Biography of George Washington
George Washington, circa 1796, after Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne Portrait, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
As one of the most famous men in American history, George Washington continues to inspire people today. Known well for his military ability, Washington was able to shape, train and lead the initially inexperienced Continental Army to victory over Britain in the Revolutionary War. Washington, a man of principle, honor and discipline, was very successful in the political realm as well. He served in the Virginia legislature, and as a delegate to both Continental Congresses, presided over the writing of the United States Constitution, and served as the nation’s first President, holding two terms in office from 1789 – 1797. So, who was George Washington? What made him such a great leader and an inspiration to the generations well beyond his own?
What was George Washington’s early life like?
Not a lot is known about George Washington’s childhood – most of the information we have about his early life is from his own writings, which started around the age of sixteen. Washington was born at Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia on February 22, 1732. He was the first child born to Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball, but he had two half brothers and a half sister from his father’s former marriage. In 1743, Augustine Washington died when George was just eleven years old.
Brass surveyor’s compass with case, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
How Washington was educated early on is somewhat of a mystery, but at some point after his father’s death George’s half brother Lawrence took on oversight of his education and became a mentor to him. Washington was ambitious from the start, cultivating a close relationship with the wealthy and influential Fairfax family and becoming a surveyor on the Virginia frontier by his late teens. This career guaranteed adventure and experience for young Washington, and the position allowed George to begin purchasing land of his own. This began Washington’s keen interest in acquiring grants of land in the frontier.
Survey of 330 Acres in Augusta County for Edward Hogan, George Washington, November 1749, public domain
In 1751, Washington’s half brother Lawrence was suffering from the effects of tuberculosis. George and his brother traveled to Barbados, hoping the climate would improve Lawrence’s health. While there, Washington contracted smallpox but recovered in time. This was to be George’s only trip out of North America.
Where did Washington get his military start?
Major-General Braddock's death at the Battle of the Monongahela, 9 July 1755, unknown artist, 19th century, public domain
Sadly, Lawrence died shortly after the brothers’ return to America. George was appointed by Governor Dinwiddie to serve in a part of his brother Lawrence’s military capacity. Washington received the rank of major with this appointment. Eager to prove himself, Washington volunteered for a dangerous mission in the Ohio territory in 1753. He was to deliver a warning from Governor Dinwiddie to the French. Washington soon returned to Virginia, reporting that the French refused to heed the message and evacuate Ohio lands. Washington, newly promoted to lieutenant colonel, once again traveled to the northern frontier in spring of 1754, where a series of skirmishes resulted in the death of Joseph Jumonville, a French officer. Washington, now a colonel, and his men continued work on a fort they were building at Great Meadows, Pennsylvania. The French, in retaliation for the death of Jumonville, surrounded and attacked the fort in July, leaving Washington no option but to surrender Fort Necessity. These events set the stage for armed conflict between France and Great Britain for control over the Ohio region. War was formally declared in 1756, becoming known in America as the French and Indian War and called the Seven Years’ War in Britain.
Following the surrender at Fort Necessity, Washington resigned his appointment with the Virginia regiment and leased his sister-in-law’s Mount Vernon estate near Alexandria, Virginia. But the call of duty and a desire to increase his military experience soon led George to volunteer as an aide to British General Edward Braddock, who had been sent from Britain to lead an expedition to remove the French from their fort in Ohio territory. Washington, whose greatest desire was to acquire a regular commission in the British army, closely observed Braddock and his British regular troops as they prepared for the expedition. Braddock’s troops set out in the spring of 1755, and along their slow progress northward, met French and Indian troops unexpectedly. The bloody battle that ensued devastated the British forces. Washington bravely rallied the defeated troops and organized the retreat. He was lauded as a hero and quickly became the commander of all of Virginia’s military forces. His earlier work in Ohio territory and his response to the disastrous Braddock mission had made Washington well known in America and Europe. Washington was well on his way to fame in our nation’s history books!
What did Washington do upon return from the frontier?
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, Eliphalet Frazer Andrews, 1878, public domain
After the French and Indian War, Washington settled into life as a country gentleman. Washington carefully calculated all of his decisions, including his marriage to the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis in January of 1759. With this marriage, Washington’s social standing and wealth skyrocketed, making him one of the most affluent and influential men in Virginia. George and Martha had no children of their own, but together raised her two children from her previous marriage, John Parke Custis (“Jackie”) and Martha Parke Custis (“Patsy”). The family took up residence at Mount Vernon where Washington applied himself to expanding his holdings. He purchased thousands of acres around Mount Vernon and was granted a tract on the frontier for his service in the French and Indian War.
When did George Washington begin his political career?
Washington came from a family of local importance. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father served as justices of the peace. His half brother Lawrence represented Fairfax County in the Virginia legislature. Anxious to enter the political realm himself, Washington decided to run for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. After two disappointing defeats, Washington was finally elected in 1758 to represent Frederick County. In 1760, he was appointed as a justice of the peace in Fairfax County, Virginia, a role he fulfilled for fourteen years.
What was Washington’s role in the events leading up to the American Revolution?
Washington disagreed with Britain’s taxation of the colonies and was frustrated by their attempts to prevent American colonists from exploring and settling on the newly acquired frontier lands. He became increasingly involved in the resistance after the Townshend Acts of 1767. With his friend and colleague George Mason, Washington proposed a boycott of English goods in Virginia, hoping that the British would see good sense and repeal the Townshend Acts. In August 1774, Washington was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress, where he supported action against what he saw as British tyranny. At wit’s end after the bloodshed at the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, the colonies went to war with Britain. Demonstrating his devotion to the Patriot cause, Washington arrived at the Second Continental Congress in full military uniform. In June of 1775 during this second meeting of the congress, the Continental Army was created. Because of his social and political standing, his military experience, and his status as a Virginian, Washington was selected as major general and commander-in-chief.
The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th, 1770, copper engraving by Paul Revere modeled on a drawing by Henry Pelham, 1770, public domain
What were some of Washington’s successes and failures as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army?
Washington took command of his army during an ongoing siege of Boston in July 1775. He eventually forced the British to withdraw from the city. Washington then moved his troops to New York City.
When British General William Howe set out to capture New York City in August of 1776, Washington and his troops fought valiantly. Outmaneuvered, Washington’s army was defeated. Using the darkness for cover, Washington drew back across the East River at night. After his retreat across New Jersey, Washington planned a surprise attack on Hessian troops in Trenton on Christmas night in 1776. Although the British assumed that the campaign season was over for the winter, Washington led his army across the icy Delaware River, capturing around 1,000 Hessians. Another victory followed against British regulars at Princeton in early January. The defeated British troops withdrew to the area around New York City.
Hessian troops in British pay in the United States War of Independence, C. Ziegler after Conrad Gessner, 1799, public domain
From the pinnacle of success in New Jersey, Washington went on to suffer several defeats. General Howe outmaneuvered him at the Battle of Brandywine in September of 1777, and Washington’s attack on the British garrison at Germantown in early October was a disaster. On the up side, these battles kept General Howe engaged so that he was not able to support British General Burgoyne in a series of battles near Saratoga, New York. Trapped there, Burgoyne was forced to surrender his entire army to the Continental forces. The American victory at Saratoga was a major turning point in the war. France, encouraged that the Americans had potential to win the war, formally allied with the United States. This made the war between America and Britain a more global conflict. The Spanish and Dutch eventually joined the action as well.
General George Washington and a Committee of Congress at Valley Forge, Winter 1777-78. Copy of engraving after W. H. Powell, published 1866, 1931 – 1932, public domain
In December 1777, Washington's army went into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Disease, exposure to the elements and lack of supplies caused deaths in camp that numbered in the thousands. Despite hardships, the time at Valley Forge brought about positive changes as well. A critical training program was implemented by Baron von Steuben of Prussia, which turned the troops into a polished, organized unit.
How did the American Revolution end?
Plan of the Siege of Yorktown, 1781, Sebastian Bauman, 1887, public domain
From his position in New York, Washington heard of the planned arrival of Admiral de Grasse’s French fleet in the Chesapeake Bay in 1781. Combining forces with four regiments of French soldiers commanded by the Comte de Rochambeau, Washington quickly marched south to attack General Cornwallis, who was encamped at Yorktown, Virginia. The Americans and French arrived at Yorktown on September 28, 1781, formed a semi-circle around the entrenchments and prepared to lay siege to the British. Finding himself surrounded, Cornwallis abandoned a line of four redoubts that were immediately occupied by continental troops. The Americans began formal siege operations on the eastern side of Yorktown on September 30. On October 14, the Americans and French stormed two redoubts in front of their trenches, making the position of the British in Yorktown indefensible. Cornwallis tried to move his troops across the York River to Gloucester, but a sudden strong storm prevented it. With no sign of relief from British General Clinton, Cornwallis surrendered to American and French forces on October 19.
The Treaty of Paris, signed in September 1783, recognized the independence of the United States. Washington disbanded his army on November 2. The British evacuated New York City on November 25 and Washington and the governor took possession. Washington told his officers goodbye on December 4, and on December 23, 1783, he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief. Some people feel that this was the most magnanimous moment of Washington’s life because he could have made himself the most powerful man in America. Instead, he returned home and took up the life of a citizen.
What did George Washington do after the American Revolution was over?
When the war was done, Washington retired to his beloved Mount Vernon. In 1784, he once again pursued his interest in the western frontier, traveling and exploring through the region. Knowing that the Articles of Confederation were fraught with weaknesses, Washington participated in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, where he was unanimously elected president of the Convention. The support he showed there inspired many to vote for ratification, and subsequently the new United States Constitution was ratified by all thirteen states.
Mount Vernon, Francis Jukes, 1800, public domain
In 1789, Washington was elected the first president of the United States, earning the distinction of being the only president to have received one hundred percent of the electoral vote. Washington was re-elected in the 1792 election. In March of 1797, Washington retired from the presidency and returned to Mount Vernon. He devoted most of his time to farming and other business interests for the remainder of his life. Following a brief illness, Washington died at home on December 14, 1799, at age 67.