George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799) was the first President of the United States (1789–1797), the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He presided over the convention that drafted the United States Constitution, which replaced the Articles of Confederation and remains the supreme law of the land.
Washington was elected president as the unanimous choice of the electors in the elections of both 1788–1789 and 1792. He oversaw the creation of a strong, well-financed national government that maintained neutrality in the wars raging in Europe, suppressed rebellion, and won acceptance among Americans of all types. His leadership style established many forms and rituals of government that have been used since, such as using a cabinet system and delivering an inaugural address. Further, his retirement after two terms and the peaceful transition from his presidency to that of John Adams established a tradition that continues today. Washington was hailed as “father of his country” even during his lifetime.Washington was born into the provincial gentry of Colonial Virginia; his wealthy planter family owned tobacco plantations and slaves. After both his father and older brother died when he was young, Washington became personally and professionally attached to the powerful William Fairfax, who promoted his career as a surveyor and soldier. Washington quickly became a senior officer in the colonial forces during the first stages of the French and Indian War. Chosen by the Second Continental Congress in 1775 to be commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolution, Washington managed to force the British out of Boston in 1776, but was defeated and almost captured later that year when he lost New York City. After crossing the Delaware River in the dead of winter, he defeated the British in two battles, retook New Jersey and restored momentum to the Patriot cause. Because of his strategy, Revolutionary forces captured two major British armies at Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown in 1781. Historians laud Washington for his selection and supervision of his generals, encouragement of morale and ability to hold together the army, coordination with the state governors and state militia units, relations with Congress and attention to supplies, logistics, and training. In battle, however, Washington was repeatedly outmaneuvered by British generals with larger armies. After victory had been finalized in 1783, Washington resigned as Commander-in-chief rather than seize power, proving his opposition to dictatorship and his commitment to American republicanism. Dissatisfied with the weaknesses of the Continental Congress, in 1787 Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention that devised a new Federal government of the United States. Elected unanimously as the first President of the United States in 1789, he attempted to bring rival factions together to unify the nation. He supported Alexander Hamilton’s programs to pay off all state and national debt, to implement an effective tax system and to create a national bank (despite opposition from Thomas Jefferson). Washington proclaimed the United States neutral in the wars raging in Europe after 1793. He avoided war with Great Britain and guaranteed a decade of peace and profitable trade by securing the Jay Treaty in 1795, despite intense opposition from the Jeffersonians. Although he never officially joined the Federalist Party, he supported its programs. Washington’s Farewell Address was an influential primer on republican virtue and a warning against partisanship, sectionalism, and involvement in foreign wars. He retired from the presidency in 1797 and returned to his home, Mount Vernon, and his domestic life where he managed a variety of enterprises. He freed all his slaves by his final will. Washington had a vision of a great and powerful nation that would be built on republican lines using federal power. He sought to use the national government to preserve liberty, improve infrastructure, open the western lands, promote commerce, found a permanent capital, reduce regional tensions and promote a spirit of American nationalism. At his death, Washington was eulogized as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen” by Henry Lee. The Federalists made him the symbol of their party but for many years, the Jeffersonians continued to distrust his influence and delayed building the Washington Monument. As the leader of the first successful revolution against a colonial empire in world history, Washington became an international icon for liberation and nationalism, especially in France and Latin America. He is consistently ranked among the top three presidents of the United States, according to polls of both scholars and the general public.
In February 1793 a major war broke out between conservative Great Britain and its allies and revolutionary France, launching an era of large-scale warfare that engulfed Europe until 1815. Washington, with cabinet approval, proclaimed American neutrality. The revolutionary government of France sent diplomat Edmond-Charles Genêt, called “Citizen Genêt”, to America. Genêt was welcomed with great enthusiasm and propagandized the case for France in the French war against Great Britain, and for this purpose promoted a network of new Democratic Societies in major cities. He issued French letters of marque and reprisal to French ships manned by American sailors so they could capture British merchant ships. Washington, warning and mistrustful of the influence of Illuminism that had been so strong in the French Revolution (as recounted by John Robison and Abbé Augustin Barruel) and its Reign of Terror, demanded the French government recall Genêt, and denounced the societies.
Hamilton and Washington designed the Jay Treaty to normalize trade relations with Great Britain, remove them from western forts, and resolve financial debts left over from the Revolution. John Jay negotiated and signed the treaty on November 19, 1794. The Jeffersonians supported France and strongly attacked the treaty. Washington’s strong support mobilized public opinion and proved decisive in securing ratification in the Senate by the necessary two-thirds majority. The British agreed to depart from their forts around the Great Lakes, subsequently the United States-Canadian boundary had to be re-adjusted, numerous pre-Revolutionary debts were liquidated, and the British opened their West Indies colonies to American trade. Most importantly, the treaty delayed war with Great Britain and instead brought a decade of prosperous trade with Great Britain. The treaty angered the French and became a central issue in many political debates. Relations with France deteriorated after the treaty was signed, leaving his successor, John Adams, with the prospect of war.
Washington’s Farewell Address (issued as a public letter in 1796) was one of the most influential statements of republicanism. Drafted primarily by Washington himself, with help from Hamilton, it gives advice on the necessity and importance of national union, the value of the Constitution and the rule of law, the evils of political parties, and the proper virtues of a republican people. He called morality “a necessary spring of popular government”. He said, “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Washington’s public political address warned against foreign influence in domestic affairs and American meddling in European affairs. He warned against bitter partisanship in domestic politics and called for men to move beyond partisanship and serve the common good. He warned against “permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world”, saying the United States must concentrate primarily on American interests. He counseled friendship and commerce with all nations, but warned against involvement in European wars and entering into long-term “entangling” alliances. The address quickly set American values regarding foreign affairs.
On Thursday, December 12, 1799, Washington spent several hours inspecting his plantation on horseback, in snow, hail, and freezing rain—later that evening eating his supper without changing from his wet clothes. That Friday he awoke with a severe sore throat and became increasingly hoarse as the day progressed, yet still rode out in the heavy snow, marking trees on the estate that he wanted cut. Sometime around 3 a.m. that Saturday, he suddenly awoke with severe difficulty breathing and almost completely unable to speak or swallow. A firm believer in bloodletting, a standard medical practice of that era which he had used to treat various ailments of enslaved Africans on his plantation, he ordered estate overseer Albin Rawlins to remove half a pint of his blood. A total of three physicians were sent for, including Washington’s personal physician Dr. James Craik along with Dr. Gustavus Brown and Dr. Elisha Dick. Craik and Brown thought that Washington had what they diagnosed as “quinsey” or “quincy”, while Dick, the younger man, thought the condition was more serious or a “violent inflammation of the throat”. By the time the three physicians had finished their treatments and bloodletting of the President, there had been a massive volume of blood loss—half or more of his total blood content being removed over the course of just a few hours. Recognizing that the bloodletting and other treatments were failing, Dr. Dick proposed performing an emergency tracheotomy, a procedure that few American physicians were familiar with at the time, as a last-ditch effort to save Washington’s life, but the other two doctors rejected this proposal.
The Electoral College elected Washington unanimously as the first president in 1789,[Note 6] and again in the 1792 election; he remains the only president to have received 100 percent of the electoral votes. John Adams, who received the next highest vote total, was elected Vice President. At his inauguration, Washington took the oath of office as the first President of the United States of America on April 30, 1789, on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. The 1st United States Congress voted to pay Washington a salary of $25,000 a year—a large sum in 1789. Washington, already wealthy, declined the salary, since he valued his image as a selfless public servant. At the urging of Congress, however, he ultimately accepted the payment, to avoid setting a precedent whereby the presidency would be perceived as limited only to independently wealthy individuals who could serve without any salary. The president, aware that everything he did set a precedent, attended carefully to the pomp and ceremony of office, making sure that the titles and trappings were suitably republican and never emulated European royal courts. To that end, he preferred the title “Mr. President” to the more majestic names suggested. Washington proved an able administrator. An excellent delegator and judge of talent and character, he talked regularly with department heads and listened to their advice before making a final decision. In handling routine tasks, he was “systematic, orderly, energetic, solicitous of the opinion of others … but decisive, intent upon general goals and the consistency of particular actions with them”. Washington invented the workings of the presidency and established many forms and procedures that became part of the American tradition, such as messages to Congress and a cabinet form of government. Despite fears that a democratic system would lead to political violence, he set the standard for tolerance of opposition voices and conducted a smooth transition of power to his successor. He reluctantly served a second term. He refused to run for a third, establishing the customary policy of a maximum of two terms for a president.
Washington was not a member of any political party and hoped that they would not be formed, fearing conflict that would undermine republicanism. His closest advisors formed two factions, setting the framework for the future First Party System. Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton had bold plans to establish the national credit and build a financially powerful nation, and formed the basis of the Federalist Party. Secretary of the State Thomas Jefferson, founder of the Jeffersonian Republicans, strenuously opposed Hamilton’s agenda, but Washington typically favored Hamilton over Jefferson, and it was Hamilton’s agenda that went into effect. Jefferson’s political actions, his support of Philip Freneau’s National Gazette, and his attempt to undermine Hamilton, nearly led George Washington to dismiss Jefferson from his cabinet. Though Jefferson left the cabinet voluntarily, Washington never forgave him, and never spoke to him again. The Residence Act of 1790, which Washington signed, authorized the President to select the specific location of the permanent seat of the government, which would be located along the Potomac River. The Act authorized the President to appoint three commissioners to survey and acquire property for this seat. Washington personally oversaw this effort throughout his term in office. In 1791, the commissioners named the permanent seat of government “The City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia” to honor Washington. In 1800, the Territory of Columbia became the District of Columbia when the federal government moved to the site according to the provisions of the Residence Act.
In 1791, partly as a result of the Copper Panic of 1789, Congress imposed an excise tax on distilled spirits, which led to protests in frontier districts, especially Pennsylvania. By 1794, after Washington ordered the protesters to appear in U.S. district court, the protests turned into full-scale defiance of federal authority known as the Whiskey Rebellion. The federal army was too small to be used, so Washington invoked the Militia Act of 1792 to summon militias from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. The governors sent the troops and Washington took command, marching into the rebellious districts. The rebels dispersed and there was no fighting, as Washington’s forceful action proved the new government could protect itself. These events marked the first time under the new constitution that the federal government used strong military force to exert authority over the states and citizens.
Washington died at home around 10 p.m. on Saturday, December 14, 1799, aged 67. In his journal, Lear recorded Washington’s last words as being “‘Tis well.” The diagnosis of Washington’s final illness and the immediate cause of his death have been subjects of debate since the day he died. In the days immediately following his death, Craik and Dick’s published account stated that they felt his symptoms had been consistent with what they called “cynanche trachealis”, a term of that period for describing severe inflammation of the structures of the upper airway. Even at that early date, there were accusations of medical malpractice, with some believing that Washington had been bled to death. Various modern medical authors have speculated that Washington probably died from a severe case of epiglottitis which was complicated by the given treatments (all of which were accepted medical practice in Washington’s day)—most notably the massive deliberate blood loss, which almost certainly caused hypovolemic shock. Throughout the world, men and women were saddened by Washington’s death. In France, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte ordered ten days of mourning throughout the country; in the United States, thousands wore mourning clothes for months. To protect their privacy, Martha Washington burned the correspondence between her husband and her following his death. Only a total of five letters between the couple are known to have survived, two letters from Martha to George and three from him to Martha.
On December 18, 1799, a funeral was held at Mount Vernon, where his body was interred. Congress passed a joint resolution to construct a marble monument in the planned crypt below the rotunda of the center section of the Capitol (then still under construction) for his body, a plan supported by Martha. In December 1800, the House passed an appropriations bill for $200,000 to build the mausoleum, which was to be a pyramid with a 100-foot (30 m) square base. Southern representatives and senators, in later opposition to the plan, defeated the measure because they felt it was best to have Washington’s body remain at Mount Vernon. In 1831, for the centennial of his birth, a new tomb was constructed to receive his remains. That year, an unsuccessful attempt was made to steal the body of Washington. Despite this, a joint Congressional committee in early 1832, debated the removal of President Washington’s body from Mount Vernon to a crypt in the Capitol, built by architect Charles Bulfinch in the 1820s during the reconstruction of the burned-out structure after the British set it afire in August 1814, during the “Burning of Washington”. Southern opposition was intense, antagonized by an ever-growing rift between North and South. Congressman Wiley Thompson of Georgia expressed the fear of Southerners when he said: Remove the remains of our venerated Washington from their association with the remains of his consort and his ancestors, from Mount Vernon and from his native State, and deposit them in this capitol, and then let a severance of the Union occur, and behold the remains of Washington on a shore foreign to his native soil. His remains were moved on October 7, 1837 to the new tomb constructed at Mount Vernon, presented by John Struthers of Philadelphia. After the ceremony, the inner vault’s door was closed and the key was thrown into the Potomac.
- February, 22, 1732
- Westmoreland County, Virginia
- December, 14, 1799
- Mount Vernon, Virginia
Cause of Death
- throat infection
- Mount Vernon Estate
- Mount Vernon , Virginia