George Washington (1732-99)

Figure 1.--.

George Washington was the first president of the United States. Argueably our greatest president because of the standards and precedents he set. Many descriptions come to mind when describing Washington, among the most common are dignity, integrity, and honesty. George Washington was the military commander of the Revoluntionary armed forces. In a very real way Washington was the Revolution. Although not perhaps a brilliant tactician, it is very unlikely that the Colonists would have precailed without him. Washington was also the first president of the United States. Argueably our greatest president because of the standards and precedents he set. A republic governed by an elected president and congress was in the late 18th Century a radical experiment in government. There was virtually no precedent for it, except thise dating back to ancient history. As a result it was Washington who established major presedents, the most important of course was a limit of two terms. This was a critical mesure for constitutional government and one that had not been forseen by the drafters of the Constitution. Most doubted that the American republic would succeed. it could exceed. The character and integrity of Washington played a key role in the suceess of the young Republic, a Republic that would in the 20th Century save Britain, France, and indeed western civilization itself.


Most presidents received unwavering support from their mothers. This was not the case for George Washington. His mother Mary Ball Washington was an ardent Tory and strongly disapproved of her son's support of the independence movement. His father was ???. It was an aristocratic Virginian family, but of the lower gentry. They grew tobacco and cut timber.


George had an elder half brother, Lawrence. George was one of ten children. There were four by his father's first wife. There were six by Mary Ball.


George was born on February 22, 1732 in the British colony of Virginia. We probasbly know less about Washington's childhood than any other American president. He came from a wealthy family and may have been sent to England for his education. His life was changed, however, when his father died. He was raised by his elder brother. When George was 8 years old, his brother Larence recieved a commission. George was deeply impressed with his uniform, kindly a desire to be a soldier himself. One of the few insights into his childhood are his childhood school copybooks. Books at the time were expensive. Children copied available books. It was thought that this was a good way to really learn what was in the book. George's copy books show that he had a very orderly mind and was a careful worker.


Washington first studied at a churchyard school. He was then sent to a boarding school 30 miles away. He practical subjects like math that were useful to a gentleman farmer. Unlike some of the Revolutionry leaders, he did not receive a classical eduaction. He was not versed in the classics of the day nor was he schooled in foreign languages. His education ended in his early teens. Of all the presidents, only Abraham Lincoln had less formal education. Many contemporaries looked down on him because of his poor education. He pursued his own education. As a teen ager he aquired a translation of a small book published in 1595 by French Jesuits, The Rules of Civility. It consisted of 110 rules of correct behavior. While some seem comical today, such as "Don't spit in the fire", most are as apt today as they were in Washington's time. This was one of the books that he wrote out in his copy books. One subject he did persue was politics and he carefully read the political tracts of the day. He never became an intelectual, but he did absorb the best ideas of the day and became adevote of republican ideas.


Many descriptions come to mind when describing Washington, among the most common are dignity, integrity, and honesty. Less well know is that Washingtpn was possessed of a force temper, something he struggled to control his entire life. There were occassions, especially during the Revolutionary War in which his temper exploded. Also less well know about washington was his social side. In particular he enjoyed dancing and indeed was quite accomplished. As president, for formal occassions there would be ladies waiting in line to dance with him.


Washington when he was 16 years old met Lord Thomas Fairfax. He was an Englishman who owned enormous tracts of land in the northern neck of Virginia. Fairfax employed Washington to survey his lands in the Shenandoah Valley. This gave Washington the money to begin buying land. When a few years and working as the offical surveyor of Culpeper County he acquired more than 1,500 acres, all purchased with his own money. His older brother Lawrence died in 1752, leaving George his Mount Vernon estate.

British Military

Lawrence also asked George to take his place as an adjutant general of Virginia. In this position he oversaw the militia of the districts. Washington in 1753 successfully carried a British ulimatum to the French in the Ohio River Valley. He served as a colonel in the th militia and when he acidentally stumbled on a detachment of French sildiers he ignited the French and Indian War. He had to surrender to the French. The British were not impressed with his performance.

Political Career

Washington followed his brother Larence into the Virginia House of Burgess. He served 14 years in the House of Burgess and than 2 years in the Continental Congress. It was there that the delegates turned to him to lead the Continental Army. He had little milkitary experience, but more than the other delegated. It was his image that decided the mater. Washington looked like a military commander. He was tall, athletic, and a superb horseman. It was a momentous decessioin. At the time there was no Continental Army, only a poorly disciplined militia assembling around Boston.

Revolutionary War (1775-83)

George Washington was appointed by the Continental Congress (1775) to be the military commander of the Continental Army to wage the Revolutionary War. In a very real way Washington was the Revolution. There are two individuals without whom it is hard to see how the Revolution could have suceedeeded. One is washington who kept the Army in the field. The other is Franklin who suceeded in gaining French support. Although not perhaps a brilliant tactician, it is very unlikely that the Colonists would have prevailed without him. He lost most of the battles he fought, but he managed to keep an army in the field against a large professional British force--an amazing accomplishment. At an early stage he grasped the key to victory was to maintain an armybin the field and the British would eventually tire of the expense of continuing the war. He had his victories, most notably at Trenton (1776) when it looked like the Revolution had been lost. Aided by Baron Frederich Wilhelm von Steuben, he gradually built a small professional force which at Marmouth, New Jersey (1778) proved they could stand up to crack British units. Combined with the British defeat at Saratoga, New York, the French decided to enter the War. With French assistance the British who had moved the War to the South were dealt a devestating defeat at Yorktown, Virginia (1781). Washington's brilliance as a military commandr has been debated. He had his critics during the Revolution. What has to be born in mind is that he faced a professional military force that when supported by the Royal Navy could not be defeated with the forces he commanded. In the final analysis he succeeded against considerable odds.

The Constitutional Convention (1787)

It soon became apparent that the Articles of Confederation were not working and could not be the legal basis for the newly independent republic. The States agreed to meet to discuss needed changes. There was no certainty, however, that the Convention would suceed. The same forces that made the Articles unworkable also acted to impede agreement in the Convention. Many realized that only Washington's presence would offer any chance of success. washington was not a deep thinker like Masison capable of drafting a workabledocumnt. He was, however, a man of proven character, having after winning the Revolutionary War, walked away from the Army tobretuen to farming. Washington played an important role in the Constitutional Convention (1787). He served as chairman of the poceedings, an act which helped to lend credibiliy and importance to the proceedings. The participants in the Convention assumed that the key institution would be the Congress. The presidency was seemed as institution of lesser importance, which proved to be the case, with a few excetions, until the Depression and World War II. Most delegates realized that Washington almost certainly would be the first president. The presidency was thus constructed with that in mind. The presidency was not as powerful as a European monarchy. Many wanted an even less powerful executive, but in the end relented knowing that Washington would hold the office. [Berkin] Had an individual of impecable character not been vailable, the Convention might well have flundered n the issue of executive power. [Larson] Most expected him to hold the office until he died and no limits were placed on the number of terms a president might serve. After an intense national debate the Convention received the required number of state approvals (1788).

Presidential Election (1788)

There was no real presidenial campaign in 1788. There was no opposition to Washington. The election of 1789 was the only election where political parties did not play a role. The election was essentially a coronation. It was a foregone conclusion that Revolutional War hero General George Washington would be elected. He in fact was unique in that he was elected without opposition and received the unanimous endorsement of the Electoral College both times he ran for the presidency. The only question was who would be elected vice president. The Constitution established that the Vice President would be the person receiving the second largest numbers of elkectoral votes. The candidated did not run as ticket and individuals of different political parties which were a;ready forming could be elected. This was a defect in the Constitution that would have to be changed by Constitutional amendment, the first of several amendments concerning elections and voting.

Presidency (1789-97)

Washington as president conducted himself with both dignity and reserve. He modeled himself on classical virtues. A French diplomat who witnesses Washington's first inauguration reported in awe: 'He has the soul, look and figure of a hero united in him.' Washington was an effective delegator. He had a temper of his own which he struggled to control, but had to preside over a bitterly divided cabinent. He was unsure how to handel the press criticism which increased in intensity as conflicts between Federalista and Republicans energed. The Washington presidency was perhaps the most important in American history and thgere were many notavle achievements in both domestic and foreign policy.


Some believe that Washington was overly formal and asked any visitor to stand up. He refused to shake hands. It was Washington, however, who established the principle that the president should be addressed simply as "Mr. President". The greatest accomplishment of Washington's presidency might as well have been his establishing a presidency and all the necessary rules and regulations. George Washington established all the rules and regulations. During his presidency George Washington did his utmost to live up to the American people's expectations as their idol and hero. George Washington was a living legend. Under Washington, the U.S. government gained its executive and legislative precedents. The single most important was retiring after two terms. This was a critical mesure for constitutional government and one that had not been forseen by the drafters of the Constitution.


Washington was very conscious of his image and that of the presidency. Hde made a point of traveling to each of the states to help show the face of the new Federal Government. In the 1790s this was no small undertaling. Washington was no longer a young man. And he had no Air Fofce One to waft him from state to state. He often traveled by carriage, but when approaching a town would mount his magnificent white horse, Nelson, and ride into town like the military hero he was. Thus Washoington through his image building and precedents helped define the office of the presidency. He was perhaps the only president who lent his enormous prestige to the office. Future presidents would derive prestige from the office.

Domestic achievements

The most monentous development during the Washingtom presidency was the passage of the Bill of Rightrs, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Another major achievement was the work of Washington's brilliant Secretary of the treasurer, Alexander Hamilton. Hed suceeded in establishing the credit of the Federal Government, both overseas and domestically. The new Federal Gobernment fostered manufacturing and encouraged commerce. The Government faced challenges both domestically and from foreign countries. The most serious challenge was the Whiskey Rebellion (1794). This sounds curious to the modern reader, but whiskey at the time had considerable economuc importance. Tranportation was difficult and expensive. Farmers west of the Appalachian Mountains had no way of transporting grain to eastern markets. Distelling grain into spirits, however, resulted in a marketable product that was easier to transport. This farmers in western Pennsylvania revolted when the Federal Government imposed a tax on liquor. Washington raised an army of 12,000 volunteers and the farmers dispersed. An interesting footnote to this episode was that Washington at his Mount Vernon planbtation was the largest distiller in the country at the time. The Government acted to secure the western territories against Indian attacks. Here the major action was Anthony Wayne's victory at Fallen Timbers on the Maumee River in Ohio (1794). The Government implemented a policy for the dispositions of public lands

Foreign policy accomplishments

A major accomplishment was achieving the removal of British troops from the Old Northwest. Here Wayne's victory at Fallen Timbers was a major factor. ,The Government prevented Spanish encroachments in the Old Southwest and obtained transit rights on the Mississippi River. This was a critical achievement, because without access to the Mississppi, the development of the trans-mountain west was untenable. Washington took office as the French Revolution was taking place in Europe (1789). War broke out as the monarchies of Europe led by Austria attempted to supress the new French Republic. Britain entered the war (1793). The French expected America to support their cause. The two emerging political parties in America took sides in the escalating European conflict. The United States could have easily been drawn into the conflict. Many Americans still saw the British as their primary enemy. and the French as an ally. In addition, trade with Europe was of great economic importance. Several issues left over from the Revolution still divided Britain and America. The Federalists were desposed toward Britain. The Democratic Republicans were more desposed toward France. War with Britain was possible after Britain entered the War with Revolutionary France (1793). was possible which would have been a disaster for the young Republic. Many of these issues were addressed by the Jay Treaty between the United States and Britain (November 1794). Thomas Jefferson who had been the first Secretary of State (1790-93) opposed the Treaty, arguably one of the most important in American history. The Treaty was strongly suported by Hamilton and Jay and of course President Washington. The struggle for ratification was one of the first major patisan debates in American politics. The Senate after a heated debate approved it and the Treaty went into effect (1795). The Jay Treaty made possible about 10 years of peaceful trade during the European conflict. At the time, however, the Treaty was widely criticised and became a major factor in the rise of the Democratic Republican Party. Historians see Washington's leadership here an example of presidential leadership on an unpopular issue. [Beschloss] Washington in the debates over Britain and Frabce wisely decided to persue a neutral course. Upon leaving office he warned his countrymen against involvement in European conflicts. Unfortunately, while the Jay Treaty resolved many problems with Britain, it left to the next president the problem with the other major sea power--France.

Presidential Election (1792)

President Washington's handling of the office was generally admired during his first 4 years of office. Political issues had begun to divide the country, many associated with the Revolution that had broken out in France (1789). These political issues, however, did not affect the admiration that Americans had for Washington. And his careful, cautious handling of affairs gave only limited reason for criticism. Washington did not like party politics and did not see political parties as necessary or even appropriate for the new Republic. He held himself above the political divisions that were foming. The political divisions that had become apparent during the fight over the Constitution were becoming more formalized by 1792. The major faction wth which both Washington and Adams were un general agreement was the Federalists. Washington had originally intended to serve only one term and decided to run, in large part to help resist the growth of political parties. The Democratic Republicans while they disagreed with Washington vision of a strong central government and opposition to political parties did not oppose him. They trusted Washington to act with restraint, but were less sure about who would come after him. Also they realized that given Washington's popularity, open opposition to him would taint the Party. President Washington was reelected unanimously. Vice President Adams was also reelected, although the vote was more contested. Adams received 77 votes. The leading Democratic-Republican candidate was Govenor George Clinton of New York who received 50 votes. Another Democratic Republican, Thomas Jefferson. received only 4 votes.


Matha Washington had a slave half-sister, Ann Dandridge. Martha inherited her and brought her to Mount Vernon where she was kept in bondage. Martha in her will left no provision to freeing her sister. Dandrudge after Martha died in 1802 was only freed by the niece who inherited her. [Wiencek]


Washington is commonly described as having no children. He did have one stepson who reportedly attempted to cheat him in a busisness arrangement. His stepson died at the age of 27. There are also reports of a son by a slave woman

John Parke Curtis (1754-81)

John was Martha's son by her earlier marriage. He was known as Jackey. He was a man of means through an endowment left him by his father. Even so he apparently tried to cheat his step-father in a business deal. He pleded with his father to be permitted to join the Continental Army. His parents adamently refused. This did not change until Washington came south with the rmy to trap Cenrtal Corwallis at Yorktown. He stoped for a few days at Mount Vernon. His father finally relented. He served as aide-de-camp to Washington at Yorktowm. Here he contracts 'camp feaver'. His mother and step-fther reached him just before he died. He was survived by four young children. His wife remarried and she raised the two oldest children. The two youngest stayed with Martha and George at Mount Vernon. Elenor (c1779-1952) was known as Nelly. She married a nephew of Washington, Lawrence Lewis. They had eight children, only four of whom survived infancy. She cared for her grand parents in their old age. George Washington Parke Curtis (c1790-1857) was called Wash as a boy. He apparently was a bit of a rascal as a boy, but evebtually serrled down. He served as an officer in the Army. He married Mary Lee Fitzhugh at 23 and managed a small farm on the Potomac. They had four children, but only a daughter survived infancy. Mary Anne Randolph Curtis went on to marry Robert E. Lee, the famed Confederate General. George wrote Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, an important family account of Washington.

Martha Parke Curtis (1756-73)

Martha was named after her mother. She was the second child by an earlier marriage. Martha was an epeleptic. Washington regarded her as his own daughter and was emotioanlly devestated when she died of a severe epeleptic fit when she was only 17.

West Ford (1784/85-1863)

In the upshot of the Thomas Jeffereson-Sally Hemmings affair, questions are now being asked about Washington's relationship with his slaves. Novelist Linda Allen asks the provocative question, "Was the man known as the father of his country also the father of a slave?" He was, according to one historian. [Bryant] He is the first historian to explore the claim that George Washington sired West Ford, alegedly his mulatto son. This book may be the most compelling family saga since Alex Haley's Roots. Documented national history tells us that the nation's first president had no children. But the oral history of the descendants of an African American family tells a different story. Many people will believe the story of George Washington fathering a mulatto son. Many more will find it impossible to accept the fact that he crossed the color line and deigned to establish an intimacy with a slave woman named Venus. Their fateful union during the era of antebellum slavery suposedly produced a son, West Ford. As time and space distanced the Ford family from its beginnings at Mount Vernon, each generation continued to walk a precarious line, bearing the weight of their heritage and constantly battling issues of skin color, status, and identity. Most historians dismiss the acount. [Wiencek] There crtainly is no substantial evidence. Unlike the Jefferson story, we know of no DNA evidence linking Washington to Ford. .

Republican Virtues

It is said that the United States is a Cicerian Republic. This is large measure because many of the founding fathers were influened by classical authors, many reading them in the original Latin. Indeed Marcus Tullius Cicero may well be the single most important ficure in Western civilization. Many institutions of the American Republic are indeed based on Cicerian concepts. Washington with his limited education did not read Cicero, but was undoubtedly influenced by him. Of course for Cicero, Washington resigning his commission like Cincinatus or deciding to run only two times for the presidency would have place him high on a list of republican heros. King George is reported to have said of Washington that if he retires voluntarily that he will go down in history as one of the great leaders of all time. The fact that Washington did not read Cicero did not mean that he was not unaffected by him. Cicerian concepts prevaded 18th century life. A popular play at the time, "Cato" by Joseph Addison (1713) dealt with the conflict between a virtous republic and a empire led by Ceasar. Lines from the play wwre the inspiration for "I regret I have but one life to give for my country" (Natahn Hale) and "Give me liberty or give me death" (Patrick Henry).

Slave Owner

The issue of slave holding has become of great interest in recent years. While it is well known who the slave holding presidents were, often their conduct as slave masters is often not well reported. In the caseof washington, we know a good bit as to how he treated his slaves. Washington inherited 10 slaves while still a teenager. When the Revolutionary War began, Wshington had acquired more than 100 slaves, but he purchased no more. As he shited Mt. Vernon from tobacco to wheat production, less labor was required. Even without additional purchases, by the time Washington died in 1799, there were 317 slaves. There is no indication that Washington was an especially enlightened or kindly slave owner. He seems to have like most other large slave holders worked his slaves hard and long. He observed each slave's pace of work. On many occassions he broke up families. At Mount, 60 percent of the women lived without their husbands. He disciplined his slaves harshly and recalcitrant slaves were sold to the West Indies--tantamount to a death sentence. In his final years he even persued an escaped slave Ona Judge who had a child while free in Maine. This is not to say that he was a especially cruel slave holder, but this conduct was the nature of slave holding and underscores the cruelty of the system. Washington at about the time he became president appears to have altered his view on slavery, coming to see slavery as no only an inefficent economic system, but an immoral system as well. It is not clear what brought Washington to this conclusion. Although at first oposing Black soldiers in th Continental Army, he came to admire the performance of Blacks in northern regiments. He may have also been influenced by the ideals of the Revolution or his association with during the war with men like Hamilton who opposed slavery. Perhaps his thoughts were on his place in history. While we do not know what caused this change in opinion. We do know that Washington began educating his younger slaves and left provision for the emancipation of all his slves after Martha's death. [Wiencek] Of the 11 slave-owning presidents, Washingtom was the only one to free them in his will. Actually there was one other. U.S. Grant freed a slave that he acquired from his wife's slave owning family.

Moral Issue of Slavery

It is always hazardrous to apply moderm moral principles to 18th century figures. The question of slavery is often excused by early U.S. presidents as essentially "every one else was doing it". HBC finds this a not very satisfactory excuse. There were abolitionists even in the 18th century. The second president, John Adams, for example, rejected slavery as morally repugnant. Even some of the slave-holding presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, saw the moral issues. The question of personal slave holding aside, the issue for the founding fathers was simply that there could be no Revolution and no United States without slavery. American independence could not be won without the southern colonies and the southern colonies would not permit an abolition of slavery. It is rare in history that are stark choices between good and evil such as the crusade against NAZIism in World War II. More often the choices are between honorable choices. (This issue was addressed in Cicero's brilliant essay De Officiis.) Here an insistance on abolition would have doomed the Revolution and at the time, British law still condoned slavery.


Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Sollution.

Beschloss, Michael. Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989 (Simon & Schuster, 2007), 430p.

Bryant, Linda Allen. I Cannot Tell a Lie: The True Story of George Washington's African American Descendants.

Curtis, George Washington Parke. Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington.

Larson, Edward J. The REturn of George Washington (2014), 400p.

Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003), 404p.


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Created: June 25, 1999
Last changed: 12:59 AM 10/19/2014