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George Washington Biography - The Early Years

Newsgroups: freenet.shrine.songs
From: aa300 (Jerry Murphy)
Subject: George Washington, biography
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 90 15:52:48 EST



Born in Westmoreland County, Va., on Feb. 22, 1732, George Washington was the
eldest son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington,
who were prosperous Virginia gentry of English descent. George spent his early
years on the family estate on Pope's Creek along the Potomac River. His early
education included the study of such subjects as mathematics, surveying, the
classics, and "rules of civility." His father died in 1743, and soon thereafter
George went to live with his half brother Lawrence at Mount Vernon, Lawrence's
plantation on the Potomac. Lawrence, who became something of a substitute
father for his brother, had married into the Fairfax family, prominent and
influential Virginians who helped launch George's career. An early ambition to
go to sea had been effectively discouraged by George's mother; instead, he
turned to surveying, securing (1748) an appointment to survey Lord Fairfax's
lands in the Shenandoah Valley. He helped lay out the Virginia town of Belhaven
(now Alexandria) in 1749 and was appointed surveyor for Culpeper County. George
accompanied his brother to Barbados in an effort to cure Lawrence of tuber-
culosis, but Lawrence died in 1752, soon after the brothers returned. George
ultimately inherited the Mount Vernon estate.

By 1753 the growing rivalry between the British and French over control of the
Ohio Valley, soon to erupt into the French and Indian War (1754-63), created new
opportunities for the ambitious young Washington. He first gained public notice
when, as adjutant of one of Virginia's four military districts, he was dis-
patched (October 1753) by Gov. Robert Dinwiddie on a fruitless mission to warn
the French commander at Fort Le Boeuf against further encroachment on territory
claimed by Britain. Washington's diary account of the dangers and difficulties
of his journey, published at Williamsburg on his return, may have helped win him
his ensuing promotion to lieutenant colonel.

Although only 22 years of age and lacking experience, he learned quickly,
meeting the problems of recruitment, supply, and desertions with a combination
of brashness and native ability that earned him the respect of his superiors.


In April 1754, on his way to establish a post at the Forks of the Ohio (the
current site of Pittsburgh), Washington learned that the French had already
erected a fort there. Warned that the French were advancing, he quickly threw up
fortifications at Great Meadows, Pa., aptly naming the entrenchment Fort Neces-
sity, and marched to intercept advancing French troops. In the resulting
skirmish the French commander the sieur de Jumonville was killed and most of his
men were captured. Washington pulled his small force back into Fort Necessity
where he was overwhelmed (July 3) by the French in an all-day battle fought in a
drenching rain. Surrounded by enemy troops, with his food supply almost ex-
hausted and his dampened ammunition useless, Washington capitulated. Under the
terms of the surrender signed that day, he was permitted to march his troops
back to Williamsburg.

Discouraged by his defeat and angered by discrimination between British and
colonial officers in rank and pay, he resigned his commission near the end of
1754. The next year, however, he volunteered to join British general Edward
Braddock's expedition against the French. When Braddock was ambushed by the
French and their Indian allies on the Monongahela River, Washington, although
seriously ill, tried to rally the Virginia troops. Whatever public criticism
attended the debacle, Washington's own military reputation was enhanced, and in
1755, at the age of 23, he was promoted to colonel and appointed commander in
chief of the Virginia militia, with responsibility for defending the frontier.
In 1758 he took an active part in Gen. John Forbes's successful campaign against
Fort Duquesne.

>From his correspondence during these years, Washington can be seen
evolving from a brash, vain, and opinionated young officer, impatient
with restraints and given to writing admonitory letters to his
superiors, to a mature soldier with a grasp of administration and a
firm understanding of how to deal effectively with civil authority.


Assured that the Virginia frontier was safe from French attack, Washington left
the army in 1758 and returned to Mount Vernon, directing his attention toward
restoring his neglected estate. He erected new buildings, refurnished the house,
and experimented with new crops. With the support of an ever-growing circle of
influential friends, he entered politics, serving (1759-74) in Virginia's House
of Burgesses. In January 1759 he married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy and
attractive young widow with two small children. It was to be a happy and satis-
fying marriage.

After 1769, Washington became a leader in Virginia's opposition to Great Bri-
tain's colonial policies. At first he hoped for reconciliation with Britain,
although some British policies had touched him personally. Discrimination
against colonial military officers had rankled deeply, and British land policies
and restrictions on western expansion after 1763 had seriously hindered his
plans for western land speculation. In addition, he shared the usual planter's
dilemma in being continually in debt to his London agents. As a delegate
(1774-75) to the First and Second Continental Congress, Washington did not
participate actively in the deliberations, but his presence was undoubtedly a
stabilizing influence. In June 1775 he was Congress's unanimous choice as com-
mander-in-chief of the Continental forces.


Washington took command of the troops surrounding British-occupied Boston on
July 3, devoting the next few months to training the undisciplined 14,000-man
army and trying to secure urgently needed powder and other supplies. Early in
March 1776, using cannon brought down from Ticonderoga by Henry Knox, Washington
occupied Dorchester Heights, effectively commanding the city and forcing the
British to evacuate on March 17. He then moved to defend New York City against
the combined land and sea forces of Sir William Howe. In New York he committed a
military blunder by occupying an untenable position in Brooklyn, although he
saved his army by skillfully retreating from Manhattan into Westchester County
and through New Jersey into Pennsylvania. In the last months of 1776, desperate-
ly short of men and supplies, Washington almost despaired. He had lost New York
City to the British; enlistment was almost up for a number of the troops, and
others were deserting in droves; civilian morale was falling rapidly; and Cong-
ress, faced with the possibility of a British attack on Philadelphia, had with-
drawn from the city.

Colonial morale was briefly revived by the capture of Trenton, N.J., a bril-
liantly conceived attack in which Washington crossed the Delaware River on
Christmas night 1776 and surprised the predominantly Hessian garrison. Advancing
to Princeton, N.J., he routed the British there on Jan. 3, 1777, but in Septem-
ber and October 1777 he suffered serious reverses in Pennsylvania--at Brandywine
and Germantown. The major success of that year--the defeat (October 1777) of the
British at Saratoga, N.Y.--had belonged not to Washington but to Benedict Arnold
and Horatio Gates. The contrast between Washington's record and Gates's bril-
liant victory was one factor that led to the so-called Conway Cabal--an intrigue
by some members of Congress and army officers to replace Washington with a more
successful commander, probably Gates. Washington acted quickly, and the plan
eventually collapsed due to lack of public support as well as to Washington's
overall superiority to his rivals.

After holding his bedraggled and dispirited army together during the difficult
winter at Valley Forge, Washington learned that France had recognized American
independence. With the aid of the Prussian Baron von Steuben and the French
marquis de Lafayette, he concentrated on turning the army into a viable fighting
force, and by spring he was ready to take the field again. In June 1778 he
attacked the British near Monmouth Courthouse, N.J., on their withdrawal from
Philadelphia to New York. Although American general Charles Lee's lack of enter-
prise ruined Washington's plan to strike a major blow at Sir Henry Clinton's
army at Monmouth, the commander in chief's quick action on the field prevented
an American defeat.

In 1780 the main theater of the war shifted to the south. Although the campaigns
in Virginia and the Carolinas were conducted by other generals, including
Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan, Washington was still responsible for the
overall direction of the war. After the arrival of the French army in 1780 he
concentrated on coordinating allied efforts and in 1781 launched, in cooperation
with the comte de Rochambeau and the comte d'Estaing, the brilliantly planned
and executed Yorktown Campaign against Charles Cornwallis, securing (Oct. 19,
1781) the American victory.

Washington had grown enormously in stature during the war. A man of unquestioned
integrity, he began by accepting the advice of more experienced officers such as
Gates and Charles Lee, but he quickly learned to trust his own judgment. He
sometimes railed at Congress for its failure to supply troops and for the bung-
ling fiscal measures that frustrated his efforts to secure adequate materiel.
Gradually, however, he developed what was perhaps his greatest strength in a
society suspicious of the military--his ability to deal effectively with civil
authority. Whatever his private opinions, his relations with Congress and with
the state governments were exemplary--despite the fact that his wartime powers
sometimes amounted to dictatorial authority. On the battlefield Washington
relied on a policy of trial and error, eventually becoming a master ofimprov-
isation. Often accused of being overly cautious, he could be bold when success
seemed possible. He learned to use the short-term militia skillfully and to
combine green troops with veterans to produce an efficient fighting force.

After the war Washington returned to Mount Vernon, which had declined in his
absence. Although he became president of the Society of the Cincinnati, an
organization of former Revolutionary War officers, he avoided involvement in
Virginia politics. Preferring to concentrate on restoring Mount Vernon, he added
a greenhouse, a mill, an icehouse, and new land to the estate. He experimented
with crop rotation, bred hunting dogs and horses, investigated the development
of Potomac River navigation, undertook various commercial ventures, and traveled
(1784) west to examine his land holdings near the Ohio River. His diary notes a
steady stream of visitors, native and foreign; Mount Vernon, like its owner,
had already become a national institution.

In May 1787, Washington headed the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional
Convention in Philadelphia and was unanimously elected presiding officer. His
presence lent prestige to the proceedings, and although he made few direct
contributions, he generally supported the advocates of a strong central govern-
ment. After the new Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification
and became legally operative, he was unanimously elected president (1789).


Taking office (Apr. 30, 1789) in New York City, Washington acted carefully and
deliberately, aware of the need to build an executive structure that could
accommodate future presidents. Hoping to prevent sectionalism from dividing the
new nation, he toured the New England states (1789) and the South (1791). An
able administrator, he nevertheless failed to heal the widening breach between
factions led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the
Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Because he supported many of Hamilton's controver-
sial fiscal policies--the assumption of state debts, the Bank of the United
States, and the excise tax--Washington became the target of attacks by Jeffer-
sonian Democratic-Republicans.

Washington was reelected president in 1792, and the following year the most
divisive crisis arising out of the personal and political conflicts within his
cabinet occurred--over the issue of American neutrality during the war between
England and France. Washington, whose policy of neutrality angered the pro-
French Jeffersonians, was horrified by the excesses of the French Revolution and
enraged by the tactics of Edmond Genet, the French minister in the United
States, which amounted to foreign interference in American politics. Further,
with an eye toward developing closer commercial ties with the British, the
president agreed with the Hamiltonians on the need for peace with Great Britain.
His acceptance of the 1794 Jay's Treaty, which settled outstanding differences
between the United States and Britain but which Democratic-Republicans viewed
as an abject surrender to British demands, revived vituperation against the
president, as did his vigorous upholding of the excise law during the Whiskey
Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.


By March 1797, when Washington left office, the country's financial system was
well established; the Indian threat east of the Mississippi had been largely
eliminated; and Jay's Treaty and Pinckney's Treaty (1795) with Spain had
enlarged U.S. territory and removed serious diplomatic difficulties. In spite of
the animosities and conflicting opinions between Democratic-Republicans and
members of the Hamiltonian Federalist party, the two groups were at least united
in acceptance of the new federal government. Washington refused to run for a
third term and, after a masterly Farewell Address in which he warned the United
States against permanent alliances abroad, he went home to Mount Vernon. He was
succeeded by his vice-president, Federalist John Adams.

Although Washington reluctantly accepted command of the army in 1798 when war
with France seemed imminent, he did not assume an active role. He preferred to
spend his last years in happy retirement at Mount Vernon. In mid-December,
Washington contracted what was probably quinsy or acute laryngitis; he declined
rapidly and died at his estate on Dec. 14, 1799.

Even during his lifetime, Washington loomed large in the national imagination.
His role as a symbol of American virtue was enhanced after his death by Mason L.
Weems, in an edition of whose Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington
(c.1800) first appeared such legends as the story about the cherry tree. Later
biographers of note included Washington Irving (5 vols., 1855-59) and Woodrow
Wilson (1896). Washington's own works have been published in various editions,
including THE DIARIES OF GEORGE WASHINGTON, edited by Donald Jackson and Dorothy
Twohig (6 vols., 1976-79), and THE WRITINGS OF GEORGE WASHINGTON . . .,
1745-1799, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick (39 vols., 1931-44).


Flexner, James T. - GEORGE WASHINGTON, 4 vols. (1965-72)
Freeman, Douglas S. - GEORGE WASHINGTON, 7 vols. (1949-57)
Knollenberg, Bernhard - GEORGE WASHINGTON: THE VIRGINIA PERIOD, 1732-1775 (1964)
(1951; repr. 1977)


1st President of the United States (1789-97)
Nickname: "Father of His Country"
Born: Feb. 22, 1732, Pope's Creek, Va.
Profession: Soldier, Planter
Religious Affiliation: Episcopalian
Marriage: Jan. 6, 1759, to Martha Dandridge Custis (1731-1802)
Children: None
Political Affiliation: Federalist
Writings: WRITINGS (39 vols., 1931-44), ed. by John C. Fitzpatrick
Died: Dec. 14, 1799, Mount Vernon, Va
Buried: Mount Vernon, Va. (family vault)
Vice-President: John Adams
Secretary of State: Thomas Jefferson (1790-93)
Edmund Randolph (1794-95)
Timothy Pickering (1795-97)
Secretary of the Treasury: Alexander Hamilton (1789-95)
Oliver Wolcott, Jr. (1795-97)
Secretary of War: Henry Knox (1789-94)
Timothy Pickering (1795-96)
James McHenry (1796-97)
Attorney General: Edmund Randolph (1790-94)
William Bradford (1794-95)
Charles Lee (1795-97)

'Copyright 1987, Grolier Inc, Academic American Encyclopedia,
Electronic Version'

USED BY PERMISSION, granted January 9, 1988
To the best of our knowledge, the text on this page may be freely reproduced and distributed.
If you have any questions about this, please check out our Copyright Policy.


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