First (and often considered best) President of the United States, George Washington is a quintessential American figure. His legacy lives on in the very foundation of his country, and without him, it likely would not exist in this form. He heralded the ideals and notions that the U.S. was built around despite personal imperfections. Without Washington's guiding hand, our nation would be a vastly different one today.
While George Washington undoubtedly has a storied history, much of popular conception about the man comes from his tenure as our first president. We know the basics of his childhood and his life, from his powdered wigs to his rumored cherry tree chopping abilities, but who was George Washington before he took office? How did he come to be the Founding Father adulated by a country? From humble beginnings to one-dollar bills and Mount Rushmore, read on for a deep dive into the full scope of George Washington’s life.
Born in Virginia on February 22, 1732, Washington was the first of six children to Augustine and Mary Ball Washington. Though he did not receive the formal education his significantly older half-brothers had in England, Washington learned the necessary basics and showed an early and real talent for mapmaking. He received a surveyor’s license from The College of William & Mary, after which he became the surveyor for Culpeper County, Virginia.
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In 1752, Washington's older half-brother, Lawrence, passed away. The young man had regarded Lawrence as a father figure, and his death inspired Washington to change his career to follow in Lawrence's footsteps. Despite having no military background, Washington was appointed major and commander of one of the four established militia districts and became embroiled in the battle for control over the Ohio Valley that was waging between the British and the French.
After being promoted to lieutenant colonel and second-in-command of the Virginia Regiment, George Washington was ordered to confront the French who refused to recede. Taking the offensive, Washington gathered a group of Virginians and Native American allies for an ambush. The group was ultimately successful, and their defeat of the French ignited the coming French and Indian War.
Eventually put in charge of the entirety of Virginia’s military forces, Washington oversaw the growth and rise of professionalism within his troops. Taking the Regiment from 300 men to over 1,000, Virginia's Regiment saw fewer lives lost than many other colonies. Though Washington never earned a royal commission for his hard work, choosing instead to return to Mount Vernon before the war had ended, the leadership skills and tactical abilities he gained during the battles were invaluable. Many of the scenes he bore witness to would come to inform his later military strategies and policymaking.
From 1759 to 1774, Washington settled into life at Mount Vernon. He married Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759, and though the two never had children of their own, Washington became a dedicated stepfather. He doubled the acreage of Mount Vernon and quickly became one of Virginia’s wealthiest men thanks to advancements in crop farming carried out by over 100 enslaved people and involvement in international trade. During this time, Washington was also appointed to the Virginia House of Burgesses.
Though Washington stayed quiet for much of the beginning of his political career, he was staunchly opposed to Great Britain’s taxation and mercantilist policies by the 1760s. He became a prominent critic of the nation’s policies. He was loudly opposed to oppressive measures such as the Stamp Act, led protests against the Townshend Acts, and introduced legislation in Virginia to boycott English goods.
Amid rising tensions, George Washington attended the First Virginia Congress and was selected as the colony’s delegate to the First Continental Congress. When war broke out in 1775, Washington rushed to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, at which point he was nominated and elected Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.
As the Revolutionary War kicked into high gear, Washington proved himself to be more skilled as a general. Though he had a strong command of military strategy, George Washington’s real strength was in his ability to keep struggling troops together. Nowhere was this on better display than during Washington’s leadership through tough and disastrous winters.
From his infamous crossing of the Delaware River in which his troops suffered no losses to the survival of the Valley Forge encampment, Washington held his men together. He made demands on their behalf and saw them through the most destructive of conditions on both personal and military fronts.
Following Valley Forge, the British confined themselves to New York City. Washington decided to leave the troops there alone, and instead went after Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia with the help of newly acquired French allies. Though George Washington could not have known so at the time, the Battle at Yorktown brought about the end of the Revolutionary War—America had won their independence. On December 23, 1783, Washington resigned as commander-in-chief and returned to Mount Vernon.
However, Washington’s duties were not yet over. In 1787, he was called upon to assist at the Constitutional Convention. The country had been suffering under the insufficient and contradictory Articles of Confederation, which Washington had warned were not capable of unifying the states.
When Shay’s Rebellion, a conflict in protest of a debt crisis and tyrannical state taxing in Massachusetts, erupted, Washington knew a stronger constitution was needed. The Constitutional Convention was called in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. What resulted, however, was a proposal for an entirely new system of government which Washington strongly supported. George Washington was unanimously elected to serve as president general, and his support for the Constitution undoubtedly contributed to its eventual, if hesitant, ratification.
Though still hoping to return to Virginia, the First Presidential Election had other plans. Washington was unanimously elected as President of the United States by the Electoral College—he remains the only president unanimously elected to this day. The duties of office being left almost entirely up to him to decide, Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
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