Biography of George Washington, First President of the United States

Statue of George Washington
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George Washington (Feb. 22, 1732–Dec. 14, 1799) was America's first president. He served as commander-in-chief of the Colonial army during the American Revolution, leading the Patriot forces to victory over the British. In 1787 he presided at the Constitutional Convention, which determined the structure of the new government of the United States, and in 1789 he was elected its president.

Fast Facts: George Washington

Known For: Revolutionary War hero and America's first president

Also Known As: The Father of His Country

Born: Feb. 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia

Parents: Augustine Washington, Mary Ball

Died: Dec. 14, 1799, in Mount Vernon, Virginia

Spouse: Martha Dandridge Custis

Notable Quote: "To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace."

Early Life

George Washington was born on Feb. 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, to Augustine Washington and Mary Ball. The couple had six children—George was the oldest—to go with three from his first marriage. During George's youth his father, a prosperous planter who owned more than 10,000 acres of land, moved the family among three properties he owned in Virginia. He died when George was 11 and his half-brother, Lawrence, stepped in as a father figure.

Mary Washington was a protective and demanding mother, keeping him from joining the British Navy, as Lawrence had wanted. Lawrence owned the Little Hunting Creek plantation—later renamed Mount Vernon—and George lived with him from the age of 16. He was schooled entirely in Colonial Virginia, mostly at home, and didn't go to college. He was good at math, which suited his chosen profession of surveying, and he also studied geography, Latin, and English classics, but he learned what he really needed from backwoodsmen and the plantation foreman.

In 1748, when he was 16, Washington traveled with a surveying party plotting land in Virginia’s western territory. The following year, aided by Lord Fairfax— a relative of Lawrence's wife— Washington was appointed official surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia. Lawrence died of tuberculosis in 1752, leaving Washington with Mount Vernon, one of Virginia's most prominent estates, among other family properties.

Early Career

The same year his half-brother died, Washington joined the Virginia militia. He showed signs of being a natural leader, and Virginia Lt. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie appointed Washington adjutant and made him a major.

On Oct. 31, 1753, Dinwiddie sent Washington to Fort LeBoeuf, later the site of Waterford, Pennsylvania, to warn the French to leave land claimed by Britain. When the French refused, Washington had to retreat hastily. Dinwiddie sent him back with troops and Washington's small force attacked a French post, killing 10 and taking the rest prisoner. The battle marked the start of the French and Indian War, part of the worldwide conflict known as the Seven Years War between Britain and France.

Washington was given the honorary rank of colonel and fought a number of other battles, winning some and losing others, until he was made commander of all Virginia troops. He was only 23. Later, he was sent home briefly with dysentery and finally, after being turned down for a commission with the British army, he retired from his Virginia command and returned to Mount Vernon. He was frustrated by poor support from the Colonial legislature, poorly trained recruits, and slow decision-making by his superiors.

On Jan. 6, 1759, a month after he had left the army, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow with two children. They had no children together. With the land he had inherited, property his wife brought with her to the marriage, and land granted him for his military service, he was one of the wealthiest landowners in Virginia. After his retirement he managed his property, often pitching in alongside the workers. He also entered politics and was elected to Virginia's House of Burgesses in 1758.

Revolutionary Fever

Washington opposed British actions against the Colonies such as the British Proclamation Act of 1763 and the Stamp Act of 1765, but he continued to resist moves to declare independence from Britain. In 1769, Washington introduced a resolution to the House of Burgesses calling for Virginia to boycott British goods until the Acts were repealed. He began to take a leading role in Colonial resistance against the British following of the Townshend Acts in 1767.

in 1774, Washington chaired a meeting that called for convening a Continental Congress, to which he became a delegate, and for using armed resistance as a last resort. After the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the political dispute became an armed conflict.

Commander-in-Chief

On June 15, Washington was named commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. On paper, Washington and his army were no match for the mighty British forces. But, although Washington had little experience in high-level military command, he had prestige, charisma, courage, intelligence, and some battlefield experience and represented Virginia, the largest British colony. He led his forces to retake Boston and win huge victories at Trenton and Princeton, but he suffered major defeats, including the loss of New York City.

After the harrowing winter at Valley Forge in 1777, the French recognized American Independence, contributing a large French army and a navy fleet. More American victories followed, leading to the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781. Washington formally said farewell to his troops and on Dec. 23, 1783, resigned his commission as commander-in-chief, returning to Mount Vernon.

New Constitution

After four years of living the life of a plantation owner, Washington and other leaders concluded that the Articles of Confederation that had governed the young country left too much power to the states and failed to unify the nation. In 1786, Congress approved the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to amend the Articles of Confederation. Washington was unanimously chosen as convention president.

He and other leaders, such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, concluded that instead of amendments, a new constitution was needed. Though many leading American figures, such as Patrick Henry and Sam Adams, opposed the proposed constitution, calling it a power grab, the document was approved. 

President

Washington was elected unanimously by the electoral college in 1789 as the nation's first president. ​John Adams, the runner-up, became vice president. In 1792 another unanimous vote by the Electoral College gave Washington a second term. In 1794, he stopped the first major challenge to federal authority, the Whiskey Rebellion, in which Pennsylvania farmers refused to pay federal tax on distilled spirits, by sending in troops to ensure compliance.

Washington did not run for a third time and retired to Mount Vernon. He was again asked to be the American commander if the U.S. went to war with France over the XYZ affair, but fighting never broke out. He died on Dec. 14, 1799, possibly from a streptococcal infection of his throat made worse when he was bled four times.

Legacy

Washington's impact on American history was massive. He led the Continental Army to victory over the British. He became the nation's first president. He believed in a strong federal government, which was accomplished through the Constitutional Convention that he led. He promoted and worked on the principle of merit. He cautioned against foreign entanglements, a warning that was heeded by future presidents. He declined a third term, setting a precedent for a two-term limit that was codified in the 22nd Amendment.

In foreign affairs, Washington supported neutrality, declaring in he Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793 that the U.S. would be impartial toward belligerent powers in a war. He reiterated his opposition to foreign entanglements in his farewell address in 1796.

George Washington is considered one of our most important and influential presidents, whose legacy has survived for centuries.

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