Washington, George

Born: 1732-02-22 Westmoreland County, Virginia

Died: 1799-12-14 Mount Vernon, Virginia

Born into a prosperous Virginia family, George Washington’s father died when he was eleven, leaving his vast estate to George’s half-brother Lawrence. Despite limited means and eight years of schooling, Washington was determined to earn a place in Virginia plantation society. Embarking on a program of self-improvement, Washington studied surveying, earned his license, and commenced a career as a surveyor in 1748. At eighteen, he made the first of what would become many purchases of western lands---1,459 acres in the Shenandoah Valley. After his brother’s death in 1751, Washington leased his estate, “Mount Vernon,” and eventually acquired the property outright. George also assumed Lawrence’s position as commander of a militia district with the rank of major. In 1754, Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie promoted Washington to lieutenant colonel of the Virginia Militia and assigned him and a small detachment to help defend an English fort (Fort Pitt) being built in the Ohio River valley. Washington distinguished himself in skirmishes with French troops, earning him acclaim in Virginia and the other colonies. In 1755, he participated in General Edward Braddock’s ill-fated campaign against Fort Duquesne, leading the survivors to safety. He subsequently retired from the service to become a substantial landowner and slaveholding planter. Befitting a country squire, Washington assumed political and ecclesiastical responsibilities, serving as a county judge and vestryman for his parish. Washington also served in the House of Burgesses from 1759 until the American Revolution. As relations between Great Britain and the colonies worsened in the 1770s, Washington adopted a stance of militant resistance to British rule. In 1774, he was a delegate to the First Continental Congress. In June 1775, Congress adopted the forces surrounding the British in Boston as the Continental Army and selected Washington as its commander-in-chief. Washington’s success keeping the Continental Army in the field, despite a consistently inadequate supply of provisions and men, made him into America’s paramount national icon - earning him the nickname “Father of His Country.” Washington’s success in getting the Continental Army to lay down its arms and disband in the midst of mutiny and dissatisfaction with Congress in 1783 astounded the Western world and won him international acclaim. In 1783, Washington retired from the army, vowing never again to enter public life. Concerning over the state of the republic under the Articles of Confederation changed Washington’s mind. In 1787, he presided over the Constitutional Convention and in 1788, unanimously won election as the nation’s first president. The presidency was loosely-defined in the Constitution, and Washington did much to establish the early ceremonial etiquette and political organization of the office and the executive branch. Washington won a second term in 1792 but chose not to run for a third, announcing his retirement in the fall of 1796. His farewell address became the basis for American civic life and foreign policy for generations. He retired to Mount Vernon, dying three years later. In his will, Washington freed his slaves, becoming the only Virginia founder to free his slaves.

Forrest McDonald, “Washington, George,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 22:758-66; Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York: Penguin, 2010); James Thomas Flexner, George Washington 4 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1965-1972).