Washington, George (1732-1799)
George Washington was the first president of the United States and the “father of his country.” Washington fought for the Virginia colony early in the French and Indian War, and he later commanded the Continental Army in America’s fight for independence. He presided over the Constitutional Convention and served for two terms as president under the new Constitution of the United States. Washington was fervently committed to the cause of republicanism, which embraced the view that political liberty was an inalienable right. Indeed, he played leading roles in nearly every major event of America’s founding. As such, a number of historians have regarded his role as indispensable in delivering liberty to America.
Washington was born in 1732 at Wakefield Plantation, Virginia, to Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington. Theirs was a gentry, planter family. Augustine died in 1743 when George was just 11. George then went off to live with his older brother Lawrence, who served as his mentor and a surrogate father. Lawrence had married into the Fairfax family, who were prominent in Virginia. The Fairfaxes helped launch George Washington’s career as a land surveyor, and it was on behalf of Lord Thomas Fairfax that Washington surveyed the Shenandoah Valley.
In need of someone with a strong knowledge of Virginia’s geography west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Robert Dimwittie, acting governor of Virginia, appointed George, then 22 years old, to lead an expedition to challenge the French, who had claimed American territories in the Allegheny River Valley. The French and Indian War emerged out of this and similar disputes.
Washington faced major setbacks early in his military career. The French defeated his forces at Fort Necessity, Pennsylvania, in 1754. In the following year, as the war between Britain and France continued, General Edward Braddock commanded Washington, now a colonel, on another expedition to the forks of the Ohio. Braddock’s forces were defeated at the Battle of the Monongahela, where the general was critically wounded and died shortly thereafter. George Washington, reputed to have been fearless in battle, was nearly killed there.
In 1758, under the command of Brigadier General John Forbes, Washington finally achieved victory against the French at Fort Duquesne. During the 5 years that he was involved in the French and Indian War, Washington honed his military skills, learned the intricacies of British and French warfare, and became a war hero in America and Great Britain.
Convinced that the French no longer threatened the Virginia frontier, in 1758, Washington left the army and returned to his home at Mount Vernon. In 1759, he married Martha Dandridge Custis, who was recently widowed and left with two young children whom Washington raised as his own. George and Martha would have no biological children of their own. In the same year, Washington first entered politics by being elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses, where he served until 1774. There he first became embroiled in Virginia’s struggle against Great Britain’s heavy-handed colonial policies. In part because of the vast expenses of the French and Indian War, Britain had levied a string of new taxes on the American colonies, which angered the colonists. In 1774–1775, Washington served as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, and in June 1775, Congress unanimously chose him as Commander and Chief of the Continental Army. On July 3, 1775, Washington assumed command of the American army that had surrounded British-occupied Boston. He then devoted his time and effort to training and disciplining his troops and securing much-needed supplies in order to prosecute the war for America’s independence.
The war’s early years were difficult ones for the American forces, particularly for Washington. In November 1776, British General William Howe was successful in driving Washington’s forces from New York. However, his luck soon turned; on Christmas night, 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware to surprise Hessian forces and capture Trenton. Less than 2 weeks later, he secured Princeton. This good fortune did not last, however. In September and October 1777, Washington lost Brandywine and Germantown, Pennsylvania. The result was that Washington and his troops were forced to suffer a brutal winter in 1777 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
A crucial reversal of fortune came in 1778 when France entered the war in support of America’s independence. The Prussian Baron von Steuben trained Washington’s troops at Valley Forge, and with the help of the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington snatched at least a draw from the jaws of defeat at the battle of Monmouth. The French army arrived in 1780 to help Washington secure victory over British Lord Charles Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown and ensure America’s ultimate victory in the war. Britain formally recognized America’s independence in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. After the war, some of Washington’s officers wanted to make him king, but Washington declined the position for both personal and ideological reasons. Instead, he determined to retire to Mount Vernon. If he did that, King George III said Washington would be the “greatest man in the world.” And indeed, he did.
Washington reentered politics when, in 1787, he was unanimously elected presiding officer at the Constitutional Convention, meeting in Philadelphia. The prestige that Washington lent to Constitutional deliberations helped ensure that the states would ratify the product of the Convention’s proceedings. The delegates at the Convention desired Washington to be the first president under the new Constitution. Indeed, in retrospect, some historians have concluded that the office was created with him in mind.
Somewhat reluctantly, Washington assumed the presidency in New York City on April 30, 1789. Although he wanted to retire after his first term, the Electoral College unanimously reelected him in 1792. After completing his second term in 1797, Washington voluntarily relinquished power, establishing the precedents of the two-term presidency and the peaceful transfer of power between administrations. He died on December 14, 1799, at Mount Vernon, Virginia.
In politics, Washington was, like his fellow Whig American founders, fervently committed to the cause of republicanism. Harvard professor and historian Bernard Bailyn traces the ideological origins of America’s founding-era republican thought to the following principal sources: Classical Greco-Roman antiquity; Biblical theology; English common law; Enlightenment rationalism, and the writings of British Whig theorists like Algernon Sidney, John Locke, and Joseph Priestly.
Although not as well read or well spoken as Hamilton, Jefferson, or Madison, Washington had embraced the republican philosophy of the founding era. His 1783 Circular to the Statescaptured this “Whig” ideology, a synthesis of classical, biblical, common law, and rationalistic thought. “The foundation of our Empire,” he wrote,
was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society.
Washington, like the authors of The Federalist Papers, had a particular affinity for ancient Rome. His favorite play was Joseph Addison’s 1713 work about the implacable enemy of tyranny, Cato the Younger, and throughout his life, he saw the play numerous times. He commonly quoted from it and had it performed before his troops at Valley Forge. The play concerns the Roman Senator who committed suicide rather than submit to the tyranny of Julius Caesar. Washington’s stoic sense of honor developed, in large part, from the profound influence this play had on his character.
As did the other republicans of his day, Washington ardently believed in the cause of political liberty. To our founders, liberty, in its broad and abstract sense, had a metaphysical quality to it, a God-given, inalienable right. As Washington put it in his first inaugural address, liberty was a “sacred fire” that the American people were entrusted to preserve.
The notion that men had an inalienable right to political liberty was one of the hallmarks of Whig ideology and Enlightenment thought. In his Farewell Address, Washington asserted that “public opinion should be enlightened,” and that “[i]t will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period a great nation to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.”
Enlightenment writers also contributed to Washington’s belief that men of all religions—Christian or non-Christian, orthodox or heterodox—should possess full and equal rights under the laws of the United States. That religious liberty was granted to all Americans, at least at the federal level, was unprecedented. As Washington wrote on January 27, 1793, to the New Church in Baltimore, whose founder, Emanuel Swedenborg, taught novel doctrines not in accord with prevailing Christian orthodoxy:
We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. In this enlightened Age & in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets, will not forfeit his protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining & holding the highest offices that are known in the United States.
As president, Washington governed largely in accord with his republican ideals. In his biography of Washington, Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington, Peter Henriques identifies Washington’s presidential goals as “national unity, social stability, sound money, and flourishing commerce.” Faced with the task of building a nation out of a collection of states, Washington sought to unify the separate states under a new Constitution that granted the central government far more power and authority than had prevailed under the Articles of Confederation. A number of founders, most notably Patrick Henry, regarded the expanded, centralized powers of the Constitution as betraying the spirit of the Revolution. However, Washington thought a stronger national government was necessary to preserve individual and states’ rights.
During his presidency, he cautioned against America’s becoming involved in foreign entanglements. The advice Washington gave in his Farewell Address underscored his presidential policies of neutrality and diplomacy:
The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest… . The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.
In part because of differences over foreign policy, organized political parties had begun to emerge during Washington’s administration. This development disturbed Washington, who, in his Farewell Address, admonished the parties to put aside their differences and unite for the common good.
Perhaps the most important precedent Washington established as president was his decision to step down after completing his second term. Thereafter, power would be transferred peacefully from one administration to the next, and no president would serve more than two terms. No American president violated this precedent until Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. The 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951, which states “[n]o person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice … ,” effectively enshrined Washington’s precedent into law.
Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1967, 1992.
Brookhiser, Richard. Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. New York: Free Press, 1996.
Fitzpatrick, John C., ed. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745–99. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937.
Flexner, James Thomas. Washington: The Indispensable Man. New York: Signet, 1984.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington: A Biography. 7 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948–1957.
Henriques, Peter R. Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2006.
McCullough, David G. 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.
Originally published .