George Washington: Life in Brief
George Washington was born to Mary Ball and Augustine Washington on February 22, 1732. As the third son of a middling planter, George probably should have been relegated to a footnote in a history book. Instead, he became one of the greatest figures in American history.
A series of personal losses changed the course of George’s life. His father, Augustine, died when he was eleven years old, ending any hopes of higher education. Instead, Washington spent many of his formative years under the tutelage of Lawrence, his favorite older brother. He also learned the science of surveying and began a new career with the help of their neighbors, the wealthy and powerful Fairfax family. Lawrence’s death in 1752 again changed George’s plans. He leased Mount Vernon, a plantation in northern Virginia, from Lawrence’s widow and sought a military commission, just as Lawrence had done.
Washington served as the lieutenant colonel of the Virginia regiment and led several missions out west to the Ohio Valley. On his second mission west, he participated in the murder of French forces, including a reported ambassador. In retaliation, the French surrounded Washington’s forces at Fort Necessity and compelled an unequivocal surrender. Washington signed the articles of capitulation, not knowing that he was accepting full blame for an assassination. His mission marked the start of the Seven Years’ War.
Washington then joined General Edward Braddock’s official family as an aide-de-camp. In recognition of Washington’s extraordinary bravery during Braddock’s disastrous defeat at the Battle of the Monongahela in 1755, Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie appointed him as the commander of the Virginia Regiment. He served with distinction until the end of 1758.
In early 1759, George entered a new chapter in his life when he married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow, and won election to the Virginia House of Burgesses. George and Martha moved to Mount Vernon and embarked on an extensive expansion and renovation of the estate. Their life with her children from her previous marriage, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis, was loving and warm.
Washington’s position in the House of Burgesses took on additional importance as relations between the colonies and Great Britain deteriorated after the end of the Seven Years’ War. The British government had incurred enormous debts fighting across the globe and faced high military costs defending the new territories in North America that it had received in the peace settlement. To defray these expenses, the British Parliament passed a series of new taxation measures on its colonies, which were still much lower than those paid by citizens in England. But many colonists protested that they had already contributed once to the war effort and should not be forced to pay again, especially since they had no input in the legislative process.
Washington supported the protest measures in the House of Burgesses, and in 1774, he accepted appointment as a Virginia delegate to the First Continental Congress, where he voted for non-importation measures, such as abstaining from purchasing British goods. The following year, he returned to the Second Continental Congress after British regulars and local militia forces clashed in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. He approved Congress’s decision to create an army in June 1775 and was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.
For the next eight years, Washington led the army, only leaving headquarters to respond to Congress’s summons. He lost more battles than he won and at times had to hold the army together with sheer will, but ultimately emerged victorious in 1783 when the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War.
Washington’s success as a commander derived from three factors. First, he never challenged civilian authority. The new nation deeply distrusted military power, and his intentional self-subordination kept him in command. Second, the soldiers and officers adored him. The soldiers’ devotion to their commander was so apparent that some congressmen rued that it was not the Continental Army, it was George Washington’s army. Finally, Washington understood that if the army survived, so too would the cause for independence. He did not have to beat the British Army, he just had to avoid complete destruction.
At the end of the war, Washington returned his commission to the Confederation Congress and resumed life as a private citizen in Virginia. In an age of dictators and despots, his voluntarily surrender of power rippled around the globe and solidified his legend. Unsurprisingly, when the state leaders began discussing government reform a few years later, they knew Washington’s participation was essential for success.
In 1786, the Virginia legislature nominated a slate of delegates to represent the state at the Constitutional Convention. Washington’s close friend, Governor Edmund Randolph, ensured that George’s name was included. In May 1787, Washington set out for Philadelphia, where he served as the president of the convention. Once the convention agreed to a draft constitution, he then worked behind the scenes to ensure ratification. Washington believed the new constitution would resolve many of the problems that had plagued the Confederation Congress, but he also knew that if the states ratified the constitution, he would once again be dragged back into public service.
On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth and requisite state to ratify the new Constitution of the United States, forcing each state to schedule elections for the new federal offices. Unsurprisingly, Washington was unanimously elected as the first president. He took the oath of office on April 30, 1789.
As the first president, Washington literally crafted the office from scratch, which was an accomplishment that cannot be overstated because every decision was an opportunity for failure. Instead, Washington set a model for restraint, prestige in office, and public service. As president, Washington also oversaw the establishment of the financial system, the restoration of the nation’s credit, the expansion of US territory (often at the expense of Native Americans), the negotiation of economic treaties with European empires, and the defense of executive authority over diplomatic and domestic affairs.
Washington set countless precedents, including the creation of the cabinet, executive privilege, state of the union addresses, and his retirement after two terms. On September 19, 1796, Washington published his Farewell Address announcing his retirement in a Philadelphia newspaper. He warned Americans to come together and reject partisan or foreign attempts to divide them, admonitions that retain their significance into the twenty-first century. He then willingly surrendered power once more.
When Washington left office, his contemporaries referred to him the father of the country. No other person could have held the Continental Army together for eight years, granted legitimacy to the Constitution Convention, or served as the first president. It is impossible to imagine the creation of the United States without him.
Yet, Washington’s life also embodies the complicated founding that shapes our society today. He owned hundreds of enslaved people and benefitted from their forced labor from the moment he was born to the day he died. His wealth, produced by slavery, made possible his decades of public service. Washington’s financial success, and that of the new nation, also depended on the violent seizure of extensive territory from Native American nations along the eastern seaboard to the Mississippi River. Washington’s life and service as the first president represents the irony contained in the nation’s founding. The United States was forged on the idea that “all men are created equal,” yet depended on the subjugation and exploitation of women and people of color.