George Washington – first American president, commander of the Continental Army, president of the Constitutional Convention, and gentleman planter. Learn more about the many varied roles that Washington excelled in and tremendous legacy that he left for America and the World.
February 22, 1732 at Pope's Creek, Virginia
December 14, 1799 at Mount Vernon, Virginia (Age 67)
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (Married in 1759)
6' 2" (1.879m)
174lbs (79kg) in 1760
|General of the Continental Army
June 15, 1775 to December 23, 1783
|President of the United States
April 30, 1789 to March 4, 1797
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732 (February 11, 1731/2 Old Style) at Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia, about 40 miles south of Mount Vernon. His great-grandfather came to America from England in 1657 aboard a ship named Sea Horse of London.
Eager to learn a new and important trade, George Washington read mathematical texts to learn the geometric principles necessary for surveying. At seventeen years of age and largely through the Fairfax influence that he had cultivated, Washington secured an appointment as county surveyor for the newly created frontier county of Culpeper, Virginia. He was well on his way to a successful and profitable career. Not only did he receive substantial fees fur surveying, but he discovered firsthand an ability to identify and select the best plots of land for purchase, an especially important consideration in colonial America, where land equaled power.Washington the Surveyor
This myth is frequently told to demonstrate Washington’s considerable physical strength. The Potomac River is over a mile wide at Mount Vernon and even George Washington did not have the arm to fling a silver dollar that far. Moreover, there were no silver dollars when Washington was a young man. His step-grandson reported that Washington once threw a piece of slate across the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, which is much narrower, and that may be the origin of this story.The Man & Myth
In September 1746, George’s half-brother Lawrence and his friend and mentor Colonel William Fairfax, hatched a plan for the 14 year old that would have him joining a Royal Navy frigate anchored along the Virginia shore as a midshipmen. George, who valued his older half-brother and mentor’s advice, was prepared to seek his mother, Mary Washington’s, approval. Mary, who sought out the advice of neighbors and relations in England, became convinced that this was not a prudent career move for young George and withheld her all-important permission. Whether this decision came from reasoned analysis or a desire to retain her eldest son on the Fredericksburg farm, Mary Washington did the American cause a great service in withholding her approval.
In 1751 George Washington accompanied his older half-brother Lawrence to the island of Barbados – the only foreign country that Washington would visit during his lifetime. It was hoped that the tropical climate of this British island would help cure Lawrence of his tuberculosis. The stay in Barbados proved to be a challenging one for both of the Washingtons. Lawrence found the oppressive heat miserable to bear and the climate did not improve his condition. And Washington on November 17, 1751 contracted smallpox on the island. Fortunately for young George Washington, not only was he able to recover from the affliction, but he also inherited, as a result, a life-long immunity to this dreaded killer for the rest of his life. This would become crucial in the American Revolution, when the country was threatened by a smallpox epidemic.
George Washington inherited ten slaves from his father when he was just 11 years old. By the end of Washington’s life, over 300 African American slaves lived in bondage at Mount Vernon.Washington & Slavery
George Washington did not inherit Mount Vernon until after his elder half-brother Lawrence Washington passed away in 1752, and both of the intervening heirs had died. Following the death of Lawrence’s young daughter Sarah in 1754, he began renting Mount Vernon from Lawrence’s widow, Ann, who had remarried and moved away. The estate became George Washington’s when Ann died in 1761.
Directed to press Virginia and Britain’s claim to the Ohio country to the French, George Washington led a force of soldiers from the Virginia Regiment and Native-American warriors to Jumonville Glen in Pennsylvania on May 28, 1754. While both sides claim the other side fired first, Washington’s forces killed many of the French soldiers camped beneath the rocks. This attack in the back woods of the Ohio Country is considered to be the trigger event for the Seven Years’ War – a war that would quickly escalate into a world war stretching to Europe, West Africa, India and the Philippines.Washington and the French & Indian War
Dancing was considered an important part of the social fabric of 18th century life. And as George Washington’s social stature began to rise, the number of balls, cotillions, parties, and dances he was invited to also rose considerably. Young Washington, blessed with an athletic frame, quickly came to love dancing and there are many accounts of his dancing throughout the night with an array of female guests.
George Washington served in the Virginia House of Burgesses for fifteen years before the American Revolution. After a failed bid for a seat in December 1755, he won election in 1758 and represented Frederick County until 1761. That year he ran in Fairfax County, winning a seat which he would retain until 1775. During his tenure, Washington was not an outspoken burgess, nor did he introduce expansive or innovative legislation. Meeting in Williamsburg with elder statesmen such as John Robinson, Peyton Randolph, and George Wythe, as well as newer burgesses such as George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson, Washington learned to navigate political spheres and began his lessons in statecraft.Washington in the House of Burgesses
On January 6th, 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a charming and vivacious young widow from the Tidewater area of Virginia. Martha brought enormous wealth, along with two small children, “Jacky” and “Patsy,” to the marriage. It was her second marriage and his first.Martha Washington
Despite his legendary physical strength and iron constitution, George Washington’s failing teeth were a source of regular suffering. At age 24, Washington recorded in his diary that he paid 5 shillings to a “Doctr Watson” who removed one of his teeth. Letters and diary entries later in his life make regular reference to aching teeth, lost teeth, inflamed gums, ill-fitting dentures, and a host of other dental miseries. Payments to dentists and purchases of toothbrushes, tongue scrapers, dental tools, toothache medication, and cleaning solutions are also regularly present in Washington’s communications throughout his life.Ten Facts about Washington's Teeth
While Washington was fond of children, he and Martha did not have any children of their own. Martha Washington brought two children, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis, into the union from her previous marriage. Many have speculated as to why Martha and George could not have children, but it is impossible to know exactly why the couple was childless. Despite that fact, there were always children in the Washington household throughout their marriage. Together they raised Mrs. Washington’s two children, as well as two of her four grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews. A great-grandchild was born at Mount Vernon just two weeks before George Washington’s death.
With the military situation becoming even more serious around Boston in 1775, the Second Continental Congress was eager to appoint an overall commander of the Continental Army forces assembling. George Washington, a member of the Second Continental Congress, was appointed as the commanding general on June 15, 1775. Washington’s prior military experience with the British army was important, particularly given the inexperience of many colonial regulars. The fact that he was a Southerner, when most of the army in those early days was from New England, was also appealing, because it illustrated that the patriot forces were united and that this was not just a conflict between Britain and northeastern colonies. After his appointment in Philadelphia, Washington headed directly to Boston to take command of the American forces.Washington in the Revolutionary War
Given Washington’s ultimate success during the Revolution, it’s important to consider that he lost more battles than he won throughout his military career. The Battles of Fort Necessity, Monongahela, Long Island, White Plains, Fort Washington, Brandywine, and Germantown were all battles that Washington either directly led or played an important role in…and in each of these battles Washington’s forces were defeated. Despite this roster of tactical defeats, Washington brought many important characteristics to his military command. His ability to rally men under fire, his ability to sustain the Continental Army’s morale, his administrative talents, and his grasp of the larger strategic imperatives all made Washington the great general that history remembers and celebrates.The Yorktown Campaign of 1781
George Washington exhibited great steadiness and courage in battle and was frequently near the front lines during his many battles. At the Battle of Monongahela in 1755, Washington had two horses shot out from underneath him and his coat was pierced by four musket balls. At Kip’s Bay and the Battle of Princeton, Washington risked his own life when rushing to the front lines to rally his flagging troops.
The Mount Vernon home that George Washington inherited from his brother Lawrence was a much smaller affair than the home most people know today. Washington designed and oversaw two large expansions to his mansion while also directing many landscape improvements to his land.George Washington's Mansion
Washington believed that it was vital to the growing nation that the east and west be knitted more strongly together via commerce. Hoping to establish the Potomac River as the avenue of trade that would help to accomplish this goal, Washington helped found the Potomac Company in 1785. One of the major projects of the Potomac Company was the creation of a canal that would skirt the Great Falls of the Potomac, one of the largest and most ambitious civil engineering projects in America. The Potowmack Canal was finally completed in 1802, several years after Washington’s death, and it led a troubled existence until it was sold to the nearby Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company in 1828.The Potomac Company
George Washington became one of the largest land holders in the United States at the time. Not only did Washington own 8,000 acres at Mount Vernon, but through numerous land transactions and land bounties, Washington owned more than 50,000 acres in the western portions of Virginia and what is now West Virginia, as well as in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, and the Ohio country. These considerable acquisitions not only made Washington wealthy in terms of his land holdings, but also encouraged his strong interest in the westward expansion of the United States.
As the President of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington was permitted to be the first to sign this important document.Washington's Acts of Congress
At this early stage in the development of the United States, presidents were selected solely through the vote of the Electoral College, not by popular vote. The 69 votes that Washington received in 1789, and the 132 he received in 1792 represented all of the available Electoral College votes, thereby making Washington the only president in United States history to have been unanimously elected.Our First President
As the first President of the United States, Washington quickly learned that the newly adopted Constitution only provided a framework for how the government would function. Moving quickly to fill in many important gaps, Washington signed into law the Judiciary Act of 1789 which established a six-member Supreme Court and the position of Attorney General. On July 27, 1789 Washington signed a bill authorizing the creation of a Department of Foreign Affairs (future State Department) and a Secretary of State. In 1792 Washington signed the Coinage Act that established the dollar as the official currency of the United States. And with his signature, Washington, through the Naval Act of 1794, authorized the construction of six frigates – thereby creating the United States Navy.
George Washington was the only U.S. President who did not occupy the White House, which was not completed until after his death. During his two terms as president, the U.S. Capital was located first in New York and then in Philadelphia. George Washington played a large role, however, in the development of the new Federal City that was named after him, and in overseeing the design of both the Capitol Building and the White House.
Even though wigs were fashionable, Washington kept his own hair, which he wore long and tied back in a queue, or ponytail. Washington did, however, powder his hair which was the custom of the time.
In regard to religion, Washington was generally private about his personal beliefs, but he was an active member of the Anglican (later Episcopal) Church for his entire life, and even served as a vestryman and church warden for many years in his local parish. Family members recalled him reading sermons aloud to them on Sunday afternoons. Both family members and former aides mentioned that he set aside time for prayer and Bible reading each day. One well-known report stated that Washington's nephew witnessed him doing personal devotions with an open Bible while kneeling, in both the morning and evening.George Washington and Religion
Washington firmly believed in the concept of religious liberty or freedom of conscience. During his lifetime, he attended services of multiple Christian denominations. As President, Washington wrote a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, standing in favor of religious freedom, explaining: "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens…May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants."
George Washington was instrumental in popularizing the mule in the United States. His study of agriculture convinced him that mules (the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse) were better suited to farm work because they were stronger and had more endurance than a horse. When he began breeding mules at Mount Vernon in the 1780s, using imported donkeys from Spain, Malta, and South America, he was proved right.Animals at Mount Vernon
Towards the end of his life, Washington established a rye and corn whiskey distillery on his Dogue Run farm. In 1799, the year of Washington’s death, the distillery produced 10,942 gallons of whiskey – thereby making it the largest distillery in America at the time. Washington also was the only founding father to own and operate his own whiskey distillery.Washington's Distillery
On Thursday, December 12, 1799 George Washington was out on horseback supervising farming activities during a wretched day filled with light snow, hail, and rain. The next day brought heavy snow, but despite having a cold and sore throat, he went out in the afternoon to mark some trees between the mansion and the Potomac River. After turning in for the night, Washington awoke in great discomfort and indicated that he was having trouble breathing. Despite the close attention paid him by Dr. James Craik and two other attending physicians, Washington’s condition worsened and between 10 and 11pm on the night of December 14, 1799, George Washington passed away. Modern doctors have indicated that the cause of death was probably acute epiglottitis.The Death of George Washington
Washington’s attitude toward slavery gradually changed as he grew older and especially as he fought for liberty in the American Revolution. In his will, he arranged to free those slaves belonging to him upon his wife’s death (about 123) and, as was required by law, his estate paid for the care of former Mount Vernon slaves for decades after his death. Washington is the only slave owning president who freed all of his slaves. The remaining slaves (153 people) at Mount Vernon belonged to the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband and were known as dower slaves. By law, Washington had no legal rights to free those individuals, who were inherited by Martha Washington’s descendants upon her death in 1802. Another 43 slaves, who were rented from a neighbor, were returned to their owner after George Washington’s death.
Washington's Decision to Free His Slaves
In the design of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington DC, the central vault was built as the final resting place of George Washington. In his will, Washington specified that he wished to be buried in the family vault at Mount Vernon and that a new tomb should be constructed on his land. His heirs finally honored his wish, moving the bodies of over 20 members of the family, including George and Martha Washington, to the New Tomb in 1831. The vault at the U.S. Capitol remains empty to this day.The Tombs at Mount Vernon
George Washington was quite thorough and meticulous in the preservation and organization of his official letters and papers. Unfortunately for historians, Martha Washington chose to protect the privacy of her relationship to George Washington by destroying the many letters that they wrote each other over 40 years of marriage. Only five pieces of correspondence between the two have survived: two letters from George Washington to Martha that were found behind a drawer in her desk; one letter introducing a New Englander to Martha Washington that survived because it was never received; and two small notes from Martha Washington to her husband, written as postscripts to letters from other members of the family, and thus were filed with her letters.A Love Letter
See all the places that George Washington visited during his lifetime.View the Map
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