It was the young man's first real trip away from home, and he proved his worth on the wilderness journey, helping the surveyors while learning their trade. Surveying offered George decent wages, travel opportunities, and time away from his strict and demanding mother. By the time he was seventeen, he went into the surveying business on his own.
However, the next year, tragedy visited the Washington family once again: George's beloved half brother and mentor, Lawrence, contracted an aggressive strain of tuberculosis. George accompanied Lawrence to the island of Barbados in the West Indies in the desperate hope that the tropical climate would help his brother. Unfortunately, it did not, and George returned to Virginia alone, concluding the one trip of his life outside America.
Lawrence had commanded a local militia in the area near the Washington family home. Soon after returning to Virginia, George, barely out of his teens, lobbied the colonial government for the same post and was awarded it. The young man possessed no military training whatsoever, and it soon showed in disastrous fashion.
Folly on the Ohio
England and France, vying for control of the American continent north of Mexico, were at odds over the Ohio River Valley. The French were entering the region from Canada and making alliances with Native Americans, and the English-based government in Virginia was determined to stop these incursions. Serving as a British military envoy, Washington led a group of volunteers to the remote area, gathered intelligence on enemy troop strengths, and delivered a message ordering the French to leave the region. They refused, and when Washington returned home, he proposed that a fort be built on the Ohio River in order to stop further French expansion into the area. In the spring of 1754, he put together a poorly trained and equipped force of 150 men and set out to reinforce troops building this stockade, which he called Fort Necessity. On the way, he encountered a small French force and promptly attacked it, killing ten of the French—an unknown young militiaman from Virginia had fired the first shots of the French and Indian War.
Because one of the men killed was a French envoy delivering a message to the British, Washington had taken part in the killing of an ambassador, a serious violation of international protocol. Repercussions of this rashness reached all the way to Westminster Palace and Versailles. Native Americans in the region, sensing British-American ineptitude, sided with the French. The joint Native American-French force attacked the small, ill-placed Fort Necessity and overwhelmed Washington and his men. They were forced to leave the area after signing a surrender document. The document was in French, and in it, Washington, who did not read French, supposedly admitted to breaches of military protocol, thus handing the French a great propaganda victory when the text of the document was released in Europe. Not long afterward, Washington was passed over for promotion, and he resigned from the army, bitter that the British had not defended his honor.
England decided that the best way to drive the French from the Ohio River Valley was to send in regular troops from the Royal Army. Their commander, General Edward Braddock, needed an aide with experience in the conflict and offered the post to Washington. Eager to regain favor with the English army, Washington accepted. In July of 1755, the British force approached the French stronghold at Fort Duquesne. Washington had warned Braddock that the French and Indian troops fought very differently than the open-field, formalized armies of Europe, but he was ignored. A few days later, the British were attacked by a large Native American force and completely routed. Washington fought bravely despite having two horses shot from under him. Braddock was killed, his terrified British troops fled into the forest, and his young aide barely escaped with his life.
Militia Command, Marriage, and Life as a Gentleman Farmer
London blamed the colonials for the fiasco. The colonials, refusing to be England's scapegoat, reacted by elevating Washington as a hero. To convey their approval of his leadership and abilities, the colonials gave him command of all Virginian forces and charged him mainly with defending the colony's western frontier from Native American attacks. Washington was only twenty-two years old. This sudden turn of events provided him with a superb apprenticeship for the supreme command that would come two decades later: Washington learned how to raise a force, train it, lead it into battle, and keep it from deserting. But the young commander was always short of recruits and money, and appeals to the English military authorities did little good. Washington became increasingly annoyed with their condescension and their rebuffs of his attempts to win a regular army commission. After commanding a regiment that finally captured Fort Duquesne in 1758, he resigned from the military and went home to Mount Vernon, the farm he had inherited from Lawrence. A year later, Washington married a rich young widow named Martha Custis. He won a seat in the lower Virginia legislature and settled into the life of a Virginia planter.
His early married years were happy ones. Washington worked hard and learned everything he could about farming, but his new occupation gave him another reason to resent the mother country. He found that he was largely at the mercy of a trade system that heavily favored British merchants buying tobacco, his major crop. Consequently, after a few years, he owed a significant debt. By 1766, he abandoned tobacco farming and diversified Mount Vernon into crops that could be sold more easily in America. He also dabbled in light industry such as weaving and fishing. All of these ventures were aimed at making his plantation more self-sufficient, thus minimizing his business ties to England.
Several hundred slaves labored at Mount Vernon. As Washington turned to crops that were less labor intensive than tobacco, he had more help than he needed. However, although he could pursue greater profits by minimizing labor expenses, he almost never sold or moved a slave to another property unless the slave wanted to leave. As he approached middle age, Washington expressed increasing qualms about the practice of slavery.
The Seeds of Revolution
By the mid-1760s, colonial resentment of British rule was widespread. To replenish its coffers that were drained for the war with the French, London imposed taxes on the colonies. Moreover, to force compliance, England established punitive laws against the colonials. Americans, who had no say in British parliamentary decisions, voiced their disdain for these tariffs that had suddenly raised the prices on necessities such as tea. As the controversy grew hotter, more British troops poured into the colonies, which only compounded the problem.
Generally, the southern colonies were less openly defiant toward England during the early stages of the independence movement. Like most Virginians, the master of Mount Vernon was slow to warm to revolutionary fervor, hoping that the British would end their oppressive ways. But a series of English provocations—the closure of Boston Harbor, new taxes, the shooting deaths of five colonials in an altercation with Royal troops, the abolition of the Massachusetts state charter—made Washington a firm believer in American independence by the early 1770s. He was one of the first leading citizens in Virginia to openly support resistance to English tyranny. In 1774, the Virginia legislature voted him one of seven delegates to the First Continental Congress, an assembly devoted to resistance to British rule—interestingly, a thirty-one-year-old Virginian named Thomas Jefferson finished out of the running. Washington joined the majority of the assembly in voting for new economic reprisals against England.
In April 1775, electrifying news came from the North. Local militias from towns around Boston had engaged British troops at Lexington and Concord. When Washington rode to the Second Continental Congress a month later, there was talk that he might be named commander of all the colonial forces. Washington, his confidence weakened by the misadventures against the French and Native Americans, resisted the appointment. But he was the natural choice for several reasons: he was still considered a hero from the French and Indian War; at forty-three, he was old enough to lead but young enough to withstand the rigors of the battlefield; and northerners hoped a general from Virginia would help draw the reluctant South into the conflict. Above all, the leadership and charisma of the tall, quiet, stately Virginian was unsurpassed. Washington did not attend the congressional session that took the vote for the army's command. He was the last of its members to know that he had been chosen—by a unanimous vote. He refused a salary and told the Congress, "I beg it may be remembered that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with."
In accepting command of colonial forces, George Washington had crossed a deadly serious line. In the eyes of the English, he was now leading an armed insurrection against King George III. He was a traitor, and if the rebellion failed, he would soon find a rope around his neck.
Command of the Continental Army
Any military expert would have given the Continentals little chance. After all, King George's army was the best-trained, best-equipped fighting force in the Western world. The matchless Royal Navy could deliver an army to any shore and strangle enemy nations by blockade. England's forces were commanded by career soldiers who were veterans of wars all over the globe. In sharp contrast, the colonial force staring them down was less of an army than a large gang. Its soldiers came and went almost at will. The officers leading them had little command, let alone fighting experience. Furthermore, in the colonies, support for the rebellion was far from firm.
Washington's first duty was to turn this unruly crowd into a real army by instituting disciplinary regulations. To facilitate his efforts, he urged the Continental Congress to provide enough money to pay for longer enlistments for his soldiers. But when New Year's Day dawned in 1776, much of his army had gone home because their enlistments had ended.
Washington first commanded American forces arrayed around Boston. Using cannon captured by Henry Knox from Fort Ticonderoga and heroically transported miles to Boston, Washington fortified a high point overlooking the city. Unnerved by the colonials' sudden tactical advantage, the British withdrew from Boston by sea. Washington, however, had no illusions that his enemy was finished. The question was where they would strike next.
By spring, it was plain that the British plan was to seize New York. It offered several advantages including a large port, the propaganda value of holding one of the rebels' biggest cities, and a route by which troops could be delivered to the American interior via the Hudson River. Washington moved to stop them. In July—a few days after the Declaration of Independence was signed—the British landed a huge force on Staten Island. By August, 30,000 troops marched on Washington's force. On their first engagement late that month, much of the Continental army either surrendered or turned and fled in terror. On September 15, the British landed on Manhattan, and again Washington's troops ran away. Enraged, he shouted at them, "Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?" A day later, his troops were resolute in their defiance and won a small engagement in Harlem Heights. But by November, the British had captured two forts that the Continentals had hoped would secure the Hudson River. Washington was forced to withdraw into New Jersey and then Pennsylvania. The British thought this signaled the end of the conflict and dug in for the winter, not bothering to chase the Americans.
Washington now realized that by trying to fight open-field, firing-line battles with the British, he was playing to their strengths. He turned to tactics he had seen Native Americans use to great effect in the French and Indian War. On Christmas Day, he led his army through a ferocious blizzard, crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey, and surprised an enemy force at Trenton. A few days later, he took a British garrison at nearby Princeton. These actions were less large-scale battles than they were guerrilla raids. Nonetheless, these minor victories gave his army confidence, brightened the spirits of the American people, and told the British that they were in for a long and bitter struggle.
A Turning of the Tide: 1777
The Revolution's third year was its turning point. Another Continental force, commanded by Major General Horatio Gates, won the first significant American victory at Saratoga, New York. This victory convinced the French that the Revolution was winnable for the Americans. They began to consider an alliance with the colonial rebels—partly to get back at an old enemy, England, and partly to share in prizes from raids on British ships. At the same time, the English embarked on an unfortunate military strategy that included an invasion of the southern colonies, which subjected them to guerrilla warfare.
For Washington, however, 1777 was a profoundly trying year. He lost two major battles with the British and failed to keep them from taking Philadelphia, home to the new nation's government, which was forced into hiding. In response to such a loss, an attempt was made by some in Congress and the army to oust Washington as commander. The winter of 1777-1778 saw his army camped in freezing, wretched huts at Valley Forge. One of the army's doctors summed up the conditions in his diary: "Poor food—hard lodging—cold weather—fatigue—nasty clothes—nasty cookery—vomit half my time—smoked out of my senses—the devil's in it—I can't endure it."
Valley Forge to Yorktown
By springtime, things began to improve as the army drilled hard and marched out of Valley Forge a more disciplined fighting force. In May 1778, the French agreed to an alliance with the Americans, sending troops, munitions, and money. By mid-1779, 6,000 French troops were fighting alongside the Americans.
George Washington was not a great general but a brilliant revolutionary. Although he lost most of his battles with the British, year after year he held his ragtag, hungry army together. This was his most significant accomplishment as commander of the American forces. One French officer wrote: "I cannot insist too strongly how I was surprised by the American Army. It is truly incredible that troops almost naked, poorly paid, and composed of old men and children and Negroes should behave so well on the march and under fire." Knowing that one great victory by his army would undermine support in England for their endless foreign war, Washington patiently waited year after year for the right circumstances. The British relentlessly dared Continental forces to fight a line-to-line battle in the open. But Washington stayed with his own hit-and-run tactics, forcing the frustrated British to play the game by his rules. He kept their main army bottled up in New York much of the time, wary of fighting him.
The British altered their strategy in 1778 and invaded the South. The new plan was to secure the southern colonies and then march a large army northward, forcing the rebellion out of upper America. It was a mistake. While they captured Savannah, Georgia, in 1778 and Charleston, South Carolina, in 1779, the British found themselves fighting a guerrilla war, facing shadowy bands of expert snipers. An American soldier, fighting in and for his homeland, could work on his own while a Redcoat could not. Colonial troops could move twice as fast as their equipment-heavy enemies, and every English soldier killed or captured meant a new one had to be sent from England—a journey of several weeks that weakened British presence elsewhere in their empire. By 1781, the war was deeply unpopular in England.
That summer, Washington received the news for which he had been waiting. The British southern force, commanded by Lord Cornwallis, was camped near the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. Washington secretly hurried his army southward from New York. He deceived British spies with counterintelligence ruses that hid from them the mission's true objective. As usual, there was no money, and Washington had to talk many of his men out of quitting. A large French fleet, meanwhile, had left the West Indies, setting sail for the Virginia coast. On the way there, Washington stopped for a day at his Mount Vernon home—for the first time in six years.
"The World Turned Upside Down"
Yorktown was a port city on a peninsula, jutting out into the Chesapeake. On September 1, 1781, the French fleet formed a line off Yorktown, cutting off any chance of British escape by sea. Three days later, the first American and French ground forces were at the base of the peninsula, a perfectly coordinated campaign designed by Washington. On September 5, the French ships thwarted an English fleet attempting to evacuate Cornwallis's troops. The British fate was sealed.
American and French troops squeezed the enemy against the sea and tormented them with a constant hail of cannon fire. On October 19, Cornwallis had seen enough. Stunned British troops, many in tears, surrendered as their band played "The World Turned Upside Down." Early the following spring in London, Parliament withdrew its support for the war in America. The British began to leave the colonies—but not without smuggling out a sizable number of American slaves.
Forging a Nation
The thirteen colonies had fought the Revolution as if they were thirteen different nations. After the war, there was much controversy as to whether the colonies would coalesce into one country or several and how all of it would be governed.
The war's end saw considerable maneuvering for personal power, and matters came to a head in the spring of 1783. Washington was approached by some senior army officers who proposed to make him king. A great many men—almost any man—would have jumped at the chance for such authority; George Washington, however, was not one of them. He had spent the past decade ridding America of a monarch and was saddened and dismayed at the prospect of saddling the country with a monarchy. The officers set a meeting to advance their ambitions, but Washington preempted them with a meeting of his own.
Many people attending Washington's meeting favored the idea of installing some form of military dictatorship. If they had had their way, America might have disintegrated into rule by a pack of feudal warlords, ripe for anarchy or foreign takeover. Washington and his officers traded cold stares. Then the general began to read a letter supporting his viewpoint, but he stopped and put on a pair of spectacles—something few of them had ever seen him wear. Washington quietly said, "Gentlemen, I have grown gray in your service, and now I am going blind." In seconds, almost everyone was wiping away tears. The so-called Newburgh Mutiny had ended even before it began, thanks to Washington's meeting.
On April 19, 1783, Washington announced to his army that England had agreed to a cessation of hostilities with the United States. Eight years, to the day, had passed since Massachusetts' militia traded musket fire with Redcoats at Lexington Green. By the end of the year, the last English troops had shipped out of New York, and Washington came home to Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve. As far as he was concerned, his public life was over. Washington spent most of the next three years attempting to restore the fortunes of his property, which had declined in his years fighting the British.
During the years immediately following the war, America was governed according to the Articles of Confederation, which resulted in a weak and unstable government. Poor economic conditions led to conflict between indebted farmers and those lending them money, especially in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. In 1786, the government of Massachusetts put down an uprising of angry farmers led by former Revolutionary War officer Daniel Shay. Shays's Rebellion helped to convince the delegates of five states assembled at Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss a means of promoting interstate commerce and to call a national convention to strengthen the American government.
A meeting of all the states, known now as the Constitutional Convention, was held in Philadelphia in May 1787. Because the convention proceedings were secret, there was public apprehension about the fate of their fledgling country. It was obvious to the convention delegates that leadership was needed to soothe public doubts and to lend the proceedings credibility. Despite his reluctance, Washington was unanimously chosen to head the assembly that developed the Constitution, the foundation of American government. One of its provisions called for something known as a president, and immediately the delegates began whispering that there was only one man to consider for the position. Washington did not want the office, but he worked for over a year to ensure the Constitution's ratification, which was achieved in June of 1788.
The Campaign and Election of 1788
In the wake of winning his country's independence and then overseeing the formation of its government, George Washington thought he had done enough. He desperately wanted to go home and live a quiet life, but Americans wanted no one else to lead them. No other person was seriously considered. America's first presidential campaign was really its citizens' efforts to convince Washington to accept the office. Letters poured into Mount Vernon—from citizens great and small, from former comrades in arms, even from other shores. Many told Washington that his country needed him more than ever and that there was no justification for his refusal. While he warmed slightly to the idea, he still told a friend, "I feel very much like a man who is condemned to death does when the time of his execution draws nigh."
As specified by the Constitution, the President was chosen by the Electoral College. In 1788, the method for selecting electors was decided by each state legislature—by public vote in some states and by legislative selection in others. Each state had as many electors as senators and representatives. The election was administered only in ten of the states because Rhode Island and North Carolina had yet to ratify the Constitution and a quarreling New York failed to choose electors in time. Each elector was given two votes to cast for President. Washington received the support of every one of the electors, each of whom cast one of the two ballots for him. John Adams, who received thirty-four votes, was the runner-up and was thus named vice president.
The Campaign and Election of 1792
Washington badly wanted to retire at the conclusion of his first term in 1792. He was now sixty years of age, his eyesight and hearing were deteriorating, and the peace and quiet of Mount Vernon beckoned. But he slowly realized that it was not to be, for many crucial issues remained unresolved. For example, there were ongoing problems stemming from the continuing French-British rivalry. Additionally, the political schism between America's northern and southern halves was so severe that there was even talk that the southern states might try to form a separate nation. Washington's advisers warned him that the times were too volatile to risk surrendering the presidency to someone lacking his popularity and moderation. Thus, one more time he won an election with a unanimous vote. Adams was again elected vice president.
Thomas Jefferson, tired of endless jousting with Hamilton and frustrated with Washington's tendency to side with his Treasury secretary, resigned his position as secretary of state in 1793. He was replaced by Attorney General Edmund Randolph, one of Washington's close friends. Jefferson had high political ambitions of his own that would require close watching. And Randolph would later break faith with his President.
George Washington had to borrow money to relocate to New York, then the center of American government. His presidential inauguration was held near New York's Wall Street in late April 1789. A tremendous crowd showed up to see the man now known as "the Father of His Country." Borrowing a custom from English monarchs, who by tradition address Parliament when its sessions open, Washington gave a brief speech. It was the first inaugural address and the first of many contributions that Washington would make to the office of the presidency. But this would be no monarch; the new leader wore a plain brown suit.
"As the first of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent," Washington wrote James Madison at this time, "it is devoutly wished on my part, that these precedents may be fixed on true principles." At every turn, Washington was aware that the conduct of his presidency would set the standard for generations to come.
The American government—in particular, the presidency—was in a remarkably primitive state. But Washington's performance in those early years was both surefooted and brilliant. He went to one session of the Senate to receive its advice about a treaty but was annoyed because senators felt uncomfortable in his presence and would not debate its provisions. Washington withdrew angrily and swore he "would be damned if he went there again," thus ensuring a tradition of separation between the executive and legislative branches. Departments of State, War, and Treasury were established, along with the office of Attorney General, each headed by a trusted presidential adviser. These advisers collectively became known as the cabinet. Washington strove for ideological balance in these appointments, thus augmenting their strength and credibility. He signed the first Judiciary Act of 1789, initiating the development of the judicial branch. A Supreme Court was created, headed by a chief justice and originally five associate justices, who were chosen by the President and approved by Congress. A network of district courts was also established. Congress sent the President ten amendments to the Constitution that became known as the Bill of Rights; these amendments strengthened civil liberties.
The Battle of Fallen Timbers
In 1791, Washington learned that an American force had been defeated by a Native American uprising in the Northwest Territory (present-day Ohio) that killed over 600 American soldiers and militia. The President ordered the Revolutionary War veteran General "Mad" Anthony Wayne to launch a new expedition against a coalition of tribes led by Miami Chief Little Turtle. Wayne spent months training his troops to fight using forest warfare in the style of the Indians before marching boldly into the region. After constructing a chain of forts, Wayne and his troops crushed the Indians in the Battle of Fallen Timbers (near present-day Toledo) in the summer of 1794. Defeated, the seven tribes—the Shawnee, Miami, Ottawa, Chippewa, Iroquois, Sauk, and Fox—ceded large portions of Indian lands to the United States and then moved west.
Debts and Finances
The young country had severe financial problems. There were both domestic and foreign debts from the war, and the issue of how to raise revenue for government was hotly debated. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton laid plans for governmental financing via tariffs, or surcharges on imported goods, and a tax on liquor. Much of this revenue was earmarked for retiring war debts. Hamilton also proposed a national bank to centralize the nation's financial base and urged the new government to assist in developing a manufacturing sector of the economy. He traded his support for Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson's plan to locate the nation's permanent capital near Virginia, with Philadelphia serving as a temporary capital, for Jefferson's support of his policies on retiring the debt.
By the midpoint of Washington's first term, however, such cooperation had deteriorated. Washington's administration had split into two rival factions: one headed by Jefferson, which would later become the Democratic-Republican Party, and the Federalist faction headed by Hamilton. They disagreed on virtually all aspects of domestic and foreign policy, and much of the President's energies were spent in mediating their differences.
War Over Whiskey
A tax on whiskey—production of which had increased dramatically in the 1790s—was one of the key elements of Hamilton's fiscal program. This taxation enraged many citizens, and in 1794, resistance to the whiskey tax boiled over in western Pennsylvania with attacks on tax collectors and the formation of several well-armed resistance movements. Washington was alarmed by the Whiskey Rebellion, viewing it as a threat to the nation's existence. In an extraordinary move designed to demonstrate the federal government's preeminence and power, the President ordered militia from several other states into Pennsylvania to keep order. He then traveled to the site of the troubles to personally oversee the buildup of troops and to lend his encouragement to the enterprise. The insurrection collapsed quickly with little violence, and the resistance movements disbanded. Later, Washington pardoned the men convicted of treason in the matter.
Soon after this incident, however, a pair of high-level departures diminished the quality of the Washington administration. Secretary of War Henry Knox quit in December 1794, and Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton followed suit a month later.
Transfer of Power
Although it was his for the taking, Washington never considered running for a third term. Over four decades of public service had left him exhausted physically, mentally, and financially. He happily handed the office to his successor, John Adams. With customary care, Washington was scrupulously silent on his opinions of the men jockeying to succeed him. By ceding office after two terms, Washington helped ensure a regular and orderly transfer of executive power. His two-term limit set a custom that would stand for a century and a half, until Franklin Roosevelt was elected to a third term in 1940 and a fourth term in 1944.
Washington closed his administration with a thoughtful farewell address. Written with the help of Hamilton and Madison, the address urged Americans to be a vigilant and righteous people. "It is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness," he said. "The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government." It was as if he saw the great challenges to come in the next decades and begged his fellow citizens to remain a unified nation. But some of Washington's advice was not heeded. He warned his fellow citizens against "the baneful spirit of faction," referring to the party spirit that had disrupted his administration, and he warned against "foreign entanglements." But he could not prevent the formation of parties, nor did his warning against "foreign entanglements" prevent his successors from engaging in active diplomacy with European nations, often leading to de facto alliances. To this day, Washington's farewell address is read aloud every year in the U.S. Senate as a tribute to his service and foresight.
Upon becoming President of the United States, George Washington almost immediately set two critical foreign policy precedents: He assumed control of treaty negotiations with a hostile power—in this case, the Creek Nation of Native Americans—and then asked for congressional approval once they were finalized. In addition, he sent American emissaries overseas for negotiations without legislative approval.
Taking a Global Position
In 1789, the French Revolution sent shock waves across the Atlantic. Many Americans, mindful of French aid during their own struggle for independence, supported returning the favor. At the same time, the British were once again inciting Native Americans to attack settlers in the West, hoping to destabilize the fledgling Republic. American anger in response to these attacks served to reinforce sentiments for aiding France in any conflict with Great Britain. Washington was leery of any such foreign entanglement, considering his country too weak and unstable to fight another war with a major European power. His insistence on neutrality in foreign quarrels set another key precedent, as did his insistence that the power to make such a determination be lodged in the presidency.
Within days of Washington's second inauguration, France declared war on a host of European nations, England among them. Controversy over American involvement in the dispute redoubled. The Jefferson and Hamilton factions fought endlessly over the matter. The French ambassador to the U.S.—the charismatic, audacious "Citizen" Edmond Genet—had meanwhile been appearing nationwide, drumming up considerable support for the French cause. Washington was deeply irritated by this subversive meddling, and when Genet allowed a French-sponsored warship to sail out of Philadelphia against direct presidential orders, Washington demanded that France recall Genet.
More British Challenges
In mid-1793, Britain announced that it would seize any ships trading with the French, including those flying the American flag. In protest, widespread civil disorder erupted in several American cities. By the following year, tensions with Britain were so high that Washington had to stop all American shipments overseas. Six large warships were commissioned; among them was the USS Constitution, the legendary "Old Ironsides." An envoy was sent to England to attempt reconciliation, but the British were now building a fortress in Ohio while increasing insurgent activities elsewhere in America.
The President's strong inclination in response to British provocations was to seek a diplomatic solution. But the envoy to England, John Jay, negotiated a weak treaty that undermined freedom of trade on the high seas and failed to compensate Americans for slaves taken by the British during the Revolution. Worst of all, the treaty did not address the then-common British practice of impressment. Congress approved the treaty with the proviso that trade barriers imposed by England be lessened. Washington, while dissatisfied with elements of the treaty, signed it nonetheless.
For the first time, members of the government openly criticized Washington. While this no doubt led to some hard feelings, it was also a milestone. The fledgling government chose partisan sides, verbally jousted with their President, everyone was heard, the public hurled angry rhetoric—and the government remained standing. It was the first example of the partisan give-and-take that has been essential to the survival of American democracy for over two centuries.
There was a single dreadful casualty. Washington's advisers presented him with evidence that Edmund Randolph, Jefferson's successor as secretary of state, had allegedly solicited a bribe from a French envoy to oppose the treaty with England. Although Randolph denied the charges, an angry Washington forced his old friend to resign. With this action, another important precedent was set. The Constitution empowers the President to nominate his principal officers with the advice and consent of the Senate; it says nothing, however, about the chief executive's authority to dismiss appointees. With Washington's dismissal of Randolph, the administrative system of the federal government was firmly tied to the President. In total, Washington dismissed three foreign ministers, two consuls, eight collectors, and four surveyors of internal revenue—all without seeking the advice or approval of Congress.
Foreign Policy in the Final Years
A pair of treaties—one with Algiers and another with Spain—dominated the later stages of Washington's foreign policy. Pirates from the Barbary region of North Africa were seizing American ships, kidnapping their crew members, and demanding ransom. These Barbary pirates forced a harsh treaty on the U.S. that demanded annual payments to the ruler of Algiers. It was, in short, a shakedown for protection money, and it hardened Washington's resolve to construct a viable navy. The ships built during his administration would prove to be instrumental in naval actions that ended disputes with Algiers in later administrations.
The agreement with Spain had a much happier outcome for Washington. Spanish-controlled Florida agreed to stop inciting Native American attacks on settlers. More importantly, Spain conceded unrestricted access of the entire Mississippi River to Americans, opening much of the Ohio River Valley for settlement and trade. Agricultural produce could now flow on flatboats down the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers to the Mississippi River and on to New Orleans and Europe.
John Jay's treaty with the British continued to have negative ramifications for the remainder of Washington's administration. France declared it in violation of agreements signed with America during the Revolution and claimed that it comprised an alliance with their enemy, Britain. By 1796, the French were harassing American ships and threatening the U.S. with punitive sanctions. Diplomacy did little to solve the problem, and in later years, American and French warships exchanged gunfire on several occasions.
A final precedent set by America's first President, while unpleasant for Washington, was beneficial to his nation. Newspapers sympathetic to the Jeffersonians, emboldened by the public controversy surrounding the treaty with England, became increasingly critical of Washington during his final two years in office. One called him "Saint Washington," another mockingly offered him a crown. To the President's considerable credit, he bore these attacks with dignity—not even responding to them publicly. Privately, he was deeply wounded by the attacks on his integrity, and toward the end of his life, he ceased to have any contact with Thomas Jefferson.
George Washington lived only two years after leaving the presidency. Mount Vernon had been neglected for decades, and Washington spent most of his remaining days trying to make it solvent and functional. As relations with France worsened in mid-1799, however, the former President was again called to public duty when President Adams named Washington commander of the American Army. But the old general was now showing his age, and his duties were limited to largely symbolic tasks. He insisted on leaving control of the Army to Hamilton.
On December 12, 1799, Washington noted in his diary, "At about ten o'clock it began to snow, soon after to hail, and then to a settled cold rain." For five hours that day, Washington had been outdoors on horseback, inspecting his property. The next day he complained of a sore throat, and that night he became deeply ill. Doctors, heeding the medical tenets of the day, extracted blood from him and performed other practices that did him more harm than good. Yet Washington never complained of the pain. He calmly gave orders to servants and apologized for the trouble he was causing everyone. Around midnight he breathed his last breath.
Washington's funeral was not the simple ceremony he had requested. Thousands of mourners attended the services, a band played, and a ship anchored in the Potomac fired a grand salute. He was buried in the family tomb at Mount Vernon. His forty-two page will, which he had personally drafted in 1799, left his estate, which was valued at $500,000, to Martha for use during her lifetime, after which it would pass to his nephew, Bushrod Washington. He freed his personal slave, William, with a $30 grant of money to be paid him every year for life, and he ordered the rest of his slaves freed upon Martha's death. Washington left some of his wealth to a school for poor and orphaned children and other amounts to support the construction of a national university in Washington, D.C. His two grandchildren received large, choice tracts of farmland in Virginia, and he left his numerous friends gifts drawn from his household and personal effects. Washington's five nephews inherited his five swords along with the instructions to never "unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defence, or in defence of their Country and its rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof."
Martha Washington had two young children from her first marriage, Martha and John. She had no children with George Washington. Washington thought it his duty as a stepfather to be "generous and attentive," and expensive orders to London merchants during the childhoods of "Jacky" and "Patsy" reveal doting, caring parents.
Martha Washington was highly indulgent toward her children. Patsy had everything a teenage girl would want in that day—countless clothes, her own piano, a parrot, and dancing lessons. However, by her adolescence, it was plain that Patsy was epileptic. In 1773, the sixteen-year-old girl died during a seizure, and a distraught Martha promptly turned all her attention to her son. Jacky did poorly in school, grew up soft and lazy, and did little during the Revolution. He horrified friends by teaching his two-year-old child to sing obscene songs at adult parties. Against his stepfather's wishes, he visited the Continental army encampment shortly before the Battle of Yorktown. Such camps were rife with diseases, and Jacky soon died, again devastating his mother. His two young children were raised by the Washingtons at Mount Vernon.
The Washingtons lived in a rented house in New York at the beginning of the presidency. In early 1790, they moved into an executive mansion in Philadelphia when the nation's capital was relocated there. At first, the house was swamped with visitors and office seekers. The President's advisers finally instituted strict visiting hours. Once a week, Washington opened the doors of his home for public receptions and events that were open to any citizen meeting the dress code. Martha Washington hosted similar events for women.
In 1790, approximately 4 million people lived in the United States, and slaves made up nearly 20 percent of the total population. By the time George Washington left office, another 500,000 Americans were added to the population either by birth or immigration. Of these numbers, only 6 percent lived in the twenty-four towns that had populations greater than 2,500. Five cities, spread from north to south along the Atlantic seaboard, had populations greater than 10,000: Boston (18,038), New York (33,131), Philadelphia (42,444), Baltimore (13,503), and Charleston (16,359).
During Washington's presidency, America was on the move. By the end of the decade, 500,000 people, principally from Virginia and North Carolina, had moved inland, west of the Appalachian Mountains, where they confronted 100,000 Native Americans who had lived there for hundreds of years. Moreover, it has been estimated that from 1790 to 1800, about 10 percent of all American households relocated each year. Indeed, in the rural farm areas of the Atlantic seaboard, a third of the households moved elsewhere during that time period, and in the cities, closer to 50 percent of the population relocated.
From Farm to Market
The vast majority of these Americans farmed the land, not as a business but as a subsistent way of life for their families. More interested in long-term economic security than in markets, they hoped to achieve a level of material decency while protecting their independence from creditors and banks. However, in the 1790s, warring European nations looked to American farms for foodstuffs. Seaboard farmers responded to the high prices offered them for farm produce by moving from subsistence agriculture to market farming.
These production decisions significantly altered traditional relationships in the household. Prior to the American Revolution, one frequently saw both men and women working in the fields. By 1795, household responsibilities fell more exclusively to women while men worked the heavy plows needed to do what lightweight hoes had once accomplished. Additionally, country farmers began to gather raw materials for their wives and children to finish while they worked the fields. Merchants gathered the finished shoes, cloth, brooms, hats, and other handmade goods on weekly rounds. Rural households, as a result, became tied into the urban economy as never before.
The transition to the market that began during the Washington years affected every part of the nation, but it especially affected the rural areas and towns on the seaboard. Some people grew very rich in the process while others grew poorer. Of course, there had been affluent people in America in earlier times. For example, when George Washington married Martha, he added her 17,000 acres of prime Virginia land, along with her several hundred slaves, to his own 5,000 acres. But the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small elite grew in the 1790s. In New York, the wealthiest 4 percent of the population owned over 50 percent of the wealth. Urban places, moreover, with their narrow streets, were now crowded with ragged children, roving dogs, pigs, horses, and cattle. Open sewers filled with waste and garbage fumes polluted the air and provided nesting grounds for mosquitoes and the deadly diseases they carried, such as yellow fever.
There were other signs of change during the Washington years. Most farmers' sons grew up knowing they would inherit little; daughters knew that the chances for a dowry were smaller and smaller with each passing year. This pattern seriously weakened parental authority over children. As a result, more marriages occurred based upon affection and personal attraction rather than property and parental decisions. Another sign of change was the high number of pregnancies outside of marriage. In a pattern that began in the 1770s and picked up steam thereafter, the number of babies born within eight months of marriage rose to nearly 30 percent.
Although the typical voter in 1796 had to be a property-owning white male, changes were in the making. In the state constitutions adopted after independence, the old freehold, or property, qualifications for voting were generally retained. Some states, however, had dropped the freehold restriction in favor of granting the franchise to tax-paying individuals. By 1789, about 50 to 75 percent of adult white men were thus enfranchised. But in 1790, Vermont granted the vote to all free men. Kentucky, the first new western state, which entered the Union in 1792, did the same. Tennessee followed in 1796 with a property qualification only for newcomers who had lived in their communities less than six months. And women who owned property could vote in New Jersey, but this loophole was abolished in 1807. In the 1790s, African American males who owned property could vote in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Maryland.
Among George Washington's critics are those who wonder how the nation might have developed had he sided with Jefferson in the partisan debates that swirled all around him as President. By identifying himself with Hamilton, he actually furthered the partisanship he so vigorously denounced in his farewell speech to the nation. In the eyes of those historians who doubt his greatness, this is Washington's most significant failure as President.
He has also been criticized, along with other members of the founding generation, for his ownership of slaves. At one point, he expressed the sincere desire to see "a plan adopted for the abolition" of slavery, but he backed away from initiating such a plan by looking to legislative authority for its conception and execution. While he provided generously for his slaves in his will, he did not free them in his lifetime. Nevertheless, a year before his death he remarked to an acquaintance, "I can foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union."
Creating the Presidency
Except for these caveats, it is the substantial consensus among historians that Washington's tenure in office set the nation on a path that has endured now for over 200 years, longer than any other republic in history. He established precedents that would last for generations and did more to flesh out the skeleton of the presidential office than anyone could have expected or predicted. As one scholar has said, he "invented tradition as he went along." His actions, more than those of any other Founding Father, became a part of the "unwritten Constitution."
Washington's reliance on department heads for advice, similar to his war council during the Revolution, set a precedent for including the cabinet as part of the President's office. Moreover, because Congress did not challenge his appointments or his removal of appointees, principally out of respect for him, the tradition was planted to allow the President to choose his or her own cabinet. By his actions and words, Washington also set the standard for two presidential terms, a practice that lasted until 1940. When John Jay resigned as chief justice of the Supreme Court, Washington selected his successor from outside the bench, disregarding seniority and thus allowing future Presidents to draw from a diverse pool of talent beyond the Court's aging incumbents.
When the House of Representatives sought records related to negotiations surrounding the Jay Treaty of 1795, Washington refused to deliver all the documents. In doing so, he set the precedent for invoking what became known as executive privilege. In leading federal troops against the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington presented a clear show of federal authority, established the principle that federal law is the supreme law of the land, and demonstrated that the federal government is empowered to levy and collect taxes.
Although he sponsored and supported legislative proposals submitted to Congress for enactment, he carefully avoided trying to dictate or unduly influence the judicial and legislative branches of the government. In not vetoing bills with which he disagreed unless there were constitutional questions, he set a precedent of executive restraint that would be followed by the next five Presidents. Moreover, by keeping Vice President Adams at arm's length—not even inviting him to attend cabinet meetings—Washington set the tradition by which the vice president's role is largely ceremonial.
Also, although Washington hated partisanship and political parties, he tolerated dissent, vicious attacks on his reputation and name, and a divisive press—all in the interest of freedom. There is little reason to suggest that Washington, unlike so many of his successors, ever sought to use his office for personal empowerment or gain. Neither did he shelter his friends for the sake of their friendships when conflicts of interest arose.
Perhaps most importantly, Washington's presidential restraint, solemnity, judiciousness, and nonpartisan stance created an image of presidential greatness, or dignity, that dominates the office even today. He was the man who could have been a king but refused a crown and saved a republic.