George Washington: your guide to the war hero, founding father, first US president and slave owner

A founding father of the United States, George Washington commanded the Continental Army that won independence from the British, and stood as the nascent America’s first president. Explore his rise to greatness (including how he lost his first election), how he died, and the myth of his father’s cherry tree…

Engraved portrait of George Washington, the first president of the United States of America

The name ‘Washington’ refers to more than an important figure in the history of the United States: it’s part of the national psyche. It is the name of the capital, a towering obelisk in that city, an entire state – the list goes on and on. George Washington’s face is on everything from statues to the money in Americans’ wallets.

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For many, Washington stands above the rest of the illustrious founding fathers, remembered as, in the words of Continental Army General Henry Lee: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”


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Washington’s early life

Washington was born on 22 February 1732 in the British colony of Virginia to a prosperous farming family, but he had to grow up fast. Aged just 11 when his father Augustine Washington died, he left his education behind to help manage Mount Vernon – his family’s plantation – with his mother, Mary Ball. Before turning 18 he had worked as a surveyor, which took him into little explored lands to the west.

The young George Washington had ambitions in the military, however, so in 1752 he joined the colonial militia, gaining valuable experience in the French and Indian War, which broke out in 1754. Rising to the rank of colonel in 1755, Washington was given control of all Virginian troops and faced the spectre of death while fighting on the frontier. During a single skirmish, he had two horses shot from under him and his coat was shot through four times. He resigned in 1758 with the honorary rank of brigadier-general and returned to his cherished Mount Vernon, which he had inherited from his half-brother and mentor, Lawrence.

Rather than spending the rest of his days as landowner and farmer, Washington – now married to Martha, who would be his lifelong companion – embarked on a political career. Elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses (the representative body of the Virginia General Assembly), he grew more antagonistic towards British taxes and regulations until he became a leading voice of dissent in the state.

In 1774, Washington was sent to the First Continental Congress and again to the second convention the following year. By the time of the second meeting, the American War of Independence (1775–83) had begun, and the colonial forces needed a commander in chief. The Congress looked no further than the venerated Virginian, although he apparently thought little of his qualifications, saying: “I do not think myself equal to the command I am honoured with.”

Washington in the American War of Independence

The war had a far from promising start, as the Continental Army struggled against the superior British forces. Washington would not give up the fight, though. In late 1776, he won a famous victory after crossing the Delaware River, and he then spent the following winter reforming the army at Valley Forge. His strength was not in strategy, but leadership. For years, the Virginian held together an untrained, poorly equipped, ill-fed and often unpaid army on the verge of collapse.

Outgunned and outmanned, Washington’s aim was simply to outlast his British foes. Time and time again, he ordered quick-fire skirmishes before falling back to drag Redcoats into enemy territory – drawing out the war in an attempt to make it too costly for the British to continue. Eventually, the Continental Army claimed a significant victory at Saratoga in 1777, which brought the French into the war on America’s side. In time, the balance of power shifted, and on 19 October 1781, the British surrendered at Yorktown.

Washington as president

The war had been won, and Washington wished only to retire to his quiet life as a gentleman farmer. Yet he had more to offer his fledgling nation. He headed the Constitutional Convention in 1787 – where his unimpeachable status helped to secure the passage of the Constitution – and then, in 1789, he was unanimously elected as the first president of the United States. Again, Washington’s modesty showed at his inauguration, when he referred to his “inferior endowments from nature” and claimed he was “unpractised in the duties of civil administration”.

Writing the rules as he went along, Washington remained constantly mindful of how his conduct could define future presidencies. Setting an example was a herculean task when faced with uniting former colonies and contending with division at every step of nation building. He oversaw the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the creation of a central bank under the auspices of Alexander Hamilton, and the entry of five new states to the union. Re-elected for a second term in 1792, a major test came in 1794 when he put down the Whiskey Rebellion, a Pennsylvania uprising protesting the first federal tax on a domestic product – distilled spirits.

He established diplomatic relations and maintained a policy of neutrality by not getting involved in revolutionary France’s war with Britain in 1793, but he also could not prevent increasingly fractious partisanship at home as two political parties emerged. Washington’s apparent failings haunted his ‘Farewell Address’, delivered in September 1796 (though he actually retired in March 1797), with the statesman remaining modest to the last, saying: “I am nevertheless too sensible of my defect not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors.”

Washington did not enjoy his retirement for long, though, as he died on 14 December 1799. He had won the American War of Independence with a ragtag army and built a nation from ragtag colonies – never driven by personal glory or ambition, but instead by a fervent belief of what his nation could become.

Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history


George Washington: facts about his life

When was George Washington born?

22 February 1732

Where was George Washington born?

Westmoreland County, Virginia

How tall was George Washington?

He was 1.88 metres tall, or 6 feet 2 inches

Was George Washington British?

He was not born in Britain, but he was born as a British subject – as were the next six American presidents. The first president to be born as an American citizen was Martin Van Buren, who was in office from 1837–41.

When was George Washington president, and how many terms did he serve?

He was president from 30 April 1789 until 4 March 1797, serving two terms.

How old was George Washington when he became president?

He was 57 years old.

What party was George Washington? Was he a Democrat or Republican?

George Washington tried to remain non-partisan, and the current Democratic and Republican parties were not existence during Washington’s lifetime.

When did George Washington die? And how old was he when he died?

14 December 1799. He was 67 years old

How did George Washington die?

Washington died of an infection – variously suspected as being quinsy, epiglottitis and diphtheria. On 12 December 1799 he toured his estate in hail and snow, returned late, and sat through dinner wearing his sodden, freezing clothes. The next day he developed a sore throat and his condition rapidly deteriorated.

What were George Washington’s last words?

Washington’s last words were “Tis well”. This was spoken to his secretary Tobias Lear, after Washington had extracted the promise that Lear would not place his body in his burial vault until three days after his death – such was his fear of being entombed alive. It was a promise that Lear kept.

Where is George Washington buried?

Mount Vernon, Virginia. He was initially buried in the ‘old’ family vault, but an attempted theft of Washington’s skull in 1830 – the thief absconded with the wrong remains – prompted the construction a new crypt close by. More than once, Congress has called for Washington to buried at the Capitol Building, and there is empty burial chamber beneath the Rotunda for this purpose.


6 fascinating facts about George Washington

1

He didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence

The commander-in-chief of the nascent Continental Army and later the first president of the United States didn’t sign the famous declaration: he was in New York at the time, organising the city’s defences.

2

He was a freemason

Washington was a member of this fraternal order which, to this day, has an air of secrecy surrounding it. He joined the masonic lodge at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1752, paying a fee of two pounds and three shillings for the privilege. He was far from the only high-profile historic figure known to have joined the freemasons: others include Benjamin Franklin, Edward Jenner, Walter Scott and William IV of England.

3

He is one of the four presidents depicted on Mount Rushmore

These carvings on the 20th century sculpture in the Black Hills of South Dakota depict (from left to right) presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. These four individuals were chosen by Rushmore creator and sculptor Gutzon Borglum as he believed they represented four key elements of US history – its birth, growth, development and preservation.

4

He was a slaveowner

Washington’s home at Mount Vernon was a plantation, and hundreds of enslaved men, women and children lived there during his life. Washington himself first came to own slaves directly at the age of 11, on the death of his father.

Washington accepted slavery his youth, and though he came to be more equivocal about it in later years did little to change the status quo. Though in private correspondence he expressed discomfort at slavery in the United States of America and was at pains to not split enslaved families, he did not act on these impulses publicly for fear of fracturing the union in its infancy, and continued to make use of enslaved labour throughout his life.

There were 317 enslaved people at Mount Vernon when Washington died. In his will, he ordered that those belonging to him be freed on the death of his wife, Martha, though this accounted for fewer than half – the remainder were part of her family’s dower, and he had no power to free them.

5

He lost his first election

This was long before he was cast as the peerless statesman of the revolution. In 1755, while fighting in the French and Indian War, his name was submitted (perhaps without his knowledge) for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He received just 40 votes. Three years later he ran again – and was elected.

6

He did not cut down his father’s cherry tree

The famous tale goes like this: aged 6, Washington’s father gifted him a hatchet, which the lad swiftly tested out by damaging (or cutting down – the story varies) his father’s beloved cherry tree. When confronted about his act of vandalism, the future president was said to confess immediately, causing his father’s anger to melt away.

The story is a fabrication. It was penned by one of Washington’s first biographers, an 18th/19th century bookseller named Mason Locke Weems, who it seems wanted to show that Washington’s private virtues were the cause of his public greatness.

Kev Lochun is deputy editor of BBC History Revealed and digital section editor of HistoryExtra

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This content was written for BBC History Revealed and first published by HistoryExtra in 2021