The Biography of George Washington
Learn more about the life and legacy of George Washington in our online biography.
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732 on his father's plantation on Pope's Creek in Virginia's Westmoreland County. George’s father Augustine, a third-generation English colonist firmly established in the middle ranks of the Virginia gentry, was twice married. In 1731 Augustine married Mary Ball, and George was born a year later. Five other children followed. The Washington family moved from Westmoreland County to Augustine, Sr.'s plantation on Little Hunting Creek around 1735, and lived there until they moved to a farm on the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg in 1738.
In 1743, when George Washington was only eleven years old, Augustine Washington passed away and left the bulk of his estate to George's half-brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, Jr. Lawrence inherited Little Hunting Creek plantation (which he later renamed Mount Vernon in honor of Admiral Edward Vernon under whom he had served in the War of Jenkins' Ear), and Augustine Jr., inherited the Westmoreland County plantation where George was born.
George Washington inherited the more modest Rappahannock River plantation where he lived with his mother and siblings, but this was not enough to maintain his middling status in the Virginia gentry. His half-brother Lawrence suggested that George enter the British navy, but Mary Ball Washington rejected the proposal. Instead, Washington was trained as a land surveyor, a profession of considerable importance in colonial Virginia.
Washington's surveying career benefited from Lawrence's patronage, as well as from the wealthy Fairfax family of Belvoir, Lawrence's neighbors and in-laws. Washington became a surveyor of Lord Fairfax's extensive Northern Neck proprietary, and was appointed surveyor of Culpeper County in 1748. Washington’s surveying career provided him with the respectability that an ambitious Virginian needed to advance socially.
Washington gained familiarity with the colony's backcountry while developing frontier survival skills. Not only did Washington receive substantial fees for surveying, but he also discovered firsthand how to successfully land speculate. By 1751 George Washington had accumulated almost as many acres of fertile soil in the Shenandoah as his half-brother Lawrence had at Mount Vernon.
Although Lawrence possessed desirable qualities for a rising Virginia gentlemen—an inherited estate and impressive marriage connections—George enjoyed an impressive physique and the blessings of good health. Washington survived a case of smallpox while in the West Indies, thus acquiring immunity to the disease that claimed the lives of many colonial Americans. However, his brother succumbed to disease in 1752. Lawrence's infant daughter, to whom he originally bequeathed Mount Vernon, died before reaching adulthood. In 1754 George Washington leased the Mount Vernon estate from Lawrence’s widow, Ann Fairfax Washington, who held a life title.
Washington's desire for personal distinction compelled him to seek out honor on the battlefield rather than in the life of a tobacco planter. He persuaded the Virginia governor to appoint him to his deceased brother's adjutancy in 1752, gaining a commission as a major and an annual salary of 100 pounds. He later transferred to the adjutancy of Virginia's Northern Neck and Eastern Shore with the responsibility of training the Northern District's militiamen.
In October 1753, Washington volunteered to investigate reports of French encroachments on Virginia's western frontier that threatened the interests of the colony’s great land speculators. Upon the return to Williamsburg of his small party from the shores of Lake Erie in January 1754, Washington received popular recognition through the publication of his detailed journal of the rugged four-month-long expedition.
That May, the twenty-year Washington became commander of the Virginia Regiment, raised to oppose the French in the Ohio Valley. French retaliation for the attack on a small party across the Alleghenies provided Washington's first military defeat with the surrender of the hastily-constructed Fort Necessity in July 1754. The skirmishes led to the French and Indian War, the colonial phase of the Seven Years War between the French and British, each aligned with their respective colonists and native American allies. Washington learned much while serving under British generals Edward Braddock and John Forbes, earning a military reputation not only for courage under fire but also as an efficient administrator and commander of forces. He also developed a resentment of the British officials who denied him the regular army commission that he desired, and the respect for the contributions made by provincial troops during the war.
After the war, Washington returned to private life as a bachelor, with his prestige enhanced by military experiences and the potential of his land holdings increasing from bounties granted to officers and men of the Virginia Regiment. On January 6, 1759 the twenty-six year-old Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, the widow of Daniel Parke Custis, who had left her and their two children a significant fortune. Washington was named the kids' legal guardian two years later and devoted much time and energy over the next sixteen years managing the Custis estate. During this time Washington also became the outright owner of Mount Vernon as his brother’s residual heir upon the death of Lawrence's widow.
Immediately Washington became one of the wealthiest Virginia planters and the next decade and a half of Washington's life at Mount Vernon were probably his happiest. Although he and Martha had no children of their own, the couple raised Martha's children, and later two of her grandchildren, Eleanor and George Washington Parke Custis.
Washington was first elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758 as a representative of Frederick County. He was later elected by Fairfax County landholders and served a total of sixteen years in the colonial assembly. In the imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s, he became an early advocate of the patriot cause. After Governor Dunmore dissolved the Assembly in 1774, Washington met with other disgruntled Burgesses at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg and adopted a nonimportation agreement. That same year Washington was elected by the first Virginia Convention as a delegate to the First Continental Congress, which adopted Virginia’s program of economic coercion against the mother country.
In May 1775, less than a month after a shooting war commenced at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, Washington again traveled to Philadelphia to take his seat in the Second Continental Congress. When it adopted the New England militia army that was besieging the British Army in Boston in June 1775, Congress recognized Washington's military experience and political trustworthiness by unanimously electing him its commander-in-chief. Washington arrived at Cambridge headquarters on 2 July 1775 and did not see Mount Vernon again for another six years.
Washington’s first challenge as a general was to mold an inexperienced and undisciplined group of patriotic volunteers into a professional army, and he did so by instituting efficient administrative procedures, setting high standards of personal conduct, and emphasizing discipline, cleanliness, and colonial unity. Washington also concentrated on instilling a professional ethic in the New England militia officers who remained in the Continental service.
Washington's greatest achievement during the Revolution, however, was to hold his little army together in the face of public apathy, marginal state support, inadequate Congressional assistance, and a series of logistical and military frustrations at Valley Forge and during the subsequent Philadelphia campaign. Only successful diplomatic efforts enlisting the assistance of the French army and navy enabled Washington to mount a strategic offensive. At Yorktown in 1781 he completed a successful siege operation in the traditional European style and captured Lord Cornwallis' entire army. Washington bid farewell to his comrades in arms in 1783, resigned his Continental commission, and retired to private life.
Washington's return to Mount Vernon, however, was not permanent. According to a 1783 circular letter to the states, Washington felt that a respectable national existence required an indissoluble union of the states under one federal head, a sacred regard for public justice, the establishment of proper national defense and the suppression of local prejudices.
In 1787, Washington was chosen as a Virginia delegate to the Philadelphia Convention that was to revise the Articles of Confederation. Against his wishes, Washington was elected presiding officer. The resulting Federal constitution that was adopted in September 1787 did not bear much of his handiwork, but it breathed the spirit of his strong nationalism, and his reputation was tied to its success. Washington was elected president after the new constitution was ratified and became the first executive officer to serve under the new government.
During his presidency, Washington supported treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton's fiscal program of federal assumption of state war debts and the creation of a national. Even before the end of Washington's first administration, opposition coalesced around secretary of state Thomas Jefferson and his friend congressman James Madison. The two favored a states' rights view of strict interpretation of the Constitution, domestic policies favoring the landed interests, and a foreign policy aligned more closely to France than Britain.
Although Washington was unanimously elected to a second term as President, the nation was anything but united behind him. The small and ill-supplied United States Army suffered two disastrous defeats against Northwestern Native-American nations. America found itself caught between warring European powers as the French Revolution reached an international phase. At home, the president called out the militia to put down an uprising in western Pennsylvania against Hamilton's new excise tax on distilled spirits. Democratic-Republican criticisms that Washington had become the head of a party instead of the nation boiled over in reaction to the treaty that John Jay had signed with the British and the Senate ratified in 1795. In the face of growing newspaper attacks against him, which he tended to take personally, Washington handed the reins of government over to his successor, John Adams, in the spring of 1797.
Only once more was the General called from his beloved plantation to serve the country. As war with France appeared imminent in 1798, President Adams appointed Washington as commander-in-chief of a new army, but the crisis passed before it was organized and raised. He had only a short time left to enjoy life at Mount Vernon. His end came suddenly on December 14, 1799 and the outpouring of grief over his death was widespread and sincere throughout the new nation.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.
Dalzell, Robert F., Jr. and Lee Baldwin Dalzell. George Washington's Mount Vernon: At Home in Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Henriques, Peter R. Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.
Higginbotham, Don. George Washington and the American Military Tradition. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Lengel, Edward G. General George Washington: A Military Life. New York: Random House, 2005.
Longmore, Paul K. The Invention of George Washington. Berkeley; Los Angeles, 1988.
Smith, Richard Norton. Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.