George Washington: Significant Facts and Brief Biography

George Washington was the first president of the United States and served two terms. While he probably could have been elected to a third term, he chose not to run. Washington's example began the tradition followed throughout the 19th century of presidents serving only two terms.

George Washington

Engraved portrait of President George Washington
Printe Collector/Getty Images

Life span: Born: February 22, 1732, Westmoreland County, Virginia.
Died: December 14, 1799, at Mount Vernon, Virginia, aged 67 years.

Presidential term: April 30, 1789 - March 4, 1797.

Accomplishments: Washington's accomplishments were considerable before the presidency. He had been one of the Founding Fathers of the nation, and because of his military background, he had been placed in command of the Continental Army in 1775.

Despite legendary hardships and obstacles, Washington managed to defeat the British, thus assuring the independence of the United States of America.

Following the war, Washington withdrew for a time from public life, though he returned to serve as president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. After the ratification of the Constitution, Washington was elected president and again faced many challenges.

Washington in forming a new government set many precedents of American governance. He tended, at first, to see himself as a nonpartisan figure, essentially above the political fray.

As serious disputes developed, such as battles within in his own cabinet between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, Washington was essentially forced to become a political figure.

Hamilton and Jefferson fought over economic policy, and Washington tended to side with Hamilton's ideas, which were considered the Federalist position.

Washington's presidency also featured a controversy known as the Whiskey Rebellion, sparked when protestors in Pennsylvania refused to pay a tax on whiskey. Washington actually donned his military uniform and led the militia to crush the rebellion.

In foreign affairs, Washington's administration was known for Jay's Treaty, which resolved issues with Britain but served to antagonize France.

When leaving the presidency, Washington issued a farewell address which has become an iconic document. It appeared in a newspaper in late 1796 and was reprinted as a pamphlet.

Perhaps best remembered for its warning against "foreign entanglements," the farewell address encapsulated Washington's thoughts on government.

Nickname: "The Father of His Country"

Washington and Politics

Supported by: Washington essentially ran unopposed in the first presidential election, which was conducted from mid-December 1788 to early January 1789. He was unanimously elected by the electoral congress.

Washington was actually opposed to the establishment of political parties in America.

Opposed by: In his first election, Washington ran virtually unopposed. There were other candidates considered, but under the procedures of the time, they were, practically speaking, running for the position of vice president (which would be won by John Adams).

The same circumstances occurred in the election of 1792 when Washington again was elected president and John Adams vice president.

Presidential campaigns: In Washington's time, the candidate did not campaign. Indeed, it was considered inappropriate for a candidate to even express any desire for the job.

Family and Early Life

Spouse and family: Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow, on January 6, 1759. They had no children, though Martha had four children from her previous marriage (all of whom died fairly young).

Education: Washington received a rudimentary education, learning reading, writing, mathematics, and surveying. He learned the typical subjects a boy in his society of Virginia planters would need in life.

Early career: Washington was appointed a surveyor in his county in 1749, at the age of 17. He worked as a surveyor for several years and became adept at navigating in the Virginia wilderness.

In the early 1750s, the governor of Virginia dispatched Washington to approach the French, who were settling close to the Virginia frontier, to warn them about their encroachments. By some accounts, Washington's mission helped trigger the French and Indian War, in which he would play a military role.

By 1755 Washington was the commander of Virginia's colonial troops, which fought the French. Following the war, he married and took up the life of a planter at Mount Vernon.

Washington became involved with local Virginia politics, and he was vocal in opposition to Britain's policies toward the colonies in the mid-1760s. He opposed the Stamp Act in 1765 and in the early 1770s became involved the early formation of what would become the Continental Congress.

Military Service and Later Career

Painting of George Washington with slaves at Mount Vernon
George Washington with enslaved people at Mount Vernon. Getty Images

Military career: Washington was the commander of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and in that role, he played an enormous role in achieving American independence from Britain.

Washington commanded the American forces from June 1775, when he was chosen by the Continental Congress, to December 23, 1783, when he resigned his commission.

Later career: After leaving the presidency Washington returned to Mount Vernon, intending on resuming his career as a planter.

Washington had grown up in a society of enslavers, and had, himself, been an enslaver for most of his life. His estate at Mount Vernon was home to a large population of enslaved people in the years following his terms as president.

An enslaved woman who had belonged to Washington, Ona Judge, had escaped while he was serving as president in Philadelphia. Washington made repeated attempts to have her captured after she resettled in New England, but he was never successful.

He had a brief return to public life, beginning the autumn of 1798, when President John Adams appointed him as commander of the federal Army, in anticipation of war breaking out with France. Washington spent time in early 1799 selecting officers and otherwise making plans.

The potential war with France was avoided, and Washington turned his full attention back to his business affairs at Mount Vernon.

Death, Funeral, and Legacy

Death and funeral: Washington took a long horseback ride around his Mount Vernon estate on December 12, 1799. He was exposed to rain, sleet, and snow, and returned to his mansion house in wet clothes.

We was afflicted with a sore throat the following day, and his condition worsened. And attention by doctors may have actually done more harm than good.

Washington died on the night of December 14, 1799. A funeral was held on December 18, 1799, and his body was placed in a tomb at Mount Vernon.

The U.S. Congress intended to have Washington's body placed in a tomb in the U.S. Capitol, but his widow was against that idea. However, a place for Washington's tomb was built into the lower level of the Capitol, and it is still known as "The Crypt."

Washington was placed in a larger tomb at Mount Vernon in 1837. Tourists visiting Mount Vernon pay their respects at his tomb on a daily basis.

Legacy: It is impossible to overstate the influence Washington had on public affairs in the United States, and especially upon subsequent presidents. In a sense, Washington set the tone for how presidents would conduct themselves for generations.

Washington can be considered the originator of the "Virginia Dynasty," as four of the first five presidents of the United States — Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe — came from Virginia.

In the 19th century, nearly all American political figures sought to align themselves in some way with the memory of Washington. For instance, candidates would often invoke his name, and his example would be cited to justify actions.

Washington's style of governance, such as his desire to conciliate between opposing factions, and his attention to the separation of powers, left a definite mark on American politics.