When Washington was six his family moved to Ferry Farm, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. His older half-brothers, Lawrence and Austin, studied in England, but the death of Augustine Washington when George was eleven eliminated his chance for schooling abroad. He had an irregular education under different schoolmasters and tutors, and learned the basics of surveying. Many years later, John Adams directed an ungenerous remark at Washington, disparaging the first president as “too illiterate, unread, unlearned for his station.” Washington himselfto his “consciousness of a defective education.”
Washington came under the patronage of the wealthy and powerful Fairfax family after Lawrence Washington married Ann Fairfax, daughter of William Fairfax, who resided in the splendid Belvoir mansion not far from Mount Vernon. The family controlled the five-million-acre Fairfax Grant stretching from the tip of the Northern Neck into the Shenandoah Valley. In 1748, at age sixteen, Washington accompanied Fairfax’s surveyors on a month-long trek through the . At seventeen he was appointed official surveyor for Culpeper County. In the next several years he acquired approximately 9,000 acres of land.
In 1751, Washington made his only journey outside the continent, traveling to Barbados with Lawrence Washington, who was seeking relief from tuberculosis. There Washington survived a case of smallpox, gaining immunity to a disease that became epidemic during the Revolution. It is often said that this dose of smallpox rendered him sterile, but the only modern medical study of smallpox and male infertility found no correlation between the two.
The Seven Years War
In 1752, Virginia lieutenant governor, guided by a recommendation by the Fairfax family, appointed the twenty-year-old Washington a district adjutant of the Virginia militia, with the rank of major. The following year Dinwiddie dispatched Washington, with only six frontiersmen at his side, to demand the departure of a French military force in the Ohio country, a region claimed by Britain (and prominent Virginia land speculators). The journey, conducted in winter, proved an arduous one, as the French could not be located at first, requiring Washington to push farther and farther through forests and swamps. On the way he parleyed at a council of the Six Nations of the Iroquois at Logstown in Pennsylvania, though the chiefs were not impressed by the tiny English force. Similarly rebuffed when he located a French officer at Venango, Pennsylvania, he dutifully pushed on almost as far as Lake Erie.
Though the French rejected Dinwiddie’s ultimatum, Washington returned to Williamsburg with valuable intelligence about the capability of their forces. In 1754 Washington set out with about 140 men for the Forks of the Ohio. In a brief skirmish the Virginians and their Indian allies killed several French soldiers and their commander, Joseph Jumonville, in an incident portrayed as an assassination by the French. The firefight in the woods elated Washington, whoto his brother, “I can with truth assure you, I heard Bulletts whistle and believe me there is something charming in the sound.” The firefight also ignited the French and Indian War.
Not long after the Jumonville incident, Washington and his regiment were attacked at Fort Necessity and forced to surrender. Despite the defeat, Washington won the approbation of the lieutenant governor, and his men received officialfrom the “for their late gallant and brave Behaviour in the Defense of their Country.” The following spring, General Edward Braddock led an army of British regulars against the French, with Washington serving on Braddock’s staff as a volunteer aide. The expedition ended in disaster when Braddock’s 1,700-man column of regulars and militiamen was ambushed and routed by a smaller contingent of French soldiers and Indian allies. “We have been most scandalously beaten by a trifling body of men,” Washington . In the midst of the fray he took “4 bullets through my coat” and had “Two Horses shot [from] under me.” Braddock was killed.
This engagement gave rise to the legend that the British had been slaughtered because Braddock refused to take Washington’s advice to break ranks and fight as irregulars, “Indian-style.” As the historian Edward G. Lengel has pointed out, the disaster resulted not from overly rigid discipline but from the collapse of discipline under fire. “Those who stood in formation like the Virginians,” Lengel noted, “had more success in fending off the attackers.”
About this time a comrade set down a description of Washington:
Straight as an , measuring six feet two inches in his stockings and weighing 175 pounds … His frame is padded with well-developed muscles, indicating great strength … A pleasing and benevolent though a commanding countenance, dark brown hair which he wears in a cue. His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth … In conversation he looks you full in the face, is deliberate, deferential, and engaging. His demeanor at all times composed and dignified. His movements and gestures are graceful, his walk majestic, and he is a splendid horseman.
Marriage, Politics, and the Run-Up to War
In 1758 Washington courted the rich young widow Martha Dandridge Custis. Her wealth came from her marriage to, whose death in 1757 had left twenty-six-year-old Custis with two small children and an estate worth approximately £30,000. Washington and Custis married at a Custis house on the Pamunkey River on January 6, 1759. At his earliest opportunity Washington giving notice of his taking over management of the estate, “as by Marriage I am entitled to a third part of that estate, and Invested likewise with the care of the other two thirds,” namely, the shares of Custis’s children and Martha Parke (Patsy). The Custis lands under Washington’s control amounted to nearly 20,000 acres in six counties. After a brief honeymoon in Williamsburg the couple settled at Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation.
The couple had no children, but Washington doted on his young stepchildren. Jacky Custis, indolent, willful, and spoiled by his mother, resisted Washington’s attempts to instill discipline. Though a poor student, he enrolled at King’s College in New York (later Columbia University), but abandoned his schooling to get married. Washington’s stepdaughter, Patsy, suffered from epilepsy and succumbed to a seizure in 1773. Her death reduced Martha Washington “to the lowest ebb of Misery.”
Elected to the House of Burgesses in 1758 (on his third try), Washington also served as a county magistrate and avestryman. He grew increasingly irritated as he realized that Mount Vernon’s business affairs were, to a certain extent, governed in London. His British merchants charged high prices for second-rate goods and failed to obtain the best prices for his tobacco. Trade regulations forbade him from buying high-quality Portuguese salt to pack his fish, compelling him to purchase a British product. Though his finances had been enormously improved by his marriage, Washington soon outspent the income from the Custis estate, borrowing at high interest rates to acquire both necessities and luxury goods. He switched from growing tobacco to wheat partly to break free of his dependence on the British market and reduce his debt. The only market for tobacco was in England, but wheat could be sold in America.
When Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, imposing a tax on every sheet of official paper and every newspaper, the colonies seethed, but Washington predicted it would be repealed if enough planters and lawyers defied it. If lawyers refused to buy tax stamps to affix to their legal papers, then no papers could be filed and court proceedings would halt, with the heaviest losers being British merchants suing for debts. As Washington had foreseen, the government revoked the Stamp Act when merchants complained that it cost them colonial revenue.
In 1774 Washington predicted that if war with Great Britain broke out, “more blood [would] be spilt [than] history has ever yet furnished instances of in the annals of North America.” By the winter of 1775 he was drilling the Fairfax County militia for a possible confrontation. An English traveler wrote that the 150 men under Washington’s command made “a formidable appearance.” Amid “utmost confusion,” the traveler described patriot committees seizing and reading foreign mail, intimidating tradesmen to stop buying British goods, and harassing suspected loyalists, who “have been tarred and feathered, others had their property burnt and destroyed by the populace.”
Washington traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the Second Continental Congress in May 1775 wearing his military uniform. After theelected him commander in chief on the first ballot, Washington departed for Massachusetts to take charge of the Continental army at Cambridge. In a farewell letter to his wife he said he expected to be home for Christmas. In another letter he wrote, “I am now embarked on a tempestuous ocean, from, whence, perhaps, no friendly harbor is to be found.”
Upon his arrival in Cambridge in July 1775, Washington found only 14,000 men instead of the 20,000 he had expected. Powder was short, as were tents, clothing, tools, and funds—all together an “exceedingly dangerous” situation in his estimation. Impatient at keeping the British army penned up in Boston, Washington proposed a frontal assault to dislodge the enemy, but his senior officers dissuaded him. Very likely such an attack would have resulted in disaster for the Americans. Washington won a great and bloodless victory in March 1776 when he forced the British to evacuate Boston by placing artillery in a commanding position atop Dorchester Heights.
After driving the British from Boston, Washington was ordered by Congress to defend New York, where the British landed a powerful invasion force that dealt Washington a disastrous defeat in a series of battles between August and November of 1776. Washington barely escaped with his army into New Jersey. With popular support for the war waning rapidly in the autumn of 1776 and enlistments about to expire, Washington gambled on a bold stroke, crossing the ice-choked Delaware River for a successful surprise attack on the Hessian outpost at Trenton, New Jersey, on December 26. He followed this victory with a thrust at Princeton, New Jersey, on January 3, 1777.
Washington also faced demands from Congress that he engage the British in a major battle that would quickly decide the war. Washington replied, “we should on all occasions avoid a general action or put anything to the risk, unless compelled by necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn.” His aim, he said, was to “protract the war” until the British wearied of it.
In September 1777 the British soundly beat Washington at the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania, an engagement that his biographersaid Washington conducted “as if he had been in a daze.” On October 4, Washington led 8,000 Continentals and 3,000 militia in a surprise attack on 9,000 British regulars camped at Germantown in Pennsylvania, trying to follow a complicated plan of coordinated maneuvers by different columns. But when a dense fog descended, the American units collided and fired on each other. What had promised to be an American victory dissolved into a panic-stricken rout.
Nevertheless, Washington’s boldness and determination echoed across the Atlantic. The biographer James Thomas Flexner wrote: “In Europe, it seemed almost inconceivable that an untrained rabble would attack a mighty regular army so effectively and so soon after they had been defeated.” In October 1777, American general Horatio Gates captured a British army under General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York—an enormous victory that stunned Europe and helped convince the French to enter the war on the American side the following spring. But in the meantime, Washington and his men had to endure a harrowing winter.
Washington took his tattered army of 10,000 into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in December 1777. Over the next six months some 2,000 soldiers died of disease, starvation, and exposure. Ragged clothes were stripped from corpses and reissued to the living. Despite the horrors of that winter, the spirit of the army remained strong, a fact many historians have attributed to Washington’s leadership.
Washington’s army emerged from Valley Forge stronger in several respects. Early in the war, Washington had banned all blacks from his army, then very quickly countermanded that order and accepted free blacks in 1776. At Valley Forge, desperate for manpower, Washington gave approval to recruit black troops in Rhode Island. Recognizing the pernicious effects of segregation in a fighting force, he ordered that black and white troops be mixed in the same units: “so arrange and model them, as to level the Regiments … abolish the name and appearance of a Black Corps.”
Washington’s circle of officers had been augmented the previous summer by the arrival of Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat burning with admiration for the cause of liberty. He was given command of a division of Virginia troops. The Prussian drill master Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge in February. His drills in the battlefield maneuvers of Europe transformed the army, as did fresh rations of food, clothing, and equipment, and the official announcement in May 1778 that France had joined the American side. Steuben’s training stiffened the army’s discipline and resolve at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, in June 1778. With the Americans fleeing in disorder, Washington exposed himself to enemy fire to rally his retreating troops, extracting a draw from looming defeat. The Battle of Monmouth was the last major engagement in the North as the British shifted their attentions south.
In May 1781, after six years of fighting, Washington assessed “our prospects” as “bewildered and gloomy.” In his journal he noted, “Instead of having Magazines filled with provisions, we have a scanty pittance … Instead of having our Arsenals well supplied with Military Stores, they are poorly provided.” The states had sent him only a small fraction of the troops they had promised. But in August 1781 he received word that the British general Charles Cornwallis, first marquess Cornwallis, had established a base at Yorktown, Virginia, on the York River, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Simultaneously, a French fleet was sailing toward the Chesapeake. Encamped outside New York, Washington ordered a fast march south and trapped Cornwallis, who surrendered on October 19, 1781. The major fighting of the Revolutionary War ended at Yorktown, though two years passed before a peace treaty was signed.
Constitutional Convention and Presidency
The retirement from public life that Washington so deeply yearned for did not last. The Articles of Confederation had established a weak federal government for the United States of America, and Washington was among those who came to fear that the blessings of independence would prove evanescent. “What a triumph for the advocates of despotism,” he said, “to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious!” He took note that “respectable characters speak of a monarchical form of government without horror.” Shays’ Rebellion (1786–1787), an armed revolt by debt-stricken Massachusetts farmers, sent shudders of alarm through the country when the rebels attacked a government arsenal and forced a halt to debt collections for several months. With “combustibles in every State,” Washington feared, “we are fast verging to anarchy and confusion.” Elected head of the Virginia delegation to a convention in Philadelphia to revise the Articles, on the day of his departure from Mount Vernon in May 1787 he suffered a sudden, debilitating headache, which biographer John Ferling describes as a sign of “a severe case of raw nerves.”
Washington dreaded assuming the presidency, and his two terms were filled with acrimony and punctuated by civil strife. The British refused to vacate their western forts and instigated Indian assaults on the U.S. frontier. Spain held the Mississippi. The French Revolution (1789–1799) stirred fears of violent mob action on these shores. The national and state governments faced bankruptcy from war debts—debts held largely by wealthy speculators whose interest payments had to be met by taxes that fell largely on farmers and workers, arousing bitter class conflict. A new federal excise tax provoked Pennsylvania’s Whiskey Rebellion (1791–1794), an event easy to mischaracterize as a colorful uprising of moonshiners when it was actually an armed backcountry revolt against a crippling levy on a vital agricultural commodity. To suppress the rebellion, Washington called out a military force equal in size to the army he led against the British Crown.
Almost everything he did in office set a precedent. “I walk on untrodden ground,” Washington wrote. “There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.” Respecting the separation of powers, he refrained from meddling in the legislative process and used his veto only twice. He guarded executive power, refusing a congressional request to share diplomatic instructions, declaring them to be privileged communications of the president. To grant Congress the right to examine “all the Papers respecting a negotiation with a foreign power, would be to establish a dangerous precedent.”
Washington used every tool at his disposal to win passage of a treaty that John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, had negotiated with Great Britain in an episode that illuminates the murderous political passions of that supposedly tranquil era. To counter violent protests against the treaty, Washington used intermediaries to orchestrate a national outpouring of Federalist supporters in a public relations campaign stressing Washington’s character, patriotism, and good judgment. He thus pioneered the “hidden-hand” methods often attributed to U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Taking the public pulse by eavesdropping on conversations in country taverns, a Federalist operative reported that the “yeomanry” had become convinced that “the President will not see the country wronged, much less wrong it himself,” and he exulted at finding “confidence in, and almost adoration of the President.” The campaign rode to success on a cult of personality that masked bitter partisan divisions. Just days after casting the tie-breaking vote in favor of appropriations for Jay’s Treaty, the Speaker of the House was stabbed.
For his secretaries of war, state, and the treasury, the president appointed [future url="KnoxHenry"]Henry Knox,, and Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson, who came to lead a party known as the Republicans, opposed Washington’s core philosophy of strong central government, while Hamilton—the emblematic Federalist—championed it, along with fiscal policies anathema to Jefferson, such as a national bank. Jefferson reviled Hamilton as a crypto-monarchist and a tool of the British. In the conflict between these two brilliant men, Washington sided with Hamilton, prompting Jefferson to spread stories of a wily Hamilton manipulating an increasingly senile president.
Despite Washington’s great popularity, the seeds of Jefferson’s 1800 electoral triumph were planted during Washington’s administration, when a grassroots democratic movement sprang up in opposition to the Federalists, who unabashedly promoted rule by an educated, propertied elite. Always claiming to be above partisanship and portraying himself as the disinterested champion of American unity, Washington nonetheless stood at the head of a partisan faction destined to be rejected in 1800 by a deeply divided electorate. Jefferson lost the election of 1796 to the Federalist vice president, John Adams, very narrowly.
Washington returned to Mount Vernon with enormous relief and pleasure: “I think … that the life of a Husbandman of all others is the most delectable. It is honorable. It is amusing, and, with judicious management, it is profitable … delightful to an undebauched mind is the task of making improvements on the earth.” In the forefront of scientific farming, Washington rotated crops, experimented with new ones, and bred some of the first mules in the country. He built an innovative threshing mill of his own design and a whiskey distillery (as a high-volume producer, he qualified for a lower tax rate than the small-scale distillers who had risen in revolt). His slaves harvested fish from the Potomac for local sale and shipment to the West Indies.
During his long absences on public service, a constant stream of letters carried his detailed instructions to Mount Vernon’s farm managers. Like Thomas Jefferson, another presidential plantation owner, Washington tried to manage from a distance, retaining an almost photographic mental image of his properties. In the 1780s Washington was so desperately short of cash that he could not pay his taxes and had to borrow money to get to his first inauguration in New York. Hordes of unwanted guests and curiosity seekers descended on him after the war and his presidency, imposing enormous expenses. Even though cash remained short, with his substantial landholdings Washington was unquestionably very wealthy.
Washington died on December 14, 1799, from an acute throat infection that occluded his windpipe, causing a slow death. His final day was agonizing: “I die hard,” he murmured, “but I am not afraid to go.” On his deathbed he looked over two wills he had written. One he ordered burned; the will he chose to execute contained a long, detailed clause that freed all his slaves. He was laid to rest in a temporary tomb and then moved to an imposing above-ground mausoleum at Mount Vernon, where his wife and other family members would also lie. Martha Washington refused requests to have him buried in the national capital.