George Washington

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: USA Presidents

George Washington
George Washington

In office
April 30, 1789 –  March 4, 1797
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by John Adams

Born February 22, 1732
Westmoreland County, Virginia
Died December 14, 1799
Mount Vernon, Virginia
Spouse Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
Religion Anglican/ Episcopal/ Deist

George Washington ( February 22, 1732– December 14, 1799) led America's Continental Army to victory over Britain in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), and was later elected the first President of the United States. He served two four-year terms from 1789 to 1797, having been reelected in 1792. Because of his central role in the founding of the United States, Washington is often referred to as the " Father of his Country". His devotion to republicanism and civic virtue made him an exemplary figure among early American politicians.

In his youth, Washington worked as a surveyor of rural lands and acquired what would become invaluable knowledge of the terrain around his native Virginia. Washington gained command experience during the French and Indian War (1754–1763). Due to this experience, his military bearing, his enormous charisma, and his political base in Virginia, the Second Continental Congress chose him as commander-in-chief of the American forces. He scored a victory by forcing the British out of Boston in 1776, but later that year was badly defeated and nearly captured when he lost New York City. By crossing the Delaware and defeating enemy units in New Jersey in the dead of winter, he revived the "Patriot" cause. As a result of his strategic oversight, Revolutionary forces captured the two main British combat armies, first at Saratoga in 1777 and then at Yorktown in 1781. He handled relations with the states and their militias, dealt with disputing generals and colonels, and worked with Congress to supply and recruit the Continental army. Negotiating with Congress, the states, and French allies, he held together a fragile army and a fragile nation despite the constant threat of disintegration.

Following the end of the war, when it was widely believed that Washington could have installed himself as King of the victorious nation, he chose instead to observe the practice of his role model, the ancient Roman general Cincinnatus, and retire to his plantation on Mount Vernon, an exemplar of the republican ideal of citizen leadership. Later, alarmed at the many weaknesses of the new nation under the Articles of Confederation, he presided over the Constitutional Convention that drafted the much stronger United States Constitution in 1787.

In 1789, Washington became President of the United States and promptly established many of the customs and usages of the new government's executive department. He sought to create a great nation capable of surviving in a world torn asunder by war between Britain and France. His Neutrality Proclamation of 1793 provided a basis for avoiding any involvement in foreign conflicts. He supported Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's plans to build a strong central government by funding the national debt, implementing an effective tax system, and creating a national bank. When rebels in Pennsylvania defied Federal authority, he rode at the head of the army to authoritatively quell the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington avoided the temptation of war and began a decade of peace with Britain via the Jay Treaty in 1795; he used his immense prestige to get it ratified over intense opposition from the Jeffersonians. Although he never officially joined the Federalist Party, he supported its programs and was its inspirational leader. By refusing to pursue a third term, he made it the enduring norm that no U.S. President should seek more than two. Washington's Farewell Address was a primer on republican virtue and a stern warning against involvement in foreign wars.

As the symbol of republicanism in practice, Washington embodied American values and across the world was seen as the symbol of the new nation. Scholars perennially rank him among the three greatest U.S. Presidents. And no one, even today, presumes to challenge the funeral oration of Henry Lee that among all Americans, he was "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." (see Legacy, below.)

Early life

George Washington
Early life
French and Indian War
Between the wars
American Revolution
Washington and religion
Washington and slavery

French and Indian War

This, the earliest portrait of Washington, was painted in 1772 by Charles Willson Peale, and shows Washington in uniform as colonel of the Virginia Regiment.
This, the earliest portrait of Washington, was painted in 1772 by Charles Willson Peale, and shows Washington in uniform as colonel of the Virginia Regiment.

At 22 years of age Washington fired some of the first shots of the French and Indian War, soon to become part of the worldwide Seven Years' War. The trouble began in 1753, when France began building a series of forts in the Ohio Country, a region also claimed by Virginia. Governor Dinwiddie sent young Major Washington to the Ohio Country to assess French military strength and intentions, and ask the French to leave. When the French refused, Washington's published report was widely read in both Virginia and Britain. In 1754, Dinwiddie sent Washington, now commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel in the newly created Virginia Regiment, to drive the French away. Along with his American Indian allies, Washington and his troops ambushed a French scouting party of some 30 men led by Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, sent from Fort Duquesne to discover if Washington had in fact invaded French-claimed territory. Were this to be the case he was to send word back to the fort, then deliver a formal summons to Washington calling on him to withdraw. His small force was an embassy, resembling Washington’s to Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre the preceding year, and he neglected to post sentries around his encampment. At daybreak on the 28th, Washington with 40 men stole up on the French camp near present Jumonville, Pa. Some were still asleep, others preparing breakfast. Without warning, Washington gave the order to fire. The Canadians who escaped the volley scrambled for their weapons, but were swiftly overwhelmed. Jumonville, the French later claimed, was struck down while trying to proclaim his official summons. Ten of the Canadians were killed, one wounded, all but one of the rest taken prisoner. Washington and his men then retired, leaving the bodies of their victims for the wolves. Washington then built Fort Necessity, which soon proved inadequate, as he was soon compelled to surrender to a larger French and Indian force. The surrender terms that Washington signed included an admission that he had assassinated Jumonville. Because the French claimed that Jumonville's party had been on a diplomatic (rather than military) mission, the "Jumonville affair" became an international incident and helped to ignite a wider war. Washington was released by the French with his promise not to return to the Ohio Country for one year. Back in Virginia, Governor Dinwiddie broke up the Virginia Regiment into independent companies; Washington resigned from active military service rather than accept a demotion to captain.

In 1755, British General Edward Braddock headed a major effort to retake the Ohio Country. Washington eagerly volunteered to serve as one of Braddock's aides, although the British officers held the colonials in contempt. The expedition ended in disaster at the Battle of the Monongahela. Washington distinguished himself in the debacle—he had two horses shot out from under him, and four bullets pierced his coat—yet, he sustained no injuries and showed coolness under fire. (It is a myth that he led the retreat back home.) In Virginia, Washington was acclaimed as a hero.

In fall 1755, Governor Dinwiddie appointed Washington commander in chief of all Virginia forces, with rank of colonel, with responsibility for defending 300 miles of mountainous frontier with about 300 men. Washington supervised savage, frontier warfare that averaged two engagements a month. His letters show he was moved by the plight of the frontiersmen he was protecting. With too few troops and inadequate supplies, lacking sufficient authority with which to maintain complete discipline, and hampered by an antagonistic governor, he had a severe challenge. In 1758, he took part in the Forbes Expedition, which successfully drove the French away from Fort Duquesne.

Washington's goal at the outset of his military career had been to secure a commission as a British officer, which had more prestige than serving in the provincial military. However, the British officers had disdain for the amateurish, non-aristocratic Americans. Washington's commission never came; in 1758, Washington resigned from active military service and spent the next sixteen years as a Virginia planter and politician.

Between the wars

A mezzotint of Martha Dandridge Custis, based on a 1757 portrait by John Wollaston.
A mezzotint of Martha Dandridge Custis, based on a 1757 portrait by John Wollaston.

On January 6, 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis. They had a good marriage, and together raised her two children, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis, affectionately called "Jackie" and "Patsy". Later the Washingtons raised two of Mrs. Washington's grandchildren, Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis. George and Martha never had any children together—his earlier bout with smallpox followed, possibly, by tuberculosis may have made him sterile. The newlywed couple moved to Mount Vernon, where he took up the life of a genteel planter and political figure.

Washington's marriage to a wealthy widow greatly increased his property holdings and social standing. He acquired one-third of the 18,000-acre Custis estate upon his marriage, and managed the remainder on behalf of Martha's children. He frequently purchased additional acreage in his own name, and was granted land in what is now West Virginia as a bounty for his service in the French and Indian War. By 1775, Washington had doubled the size of Mount Vernon to 6,500 acres, with over 100 slaves. As a respected military hero and large landowner, he held local office and was elected to the Virginia provincial legislature, the House of Burgesses, beginning in 1758.

Washington first took a leading role in the growing colonial resistance in 1769, when he introduced a proposal drafted by his friend George Mason which called for Virginia to boycott imported English goods until the Townshend Acts were repealed. Parliament repealed the Acts in 1770. Washington regarded the passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774 as "an Invasion of our Rights and Priviledges". In July 1774, he chaired the meeting at which the Fairfax Resolves were adopted, which called for, among other things, the convening of a Continental Congress. In August, he attended the First Virginia Convention, where he was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.

American Revolution

Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze, 1851, Metropolitan Museum
Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze, 1851, Metropolitan Museum

After fighting broke out in April 1775, Washington appeared at the Second Continental Congress in military uniform, signaling that he was prepared for war. Congress created the Continental Army on June 14; the next day it selected Washington as commander-in-chief. There was no serious rival to his experience and confident leadership, let alone his base in the largest colony. Massachusetts delegate John Adams nominated Washington, believing that appointing a southerner to lead what was at this stage primarily an army of northerners would help unite the colonies. Washington reluctantly accepted, declaring "with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the Command I [am] honoured with." He asked for no pay other than reimbursement of his expenses.

George Washington at Princeton, by Charles Willson Peale, 1779
George Washington at Princeton, by Charles Willson Peale, 1779

Washington assumed command of the American forces in Massachusetts in July 1775, during the ongoing siege of Boston. Washington reorganized the army during the long standoff, and forced the British to withdraw by putting artillery on Dorchester Heights overlooking the city. The British evacuated Boston and Washington moved his army to New York City. In August 1776, British General William Howe launched a massive naval and land campaign to capture New York designed to seize New York City and offer a negotiated settlement. The Americans were committed to independence, but Washington was unable to hold New York. Defeated at the Battle of Long Island on August 22, he barely managed to escape with most of his forces to the mainland. Several other defeats sent Washington scrambling across New Jersey, leaving the future of the Continental Army in doubt. On the night of December 25, 1776, Washington staged a counterattack, leading the American forces across the Delaware River to capture nearly 1,000 Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey. Washington followed up the assault with a surprise attack on British forces at Princeton. These unexpected victories after a series of losses recaptured New Jersey, drove the British back to the New York City area, and gave a dramatic boost to Revolutionary morale.

In 1777, the British launched two uncoordinated attacks. The first was an invasion by General John Burgoyne down the Hudson River from Canada designed to reach New York City and cut off New England. Simultaneously, Howe left New York City and attacked the national capital at Philadelphia. Washington sent General Horatio Gates and state militias to deal with Burgoyne while he moved the main Continental army south to block Howe. Washington was defeated at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. On September 26, Howe outmaneuvered Washington and marched into Philadelphia unopposed. Washington's army unsuccessfully attacked the British garrison at Germantown in early October. Meanwhile Burgoyne, out of reach from help from Howe, was trapped and forced to surrender his entire army at Saratoga. The British had gained the empty prize of Philadelphia, while losing one of their two armies. The victory caused France to enter the war as an open ally (followed by Spain and the Netherlands as allies of France), turning the Revolution into a major world-wide war in which Britain was no longer the dominant military force.

Washington's army encamped at Valley Forge in December 1777, where it stayed for the next six months. Over the winter, 2,500 men (out of 10,000) died from disease and exposure. The next spring, however, the army emerged from Valley Forge in good order, thanks in part to a full-scale training program supervised by Baron von Steuben, a veteran of the Prussian general staff.

Washington's loss of Philadelphia prompted some members of Congress to discuss removing Washington from command. This episode failed after Washington's supporters rallied behind him.

Depiction by John Trumbull of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis's army at Yorktown
Depiction by John Trumbull of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis's army at Yorktown

French entry into the war changed the dynamics, for the British were no longer sure of command of the seas and had to worry about an invasion of their home islands. The British evacuated Philadelphia in 1778 and returned to New York City, with Washington attacking them along the way at the Battle of Monmouth; this was the last major battle in the north. The British tried a new strategy based on the assumption that most Southerners were Loyalists at heart. Ignoring the north (except for their base in New York), they tried to capture the Southern states while fighting the French elsewhere around the globe. During this time, Washington remained with his army outside New York, looking for an opportunity to strike a decisive blow while dispatching troops to other operations to the north and south. The long-awaited opportunity finally came in 1781, after a French naval victory allowed American and French forces to trap a British army in Virginia. The surrender at Yorktown on October 17, 1781 marked the end of fighting. The Treaty of Paris (1783) recognized the independence of the United States.

Washington's contribution to victory in the American Revolution was not that of a great battlefield tactician; in fact, he lost more battles than he won, and he sometimes planned operations that were too complicated for his amateur soldiers to execute. However, his overall strategy proved to be successful: keep control of 90% of the population at all times; keep the army intact, suppress the Loyalists; and avoid decisive battles except to exploit enemy mistakes (as at Saratoga and Yorktown). Washington was a military conservative: he preferred building a regular army on the European model and fighting a conventional war, and often complained about the undisciplined American militia.

Depiction by John Trumbull of Washington resigning his commission as commander-in-chief
Depiction by John Trumbull of Washington resigning his commission as commander-in-chief

One of Washington's most important contributions as commander-in-chief was to establish the precedent that civilian-elected officials, rather than military officers, possessed ultimate authority over the military. Throughout the war, he deferred to the authority of Congress and state officials, and he relinquished his considerable military power once the fighting was over. In March 1783, Washington used his influence to disperse a group of Army officers who had threatened to confront Congress regarding their back pay. Washington disbanded his army and, on November 2, gave an eloquent farewell address to his soldiers. A few days later, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington and the governor took possession of the city; at Fraunces Tavern in the city on December 4, he formally bade his officers farewell. On December 23, 1783, Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief to the Congress of the Confederation.

Washington's retirement to Mount Vernon was short-lived. He was persuaded to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, and he was unanimously elected president of the Convention. For the most part, he did not participate in the debates involved (though he did participate in voting for or against the various articles), but his prestige was great enough to maintain collegiality and to keep the delegates at their labors. The delegates designed the presidency with Washington in mind, and allowed him to define the office once elected. After the Convention, his support convinced many, including the Virginia legislature, to vote for ratification; all 13 states did ratify the new Constitution.

Presidency: 1789–1797

In 1796, Gilbert Stuart painted this famous portrait of Washington from life, and then used the unfinished painting to create numerous others, including the image used on the U.S. one-dollar bill.
In 1796, Gilbert Stuart painted this famous portrait of Washington from life, and then used the unfinished painting to create numerous others, including the image used on the U.S. one-dollar bill.

Washington was elected unanimously by the Electoral College in 1789, and he remains the only person ever to be elected president unanimously (a feat which he duplicated in the 1792 election). As runner-up with 34 votes (each elector cast two votes), John Adams became vice president. Washington took the oath of office as the first President on April 30, 1789 at Federal Hall in New York City.

The First U.S. Congress voted to pay Washington a salary of $25,000 a year—a large sum in 1789. Washington, already wealthy, declined the salary, since he valued his image as a selfless public servant. At the urging of Congress, however, he ultimately accepted the payment. A dangerous precedent could have been set otherwise, as the founding fathers wanted future presidents to come from a large pool of potential candidates - not just those citizens that could afford to do the work for free.

Washington attended carefully to the pomp and ceremony of office, making sure that the titles and trappings were suitably republican and never emulated European royal courts. To that end, he preferred the title "Mr. President" to the more majestic names suggested.

Washington proved an able administrator. An excellent delegator and judge of talent and character, he held regular cabinet meetings, which debated issues; he then made the final decision and moved on. In handling routine tasks, he was "systematic, orderly, energetic, solicitous of the opinion of others but decisive, intent upon general goals and the consistency of particular actions with them."

Washington only reluctantly agreed to serve a second term of office as president. He refused to run for a third, establishing the precedent of a maximum of two terms for a president.

Domestic issues

Washington was not a member of any political party, and hoped that they would not be formed. His closest advisors, however, became divided into two factions, setting the framework for political parties. Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who had bold plans to establish the national credit and build a financially powerful nation, formed the basis of the Federalist Party. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, founder of the Jeffersonian Republicans, strenuously opposed Hamilton's agenda, but Hamilton had Washington's ear, not Jefferson.

In 1791, Congress imposed an excise tax on distilled spirits, which led to protests in frontier districts, especially Pennsylvania. By 1794, after Washington ordered the protesters to appear in U.S. district court, the protests turned into full-scale riots known as the Whiskey Rebellion. The federal army was too small to be used, so Washington invoked the Militia Law of 1792 to summon the militias of Pennsylvania, Virginia and several other states. The governors sent the troops and Washington took command, marching into the rebellious districts. There was no fighting, but Washington's forceful action proved the new government could protect itself. It also was one of only two times that a sitting President would personally command the military in the field: the other was after President James Madison fled the burning White House in the War of 1812. These events marked the first time under the new constitution that the federal government used strong military force to exert authority over the states and citizens.

Foreign affairs

In 1793, the revolutionary government of France sent diplomat Edmond-Charles Genêt, called "Citizen Genêt," to America. Genêt issued letters of marque and reprisal to American ships so they could capture British merchant ships. He attempted to turn popular sentiment towards American involvement in the French war against Britain by creating a network of Democratic-Republican Societies in major cities. Washington rejected this interference in domestic affairs, demanded the French government recall Genêt, and denounced his societies.

To normalize trade relations with Britain, remove them from western forts, and resolve financial debts left over from the Revolution, Hamilton and Washington designed the Jay Treaty. It was negotiated by John Jay, and signed on November 19, 1794. The Jeffersonians supported France and strongly attacked the treaty. Washington and Hamilton, however, mobilized public opinion and won ratification by the Senate by emphasizing Washington's support. The British agreed to depart their forts around the Great Lakes, the Canadian-U.S. boundary was adjusted, numerous pre-Revolutionary debts were liquidated, and the British opened their West Indies colonies to the American trade. Most important, the treaty avoided war with Britain and instead brought a decade of prosperous trade with Britain. It angered the French and became a central issue in the political debates of the emerging First Party System.

Farewell Address

Washington's Farewell Address (issued as a public letter in 1796) was one of the most influential statements of American political values. Drafted primarily by Washington himself, with help from Hamilton, it gives advice on the necessity and importance of national union, the value of the Constitution and the rule of law, the evils of political parties, and the proper virtues of a republican people. In the address, he called morality "a necessary spring of popular government." He suggests that "reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." Washington thus makes the point that the value of religion is for the benefit of society as a whole.

Washington warns against foreign influence in domestic affairs and American meddling in European affairs. He warns against bitter partisanship in domestic politics and called for men to move beyond partisanship and serve the common good. He called for an America wholly free of foreign attachments, as the United States must concentrate only on American interests. He counseled friendship and commerce with all nations, but warned against involvement in European wars and entering into long-term alliances. The address quickly set American values regarding religion and foreign affairs, and his advice was often repeated in political discourse well into the twentieth century; not until the 1949 formation of NATO would the United States again sign a treaty of alliance with a foreign nation. Washington strictures against political parties were ignored at the time and ever since.


Inaugural Addresses

  • First Inaugural Address, (April 30th, 1789)
  • Second Inaugural Address, (March 4th, 1793)

State of the Union Address

  • First State of the Union Address, (8 January 1790)
  • Second State of the Union Address, (8 December 1790)
  • Third State of the Union Address, (25 October 1791)
  • Fourth State of the Union Address, (6 November 1792)
  • Fifth State of the Union Address, (3 December 1793)
  • Sixth State of the Union Address, (19 November 1794)
  • Seventh State of the Union Address, (8 December 1795)
  • Eighth State of the Union Address, (7 December 1796)

Major acts as President

  • Organized the first United States Cabinet and the Executive Branch

Legislation signed into law

  • Judiciary Act of 1789
  • Indian Intercourse Acts, starting in 1790
  • Naturalization Act of 1790
  • Residence Act of 1790
  • Bank Act of 1791
  • Coinage Act of 1792 or Mint Act
  • Fugitive Slave Act of 1793
  • Naval Act of 1794

Legislation vetoed

Washington vetoed two laws while President:

  • The Apportionment Bill, vetoed April 5, 1792, on constitutional grounds.
  • A Bill to alter and amend an Act entitled, "An Act to ascertain and fix the military establishment of the United States", vetoed February 28, 1797, on the advice of Secretary of War James McHenry.

Administration and cabinet

The Lansdowne portrait of President Washington by Gilbert Stuart.
The Lansdowne portrait of President Washington by Gilbert Stuart.
President George Washington 1789–1797
Vice President John Adams 1789–1797
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson 1789–1793
  Edmund Randolph 1794–1795
  Timothy Pickering 1795–1797
Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton 1789–1795
  Oliver Wolcott, Jr. 1795–1797
Secretary of War Henry Knox 1789–1794
  Timothy Pickering 1795–1796
  James McHenry 1796–1797
Attorney General Edmund Randolph 1789–1793
  William Bradford 1794–1795
  Charles Lee 1795–1797
Postmaster General Samuel Osgood 1789–1791
  Timothy Pickering 1791–1795
  Joseph Habersham 1795–1797

Supreme Court appointments

As the first President, Washington appointed the entire first Supreme Court of the United States:

  • John Jay - Chief Justice - 1789
  • James Wilson - 1789
  • John Rutledge - 1790
  • William Cushing - 1790
  • John Blair - 1790
  • James Iredell - 1790
  • Thomas Johnson - 1792
  • William Paterson - 1793
  • John Rutledge - Chief Justice, 1795 (an associate justice 1790-1795)
  • Samuel Chase - 1796
  • Oliver Ellsworth - Chief Justice - 1796

States admitted to Union

  • North Carolina – November 21, 1789 by ratification of the Constitution
  • Rhode Island May 29, 1790 by ratification of the Constitution
  • Vermont – May 4, 1791
  • Kentucky – June 1, 1792
  • Tennessee – June 1, 1796

Retirement and death

Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon

After retiring from the presidency in March 1797, Washington returned to Mount Vernon with a profound sense of relief. He devoted much time to farming and, in that year, constructed a 2,250 square foot distillery, which was one of the largest in the new republic. Two years later, he produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey worth $7,500.

In 1798, Washington was appointed Lieutenant General in the United States Army (then the highest possible rank) by President John Adams. Washington's appointment was to serve as a warning to France, with which war seemed imminent.

In 1799, Washington fell ill from a bad cold with a fever and a throat infection called quinsy that turned into acute laryngitis and pneumonia; he died on December 14, 1799, at his home, while attended by Dr. James Craik, one of his closest friends, and Tobias Lear, Washington's personal secretary. Lear would record the account in his journal. From Lear's account, we receive Washington's last words: Tis well.

Modern doctors believe that Washington died from either epiglottitis or, since he was bled as part of the treatment, a combination of shock from the loss of five pints of blood, as well as asphyxia and dehydration. Washington's remains were buried at Mount Vernon. In order to protect their privacy, Martha Washington burned the correspondence between her husband and herself following his death. Only three letters between the couple have survived.

After Washington's death, Mount Vernon was inherited by his nephew, Bushrod Washington, a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1861, Washington's remains were moved from Mount Vernon to Lexington, Virginia, as there was fear that Northern troops would desecrate them. They were returned at the end of the war.

Making up for lost time, and to maintain George Washington's proper position as the first Commanding General of the United States Army, he was appointed posthumously to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States by congressional joint resolution of 1976- 01-19, approved by President Gerald R. Ford on 1976- 10-11, and formalized in Department of the Army Special Order Number 31-3 of 1978- 03-13, with an effective appointment date of 1776- 07-04.


Tourists pose under the statue of Washington outside the Federal Hall Memorial in lower Manhattan, site of Washington's first inauguration as President
Tourists pose under the statue of Washington outside the Federal Hall Memorial in lower Manhattan, site of Washington's first inauguration as President

Congressman Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, a Revolutionary War comrade and father of the Civil War general Robert E. Lee, famously eulogized Washington as:

First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding; his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting. . . . Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. . . . Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.

Lee's words set the standard by which Washington's overwhelming reputation was impressed upon the American memory. Washington set many precedents for the national government and the presidency in particular. His decision to relinquish the presidency after serving two terms in office would be formalized in the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.

As early as 1778, Washington was lauded as the " Father of His Country"

He was upheld as a shining example in schoolbooks and lessons: as courageous and farsighted, holding the Continental Army together through eight hard years of war and numerous privations, sometimes by sheer force of will; and as restrained: at war's end taking affront at the notion he should be King; and after two terms as President, stepping aside.

Washington became the exemplar of republican virtue in America. More than any American he was extolled for his great personal integrity, and a deeply held sense of duty, honour and patriotism. He is seen more as a character model than war hero or founding father. One of Washington's greatest achievements, in terms of republican values, was refraining from taking more power than was due. He was conscientious of maintaining a good reputation by avoiding political intrigue. He rejected nepotism or cronyism. Jefferson observed, "The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish."

Monuments and memorials

Washington is commemorated on the U.S. quarter.
Washington is commemorated on the U.S. quarter.

Today, Washington's face and image are often used as national symbols of the United States, along with the icons such as the flag and great seal. Perhaps the most pervasive commemoration of his legacy is the use of his image on the one-dollar bill and the quarter-dollar coin. Washington, together with Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, is depicted in stone at the Mount Rushmore Memorial.

Washington on Mt. Rushmore
Washington on Mt. Rushmore

Many things have been named in honour of Washington. George Washington is the namesake of the nation's capital, Washington, DC, and the State of Washington. Washington is the only state to be named for a president. The George Washington University and the Washington Monument, one of the most well-known American landmarks, were built in his honour.

Washington and slavery

For most of his life, Washington operated his plantations as a typical Virginia slave owner. In the 1760s, he dropped tobacco (which was prestigious but unprofitable) and shifted to wheat growing and diversified into milling flour, weaving cloth, and distilling brandy. By the time of his death, there were 317 slaves at Mount Vernon.

Before the American Revolution, Washington expressed no moral reservations about slavery, but, by 1778, he had stopped selling slaves without their consent because he did not want to break up slave families.

In 1778, while Washington was at war, he wrote to his manager at Mount Vernon that he wished to sell his slaves and "to get quit of negroes", since maintaining a large (and increasingly elderly) slave population was no longer economically efficient. Washington could not legally sell the "dower slaves", however, and because these slaves had long intermarried with his own slaves, he could not sell his slaves without breaking up families.

After the war, Washington often privately expressed a dislike of the institution of slavery. Despite these privately expressed misgivings, Washington never criticized slavery in public. In fact, as President, Washington brought nine household slaves to the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia. By Pennsylvania law, slaves who resided in the state became legally free after six months. Washington rotated his household slaves between Mount Vernon and Philadelphia so that they did not earn their freedom, a scheme he attempted to keep hidden from his slaves and the public and one which was, in fact, against the law.

Washington was the only prominent, slaveholding Founding Father to emancipate his slaves. He did not free his slaves in his lifetime, however, but instead included a provision in his will to free his slaves upon the death of his wife.

Washington's failure to act publicly upon his growing private misgivings about slavery during his lifetime is seen by some historians as a tragically missed opportunity. One major reason Washington did not emancipate his slaves earlier was because his economic well-being depended on the institution. He did not speak out publicly against slavery, argues historian Dorothy Twohig, because he did not wish to risk splitting apart the young republic over what was already a sensitive and divisive issue.

Religious beliefs

Washington was baptized as an infant into the Church of England. As a young man before the Revolution, when the Church of England was still the state religion, he served on the vestry (lay council) for his local church. Throughout his life, he spoke of the value of righteousness, and of seeking and offering thanks for the "blessings of Heaven". He was also a firm believer in the importance of religion for republican government. He endorsed religion rhetorically and in his 1796 Farewell Address remarked on its importance in building moral character in American citizenry, believing morality undergirded all public order and successful popular government. In a letter to George Mason in 1785, he wrote that he was not among those alarmed by a bill "making people pay towards the support of that [religion] which they profess", but felt that it was "impolitic" to pass such a measure, and wished it had never been proposed, believing that it would disturb public tranquility.

Early in Washington's presidency, he issued the first official National Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1789. In it he recommends that service should be given to "that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be." He exhorts the people in the young country to express their gratitude to God for his protection through the Revolutionary War, for the composition of the Constitution, and for their liberty. Washington calls the people of the United States to prayer and beseeches God to bless the new national government, "protect and guide," and to "grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best."

Washington sometimes accompanied his wife to Christian church services; however, there is no record of his ever becoming a communicant in any church, and he would regularly leave services before communion — with the other non-communicants, until he ceased attending at all on communion Sundays. Historians and biographers continue to debate the degree to which he can be counted as a Christian, and the degree to which he was a deist.

Washington was an early supporter of religious pluralism. In 1775, he ordered that his troops not show anti-Catholic sentiments by burning the pope in effigy on Guy Fawkes Night. When hiring workmen for Mount Vernon, he wrote to his agent, "If they be good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mohammedans ( Muslims), Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists."

Myths and misconceptions

  • An early biographer, Parson Weems, was the source of the famous story about young Washington cutting down a cherry tree and confessing this to his father, in an 1800 book entitled The Life of George Washington; With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen. Some historians believe Weems invented or greatly embellished the dialogue, while others build Weems credibility by citing the facts that he did interview older people who knew young Washington.
  • A popular belief is that Washington wore a wig, as was the fashion among some at the time. He did not wear a wig; he did, however, powder his hair, as represented in several portraits, including the well-known unfinished Gilbert Stuart depiction.
  • An old legend about Washington was that he threw or skipped a silver dollar across the Potomac River. One would need a strong arm to throw an object across the Potomac, for it is a few hundred meters wide at Mount Vernon. More likely he threw an object across the Rappahannock River, the river on which his childhood home stood.
  • Washington's teeth were not made out of wood, as was once commonly believed. They were made out of teeth from different kinds of animals, specifically elk, hippopotamus, and human. One set of his false teeth weighed almost four ounces (110 g) and were made out of lead.
  • A famous 1866 engraving depicts Washington praying at Valley Forge. In 1918, the Valley Forge Park Commission declined to erect a monument to the prayer because they could find no evidence that the event had occurred. In contrast, the Valley Forge Historical Society published an article in 1945 reviewing this issue and concludes that there is abundant evidence demonstrating that Washington was a prayerful and privately religious man although the second hand accounts of the tradition "lack ... the authentication with which the historian seeks to monument his recordings in all the solemnity of established fact."

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