George Washington

George Washington

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George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and first president of the United States, was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia. 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. 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, andFourth, 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.

George Washington—Facts, Information and History on the Life of the 1st U.S. President

George Washington summary: George Washington is best known as the leader of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War , one of America’s first Founders, and the first president of the United States. He was born in February 22, 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia in 1732. As a young man, he was a surveyor. His military career began with his involvement with the Virginia militia, including a notorious mission he undertook on October 31, 1753, to deliver a message to the French in the Ohio Valley from Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie he almost lost his life on the return trip home after he fell from a raft into the icy waters of the Allegheny River. In August 1755, at the mere age of 23, he was given command of the Virginia militia forces due to his heroism. He resigned in December 1758 and returned to his home, Mount Vernon. He married a rich widow, Martha Custis, later that year.

While Washington focused on his farming for the next few years, eventually expanding his 2,000 acre farm to 8,000 acres, he also became involved in politics. In 1758, he was elected into the Virginia House of Burgesses, and in 1774, he was one of Virginia’s representatives in the Continental Congress. When the Revolutionary War began, Washington became the Continental Army’s commander in chief. He was elected as the first president of the United States in 1789. Washington laid the foundations for the role of a president during his first term he served a second term, during which his focus was foreign affairs. He refused a third term, and retired to Mount Vernon in 1797 he died two years later.


Virginia's Royal Governor, Robert Dinwiddie, appointed Washington a major in the provincial militia in February 1753. [1] [2] In that year the French began expanding their military control into the "Ohio Country", a territory also claimed by the British colonies of Virginia and Pennsylvania. These competing claims led to a world war 1756–63 (called the French and Indian War in the colonies and the Seven Years' War in Europe) and Washington was at the center of its beginning. The Ohio Company was one vehicle through which British investors planned to expand into the territory, opening new settlements and building trading posts for the Indian trade. Governor Dinwiddie received orders from the British government to warn the French of British claims, and sent Major Washington in late 1753 to deliver a letter informing the French of those claims and asking them to leave. [3] Washington also met with Tanacharison (also called "Half-King") and other Iroquois leaders allied to Virginia at Logstown to secure their support in case of conflict with the French Washington and Half-King became friends and allies. Washington delivered the letter to the local French commander, who politely refused to leave. [4]

Governor Dinwiddie sent Washington back to the Ohio Country to protect an Ohio Company group building a fort at present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Before he reached the area, a French force drove out the company's crew and began construction of Fort Duquesne. With Mingo allies led by Tanacharison, Washington and some of his militia unit ambushed a French scouting party of some 30 men, led by Joseph Coulon de Jumonville Jumonville was killed, and there are contradictory accounts of his death. [5] The French responded by attacking and capturing Washington at Fort Necessity in July 1754. [6] He was allowed to return with his troops to Virginia. The experience demonstrated Washington's bravery, initiative, inexperience and impetuosity. [7] [8] These events had international consequences the French accused Washington of assassinating Jumonville, who they claimed was on a diplomatic mission similar to Washington's 1753 mission. [9] Both France and Britain responded by sending troops to North America in 1755, although war was not formally declared until 1756. [10]

Braddock disaster 1755 Edit

In 1755, Washington was the senior Colonial aide to British General Edward Braddock on the ill-fated Braddock Expedition. This was at the time the largest ever British military expedition ventured into the colonies, and was intended to expel the French from the Ohio Country. The French and their Indian allies ambushed the expedition, mowing down over 900 casualties including the mortally wounded Braddock. During what became known as the Battle of the Monongahela, British troops retreated in disarray but Washington rode back and forth across the battlefield, rallying the remnants of the British and Virginian forces to an organized retreat. [11] [12]

Commander of Virginia Regiment Edit

Governor Dinwiddie rewarded Washington in 1755 with a commission as "Colonel of the Virginia Regiment and Commander in Chief of all forces now raised in the defense of His Majesty's Colony" and gave him the task of defending Virginia's frontier. The Virginia Regiment was the first full-time American military unit in the colonies (as opposed to part-time militias and the British regular units). Washington was ordered to "act defensively or offensively" as he thought best. [13] In command of a thousand soldiers, Washington was a disciplinarian who emphasized training. He led his men in brutal campaigns against the Indians in the west in 10 months units of his regiment fought 20 battles, and lost a third of its men. Washington's strenuous efforts meant that Virginia's frontier population suffered less than that of other colonies Ellis concludes "it was his only unqualified success" in the war. [14] [15]

In 1758, Washington participated in the Forbes Expedition to capture Fort Duquesne. He was embarrassed by a friendly fire episode in which his unit and another British unit thought the other was the French enemy and opened fire, with 14 dead and 26 wounded in the mishap. In the end there was no real fighting for the French abandoned the fort and the British scored a major strategic victory, gaining control of the Ohio Valley. Upon his return to Virginia, Washington resigned his commission in December 1758, and did not return to military life until the outbreak of the revolution in 1775. [16]

Although Washington never gained the commission in the British army he yearned for, in these years he gained valuable military, political, and leadership skills, [17] and received significant public exposure in the colonies and abroad. [9] [18] He closely observed British military tactics, gaining a keen insight into their strengths and weaknesses that proved invaluable during the Revolution. He demonstrated his toughness and courage in the most difficult situations, including disasters and retreats. He developed a command presence—given his size, strength, stamina, and bravery in battle, he appeared to soldiers to be a natural leader and they followed him without question. [19] [20] Washington learned to organize, train, and drill, and discipline his companies and regiments. From his observations, readings and conversations with professional officers, he learned the basics of battlefield tactics, as well as a good understanding of problems of organization and logistics. [21] He developed a very negative idea of the value of militia, who seemed too unreliable, too undisciplined, and too short-term compared to regulars. [22] On the other hand, his experience was limited to command of about 1,000 men, and came only in remote frontier conditions. [23]

Lessons learned Edit

Washington never gained the commission in the British army that he yearned for, but in these years he gained valuable military, political, and leadership skills, [24] closely observing their tactics, gaining a keen insight into their strengths and weaknesses that proved invaluable during the Revolution. He learned the basics of battlefield tactics from his observations, readings, and conversations with professional officers, as well as a good understanding of problems of organization and logistics. [25] He gained an understanding of overall strategy, especially in locating strategic geographical points. [26]

Washington demonstrated his resourcefulness and courage in the most difficult situations, including disasters and retreats. He developed a command presence, given his size, strength, stamina, and bravery in battle, which demonstrated to soldiers that he was a natural leader whom they could follow without question. [27] Washington's fortitude in his early years was sometimes manifested in less constructive ways. Biographer John R. Alden contends that Washington offered "fulsome and insincere flattery to British generals in vain attempts to win great favor" and on occasion showed youthful arrogance, as well as jealousy and ingratitude in the midst of impatience. [28]

As political tensions rose in the colonies, Washington in June 1774 chaired the meeting at which the "Fairfax Resolves" were adopted, which called for, among other things, the convening of a Continental Congress. In August, Washington attended the First Virginia Convention, where he was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. [29] As tensions rose further in 1774, he assisted in the training of county militias in Virginia and organized enforcement of the boycott of British goods instituted by the Congress. [30] [31]

Boston Edit

After the Battles of Lexington and Concord near Boston in April 1775, the colonies went to war. Washington appeared at the Second Continental Congress in a military uniform, signaling that he was prepared for war. [32] Congress created the Continental Army on June 14, 1775. He was nominated by John Adams of Massachusetts, who chose him in part because he was a Virginian and would thus draw the southern colonies into the conflict. [33] [34] [35] Congress appointed George Washington "General & Commander in chief of the army of the United Colonies and of all the forces raised or to be raised by them", and instructed him on June 22, 1775, to take charge of the siege of Boston. [36]

Washington assumed command of the colonial forces outside Boston on July 3, 1775 (coincidentally making July 4 his first full day as commander-in-chief), during the ongoing siege of Boston. His first steps were to establish procedures and to fashion what had begun as militia regiments into an effective fighting force. [37]

When inventory returns exposed a dangerous shortage of gunpowder, Washington asked for new sources. British arsenals were raided (including some in the West Indies) and some manufacturing was attempted a barely adequate supply (about 2.5 million pounds) was obtained by the end of 1776, mostly from France. [38] In search of heavy weapons, he sent Henry Knox on an expedition to Fort Ticonderoga to retrieve cannons that had been captured there. [39] He resisted repeated calls from Congress to launch attacks against the British in Boston, calling war councils that supported the decisions against such action. [40] Before the Continental Navy was established in November 1775 he, without Congressional authorization, began arming a "secret navy" to prey on poorly protected British transports and supply ships. [41] When Congress authorized an invasion of Quebec, [42] Washington authorized Benedict Arnold to lead a force from Cambridge to Quebec City through the wilderness of present-day Maine. [43]

As the siege dragged on, the matter of expiring enlistments became a matter of serious concern. [44] Washington tried to convince Congress that enlistments longer than one year were necessary to build an effective fighting force, but he was rebuffed in this effort. The 1776 establishment of the Continental Army only had enlistment terms of one year, a matter that would again be a problem in late 1776. [45] [46]

Washington finally forced the British to withdraw from Boston by putting Henry Knox's artillery on Dorchester Heights overlooking the city, and preparing in detail to attack the city from Cambridge if the British tried to assault the position. [47] The British evacuated Boston and sailed away, although Washington did not know they were headed for Halifax, Nova Scotia. [48] Believing they were headed for New York City (which was indeed Major General William Howe's eventual destination), Washington rushed most of the army there. [49]

Defeated at New York City Edit

Washington's success in Boston was not repeated in New York. Recognizing the city's importance as a naval base and gateway to the Hudson River, he delegated the task of fortifying New York to Charles Lee in February 1776. [50] Despite the city's poor defensibility, Congress insisted that Washington defend it. The faltering military campaign in Quebec also led to calls for additional troops there, and Washington detached six regiments northward under John Sullivan in April. [51]

Washington had to deal with his first major command controversy while in New York, which was partially a product of regional friction. New England troops serving in northern New York under General Philip Schuyler, a scion of an old patroon family of New York, objected to his aristocratic style, and their Congressional representatives lobbied Washington to replace Schuyler with Horatio Gates. Washington tried to quash the issue by giving Gates command of the forces in Quebec, but the collapse of the Quebec expedition brought renewed complaints. [52] Despite Gates' experience, Washington personally preferred Schuyler, and put Gates in a role subordinate to Schuyler. The episode exposed Washington to Gates' desire for advancement, possibly at his expense, and to the latter's influence in Congress. [53]

General Howe's army, reinforced by thousands of additional troops from Europe and a fleet under the command of his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, began arriving off New York in early July, and made an unopposed landing on Staten Island. [54] Without intelligence about Howe's intentions, Washington was forced to divide his still poorly trained forces, principally between Manhattan and Long Island. [55]

In August, the British finally launched their campaign to capture New York City. They first landed on Long Island in force, and flanked Washington's forward positions in the Battle of Long Island. Howe refused to act on a significant tactical advantage that could have resulted in the capture of the remaining Continental troops on Long Island, but he chose instead to besiege their positions. [56] In the face of a siege he seemed certain to lose, Washington then decided to withdraw. In what some historians call one of his greatest military feats, executed a nighttime withdrawal from Long Island across the East River to Manhattan to save those troops. [57]

The Howe brothers then paused to consolidate their position, and the admiral engaged in a fruitless peace conference with Congressional representatives on September 11. Four days later the British landed on Manhattan, scattering inexperienced militia into a panicked retreat, and forcing Washington to retreat further. [57] After Washington stopped the British advance up Manhattan at Harlem Heights on September 16, Howe again made a flanking maneuver, landing troops at Pell's Point in a bid to cut off Washington's avenue of retreat. To defend against this move, Washington withdrew most of his army to White Plains, where after a short battle on October 28 he retreated further north. This isolated the remaining Continental Army troops in upper Manhattan, so Howe returned to Manhattan and captured Fort Washington in mid November, taking almost 3,000 prisoners. Four days later, Fort Lee, across the Hudson River from Fort Washington, was also taken. Washington brought much of his army across the Hudson into New Jersey, but was immediately forced to retreat by the aggressive British advance. [58] During the campaign a general lack of organization, shortages of supplies, fatigue, sickness, and above all, lack of confidence in the American leadership resulted in a melting away of untrained regulars and frightened militia. Washington grumbled, "The honor of making a brave defense does not seem to be sufficient stimulus, when the success is very doubtful, and the falling into the Enemy's hands probable." [59]

Counterattack in New Jersey Edit

After the loss of New York, Washington's army was in two pieces. One detachment remained north of New York to protect the Hudson River corridor, while Washington retreated across New Jersey into Pennsylvania, chased by General Charles, Earl Cornwallis. [60] Spirits were low, popular support was wavering, and Congress had abandoned Philadelphia, fearing a British attack. [61] Washington ordered General Gates to bring troops from Fort Ticonderoga, and also ordered General Lee's troops, which he had left north of New York City, to join him. [62]

Despite the loss of troops due to desertion and expiring enlistments, Washington was heartened by a rise in militia enlistments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. [63] These militia companies were active in circumscribing the furthest outposts of the British, limiting their ability to scout and forage. [64] Although Washington did not coordinate this resistance, he took advantage of it to organize an attack on an outpost of Hessians in Trenton. [65] On the night of December 25–26, 1776, Washington led his forces across the Delaware River and surprised the Hessian garrison the following morning, capturing 1,000 Hessians. [66]

This action significantly boosted the army's morale, but it also brought Cornwallis out of New York. He reassembled an army of more than 6,000 men, and marched most of them against a position Washington had taken south of Trenton. Leaving a garrison of 1,200 at Princeton, Cornwallis then attacked Washington's position on January 2, 1777, and was three times repulsed before darkness set in. [67] During the night Washington evacuated the position, masking his army's movements by instructing the camp guards to maintain the appearance of a much larger force. [68] Washington then circled around Cornwallis's position with the intention of attacking the Princeton garrison. [69]

On January 3, Hugh Mercer, leading the American advance guard, encountered British soldiers from Princeton under the command of Charles Mawhood. The British troops engaged Mercer and in the ensuing battle, Mercer was mortally wounded. Washington sent reinforcements under General John Cadwalader, which were successful in driving Mawhood and the British from Princeton, with many of them fleeing to Cornwallis in Trenton. The British lost more than one quarter of their force in the battle, and American morale rose with the great victory. [70]

These unexpected victories drove the British back to the New York City area, and gave a dramatic boost to Revolutionary morale. [71] During the winter, Washington, based in winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey, loosely coordinated a low-level militia war against British positions in New Jersey, combining the actions of New Jersey and Pennsylvania militia companies with careful use of Continental Army resources to harry and harass the British and German troops quartered in New Jersey. [72]

Washington's mixed performance in the 1776 campaigns had not led to significant criticism in Congress. [73] Before fleeing Philadelphia for Baltimore in December, Congress granted Washington powers that have ever since been described as "dictatorial". [74] The successes in New Jersey nearly deified Washington in the eyes of some Congressmen, and the body became much more deferential to him as a result. [75] Washington's performance also received international notice: Frederick the Great, one of the greatest military minds, wrote that "the achievements of Washington [at Trenton and Princeton] were the most brilliant of any recorded in the history of military achievements." [76]

Loss of Philadelphia Edit

In May 1777, the British resumed military operations, with General Howe attempting without success to draw Washington from his defensive position in New Jersey's Watchung Mountains, while General John Burgoyne led an army south from Quebec toward Albany, New York. [77] Following Burgoyne's capture of Fort Ticonderoga without resistance in early July, General Howe boarded a large part of his army on transports and sailed off, leaving Washington mystified as to his destination. [78] [79] Washington dispatched some of his troops north to assist in Albany's defense, and moved most of the rest his forces south of Philadelphia when it became clear that was Howe's target. [80]

Congress, at the urging of its diplomatic representatives in Europe, had also issued military commissions to a number of European soldiers of fortune in early 1777. Two of those recommended by Silas Deane, the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Conway, would prove to be important in Washington's activities. [81] [82] Lafayette, just twenty years old, was at first told that Deane had exceeded his authority in offering him a major general's commission, but offered to volunteer in the army at his own expense. [83] Washington and Lafayette took an instant liking to one another when they met, and Lafayette became one of Washington's most trusted generals and confidants. [84] Conway, on the other hand, did not think highly of Washington's leadership, and proved to be a source of trouble in the 1777 campaign season and its aftermath. [85]

General Howe landed his troops south of Philadelphia at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay, and turned Washington's flank at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. After further maneuvers, Washington was forced to retreat away from the city, allowing British troops to march unopposed into Philadelphia on September 26. Washington's failure to defend the capital brought on a storm of criticism from Congress, which fled the city for York, and from other army officers. In part to silence his critics, Washington planned an elaborate assault on an exposed British base in Germantown. [86] [87] The October 4 Battle of Germantown failed in part due to the complexity of the assault, and the inexperience of the militia forces employed in it. [88] Over 400 of Washington's troops were captured, including Colonel George Mathews and the entire 9th Virginia Regiment. [89] It did not help that Adam Stephen, leading one of the branches of the attack, was drunk, and broke from the agreed-upon plan of attack. [88] He was court martialed and cashiered from the army. Historian Robert Leckie observes that the battle was a near thing, and that a small number of changes might have resulted in a decisive victory for Washington. [90]

Meanwhile, Burgoyne, out of reach from help from Howe, was trapped and forced to surrender his entire army on October 17, ten days after the Battle of Bemis Heights. [91] The victory made a hero of General Gates, who received the adulation of Congress. [92] While this was taking place Washington presided from a distance over the loss of control of the Delaware River to the British, and marched his army to its winter quarters at Valley Forge in December. [93] Washington chose Valley Forge, over recommendations that he camp either closer or further from Philadelphia, because it was close enough to monitor British army movements, and protected rich farmlands to the west from the enemy's foraging expeditions. [94]

Valley Forge Edit

Washington's army stayed at Valley Forge for the next six months. [95] Over the winter, approximately 2,500–3,000 out of 11,000 men died (although estimates vary) from disease and exposure. The army's difficulties were exacerbated by a number of factors, including a quartermaster's department that had been badly mismanaged by one of Washington's political opponents, Thomas Mifflin, and the preference of farmers and merchants to sell their goods to the British, who paid in sterling silver currency instead of the nearly worthless Continental paper currency. [96] [97] Profiteers also sought to benefit at the army's expense, charging it 1,000 times what they charged civilians for the same goods. Congress authorized Washington to seize supplies needed for the army, but he was reluctant to use such authority, since it smacked of the tyranny the war was supposedly being fought over. [96]

During the winter he introduced a full-scale training program supervised by Baron von Steuben, a veteran of the Prussian general staff. Despite the hardships the army suffered, this program was a remarkable success, and Washington's army emerged in the spring of 1778 a much more disciplined force. [98]

Washington himself had to face discontent at his leadership from a variety of sources. His loss of Philadelphia prompted some members of Congress to discuss removing him from command. [99] They were prodded along by Washington's detractors in the military, who included Generals Gates, Mifflin, and Conway. [100] Gates in particular was viewed by Conway and Congressmen Benjamin Rush and Richard Henry Lee as a desirable replacement for Washington. [101] [102] Although there is no evidence of a formal conspiracy, the episode is known as the Conway Cabal because the scale of the discontent within the army was exposed by a critical letter from Conway to Gates, some of whose contents were relayed to Washington. [103] Washington exposed the criticisms to Congress, and his supporters, within Congress and the army, rallied to support him. [104] Gates eventually apologized for his role in the affair, and Conway resigned. [105] [106] Washington's position and authority were not seriously challenged again. Biographer Ron Chernow points out that Washington's handling of the episode demonstrated that he was "a consummate political infighter" who maintained his temper and dignity while his opponents schemed. [100]

French entry into the war Edit

The victory at Saratoga (and to some extent Washington's near success at Germantown) were influential in convincing France to enter the war openly as an American ally. French entry into the war changed its dynamics, for the British were no longer sure of command of the seas and had to worry about an invasion of their home islands and other colonial territories across the globe. The British, now under the command of General Sir Henry Clinton, 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. Prior to the battle Washington gave command of the advance forces to Charles Lee, who had been exchanged earlier in the year. Lee, despite firm instructions from Washington, refused Lafayette's suggestion to launch an organized attack on the British rear, and then retreated when the British turned to face him. When Washington arrived at the head of the main army, he and Lee had an angry exchange of words, and Washington ordered Lee off the command. Washington, with his army's tactics and ability to execute improved by the training programs of the previous winter, was able to recover, and fought the British to a draw. Lee was court martialed and eventually dismissed from the army. [107]

The war in the north was effectively stalemated for the next few years. The British successfully defended Newport, Rhode Island against a Franco-American invasion attempt that was frustrated by bad weather and difficulties in cooperation between the allies. [108] [109] British and Indian forces organized and supported by Sir Frederick Haldimand in Quebec began to raid frontier settlements in 1778, and Savannah, Georgia was captured late in the year. [110] In response to the frontier activity Washington organised a major expedition against the Iroquois in the summer of 1779. In the Sullivan Expedition, a sizable force under Major General John Sullivan drove the Iroquois from their lands in northwestern New York in reprisal for the frontier raids. [111] [112]

Washington's opponent in New York was also active. Clinton engaged in a number of amphibious raids against coastal communities from Connecticut to Chesapeake Bay, and probed at Washington's defenses in the Hudson River valley. [113] Coming up the river in force, he captured the key outpost of Stony Point, but advanced no further. When Clinton weakened the garrison there to provide men for raiding expeditions, Washington organized a counterstrike. General Anthony Wayne led a force that, solely using the bayonet, recaptured Stony Point. [114] The Americans chose not to hold the post, but the operation was a boost to American morale and a blow to British morale. American morale was dealt a blow later in the year, when the second major attempt at Franco-American cooperation, an attempt to retake Savannah, failed with heavy casualties. [115]

Difficult times Edit

The winter of 1779–80 was one of the coldest in recorded colonial history. New York Harbor froze over, and the winter camps of the Continental Army were deluged with snow, resulting in hardships exceeding those experienced at Valley Forge. [116] The war was declining in popularity, and the inflationary issuance of paper currency by Congress and the states alike harmed the economy, and the ability to provision the army. The paper currency also hit the army's morale, since it was how the troops were paid. [117]

The British in late 1779 embarked on a new strategy based on the assumption that most Southerners were Loyalists at heart. General Clinton withdrew the British garrison from Newport, and marshalled a force of more than 10,000 men that in the first half of 1780 successfully besieged Charleston, South Carolina. In June 1780 he captured over 5,000 Continental soldiers and militia in the single worst defeat of the war for the Americans. [118] Washington had at the end of March pessimistically dispatched several regiments troops southward from his army, hoping they might have some effect in what he saw as a looming disaster. [119]

Washington's army suffered from numerous problems in 1780: it was undermanned, underfunded, and underequipped. [120] Because of these shortcomings Washington resisted calls for major expeditions, preferring to remain focused on the principal British presence in New York. Knowledge of discontent within the ranks in New Jersey prompted the British in New York to make two attempts to reach the principal army base at Morristown. These attempts were defeated, with significant militia support, in battles at Connecticut Farms and Springfield. [121]

September 1780 brought a new shock to Washington. British Major John André had been arrested outside New York, and papers he carried exposed a conspiracy between the British and General Benedict Arnold. [122] Washington respected Arnold for his military skills, and had, after Arnold's severe injuries in the Battles of Saratoga in October 1777, given him the military command of Philadelphia. [123] During his administration there, Arnold had made many political enemies, and in 1779 he began secret negotiations with General Clinton (mediated in part by André) that culminated in a plot to surrender West Point, a command Arnold requested and Washington gave him in July 1780. [124] Arnold was alerted to André's arrest and fled to the British lines shortly before Washington's arrival at West Point for a meeting. [125] In negotiations with Clinton, Washington offered to exchange André for Arnold, but Clinton refused. André was hanged as a spy, and Arnold became a brigadier general in the British Army. [126] Washington organized an attempt to kidnap Arnold from New York City it was frustrated when Arnold was sent on a raiding expedition to Virginia. [127]

Espionage Edit

Washington was successful in developing an espionage network, which kept track of the British and loyalist forces while misleading the enemy as to the strength of the American and French positions, and their intentions. British intelligence, by contrast, was poorly done. Many prominent loyalists had fled to London, where they convinced Lord Jermaine and other top officials that there was a large potential loyalist fighting force that would rise up and join the British as soon as they were in the vicinity. This was entirely false, but the British relied upon it heavily, especially in the southern campaigns of 1780–81, leading to their disasters. Washington deceived the British in New York City marching his entire army, the entire French Army, around the city all the way to Virginia, where they surprised Cornwallis and his army. [128] The greatest failure of British intelligence was the misunderstanding between the senior command in London, and New York regarding the need to support Burgoyne's invasion of New York. British communication failures and lack of intelligence on what was happening led to the surrender of Burgoyne's entire army. [129]

Washington used systematic reconnaissance on enemy positions by scouts and sponsored Major Benjamin Tallmadge who set up the Culper spy ring. Washington distrusted double agents, and was fooled by Benedict Arnold's treachery. [130] Washington paid close attention to espionage reports, and acted on them. He made sure his intelligence officers briefed one another he did not insist on prior approval of their plans. His intelligence system became an essential arm in molding the Americans partisan style asymmetrical strategy. This laid the groundwork in the 1790s for Washington to formulate intelligence gathering as an important tool in presidential power. [131]

Victory Edit

A British army under General Cornwallis, fighting its way through the Carolinas and Virginia, made its way to Yorktown to be evacuated by the British Navy. Washington coordinated an elaborate operation whereby both the French army in New England and the American Army in New York slipped off to Virginia without the British noticing. Cornwallis found himself surrounded, and a French naval victory against the British rescue fleet dashed his hopes. The surrender of Cornwallis to Washington on October 17, 1781, marked the end of serious fighting. [132] In London, the war party lost control of parliament, and the British negotiated the Treaty of Paris (1783) That ended the war. Hoping to gain the United States as a major trading partner, the British offered surprisingly generous terms.

Washington designed the American strategy for victory. It enabled Continental forces to maintain their strength for six years and to capture two major British armies at Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown in 1781. Some historians have lauded Washington for the selection and supervision of his generals, preservation and command of the army, coordination with the Congress, with state governors and their militia, and attention to supplies, logistics, and training, and although Washington was repeatedly outmaneuvered by British generals, his overall strategy proved to be successful: keep control of 90% of the population at all times (including suppression of the Loyalist civilian population) keep the army intact avoid decisive battles and look for an opportunity to capture an outnumbered enemy army. 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. [133] [134] [135]

Resignation Edit

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. This was a key principle of Republicanism, but could easily have been violated by Washington. 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 announced his intent to resign from public life in his "Farewell Orders to the Armies of the United States." A few days later, on November 25, 1783, 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 at Annapolis, Maryland. [136]

In the fall of 1798, Washington became immersed in the business of creating a military force to deal with the threat of an all-out war with France. President John Adams asked him to resume the post of commander-in-chief and to raise an army in the event war broke out. Washington agreed, stipulating that he would only serve in the field if it became absolutely necessary, and if he could choose his subordinates. [137] Disputes arose over the relative rankings of his chosen command. Washington selected Alexander Hamilton as his inspector general and second in command, followed by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Henry Knox. This hierarchy was an inversion of the ranks these men had held during the revolution. Adams wanted to reverse the order, giving Knox the most important role, but Washington was insistent, threatening to resign if his choices were not approved. [138] He prevailed, but the episode noticeably cooled his relationship with Henry Knox, and impaired Adams' relations with his cabinet. [139] The resolution of this affair brought no opportunity for rest: Washington engaged in the tedious task of finding officers for the new military formations. In the spring of 1799, the relaxation of tensions between France and the United States allowed Washington to redirect his attention to his personal affairs. [140]

George Washington died on December 14, 1799, at the age of 67. Upon his passing he was listed as a retired lieutenant general on the rolls of the US Army. Over the next 177 years, various officers surpassed Washington in rank, including most notably John J. Pershing, who was promoted to General of the Armies for his role in World War I. With effect from 4 July 1976, Washington was posthumously promoted to the same rank by authority of a congressional joint resolution. [141] The resolution stated that Washington's seniority had rank and precedence over all other grades of the Armed Forces, past or present, effectively making Washington the highest ranked U.S. officer of all time. [142]

Historians debate whether Washington preferred to fight major battles or to utilize a Fabian strategy [a] to harass the British with quick, sharp attacks followed by a retreat so that the larger British army could not catch him. [b] His southern commander Greene did use Fabian tactics in 1780–81 Washington did so only in fall 1776 to spring 1777, after losing New York City and seeing much of his army melt away. Trenton and Princeton were Fabian's examples. By summer 1777 Washington had rebuilt his strength and his confidence he stopped using raids and went for large-scale confrontations, as at Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, and Yorktown. [144]

  • While serving as a General, Washington wore three six-pointed stars (three five-pointed stars are now used as the insignia of a lieutenant general). [149]

The following are summaries of battles where George Washington was the commanding officer.

George Washington's Ancestry and Family History

George Washington's ancestry points back to England, as did many of the people living in colonial America during his time. His earliest ancestors include several members of the English royalty, the most significant of whom was the great king Charlemagne. More recent evidence of Washington's English heritage are found in Selby Abbey in Yorkshire, England. The Washington family coat of arms is found in some of the stained glass artwork there. This artwork was most likely dedicated to John Wessington, a member of an influential family in Durham, England. The name "Wessington" came from the original name of the land that the family first settled in the twelfth century.

Another name for the Wessington family was "Washington." George Washington's great-great-grandfather Lawrence Washington earned a college education in England and began serving as a reverend in Essex in 1633 until the fighting of the English Civil War began. Because of Lawrence's sympathies to the British crown, he was removed from his position in his local church. The loss of his job resulted in Lawrence Washington dying in poverty in 1654. However, Lawrence Washington's son John Washington emigrated to the colonies after the death of his father.

Settling in Virginia, John Washington married Anne Pope. Anne's family was a wealthy one made up of plantation owners, and she and John were given a plot of land as a wedding gift. John Washington, the great-grandfather of George Washington, began the Washington tradition of farming, and became a successful farmer in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Additionally, John Washington became involved in Virginia local politics and the military. John Washington's son Lawrence Washington (the grandfather of George Washington) went to law school back in England but soon returned to Virginia to inherit his father's farms and lands. One of the lands which he inherited was named Little Hunting Creek. This piece of land would be renamed Mount Vernon in the future. Lawrence Washington was married twice, due to the death of his first wife Jane. He had four children with Jane. One of these children was named after his father: Lawrence Washington. He was a close step-brother to George Washington as the two were growing up. The elder Lawrence Washington also fathered six children with his second wife, Mary Ball. His oldest child from Mary was George Washington. Although modern historians have investigated the ancestry of George Washington because of his position as a key historical figure, George Washington himself as apparently quite unaware of his own lineage. In fact, he said in a letter that it was "a subject to which I confess I have paid very little attention." Maybe this lack of interest in his family heritage is correlated with the willingness of George Washington to break away from the traditions and rule of the mother country of Great Britain and fight for the independence of a new nation.

Mount Vernon Tombs

Two tombs stand on Mount Vernon: the original family vault now known as the Old Tomb, and the new vault now known as the New Tomb which became the family’s final resting place.

After realizing the original tomb was deteriorating, Washington instructed in his will that a new resting place be built upon his death and all family members re-interred there. He also provided the financial means to build it. George and Martha were originally buried in the Old Tomb but were later moved to rest permanently in the New Tomb.

Other Mount Vernon outbuildings are:

  • blacksmith shop
  • spinning room
  • smokehouse
  • storehouse
  • sixteen-sided barn
  • stables
  • servant’s quarters
  • gardener’s house
  • overseer’s quarters
  • slave cabins for enslaved families
  • men’s slave quarters
  • women’s slave quarters

Where We Are

The Washington, D.C., area offers a front-row seat to history. Students are immersed in their surroundings through trips to museums, battlefields and historical sites including the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Jamestown Settlement, the Gettysburg Battlefield, the Society of the Cincinnati and George Washington&rsquos Mount Vernon estate.

Through the department's collaborative relationships with institutions throughout the region, students also have extraordinary access to historical documents at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the National Security Archive and the Smithsonian Institution.

Author, Kuwait Transformed: Oil and Urban Life

"[Senior year] was the first time I ever studied Kuwait's history. . Being able to unearth unused documents about the subject I was researching was really thrilling. I didn't quite know it back then, but that experience officially turned me into a historian."

History of the Diary Manuscripts

Description of the years in which Washington kept diaries, their dispersal and loss, and a listing of the location of surviving diary manuscripts.

Except for special occasions, such as his mission to the French commandant and his voyage to Barbados, Washington apparently kept no daily record until 1760. Even then, his diary-keeping was erratic until 1768, when he settled down to a program that he was to continue faithfully until he became commander in chief in 1775.

Washington kept no diary during most of the Revolution. The rigor of his activities would have made it difficult to do so, and the full record of the period which accumulated in his official letterbooks and general orders rendered the custom less necessary. He tried to resume his old habit in 1781, but it was not until he had resigned his command and returned home that he became a confirmed diarist again.

It seems likely that diaries were kept for the presidential years 1789-97, and the fact that so few have survived is particularly vexing to historians. "The Journal of the Proceedings of the President (1793-97)," a daily account of Washington's official activities and correspondence, written in the first person but kept by his secretaries, will be published later. An entry for 16 April 1789, recounting his departure from Mount Vernon to assume office, appears only in Jared Sparks, ed., The Writings of George Washington (12 vols. Boston, 1833-37), 1:441-42. The entry for 23 April 1789, remarking on the enthusiasm with which the public received him, is from Washington Irving, Life of George Washington (5 vols. New York, 1857-59), 4:511. So at least we know that Jared Sparks and Washington Irving had access to material indicating that Washington began his presidency with a determination to continue the record. Diaries are extant for the period covering his tours of the northern and southern states and a brief one kept during the Whisky Rebellion of 1794. Apart from an unrewarding record for 1795, all else is lost for the presidential years.

The earliest diaries were kept in notebooks of various sizes and shapes, but when Washington began in earnest to make daily entries he chose to make them in interleaved copies of the Virginia Almanack, a Williamsburg publication. By the end of the Revolution he had grown accustomed to the blank memorandum books used in the army, and he adopted a similar notebook for his civilian record. By 1795 he had gone back to his interleaved almanacs.

As Fitzpatrick observes, ruled paper was not available to Washington, and he obtained regularly spaced lines by using a ruled guide-sheet beneath his writing paper. "This practice gives us evidence of his failing vision, as the diaries, after the Presidency, show frequent examples of his pen running off the outer edge of the small diary page, and whole words, written on the ruled guide-sheet beneath, escaped notice of not being on the diary page itself" (John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Diaries of George Washington, 1748-1799 [4 vols. Boston and New York, 1925], 1:x).

Upon Washington's death in 1799, most of his papers still in his hands became the property of his nephew Bushrod Washington, an associate justice of the U. S. Supreme Court. We shall have more to say about the fate of these invaluable documents in the Introduction to Volume I of The Papers of George Washington.

Destruction and dispersal of the papers began very early when Mrs. Washington reportedly burned all the correspondence she had exchanged with Washington during his lifetime--overlooking only two letters, we believe. There followed long years of careless handling by Bushrod, biographer John Marshall, and editor Jared Sparks. Indeed, what is most important in the story of Washington's papers is not such natural processes as fire, flood, mildew, and the tendency of paper to fall into dust. Rather, there has been an overabundance of stewardship by misguided caretakers, persons who thought they knew what was important and what was trivial, what should be saved and what given away to friends and autograph collectors.

The editor who laments the disappearance of so many Washington diaries can only sink into despondency upon learning that Bushrod gave many away. To diplomat Christopher Hughes, in 1825, he gave the 1797 diary and a sheaf of Washington's notes on agriculture Hughes dispersed these among his friends in the United States and Europe. Two years later, Bushrod gave the diaries for 1795 and 1798 to Margaret and Robert Adams, of Philadelphia. Then he presented the 1767 diary to Dr. James W. Wallace, of Warrenton. These and certain other diaries once in private hands have been preserved others apparently have not.

Jared Sparks's turn to mishandle the papers came in 1827, when he persuaded Bushrod to let him take large quantities to Boston, where he was to prepare his twelve-volume edition, The Writings of George Washington (Boston, 1837). Sparks decided that carefully excising a Washington signature from a document, and sending it to a friend, did not really damage the manuscript as a piece of history that a page torn from a Washington diary, or an entire Washington letter, could safely be given away if he, Sparks, judged it to be of no historical value. It was Sparks who cut Washington's draft of his first inaugural address into small pieces and so thoroughly disseminated this document of more than sixty pages that the efforts of several collectors have failed to reassemble more than a third of it. Even after he had supposedly returned all the papers to the Washington family, Sparks retained a supply to distribute. He was still mailing out snippets in 1861.

The pillage stopped in 1834 when the Washington family sold the basic collection to the U. S. government. This corpus, together with a later, smaller sale, forms the basis of the principal Washington archive at the Library of Congress. Other acquisitions have been made throughout the years. In the following list the present location of all known diaries and diary fragments is shown. The Regents' Numbers are numbers assigned by Fitzpatrick in the 1920s and used since as a cataloguing device. The diaries without Regents' Numbers were not published by Fitzpatrick, nor were several to which he assigned numbers but could not locate. His number 54, which he believed to have been kept but did not locate, is partially represented by the next diary in the series.

George Washington and Religion

When studying the religious beliefs of George Washington, it is difficult to make absolute, concrete conclusions. Depending on the source examined, Washington has been painted in differing lights ranging from a Deist to a believing Christian. No matter what precise conclusion is obtained, there are common facts surrounding Washington's relationship with religion.

Washington was the great, great grandson of Lawrence Washington, an Anglican pastor. Difficulties between Lawrence Washington and the Church may have ultimately resulted in his heirs moving to Virginia. Thus the reason Washington was born in Virginia may have been related to religious developments. The First Great Awakening was taking place in England in the years leading up to Washington's birth, and played a significant role in the ethos of a growing American religious environment in the eighteenth century. However, the influence of the Great Awakening was felt strongest by Baptists and Presbyterians, and was less influential in the Anglican community that included Washington. An Anglian family headed by a mother who was devoted to personal spirituality raised George Washington, which may have had an influence on Washington's own sense of religion.

Regarding direct church participation, Washington was a devoted member of the Anglican Church. In 1762, Washington became a vestryman in Truro Parish, overseeing the affairs at Pohick Church. He served as a churchwarden for three terms, helping to care for the poor. Washington's church attendance varied throughout his life, with his attendance becoming sporadic for periods of time and then picking up again during his presidency. However, one former pastor at Pohick did state that "I never knew so constant an attendant at church as Washington." 1 In general, Washington's religious life was filled with many seemingly contradictory positions.

In regard to personal spirituality, Washington was generally private about his religious life. Washington is reported to have had regular private prayer sessions, and personal prayer was a large part of his life. One well-known report stated that Washington's nephew witnessed him doing personal devotions with an open Bible while kneeling, in both the morning and evening. It is clear that when it came to religion, Washington was a private man, more so than with other aspects of his life.

Washington was said to have refused to take part in communion, but there are conflicting reports. One states that Washington did participate in Holy Communion before taking control of the Continental Army, but not afterwards. Washington, however, would often leave church services early, leaving Martha Washington behind to participate in the ceremony. He was even once rebuked by the assistant rector of Christ Church in Philadelphia for this practice.

There is also debate as to whether Washington believed in an afterlife. While it is possible that he did not believe in a doctrinally Christian heaven, it is also possible that he was careful about whom he referred to in mentioning a joyful afterlife. Washington did reference a coming judgment, indicating some future meeting with "the Creator." He was also a Freemason, whose tenets require belief in the afterlife.

Looking at Washington's theological beliefs, it is clear that he believed in a Creator God of some manner, and seemingly one that was also active in the universe. This God had three main traits he was wise, inscrutable, and irresistible. Washington referred to this God by many names, but most often by the name of "Providence." Washington also referred to this being by other titles to infer that this God was the Creator God. This aspect of his belief system is central to the argument about whether or not Washington was a Deist. His belief in God's action in the world seems to preclude traditional deism. Washington believed that humans were not passive actors in this world. However, for Washington, it was also improper to question Providence. This caused Washington to accept whatever happened as being the will of Providence.

Notably, Washington did see God as guiding the creation of the United States. It is also possible that Washington felt he needed to discern the will of Providence. These facts point to belief in a God who is hidden from humanity, yet continually influencing the events of the universe.

This does not illustrate conclusively that he was a devout Christian, however. Washington never explicitly mentioned the name of Jesus Christ in private correspondence. The only mentions of Christ are in public papers, and those references are scarce. However, Washington's lack of usage may be due to the accepted practice of his day Jesus was not typically referenced by Anglicans or Episcopalians of Washington's generation.

It is also clear that Washington was a humanitarian. He helped to care for the poor and believed strongly in charity, which he exercised privately. Regarding his own estate he stated, "Let the Hospitality of the House, with respect to the poor, be kept up&hellipI have no objection to your giving my Money to Charity&hellipwhen you think it is well bestowed. What I mean, by having no objection, is, that it is my desire that it should be done." 2

Washington was also tolerant of different religious beliefs, having attended services of multiple Christian denominations. He once publicly supported an army chaplain who was a Universalist (meaning that he held that Christ died for the sins of all, versus only the elect) despite the objections of other clergy. In fact, while President, Washington wrote a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island standing in favor of religious freedom, explaining: "For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens&hellipMay the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants." 3

Overall, Washington's religious life is an area of great debate and much in line with his contemporaries. His religious life is complex and should be approached as such, without trite labels and descriptions.

George Tsakiridis, Ph.D.
South Dakota State University

1. William Meade, Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1857), 247.

2."George Washington to Lund Washington, 26 November 1775," The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick.

3. "George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 17 August 1790."

Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: The Penguin Press, 2010.

Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Henriques, Peter R. Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.

Munoz, Vincent Phillip. God and the Founders: Madison, Washington, and Jefferson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Novak, Michael and Jana. Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Thompson, Mary V. "Into the Hands of a Good Providence": Religion in the Life of George Washington. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.

10 Facts About Washington & Slavery

Despite having been an active slave holder for 56 years, George Washington struggled with the institution of slavery and spoke frequently of his desire to end the practice. At the end of his life, Washington made the decision to free all his slaves in his 1799 will - the only slave-holding Founding Father to do so.

1. George Washington first became a slave owner at the early age of eleven.

When Washington&rsquos father Augustine died in 1743, George Washington became a slave owner at the early age of eleven. In his will, Augustine left his son the 280 acre family farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia. In addition, Washington was willed ten slaves. As a young adult, Washington purchased at least eight more slaves, including a carpenter named Kitt. Washington purchased more enslaved people in 1755, including four men, two women, and a child.

2. At the time of George Washington&rsquos death, the Mount Vernon enslaved population consisted of 317 people.

Of the 317 enslaved people living at Mount Vernon in 1799, a little less than half (123 individuals) were owned by George Washington himself. Another 153 slaves at Mount Vernon in 1799 were dower slaves from the Custis estate. When Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, died without a will in 1757, she received a life interest in one-third of his estate, including the slaves. Neither George nor Martha Washington could free these slaves by law and upon Martha&rsquos death these individuals reverted to the Custis estate and were divided among her grandchildren.

3. George Washington's marriage to Martha Custis significantly increased the number of enslaved people at Mount Vernon.

After marrying Martha Dandridge Custis in January of 1759, George Washington's slaveholdings increased dramatically. As the widow of a wealthy planter who died without a will in 1757, Martha&rsquos share of the Custis estate brought another eighty-four enslaved people to Mount Vernon. The stark increase in the enslaved population at Mount Vernon at this time reflected similar trends in the region. When George Washington took control of the Mount Vernon property in 1754, the population of Fairfax County was around 6,500 people, of whom a little more than 1,800 or about 28% were slaves of African origin. The proportion of slaves in the population as a whole rose throughout the century by the end of the American Revolution, over 40% of the people living in Fairfax County were slaves.

4. The threat of physical and psychological violence underpinned slavery.

Slaveowners administered punishments to control their workforce. In his later years, George Washington believed that harsh and indiscriminate punishments could backfire and urged overseers to motivate workers with encouragement and rewards. Still, he approved of &ldquocorrection&rdquo when those methods failed. Mount Vernon&rsquos enslaved people endured a range of punishments depending on the alleged offense.

In 1793, farm manager Anthony Whitting accused Charlotte, an enslaved seamstress, of being &ldquoimpudent,&rdquo by arguing with him and refusing to work. As punishment, he whipped her with a hickory switch, a reprisal Washington deemed &ldquovery proper.&rdquo Charlotte&rsquos response&mdashthat she had not been whipped for 14 years&mdashsuggests that physical punishment was sporadic, but not unheard of, at Mount Vernon.

5. The enslaved people at Mount Vernon practiced diverse religious traditions and customs

Influences from both African and European religious practices can be found amongst Mount Vernon&rsquos enslaved population. Some slaves at Mount Vernon participated with local, organized Christian congregations, to some degree. Also, Mount Vernon's enslaved community developed at least one spiritual leader from within their own community, named Caesar, according to a runaway slave advertisement from the spring of 1798.

Further, the enslaved population at Mount Vernon had contact with at least three other Christian denominations: Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers. There were also several remnants of religious traditions from Africa continuing to some degree at Mount Vernon, including both Vodoun and Islam.

6. On numerous occasions, people enslaved by the Washington household ran away in an attempt to regain their freedom.

Mount Vernon&rsquos enslaved community took opportunities, when possible, to physically escape their enslavement. For example, in April of 1781 during the American Revolution, seventeen members of the Mount Vernon enslaved population&mdashfourteen men and three women&mdashfled to the British warship HMS Savage anchored in the Potomac off the shore of the plantation.

In other instances, members of the enslaved community who were directly connected to the Washingtons either attempted to or were successful in their escape plans. These individuals included Washington&rsquos personal assistant Christopher Sheels, whose plan to escape with his fiancée was thwarted the family cook Hercules and Martha Washington&rsquos personal maid Ona Judge, both of whom escaped successfully.

7. People at Mount Vernon also resisted their enslavement through less noticeable means.

Running away was a risky venture that often did not succeed. As a result, Mount Vernon&rsquos enslaved population frequently resisted their bondage through a variety of methods while working on the plantation. Individuals utilized less noticeable methods of resistance, including feigning illness, working slowly, producing shoddy work, and misplacing or damaging tools and equipment. More active methods of protest included actions such as theft, arson, and sabotage of crops. Theft was a particularly frequent act of visible slave resistance. Over the years enslaved people at Mount Vernon were accused of stealing a wide variety of objects, including tools, fabrics, yam, raw wool, wine, rum, milk, butter, fruits, meats, corn, and potatoes.

8. In December of 1775, Washington--the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army--received a letter from Phillis Wheatley containing an ode written in his honor.

Phillis Wheatley was an enslaved woman brought to Boston from West Africa at just seven years of age. Uncommon for practices at the time, Wheatley received instruction in subjects ranging from Greek, Latin and poetry from the daughter of her owners. By age twelve Wheatley began writing poetry and by eighteen had become well-known for the publication of an elegy she wrote commemorating the death of a prominent preacher. In the winter of 1775, Wheatley sent Washington a letter containing an ode to the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. The poem concluded: "Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, / Thy ev&rsquory action let the goddess guide. / A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, / With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine."

Washington responded kindly to Wheatley in a letter, the only known missive that he wrote to an enslaved individual, and even addressed the letter to "Miss Phillis," an unusually polite way for a member of the gentry to address an enslaved person. Although there is no proof that the two met in person, General Washington invited Wheatley in March 1776 to call on him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

9. With little free time and control over their everyday life, Mount Vernon's enslaved population attempted to exert some free will and choice when it came to their private lives.

Mount Vernon&rsquos enslaved community usually worked a six-day week, with Sunday generally being the day off for everyone on the plantation. On a daily basis, in addition to their day's work, the enslaved had their own housekeeping work such as tending chickens and garden plots, cooking, preserving the produce of gardens, and caring for clothing. With precious little free time and control over their own schedules, enslaved people at Mount Vernon attempted to exert some control over their personal lives. Some spent their free time socializing at Mount Vernon, or neighboring plantations where their spouses lived. Others used their time to play games and sports. A visitor to Mount Vernon from Poland during the summer of 1798 recorded witnessing a group of about thirty people divided into two teams, playing a game he referred to as "prisoner's base," which involved "jumps and gambols.&rdquo

10. George Washington left instructions in his will to emancipate the people enslaved by him, upon the death of Martha Washington.

Washington wrote his will several months before his death in December 1799. In the document, Washington left directions for the eventual emancipation of his slaves after the passing of Martha Washington. Of the 317 enslaved people at Mount Vernon in 1799, 123 of the individuals were owned by George Washington and were eligible to be freed as per the terms of the will.

By law, neither George nor Martha Washington could free the Custis dower slaves. Upon Martha Washington&rsquos death in 1802, these individuals were divided among the Custis grandchildren. By 1799, 153 of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon were part of this dower property.

In accordance with state law, George Washington stipulated in his will that elderly enslaved people or those who were too sick to work were to be supported by his estate in perpetuity. The remaining non-dower enslaved at Mount Vernon did not have to wait for Martha Washington&rsquos death to receive their freedom. Writing on the subject to her sister, Abigail Adams explained that Martha Washington&rsquos motives were largely driven by self-interest. &ldquoIn the state in which they were left by the General, to be free at her death,&rdquo Adams explained, &ldquoshe did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their Hands, many of whom would be told that it was [in] their interest to get rid of her&ndashShe therefore was advised to set them all free at the close of the year.&rdquo In December 1800, Martha Washington signed a deed of manumission for her deceased husband's slaves, a transaction that is recorded in the Fairfax County, Virginia, Court Records. They would finally be emancipated on January 1, 1801.

New exhibition

Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon

Lives Bound Together explores the personal stories of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon while providing insight into George Washington&rsquos evolving opposition to slavery.

Signature Tours

Slave Life Tour

Mount Vernon offers a 45-minute guided walking tour highlights the lives and contributions of the enslaved community who built and operated Mount Vernon, the plantation home of George and Martha Washington.


Slave Cemetery Survey

Learn more about Mount Vernon's recent archaeological studies within the Mount Vernon Slave Cemetery.

Slavery at Mount Vernon

Learn more about the enslaved community that lived on the Mount Vernon farms.

Enslaved Community of Mount Vernon

  • Austin
  • Ben
  • Betty
  • Caesar
  • Carolina Branham
  • Charles
  • Charlotte
  • Christopher Sheels
  • Davy Gray
  • Dick Jasper
  • Doll
  • Edmund Parker
  • Edy Jones
  • Fanny
  • Frank Lee
  • George
  • Giles
  • Hercules
  • Kate
  • Kitty
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Mount Vernon is owned and maintained in trust for the people of the United States by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, a private, non-profit organization.

We don't accept government funding and rely upon private contributions to help preserve George Washington's home and legacy.



Mount Vernon is owned and maintained in trust for the people of the United States by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, a private, non-profit organization.

We don't accept government funding and rely upon private contributions to help preserve George Washington's home and legacy.

George Washington: The Reluctant President

Editor’s note: Even as the Constitution was being ratified, Americans looked toward a figure of singular probity to fill the new office of the presidency. On February 4, 1789, the 69 members of the Electoral College made George Washington the only chief executive to be unanimously elected. Congress was supposed to make the choice official that March but could not muster a quorum until April. The reason—bad roads—suggests the condition of the country Washington would lead. In a new biography, Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow has created a portrait of the man as his contemporaries saw him. The excerpt below sheds light on the president’s state of mind as the first Inauguration Day approached.

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The Congressional delay in certifying George Washington’s election as president only allowed more time for doubts to fester as he considered the herculean task ahead. He savored his wait as a welcome “reprieve,” he told his former comrade in arms and future Secretary of War Henry Knox, adding that his “movements to the chair of government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” His “peaceful abode” at Mount Vernon, his fears that he lacked the requisite skills for the presidency, the “ocean of difficulties” facing the country—all gave him pause on the eve of his momentous trip to New York. In a letter to his friend Edward Rutledge, he made it seem as if the presidency was little short of a death sentence and that, in accepting it, he had given up “all expectations of private happiness in this world.”

The day after Congress counted the electoral votes, declaring Washington the first president, it dispatched Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress, to bear the official announcement to Mount Vernon. The legislators had chosen a fine emissary. A well-rounded man, known for his work in astronomy and mathematics, the Irish-born Thomson was a tall, austere figure with a narrow face and keenly penetrating eyes. He couldn’t have relished the trying journey to Virginia, which was “much impeded by tempestuous weather, bad roads, and the many large rivers I had to cross.” Yet he rejoiced that the new president would be Washington, whom he venerated as someone singled out by Providence to be “the savior and father” of the country. Having known Thomson since the Continental Congress, Washington esteemed him as a faithful public servant and exemplary patriot.

Around noon on April 14, 1789, Washington flung open the door at Mount Vernon and greeted his visitor with a cordial embrace. Once in the privacy of the mansion, he and Thomson conducted a stiff verbal minuet, each man reading from a prepared statement. Thomson began by declaring, “I am honored with the commands of the Senate to wait upon your Excellency with the information of your being elected to the office of President of the United States of America” by a unanimous vote. He read aloud a letter from Senator John Langdon of New Hampshire, the president pro tempore. “Suffer me, sir, to indulge the hope that so auspicious a mark of public confidence will meet your approbation and be considered as a sure pledge of the affection and support you are to expect from a free and enlightened people.” There was something deferential, even slightly servile, in Langdon’s tone, as if he feared that Washington might renege on his promise and refuse to take the job. Thus was greatness once again thrust upon George Washington.

Any student of Washington’s life might have predicted that he would acknowledge his election in a short, self-effacing speech full of disclaimers. “While I realize the arduous nature of the task which is conferred on me and feel my inability to perform it,” he replied to Thomson, “I wish there may not be reason for regretting the choice. All I can promise is only that which can be accomplished by an honest zeal.” This sentiment of modesty jibed so perfectly with Washington’s private letters that it could not have been feigned: he wondered whether he was fit for the post, so unlike anything he had ever done. The hopes for republican government, he knew, rested in his hands. As commander in chief, he had been able to wrap himself in a self-protective silence, but the presidency would leave him with no place to hide and expose him to public censure as nothing before.

Because the vote counting had been long delayed, Washington, 57, felt the crush of upcoming public business and decided to set out promptly for New York on April 16, accompanied in his elegant carriage by Thomson and aide David Humphreys. His diary entry conveys a sense of foreboding: “About ten o’clock, I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity and, with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York. with the best dispositions to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.” Waving goodbye was Martha Washington, who wouldn’t join him until mid-May. She watched her husband of 30 years depart with a mixture of bittersweet sensations, wondering “when or whether he will ever come home again.” She had long doubted the wisdom of this final act in his public life. “I think it was much too late for him to go into public life again,” she told her nephew, “but it was not to be avoided. Our family will be deranged as I must soon follow him.”

Determined to travel rapidly, Washington and his entourage set out each day at sunrise and put in a full day on the road. Along the way he hoped to keep ceremonial distractions to a minimum, but he was soon disabused: eight exhausting days of festivities lay ahead. He had only traveled ten miles north to Alexandria when the townspeople waylaid him with a dinner, lengthened by the mandatory 13 toasts. Adept at farewells, Washington was succinctly eloquent in response. “Unutterable sensations must then be left to more expressive silence, while, from an aching heart, I bid you all, my affectionate friends and kind neighbors, farewell.”

Before long, it was apparent that Washington’s journey would form the republican equivalent of the procession to a royal coronation. As if already a seasoned politician, he left a trail of political promises in his wake. While in Wilmington, he addressed the Delaware Society for Promoting Domestic Manufacturers and imparted a hopeful message. “The promotion of domestic manufactures will, in my conception, be among the first consequences which may naturally be expected to flow from an energetic government.” Arriving in Philadelphia, he was met by local dignitaries and asked to mount a white horse for his entry into town. When he crossed a bridge over the Schuylkill, it was wreathed with laurels and evergreens, and a cherubic boy, aided by a mechanical device, lowered a laurel crown over his head. Recurrent cries of “Long Live George Washington” confirmed what his former aide James McHenry had already told him before he left Mount Vernon: “You are now a king under a different name.”

As Washington entered Philadelphia, he found himself, willy-nilly, at the head of a full-scale parade, with 20,000 people lining the streets, their eyes fixed on him in wonder. “His Excellency rode in front of the procession, on horseback, politely bowing to the spectators who filled the doors and windows by which he passed,” reported the Federal Gazette, noting that church bells rang as Washington proceeded to his old haunt, the City Tavern. After the bare-knuckled fight over the Constitution, the newspaper editorialized, Washington had united the country. “What a pleasing reflection to every patriotic mind, thus to see our citizens again united in their reliance on this great man who is, a second time, called upon to be the savior of his country!” By the next morning, Washington had grown tired of the jubilation. When the light horse cavalry showed up to accompany him to Trenton, they discovered he had left the city an hour earlier “to avoid even the appearance of pomp or vain parade,” reported one newspaper.

As Washington approached the bridge over Assunpink Creek in Trenton, the spot where he had stood off the British and Hessians, he saw that the townsfolk had erected a magnificent floral arch in his honor and emblazoned it with the words “December 26, 1776” and the proclamation “The Defender of the Mothers will also Defend the Daughters.” As he rode closer, 13 young girls, robed in spotless white, walked forward with flower-filled baskets, scattering petals at his feet. Astride his horse, tears standing in his eyes, he returned a deep bow as he noted the “astonishing contrast between his former and actual situation at the same spot.” With that, three rows of women—young girls, unmarried ladies and married ones—burst into a fervent ode on how he had saved fair virgins and matrons alike. The adulation only quickened Washington’s self-doubt. “I greatly apprehend that my countrymen will expect too much from me,” he wrote to Rutledge. “I fear, if the issue of public measures should not correspond with their sanguine expectations, they will turn the extravagant. praises which they are heaping upon me at this moment into equally extravagant. censures.” There was no way, it seemed, that he could dim expectations or escape public reverence.

By now sated with adulation, Washington preserved a faint hope that he would be allowed to make an inconspicuous entry into New York. He had pleaded with Gov. George Clinton to spare him further hoopla: “I can assure you, with the utmost sincerity, that no reception can be so congenial to my feelings as a quiet entry devoid of ceremony.” But he was fooling himself if he imagined he might slip unobtrusively into the temporary capital. Never reconciled to the demands of his celebrity, Washington still fantasized that he could shuck that inescapable burden. When he arrived at Elizabethtown, New Jersey, on April 23, he beheld an impressive phalanx of three senators, five congressmen and three state officials awaiting him. He must have intuited, with a sinking sensation, that this welcome would eclipse even the frenzied receptions in Philadelphia and Trenton. Moored to the wharf was a special barge, glistening with fresh paint, constructed in his honor and equipped with an awning of red curtains in the rear to shelter him from the elements. To nobody’s surprise, the craft was steered by 13 oarsmen in spanking white uniforms.

As the barge drifted into the Hudson River, Washington made out a Manhattan shoreline already “crowded with a vast concourse of citizens, waiting with exulting anxiety his arrival,” a local newspaper said. Many ships anchored in the harbor were garlanded with flags and banners for the occasion. If Washington gazed back at the receding Jersey shore, he would have seen that his craft led a huge flotilla of boats, including one bearing the portly figure of Gen. Henry Knox. Some boats carried musicians and female vocalists on deck, who serenaded Washington across the waters. “The voices of the ladies were. superior to the flutes that played with the stroke of the oars in Cleopatra’s silken-corded barge,” was the imaginative verdict of the New York Packet. These wafted melodies, united with repeated cannon roar and thunderous acclaim from crowds onshore, again oppressed Washington with their implicit message of high expectations. As he confided to his diary, the intermingled sounds “filled my mind with sensations as painful (considering the reverse of this scene, which may be the case after all my labors to do good) as they are pleasing.” So as to guard himself against later disappointment, he didn’t seem to allow himself the smallest iota of pleasure.

When the presidential barge landed at the foot of Wall Street, Governor Clinton, Mayor James Duane, James Madison and other luminaries welcomed him to the city. The officer of a special military escort stepped forward briskly and told Washington that he awaited his orders. Washington again labored to cool the celebratory mood, which burst forth at every turn. “As to the present arrangement,” he replied, “I shall proceed as is directed. But after this is over, I hope you will give yourself no further trouble, as the affection of my fellow-citizens is all the guard I want.” Nobody seemed to take the hint seriously.

The streets were solidly thronged with well-wishers and it took Washington a half-hour to arrive at his new residence at 3 Cherry Street, tucked away in the northeast corner of the city, a block from the East River, near the present-day Brooklyn Bridge. One week earlier, the building’s owner, Samuel Osgood, had agreed to allow Washington to use it as the temporary presidential residence. From the descriptions of Washington’s demeanor en route to the house, he finally surrendered to the general mood of high spirits, especially when he viewed the legions of adoring women. As New Jersey Representative Elias Boudinot told his wife, Washington “frequently bowed to the multitude and took off his hat to the ladies at the windows, who waved their handkerchiefs and threw flowers before him and shed tears of joy and congratulation. The whole city was one scene of triumphal rejoicing.”

Though the Constitution said nothing about an inaugural address, Washington, in an innovative spirit, contemplated such a speech as early as January 1789 and asked a “gentleman under his roof”—David Humphreys—to draft one. Washington had always been economical with words, but the collaboration with Humphreys produced a wordy document, 73 pages long, which survives only in tantalizing snippets. In this curious speech, Washington spent a ridiculous amount of time defending his decision to become president, as if he stood accused of some heinous crime. He denied that he had accepted the presidency to enrich himself, even though nobody had accused him of greed. “In the first place, if I have formerly served the community without a wish for pecuniary compensation, it can hardly be suspected that I am at present influenced by avaricious schemes.” Addressing a topical concern, he disavowed any desire to found a dynasty, citing his childless state. Closer in tone to future inaugural speeches was Washington’s ringing faith in the American people. He devised a perfect formulation of popular sovereignty, writing that the Constitution had brought forth “a government of the people: that is to say, a government in which all power is derived from, and at stated periods reverts to, them—and that, in its operation. is purely a government of laws made and executed by the fair substitutes of the people alone.”

This ponderous speech never saw the light of day. Washington sent a copy to James Madison, who wisely vetoed it on two counts: that it was much too long and that its lengthy legislative proposals would be interpreted as executive meddling with the legislature. Instead, Madison helped Washington draft a far more compact speech that avoided the tortured introspection of its predecessor. A whirlwind of energy, Madison would seem omnipresent in the early days of Washington’s administration. Not only did he help draft the inaugural address, he also wrote the official response by Congress and then Washington’s response to Congress, completing the circle. This established Madison, despite his role in the House, as a pre-eminent adviser and confidant to the new president. Oddly enough, he wasn’t troubled that his advisory relationship to Washington might be construed as violating the separation of powers.

Washington knew that everything he did at the swearing-in would establish a tone for the future. “As the first of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent,” he reminded Madison, “it is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.” He would shape indelibly the institution of the presidency. Although he had earned his reputation in battle, he made a critical decision not to wear a uniform at the inauguration or beyond, banishing fears of a military coup. Instead, he would stand there aglitter with patriotic symbols. To spur American manufactures, he would wear a double-breasted brown suit, made from broadcloth woven at the Woolen Manufactory of Hartford, Connecticut. The suit had gilt buttons with an eagle insignia on them to round out his outfit, he would wear white hosiery, silver shoe buckles and yellow gloves. Washington already sensed that Americans would emulate their presidents. “I hope it will not be a great while before it will be unfashionable for a gentleman to appear in any other dress,” he told his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, referring to his American attire. “Indeed, we have already been too long subject to British prejudices.” To burnish his image further on Inauguration Day, Washington would powder his hair and wear a dress sword on his hip, sheathed in a steel scabbard.

The inauguration took place at the building at Wall and Nassau streets that had long served as New York’s City Hall. It came richly laden with historical associations, having hosted John Peter Zenger’s trial in 1735, the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 and the Confederation Congress from 1785 to 1788. Starting in September 1788, the French engineer Pierre-Charles L’Enfant had remodeled it into Federal Hall, a suitable home for Congress. L’Enfant introduced a covered arcade at street level and a balcony surmounted by a triangular pediment on the second story. As the people’s chamber, the House of Representatives was accessible to the public, situated in a high-ceilinged octagonal room on the ground floor, while the Senate met in a second-floor room on the Wall Street side, buffering it from popular pressure. From this room Washington would emerge onto the balcony to take the oath of office. In many ways, the first inauguration was a hasty, slapdash affair. As with all theatrical spectacles, rushed preparations and frantic work on the new building continued until a few days before the event. Nervous anticipation spread through the city as to whether the 200 workmen would complete the project on time. Only a few days before the inauguration, an eagle was hoisted onto the pediment, completing the building. The final effect was stately: a white building with a blue and white cupola topped by a weather vane.

A little after noon on April 30, 1789, following a morning filled with clanging church bells and prayers, a contingent of troops on horseback, accompanied by carriages loaded with legislators, stopped at Washington’s Cherry Street residence. Escorted by David Humphreys and aide Tobias Lear, the president-elect stepped into his appointed carriage, which was trailed by foreign dignitaries and throngs of joyous citizens. The procession wound slowly through the narrow Manhattan streets, emerging 200 yards from Federal Hall. After alighting from his carriage, Washington strode through a double line of soldiers to the building and mounted to the Senate chamber, where members of Congress awaited him expectantly. As he entered, Washington bowed to both houses of the legislature—his invariable mark of respect—then occupied an imposing chair up front. A profound hush settled on the room. Vice President John Adams rose for an official greeting, then informed Washington that the epochal moment had arrived. “Sir, the Senate and House of Representatives are ready to attend you to take the oath required by the Constitution.” “I am ready to proceed,” Washington replied.

As he stepped through the door onto the balcony, a spontaneous roar surged from the multitude tightly squeezed into Wall and Broad streets and covering every roof in sight. This open-air ceremony would confirm the sovereignty of the citizens gathered below. Washington’s demeanor was stately, modest and deeply affecting: he clapped one hand to his heart and bowed several times to the crowd. Surveying the serried ranks of people, one observer said they were jammed so closely together “that it seemed one might literally walk on the heads of the people.” Thanks to his simple dignity, integrity and unrivaled sacrifices for his country, Washington’s conquest of the people was complete. A member of the crowd, the Count de Moustier, the French minister, noted the solemn trust between Washington and the citizens who stood packed below him with uplifted faces. As he reported to his government, never had a “sovereign reigned more completely in the hearts of his subjects than did Washington in those of his fellow citizens. he has the soul, look and figure of a hero united in him.” One young woman in the crowd echoed this when she remarked, “I never saw a human being that looked so great and noble as he does.” Only Congressman Fisher Ames of Massachusetts noted that “time has made havoc” upon Washington’s face, which already looked haggard and careworn.

The sole constitutional requirement for the swearing-in was that the president take the oath of office. That morning, a Congressional committee decided to add solemnity by having Washington place his hand on a Bible during the oath, leading to a frantic, last-minute scramble to locate one. A Masonic lodge came to the rescue by providing a thick Bible, bound in deep brown leather and set on a crimson velvet cushion. By the time Washington appeared on the portico, the Bible rested on a table draped in red.

The crowd grew silent as New York Chancellor Robert R. Livingston administered the oath to Washington, who was visibly moved. As the president finished the oath, he bent forward, seized the Bible and brought it to his lips. Washington felt this moment from the bottom of his soul: one observer noted the “devout fervency” with which he “repeated the oath and the reverential manner in which he bowed down and kissed” the Bible. Legend has it that he added, “So help me God,” though this line was first reported 65 years later. Whether or not Washington actually said it, very few people would have heard him anyway, since his voice was soft and breathy. For the crowd below, the oath of office was enacted as a kind of dumb show. Livingston had to lift his voice and inform the crowd, “It is done.” He then intoned: “Long live George Washington, president of the United States.” The spectators responded with huzzahs and chants of “God bless our Washington! Long live our beloved president!” They celebrated in the only way they knew, as if greeting a new monarch with the customary cry of “Long live the king!”

When the balcony ceremony was concluded, Washington returned to the Senate chamber to deliver his inaugural address. In an important piece of symbolism, Congress rose as he entered, then sat down after Washington bowed in response. In England, the House of Commons stood during the king’s speeches the seated Congress immediately established a sturdy equality between the legislative and executive branches.

As Washington began his speech, he seemed flustered and thrust his left hand in his pocket while turning the pages with a trembling right hand. His weak voice was barely audible in the room. Fisher Ames evoked him thus: “His aspect grave, almost to sadness his modesty, actually shaking his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention.” Those present attributed Washington’s low voice and fumbling hands to anxiety. “This great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket,” said Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay in sniggering tones. “He trembled and several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before.” Washington’s agitation might have arisen from an undiagnosed neurological disorder or might simply have been a bad case of nerves. The new president had long been famous for his physical grace, but the sole gesture he used for emphasis in his speech seemed clumsy—“a flourish with his right hand,” said Maclay, “which left rather an ungainly impression.” For the next few years, Maclay would be a close, unsparing observer of the new president’s nervous quirks and tics.

In the first line of his inaugural address, Washington expressed anxiety about his fitness for the presidency, saying that “no event could have filled me with greater anxieties” than the news brought to him by Charles Thomson. He had grown despondent, he said candidly, as he considered his own “inferior endowments from nature” and his lack of practice in civil government. He drew comfort, however, from the fact that the “Almighty Being” had overseen America’s birth. “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the affairs of men, more than the people of the United States.” Perhaps referring obliquely to the fact that he suddenly seemed older, he called Mount Vernon “a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary, as well as more dear to me, by the addition of habit to inclination and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time.” In the earlier inaugural address drafted with David Humphreys, Washington had included a disclaimer about his health, telling how he had “prematurely grown old in the service of my country.”

Setting the pattern for future inaugural speeches, Washington didn’t delve into policy matters, but trumpeted the big themes that would govern his administration, the foremost being the triumph of national unity over “local prejudices or attachments” that might subvert the country or even tear it apart. National policy needed to be rooted in private morality, which relied on the “eternal rules of order and right” ordained by heaven itself. On the other hand, Washington refrained from endorsing any particular form of religion. Knowing how much was riding on this attempt at republican government, he said that “the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.“

After this speech, Washington led a broad procession of delegates up Broadway, along streets lined by armed militia, to an Episcopal prayer service at St. Paul’s Chapel, where he was given his own canopied pew. After these devotions ended, Washington had his first chance to relax until the evening festivities. That night Lower Manhattan was converted into a shimmering fairyland of lights. From the residences of Chancellor Livingston and General Knox, Washington observed the fireworks at Bowling Green, a pyrotechnic display that flashed lights in the sky for two hours. Washington’s image was displayed in transparencies hung in many windows, throwing glowing images into the night. This sort of celebration, ironically, would have been familiar to Washington from the days when new royal governors arrived in Williamsburg and were greeted by bonfires, fireworks and illuminations in every window.

Excerpted from Washington: A Life. Copyright © Ron Chernow. With the permission of the publisher, The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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&aposs 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&aposs death, Virginia&aposs 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&aposs colonial capital. 

Dinwiddie sent Washington back with troops and they set up a post at Great Meadows. Washington&aposs 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&aposs 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&aposs 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&aposs House of Burgesses.

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