George Washington: America’s Founding Father
George Washington was born in Pope's Creek, Westmoreland County, Virginia, on February 22, 1732. Most of his childhood was spent on Ferry Farm, which he inherited at age 11, along with 10 slaves. At Ferry Farm, Washington informally attended a local school to learn reading, writing, legal forms, geometry, and manners in order to become a surveyor. Washington obtained his surveyor’s license in 1749 and became surveyor of Culpeper County shortly after.
Interested in exploring the American frontier, he resigned from his job in 1750 and began to purchase land in the valley. Washington followed his half-brother in his military footsteps and was appointed by Virginia’s governor, Robert Dinwiddie, as special envoy, to deliver a message to the French. They demanded the French vacate land the British had claimed. This led to a conflict, which eventually spiraled into the French and Indian War.
In 1759, George married Martha Dandridge Custis and began to work on overseeing farms in Mt. Vernon. On his plantation, he experimented with new crops, fertilizers, crop rotation tools, livestock, flour milling, and commercial fishing. During this time, he expanded upon his estate, raising his roof, adding wings, and building a piazza. His businesses became quite successful, in part because Washington was willing to expand into so many domains. After switching from tobacco to wheat, he built a gristmill, allowing for the production of meal and flour. He also began to make spirits, at one point producing over 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey in one year.
In 1760, Washington was appointed as Justice of the Peace for Fairfax County, where he attended House of Burgesses meetings on behalf of his estate. During this time, he began to formulate his views on independence. In 1769, he emphasized to George Mason the importance of resisting the strokes of “our lordly masters.” Generally, Washington opposed independence, but refused to submit to the “loss of those valuable rights and privileges, which are essential to the happiness of every free State, and without which life, liberty, and property are rendered totally insecure.” His middle of the road approach helped him secure approval for the Suffolk Resolves, allowing Virginia to have its own militia.
As relations between the Crown and the colonies soured, Washington was appointed as general of the Continental Army in 1775. Despite seizing Dorchester Heights, Washington wasn’t known as a great tactician. For instance, the sites of Trenton, Princeton, and Germantown were lost in part because of ineffective evasive tactics. Despite his relative weakness as a tactician, his discipline helped improve the army. Under his reign, he removed cowardly, inefficient, and dishonest men; flogged deserters and plunderers; and advocated repeatedly for increases to soldier wages.
A string of losses in Long Island, Kip’s Bay, and White Plains rendered Washington incapable of defending New York City, which fell to the British on November 16, 1776. This set back colonial forces significantly. Nevertheless, Washington persevered. On Christmas evening, Washington’s troops snuck over the Delaware River, and surprise-attacked Trenton, resulting in a surrender of a key garrison. He managed the same type of attack in Princeton, winning both cities back. This rallied the public! The French, under Rochambeau, allied with the colonies against the British and the combined troops laid siege on General Cornwallis in 1781. Most importantly, Washington’s troops managed to win the Battle of Yorktown, which led to the British surrender.
Many attribute Washington’s victory over a larger, better supplied army because of his flexibility. Despite losses, he managed to keep the army intact and effectively tapped into public support. On December 23, 1783, George Washington resigned from his commission, aiming to retire from politics. However, the failures of the Articles of Confederation led Washington to attend a convention to create a constitution.
Following the ratification of the Constitution, despite his protestation, Washington was elected unanimously by the electoral college in 1789. Washington used his first term to organize the executive branch and establish administrative procedures and norms that would follow. His leadership demonstrated that executive authority was possible without corruption. For instance, Washington appointed both federalists and antifederalists to his cabinet, including Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Washington was elected for a second term in 1793, at the beginning of the French Revolution and kept the United States out of the European War of 1793. Many appreciated Washington’s accomplishments and urged him to seek a third term, which he ultimately refused.
Washington is important today because he exemplified many of the characteristics of the United States and played a key role in shaping American norms. As first president, Washington managed to consolidate power without corruption, ultimately giving it up. As a businessman, Washington dealt with his affairs using entrepreneurship and innovation. As an idealist, Washington emphasized fundamental rights, which to this day America strives to achieve.