George Washington Biography, from the Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography

George Washington

Note: The following is taken from volume 2 of the Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography (New York, 1915; pp. 36–40), edited by Lyon Gardiner Tyler.

Washington, George, was born at Pope’s Creek, Westmoreland county, Virginia, February 11 (O.S.), 1732, son of Augustine and Mary (Ball) Washington, and a descendant of John Washington, who appeared in Virginia with his brother, Lawrence, in 1657. While he was a child, his parents removed to Stafford county, opposite Fredericksburg. He attended an “old field school,” with Hobby, the parish sexton, as his teacher. His father dying in 1743, he returned to Pope’s Creek to live with his elder brother, Augustine, and after attending a private school was commissioned by Lord Fairfax to survey the Fairfax estates, a task which he discharged so satisfactorily that Lord Fairfax procured his appointment as a public surveyor. In 1751 he accompanied his brother, Lawrence, to the West Indies, returning the following year, when Lawrence died, leaving him guardian of his daughter and heir to his estates at her death. Washington was soon made an adjutant-general of Virginia, with the rank of major. In 1753, Governor Dinwiddie sent him to the frontier to obtain information with reference to the French military posts, a mission which he performed most successfully. In 1754 he was made lieutenant-colonel of a Virginia regiment under Colonel Fry, and was sent to Wills’ Creek, where the French had taken possession of the English fort at the junction of the Alleghany and Monongahela rivers. He marched to Great Meadows, and surprised the French camp under Jumonville, the French loss being thirty-one killed and prisoners. This was the first blood shed in the war, and brought Washington to public notice. Colonel Fry dying, he succeeded to the command, but was starved out at Fort Necessity. His command, however, was permitted to march out free and Washington returned to Virginia, receiving the thanks of the burgesses. When Governor Dinwiddie broke up regimental organizations, leaving no officer of higher rank than captain, Washington resigned and withdrew to Mount Vernon. General Braddock arrived February 20, and knowing of Washington’s past service, called him to his staff, with the rank of colonel. The story of the illfated advance to Fort Duquesne, of Braddock’s contemptuous disregard of warnings given him, of his death, of Washington rallying the broken command, conducting the retreat, and reading the burial service over his fallen chief-all these facts are familiar. The Virginia assembly now raised a regiment, and gave Washington command of all the state forces. In 1758 his health gave way and he returned home, but soon resumed field service, marched to and took possession of Fort Duquesne, and then resigned his commission. In 1759 he was elected to the house of burgesses; was present when Patrick Henry introduced his resolutions of May 29, 1765, and in May, 1769, offered the non-importation resolutions, drawn by George Mason. In the Virginia convention which met at Williamsburg, August I, I774, he declared, “I will raise a thousand men, subsist them at my own expense, and march them to the relief of Boston.” He was a delegate to the Continental Congress at Philadelphia, in 1774, and was chairman of the military committee at the session of 1775. On June 15 he was made commander-in-chief, and July 3d took command of the first American army at Cambridge, 14,000 men, enthusiastic, but undisciplined. He directed the operations at Boston, and after its evacuation by the British proceeded to New York, which he fortified, and arranged for the Canada campaign. He then visited Congress in Philadelphia, and on his return learned of a plot for his assassination, conceived by the tory Tryon: this was frustrated, the conspirators were imprisoned, and the principal actor, Thomas Hickey, was hanged. Lord Howe arrived, and attempted to open a correspondence addressed to “Mr. Washington,” which was rejected, when Howe wrote to the British home authorities that it would be well to give him his proper title. Washington then opened the Long Island campaign, and by his coolness and decision saved his army and crossed it over to New York. After resisting Howe for a time, he made his retreat through New Jersey, his troops reduced to 3000 men. Evading Cornwallis, he made his historic crossing of the Delaware, attacked Trenton in midst of a fierce storm, and as the fruit of a bayonet charge captured Colonel Rahl and 1000 men, then recrossing the river. Making a night march on Princeton, he defeated three regiments of British troops, and then took post at Morristown. In January, 1777, he issued a proclamation requiring such inhabitants as had subscribed to Lord Howe’s declaration, to take the oath of allegiance to the United States; his act was questioned in Congress, and he was accused of violating civil rights, but nothing came of it. He condemned the commissioning of foreigners as unjust to native officers, but afterward warmly approved the appointment of such officers as von Steuben and Lafayette. By his activity he obliged Howe to retire to New York, whence Howe sailed to Delaware. Washington suffered a reverse at Chad’s Ford, Pennsylvania, and his army was held together with difficulty; later (October 3), with 8000 men he routed the enemy at Germantown, but was unable to reap the full fruits of a victory on account of some of his fresh troops being seized with panic. Later he repulsed the enemy at Fort Mercer, but a British fleet obliged him to abandon the Delaware and he retired to White Marsh, and by his activity obliged Howe to confine himself to Philadelphia. About this time Gates undertook the overthrow of Washington, but the plot was discovered and frustrated. The winter of 1778 witnessed the miseries of Valley Forge, and here Washington displayed his best qualities, holding together a disheartened force which could be only meagrely fed and clothed by means of forced levies. Lady Washington was present, living at the home of Isaac Potts, a Quaker preacher, where she gathered other soldiers’ wives, who busied themselves making garments for the soldiers. Washington lived with his officers and men, sharing all their discomforts. It was here that Baron von Steuben rendered efficient aid by perfecting the organization of the army and systematically drilling it. On May 11, 1778, Sir Henry Clinton with 10,000 men began his march from Philadelphia to New York, and Washington broke camp at Valley Forge and went in pursuit, encountering the enemy at Monmouth, New Jersey. Owing to the misconduct of General Lee, the Americans fell into disorder. At this juncture Washington met Lee, whom he rebuked with all the indignation of his nature, then rallied his troops and drove Cornwallis from the field. In July, 1778, the French fleet appeared, and Washington communicated his plans of attack to Admiral D’Estaing, but the latter, pleading injuries to his ships by a severe storm, sailed for the West Indies, having effected nothing. In 1779 Washington went before Congress with a plea for good money for payment of the troops, the Continental currency being practically worthless. Later (1781), in consequence of nonpayment for many months, a Connecticut regiment mutinied, a portion of the Pennsylvania line rebelled, and the New Jersey line became disaffected. These ills were cured in a degree; and Washington, though a man of tender sympathies, felt obliged to hang two of the New Jersey ringleaders. While busied with the immediate operations of his own troops, Washington was directing the operations of the army in the south, and with consummate skill. As a result of his combinations, simultaneous attacks were planned against the British in New York, Yorktown and Charleston. Washington in person led 2000 Continentals and 4000 French from West Point to Yorktown, a distance of four hundred miles, and invested Cornwallis, who surrendered October 19, 1781, this virtually ending the war.

On December 4, 1783, Washington took leave of his officers in a banquet at Fraunce’s Tavern, in New York. He then returned to Mount Vernon, and busied himself with the rehabilitation of his estate, and in promoting the settlement of the west, his principal interest in the latter undertaking being to enable the officers and men who had followed him during the long struggle for independence, to secure homes for themselves. On May 2, 1787, at the convention assembled at Philadelphia to amend the articles of confederation and union, Washington was unanimously chosen its president, and in February, 1789, the electoral college under the new constitution elected him first president of the United States. He received official notice of his election, April 14, 1789, at Mount Vernon, and set out on his journey to New York, great public assemblages greeting him all the way through Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and he was inaugurated April 30, Chancellor Livingston administering the oath of office, following it with the exclamation, “Long live George Washington, president of the United States.” Washington now proceeded to the important task of selecting a cabinet, a supreme court, ministers to foreign courts, and a multitude of smaller officials, his intimate knowledge of men, and his almost superhuman judgment, enabling him to name a list of unapproachable excellence. In 1790 the seat of government was removed to Philadelphia, where Washington, at the close of his second presidential term, received John Adams as his successor, he having refused to be a candidate for a third term, in an address of classical beauty, and breathing sentiments of fervent patriotism and lofty political philosophy. During his administration he sent a force of regulars and militia to quell the Indian disturbances on the frontier. With the aid of Hamilton, he formed a substantial basis for governmental finances, a task of the greatest magnitude owing to the utter worthlessness of existing Continental currency, and the breaking down of the national credit. On the occasion of the war between France and England he issued a proclamation of neutrality in which he expressed sentiments which were subsequently celebrated in the “Monroe Doctrine”: “The new power (the United States) meant to hold aloof from Europe * * * and take no interest in the balance of power or the fate of dynasties.” On September 18, 1793, he laid the corner stone of the capitol building at Washington City. In 1794 he suppressed the “Whiskey Insurrection.”

After retiring from the presidency, Washington returned to private life at Mount Vernon. In 1796 he presented to “Liberty Hall Academy,” in Rockbridge county, Virginia, one hundred shares of stock (value $50,000) of the old James River Company, given him by the Virginia legislature as a token of esteem and admiration, with these words: “To promote literature in this rising empire, and to encourage the arts, have ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart, and if the donation which the generosity of the legislature of the commonwealth has enabled me to bestow upon Liberty Hall—now by your politeness called Washington Academy—is likely to prove a means to accomplish these ends, it will contribute to the gratification of my desires.” In 1798 the threatened war with France necessitated arrangements for a provisional army, and Washington was commissioned lieutenant-general and commander-in-chief. He appointed Alexander Hamilton chief of staff, and gave himself to the duties of organization with his old-time vigor, but war was happily averted. He received the honorary degree of L.L.D. from Harvard in 1776; from Yale in 1781; from the University of Pennsylvania in 1783; from Washington College (Maryland) probably in 1784; and from Brown University in 1790. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and member of the American Philosophical Society.

On December 12, 1799, while busied on his estate, he took a severe cold which developed into acute laryngitis, and after being bled three times, sank rapidly, and breathed his last on December 14. He was buried in the family vault at Mount Vernon, and although a vault was prepared under the capitol at Washington City, the state of Virginia would not consent to the removal of the body. His birthday was made a national holiday by act of Congress. His name stands first in Class M, rulers and statesmen, in the Hall of Fame of Columbia University, New York, and is commemorated in the massive marble Washington Arch in the same city, and in the Washington Monument in the national capital. Statues of Washington have been erected in nearly every important city in the country, the principal ones being that by Houdon in the capital at Richmond, Virginia, and Crawford’s equestrian statue in the same city; and the colossal statue by Greenough, in Washington City. Among numerous portraits are those of Stuart, Trumbull, and both the Peales.

Martha Washington, wife of President and General George Washington, was a daughter of Colonel John Dandridge, and widow of Daniel Parke Custis. Her daughter, Martha Parke Custis, died at the age of seventeen; her younger children, Eleanor Parke and George Washington Parke Custis, were adopted by General Washington, who was childless.

Return to Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography