1902 Encyclopedia > George Washington

George Washington
First president of the United States

GEORGE WASHINGTON (1732-1799), the first president of the United States, was born in Westmoreland county, Virginia, February 22 (Old Style, Feb.11), 1732. One lawless genealogist has traced his ancestry back to Odin. Another genealogy, since given up with much regret, connected the family with the Washingtons of Northumberland or Durham, England. The ancestry of Washington can be traced no farther back then his great-grandfather John Washington, who settled in Virginia about 1657. His eldest son, Lawrence, had three children -- John, Augustine, and Mildred. Augustine Washington married twice. By the first marriage, with Jane Butler, there were four children, two of whom, Lawrence and Augustine, grew to manhood. By the second marriage, with Mary Ball, in 1730, there were six children -- George, Betty, Samuel, John, Augustine, Charles, and Mildred. The father died when George was but twelve years old; Lawrence inherited the estate now known as Mount Vernon, and George his father’s usual residence, nearly opposite Fredericksburgh.

George Washington image

George Washington

Very little is known of Washington’s early life, probably because there was little unusual to tell. The story of the hatchet and the cherry-tree, and similar tales, are quite apocryphal, having been coined by Washington’s most popular biographer, Weems. The boy’s life was not different from that common to Virginia families in easy circumstances; hunting, fishing, plantation affairs, and a little reading made up its substance. His education was but elementary and very defective, except in mathematics, in which he was largely self-taught. Sparks has "edited" the spelling, grammar, and rhetoric of Washington’s Writings to such an extent as to destroy their value as evidence. About 1748 we begin to know Vernon with his half-brother Lawrence, who was his guardian. Lawrence was the son-in-law of his neigbour Lord Fairfa, with whom he had served at Carthagena, and had made the acquaintance of Admiral Vernon, from whom Mount Vernon was named. A commission as midshipman was obtained for George through the admiral, but the opposition of the boy’s mother put an end to the scheme. As a substitute, the appointment as surveyor of the enormous Fairfax property was given to Washington at the age of sixteen ; and the next three years of his life were spent in this service. He always retained a disposition to speculate in Western lands ; many of his later investment were of this kind, and they are treated in Butterfield’s Washington-Crawford Letters. He seems already to have impressed others with a belief in his force of mind and character, for at the age of nineteen, when the first indication of the "French and Indian war" appeared, he was appointed adjutant of the Virginia troops, with the rank of major; on the death of his half-brother Lawrence in the following year he was executor under the will, and residuary heir of Mount Vernon ; and in 1753, when he had barely attained his majority, the young man was made commander of the northern military district of Virginia by the new lieutenant-governor, Dinwiddie. It is at this point in his career that Washington appears in Thackeray’s Virginians, but the portrait there drawn of a "shrewd young man" on the lookout for a rich wife is not accepted as life-like by Americans. At the outbreak of the French and Indian war in 1753-54 Washington was the agent sent by Governor Dinwiddie to warm the French away from their new forts in western Pennsylvania; the command of the Virginia troops who began hostilities fell to him, and his vigorous defence of Fort Necessity (see UNITED STATES, vol.xxiii.pp. 734-35) made him so prominent a figure that in 1775, at the age of twenty-three, he was commissioned commander of the northern military district of Virginia by the new lieutenant-governor, Dinwiddie. It is at this point in hid career that Washington appears in Thackeray’s Virginians, but the portrait there drawn of a "shrewd young man" on the lookout for a rich wife is not accepted as life-like by Americans.

At the outbreak of the French and Indian war in 1753-54 Washington was the agent sent by Governor Dinwiddie to warn the French away from their new forts in western Pennsylvania; the command of the Virginia troops who began hostilities fell to him, and his vigorous defence of Fort Necessity (see UNITED STATES, vol. xxiii. Pp. 734-35) made him so prominent a figure that in 1775, at the age of twenty-three, he was commissioned commander-in-chief of all the Virginia forces. He served in Braddock’s campaign, and in the final defeat showed for the first time that fiery energy which always lay hidden beneath his calm and unruffled exterior. He ranged the whole field on horseback, making himself the most conspicuous mark for Indian bullets, and, in spite of what he called the "destardy behaviour" of the regular troops, brought the little remnant of his Virgnians out of action in fair order. In spite of this reckless exposure he was one of the few unwounded officers. For a year or two his task was that of "defending a frontier of more than 350 miles with 700 men;" but in 1758 he had the pleasure of commanding the advance guard of the expedition which captured Fort Du Quesne and renamed it Fort Pitt. The war in Virginia being then at an end, he resigned his post, married Mrs Custis, a widow, and settled at Mount Vernon.

Washington’s life for the next twenty years was merely that of a typical Virginia planter, a consistent member of the Established (Episcopal) Church, a large slaveholder, a strict but considerate master, and a widely trusted man of affairs. His extraordinary escape in Braddock’s defeat had led a colonial minister to declare in a sermon his belief that the young man had been preserved to be "the saviour of his country." If there was any such impression it soon died away, and Washington gave none of his associates reason to consider him an uncommonly endowed man. His marriage had brought him an increase of about $100,000 in his estate; and his diaries show comparatively little reading, a minutely methodical conduct of business, a wide acquaintance with the leading men of the country, but no strong indications of what is usually considered to be "greatness." As in the case of Lincoln, he was educated into greatness by the increasing weight of his responsibilities and the manner in which he met them. Like others of the dominant caste in Virginia, he was repeatedly elected to the legislature, but he is not known to have made any set speeches in that body, or to have said anything beyond a statement of his opinion and the reasons for it. That he thought a great deal, and took full advantage of his legislative experience as a political education, is shown by his letter of April 5, 1769, to his neighbour George Mason, communicating the Philadelphia non-importation resolutions, which had just reached him. He considers briefly the best peaceable means of resistance to the policy of the ministry, but even at that early date faces frankly and fully the probable final necessity of resisting by force, and endorses it. Without speech-making, he took a prominent part in struggles of his legislature against Governor Dunmore, and his position was always a radical one. He even opposed petitions to the king and parliament, on the ground that the question had been put by the ministry on could not abandon the right and the colonists could not admit it, and that petitions must be, as they had been, rejected. "Shall we," says he in a letter "after this whine and cry for relief?" In 1774 the Virginia Convention, appointing seven of its members as delegates to the Continental Congress, named Washington as one of them; and with this appointment his national career begins.

Washington’s letters during his service in Congress show that he was under no delusions as to outcome of the taxation struggle, and that he expected war. In one letter he says that if the ministerial policy is persisted in "more blood will be shed than history has ever yet furnished instances of in the annals of North America." His associates in Congress recognized his military ability at once, and most of the details of work looking towards preparation for armed resistance were by common consent left to him. Even in the intervals of his Congressional service he was occupied in urging on the formation, equipment, and training of Virginia troops, and it was generally understood that, in cased of war, Virginia would expect him to act as her commander-in-chief. History was not to be cheated in that fashion. The two most powerful colonies were Virginia and Massachusetts. War began in Massachuseets; New England delegates desired. When Congress, after the fights at Lexington and Concord, resolved to put the colonies into a state of defence, the practical step was the unanimous selection, on motion of John Adams, Massachusetts, of Washington as commander-in chief of the armed forces of the United Colonies. Refusing any salary, he accepted the position, asking "every gentleman in the room," however, to be equal to the command, and that he accepted it only as a duty made imperative by the unanimity of the call. He reiterated this belief in private letters even to his wife ; ad there seems to be no doubt that, to the day of his death, he was the most determined sceptic as to his fitness for the positions to which he was called in succession. He was commissioned June 19,1775, and reached Cambridge, Mass, July 2, taking command of the levies there assembled for action against the British garrison of Boston. The battle of Bunker Hill had already taken place, and Washington’s work until the following spring was to bring about some semblance of military discipline, to contain ammunition and military stores, to correspond with Congress and the colonial governors, to guide military operations in the widely separated parts of a great continent, to create a military system and organization for a people who were entirely unaccustomed to such a thing and impatient under it, and to bend the course of events steadily towards driving the British out of Boston. It is not easy to see how Washington survived the year 1775; the colonial poverty, the exasperating annoyances, the selfishness or stupidity which cropped out again and again from the most patriotic of his coadjutors, were enough to have broken down most men. They completed his training. The change in this one winter is very evident. If he was not a great man when he went to Cambridge, he was a general and a statesman in the best sense when he the British out of Boston in March 1776. From that time until his death he was the foremost man of the continent.

The military operations of the remainder of the war are given elsewhere (see UNITED STATES, vol. xxiii.pp. 743-745). Washington’s retreat through the Jersey; the manner in which he turned and struck his pursuers at Trenton and Princeton, and then established himself at Morristown so as to make the way to Philadelphia impassable; the vigour with which he handled his army at Chad’s Ford and Germantown ; the persistence with which he held the strategic position of Valley Forge through the dreadful winter of 1777-78, in spite of the misery of his men, the clamours of the people, and the impotence of the fugitive Congress, -- all went to show that fibre of his public character had been hardened to its permanent quality. The Valley Forge winter was said to be "the time that tried men’s souls :" Washington’s had no need to fear the test. It was a serious addition to his burdens that the spirit which culminated in Benedict Arnold chose this moment to make its appearance. Many of the American officers had been affronted by the close personal friendship which had sprung up between La Fayette and Washington, and by the diplomantic deference which the commander-in-chief felt compelled to show to other foreign officers. Some of the latter showed no gratitude. The name of one of them, Conway, an Irish soldier of fortune from the French service, is attached to what was called "Conway’s Cabal." He formed a scheme for replacing Washington in the command by Gates, who had just succeeded in forcing Burgoyne to surrender at Saratoga ; and a number of officers and men in civil life were mixed up in it. The methods employed were the lowest forms of anonymous slander, and at the first breath of exposure every one concerned hurried to cover up his part in it, leaving Conway to shoulder all the responsibility. The treaty of 1778 with France put an end to every such plan. It was a flat absurdity to expect foreign nations to deal with a second-rate man as commander-in-chief while Washington was in existence, and he seems to have had no more trouble of this kind. The prompt and vigorous pursuit of Clinton across the Jerseys towards New York, and the battle of Monmouth, in which the plan of battle was thwarted by Charles Lee, another of the foreign officers, closed the direct military record of Washington until the end of the war. The enemy confined their movements to other parts of the continent, and Washington did little more than watch their headquarters in New York city. It was more than appropriate, however, that he who had been the mainspring of the war, and had borne far more than his share of its burdens and discouragements, should end it with the campaign of Yorktown, conceived by himself, and the surrender of Cornwallis. The war was then really over, but the commander-in-chief retained his commission until December 28, 1783, when he returned it to Congress, then in session at Annapolis, Md., and retired to Mount Vernon.

By this time the canonization of Washington had fairly begun. He occupied such a position in the American political system as no man could possibly hold again. He had become a political element, quite apart from the Union, the States, or the people of either, In a country where communication was still slow and difficult, the general knowledge that Washington favoured anything superseded argument and the necessity of information with very many men. His constant correspondence with the governors of the States gave him a quasi-paternal attitude towards government in general. On resigning his commission for example, he was able to do what no other man could have done with propriety or safety ; he addressed a circular letter to the governors of the States, pointing out changes in the existing form of government which he believed to be necessary. His refusal to accept a salary, as general or as president, would have been taken as affectation or impertinence in anyone else; it seemed natural and proper enough in the case of Washington, but it was peculiar privilege. It is possible he might have had a crown if he had even been willing. The army, at the end of the war, was justly dissatisfied with its treatment. The officers were called to meet at Newburgh, and it was the avowed purpose of the leaders of the movement that the army should march westward, appropriate vacant lands, leave Congress to negotiate for peace without an army, and "monk at their calamity and laugh when their fear cometh." It was the less publicly avowed purpose to make their commader-chief king if he could be persuaded to aid in establishing a monarchy. Washington put a summary stop to the whole proceeding. Their letter to him detailed the weakness of a republican form of government as they had experienced it, their desire for "a mixed government," with him at its head, and their belief that "the title of king" would be objectionable to few and of material advantage to the country. His reply was peremptory, and even angry. He stated in plain terms his abhorrence of the proposal; he was at a loss to conceive what part of his conduct could have encouraged their address; they could not have found "a person to whom their schemes were more disagreeable;" and he threatened them with exposure unless the affair was stopped at once. His influence, and that alone, secured the quiet disbanding of the discontented army. His influence was as powerful after he had retired to Mount Vernon as before his resignation. He was in constant correspondence with public men in every part of the country. He received from them such a store of suggestions as came to no other man, digested it, and was able from it to speak with what seemed infalliable wisdom. In the midst of his voluminous correspondence, the minute details in his diaries of tree-planting and rotation of crops, and his increasing reading on the political side of history, he found time for a stream of visitors. Among these, in March 1785, were the commissioners from Virginia and Maryland, who met at Alexandria to form a commercial code for Chesapeake Bay, and made an opportunity to visit Mount Vernon. From that moment the current of events, leading into the Annapolis convention of 1786 and the final convention of the next year, shows Washington’s close supervision at every point.

When the Federal Convention met at Philadelphia in May 1787 to frame the present constitution he was present as a delegate from Virginia, though much against his will; and a unanimous vote at once made him its presiding officer. He took no part in the debates, however, beyond such suggestive hints as his proposal to amend a restriction of the standing army to 5000 men by forbidding any enemy to invade the United States with more than 3000. He approved the constitution which was decided upon, believing, as he said, "that it was the best constitution which could be obtained at that epoch, and that this or a dissolution awaits our choice, and is the only alternative." All his influence was given to secure its ratification, and his influence was probably decisive. When it had been ratified, and the time came to elect a president, there was no more hesitation than if the country had been a theocracy. The office of president had been "cut to fit the measure of George Washington," and no one thought of any other person for it. The unanimous vote of the electors made him the first president of the United States ; their unanimous vote re-elected him in 1792-93; and, even after he had positively refused to serve for a term, two electors obstinately voted for him in 1796-97. The public events of his presidency are given elsewhere (see UNITED STATES, vol. xxiii. pp. 752-755). One can hardly follow them with out receiving the conviction that the sudden success of the new system was due mainly to the existence at that time of such a character as Washington. He held the two natural parties apart, and prevented party contest until the new form of government had been firmly established. It seems hardly possible that the final result should have been baulked, even, if "blood and iron" had been necessary to bring it about. If would be unwise to attribute the quite attainment of the result to the political sense of the American people alone, or to use it as an historical precedent for the voluntary assumption of such a risk again, without the advantage of such a political factor as Washington.

No greater mistake could be made, however, than to think that the influence of the president was fairly appreciated during his term of office. He attempted to balance party against party, to divide his cabinet between them, and to neutralize the effects of parties in that way. The consequence was that the two leading members of the cabinets soon occupied the position, to use the words of one of them, of "two game-cocks in a pit." The unconscious drift of Washington’s mind was toward the Federal 1798 and January 1799, are enough to make that evident. When the Republican party was formed, about 1793, it could not have been expected that its leaders would long submit with patience to the continual interposition of Washington’s name and influence between themselves and their opponents; but they maintained a calm exterior. Some of their followers were less discreet. The president’s proclamation of neutrality between France and Great Britain excited them to anger; his support of Jay’s treaty with Great Britain roused them to fury. Forged letters, purporting to show his desire to abandon the revolutionary struggle, were published; he was accused of drawing more than his salary; hints of the propriety of a guillotine for his benefit began to appear ; some spoke of him as the "stepfather of his country." Some spoke of him as the close of his term of service; he declared, in a cabinet meeting in 1793, that "he had never repented but once the having slipped the moment of resigning his office, and that was every moment since." Indeed, the most unpleasant portions of Jefferson’s Ana are those in which, with an air of psychological dissection, he details the storms of passions into which the president was hurried by the news-paper attacks upon him. These attacks, however, came from a very small fraction of the politicians ; the people never wavered in their devotion to the president, and his election would have been unanimous in 1796, as in 1789 and 1792, if he had been willing to serve.

All the accounts agree that Washington was of imposing presence. He measured just 6 feet when prepared for burial; but his height in his prime, as given in his orders for clothes from London, was 3 inches more. La Fayette says that his hands were "the largest he ever saw on a man." Custis says that his complexion was "fair, but considerably florid," His weight was about 220 lb. The various and widely-differing portraits of him find exhaustive treatment in the seventh volume of Winsor’s Narrative and Critical History of the United States. The editor thinks that "the favourit profile has been unquestionably Houdon’s, with Stuart’s canvas for the full face, and probably Trumbull’s for the figure." Stuart’s face, however, gives the popular notion of Washington, though it has always been a subject of curious speculation to some minds how much of the calm and benign expression of the face was due to the shape of Washington’s false teeth.

Washington was childless : said the people of his time, he was the father only of his country. Collateral branches of the family have given the Less, the Custises, and other families a claim to an infusion of the blood ;but no direct descendants of Washington can claim his honours, or disgrace his name. His estate of Mount Vernon was acquired in 1858 by an association, and has been practically national property ever since.

Retiring from the presidency in 1797, Washington resumed the plantation life which he most loved, the society of his family, and the care of his slaves. He had resolved some time before never to obtain another slave, and "wished from his soul" that State could be persuaded to abolish slavery; "it might prevent much future mischief." He too old, however, to attempt further innovations. In 1798 he was made commander-in-chief of the provisional army raised in expectation of open war with France, and was fretted almost beyond endurance by the quarrels of Federalist politicians about the distribution of commissions. In the midst of his military preparations, he was struck down by sudden illness, which lasted but for a day, and he died at Mount Vernon, December 14, 1799. The third of the series of resolutions introduced in the house of representatives five days after his death, by John Marshall, and passed unanimously, states exactly, if a trifle rhetorically, the position of Washington in American history: "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

Washington’s disorder was an aedematous affection of the wind-pipe, contracted by careless exposure during a ride in a snow-storm, and aggravated by neglect afterwards, and by such contemporary remedies as excessive bleeding, gargles of "molasses, vinegar, and butter" and "vinegar and sage tea," which "almost suffocated him," and a blister of cantharides on the throat. He died without theatrical adieus ; his last words were only business directions, affectionate remembrances to relatives, and repeated apologies to the physicians and attendants for the trouble he was giving them. Just before he died, says his secretary, Mr Lear, he felt own pulse; his countenance changed; the attending physicians placed his hands over the eyes of the dying man, "and he expired without a struggle or a sigh."

Any complete bibliography of books relating to Washington would be voluminous. Lives have been written by Weems, Marshall (1804-7), Ramsay (1807), A. Bancroft (1826), and Irving (1855). See also Sparks’s Writings of Washington (1834-37); Rush’s Domestic Life of Washington (1857) ; G.W. P. Custis’s Recollections of Washington (1860) ; Baker’s Character Portraits of Washington (1887); Science, December 11, 1885 (an attempt to make a composite portrait of Washington); Winsor’s Narrative and Critical History of the United States (editor’s articles); Bancroft’s United States (final revision) ; Schouler’s United States; McMaster’s United States. (A. J.)

The above article was written by Alexander Johnston; Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy at Princeton College, New Jersey; author of A History of American Politics, The Genesis of a New England State, The United States: Its History and Constitution.

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