George Washington
Head and shoulders portrait of George Washington
Portrait c. 1803
1st President of the United States
In office
April 30, 1789 – March 4, 1797
Vice PresidentJohn Adams
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byJohn Adams
Additional offices
7th Senior Officer of the United States Army
In office
July 13, 1798 – December 14, 1799
PresidentJohn Adams
Preceded byJames Wilkinson
Succeeded byAlexander Hamilton
Commander in Chief of the Continental Army
In office
June 19, 1775 – December 23, 1783
Appointed byContinental Congress
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byHenry Knox (as Senior Officer)
14th Chancellor of the College of William & Mary
In office
April 30, 1788 – December 14, 1799
PresidentJames Madison
Preceded byRichard Terrick (1776)
Succeeded byJohn Tyler (1859)
Delegate from Virginia to the Continental Congress
In office
September 5, 1774 – June 16, 1775
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byThomas Jefferson
Member of the Virginia House of Burgesses
In office
July 24, 1758 – June 24, 1775
Preceded byHugh West
Succeeded byOffice abolished
Personal details
BornFebruary 22, 1732 [O.S. February 11, 1731]
Popes Creek, Virginia Colony, British America
DiedDecember 14, 1799(1799-12-14) (aged 67)
Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.
Resting placeMount Vernon, Virginia
38°42′28.4″N 77°05′09.9″W / 38.707889°N 77.086083°W / 38.707889; -77.086083
Political partyIndependent
(m. 1759)
RelativesWashington family
  • Planter
  • military officer
  • statesman
  • surveyor
SignatureCursive signature in ink
Military service
Years of service
  • 1752–1758 (Virginia Militia)
  • 1775–1783 (Continental Army)
  • 1798–1799 (U.S. Army)
See list

George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799) was an American Founding Father, military officer, and politician who served as the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797. Appointed by the Second Continental Congress as commander of the Continental Army in 1775, Washington led Patriot forces to victory in the American Revolutionary War and then served as president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which drafted the current Constitution of the United States. Washington has thus become commonly known as the "Father of his Country".

Washington's first public office, from 1749 to 1750, was as surveyor of Culpeper County in the Colony of Virginia. In 1752, he received military training and was granted the rank of major in the Virginia Regiment. During the French and Indian War, Washington was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1754 and subsequently became head of the Virginia Regiment in 1755. He was later elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and was named a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, which appointed him commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Washington led American forces to a decisive victory over the British in the Revolutionary War, leading the British to sign the Treaty of Paris, which acknowledged the sovereignty and independence of the United States. He resigned his commission in 1783 after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.

Washington played an indispensable role in adopting and ratifying the Constitution, which replaced the Articles of Confederation in 1789. He was then twice elected president unanimously by the Electoral College in 1788 and 1792. As the first U.S. president, Washington implemented a strong, well-financed national government while remaining impartial in a fierce rivalry that emerged between cabinet members Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. During the French Revolution, he proclaimed a policy of neutrality while additionally sanctioning the Jay Treaty. He set enduring precedents for the office of president, including republicanism, a peaceful transfer of power, the use of the title "Mr. President", and the two-term tradition. His 1796 farewell address became a preeminent statement on republicanism in which he wrote about the importance of national unity and the dangers that regionalism, partisanship, and foreign influence pose to it.

Washington's image is an icon of American culture. He has been memorialized by monuments, a federal holiday, various media depictions, geographical locations including the national capital, the State of Washington, stamps, and currency. In 1976, Washington was posthumously promoted to the rank of general of the Armies, the highest rank in the U.S. Army. Washington consistently ranks in both popular and scholarly polls as one of the greatest presidents in American history.

Early life (1732–1752)

Further information: Washington family and British America

Ferry Farm, the Washington family residence on the Rappahannock River in Stafford County, Virginia, where Washington spent much of his youth

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732,[a] at Popes Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia.[3] He was the first of six children of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington.[4] His father was a justice of the peace and a prominent public figure who had four additional children from his first marriage to Jane Butler.[5] The family moved to Little Hunting Creek in 1734 before eventually settling in Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia. When Augustine died in 1743, Washington inherited Ferry Farm and ten slaves; his older half-brother Lawrence inherited Little Hunting Creek and renamed it Mount Vernon.[6][7]

Washington did not have the formal education his elder brothers received at Appleby Grammar School in England, but he did attend the Lower Church School in Hartfield. He learned mathematics, including trigonometry, and land surveying, and became a talented draftsman and mapmaker. By early adulthood, he was writing with "considerable force" and "precision".[8] As a teenager, to practice his penmanship, Washington compiled over a hundred rules for social interaction styled Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, copied from an English translation of a French book of manners.[9]

Washington often visited Mount Vernon and Belvoir, the plantation of William Fairfax, Lawrence's father-in-law. Fairfax became Washington's patron and surrogate father. In 1748, Washington spent a month with a team surveying Fairfax's Shenandoah Valley property.[10] The following year, he received a surveyor's license from the College of William & Mary.[b] Even though Washington had not served the customary apprenticeship, Thomas Fairfax appointed him surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia, where he took his oath of office on July 20, 1749. He subsequently familiarized himself with the frontier region, and though he resigned from the job in 1750, he continued to do surveys west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.[11] By 1752, he had bought almost 1,500 acres (600 ha) in the Valley and owned 2,315 acres (937 ha).[12]

In 1751, Washington left mainland North America for the first and only time, when he accompanied Lawrence to Barbados, hoping the climate would cure his brother's tuberculosis.[13][14] Washington contracted smallpox during that trip, which left his face slightly scarred.[15] Lawrence died in 1752, and Washington leased Mount Vernon from his widow Anne; he inherited it outright after her death in 1761.[16]

Colonial military career (1752–1758)

Lawrence Washington's service as adjutant general of the Virginia militia inspired George to seek a commission. Virginia's lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie, appointed Washington as a major and commander of one of the four militia districts. The British and French were competing for control of the Ohio Valley: the British were constructing forts along the Ohio River, and the French between the Ohio River and Lake Erie.[17]

In October 1753, Dinwiddie appointed Washington as a special envoy. He had sent Washington to demand French forces to vacate land that was claimed by the British. Washington was also appointed to make peace with the Iroquois Confederacy, and to gather further intelligence about the French forces.[18] Washington met with Half-King Tanacharison, and other Iroquois chiefs, at Logstown, and gathered information about the numbers and locations of the French forts, as well as intelligence concerning individuals taken prisoner by the French. Washington was nicknamed Conotocaurius by Tanacharison. The name, meaning "devourer of villages", had been given to his great-grandfather John Washington in the late 17th century by the Susquehannock.[19]

Washington's party reached the Ohio River in November 1753, and was intercepted by a French patrol. The party was escorted to Fort Le Boeuf, where Washington was received in a friendly manner. He delivered the British demand to vacate to the French commander Saint-Pierre, but the French refused to leave. Saint-Pierre gave Washington his official answer after a few days' delay, as well as food and winter clothing for his party's journey back to Virginia.[20] Washington completed the precarious mission in 77 days, in difficult winter conditions, achieving a measure of distinction when his report was published in Virginia and London.[21]

French and Indian War

Main article: George Washington in the French and Indian War

Further information: French and Indian War and Seven Years' War

Night scene depicting Washington at center, standing among officers and Indians, around a lamp, holding a war council
An 1855 engraving of then Lieutenant Colonel Washington holding night council during the Battle of Fort Necessity in Fayette County, Pennsylvania

In February 1754, Dinwiddie promoted Washington to lieutenant colonel and second-in-command of the 300-strong Virginia Regiment, with orders to confront French forces at the Forks of the Ohio.[22] Washington set out with half the regiment in April and soon learned a French force of 1,000 had begun construction of Fort Duquesne there. In May, having set up a defensive position at Great Meadows, he learned that the French had made camp seven miles (11 km) away; he decided to take the offensive.[23]

The French detachment proved to be only about 50 men, so Washington advanced on May 28 with a small force of Virginians and Indian allies to ambush them.[c][25] During the ambush, French forces were killed outright with muskets and hatchets, including French commander Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, who had been carrying a diplomatic message for the British. The French later found their countrymen dead and scalped, blaming Washington, who had retreated to Fort Necessity.[26]

The full Virginia Regiment joined Washington at Fort Necessity the following month with news that he had been promoted to command of the regiment and colonel upon the regimental commander's death. The regiment was reinforced by an independent company of a hundred South Carolinians led by Captain James Mackay; his royal commission outranked Washington's and a conflict of command ensued. On July 3, a French force attacked with 900 men, and the ensuing battle ended in Washington's surrender.[27] He signed a surrender document in which he unwittingly took responsibility for "assassinating" Jumonville, later blaming the translator for not properly translating it.[28]

In the aftermath, Colonel James Innes took command of intercolonial forces, the Virginia Regiment was divided, and Washington was offered a captaincy in one of the newly formed regiments. He refused, however, as it would have been a demotion and instead resigned his commission.[29] The "Jumonville affair" became the incident which ignited the French and Indian War, later to become part of the Seven Years' War.[30][31]

Washington on horseback in the middle of a battle scene with other soldiers
Washington the Soldier, an 1834 portrait of Washington on horseback during the Battle of the Monongahela

In 1755, Washington served voluntarily as an aide to General Edward Braddock, who led a British expedition to expel the French from Fort Duquesne and the Ohio Country.[32] On Washington's recommendation, Braddock split the army into one main column and a lightly equipped "flying column".[33] Suffering from severe dysentery, Washington was left behind, and when he rejoined Braddock at Monongahela the French and their Indian allies ambushed the divided army. Two-thirds of the British force became casualties, including the mortally wounded Braddock. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage, Washington, still very ill, rallied the survivors and formed a rear guard, allowing the remnants of the force to disengage and retreat.[34]

During the engagement, he had two horses shot from under him, and his hat and coat were bullet-pierced.[35] His conduct under fire redeemed his reputation among critics of his command in the Battle of Fort Necessity,[36] but he was not included by the succeeding commander (Colonel Thomas Dunbar) in planning subsequent operations.[37]

The Virginia Regiment was reconstituted in August 1755, and Dinwiddie appointed Washington its commander, again with the rank of colonel. Washington clashed over seniority almost immediately, this time with John Dagworthy, another captain of superior royal rank, who commanded a detachment of Marylanders at the regiment's headquarters in Fort Cumberland.[38] Washington, impatient for an offensive against Fort Duquesne, was convinced Braddock would have granted him a royal commission and pressed his case in February 1756 with Braddock's successor as Commander-in-Chief, William Shirley, and again in January 1757 with Shirley's successor, Lord Loudoun. Shirley ruled in Washington's favor only in the matter of Dagworthy; Loudoun humiliated Washington, refused him a royal commission and agreed only to relieve him of the responsibility of manning Fort Cumberland.[39]

In 1758, the Virginia Regiment was assigned to the British Forbes Expedition to capture Fort Duquesne.[d][41] Washington disagreed with General John Forbes' tactics and chosen route.[42] Forbes nevertheless made Washington a brevet brigadier general and gave him command of one of the three brigades that would assault the fort. The French had abandoned the fort and the valley before the assault, however, and Washington only saw a friendly fire incident which left 14 dead and 26 injured. Frustrated, he resigned his commission soon afterwards and returned to Mount Vernon.[43]

Under Washington, the Virginia Regiment had defended 300 miles (480 km) of frontier against twenty Indian attacks in ten months.[44] He increased the professionalism of the regiment as it grew from 300 to 1,000 men, and Virginia's frontier population suffered less than other colonies. Though he failed to realize a royal commission, he gained self-confidence, leadership skills, and knowledge of British military tactics. The destructive competition Washington witnessed among colonial politicians fostered his later support of a strong central government.[45]

Marriage, civilian, and political life (1755–1775)

Main article: George Washington's political evolution

Painting of Washington, by Charles Wilson Peale, standing in a formal pose, in a colonel's uniform, right hand inserted in shirt.
Colonel George Washington, a 1772 portrait by Charles Willson Peale
A mezzotint of Martha Washington, standing, wearing a formal gown, based on a 1757 portrait by John Wollaston
Martha Dandridge Custis, a 1757 portrait by John Wollaston

On January 6, 1759, Washington, at age 26, married Martha Dandridge Custis, the 27-year-old widow of wealthy plantation owner Daniel Parke Custis. The marriage took place at Martha's estate; she was intelligent, gracious, and experienced in managing a planter's estate, and the couple had a happy marriage.[46] They moved to Mount Vernon, near Alexandria, where he lived as a planter of tobacco and wheat and emerged as a political figure.[47]

Washington's 1751 bout with smallpox is thought to have rendered him sterile, though it is equally likely that "Martha may have sustained injury during the birth of Patsy, her final child, making additional births impossible."[48] The couple lamented not having any children together.[e][51] Despite this, the two raised Martha's two children John Parke Custis (Jacky) and Martha Parke Custis (Patsy), and later Jacky's two youngest children Eleanor Parke Custis (Nelly) and George Washington Parke Custis (Washy), along with numerous nieces and nephews.[52]

The marriage gave Washington control over Martha's one-third dower interest in the 18,000-acre (7,300 ha) Custis estate, and he managed the remaining two-thirds for Martha's children; the estate also included 84 slaves. As a result, he became one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, which increased his social standing.[53]

At Washington's urging, Governor Lord Botetourt fulfilled Dinwiddie's 1754 promise of land bounties to all-volunteer militia during the French and Indian War.[54] In late 1770, Washington inspected the lands in the Ohio and Great Kanawha regions, and he engaged surveyor William Crawford to subdivide it. Crawford allotted 23,200 acres (9,400 ha) to Washington; Washington told the veterans that their land was hilly and unsuitable for farming, and he agreed to purchase 20,147 acres (8,153 ha), leaving some feeling they had been duped.[55] He also doubled the size of Mount Vernon to 6,500 acres (2,600 ha) and, by 1775, had increased its slave population by more than a hundred.[56]

As a respected military hero and large landowner, Washington held local offices and was elected to the Virginia provincial legislature, representing Frederick County in the House of Burgesses for seven years beginning in 1758.[56] He first ran for the seat in 1755 but was soundly beaten by Hugh West.[57][58] When he ran in 1758, Washington plied voters with beer, brandy, and other beverages. Despite being away serving on the Forbes Expedition, he won the election with roughly 40 percent of the vote, defeating three opponents with the help of local supporters.[59][60]

Early in his legislative career, Washington rarely spoke or even attended legislative sessions. He would later become a prominent critic of Britain's taxation policy and mercantilist policies towards the American colonies and became more politically active starting in the 1760s.[61]

Washington imported luxuries and other goods from England, paying for them by exporting tobacco. His profligate spending combined with low tobacco prices left him £1,800 in debt by 1764, prompting him to diversify his holdings.[62] In 1765, because of erosion and other soil problems, he changed Mount Vernon's primary cash crop from tobacco to wheat and expanded operations to include corn flour milling and fishing.[63][64]

Washington soon was counted among the political and social elite in Virginia. From 1768 to 1775, he invited some 2,000 guests to Mount Vernon, mostly those whom he considered people of rank, and was known to be exceptionally cordial toward guests.[65] Washington also took time for leisure with fox hunting, fishing, dances, theater, cards, backgammon, and billiards.[66]

Washington's stepdaughter Patsy suffered from epileptic attacks from age 12, and she died at Mount Vernon in 1773. The following day, he wrote to Burwell Bassett: "It is easier to conceive, than to describe, the distress of this Family".[67] He canceled all business activity and remained with Martha every night for three months.[68]

Opposition to the British Parliament and Crown

Further information: American Revolution and George Washington in the American Revolution

Washington played a central role before and during the American Revolution. His distrust of the British military had begun when he was passed over for promotion into the Regular Army. Opposed to taxes imposed by the British Parliament on the Colonies without proper representation,[69] he and other colonists were also angered by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which banned American settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains and protected the British fur trade.[70]

Washington believed the Stamp Act 1765 was an "Act of Oppression" and celebrated its repeal the following year.[f] In March 1766, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act asserting that Parliamentary law superseded colonial law.[72] In the late 1760s, the interference of the British Crown in American lucrative western land speculation spurred the American Revolution.[73] Washington was a prosperous land speculator, and in 1767, he encouraged "adventures" to acquire backcountry western lands.[73] Washington helped lead widespread protests against the Townshend Acts passed by Parliament in 1767, and he introduced a proposal in May 1769 which urged Virginians to boycott British goods; the Acts were mostly repealed in 1770.[74]

Parliament sought to punish Massachusetts colonists for their role in the Boston Tea Party in 1774 by passing the Coercive Acts, which Washington saw as "an invasion of our rights and privileges".[75] He said Americans must not submit to acts of tyranny since "custom and use shall make us as tame and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway".[76] That July, he and George Mason drafted a list of resolutions for the Fairfax County committee, including a call to end the Atlantic slave trade, which were adopted.[77]

On August 1, Washington attended the First Virginia Convention. There, he was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.[78] As tensions rose in 1774, he helped train militias in Virginia and organized enforcement of the Continental Association boycott of British goods instituted by the Congress.[79]

The American Revolutionary War broke out on April 19, 1775, with the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the Siege of Boston.[80] Upon hearing the news, Washington was "sobered and dismayed",[81] and he hastily departed Mount Vernon on May 4, 1775, to join the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.[82]

Commander in chief (1775–1783)

Further information: Military career of George Washington and Washington's aides-de-camp

Formal painting of General George Washington, standing in uniform, as commander of the Continental Army
General Washington, Commander of the Continental Army, a 1776 portrait by Charles Willson Peale

On June 14, 1775, Congress created the Continental Army and John Adams nominated Washington as its commander-in-chief, mainly because of his military experience and the belief that a Virginian would better unite the colonies. He was unanimously elected by Congress the next day.[83] Washington appeared before Congress in uniform and gave an acceptance speech on June 16, declining a salary, though he was later reimbursed expenses.[84]

Washington was commissioned on June 19 and officially appointed by Congress as "General & Commander in chief of the army of the United Colonies and of all the forces raised or to be raised by them".[85] He was instructed to take charge of the Siege of Boston on June 22, 1775.[86]

Congress chose his primary staff officers, including Major General Artemas Ward, Adjutant General Horatio Gates, Major General Charles Lee, Major General Philip Schuyler, and Major General Nathanael Greene.[87] Henry Knox, a young bookkeeper, impressed Adams and Washington with ordnance knowledge and was subsequently promoted to colonel and chief of artillery. Similarly, Washington was impressed by Alexander Hamilton's intelligence and bravery. He would later promote him to colonel and appoint him his aide-de-camp.[88]

Washington initially banned the enlistment of blacks, both free and enslaved, into the Continental Army. The British saw an opportunity to divide the colonies, and the colonial governor of Virginia issued a proclamation, which promised freedom to slaves if they joined the British.[89] Desperate for manpower by late 1777, Washington relented and overturned his ban.[90] By the end of the war, around one-tenth of Washington's army were blacks.[91] Following the British surrender, Washington sought to enforce terms of the preliminary Treaty of Paris (1783) by reclaiming slaves freed by the British and returning them to servitude. He arranged to make this request to Sir Guy Carleton on May 6, 1783. Instead, Carleton issued 3,000 freedom certificates and all former slaves in New York City were able to leave before the city was evacuated by the British in late November 1783.[92]

Siege of Boston

Main article: Siege of Boston

Early in 1775, in response to the growing rebellious movement, London sent British troops to occupy Boston, led by General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces in America.[93] They set up fortifications, making the city impervious to attack. Local militias surrounded the city and effectively trapped the British troops, resulting in a standoff.[94]

Washington arriving in Boston on July 2, 1775, to take command of the Continental Army

As Washington headed for Boston, word of his march preceded him, and he was greeted everywhere; gradually, he became a symbol of the Patriot cause.[95] Upon arrival on July 2, 1775, two weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill, he set up headquarters in Cambridge. When he went to inspect the army, he found undisciplined militia.[96] After consultation, he initiated Benjamin Franklin's suggested reforms: drilling the soldiers and imposing strict discipline.[97] Washington ordered his officers to identify the skills of recruits to ensure military effectiveness, while removing incompetent officers.[98] He petitioned Gage, his former superior, to release captured Patriot officers from prison and treat them humanely.[99] In October 1775, King George III declared that the colonies were in open rebellion and relieved Gage of command for incompetence, replacing him with General William Howe.[100]

The Continental Army, reduced to only 9,600 men by January 1776 due to expiring short-term enlistments, had to be supplemented with militia. Soon, they were joined by Knox with heavy artillery captured from Fort Ticonderoga.[101] When the Charles River froze over, Washington was eager to cross and storm Boston, but General Gates and others were opposed to untrained militia striking well-garrisoned fortifications. Instead, he agreed to secure the Dorchester Heights, 100 feet above Boston, with Knox's artillery to try to force the British out.[102]

On March 9, under cover of darkness, Washington's troops bombarded British ships in Boston harbor. On March 17, 9,000 British troops and Loyalists began a chaotic ten-day evacuation aboard 120 ships. Soon after, Washington entered the city with 500 men, with explicit orders not to plunder the city.[103] He refrained from exerting military authority in Boston, leaving civilian matters in the hands of local authorities.[g][105]

New York and New Jersey

Main article: New York and New Jersey Campaign

Battle of Long Island

Main article: Battle of Long Island

Painting by Alonzo Chappel, 1858, showing the frantic battle scene of the Battle of Long Island, with smoke in the background
Battle of Long Island, an 1858 painting by Alonzo Chappel

After the victory at Boston, Washington correctly guessed that the British would return to New York City, a Loyalist stronghold, and retaliate. He arrived there on April 13, 1776, and ordered the construction of fortifications to thwart the expected British attack. He also ordered his occupying forces to treat civilians and their property with respect, to avoid the abuses Bostonians suffered at the hands of British troops.[106]

Howe transported his resupplied army, with the British fleet, from Halifax to New York City. George Germain, who ran the British war effort in England, believed it could be won with one "decisive blow".[107] The British forces, including more than a hundred ships and thousands of troops, began arriving on Staten Island on July 2 to lay siege to the city.[108] After the Declaration of Independence was unanimously adopted on July 4, Washington informed his troops on July 9 that Congress had declared the united colonies to be "free and independent states".[109]

Howe's troop strength totaled 32,000 regulars and Hessian auxiliaries, and Washington's consisted of 23,000, mostly raw recruits and militia.[110] In August, Howe landed 20,000 troops at Gravesend, Brooklyn, and approached Washington's fortifications Opposing his generals, Washington chose to fight, based on inaccurate information that Howe's army had only 8,000-plus troops.[111] In the Battle of Long Island, Howe assaulted Washington's flank and inflicted 1,500 Patriot casualties, the British suffering 400.[112] Washington retreated, instructing General William Heath to acquire river craft. On August 30, General William Alexander held off the British and gave cover while the army crossed the East River under darkness to Manhattan without loss of life or materiel, although Alexander was captured.[113] Howe was emboldened by his Long Island victory and dispatched Washington as "George Washington, Esq." in futility to negotiate peace. Washington declined, demanding to be addressed with diplomatic protocol, as general and fellow belligerent, not as a "rebel", lest his men be hanged as such if captured.[114] The Royal Navy bombarded the unstable earthworks on lower Manhattan Island.[115] Despite misgivings, Washington heeded the advice of Generals Greene and Putnam to defend Fort Washington. They were unable to hold it; Washington abandoned the fort and ordered his army north to the White Plains.[116]

Howe's pursuit forced Washington to retreat across the Hudson River to Fort Lee to avoid encirclement. Howe landed his troops on Manhattan in November and captured Fort Washington, inflicting high casualties on the Americans. Washington was responsible for delaying the retreat, though he blamed Congress and General Greene. Loyalists in New York City considered Howe a liberator and spread a rumor that Washington had set fire to the city.[117] Patriot morale reached its lowest when Lee was captured.[118] Now reduced to 5,400 troops, Washington's army retreated through New Jersey, and Howe broke off pursuit to set up winter quarters in New York.[119]

Crossing the Delaware, Trenton, and Princeton

Main articles: George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River, Battle of Trenton, Battle of the Assunpink Creek, and Battle of Princeton

Famous 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze, depicting Washington, standing in a boat with his troops, crossing the icy Delaware River, with soldiers pushing away chunks of ice
Washington Crossing the Delaware, an 1851 portrait by Emanuel Leutze
The Passage of the Delaware, an 1819 portrait by Thomas Sully
Painting showing Washington on horseback, accepting the surrender of Hessian troops after the Battle at Trenton
The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776, a John Trumbull portrait depicting the Battle of Trenton

Washington crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, where Lee's replacement General John Sullivan joined him with 2,000 more troops.[120] The future of the Continental Army was in doubt due to lack of supplies, a harsh winter, expiring enlistments, and desertions. Washington was disappointed that many New Jersey residents were Loyalists or skeptical about independence.[121]

Howe split up his army and posted a Hessian garrison at Trenton to hold western New Jersey and the east shore of the Delaware.[122] Desperate for a victory, Washington and his generals devised a surprise attack on Trenton. The army was to cross the Delaware in three divisions: one led by Washington (2,400 troops), another by General James Ewing (700), and the third by Colonel John Cadwalader (1,500). The force was to then split, with Washington taking the Pennington Road and General Sullivan traveling south on the river's edge.[123]

Washington ordered a 60-mile search for Durham boats to transport his army, and the destruction of vessels that could be used by the British.[124] He personally risked capture while staking out the Jersey shoreline alone leading up to the crossing. Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776.[125] His men followed across the ice-obstructed river from McConkey's Ferry, with 40 men per vessel. The wind churned up the waters, and they were pelted with hail, but by 3:00 a.m. on December 26, they made it across with no losses.[126] Knox was delayed, managing frightened horses and about 18 field guns on flat-bottomed ferries. Cadwalader and Ewing failed to cross due to the ice and heavy currents. Once Knox arrived, Washington proceeded to Trenton, rather than risk being spotted returning his army to Pennsylvania.[127]

The troops spotted Hessian positions a mile from Trenton, so Washington split his force into two columns, rallying his men: "Soldiers keep by your officers. For God's sake, keep by your officers." The two columns were separated at the Birmingham crossroads. General Greene's column took the upper Ferry Road, led by Washington, and General Sullivan's column advanced on River Road.[128] The Americans marched in sleet and snowfall. Many were shoeless with bloodied feet, and two died of exposure. At sunrise, Washington, aided by Colonel Knox and artillery, led his men in a surprise attack on the unsuspecting Hessians and their commander, Colonel Johann Rall. The Hessians had 22 killed, including Colonel Rall, 83 wounded, and 850 captured with supplies.[129]

Washington retreated across the Delaware to Pennsylvania and returned to New Jersey on January 3, 1777, launching an attack on British regulars at Princeton, with 40 Americans killed or wounded and 273 British killed or captured.[130] American Generals Hugh Mercer and John Cadwalader were being driven back by the British when Mercer was mortally wounded. Washington arrived and led the men in a counterattack which advanced to within 30 yards (27 m) of the British line.[131]

Some British troops retreated after a brief stand, while others took refuge in Nassau Hall, which became the target of Colonel Alexander Hamilton's cannons. Washington's troops charged, the British surrendered in less than an hour, and 194 soldiers laid down their arms.[132] Howe retreated to New York City where his army remained inactive until early the next year.[133] Washington took up winter headquarters in Jacob Arnold's Tavern in Morristown, New Jersey,[134] while he received munition from the Hibernia mines.[135] While in Morristown, Washington's troops disrupted British supply lines and expelled them from parts of New Jersey.[136]

During his stay in Morristown, Washington ordered the inoculation of Continental troops against smallpox. This went against the wishes of the Continental Congress who had issued a proclamation prohibiting it, but Washington feared the spread of smallpox in the army. The mass inoculation proved successful, with only isolated infections occurring and no regiments incapacitated by the disease.[137]

The British still controlled New York, and many Patriot soldiers did not re-enlist or deserted after the harsh winter campaign. Congress instituted greater rewards for re-enlisting and punishments for desertion to effect greater troop numbers.[138] Strategically, Washington's victories at Trenton and Princeton were pivotal; they revived Patriot morale and quashed the British strategy of showing overwhelming force followed by offering generous terms, changing the course of the war.[139][125] In February 1777, word of the American victories reached London, and the British realized the Patriots were in a position to demand unconditional independence.[140]


Main article: Philadelphia campaign

Brandywine, Germantown, and Saratoga

Main articles: Battle of Brandywine, Battle of Germantown, and Battles of Saratoga

In July 1777, British General John Burgoyne led the Saratoga campaign south from Quebec through Lake Champlain and recaptured Fort Ticonderoga intending to divide New England, including control of the Hudson River. However, General Howe in British-occupied New York City blundered, taking his army south to Philadelphia rather than up the Hudson River to join Burgoyne near Albany.[141]

Washington and Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette rushed to Philadelphia to engage Howe. In the Battle of Brandywine, on September 11, 1777, Howe outmaneuvered Washington and marched unopposed into the nation's capital at Philadelphia. A Patriot attack failed against the British at Germantown in October.[142]

In Upstate New York, the Patriots were led by General Horatio Gates. Concerned about Burgoyne's movements southward, Washington sent reinforcements north with Generals Benedict Arnold, his most aggressive field commander, and Benjamin Lincoln. On October 7, 1777, Burgoyne tried to take Bemis Heights but was isolated from support by Howe. He was forced to retreat to Saratoga and ultimately surrendered after the Battles of Saratoga. As Washington suspected, Gates' victory emboldened his critics.[143]

Biographer John Alden maintains, "It was inevitable that the defeats of Washington's forces and the concurrent victory of the forces in upper New York should be compared." Admiration for Washington was waning, including little credit from John Adams.[144][145]

Valley Forge and Monmouth

Main articles: Valley Forge and Battle of Monmouth

Painting showing Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette on horseback in a winter setting, at Valley Forge
Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge, a 1907 portrait by John Ward Dunsmore
Painting showing Washington on horseback, sword raised, in the midst of battle.
Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth, an 1854 portrait by Emanuel Leutze depicting Washington at the Battle of Monmouth

Washington and his Continental Army of 11,000 men went into winter quarters at Valley Forge north of Philadelphia in December 1777. There they lost between 2,000 and 3,000 men as a result of disease and lack of food, clothing, and shelter.[146] The British were comfortably quartered in Philadelphia, paying for supplies in pounds sterling, while Washington struggled with a devalued American paper currency. The woodlands were soon exhausted of game. By February, Washington was facing lowered morale and increased desertions among his troops.[147]

An internal revolt by his officers, led by Major General Thomas Conway, prompted some members of Congress to consider removing Washington from command. Washington's supporters resisted, and the matter was dropped after much deliberation.[148] Once the plot was exposed, Conway wrote an apology to Washington, resigned, and returned to France.[149]

Washington made repeated petitions to Congress for provisions. He received a congressional delegation to check the Army's conditions and expressed the urgency of the situation, proclaiming: "Something must be done. Important alterations must be made." He recommended that Congress expedite supplies, and Congress agreed to strengthen and fund the army's supply lines by reorganizing the commissary department. By late February, supplies began arriving.[104] Meanwhile, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben's incessant drilling transformed Washington's recruits into a disciplined fighting force by the end of winter camp.[150] For his services, Washington promoted Von Steuben to Major General and made him chief of staff.[151][152]

In early 1778, the French responded to Burgoyne's defeat and entered into a Treaty of Alliance with the Americans. Congress ratified the treaty in May, which amounted to a French declaration of war against Britain.[153] In May 1778, Howe resigned and was replaced by Sir Henry Clinton.[154]

The British evacuated Philadelphia for New York that June and Washington summoned a war council of American and French generals. He chose a partial attack on the retreating British at the Battle of Monmouth. Generals Charles Lee and Lafayette moved with 4,000 men, without Washington's knowledge, and bungled their first attack on June 28. Washington relieved Lee and achieved a draw after an expansive battle. At nightfall, the British continued their retreat to New York, and Washington moved his army outside the city.[155] Monmouth was Washington's last battle in the North.[156]

West Point espionage

Main articles: Culper Ring and Military career of Benedict Arnold, 1777–1779

Washington became America's first spymaster by designing an espionage system against the British.[157] In 1778, Major Benjamin Tallmadge formed the Culper Ring at Washington's direction to covertly collect information about the British in New York.[158] Washington had disregarded incidents of disloyalty by Benedict Arnold, who had distinguished himself in many campaigns, including his invasion of Quebec and the Battle of Saratoga.[159]

In 1780, Arnold began supplying British spymaster John André with sensitive information intended to compromise Washington and capture West Point, a key American defensive position on the Hudson River.[160] Historians Nathaniel Philbrick and Ron Chernow noted possible reasons for Arnold's defection to be his anger at losing promotions to junior officers, or repeated slights from Congress. He was also deeply in debt, profiteering from the war, and disappointed by Washington's lack of support during his eventual court-martial.[161]

After repeated requests, Washington agreed to give Arnold command of West Point in August.[162] On September 21, Arnold met André and gave him plans to take over the garrison.[163] While returning to British lines, André was captured by militia who discovered the plans; upon hearing the news of André's capture on September 24, while waiting to greet and have breakfast with Washington, Arnold immediately fled to HMS Vulture, the ship that had brought André to West Point, and escaped to New York.[164]

Upon being told about Arnold's treason, Washington recalled the commanders positioned under Arnold at key points around the fort to prevent any complicity. He assumed personal command at West Point and reorganized its defenses.[165] André's trial for espionage ended in a death sentence, and Washington offered to return him to the British in exchange for Arnold, but Clinton refused. André was hanged on October 2, 1780, despite his request for a firing squad, to deter other spies.[166]

Southern theater and Yorktown

Main article: Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War

Generals Washington and Rochambeau, standing in front of HQ tent, giving last orders before the attack on Yorktown
Generals Washington and Rochambeau give final orders before launching the Siege of Yorktown in Yorktown, Virginia in September 1781.

In late 1778, General Clinton shipped 3,000 troops from New York to Georgia and launched a Southern invasion against Savannah, reinforced by 2,000 British and Loyalist troops. They repelled an attack by American patriots and French naval forces, which bolstered the British war effort.[167]

In June 1778, Iroquois warriors joined with Loyalist rangers led by Walter Butler and killed more than 200 frontiersmen, laying waste to the Wyoming Valley in Northeastern Pennsylvania.[168] In mid-1779, in response to this and other attacks on New England towns, Washington ordered General John Sullivan to lead an expedition to force the Iroquois out of New York by effecting "the total destruction and devastation" of their villages and taking their women and children hostage.[169][170] The expedition systematically destroyed Iroquois villages and food stocks, and forced at least 5,036 Iroquois to flee to British Canada. The campaign directly killed a few hundred Iroquois, but according to historian Rhiannon Koehler, the net effect was to reduce the Iroquois by half. They became unable to survive the harsh winter of 1779–1780; some historians now describe the campaign as a genocide.[171]

Washington's troops went into quarters at Morristown, New Jersey for their worst winter of the war, with temperatures well below freezing. New York Harbor was frozen, snow covered the ground for weeks, and the troops again lacked provisions.[172]

In January 1780, Clinton assembled 12,500 troops and attacked Charles Town, South Carolina, defeating General Benjamin Lincoln. By June, they occupied the South Carolina Piedmont.[173] Clinton returned to New York and left 8,000 troops under the command of General Charles Cornwallis.[174] Congress replaced Lincoln with Horatio Gates; after his defeat in the Battle of Camden, Gates was replaced by Nathanael Greene, Washington's initial choice, but the British had firm control of the South. Washington was reinvigorated, however, when Lafayette returned from France with more ships, men, and supplies,[175] and 5,000 veteran French troops led by Marshal Rochambeau arrived at Newport, Rhode Island in July 1780.[176] French naval forces then landed, led by Admiral de Grasse.[177]

Washington's army went into winter quarters at New Windsor, New York in December 1780; he urged Congress and state officials to expedite provisions so the army would not "continue to struggle under the same difficulties they have hitherto endured".[178] On March 1, 1781, Congress ratified the Articles of Confederation, but the government that took effect on March 2 did not have the power to levy taxes, and it loosely held the states together.[179]

General Clinton sent Benedict Arnold, now a British Brigadier General with 1,700 troops, to Virginia to capture Portsmouth and conduct raids on Patriot forces; Washington responded by sending Lafayette south to counter Arnold's efforts.[180] Washington initially hoped to bring the fight to New York, drawing off British forces from Virginia and ending the war there, but Rochambeau advised him that Cornwallis in Virginia was the better target. De Grasse's fleet arrived off the Virginia coast, cutting off British retreat. Seeing the advantage, Washington made a feint towards Clinton in New York, then headed south to Virginia.[181]


Main article: Siege of Yorktown

The siege of Yorktown was a decisive victory by the combined forces of the Continental Army commanded by Washington, the French Army commanded by General Comte de Rochambeau, and the French Navy commanded by Admiral de Grasse. On August 19, the march to Yorktown led by Washington and Rochambeau began, which is known now as the "celebrated march".[182] Washington was in command of an army of 7,800 Frenchmen, 3,100 militia, and 8,000 Continentals. Inexperienced in siege warfare, he often deferred to the judgment of General Rochambeau and relied on his advice. Despite this, Rochambeau never challenged Washington's authority as the battle's commanding officer.[183]

By late September, Patriot-French forces surrounded Yorktown, trapped the British Army, and prevented British reinforcements from Clinton in the North, while the French navy emerged victorious at the Battle of the Chesapeake. The final American offensive began with a shot fired by Washington.[184] The siege ended with a British surrender on October 19, 1781; over 7,000 British soldiers became prisoners of war.[185] Washington negotiated the terms of surrender for two days, and the official signing ceremony took place on October 19; Cornwallis claimed illness and was absent, sending General Charles O'Hara as his proxy.[186] As a gesture of goodwill, Washington held a dinner for the American, French, and British generals, all of whom fraternized on friendly terms and identified with one another as members of the same professional military caste.[187]

Afterwards, Washington moved the army to New Windsor, New York where they remained stationed until the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, formally ending the war. Although the peace treaty did not happen for two years following the end of the battle, Yorktown proved to be the last significant battle or campaign of the Revolutionary War, with the British Parliament agreeing to cease hostilities in March 1782.[188]

Demobilization and resignation

Main article: George Washington's resignation as commander-in-chief

Painting by John Trumbull, depicting General Washington, standing in Maryland State House hall, surrounded by statesmen and others, resigning his commission
General George Washington Resigning His Commission, an 1824 portrait by John Trumbull

When peace negotiations began in April 1782, both the British and French began gradually evacuating their forces.[189] With the American treasury empty, unpaid and mutinous soldiers forced the adjournment of Congress. In March 1783, Washington successfully calmed the Newburgh Conspiracy, a planned munity by American officers; Congress promised each a five-year bonus.[190] Washington submitted an account of $450,000 in expenses which he had advanced to the army, equivalent to $9.53 million in 2023. The account was settled, though it was allegedly vague about large sums and included expenses his wife had incurred through visits to his headquarters.[191]

The following month, a Congressional committee led by Alexander Hamilton began adapting the army for peacetime. In August 1783, Washington gave the Army's perspective to the committee in his Sentiments on a Peace Establishment, which advised Congress to keep a standing army, create a "national militia" of separate state units, and establish a navy and a national military academy.[192]

The Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, and Britain officially recognized American independence. Washington disbanded his army, giving a farewell address to his soldiers on November 2.[193] During this time, Washington oversaw the evacuation of British forces in New York and was greeted by parades and celebrations.[194] Along with Governor George Clinton, he took formal possession of the city on November 25.[195]

In early December 1783, Washington bade farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern and resigned as commander-in-chief soon thereafter.[196] In a final appearance in uniform, he gave a statement to the Congress: "I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life, by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping."[197] Washington's resignation was acclaimed at home and abroad and showed a skeptical world that the new republic would not degenerate into chaos.[h][199]

The same month, Washington was appointed president-general of the Society of the Cincinnati, a newly established hereditary fraternity of Revolutionary War officers. He served in this capacity for the remainder of his life.[i][201]

Early republic (1783–1789)

Further information: Confederation Period and Articles of Confederation

Return to Mount Vernon

"I am not only retired from all public employments but I am retiring within myself, and shall be able to view the solitary walk and tread the paths of private life with heartfelt satisfaction ... I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my fathers."

— George Washington in a letter to Lafayette.
February 1, 1784.[202]

Washington was longing to return home after spending just ten days at Mount Vernon out of 8+12 years of war. He arrived on Christmas Eve, delighted to be "free of the bustle of a camp and the busy scenes of public life".[203] He was a celebrity and was fêted during a visit to his mother at Fredericksburg in February 1784, and he received a constant stream of visitors wishing to pay their respects at Mount Vernon.[204]

Washington reactivated his interests in the Great Dismal Swamp and Potomac canal projects begun before the war, though neither paid him any dividends, and he undertook a 34-day, 680-mile (1,090 km) trip to check on his land holdings in the Ohio Country.[205] He oversaw the completion of the remodeling work at Mount Vernon, which transformed his residence into the mansion that survives to this day—although his financial situation was not strong. Creditors paid him in depreciated wartime currency, and he owed significant amounts in taxes and wages. Mount Vernon had made no profit during his absence, and he saw persistently poor crop yields due to pestilence and poor weather. His estate recorded its eleventh year running at a deficit in 1787, and there was little prospect of improvement.[206]

To make his estate profitable again, Washington undertook a new landscaping plan and succeeded in cultivating a range of fast-growing trees and native shrubs.[207] He also began breeding mules after being gifted a Spanish jack by King Charles III of Spain in 1784. There were few mules in the United States at that time, and he believed that they would revolutionize agriculture and transportation.[208]

Constitutional Convention of 1787

Main article: Constitutional Convention (United States)

Painting by Howard Chandler Christy, depicting the signing of the Constitution of the United States, with Washington as the presiding officer standing at right
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, a 1940 portrait by Howard Chandler Christy depicting Washington as the presiding officer at the Constitutional Convention in 1787

Before returning to private life in June 1783, Washington called for a strong union. Though he was concerned that he might be criticized for meddling in civil matters, he sent a circular letter to the states, maintaining that the Articles of Confederation was no more than "a rope of sand". He believed the nation was on the verge of "anarchy and confusion", was vulnerable to foreign intervention, and that a national constitution would unify the states under a strong central government.[209]

When Shays' Rebellion erupted in Massachusetts over taxation, Washington was further convinced that a national constitution was needed.[210] Some nationalists feared that the new republic had descended into lawlessness, and they met on September 11, 1786, at Annapolis to ask Congress to revise the Articles of Confederation. One of their biggest efforts was getting Washington to attend.[211] Congress agreed to a Constitutional Convention to be held in Philadelphia in Spring 1787, with each state to send delegates.[212]

On December 4, 1786, Washington was chosen to lead the Virginia delegation, but he declined on December 21. He had concerns about the legality of the convention and consulted James Madison, Henry Knox, and others. They persuaded him to attend as his presence might induce reluctant states to send delegates and smooth the way for the ratification process while also giving legitimacy to the convention.[213] On March 28, Washington told Governor Edmund Randolph that he would attend the convention but made it clear that he was urged to attend.[214]

Washington arrived in Philadelphia on May 9, 1787, though a quorum was not attained until May 25. Benjamin Franklin nominated Washington to preside over the convention, and he was unanimously elected to serve as president general.[215] The convention's state-mandated purpose was to revise the Articles of Confederation, and the new government would be established when the resulting document was "duly confirmed by the several states".[216] Randolph introduced Madison's Virginia Plan on May 27, the third day of the convention. It called for an entirely new constitution and a sovereign national government, which Washington highly recommended.[217]

On July 10, Washington wrote to Alexander Hamilton: "I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of our convention and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business."[218] Nevertheless, he lent his prestige to the work of the other delegates, unsuccessfully lobbying many to support ratification of the Constitution, such as anti-federalists Edmund Randolph and George Mason.[219] The final version was voted on and signed by 39 of 55 delegates on September 17, 1787.

Chancellor of William & Mary

In 1788, the Board of Visitors of the College of William & Mary decided to re-establish the position of Chancellor, and elected Washington to the office on January 18.[220] The College Rector Samuel Griffin wrote to Washington inviting him to the post, and in a letter dated April 30, 1788, Washington accepted the position of the 14th Chancellor of the College of William & Mary.[221] He continued to serve through his presidency until his death on December 14, 1799.[220]

First presidential election

Main article: 1788–1789 United States presidential election

The delegates to the Convention anticipated a Washington presidency and left it to him to define the office once elected.[j][218]

The state electors under the Constitution voted for the president on February 4, 1789, and Washington suspected that most Republicans had not voted for him.[223] The mandated March 4 date passed without a Congressional quorum to count the votes, but a quorum was reached on April 5. The votes were tallied the next day, and Washington won the majority of every state's electoral votes. He was informed of his election as president by Congressional Secretary Charles Thomson.[224] John Adams received the next highest number of votes and was elected vice president.[225] Despite feeling "anxious and painful sensations" about leaving Mount Vernon, he departed for New York City on April 16 to be inaugurated.[226][227]

Presidency (1789–1797)

Main article: Presidency of George Washington

Painting by Gilbert Stuart (1795), formal portrait of President George Washington
President George Washington, a 1795 portrait by Gilbert Stuart

Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, taking the oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City.[k][229] His coach was led by militia and a marching band and followed by statesmen and foreign dignitaries in an inaugural parade, with a crowd of 10,000.[230] Chancellor Robert R. Livingston administered the oath, using a Bible provided by the Masons, after which the militia fired a 13-gun salute.[231] Washington read a speech in the Senate Chamber, asking "that Almighty Being ... consecrate the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States".[232] Though he wished to serve without a salary, Congress insisted that he accept it, later providing Washington $25,000 per year to defray costs of the presidency, equivalent to $6.39 million today.[233] Washington wrote to James Madison: "As the first of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent, it is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents be fixed on true principles."[234] To that end, he preferred the title "Mr. President" over more majestic names proposed by the Senate, including "His Excellency" and "His Highness the President".[235] His executive precedents included the inaugural address, messages to Congress, and the cabinet form of the executive branch.[236]

Washington planned to resign after his first term, but political strife convinced him to remain in office.[237] He was an able administrator and a judge of talent and character, and he regularly talked with department heads to get their advice.[238] He tolerated opposing views, despite fears that a democratic system would lead to political violence, and he conducted a smooth transition of power to his successor.[239] He remained non-partisan throughout his presidency (the only United States president to do so), and opposed the divisiveness of political parties, but he favored a strong central government, was sympathetic to a Federalist form of government, and leery of the Republican opposition.[240]

Washington dealt with major problems. The old Confederation lacked the powers to handle its workload and had weak leadership, no executive, a small bureaucracy of clerks, large debt, worthless paper money, and no power to establish taxes.[241] He had the task of assembling an executive department and relied on Tobias Lear for advice selecting its officers.[242] Britain refused to relinquish its forts in the American West,[241] and Barbary pirates preyed on American merchant ships in the Mediterranean before the United States even had a navy.[243]

Cabinet and executive departments

See also: Cabinet of the United States

The Washington cabinet
PresidentGeorge Washington1789–1797
Vice PresidentJohn Adams1789–1797
Secretary of StateJohn Jay (acting)1789–1790
Thomas Jefferson1790–1793
Edmund Randolph1794–1795
Timothy Pickering1795–1797
Secretary of the TreasuryAlexander Hamilton1789–1795
Oliver Wolcott Jr.1795–1797
Secretary of WarHenry Knox1789–1794
Timothy Pickering1795
James McHenry1796–1797
Attorney GeneralEdmund Randolph1789–1794
William Bradford1794–1795
Charles Lee1795–1797

Congress created executive departments in 1789, including the State Department in July, the War Department in August, and the Treasury Department in September. Washington appointed Edmund Randolph as Attorney General, Samuel Osgood as Postmaster General, Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Henry Knox as Secretary of War, and Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. Washington's cabinet became a consulting and advisory body, not mandated by the Constitution.[244]

Washington's cabinet members formed rival parties with sharply opposing views, most fiercely illustrated between Hamilton and Jefferson.[245] Washington restricted cabinet discussions to topics of his choosing, without participating in the debate. He occasionally requested cabinet opinions in writing and expected department heads to agreeably carry out his decisions.[241]

Domestic issues

Washington was apolitical and opposed the formation of parties, suspecting that conflict would undermine republicanism.[246] He exercised great restraint in using his veto power, writing that "I give my Signature to many Bills with which my Judgment is at variance..."[247]

His closest advisors formed two factions, portending the First Party System. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton formed the Federalist Party to promote national credit and a financially powerful nation. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson opposed Hamilton's agenda and founded the Jeffersonian Republicans. Washington favored Hamilton's agenda, however, and it ultimately went into effect—resulting in bitter controversy.[248]

Washington proclaimed November 26, 1789, as a day of Thanksgiving to encourage national unity. "It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor." He spent that day fasting and visiting debtors in prison to provide them with food and beer.[249]

African Americans

In response to two antislavery petitions that were presented to Congress in 1790, slaveholders in Georgia and South Carolina threatened to "blow the trumpet of civil war". Washington and Congress responded with a series of racist measures: naturalization was denied to black immigrants; blacks were barred from serving in state militias; the Southwest Territory (later the state of Tennessee) was permitted to maintain slavery; and two more slave states were admitted (Kentucky in 1792 and Tennessee in 1796). On February 12, 1793, Washington signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act, which overrode state laws and courts, allowing agents to cross state lines to return escaped slaves.[250] Many free blacks in the north decried the law believing it would allow bounty hunting and kidnapping. The Fugitive Slave Act gave effect to the Constitution's Fugitive Slave Clause, and the Act was passed overwhelmingly in Congress.[251]

At the same time, Washington signed a reenactment of the Northwest Ordinance in 1789, which had freed all slaves brought after 1787 into a vast expanse of federal territory north of the Ohio River, except for slaves escaping from slave states.[252][253] The 1787 law lapsed when the new U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789.[254] He also signed the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which sharply limited American involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.[255] On February 18, 1791, Congress admitted the free state of Vermont into the Union as the 14th state as of March 4, 1791.[256]

National Bank

Engraving of President Washington's House in Philadelphia, his residence from 1790 to 1797
President's House in Philadelphia, where both Washington and then John Adams worked and resided until completion of the White House in 1800

Washington's first term was largely devoted to economic concerns.[257] Establishment of public credit became a primary challenge for the federal government.[258] Hamilton submitted a report to a deadlocked Congress, and he, Madison, and Jefferson reached the Compromise of 1790 in which Jefferson agreed to Hamilton's debt proposals in exchange for moving the nation's capital temporarily to Philadelphia and then south near Georgetown on the Potomac River.[248] The terms were legislated in the Funding Act of 1790 and the Residence Act, both of which Washington signed into law. Congress authorized the assumption and payment of the nation's debts, with funding provided by customs duties and excise taxes.[259]

Hamilton caused controversy in Cabinet by advocating for the establishment of the First Bank of the United States. Madison and Jefferson objected to the idea, but legislation creating the bank easily passed Congress. Jefferson and Randolph insisted the federal government was going beyond its constitutional authority. Hamilton argued the government could charter the bank under the implied powers granted by the constitution. Washington sided with Hamilton and signed the bank legislation on February 25, 1791. The rift between Hamilton and Jefferson, meanwhile, became openly hostile.[260]

The nation's first financial crisis occurred in March 1792. Hamilton's Federalists exploited large loans to gain control of U.S. debt securities, causing a run on the national bank;[261] the markets returned to normal by mid-April.[262] Jefferson believed Hamilton was part of the scheme, despite Hamilton's efforts to ameliorate.[263]

Jefferson–Hamilton feud

Formal portrait of Thomas Jefferson, part of a dual image of Jefferson and Hamilton
Formal portrait of Alexander Hamilton, part of a dual image of Jefferson and Hamilton
Thomas Jefferson (left) and Alexander Hamilton (right) held opposing political views and frequently clashed in cabinet meetings, much to Washington's dismay.

Jefferson and Hamilton adopted diametrically opposed political principles. Hamilton believed in a strong national government requiring a national bank and foreign loans to function, while Jefferson believed the states and the farm element should primarily direct the government; he also resented the idea of banks and foreign loans. To Washington's dismay, the two men persistently entered into disputes and infighting.[264] Hamilton demanded that Jefferson resign if he could not support Washington, and Jefferson told Washington that Hamilton's fiscal system would lead to the overthrow of the republic.[265] Washington urged them to call a truce for the sake of the nation, but they ignored him.[266]

Jefferson's political actions, his support of Freneau's National Gazette,[267] and his attempts to undermine Hamilton nearly led Washington to dismiss him from the cabinet; he ultimately resigned his position in December 1793, and Washington forsook him.[268]

The feud led to the well-defined Federalist and Republican parties, and party affiliation became necessary for election to Congress by 1794.[269] Washington remained aloof from congressional attacks on Hamilton, but did not publicly protect him. The Hamilton–Reynolds sex scandal opened Hamilton to disgrace, but Washington continued to hold him in "very high esteem".[270]

Whiskey Rebellion

Main article: Whiskey Rebellion

Washington reviews the troops near Fort Cumberland, Maryland, before their march to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania

In March 1791, at Hamilton's urging, with support from Madison, Congress imposed an excise tax on distilled spirits to help curtail the national debt, which took effect in July.[271] Grain farmers strongly protested in Pennsylvania's frontier districts; they argued that they were unrepresented and were shouldering too much of the debt, comparing their situation to British taxation pre-Revolution.

On August 2, Washington assembled his cabinet to discuss the situation. Unlike Washington, who had reservations about using force, Hamilton was eager to suppress the rebellion with federal authority.[272] Wanting to avoid involving the federal government, Washington first called on Pennsylvania state officials to take the initiative, but they declined. On August 7, Washington issued his first proclamation for calling up state militias. After appealing for peace, he reminded the protestors that, unlike the rule of the British crown, the Federal law was issued by state-elected representatives.[273]

Threats and violence against tax collectors, however, escalated into defiance against federal authority in 1794 and gave rise to the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington issued a final proclamation on September 25, threatening the use of military force to no avail.[273] The federal army was not up to the task, so Washington invoked the Militia Act of 1792 to summon state militias.[274] Governors sent troops, initially commanded by Washington, who handed over command to Henry Lee to lead them into the rebellious districts. They took 150 prisoners, and the remaining rebels dispersed. Two of the prisoners were condemned to death, but Washington exercised his Constitutional authority for the first time and pardoned them.[275]

Washington's forceful action demonstrated that the new government could protect itself and its tax collectors. This represented the first use of federal military force against the states and citizens.[276] Washington justified his action against "certain self-created societies", which he regarded as "subversive organizations" that threatened the national union. He did not dispute their right to protest, but he insisted that their dissent must not violate federal law. Congress agreed and extended their congratulations to him; only Madison and Jefferson expressed indifference.[277]

Foreign affairs

In April 1792, the French Revolutionary Wars began between Britain and France, and Washington declared America's neutrality. The revolutionary government of France sent diplomat Edmond-Charles Genêt to America, and he was welcomed with great enthusiasm. He created a network of new Democratic-Republican Societies promoting France's interests, but Washington denounced them and demanded that the French recall Genêt.[278] The National Assembly of France granted Washington honorary French citizenship on August 26, 1792, during the early stages of the French Revolution.[279]

Hamilton formulated the Jay Treaty to normalize trade relations with Britain while removing them from western forts, and also to resolve financial debts remaining from the Revolution.[280] Chief Justice John Jay acted as Washington's negotiator and signed the treaty on November 19, 1794; critical Jeffersonians, however, supported France. Washington deliberated, then supported the treaty because it avoided war with Britain,[281] but was disappointed that its provisions favored Britain.[282] He mobilized public opinion and secured ratification in the Senate[283] but faced frequent public criticism.[284]

The British agreed to abandon their forts around the Great Lakes, and the United States modified the boundary with Canada. The government liquidated numerous pre-Revolution debts, and the British opened the British West Indies to American trade. The treaty secured peace with Britain and a decade of prosperous trade. Jefferson claimed that it angered France and "invited rather than avoided" war.[285] Relations with France deteriorated afterward and, two days before Washington's term ended, the French Directory declared the authority to seize American ships,[286] leaving succeeding president John Adams with prospective war.[287]

Native American affairs

Main articles: Northwest Indian War, Treaty of New York (1790), and Treaty of Greenville

Further information: Northwest Territory and Ohio Country

A R.F. Zogbaum scene of the Battle of Fallen Timbers includes Native Americans aiming as cavalry soldiers charge with raised swords and one soldier is shot and loses his mount
Battle of Fallen Timbers, an 1896 portrait by Rufus Fairchild Zogbaum depicting the final battle of the Northwest Indian War

During the fall of 1789, Washington had to contend with the British refusing to evacuate their forts in the Northwest frontier and their concerted efforts to incite Indian tribes to attack American settlers.[288] The Northwest tribes under Miami chief Little Turtle allied with the British to resist American expansion, and killed 1,500 settlers between 1783 and 1790.[289]

Portrait of Seneca Chief Sagoyewatha, Washington's peace emissary
Seneca chief Red Jacket was Washington's peace emissary with the Northwestern Confederacy

Washington declared that "the Government of the United States are determined that their Administration of Indian Affairs shall be directed entirely by the great principles of Justice and humanity", and provided that treaties should negotiate their land interests.[290] The administration regarded powerful tribes as foreign nations, and Washington even smoked a peace pipe and drank wine with them at the President's House in Philadelphia.[291] He made numerous attempts to conciliate them;[292] he equated killing indigenous peoples with killing whites and sought to integrate them into European American culture.[293]

In the Southwest, negotiations failed between federal commissioners and raiding Indian tribes seeking retribution. Washington invited Creek Chief Alexander McGillivray and 24 leading chiefs to New York to negotiate a treaty and treated them like foreign dignitaries. Knox and McGillivray concluded the Treaty of New York on August 7, 1790, which provided the tribes with agricultural supplies and McGillivray with the rank of Brigadier General and an annual salary of $1,200, equivalent to $29,573 in 2023.[294]

In 1790, Washington sent Brigadier General Josiah Harmar to pacify the Northwest tribes, but Little Turtle routed him twice and forced him to withdraw.[295] The Northwestern Confederacy of tribes used guerrilla tactics and were an effective force against the sparsely manned American Army. Washington sent Major General Arthur St. Clair from Fort Washington on an expedition to restore peace in the territory in 1791. On November 4, St. Clair's forces were ambushed and soundly defeated by tribal forces with few survivors.[296]

Washington replaced the disgraced St. Clair with the Revolutionary War hero Anthony Wayne. From 1792 to 1793, Wayne instructed his troops on Native American warfare tactics and instilled discipline which was lacking under St. Clair.[297] In August 1794, Washington sent Wayne into tribal territory with authority to drive them out by burning their villages and crops in the Maumee Valley.[298] On August 24, the American army defeated the Northwestern Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and the Treaty of Greenville in August 1795 opened two-thirds of the Ohio Country for American settlement.[299]

Second term

Painting of the frigate USS Constitution with three masts
Portrait of the USS Constitution, commissioned and named by President Washington in 1794

Washington initially planned to retire after his first term, weary of office and in poor health. After dealing with the infighting in his own cabinet and with partisan critics, he showed little enthusiasm for a second term, while Martha also wanted him not to run.[300] Washington's nephew George Augustine Washington, managing Mount Vernon in his absence, was critically ill, further increasing Washington's desire to retire.[301]

Many, however, urged him to run for a second term. Madison told him that his absence would only allow the dangerous political rift in his cabinet and the House to worsen. Jefferson also pleaded with him not to retire, agreeing to drop his attacks on Hamilton, and stating that he would also retire if Washington did.[302] Hamilton maintained that Washington's absence would be "deplored as the greatest evil" to the country.[303] With the election of 1792 nearing, Washington relented and agreed to run.[293]

On February 13, 1793, the Electoral College unanimously re-elected Washington president, and John Adams as vice president by a vote of 77 to 50.[293] He was sworn into office by Associate Justice William Cushing on March 4, 1793, in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia. Afterwards, Washington gave a brief address before immediately retiring to the President's House.[304]

On April 22, 1793, when the French Revolutionary Wars broke out, Washington issued a proclamation which declared American neutrality. He was resolved to pursue "a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent Powers" while also warning Americans not to intervene in the conflict.[305] Although Washington recognized France's revolutionary government, he would eventually ask French minister to the United States Edmond-Charles Genêt be recalled over the Citizen Genêt affair.[306] Genêt was a diplomatic troublemaker who was openly hostile toward Washington's neutrality policy. He procured four American ships as privateers to strike at Spanish forces (British allies) in Florida while organizing militias to strike at other British possessions. However, his efforts failed to draw the United States into the conflict.[307]

On July 31, 1793, Jefferson submitted his resignation from cabinet.[308] Hamilton, desiring more income for his family, resigned from office in January 1795 and was replaced by Oliver Wolcott Jr.. While his relationship with Washington would remain friendly, Washington's relationship with his Secretary of War Henry Knox deteriorated after rumors that Knox had profited from contracts for the construction of U.S. frigates which had been commissioned under the Naval Act of 1794 in order to combat Barbary pirates, forcing Knox to resign.[309][310]

In the final months of his presidency, Washington was assailed by his political foes and a partisan press who accused him of being ambitious and greedy. He came to regard the press as a disuniting, "diabolical" force of falsehoods.[311] At the end of his second term, Washington retired for personal and political reasons, dismayed with personal attacks, and to ensure that a truly contested presidential election could be held. He did not feel bound to a two-term limit, but his retirement set a significant precedent.[312]

Farewell Address

Main article: George Washington's Farewell Address

Newspaper showing Washington's Farewell Address
Washington's Farewell Address, published by the American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796

In 1796, Washington declined to run for a third term of office.[313] In May 1792, in anticipation of his retirement, Washington instructed James Madison to prepare a "valedictory address", an initial draft of which was entitled the "Farewell Address".[314] In May 1796, Washington sent the manuscript to Alexander Hamilton who did an extensive rewrite, while Washington provided final edits.[315] On September 19, 1796, David Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser published the final version.[316]

Washington stressed that national identity was paramount, as a united America would safeguard freedom and prosperity. He warned the nation of three eminent dangers: regionalism, partisanship, and foreign entanglements, and said the "name of AMERICAN, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism".[317] Washington called for men to move beyond partisanship for the common good, stressing that the United States must concentrate on its own interests. He warned against foreign alliances and their influence in domestic affairs, and bitter partisanship and the dangers of political parties.[318] He counseled friendship and commerce with all nations, but advised against involvement in European wars.[319] He stressed the importance of religion, asserting that "religion and morality are indispensable supports" in a republic.[320] Washington's address favored Hamilton's Federalist ideology and economic policies.[321]

He closed the address by reflecting on his legacy:

Though in reviewing the incidents of my Administration I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence, and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.[322]

After initial publication, many Republicans, including Madison, criticized the Address and described it as an anti-French campaign document, with Madison believing that Washington was strongly pro-British.[323]

In 1839, Washington biographer Jared Sparks maintained that Washington's "Farewell Address was printed and published with the laws, by order of the legislatures, as an evidence of the value they attached to its political precepts, and of their affection for its author."[324] In 1972, Washington scholar James Flexner referred to the Farewell Address as receiving as much acclaim as Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.[325] In 2010, historian Ron Chernow called the Farewell Address one of the most influential statements on republicanism.[326]

Post-presidency (1797–1799)

Further information: Post-presidency of George Washington


Washington retired to Mount Vernon in March 1797 and devoted time to his plantations and other business interests.[327] His plantation operations were only minimally profitable,[32] and his lands in the west (Piedmont) were under Indian attacks and yielded little income, with squatters there refusing to pay rent. He attempted to sell these but without success.[328] He became an even more committed Federalist. He vocally supported the Alien and Sedition Acts and convinced Federalist John Marshall to run for Congress to weaken the Jeffersonian hold on Virginia.[329]

Washington grew restless in retirement, prompted by tensions with France; in a continuation of the French Revolutionary Wars, French privateers began seizing American ships in 1798, and relations deteriorated with France and led to the "Quasi-War". Washington wrote to Secretary of War James McHenry offering to organize President Adams' army.[330] Adams nominated him for a lieutenant general commission on July 4, 1798, and the position of commander-in-chief of the armies.[331] Washington served as the commanding general from July 13, 1798, until his death 17 months later.[332] He participated in planning for a provisional army, but avoided involvement in details. In advising McHenry of potential officers for the army, he appeared to make a complete break with Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans: "you could as soon scrub the blackamoor white, as to change the principles of a profest Democrat; and that he will leave nothing unattempted to overturn the government of this country."[333] Washington delegated the active leadership of the army to Hamilton, a major general. No army invaded the United States during this period, and Washington did not assume a field command.[334]

Washington was known to be rich because of the well-known "glorified façade of wealth and grandeur" at Mount Vernon,[335] but nearly all his wealth was in the form of land and slaves rather than ready cash. To supplement his income, he erected a distillery for substantial whiskey production.[336] He bought land parcels to spur development around the new Federal City named in his honor, and he sold individual lots to middle-income investors rather than multiple lots to large investors, believing they would more likely commit to making improvements.[337]

Final days and death

Washington on his deathbed, with doctors and family surrounding
Washington on his Deathbed, an 1851 portrait by Junius Brutus Stearns

On December 12, 1799, Washington inspected his farms on horseback. He returned home late and had guests for dinner, sitting down for the meal without changing his damp clothes from the inclement weather of the day. He had a sore throat the next day but was well enough to mark trees for cutting. That evening, Washington complained of chest congestion.[338] The next morning, however, he awoke to an inflamed throat and difficulty breathing. He ordered estate overseer George Rawlins to remove nearly a pint of his blood; bloodletting was a common practice of the time. His family summoned doctors James Craik, Gustavus Richard Brown, and Elisha C. Dick.[339] A fourth doctor, William Thornton, arrived some hours after Washington died.[340]

Brown initially believed Washington had quinsy; Dick thought the condition was a more serious "violent inflammation of the throat".[341] They continued the process of bloodletting to approximately five pints, but Washington's condition deteriorated further. Dick proposed a tracheotomy, but the other physicians were not familiar with that procedure and disapproved.[342] Washington instructed Brown and Dick to leave the room, while he assured Craik, "Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go."[343]

Washington's death came more swiftly than expected.[344] On his deathbed, out of fear of being entombed alive, he instructed his private secretary Tobias Lear to wait three days before his burial.[345] According to Lear, Washington died between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. on December 14, 1799, with Martha seated at the foot of his bed. His last words were "'Tis well", from his conversation with Lear about his burial. He was 67.[346]

Congress immediately adjourned for the day upon news of Washington's death, and the Speaker's chair was shroud in black the next morning.[347] The funeral was held four days after his death on December 18, 1799, at Mount Vernon, where his body was interred. Cavalry and foot soldiers led the procession, and six colonels served as the pallbearers. The Mount Vernon funeral service was restricted mostly to family and friends.[348] Reverend Thomas Davis read the funeral service by the vault with a brief address, followed by a ceremony performed by members of Washington's Masonic lodge in Alexandria, Virginia.[349] Word of his death traveled slowly, but as it reached other regions of the nation, church bells rang in the cities and many businesses closed.[350] Memorial processions were held in major cities of the United States. Martha wore a black mourning cape for one year, and she burned her correspondence with Washington to protect its privacy, though five letters between the couple are known to have survived: two from Martha to George and three from him to her.[351]

The diagnosis of Washington's illness and the immediate cause of his death have been subjects of debate since his death. The published account of doctors Craik and Brown stated that his symptoms were consistent with cynanche trachealis, a term then used to describe severe inflammation of the upper windpipe, including quinsy.[l] Accusations have persisted since Washington's death concerning medical malpractice.[342] Modern medical authors, however, largely have concluded that he likely died from severe epiglottitis complicated by the treatments, including multiple doses of calomel, a purgative, and extensive bloodletting which likely caused hypovolemic shock.[m]

Burial, net worth, and aftermath

See also: Finances of George Washington

A picture of the two sarcophagi of George (at right) and Martha Washington at the present tomb at Mount Vernon
The sarcophagi of George (right) and Martha Washington at the entrance to their tomb in Mount Vernon

Washington was buried in the Washington family vault at Mount Vernon. At the time of his death, his estate was worth an estimated $780,000 in 1799, equivalent to $14.29 million in 2023.[357] Washington's peak net worth was $587 million, including 300 slaves.[358] Washington held title to more than 65,000 acres of land in 37 different locations.[73]

In 1830, a disgruntled ex-employee of the estate attempted to steal what he thought was Washington's skull, prompting the construction of a more secure vault.[359] In his will, Washington had left instructions for the construction of a new vault as the old family vault was crumbling and needed repair even before his death.[350] A new vault was constructed at Mount Vernon the following year to receive the remains of George and Martha and other relatives.[360]

In 1832, a joint Congressional committee debated moving his body from Mount Vernon to a crypt in the United States Capitol. The crypt had been built by architect Charles Bulfinch in the 1820s during the reconstruction of the burned-out capital, after the Burning of Washington by the British during the War of 1812. Southern opposition was intense, antagonized by an ever-growing rift between North and South; many were concerned that Washington's remains could end up on "a shore foreign to his native soil" if the country became divided, and Washington's remains stayed in Mount Vernon.[361]

On October 7, 1837, Washington's remains, still in the original lead coffin, were placed within a marble sarcophagus designed by William Strickland and constructed by John Struthers.[362] The sarcophagus was sealed and encased with planks, and an outer vault was constructed around it.[363] The outer vault has the sarcophagi of both George and Martha Washington; the inner vault has the remains of other Washington family members and relatives.[360]

Personal life

The Washington Family, a late 18th century portrait by Edward Savage depicting George and Martha Washington with her grandchildren and an unnamed enslaved man

Washington was somewhat reserved in personality, but was known for having a strong presence. He made speeches and announcements when required, but he was not a noted orator nor debater.[364] He was taller than most of his contemporaries;[365] accounts of his height vary from 6 ft (1.83 m) to 6 ft 3.5 in (1.92 m) tall,[65][366] he weighed between 210–220 pounds (95–100 kg) as an adult,[367] and was known for his great strength.[368]

He had grey-blue eyes and long reddish-brown hair. He did not wear a powdered wig; instead he wore his hair curled, powdered, and tied in a queue in the fashion of the day.[369][370]

Washington frequently suffered from severe tooth decay and ultimately lost all his teeth but one. He had several sets of false teeth during his presidency. Contrary to common lore, these were not made of wood, but of metal, ivory, bone, animal teeth, and human teeth possibly obtained from slaves.[371][372][373] These dental problems left him in constant pain, which he treated with laudanum.[374]

Washington was a talented equestrian, with Thomas Jefferson describing him as "the best horseman of his age".[375] He collected thoroughbreds at Mount Vernon, his two favorite horses being Blueskin and Nelson.[376] He enjoyed hunting foxes, deer, ducks, and other game.[377] He was an excellent dancer and frequently attended the theater. He drank alcohol in moderation but was morally opposed to excessive drinking, smoking tobacco, gambling, and profanity.[378]

Religious and spiritual views

Main article: Religious views of George Washington

Washington presiding over a Masonic lodge meeting.
Washington as Master Mason, an 1870 print depicting Washington presiding over a Masonic lodge meeting just prior to the United States Capitol cornerstone laying on September 18, 1793

Washington was descended from Anglican minister Lawrence Washington, whose troubles with the Church of England may have prompted his heirs to emigrate to America.[379] He was baptized as an infant in April 1732 and became a devoted member of the Anglican Church.[380] He served more than 20 years as a vestryman and churchwarden at Fairfax Parish and Truco Parish in Virginia.[381] He privately prayed and read the Bible daily, and publicly encouraged people and the nation to pray.[382] He may have taken communion on a regular basis prior to the Revolution, but he did not do so following the war.[383]

Washington believed in a "wise, inscrutable, and irresistible" Creator God who was active in the Universe, contrary to deistic thought.[379] He referred to God in American Enlightenment terms, including Providence, the Creator, or the Almighty, and the Divine Author or Supreme Being.[384] He believed in a divine power who watched over battlefields, was involved in the outcome of war, protected his life, and was involved in American politics and specifically the creation of the United States.[n][386] Historian Ron Chernow has argued that Washington avoided evangelistic Christianity or hellfire-and-brimstone speech along with communion or anything inclined to "flaunt his religiosity", saying that he "never used his religion as a device for partisan purposes or in official undertakings".[387] No mention of Jesus Christ appears in his private correspondence, and such references are rare in his public writings.[388] At the same time, Washington frequently quoted from the Bible or paraphrased it, and often referred to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.[389]

Washington emphasized religious toleration in a nation with numerous denominations and religions. He publicly attended services of different Christian denominations and prohibited anti-Catholic celebrations in the Army.[390] He engaged workers at Mount Vernon without regard for religious belief or affiliation. While president, he acknowledged major religious sects and gave speeches on religious toleration.[391] He was distinctly rooted in the ideas, values, and modes of thinking of the Enlightenment,[392] but he harbored no contempt of organized Christianity and its clergy, "being no bigot myself to any mode of worship".[392] In 1793, speaking to members of the New Church in Baltimore, Washington said, "We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition."[393]

Freemasonry was a widely accepted institution in the late 18th century, known for advocating moral teachings.[394] Washington was attracted to the Masons' dedication to the Enlightenment principles of rationality, reason, and brotherhood. American Masonic lodges did not share the anti-clerical views of the controversial European lodges.[395]

A Masonic lodge was established in Fredericksburg, Virginia in September 1752, and Washington was initiated two months later at the age of 20 as one of its first Entered Apprentices. Within a year, he progressed through its ranks to become a Master Mason.[396] Washington had high regard for the Masonic Order, but his lodge attendance was sporadic. In 1777, a convention of Virginia lodges asked him to be Grand Master of the newly established Grand Lodge of Virginia, but he declined due to his commitments leading the Continental Army. After 1782, he frequently corresponded with Masonic lodges and members,[397] and served as charter Master of Alexandria Masonic lodge No. 22 (now Alexandria-Washington Lodge, No. 22) in 1788–89.[398]


Main article: George Washington and slavery

Further information: Slavery in the colonial United States and Slavery in the United States

In Washington's lifetime, slavery was deeply ingrained in the economic and social fabric of the Colony of Virginia, which continued after the Revolution and the establishment of Virginia as a state.[399][400] Slavery was legal in all of the Thirteen Colonies prior to the American Revolution.[401]

Washington's slaves

Washington the farmer is shown standing on his plantation talking to an overseer as children play and slaves work. Work is by Junius Stearns.
Washington the Farmer at Mount Vernon, an 1851 portrait by Junius Brutus Stearns

Washington owned and rented enslaved African Americans, and during his lifetime over 577 slaves lived and worked at Mount Vernon.[402][403] He inherited some, gained control of 84 dower slaves upon his marriage to Martha, and purchased at least 71 slaves between 1752 and 1773.[404] From 1786, he rented slaves; at the time of his death he was renting 41.[405][402]

Prior to the Revolutionary War, Washington's view on slavery was the same as most Virginia planters of the time.[406] Beginning in the 1760s, however, Washington gradually grew to oppose it. His first doubts were prompted by his transition from tobacco to grain crops, which left him with a costly surplus of slaves, causing him to question the system's economic efficiency.[407] His growing disillusionment with the institution was spurred by the principles of the Revolution and revolutionary friends such as Lafayette and Hamilton.[408] Most historians agree the Revolution was central to the evolution of Washington's attitudes on slavery;[409] "After 1783," Kenneth Morgan writes, "... [Washington] began to express inner tensions about the problem of slavery more frequently, though always in private".[410] Regardless, Washington would remain dependent on slave labor to work his farms.[411]

The many contemporary reports of slave treatment at Mount Vernon are varied and conflicting.[412] Historian Kenneth Morgan maintains that Washington was frugal on spending for clothes and bedding for his slaves, and only provided them with just enough food, and that he maintained strict control over his slaves, instructing his overseers to keep them working hard from dawn to dusk year-round.[413] In contrast, historian Dorothy Twohig said: "Food, clothing, and housing seem to have been at least adequate".[414]

Washington faced growing debts involved with the costs of supporting slaves. He held an "engrained sense of racial superiority" towards African Americans but harbored no ill feelings toward them.[415] Some enslaved families worked at different locations on the plantation but were allowed to visit one another on their days off.[416] Washington's slaves received two hours off for meals during the workday and were given time off on Sundays and religious holidays.[417][418]

Some accounts report that Washington opposed flogging but at times sanctioned its use, generally as a last resort, on both men and women slaves.[419] Washington used both reward and punishment to encourage discipline and productivity in his slaves. He tried appealing to an individual's sense of pride, gave better blankets and clothing to the "most deserving", and motivated his slaves with cash rewards. He believed "watchfulness and admonition" were better deterrents against transgressions but would punish those who "will not do their duty by fair means". Punishment ranged in severity from demotion back to fieldwork, through whipping and beatings, to permanent separation from friends and family by sale. Historian Ron Chernow maintains that overseers were required to warn slaves before resorting to the lash and required Washington's written permission before whipping, though his extended absences did not always permit this.[420]

Runaway advertisement from the May 24, 1796, Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Runaway advertisement for Ona Judge, enslaved servant in Washington's presidential household

During his presidency, Washington brought several of his slaves to the federal capital. When the capital moved from New York City to Philadelphia in 1791, the president began rotating his slave household staff periodically between the capital and Mount Vernon. This was done deliberately to circumvent Pennsylvania's Slavery Abolition Act, which stated that any slave who lived there for more than six months was automatically freed.[421]

In May 1796, Martha's personal and favorite slave Ona Judge escaped to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. At Martha's behest, Washington attempted to capture Ona, using a Treasury agent, but failed. In February 1797, around the time of his 65th birthday, Washington's personal slave Hercules Posey escaped from Mount Vernon to the North and was never found.[422]

In February 1786, Washington took a census of Mount Vernon and recorded 224 slaves.[423] By 1799, the slave population at Mount Vernon totaled 317, including 143 children.[424] Washington owned 124 slaves, leased 40, and held 153 for his wife's dower interest.[425][6] Washington supported many slaves who were too young or too old to work, greatly increasing Mount Vernon's slave population and causing the plantation to operate at a loss.[426]

Abolition and manumission

Main article: Abolitionism in the United States

Based on his private papers and on accounts from his contemporaries, Washington slowly developed a cautious sympathy toward abolitionism that eventually ended with his will freeing his long-time valet Billy Lee, and then subsequently freeing the rest of his personally owned slaves outright upon Martha's death.[427][428] As president, he remained publicly silent on the topic of slavery, believing it was a nationally divisive issue that could undermine the union.[429]

In 1794, Washington privately told Tobias Lear, his personal secretary, that he found slavery repugnant

During the Revolutionary War, Washington's views on slavery began to change.[401] In a 1778 letter to Lund Washington, he made clear his desire "to get quit of Negroes" when discussing the exchange of slaves for the land he wanted to buy.[430] The next year, Washington stated his intention not to separate enslaved families as a result of "a change of masters".[431] During the 1780s, Washington privately expressed his support for gradual emancipation.[432] In the 1780s, he gave moral support to a plan proposed by Lafayette to purchase land and free slaves to work on it, but declined to participate in the experiment.[414]

Washington privately expressed support for emancipation to prominent Methodists Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury in 1785 but declined to sign their petition.[433] In personal correspondence the next year, he made clear his desire to see the institution of slavery ended by a gradual legislative process, a view that correlated with the mainstream antislavery literature published in the 1780s that Washington possessed.[434] He significantly reduced his purchases of slaves after the war but continued to acquire them in small numbers.[435]

In 1788, Washington declined a suggestion from a leading French abolitionist, Jacques Brissot, to establish an abolitionist society in Virginia, stating that although he supported the idea, the time was not yet right.[436] Historian Philip D. Morgan wrote that Washington was determined not to risk national unity.[437] Washington never responded to any of the antislavery petitions he received, and the subject was not mentioned in either his last address to Congress or his Farewell Address.[438]

The first clear indication that Washington seriously intended to free his slaves appears in a letter written to his secretary, Tobias Lear, in 1794.[439] Washington instructed Lear to find buyers for his land in western Virginia, explaining in a private coda that he was doing so "to liberate a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings".[440] The plan, along with others Washington considered in 1795 and 1796, could not be realized because he failed to find buyers for his land, his reluctance to break up slave families, and the refusal of the Custis heirs to help prevent such separations by freeing their dower slaves at the same time.[441]

On July 9, 1799, Washington finished making his last will; the longest provision concerned slavery. All his slaves were to be freed after the death of his wife. Washington said he did not free them immediately because his slaves intermarried with his wife's dower slaves. He forbade their sale or transportation out of Virginia. The provision also provided that old and young freed people be taken care of indefinitely; younger ones were to be taught to read and write and placed in suitable occupations.[442] Washington emancipated 123 slaves, one of the few large slave-holding Virginians during the Revolutionary Era to do so.[443][444]

On January 1, 1801, one year after George Washington's death, Martha Washington signed an order to free his slaves. Many of them, having never strayed far from Mount Vernon, were reluctant to leave; others refused to abandon spouses or children still held as dower slaves by the Custis estate and also stayed with or near Martha.[445] Following Washington's instructions in his will, funds were used to feed and clothe the young, aged, and infirm slaves until the early 1830s.[446]

Historical reputation and legacy

Further information: Legacy of George Washington and Historical rankings of presidents of the United States

See also: Cultural depictions of George Washington

portrait of Washington seated facing left by Gilbert Stuart
Washington, the Constable, a 1797 portrait by Gilbert Stuart

Washington's legacy endures as one of the most influential in American history since he served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, a hero of the Revolution, and the first president of the United States. Various historians maintain that he also was a dominant factor in America's founding.[447] Revolutionary War comrade Henry Lee eulogized him as "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen".[448] Lee's words became the hallmark by which Washington's reputation was impressed upon the American memory, with some biographers regarding him as the great exemplar of republicanism. He set many precedents for the national government and the presidency in particular, and he was called the "Father of His Country" as early as 1778.[o][450][451] Washington is among the highest-ranked U.S. Presidents.[452]

Washington became an international symbol for liberation and nationalism as the leader of the first successful revolution against a colonial empire. The Federalists made him the symbol of their party, but the Jeffersonians continued to distrust his influence for years and delayed building the Washington Monument.[453] Washington was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on January 31, 1781.[454]

In 1879, Congress proclaimed Washington's Birthday to be a federal holiday.[455] Through a congressional joint resolution Public Law 94-479, passed on January 19, 1976, with an effective appointment date of July 4, 1976, he was posthumously appointed to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States during the American Bicentennial. President Gerald Ford stated that Washington would "rank first among all officers of the Army, past and present".[p][457] On March 13, 1978, Washington was militarily promoted to the rank of General of the Armies.[458]

In 1809, Mason Locke Weems wrote a hagiographic biography to honor Washington.[459] Historian Ron Chernow maintains that Weems attempted to humanize Washington, making him look less stern, and to inspire "patriotism and morality" and to foster "enduring myths", such as Washington's refusal to lie about damaging his father's cherry tree.[460][461] Weems' accounts have never been proven or disproven.[462] Historian John Ferling, however, maintains that Washington remains the only founder and president ever to be referred to as "godlike", and points out that his character has been the most scrutinized by historians.[463] Biographer Douglas Southall Freeman concluded, "The great big thing stamped across that man is character." Expanding on Freeman's assessment, historian David Hackett Fischer defined Washington's character as "integrity, self-discipline, courage, absolute honesty, resolve, and decision, but also forbearance, decency, and respect for others".[464] Polls of historians have consistently placed Washington among the highest-ranked of presidents.[465][466][467]

In the 21st century, Washington's reputation has been critically scrutinized.

Ron Chernow describes Washington as always trying to be even-handed in dealing with the Natives. He states that Washington hoped they would abandon their itinerant hunting life and adapt to fixed agricultural communities in the manner of white settlers. He also maintains that Washington never advocated outright confiscation of tribal land or the forcible removal of tribes and that he berated American settlers who abused natives, admitting that he held out no hope for peaceful relations as long as "frontier settlers entertain the opinion that there is not the same crime (or indeed no crime at all) in killing a native as in killing a white man."[468]

By contrast, Colin G. Calloway wrote that, "Washington had a lifelong obsession with getting Indian land, either for himself or for his nation, and initiated policies and campaigns that had devastating effects in Indian country."[469] He stated:

The growth of the nation demanded the dispossession of Indian people. Washington hoped the process could be bloodless and that Indian people would give up their lands for a "fair" price and move away. But if Indians refused and resisted, as they often did, he felt he had no choice but to "extirpate" them and that the expeditions he sent to destroy Indian towns were therefore entirely justified.[470]

Along with other Founding Fathers, Washington has been condemned for holding enslaved people. Though he expressed the desire to see the abolition of slavery come through legislation, he did not initiate or support any initiatives for bringing about its end. This has led to calls from some activists to remove his name from public buildings and his statue from public spaces.[471]

Places, namesakes, and monuments

Further information: List of memorials to George Washington and List of statues of George Washington

Shrine of Democracy, Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Many places and monuments have been named in honor of Washington, most notably Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States, and the state of Washington, the only U.S. state to be named after a president.[472]

On February 21, 1885, the Washington Monument was dedicated. The 555-foot marble obelisk, which stands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was built between 1848–1854 and 1879–1884 and was the tallest structure in the world between 1884 and 1889.[473]

Washington appears as one of four U.S. presidents on the Shrine of Democracy, a colossal statue by Gutzon Borglum on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.[474]

A number of secondary schools and universities are named in honor of Washington, including George Washington University and Washington University in St. Louis.[475][476]

Currency and postage

Further information: Presidents of the United States on U.S. postage stamps

Washington appears on contemporary U.S. currency, including the one-dollar bill, the Presidential one-dollar coin and the quarter-dollar coin (the Washington quarter). Washington and Benjamin Franklin appeared on the nation's first postage stamps in 1847. Washington has since appeared on many postage issues, more than any other person.[477]

Washington issue of 1862
Washington–Franklin issue of 1917
Washington quarter dollar
Washington on the 2009 dollar bill

See also


  1. ^ Contemporaneous records used the Old Style Julian calendar and the Annunciation Style of enumerating years, recording his birth as February 11, 1731. The British Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 implemented in 1752 altered the official British dating method to the Gregorian calendar with the start of the year on January 1 (it had been March 25). These changes resulted in dates being moved forward 11 days and an advance of one year for those between January 1 and March 25. For a further explanation, see Old Style and New Style dates.[2]
  2. ^ Washington received his license through the college, whose charter gave it the authority to appoint Virginia county surveyors. There is no evidence that he actually attended classes there.[11]
  3. ^ The mid-16th-century word "Indian" described the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. More modern terms for Indians include American Indian and Native American and Indigenous Peoples.[24]
  4. ^ A second Virginia regiment was raised under Colonel William Byrd III and also allocated to the expedition.[40]
  5. ^ Some descendants of West Ford, a slave of John Augustine Washington's, maintain (based on family oral history) that Ford was fathered by George Washington, though historians dispute his paternity.[49][50]
  6. ^ In a letter of September 20, 1765, Washington protested to "Robert Cary & Co." that the low prices he received for his tobacco and for the inflated prices he was forced to pay on second-rate goods from London.[71]
  7. ^ Congress initially directed the war effort in June 1776 with the committee known as "Board of War and Ordnance"; this was succeeded by the Board of War in July 1777, which eventually included members of the military.[104]
  8. ^ Thomas Jefferson praised Washington for his "moderation and virtue" in relinquishing command. Reportedly, upon being informed of Washington's plans by painter Benjamin West, King George III remarked: "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."[198]
  9. ^ The Society of the Cincinnati was formed by Henry Knox in May 1783, to carry on the memory of the War of Independence and to establish a fraternity of officers. The Society was named after Cincinnatus, a famous Roman military leader who relinquished his position after his Roman victory at Algidus (458 BC). However, he had reservations about some of the society's precepts, including heredity requirements for membership and receiving money from foreign interests.[200]
  10. ^ Starting in 1774, 14 men served as President of the Continental Congress but bore no relationship to the presidency established under Article II of the Constitution. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress called its presiding officer "President of the United States in Congress Assembled", but this position had no national executive powers.[222]
  11. ^ There has been debate over whether Washington added "so help me God" to the end of the oath.[228]
  12. ^ The first account of Washington's death was written by doctors Craik and Brown, published in The Times of Alexandria five days after his death on December 19, 1799. The complete text can be found in The Eclectic Medical Journal (1858).[352]
  13. ^ Modern medical experts who blamed medical malpractice include Morens and Wallenborn in 1999,[353][354] Cheatham in 2008,[355] and Vadakan in 2005.[356]
  14. ^ The Constitution came under attack in Pennsylvania, and Washington wrote to Richard Peters, "It would seem from the public Gazettes that the minority in your State are preparing for another attack of the now adopted Government; how formidable it may be, I know not. But that Providence which has hitherto smiled on the honest endeavours of the well meaning part of the People of this Country will not, I trust, withdraw its support from them at this crisis."[385]
  15. ^ The earliest known image in which Washington is identified as the Father of His Country is in the frontispiece of a 1779 German-language almanac, with calculations by David Rittenhouse and published by Francis Bailey in Lancaster County Pennsylvania. Der Gantz Neue Verbesserte Nord-Americanische Calendar has a personification of Fame holding a trumpet to her lips juxtaposed with an image of Washington and the words "Der Landes Vater" ("the father of the country" or "the father of the land").[449]
  16. ^ In Portraits & Biographical Sketches of the United States Army's Senior Officer, William Gardner Bell states that Washington was recalled to military service from his retirement in 1798, and "Congress passed legislation that would have made him General of the Armies of the United States, but his services were not required in the field, and the appointment was not made until the Bicentennial in 1976 when it was bestowed posthumously as a commemorative honor."[456]


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