A SHORT BIOGRAPHY OF GEORGE WASHINGTON

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George Washington, a Founding Father of the United States, led the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War and was America’s first president.

Who Was George Washington?

George Washington was a Virginia plantation owner who served as a general and commander-in-chief of the colonial armies during the American Revolutionary War, and later became the first president of the United States, serving from 1789 to 1797.

Early Life and Family

Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was the eldest of Augustine and Mary’s six children, all of whom survived into adulthood.

The family lived on Pope's Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia. They were moderately prosperous members of Virginia's "middling class."

Washington could trace his family's presence in North America to his great-grandfather, John Washington, who migrated from England to Virginia. The family held some distinction in England and was granted land by Henry VIII.

But much of the family’s wealth in England was lost under the Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell. In 1657 Washington’s grandfather, Lawrence Washington, migrated to Virginia. Little information is available about the family in North America until Washington’s father, Augustine, was born in 1694.

Augustine Washington was an ambitious man who acquired land and enslaved people, built mills, and grew tobacco. For a time, he had an interest in opening iron mines. He married his first wife, Jane Butler, and they had three children. Jane died in 1729 and Augustine married Mary Ball in 1731.

Mount Vernon

In 1735, Augustine moved the family up the Potomac River to another Washington family home, Little Hunting Creek Plantation — later renamed Mount Vernon. They moved again in 1738 to Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River, opposite Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Washington spent much of his youth.

Childhood and Education

Little is known about Washington's childhood, which fostered many of the fables later biographers manufactured to fill in the gap. Among these are the stories that Washington threw a silver dollar across the Potomac and after chopping down his father's prize cherry tree, he openly confessed to the crime. 

It is known that from age seven to 15, Washington was home-schooled and studied with the local church sexton and later a schoolmaster in practical math, geography, Latin and the English classics.

But much of the knowledge he would use the rest of his life was through his acquaintance with woodsmen and the plantation foreman. By his early teens, he had mastered growing tobacco, stock raising and surveying.

Washington’s father died when he was 11 and he became the ward of his half-brother, Lawrence, who gave him a good upbringing. Lawrence had inherited the family's Little Hunting Creek Plantation and married Anne Fairfax, the daughter of Colonel William Fairfax, patriarch of the well-to-do Fairfax family. Under her tutelage, Washington was schooled in the finer aspects of colonial culture. 

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, Washington received an appointment as the official surveyor of Culpeper County.

For two years he was very busy surveying the land in Culpeper, Frederick and Augusta counties. The experience made him resourceful and toughened his body and mind. It also piqued his interest in western land holdings, an interest that endured throughout his life with speculative land purchases and a belief that the future of the nation lay in colonizing the West.

In July 1752, Washington's brother, Lawrence, died of tuberculosis, making him the heir apparent of the Washington lands. Lawrence’s only child, Sarah, died two months later and Washington became the head of one of Virginia's most prominent estates, Mount Vernon. He was 20 years old.

Throughout his life, he would hold farming as one of the most honorable professions and he was most proud of Mount Vernon. Washington would gradually increase his landholdings there to about 8,000 acres.

Pre-Revolutionary Military Career

In the early 1750s, France and Britain were at peace. However, the French military had begun occupying much of the Ohio Valley, protecting the King's land interests, particularly fur trappers and French settlers. But the borderlands of this area were unclear and prone to dispute between the two countries. Washington showed early signs of natural leadership and shortly after Lawrence's death, Virginia's Lieutenant Governor, Robert Dinwiddie, appointed Washington adjutant with a rank of major in the Virginia militia.

French and Indian War

On October 31, 1753, Dinwiddie sent Washington to Fort LeBoeuf, at what is now Waterford, Pennsylvania, to warn the French to remove themselves from land claimed by Britain. The French politely refused and Washington made a hasty ride back to Williamsburg, Virginia's colonial capital.

Dinwiddie sent Washington back with troops and they set up a post at Great Meadows. Washington's small force attacked a French post at Fort Duquesne, killing the commander, Coulon de Jumonville, and nine others and taking the rest prisoners. The French and Indian War had begun.

The French counterattacked and drove Washington and his men back to his post at Great Meadows (later named "Fort Necessity.") After a full day siege, Washington surrendered and was soon released and returned to Williamsburg, promising not to build another fort on the Ohio River.

Though a little embarrassed at being captured, he was grateful to receive the thanks from the House of Burgesses and see his name mentioned in the London gazettes.

Washington was given the honorary rank of colonel and joined British General Edward Braddock's army in Virginia in 1755. The British had devised a plan for a three-prong assault on French forces attacking Fort Duquesne, Fort Niagara and Crown Point.

During the encounter, the French and their Indian allies ambushed Braddock, who was mortally wounded. Washington escaped injury with four bullet holes in his cloak and two horses shot out from under him. Though he fought bravely, he could do little to turn back the rout and led the defeated army back to safety.

Commander of Virginia Troops

In August 1755, Washington was made commander of all Virginia troops at age 23. He was sent to the frontier to patrol and protect nearly 400 miles of border with some 700 ill-disciplined colonial troops and a Virginia colonial legislature unwilling to support him.

It was a frustrating assignment. His health failed in the closing months of 1757 and he was sent home with dysentery.

In 1758, Washington returned to duty on another expedition to capture Fort Duquesne. A friendly-fire incident took place, killing 14 and wounding 26 of Washington's men. However, the British were able to score a major victory, capturing Fort Duquesne and control of the Ohio Valley.

Washington retired from his Virginia regiment in December 1758. His experience during the war was generally frustrating, with key decisions made slowly, poor support from the colonial legislature and poorly trained recruits.

Washington applied for a commission with the British army but was turned down. In 1758, he resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon disillusioned. The same year, he entered politics and was elected to Virginia's House of Burgesses.

George Washington: Presidency

Still hoping to retire to his beloved Mount Vernon, Washington was once again called upon to serve this country.

During the presidential election of 1789, he received a vote from every elector to the Electoral College, the only president in American history to be elected by unanimous approval. He took the oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City, the capital of the United States at the time.

As the first president, Washington was astutely aware that his presidency would set a precedent for all that would follow. He carefully attended to the responsibilities and duties of his office, remaining vigilant to not emulate any European royal court. To that end, he preferred the title "Mr. President," instead of more imposing names that were suggested.

At first he declined the $25,000 salary Congress offered the office of the presidency, for he was already wealthy and wanted to protect his image as a selfless public servant. However, Congress persuaded him to accept the compensation to avoid giving the impression that only wealthy men could serve as president.

Washington proved to be an able administrator. He surrounded himself with some of the most capable people in the country, appointing Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. He delegated authority wisely and consulted regularly with his cabinet listening to their advice before making a decision.

Washington established broad-ranging presidential authority, but always with the highest integrity, exercising power with restraint and honesty. In doing so, he set a standard rarely met by his successors, but one that established an ideal by which all are judged.

READ MORE: How George Washington’s Personal and Physical Characteristics Helped Him Win the Presidency

Accomplishments

During his first term, Washington adopted a series of measures proposed by Treasury Secretary Hamilton to reduce the nation's debt and place its finances on sound footing.

His administration also established several peace treaties with Native American tribes and approved a bill establishing the nation's capital in a permanent district along the Potomac River.

Whiskey Rebellion

Then, in 1791, Washington signed a bill authorizing Congress to place a tax on distilled spirits, which stirred protests in rural areas of Pennsylvania.

Quickly, the protests turned into a full-scale defiance of federal law known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington invoked the Militia Act of 1792, summoning local militias from several states to put down the rebellion.

Washington personally took command, marching the troops into the areas of rebellion and demonstrating that the federal government would use force, when necessary, to enforce the law. This was also the only time a sitting U.S. president has led troops into battle.

 

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