George Washington

Washington, George (1732-99), commander in chief of the Continental army during the American Revolution, and later the first president of the United States. He symbolized qualities of discipline, aristocratic duty, military orthodoxy, and persistence in adversity that his contemporaries particularly valued as marks of mature political leadership.

Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the eldest son of Augustine Washington, a Virginia planter, and Mary Ball Washington. Although Washington had little or no formal schooling, his early notebooks indicate that he read in geography, military history, agriculture, deportment, and composition and that he showed some aptitude in surveying and simple mathematics. In later life he developed a style of speech and writing that, although not always polished, was marked by clarity and force. Tall, strong, and fond of action, he was a superb horseman and enjoyed the robust sports and social occasions of the Virginia planter society. At the age of 16 he was invited to join a party to survey lands owned by the Fairfax family (to which he was related by marriage) west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. His journey led him to take a lifelong interest in the development of western lands. In the summer of 1749 he was appointed official surveyor for Culpeper County, and during the next two years he made many surveys for landowners on the Virginia frontier. In 1753 he was appointed adjutant of one of the districts into which Virginia was divided, with the rank of major.

Early Military Experience Washington played an important role in the struggles preceding the outbreak of the French and Indian War. He was chosen by Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia to deliver an ultimatum calling on French forces to cease their encroachment in the Ohio River valley. The young messenger was also instructed to observe the strength of French forces, the location of their forts, and the routes by which they might be reinforced from Canada. After successfully completing this mission, Washington, then a lieutenant colonel, was ordered to lead a militia force for the protection of workers who were building a fort at the Forks of the Ohio River. Having learned that the French had ousted the work party and renamed the site Fort Duquesne, he entrenched his forces at a camp named Fort Necessity and awaited reinforcements. A successful French assault obliged him to accept articles of surrender, and he departed with the remnants of his company.

Washington resigned his commission in 1754, but in May 1755 he began service as a volunteer aide-de-camp to the British general Edward Braddock, who had been sent to Virginia with a force of British regulars. A few kilometers from Fort Duquesne, Braddock's men were ambushed by a band of French soldiers and Native Americans. Braddock was mortally wounded, and Washington, who behaved gallantly during the conflict, narrowly escaped death. In August 1755 he was appointed (with the rank of colonel) to command the Virginia regiment, charged with the defense of the long western frontier of the colony. War between France and Britain was officially declared in May 1756, and while the principal struggle moved to other areas, Washington succeeded in keeping the Virginia frontier relatively safe.

The American Revolution After the death of his elder half brother Lawrence, Washington inherited the plantation known as Mount Vernon. A spectacular rise in the price of tobacco during the 1730s and '40s, combined with his marriage in 1759 to Martha Custis, a young widow with a large estate, made him one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. Elected to the House of Burgesses in 1758, he served conscientiously but without special distinction for 17 years. He also gained political and administrative experience as justice of the peace for Fairfax County.

Like other Virginia planters, Washington became alarmed by the repressive measures of the British crown and Parliament in the 1760s and early '70s. In July 1774 he presided over a meeting in Alexandria that adopted the Fairfax Resolves, calling for the establishment and enforcement of a stringent boycott on British imports prior to similar action by the First Continental Congress. Together with his service in the House of Burgesses, his public response to unpopular British policies won Washington election as a Virginia delegate to the First Continental Congress in September and October 1774 and to the Second Continental Congress in 1775.

The Opening Campaigns of the War When fighting broke out between Massachusetts and the British in 1775, Congress named Washington commander of its newly created Continental army, hoping thus to promote unity between New England and Virginia. He took command of the makeshift force besieging the British in Boston in mid-July, and when the enemy evacuated the city in March 1776, he moved his army to New York. Defeated there in August by General William Howe, he withdrew from Manhattan to establish a new defensive line north of New York City. In November he retreated across the Hudson River into New Jersey, and a month later crossed the Delaware to safety in Pennsylvania.

Although demoralized by Howe's easy capture of New York City and northern New Jersey, Washington spotted the points where the British were overextended. Recrossing the icy Delaware on the night of December 25, 1776, he captured Trenton in a surprise attack the following morning, and on January 3, 1777, he defeated British troops at Princeton. These two engagements restored patriot morale, and by spring Washington had 8000 new recruits. Impressed by such tenacity, Howe delayed moving against Washington until late August, when he landed an army at the head of Chesapeake Bay. Wanting to fight, Washington tried unsuccessfully to block Howe's advance toward Philadelphia at the Battle of Brandywine Creek in September. Following the British occupation of the city, he fought a minor battle with them at Germantown, but their superior numbers forced him to retreat. Washington and his men spent the following winter at Valley Forge, west of Philadelphia. During these months, when his fortunes seemed to have reached their lowest point, he thwarted a plan by his enemies in Congress and the army to have him removed as commander in chief (see CONWAY CABAL).

In June 1778, after France's entry into the war on the American side, the new British commander, Sir Henry Clinton, evacuated Philadelphia and marched overland to New York; Washington attacked him at Monmouth, New Jersey, but was again repulsed. Washington blamed the defeat on General Charles Lee's insubordination during the battle—the climax of a long-brewing rivalry between the two men.

Victory Washington spent the next two years in relative inactivity with his army encamped in a long semicircle around the British bastion of New York City—from Connecticut to New Jersey. The arrival in 1780 of about 6000 French troops in Rhode Island under the comte de Rochambeau augmented his forces, but the weak U.S. government was approaching bankruptcy, and Washington knew that he had to defeat the British in 1781 or see his army disintegrate. He hoped for a combined American-French assault on New York, but in August he received word that a French fleet was proceeding to Cheseapeake Bay for a combined land and sea operation against another British army in Virginia, and reluctantly agreed to march south.

Washington and Rochambeau's movement of 7000 troops, half of them French, from New York State to Virginia in less than five weeks was a masterpiece of execution. Washington sent word ahead to the marquis de Lafayette, commanding American forces in Virginia, to keep the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, from leaving his base of operations at Yorktown. At the end of September the Franco-American army joined Lafayette. Outnumbering the British by two to one, and with 36 French ships offshore to prevent Yorktown from being relieved by sea, Washington forced Cornwallis to surrender in October after a brief siege. Although peace and British recognition of United States independence did not come for another two years, Yorktown proved to be the last major land battle of the Revolution.

Washington as a Military Leader Washington's contribution to American victory was enormous, and analysis of his leadership reveals much about the nature of the military and political conflict. Being selective about where and when he fought the British main force prevented his foes from using their strongest asset, the professionalism and discipline of their soldiers. At the same time, Washington remained a conventional military officer. He rejected proposals made by General Charles Lee early in the war for a decentralized guerrilla struggle. As a conservative, he shrank from the social dislocation and redistribution of wealth that such a conflict would cause; as a provincial gentleman, he was determined to show that American officers could be every bit as civilized and genteel as their European counterparts. The practical result of this caution and even inhibition was to preserve the Continental army as a visible manifestation of American government when allegiance to that government was tenuous.

Political Leadership In one of his last acts as commander, Washington issued a circular letter to the states imploring them to form a vibrant, vigorous national government. In 1783 he returned to Mount Vernon and became in the mid-1780s an enterprising and effective agriculturalist. Shays' Rebellion, an armed revolt in Massachusetts (1786-87), convinced many Americans of the need for a stronger government. Washington and other Virginia nationalists were instrumental in bringing about the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to promote that end. Elected as a delegate to the convention by the Virginia General Assembly, Washington was chosen its president. In this position he played virtually no role—either formal or behind the scenes—in the deliberations of the convention; however, his reticence and lack of intellectual flair may well have enhanced his objectivity in the eyes of the delegates, thereby contributing to the unselfconscious give and take that was the hallmark of the framers' deliberations. In addition, the probability that Washington would be the first president may have eased the task of designing that office. Washington's attendance at the Constitutional Convention and his support for ratification of the Constitution were critically important for its success in the state conventions that met in 1787 and 1788.

First Administration Elected president in 1788 and again in 1792, Washington presided over the formation and initial operation of the new government. His stiff dignity and sense of propriety postponed the emergence of the fierce partisanship that would characterize the administrations of his three immediate successors—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. He also made several decisions of far-reaching importance. He instituted the cabinet, although no such body was envisioned by the Constitution. He remained socially aloof from Congress, thus avoiding the development of court and opposition factions. By appointing Alexander Hamilton secretary of the treasury and Thomas Jefferson secretary of state, he brought the two ablest and most principled figures of the revolutionary generation into central positions of responsibility. Washington supported the innovations in fiscal policy proposed by Hamilton—a funded national debt, the creation of the Bank of the United States, assumption of state debts, and excise taxes, especially on whiskey, by which the federal government would assert its power to levy controversial taxes and import duties high enough to pay the interest on the new national debt. Similarly, he allowed Jefferson to pursue a policy of seeking trade and cooperation with all European nations. Washington did not foresee that Hamilton's and Jefferson's policies were ultimately incompatible. Hamilton's plan for an expanding national debt yielding an attractive rate of return for investors depended on a high level of trade with Britain generating enough import-duty revenue to service the debt. Hamilton therefore felt that he had to meddle in foreign policy to the extent of leaking secret dispatches to the British.

Second Administration The outbreak of war between revolutionary France and a coalition led by Britain, Prussia, and Austria in 1793 jeopardized American foreign policy and crippled Jefferson's rival foreign policy design. When the French envoy, Edmond Genêt, arrived in Charleston in April 1793 and began recruiting American privateers—and promising aid to land speculators who wanted French assistance in expelling Spain from the Gulf Coast—Washington insisted, over Jefferson's reservations, that the U.S. denounce Genêt and remain neutral in the war between France and Britain. Washington's anti-French leanings, coupled with the aggressive attitude of the new regime in France toward the U.S., thus served to bring about the triumph of Hamilton's pro-British foreign policy—formalized by Jay's Treaty of 1795, which settled outstanding American differences with Britain.

The treaty—which many Americans felt contained too many concessions to the British—touched off a storm of controversy. The Senate ratified it, but opponents in the House of Representatives tried to block appropriations to establish the arbitration machinery. In a rare display of political pugnacity, Washington challenged the propriety of the House tampering with treaty making. His belligerence on this occasion cost him his prized reputation as a leader above party, but it was also decisive in securing a 51-48 vote by the House to implement the treaty. Conscious of the value of his formative role in shaping the presidency and certainly stung by the invective hurled at advocates of the Jay Treaty, Washington carefully prepared a farewell address to mark the end of his presidency, calling on the U.S. to avoid both entangling alliances and party rancor.

After leaving office in 1797, Washington retired to Mount Vernon, where he died on December 14, 1799.

Evaluation Washington's place in the American mind is a fascinating chapter in the intellectual life of the nation. Washington provided his contemporaries with concrete evidence of the value of the citizen soldier, the enlightened gentleman farmer, and the realistic nationalist in stabilizing the culture and politics of the young republic. Shortly after the president's death, an Episcopal clergyman, Mason Locke Weems, wrote a fanciful life of Washington for children, stressing the great man's honesty, piety, hard work, patriotism, and wisdom. This book, which went through many editions, popularized the story that Washington as a boy had refused to lie in order to avoid punishment for cutting down his father's cherry tree. Washington long served as a symbol of American identity along with the flag, the Constitution, and the Fourth of July. The age of debunking biographies of American personages in the 1920s included a multivolume denigration of Washington by American author Rupert Hughes, which helped to distort Americans' understanding of their national origins. Both the hero worship and the debunking miss the essential point that his leadership abilities and his personal principles were exactly the ones that met the needs of his own generation. As later historians have examined closely the ideas of the Founding Fathers and the nature of warfare in the Revolution, they have come to the conclusion that Washington's specific contributions to the new nation were, if anything, somewhat underestimated by earlier scholarship.