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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

First President • 1789-1797
George Washington
George Washington

Peerless military leader of the War for Independence, able chairman of the Constitutional Convention, brilliant first President, and wise statesman, Washington more than any other man launched our Republic on its course to greatness. During his two precedent-setting terms, he shaped the role of the Presidency, pioneered its relations with Congress, unified the Nation, fostered political harmony, and maintained neutrality in foreign affairs. For all these reasons, he clearly deserves the epithet "Father of His Country."

Washington, the eldest of six children from his father's second marriage, was born into the landed gentry in 1732 at Wakefield plantation, Va. Until reaching 16 years of age, he lived there and at other plantations along the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, including the one that later became known as Mount Vernon.

Washington's education was rudimentary, probably provided by tutors but also possibly by private schools, and he learned surveying. After he lost his father when he was 11 years old, his half-brother Lawrence, who had served in the Royal Navy, acted as his mentor. As a result, the youth acquired an interest in pursuing a naval career, but his mother discouraged him from doing so.

At the age of 16, Washington joined a surveying party sent to the Shenandoah Valley by Lord Fairfax, a land baron. For the next few years, Washington conducted surveys in the frontier areas of Virginia and present West Virginia, and gained a lifetime interest in the West. In 1751-52 he accompanied Lawrence on a visit the latter made to Barbados, West Indies, for health reasons just prior to his death.

The next year, Washington began his military career when the Royal Governor appointed him to an adjutantship in the militia, as a major. That same year, as a gubernatorial emissary, accompanied by a guide, he traveled to Fort Le Boeuf, Pa., in the Ohio River Valley, and delivered to French authorities an ultimatum to cease fortification and settlement in British territory. During the trip, he tried to cement relations with various Indian tribes.

The Continental Congress accepts General Washington's resignation on December 23, 1783, at the Maryland State House. (Oil, 1824, by John Tumbull, Architect of the Capitol.)

Winning the rank of lieutenant colonel and then colonel in the militia, in 1754 Washington led a force that sought to challenge French control of the Ohio River Valley, but met defeat at Fort Necessity, Pa.—an event that helped trigger the French and Indian War (1754-63). Late in 1754, irritated by the dilution of his rank because of the pending arrival of British regulars, he resigned his commission. That same year, he leased Mount Vernon, which he was to inherit in 1761.

In 1755 Washington reentered military service with the courtesy title of colonel as an aide to Gen. Edward Braddock, and barely escaped death when the French inflicted a defeat in the Battle of the Monongahela, Pa. As a reward for his bravery, Washington won his colonelcy and command of the Virginia militia forces, charged with defending the colony's frontier. Because of the shortage of men and equipment, he found the assignment challenging. Late in 1758 or early in 1759, disillusioned over governmental neglect of the militia and irked at not winning higher rank, he resigned and headed back to Mount Vernon.

Martha Washington
Martha Washington

In 1759 Washington wed Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow and mother of two children. The marriage produced no offspring, but Washington reared those of his wife as his own. During the period 1759-74, he managed his plantations and sat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He supported the initial protests against British policies; took an active part in the nonimportation movement in Virginia; and, in time, particularly because of his military experience, became a Whig leader.

By the 1770's, relations of the colony with the mother country had become strained. Measured in his behavior but resentful of British restrictions and commercial exploitation, Washington represented Virginia at the First and Second Continental Congresses. In 1775, after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord, Congress appointed him as commander in chief of the Continental Army. Overcoming severe obstacles, especially in supply, he eventually fashioned a well-trained and disciplined fighting force.

The strategy Washington evolved consisted of continual harassment of British forces while avoiding general actions. Although his troops yielded much ground and lost a number of battles, they persevered even during the dark winters at Valley Forge, Pa., and Morristown, N.J. Finally, with the aid of the French fleet and army, he won a climactic victory at the Battle of Yorktown, Va., in 1781.

During the next 2 years, while still commanding the unpaid and poorly supplied Continental Army, Washington denounced proposals that the military take over the Government, including one that planned to appoint him as king. But he supported army petitions to the Continental Congress for proper compensation.

Once the Treaty of Paris (1783) was signed, Washington resigned his commission and trekked back once again to Mount Vernon. His wartime financial sacrifices and long absence, as well as generous loans to friends, had severely impaired his extensive fortune, which consisted mainly of his plantations, slaves, and landholdings in the West. At this point, however, he was to have little time to repair his finances, for his retirement was brief.

Dissatisfied with national progress under the Articles of Confederation, Washington and other leaders advocated a stronger central Government. He hosted the Mount Vernon Conference (1785) at his estate after the initial meetings in Alexandria, Va., though he apparently did not directly participate in the discussions.

Washington's letter
In this letter to John Langdon, President pro tem of the Senate in the First Congress. Washington accepts the Presidency. (Library of Congress)

Despite Washington's sympathies with the goals of the Annapolis Convention (1786), he did not attend. But the following year, encouraged by many of his friends, he presided over the Constitutional Convention, whose success was immeasurably influenced by his presence. Following ratification of the new instrument of Government, the electoral college unanimously chose him as the first President.

On April 30, 1789, after a triumphal journey from Mount Vernon to New York City, Washington took the oath of office at Federal Hall. During his two terms, he governed with dignity as well as restraint. He provided the stability and authority the emergent Nation so sorely needed; gave substance to the Constitution, and reconciled competing factions and divergent policies within the Government and his administration.

Washington respected the role of Congress and did not infringe upon its prerogatives, but did challenge it on matters he felt to be of principle. He also tried to maintain harmony between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, whose differences typified evolving party divisions, from which the President attempted to keep aloof.

Yet, usually leaning upon Hamilton for advice, Washington supported his plan for the assumption of State debts, concurred in the constitutionality of the bill establishing the Bank of the United States, and favored enactment of tariffs by Congress to provide Federal revenue and protect domestic manufacturers.

Washington took other steps to strengthen governmental authority, including suppression of the Whisky Rebellion (1794) and Indian resistance in the Northwest Territory. As a gesture of national unity, he toured the Northeast in 1789 and the South in 1791. During his tenure, the Government moved from New York to Philadelphia (1790), he superintended the planning for relocation to the District of Columbia, and he laid the cornerstone of the Capitol (1793).

Washington and family
President and Mrs. Washington with her grandchildren George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke ("Nelly") Custis. (Oil, 1796, by Edward Savage, National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Collection.)

George Washington Birtplace
Washington Birthplace National Monument
Mount Vernon
Washington Monument
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Independence National Historical Park

In foreign affairs Washington exerted dominance. He fostered United States interests on the North American Continent by treaties with Britain and Spain, though Jay's Treaty with Britain was controversial. Yet, until the Nation was stronger, he insisted on the maintenance of neutrality. For example, when war broke out between France and England in the wake of the French Revolution, he ignored the remonstrances of pro-French Jefferson and pro-British Hamilton.

Although many people encouraged Washington to seek a third term, he was weary of politics and refused to do so. In his "Farewell Address" (1796), he urged his countrymen to forswear party spirit and sectional passions and to avoid entanglement in the wars and domestic policies of other nations.

Washington enjoyed only a few years of retirement at Mount Vernon. Even then, demonstrating his continued willingness to make sacrifices for his country, in 1798 when the country was on the verge of war with France, he agreed to command the Army, though his services were not ultimately required. He died at the age of 67 in 1799.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004