George Washington: Facts, Revolution & Presidency | HISTORY (2024)

George Washington's Early Years

George Washington

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, at his family’s plantation on Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County, in the British colony of Virginia, to Augustine Washington (1694-1743) and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington (1708-89). George, the eldest of Augustine and Mary Washington’s six children, spent much of his childhood at Ferry Farm, a plantation near Fredericksburg, Virginia. After Washington’s father died when he was 11, it’s likely he helped his mother manage the plantation.

Did you know? At the time of his death in 1799, George Washington owned some 300 enslaved people. However, before his passing, he had become opposed to slavery, and in his will, he ordered that his enslaved workers be freed after his wife's death.

Few details about Washington’s early education are known, although children of prosperous families like his typically were taught at home by private tutors or attended private schools. It’s believed he finished his formal schooling at around age 15.

As a teenager, Washington, who had shown an aptitude for mathematics, became a successful surveyor. His surveying expeditions into the Virginia wilderness earned him enough money to begin acquiring land of his own.

In 1751, Washington made his only trip outside of America, when he traveled to Barbados with his older half-brother Lawrence Washington (1718-52), who was suffering from tuberculosis and hoped the warm climate would help him recuperate. Shortly after their arrival, George contracted smallpox. He survived, although the illness left him with permanent facial scars. In 1752, Lawrence, who had been educated in England and served as Washington’s mentor, died. Washington eventually inherited Lawrence’s estate, Mount Vernon, on the Potomac River near Alexandria, Virginia.

An Officer and Gentleman Farmer

In December 1752, Washington, who had no previous military experience, was made a commander of the Virginia militia. He saw action in the French and Indian War and was eventually put in charge of all of Virginia’s militia forces. By 1759, Washington had resigned his commission, returned to Mount Vernon and was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, where he served until 1774. In January 1759, he married Martha Dandridge Custis (1731-1802), a wealthy widow with two children. Washington became a devoted stepfather to her children; he and Martha Washington never had any offspring of their own.

In the ensuing years, Washington expanded Mount Vernon from 2,000 acres into an 8,000-acre property with five farms. He grew a variety of crops, including wheat and corn, bred mules and maintained fruit orchards and a successful fishery. He was deeply interested in farming and continually experimented with new crops and methods of land conservation.

George Washington During the American Revolution

George Washington at Valley Forge

Washington proved to be a better general than military strategist. His strength lay not in his genius on the battlefield but in his ability to keep the struggling colonial army together. His troops were poorly trained and lacked food, ammunition and other supplies (soldiers sometimes even went without shoes in winter). However, Washington was able to give them direction and motivation. His leadership during the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge was a testament to his power to inspire his men to keep going.

By the late 1760s, Washington had experienced firsthand the effects of rising taxes imposed on American colonists by the British and came to believe that it was in the best interests of the colonists to declare independence from England. Washington served as a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774 in Philadelphia. By the time the Second Continental Congress convened a year later, the American Revolution had begun in earnest, and Washington was named commander in chief of the Continental Army.

Over the course of the grueling eight-year war, the colonial forces won few battles but consistently held their own against the British. In October 1781, with the aid of the French (who allied themselves with the colonists over their rivals the British), the Continental forces were able to capture British troops under General Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805) in the Battle of Yorktown. This action effectively ended the Revolutionary War and Washington was declared a national hero.

America’s First President

George Washington Greatest Challenges

In 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris between Great Britain and the U.S., Washington, believing he had done his duty, gave up his command of the army and returned to Mount Vernon, intent on resuming his life as a gentleman farmer and family man. However, in 1787, he was asked to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and head the committee to draft the new constitution. His impressive leadership there convinced the delegates that he was by far the most qualified man to become the nation’s first president.

At first, Washington balked. He wanted to, at last, return to a quiet life at home and leave governing the new nation to others. But public opinion was so strong that eventually he gave in. The first presidential election was held on January 7, 1789, and Washington won handily. John Adams (1735-1826), who received the second-largest number of votes, became the nation’s first vice president. The 57-year-old Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, in New York City. Because Washington, D.C., America’s future capital city wasn’t yet built, he lived in New York and Philadelphia. While in office, he signed a bill establishing a future, permanent U.S. capital along the Potomac River—the city later named Washington, D.C., in his honor.

George Washington’s Accomplishments

The United States was a small nation when Washington took office, consisting of 11 states and approximately 4 million people, and there was no precedent for how the new president should conduct domestic or foreign business. Mindful that his actions would likely determine how future presidents were expected to govern, Washington worked hard to set an example of fairness, prudence and integrity. In foreign matters, he supported cordial relations with other countries but also favored a position of neutrality in foreign conflicts. Domestically, he nominated the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Jay (1745-1829), signed a bill establishing the first national bank, the Bank of the United States, and set up his own presidential cabinet.

His two most prominent cabinet appointees were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), two men who disagreed strongly on the role of the federal government. Hamilton favored a strong central government and was part of the Federalist Party, while Jefferson favored stronger states’ rights as part of the Democratic-Republican Party, the forerunner to the Democratic Party. Washington believed that divergent views were critical for the health of the new government, but he was distressed at what he saw as an emerging partisanship.

George Washington’s presidency was marked by a series of firsts. He signed the first United States copyright law, protecting the copyrights of authors. He also signed the first Thanksgiving proclamation, making November 26 a national day of Thanksgiving for the end of the war for American independence and the successful ratification of the Constitution.

During Washington’s presidency, Congress passed the first federal revenue law, a tax on distilled spirits. In July 1794, farmers in Western Pennsylvania rebelled over the so-called “whiskey tax.” Washington called in over 12,000 militiamen to Pennsylvania to dissolve the Whiskey Rebellion in one of the first major tests of the authority of the national government.

Under Washington’s leadership, the states ratified the Bill of Rights, and five new states entered the union: North Carolina (1789), Rhode Island (1790), Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792) and Tennessee (1796).

In his second term, Washington issued the proclamation of neutrality to avoid entering the 1793 war between Great Britain and France. But when French minister to the United States Edmond Charles Genet—known to history as “Citizen Genet”—toured the United States, he boldly flaunted the proclamation, attempting to set up American ports as French military bases and gain support for his cause in the Western United States. His meddling caused a stir between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, widening the rift between parties and making consensus-building more difficult.

In 1795, Washington signed the “Treaty of Amity Commerce and Navigation, between His Britannic Majesty; and The United States of America,” or Jay’s Treaty, so-named for John Jay, who had negotiated it with the government of King George III. It helped the U.S. avoid war with Great Britain, but also rankled certain members of Congress back home and was fiercely opposed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Internationally, it caused a stir among the French, who believed it violated previous treaties between the United States and France.

Washington’s administration signed two other influential international treaties. Pinckney’s Treaty of 1795, also known as the Treaty of San Lorenzo, established friendly relations between the United States and Spain, firming up borders between the U.S. and Spanish territories in North America and opening up the Mississippi to American traders. The Treaty of Tripoli, signed the following year, gave American ships access to Mediterranean shipping lanes in exchange for a yearly tribute to the Pasha of Tripoli.

George Washington’s Retirement to Mount Vernon and Death

George Washington's Dogs

In 1796, after two terms as president and declining to serve a third term, Washington finally retired. In Washington’s farewell address, he urged the new nation to maintain the highest standards domestically and to keep involvement with foreign powers to a minimum. The address is still read each February in the U.S. Senate to commemorate Washington’s birthday.

Washington returned to Mount Vernon and devoted his attentions to making the plantation as productive as it had been before he became president. More than four decades of public service had aged him, but he was still a commanding figure. In December 1799, he caught a cold after inspecting his properties in the rain. The cold developed into a throat infection and Washington died on the night of December 14, 1799, at the age of 67. He was entombed at Mount Vernon, which in 1960 was designated a national historic landmark.

Washington left one of the most enduring legacies of any American in history. Known as the “Father of His Country,” his face appears on the U.S. dollar bill and quarter, and dozens of U.S. schools, towns and counties, as well as the state of Washington and the nation’s capital city, are named for him.

George Washington: Facts, Revolution & Presidency | HISTORY (1)

Watch HISTORY's mini-series, 'Washington,' which brings to life the man whose name is known to all, but whose epic story is understood by few.

George Washington: Facts, Revolution & Presidency | HISTORY (2024)

FAQs

What did George Washington have to do with the revolution? ›

Appointed Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army

Attending the Second Continental Congress in military uniform, George Washington was appointed as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army by his fellow congressmen.

What are 5 accomplishments of George Washington's presidency? ›

George Washington - Key Events
  • April 30, 1789. Inauguration. ...
  • July 4, 1789. Congress enacts tariff. ...
  • March 26, 1790. First naturalization law. ...
  • May 29, 1790. Ratifying the Constitution. ...
  • May 31, 1790. Copyright law. ...
  • July 16, 1790. Establishing the capital. ...
  • August 4, 1790. Revolutionary War debts. ...
  • December 6, 1790. Moving the capital.

What happened during George Washington's presidency? ›

Congress adopts 12 Constitutional Amendments (including the Bill of Rights) (1 Stat 97) which are sent to the states for ratification by Washington on 10/02/1789. Nominates Thomas Jefferson as 1st Secretary of State. Proclamation- Day of National Thanksgiving. First Annual State of the Union Address to Congress.

What are 4 reasons why George Washington was a good president? ›

What Made George Washington Such a Great Leader
  • Washington treated those reporting to him with dignity and respect. Washington was against tyranny and he valued individual freedom. ...
  • Washington had high expectations of himself and his people. ...
  • Washington placed his people's welfare above his own.
Feb 10, 2017

Who is the #1 president? ›

On April 30, 1789, George Washington, standing on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York, took his oath of office as the first President of the United States.

How many years did George Washington serve as president? ›

Why was the presidency of George Washington considered to be so significant? ›

Unanimously elected twice, President Washington established many crucial presidential precedents. George Washington helped shape the office's future role and powers, as well as set both formal and informal precedents for future presidents.

How is George Washington a leader? ›

Of all the founding fathers George Washington alone demonstrated fully the threefold characteristics of a visionary leader and the intellectual and moral capacity, over a long period of time and in the course of manifold difficulties, to maintain coherency between long range ideas and goals and short term actions.

What is George Washington remembered for? ›

George Washington is often called the “Father of His Country.” He not only served as the first president of the United States, but he also commanded the Continental Army during the American Revolution (1775–83) and presided over the convention that drafted the U.S. Constitution.

What were George Washington's last words? ›

George Washington's last words were "Tis well"

"Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead." Fears of being buried too soon were common in the 18th century.

What was George Washington's cause of death? ›

His problem was first diagnosed as "quinsy" and later modified to "Cynanche trachealis." A review of the signs, symptoms, and clinical course of his fatal illness suggests that the cause of death was most likely an otolaryngologic emergency known as "acute epiglottitis." 1. Washington G: Diaries .

What did George Washington do during the revolution? ›

General George Washington led the American army to victory during the Revolutionary War. Despite having little practical experience in managing large, conventional armies, Washington proved to be a capable and resilient leader of the American military forces during the Revolutionary War.

What wars did George Washington fight in? ›

Washington's service can be broken into three periods, French and Indian War, American Revolutionary War, and the Quasi-War with France, with service in three different armed forces (British provincial militia, the Continental Army, and the United States Army).

What are 5 interesting facts about Washington? ›

Some important facts about Washington are highlighted in the lists below.
  • Capital: Olympia.
  • Nicknames: Evergreen State, Chinook State.
  • Motto: “Alki (By and By)”
  • Date Washington became a state: November 11, 1889.
  • Population: (2020) 7,705,281.
  • Area: 71,298 square miles (184,661 square kilometers)

How old is George Washington in 2024? ›

George Washington would have been 292 years old this month. Washington, the first president of the United States who lived at Mount Vernon, is celebrated every February in Alexandria with a variety of events, competitions and symposiums — and a big parade.

What are 5 interesting facts about George Washington Carver? ›

10 Facts About George Washington Carver
  • George Washington Carver was born into slavery in Missouri. ...
  • Carver was the first African American to earn a bachelor's degree. ...
  • Carver remained at Tuskegee Institute for the remainder of his life. ...
  • Carver's encouragement of crop rotation improved soil conditions.
Apr 6, 2022

What are 5 interesting facts about Abraham Lincoln? ›

Let's take a look at five fun facts about Abraham Lincoln you may not have known.
  • He was a politician for years before becoming president. ...
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  • He didn't initially intend to end slavery. ...
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Feb 6, 2023

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