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President George Washington

Updated on January 6, 2017

George Washington is one of the giants of history. Born at Pope's Creek, Westmoreland County, Virginia he was of British descent. His great-grandfather, John Washington, having migrated from Sulgrave Manor, Northamptonshire, in 1657. Largely self-taught, he began his career as a land surveyor, but inheriting the Mount Vernon estate from his brother Lawrence, Washington settled down as a country gentleman.

Governor Dinwiddie soon made him lieutenant-colonel of the Virginia military. In April 1754 Washington was ordered to drive the French out of Fort Duquesne. He succeeded, but was in turn besieged in Fort Necessity, and was forced to accept surrender terms. In 1758 Washington resigned command of the Virginia troops and married a rich widow, Martha Custis. The union of their plantations made Washington one of the wealthiest men in his state. He entertained lavishly, and thus came into contact with notable men from all over the British colonies in America. He was elected in 1759 to the Virginia House of Burgesses, and re-elected. He soon displayed a growing interest in the disputes between the colonies and the British Crown, and Virginia elected him as one of its delegates to the first Continental Congress. In Philadelphia he bought arms and ammunition which he sent to Virginia, and when the congress adjourned he returned to Virginia to take up the active training of the raw soldiers.

When the second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia the general feeling among the New Englanders was that they must have a Southern man to lead them, since only thus could they be sure of uniting all the colonies in one common cause. War had already started, and John Adams proposed Washington as commander-in-chief of the colonial armies and on 15 June 1775 Washington took over the command. As commander in chief during the American Revolution, he built a large army, held it together, kept it in a maneuverable condition, and prevented it from being destroyed by a crushing defeat. The American troops often lacked arms, munitions, food, and clothes; and Washington had to combat faction and treachery among his generals, including the episode of Benedict Arnold's treachery.

By keeping the army close to the main force of the British, he prevented them from sending raiding parties into the interior. The British did not risk such forays because of their belief that their remaining forces might be overwhelmed. His occupation of Dorchester Heights compelled Howe to evacuate Boston in March 1776. He then had a succession of reverses, notably at the battle of Brooklyn Heights, but in New Jersey he turned and beat his enemy at Trenton and Princeton. Following his defeats in the battles of the Brandy wine and Germantown in the autumn of 1777, Washington led his 11,000 men into winter camp at Valley Forge, 32 km from Philadelphia. The spring brought better news for the Americans. The French were coming into the war. Clinton, who succeeded Howe, had been ordered to give up Philadelphia and return to New York. Washington harassed his troops, notably at the battle of Monmouth. When Clinton reached New York, Washington took up a position at White Plains and for three years, while fighting was going on elsewhere, the two armies watched each other. At last, Washington's chance came when Cornwallis met with difficulties in North Carolina, withdrew his army to Virginia, and finally shut himself up in Yorktown.

Drawing from his knowledge of the American people and of the way they lived and fought, Washington took advantage of British methods of fighting that were not suited to a semi-primitive environment. He alternated between daring surprise attacks and the patient performance of routine duties. Washington's operations on land alone could not have overcome the British, for their superior navy enabled them to move troops almost at will. A timely use of the French fleet contributed to his crowning victory at Yorktown in 1781.

With victory won, Washington was the most revered and influential man in the United States. A lesser person might have used this power to establish a military dictatorship or to become king. Washington sternly suppressed all such attempts on his behalf by his officers and continued to obey the weak and divided Confederation Congress. However, he never ceased to work for the union of the states under a strong central government. He was a leading influence in persuading the states to participate in the Constitutional Convention, over which he presided, and he used his immense prestige to help gain ratification of the Constitution.

After the war Washington took a leading part in the making of the Constitution and the campaign for its ratification. Its success was assured by 1797, at the end of the second term of his presidency. In 1799 the country included nearly all its present-day territory between the Atlantic coast and the Mississippi River.

President Washington acted with Congress to establish the first great executive departments and to lay the foundations of the modern federal judiciary. He directed the creation of a diplomatic service. Three presidential and five congressional elections carried the new government, under the Constitution, through its initial trials.

A national army and navy came into being, and Washington acted with vigor to provide land titles, security, and trade outlets for pioneers of the trans-Allegheny West. His policy procured adequate revenue for the national government and supplied the country with a sound currency, a well-supported public credit, and an efficient network of national banks. Manufacturing and shipping received aid for continuing growth.

Although worn out by years of selfless service to his country, Washington reluctantly accepted the Presidency of the United States. Probably no other man could have succeeded in welding the states into a lasting union. Washington fully understood the significance of his Presidency. "I walk on untrodden ground", he said. "There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn in precedent". After eight years in office, Washington laid down the guidelines for future Presidents. He conferred on the presidency a prestige so great that political leaders afterward esteemed it the highest distinction to occupy the chair he had honored.

When Washington retired from public life in 1797, his homeland was vastly different from what it had been when he entered public service in 1749. To each of the principal changes he had made an outstanding contribution. Largely because of his leadership the Thirteen Colonies had become the United States, a sovereign, independent nation. His role in gaining independence for the American colonies and later in unifying them under the new U.S. federal government cannot be overestimated.

Washington lived only two years after turning over the Presidency to his successor. The famous tribute by General Henry Lee, "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen", accurately reflected the emotions that Washington's death aroused. Later generations have crowned this tribute with the simple title "Father of His Country".

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