George Washington (1732–1799) was Commander in Chief of the Continental Forces during the American Wars of Independence. (1775-1783) He also became the first president of the US, serving from 1789-1797. Washington is often referred to as the ‘Father of the Nation’ and symbol of Republican democracy. His image is widely displayed on coins and statues throughout the United States.
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation.”
– George Washington
George Washington was born in 1732 in Virginia. His family were wealthy and they owned many slaves who worked on the plantations. As a planter, he felt constrained by British regulations and taxes and this proved one factor in encouraging him to fight the British in the later Wars of Independence. As well as working as a planter, Washington was interested in military matters and exploring the Western territories. In May 1775, his military experiences were used as delegates voted Washington to be head of the US Continental Army.
“Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the whole world that a Freeman, contending for liberty on his own ground, is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.”
– General Orders, Headquarters, New York (2 July 1776).
The War of Independence was to last six years. Especially in the beginning, Washington had to deal with ill-trained and poorly equipped soldiers. In the early days of the war, he adopted a strategy of harassing the British but avoiding them in full-scale war. It was not until 1781 when, with the help of French forces, Washington was able to defeat the British at Yorktown.
After victory had been finalised in 1783, Washington resigned as Commander in Chief. He wanted to make the point that he would not become the de facto military ruler. Washington wanted the new American constitution and democratic system to be used. To Washington, the new constitution and Declaration of Independence were a chance to institute a new type of government and society based on human rights.
“The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period.” – Washington Circular to the States, 8 June 1783.
As a successful military leader, Washington retained widespread support and, given the difficulties faced by the emerging republic, Washington stood for public office and the Presidency. By a large majority, Washington was elected the first President of America and he served from April 1789 to March 1797. As President, Washington skillfully kept the United States out of conflicts with Great Britain and France. This period of peace enabled the new country to improve its national finances and gain an important period of stability.
“In politics as in philosophy, my tenets are few and simple. The leading one of which, and indeed that which embraces most others, is to be honest and just ourselves and to exact it from others, meddling as little as possible in their affairs where our own are not involved. If this maxim was generally adopted, wars would cease and our swords would soon be converted into reap hooks and our harvests be more peaceful, abundant, and happy.”
In 1791, Washington imposed an excise duty on spirits. The Federal government needed to raise tax revenue for debts incurred by the war. The so-called ‘Whiskey Tax’ was deeply unpopular and many rebelled against tax officials who tried to collect the tax. Washington himself rode out to Western Pennsylvania to negotiate with the rebels. Although the tax was hard to collect, Washington avoided an escalation of the rebellion and helped to establish the principle of federal taxes.
Washington’s presidency helped to establish many protocols and traditions that are still in use today. This included the creation of a cabinet system, the inaugural address and title of Mr President. His Republican values had a lasting impact on American society and government. Despite being a popular president, he had to be persuaded to stand for a second term. Both Thomas Jefferson (of Democrat-Republicans) and Alexander Hamilton (Federalist Party) put aside their policy difference to encourage Washington to stand for a second term. They believed Washington was the only one who could hold the new country together.
Washington agreed, but towards the end of his second term he grew weary of politics, in particular, he didn’t like the factionalization of politics into different parties. He refused to join the Federalists, despite mostly agreeing with their policies. In some respects, Washington preferred the idea of strong central government. Although he fought the British, he appreciated the strength of a unified political body. However, Washington was keen to avoid the pomp and ceremony associated with Monarchs.
In 1796, he published a Farewell Address which offered his thoughts on civic virtue and political governance. It expressed Washington’s belief in the virtue of the union of states, seeking a peaceful foreign policy and adherence to the constitution and democracy.
“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize.”(Farewell address)
George Washington was widely considered to be an able administrator and person of exemplary character. Washington is considered to embody qualities of integrity, self-discipline, courage, honesty, resolve, and respect for others.
“Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence. True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to appellation.”
George Washington died aged 67, on 14 December 1799, three years after his retirement, at his home of Mount Vernon. He succombed to a mystery illness where he felt cold and feverish. Doctors were summonded and they bled up to 40% of his blood – in a vain attempt to reverse the illness. His last words were
“’I am just going! Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault less than three days after I am dead. Do you understand me? . . . Tis well!’”
Views on slavery
Washington rarely spoke against slavery in public. He knew how divisive the issue was and feared it could split the emerging union. Washington rarely addressed the issue during his presidency, but he did pass the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which limited America’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. On a personal note, he did inherit slaves from his father’s plantations. As a young man he purchased another 8 slaves. During his life, he became more concerned about the issue, and aware of the human cost of the practise.
“The unfortunate condition of the persons, whose labour in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret. To make the Adults among them as easy & as comfortable in their circumstances as their actual state of ignorance & improvidence would admit; & to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born; afforded some satisfaction to my mind, & could not I hoped be displeasing to the justice of the Creator.” – Comment by George Washington, recorded by David Humphries
He left provisions in his will to free his slaves after his death.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of George Washington”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net. Updated: 8th February 2017. Last updated 13 November 2019.
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