Only one year after they married, on February 22, 1732, Augustine and Mary Bell Washington delivered their first child, George Washington. Augustine was a third-generation English colonist who settled on a farm along the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg in 1738.
After the unfortunate passing of his father in 1743, George inherited the more modest Rappahannock River plantation where he lived with his mother and ten inherited slaves. Augustine left most of his property to his sons from his first marriage.
George Washington’s formal education ended when his father passed away. Washington, at the age of thirteen wrote and started practicing his “Rules of Civility” to adopt better habits and manners to climb higher up in Virginia’s society. He trained as a land surveyor and at 16 helped survey Shenandoah lands for Thomas, Lord Fairfax. In 1749, at seventeen years old, he was appointed county surveyor of the frontier county of Culpeper.
George contracted smallpox while on the island Barbados from 1751-1752 with his half-brother Lawrence who was attempting to cure his respiratory illness. This was only one of a number of severe illnesses that affected George’s health. One of the possible reasons for Washington’s infertility could have been caused by having tuberculosis.
Upon his return from Barbados, at twenty years old, George joined the Freemasons. He is the first of many Presidents to belong to the closed society to include Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Gerald Ford, to name a few.
George was sworn in as a Major in the Virginia militia and in February 1753 Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie sent Washington and 150 soldiers to the Ohio Valley to deliver a letter to the French stating Virginia’s claim of the land. Washington’s men fought against French soldiers who pushed them to retreat to the makeshift Fort Necessity, where he was forced to surrender. He published his journal of his experience which was the beginning of giving him a reputation for courage and leadership among the colonists
He returned to military service in 1754 and was commissioned a lieutenant colonel and served as an aide to General Edward Braddock. During a battle alongside the Monongahela River on July 9, 1755, General Braddock was mortally wounded and Washington assumed command and exhibited great courage, he had two horses shot out from under him and a number of musket shoots through his cloak. He led the men to safety and was later recognized for his conduct in battle with a promotion and was given command of the entire military force of Virginia. In 1758 Washington became a brigade commander, the only American to achieve that rank during the war.
Washington’s self-control was key to his character, he had mastered himself and he could the master events he was involved in. Despite being surrounded by fear, despair, indecisiveness, treason, and the threat of mutiny, he remained confident and steadfast, displaying high emotional intelligence and integrity.
He resigned his commission in 1758 and married Martha Dandridge Custis on January 6, 1759. Martha was a young widow who had inherited an enormous amount of wealth after the passing of her first husband, making her the wealthiest widow in Virginia. The newlywed couple, along with Marth’s two young children, Jacky, and Patsy moved to Mount Vernon.
George, finally being accepted into Virginia’s upper class, became a gentleman farmer at Mount Vernon. He established himself as an innovative farmer, who switched from tobacco to wheat as his main cash crop. He experimented with new crops, fertilizers, crop rotation, tools, and livestock breeding. He even grew hemp, but not just for fiber, his meticulous journal indicated he was growing just female plants with higher THC content to help deal with his toothaches. He also expanded the work of the plantation to include flour milling and commercial fishing and even operated a distillery that produced over 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey, becoming one of his most successful enterprises.
Eventually, just like his fellow planters, Washington felt himself exploited by British merchants and hampered by British regulations. As the quarrel with the mother country grew, he voiced his resistance to the restrictions.
When the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in May 1775, Washington, one of the Virginia delegates, was elected Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. On July 3, 1775, he took command of his ill-trained troops and embarked upon a war that lasted six grueling years.
Martha Washington joined her husband in his winter quarters every year of the war. Together they entertained his officers and guests. A patriot in her own right, Mrs. Washington made it her war too, nursing sick and wounded soldiers and raising money for the troops. Needlework helped her to pass the time through the long, cold winters. In all, she would spend about half the war in camp.
George realized early that the best strategy was to harass the British and started using unconventional tactics. He reported to Congress, “We should on all occasions avoid a general action, or put anything to the Risqué, unless compelled by a necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn.” Ensuing battles saw him fall back slowly, then strike unexpectedly.
Although the tale goes that George Washington never told a lie, that wasn’t true during the revolutionary war, lying was part of his strategy. Washington used double spies to send misinformation to the British. In one situation he had a double spy tell the British that he had 40,000 soldiers knowing that they wouldn’t believe that number. He later wrote a message stating that they had 9,000 soldiers and outlined their weapons and rations. The British believed this second misinformation and decided the colonies had to large of an army to attack so delayed till after winter, Washington had less than 2,000 soldiers and was able to cross the Delaware river on December 26, 1776 for a surprise attack against the British.
Finally in 1781 with the aid of French allies–he forced the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
On December 23, 1783, Washington presented himself before Congress in Annapolis, Maryland, and resigned his commission. Washington had the wisdom to give up power when he could have been crowned a king. He left Annapolis and went home to Mount Vernon with the fixed intention of never again serving in public life. This one act, without precedent in modern history, made him an international hero.
Washington longed to retire to the fields of Mount Vernon. But he soon realized that the Nation under its Articles of Confederation was not functioning well, so he became a prime mover in the steps leading to the 1787 Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia.
Once the Constitution was approved, Washington hoped to retire again to private life. But when the first presidential election was held, he received a vote from every elector. He remains the only President in American history to be elected by the unanimous voice of the people.
On April 30, 1789, George Washington, standing on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York, took his oath of office as the first President of the United States. The crowd responded “Long live George Washington, President of the United States.” The spectators responded with chants of “God bless our Washington! Long live our beloved President!” They celebrated in the only way they knew, as if greeting a new monarch with the customary cry of “Long live the king!”
In his First Inaugural Address, with only one tooth in his mouth, Washington confessed that he was unpracticed in the duties of civil administration; however, he was one of the most able administrators ever to serve as President. He administered the government with fairness and integrity, assuring Americans that the President could exercise extensive executive authority without corruption.
Further, he executed the laws with restraint, establishing precedents for broad-ranging presidential authority. His integrity was most pure, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “His justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motive of interest or consanguinity, friendship, or hatred, being able to bias his decision.” Washington set a standard for presidential integrity rarely met by his successors, although he established an ideal by which they all are judged. No President, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, served at the same unselfish level as George Washington.
He did not infringe upon the policy making powers that he felt the Constitution gave Congress. Foreign policy became a Presidential concern when the French Revolution led to a major war between France and England. Washington refused to accept the recommendations of the Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who was pro-French, or the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who was pro-British. He insisted upon a neutral course until the United States could grow stronger.
Wearied of politics and feeling old, he retired at the end of his second term. In his farewell address, he urged his countrymen to forswear excessive party spirit and geographical distinctions. In foreign affairs, he warned against long-term alliances.
Washington enjoyed less than three years of retirement at Mount Vernon. On a cold and wet December day, Washington, who always checked the grounds daily, became cold and damp which resulted in a throat infection. Despite receiving a regimen of blood-lettings, induced vomiting, an enema, and potions of vinegar and sage tea, Washington’s condition worsened. After the fourth bloodletting, totaling 32 ounces of blood, he improved slightly and was able to swallow but by 10 p.m. his condition deteriorated. Before his death Washington called for his two wills and directed that the unused one be burned. He passed away at 10:20 pm on December 14, 1799.
According to his wishes, Washington was not buried for three days. During that time his body lay in a mahogany casket at Mount Vernon and on December 18, 1799 a solemn funeral was held.
By the time of his death he had expanded the plantation from 2,000 to 8,000 acres consisting of five farms, with more than 3,000 acres under cultivation. Washington made provisions in his will to free all of his own slaves after his wife’s death but could not free those whom Martha had brought to the marriage. In the months after George’s death, a new threat to Martha’s security arose after the slaves who would gain their freedom became restless and rumors circulated about a suspicious fire at Mount Vernon. Fearing for her life, Martha decided to free her deceased husband’s slaves and on January 1, 1801 Washington’s slaves gained their liberty. He was the only slaveholder among the founding fathers to free his slaves.
Martha’s health, always somewhat precarious, now declined, she died on May 22, 1802, just two and a half years after George Washington.
In 1976 Washington was posthumously awarded the highest rank in the U.S. military as General of the Armies of the United States. He is considered the father of the US military for establishing the framework for how American soldiers should organize themselves, behave, and how they should relate to civilian leaders. Nobody will ever outrank him.
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