People & Events
Aaron Burr, who served briefly on his staff during the Revolution, considered George Washington a second-rate general. Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, admired him and stood by his side as he helped shape the new Constitutional government on largely Federalist principles. George Washington, who led America through the Revolution and became its first president, might well have remained a Virginia farmer if the policies of King George III of England had not intervened.
Born on February 22, 1732, to Augustine Washington, a Virginia farmer, and his wife, Mary, George Washington received some formal education as a youth. But the major focus of his learning was on the practical skills of farming and surveying. At age 16, young Washington journeyed to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, where he worked as a surveyor. There, he experienced adventure for the first time and was hardened by the rough lifestyle.
In 1754, during the French and Indian War, Washington led troops against the French at Fort Duquesne, near present-day Pittsburgh. After success in an initial skirmish, Washington and his men were captured, disarmed, and allowed to walk home to Virginia. Still, Washington was appointed a colonel when he returned to Virginia.
Washington briefly resigned from the army, but was then appointed as an aide to British General Braddock in 1755. Again, the objective was Fort Duquesne. Again, Washington experienced defeat. Braddock was killed in the fight. Later, upon his return to Virginia, Washington was named commander of the Virginia force. Shortly after his election to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758, he again resigned from the military.
On January 6, 1759, Washington married the widow Martha Dandridge, gaining a loyal lifelong companion, two stepchildren he adored, and a 15,000 acre estate. A skilled farmer, Washington turned his energies to this new property, as well as to his holdings at Mount Vernon, the Virginia estate he had inherited from his family.
Washington's farms were models of self-sufficiency, raising and producing everything from tobacco and cattle to shoes and barrels. Washington was no stranger to labor himself, but the bulk of work was done by slaves. Washington had mixed feelings about slavery. He opposed the idea of the institution, but he held slaves until his death, when he freed them in his will.
When the British and Colonial governments dissolved the House of Burgesses and began to impose heavy taxes and limit Western settlement, Washington became politically active. He soon became known as one of the more radical voices for Colonial rights and took a position that he would not oppose bloodshed as a last resort. He served in both Continental Congresses and was again chosen to lead Virginia's army. When war broke out in 1775, he became commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.
In war, Washington's battle record was mixed. He won brilliant victories at Boston, Trenton, and Princeton, but in the Battle of Long Island, Washington nearly lost his entire army. Known as a harsh disciplinarian, he helped hold the army together during a war characterized on the colonial side by deprivation, disorganization, and poor morale. In 1776 Washington revised his strategy, choosing to avoid all-out battles with the British and protract the war. The fighting dragged on for six long years, but Washington's plan was the formula for victory.
When the country called delegates to form a new government to replace the Articles of Confederation in 1787, Washington was chosen to lead both the Virginia delegation and the entire convention. Throughout, he advocated not a temporary fix, but a radical restructuring that would give the central government the power it needed to survive.
Elected the first president of the United States, Washington ably staffed his cabinet. Among his cabinet members were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who often disagreed violently on policy. Washington generally aligned himself with Hamilton, who developed policies to stabilize the nation's finances.
Washington declined to serve a third term. But when he retired to Mount Vernon in 1797, the United States was already on the road to self-sufficiency, with a functional monetary system, a central government with expanded powers, and the ability to defend itself from internal insurrection. Washington, who died in 1799, would forever be known as the father of his country.