George Washington Born February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, he was the first son of his father Augustine’s second marriage; his mother was the former Mary Ball of Epping Forest. When George was about three, his family moved to Little Hunting Creek on the Potomac, then to Ferry Farm opposite Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock in King George County. In the interim, the powerful Fairfax family of neighboring Belvoir introduced him to the accomplishments and appropriateness of mannered wealth and, in 1748, provided him his first adventure. That year Lord Fairfax dispatched him with a party that spent a month surveying Fairfax lands in the still-wild Shenandoah. In the expedition, he began to appreciate the uses and value of land, an appreciation that grew the following year with his appointment as Culpeper County surveyor, certified by the College of William and Mary.
Washington also succeeded to Lawrence’s militia office. Governor Robert Dinwiddie first appointed him adjutant for the southern district of the colony’s militia, but soon conferred on him Lawrence’s aide for the Northern Neck and Eastern Shore. So it happened that in 1753 the governor sent 21-year-old Washington to warn French troops at Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio (modern Pittsburgh) that they were infiltrating in territory claimed by Virginia. The French ignored the warning and the mission failed, but when Washington returned Dinwiddie had Williamsburg printer William Hunter publish his official report as The Journal of Major George Washington. It made the young officer well-known at home and abroad.
Returning to the Ohio in April with 150 men to remove the intruders, Washington got his first taste of war in a fight with a French scouting party. He wrote to his brother Jack, “I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” A second engagement quickly followed and Washington, retreating to Fort Necessity, was beaten by a more numerous French force. He surrendered and, in his ignorance of French, signed an embarrassing surrender agreement. But he had opportunities to correct his defeat. The whistling bullets declared the start of the Seven Years’ War, as it was called in Europe.
In America it was called the French and Indian War or, sometimes, Virginia’s War. Horace Walpole wrote, “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.” Washington returned to the field as an aide to General Braddock in 1755 and performed with honor, despite crippling illness, in the disastrous campaign against Fort Duquesne. Later that year Dinwiddie gave him command of all Virginia forces and promoted him to colonel. In these years Washington had two disputes with English officers who viewed their regular-army commissions as superior to that of the Virginia militia commander. These disputes may mark the beginning of Washington’s resentment of British attitudes toward the colonies.
Operating from a fort at Winchester, Washington protected the Virginia frontier until 1758 when he was made a militia brigadier and helped to chase the French from Fort Duquesne for good. Washington resigned at war’s end and retired to Mount Vernon. He was defeated in elections for the House of Burgesses in 1755 and 1757, but won in 1758 and was seated the following year from Frederick County. For 15 years he devoted himself to his legislative work and his farm. During this period, he also became a family man, marrying the widow Martha Dandridge Custis, the mother of two children, on January 6, 1759, in New Kent County.
In 1760, Washington took on the additional duties of a Fairfax County justice of the peace. He also found time for the amusements of a Virginia gentleman–fox hunting, snuff taking, plays, billiards, cards, dancing, and fishing. He delighted in bottles of Madeira, plates of watermelon, and dishes of oysters. In these years his anger of the inferiority of American interests to those of England grew. When Parliament attempted to impose the Stamp Act in 1769, Washington told an friend that Parliament “hath no more right to put their hands into my pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into yours for money.” By 1774 he was in the lead of the defense of Virginia liberties and was among the rebellious burgesses who gathered at the Raleigh Tavern on May 27 after Governor Dunmore dissolved the house.
Washington signed the resolves proposing a Continental congress and nonimportation of British goods. On July 18, he chaired the Alexandria meeting that adopted George Mason’s “Fairfax Resolutions.” Sent to the First Continental Congress, Washington returned home afterward to organize independent militia companies in Northern Virginia and to win election to the Second Continental Congress. In Philadelphia on June 15, 1775, he was offered command of America’s forces, accepted, vowed to accept no pay, and left to take over the army at Boston. Nevertheless, the weakness of the government created by the Articles of Confederation concerned Washington and, in 1786, Shays’s Rebellion alarmed him. He readily accepted a seat in the federal convention and election to its presidency.
His agreed election as the first president of the United States was certain before the Constitution was even adopted and, again, he accepted with caution. “My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feeling not unlike those of a culprit, who is going to the place of his execution,” he wrote after the ballot. On April 30, 1789, he took the oath of office in New York at age 57. Washington not only had to organize a government but also to create a role for the highest officer of the new nation. Both tasks earned him enemies. Always opposed to factions, his two administrations nevertheless assist the bitter competition of the Federalist and Antifederalist parties.
Washington issued his farewell address on September 7, 1796, and was replaced by John Adams the following March 4. His last official act was to Forgive the members in the Whiskey Rebellion. When relations with France soured in 1798, his Country once more turned to Washington for his service. Adams appointed him lieutenant general of a provisional army. The danger deteriorated before the troops built.
In December 1799, after a day spent riding on his farms in foul weather, Washington’s throat became inflamed. At 2 a.m. on December14, he awakened his wife to say that he was having trouble breathing. At sunrise she sent for Dr. James Craig, who arrived at 9 a.m. and diagnosed the illness as “inflammatory quinsy.” During the morning Washington was bled three times and two more doctors, Elisha Dick of Alexandria and Gustavus Brown, were summoned.
One counseled against bleeding, but more blood was taken and purges administered.