On February 22, 1732, George Washington is born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the first of six children of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington. (Augustine had three additional children from his first marriage.) An initially loyal British subject, Washington eventually led the Continental Army in the American Revolution and became the new nation’s first president. He is often referred to as the father of the United States.
Washington rose to eminence on his own merit. His first job at age 17 was as a surveyor in the Shenandoah Valley. In 1752, he joined the British army and served as a lieutenant in the French and Indian War. When the war ended, Washington left the army and returned home to Virginia to manage Mount Vernon, the plantation he had recently inherited upon the death of his older brother. He married a wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, in 1759. Although the couple had no children, Washington adopted Martha’s son and daughter from her previous marriage. While in Virginia, Washington served in the colonial House of Burgesses and, like many of his compatriots, grew increasingly frustrated with the British government. He soon joined his co-revolutionaries in the Continental Congress.
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In 1775, the Continental Congress unanimously chose Washington to command the new Continental Army. In addition to advocating civilian control over the military, Washington possessed that intangible quality of a born leader and had earned a reputation for coolness under fire and as a strict disciplinarian during the French and Indian campaign. In that war, he dodged bullets, had horses shot out from under him and was even taken prisoner by the French. Part of his success in the Revolutionary War was due to his shrewd use of what was then considered the ungentlemanly, but effective, tactic of guerrilla warfare, in which stealthy hit-and-run attacks foiled British armies used to close-formation battle-line warfare. Although Washington led almost as many losing battles as he won, his successes at Trenton, Princeton and Yorktown proved pivotal for the Continental Army and the emerging nation. In 1789, in part because of the leadership skills he displayed during the war, the Continental Congress elected Washington as the first American president.
George Washington’s legacy has endured a long process of untangling myth from fact. The famous cherry tree incident never occurred, nor did Washington have wooden teeth, though he did have only one tooth by the time he became president and wore a series of dentures made from metal and cow or hippopotamus bone. In portraits of Washington, the pain caused by his dentures is evident in his facial expression. Known for being emotionally reserved and aloof, Washington was concerned with personal conduct, character and self-discipline, but was known to bend the rules if necessary, especially in war. Although Washington was undoubtedly ambitious, he pursued his goals humbly and with quiet confidence in his abilities as a leader.
An extraordinary figure in American history and unusually tall at 6′ 3, Washington was also an ordinary man. He loved cricket and fox-hunting, moved gracefully around a ballroom, was a Freemason and possibly a Deist, and was an astute observer of the darker side of human nature. His favorite foods were pineapples, Brazil nuts (hence the missing teeth from cracking the shells) and Saturday dinners of salt cod. He possessed a wry sense of humor and, like his wife Martha, tried to resist the vanities of public life. Washington could also explode into a rage when vexed in war or political battles. Loyal almost to a fault, he could also be unforgiving and cold when crossed. When Republican Thomas Jefferson admitted to slandering the president in an anonymous newspaper article for his support of Federalist Alexander Hamilton’s policies, Washington cut Jefferson out of his life. On at least one occasion, Washington’s stubbornness inspired John Adams to refer to him as Old Muttonhead.
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An unenthusiastic political leader, Washington nevertheless recognized his unique and symbolic role in keeping a fledgling nation together. He worked hard to reconcile competing factions within his administration and was keenly aware of setting unwritten rules of conduct for future presidents. He struggled with advisors over what sort of image a president should project. He preferred one of dignity and humility and stumbled when encouraged to act out of character or monarchical. After two terms, old, tired, and disillusioned with vicious partisan politics, he resigned. His granddaughter remembered him as a prisoner of his own celebrity. Abigail Adams described Washington as having a dignity which forbids familiarity mixed with an easy affability which creates love and reverence.
After leaving office, Washington returned to Mount Vernon, indulged his passion for the rural life and started a successful whiskey distillery. A member of the Virginia planter class, he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the hypocrisy of owning enslaved people, yet publicly he promoted a gradual abolition of slavery. In his will he requested that his enslaved workers be freed upon Martha’s death. Although he and Martha had a good relationship, the great love of his life was Sally Fairfax, the wife of his friend George. Abandoning his characteristic self-control, Washington wrote to Sally toward the end of his life, confessing that his moments with her had been the happiest of his life.
On December 14, 1799, Washington died of a severe respiratory ailment. He humbly identified himself in his will as George Washington, of Mount Vernon, a citizen of the United States.
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