George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and first president of the United States, was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia. The son of a prosperous farmer, George received schooling until age 16, did not attend college, and became a surveyor. He was appointed an adjutant-general at age 19 and in 1754, fought in the Battle of Great Meadows at the inception of the French and Indian War. He was compelled to surrender Fort Necessity in that conflict and later resigned his commission. Nevertheless, in 1755, he joined Edward Braddock before Braddock's stunning defeat in western Pennsylvania and made a remarkable escape. He later commanded the Virginia militia in the West and accompanied John Forbes in the capture of Fort Duquesne. In 1759, George Washington's life changed dramatically: He married Martha Custis and also was elected to the House of Burgesses. George Washington's greatest pleasure was his life as a planter at his Mount Vernon estate. In addition, George Washington was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, and received from the latter the appointment as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.
In response to his appointment as commander-in-chief, Washington wrote back to Congress on July 16, 1775:
As to pay, sir, I beg to assure the Congress that, as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to accept this arduous employment, at the expense of my domestic ease and happiness, I do not wish to make any profit from it. I will keep an exact account of my expenses. These, Idoubt not, they will discharge; and that is all I desire.In July 1775, George Washington assumed charge of the soldiers at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and gained early success by forcing the British out of Boston. American prospects worsened with a string of defeats at Brooklyn, New York, White Plains, Fort Washington, and the retreat across New Jersey. Spirits of the soldiers and the populace at large were buoyed by Washington's surprise at Trenton and victory at Princeton late in 1776.
The Continental Army suffered defeats at Brandywine and Germantown in 1777, but in the process managed to tie up British forces in Pennsylvania and deny them the opportunity to link up with General Burgoyne in upstate New York. Washington's forces spent the winter of 1777-78 in abject misery at Valley Forge. In June 1778, George Washington demonstrated his leadership by rallying the forces at the Battle of Monmouth.
During the war, Washington sent a letter to Gouverneur Morris, expressing his concern that too many European military officers were being brought to America, where he was having trouble putting them to good use since Americans did not generally like serving under foreign officers. In the last years of the war, the focus was primarily on events in the south. Washington's final military contribution occurred in 1781 when he led the soldiers in a rapid march from the Hudson River to Chesapeake Bay, setting the stage for the final victory at Yorktown. The Continental Army endured through the war under trying conditions with limited financial support from Congress. Major John Armstrong, in what is referred to as the "Newburgh Address," suggested to army that it would be reasonable for them to take what was owed them if the government would not fulfill its obligations. Washington responded with an address to the officers, in which he cautioned them on both practical and moral grounds against such action, stating:
While I give you these assurances, and pledge myself in the most unequivocal manner to exert whatever ability I am possessed of in your favor, let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained; ...As he was waiting for the British to leave New York City, Washington composed a letter to the state governors, outlining his views on the future of the new nation:
There are four things, which I humbly conceive, are essential to the well being, I may even venture to say, to the existence of the United States as an Independent Power: First, an indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal Head. Second,a Sacred regard to Public Justice. Third, the adoption of a proper Peace Establishment, and Fourth, the prevalence of that pacific and friendly Disposition, among the People of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community.Washington resigned his commission on December 23, 1783.
The victorious general agreed to serve as presiding officer at the Constitutional Convention, which reflected his displeasure over the weakness of the Articles of Confederation government. Following ratification of the new Constitution, Washington was unanimously elected president and took the oath of office in New York City on April 30, 1789.
As president, George Washington was responsible for establishing the procedures for running the new government, many of which govern events today. He conducted several tours of the country and received the adulation of a grateful new country.
Much to the president's displeasure, partisan politics emerged in a contest between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Washington's popularity hit a major snag in 1795, involving Jay's Treaty with Britain and he was the target of unsparing criticism from such Republican newspaper critics as Benjamin Bache. In September 1796, George Washington issued his Farewell Address to the nation, a statement that was published in newspapers and not delivered as a speech.
George Washington signed his last will and testament five months before his death. Provisions of the will provided for funds to endow a national university, which never came to pass. He also insisted that his slaves be freed upon the death of his wife Martha. Popular culture has sometimes unnecessarily ascribed to Washington events and characteristics that have no historical basis. Without question, George Washington was a man of high moral stature and one of America's leading historical figures, but some early biographers have insisted on gilding the lily, probably in an effort to set a good example for posterity.
George Washington's greatest political legacy stemmed from his ability to convince a suspicious populace that a prosperous and peaceful future was better assured by a regulated federal government than by independent states.
Horatio Greenough, a young sculptor from Massachusetts, was given a commission in 1833 to carve a marble statue of Washington. He delivered the statue in 1843 and it was immediately criticized for its presentation of Washington wearing a Roman toga and seated on a throne. The statue was eventually moved to the Smithsonian Institution.