“First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” General Henry Lee spoke this famous tribute when George Washington died.
During the American Revolution, Washington led the American colonies in the fight for independence from Great Britain. Washington was respected so much some people wanted him to be king. He refused. But Washington agreed to serve as the first president of the United States.
Born in February 1732, George grew up on his father’s farm in Virginia. George only attended school a short while. George learned most of his lessons at home from his father. George’s older half brother, Lawrence, also taught young George.
Although shy, George loved music and dancing. He hoped to become a wealthy gentleman. He even wrote a list of 110 good manners to follow!
At the age of 17, George took a job measuring land as a surveyor. When Lawrence died in 1752, he left George his estate in Virginia. It was a large farm called Mount Vernon.
During the French and Indian War, Washington served as an officer in Virginia’s colonial army. His bravery won attention. But British officers looked down on American soldiers. They refused to make George an officer in the British army.
In 1758, Washington resigned from the colonial army. By then, at the age of 26, he was a skilled military leader. He knew how to train his troops and run an army.
LIFE AS A LANDOWNER
In 1759, Washington married a wealthy widow named Martha Custis. Soon after his marriage, Washington was elected to Virginia’s colonial legislature. Washington won reelection many times. He served in the legislature until 1774.
Washington was eager to learn about farming. He studied books on growing crops and tried new farming methods. He also started other businesses, such as a fishery, a mill, and ironworks. Washington owned slaves, and they did much of the work at Mount Vernon.
STEPS TOWARD REVOLUTION
During the 1760s, the colonists became very angry at the taxes placed on them by Britain. As a Virginia representative, Washington opposed the new British taxes.
Washington believed Britain had trampled on the rights of colonists to govern themselves. He told colonists they should prepare to defend their rights. Washington impressed other members of the Virginia legislature. They elected him to attend the Second Continental Congress, which met in May 1775.
By the time the Congress met, fighting against British forces had already started at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. The leaders of all the other colonies also attended the congress. Washington looked tall and dashing wearing the blue uniform of the Virginia militia.
In June 1775, the congress elected Washington as commander in chief of the American Continental Army.
THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
To fight the British, Washington had to build an army. But how? The colonial armies lacked discipline. Men served for a short time and then went home. Washington needed an army he could train and count on to stay. He also needed supplies: weapons, food, clothes, and pay for soldiers.
Washington improved discipline. The Congress offered money to new recruits so they would enlist for longer terms. But supply problems continued. Washington’s army often went hungry. Some troops had no shoes and had to walk barefoot through snow!
Washington led his small, tattered army with great skill. Many times he ordered a retreat to save his army for future battles.
In 1778 France joined the Americans against the British. American forces and the French Navy trapped the British at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781.
The victory at Yorktown convinced many in Britain that the Americans would not give up. A peace treaty was signed in September 1783.
BACK ON THE FARM
Washington was glad to return to Mount Vernon and his family. Visitors constantly arrived eager to chat with the famous leader.
But Washington feared America’s hard-won independence might be lost. The new nation’s government under the Articles of Confederation seemed weak. States bickered constantly. Washington joined the calls for a convention to create a new government.
WRITING A CONSTITUTION
The convention met in Philadelphia in 1787. The delegates elected Washington president of the convention. Through long, sometimes angry debates, the delegates wrote the U.S. Constitution. It became the law of the land in 1788.
In January 1789 electors from the states voted unanimously to make Washington the country’s first president. He seemed the only man for the job. The office needed his skills, dignity, and leadership.
THE FIRST PRESIDENT
Washington served two terms as President, from 1789 to 1797. Much rested on his shoulders. He knew his decisions would affect later presidents. “I walk on untrodden ground,” said Washington upon first taking office.
Washington faced many important issues. The young country was in deep debt from the war. How would the debts be paid? Relations with Britain, France, and Spain were strained. On the frontier, wars with Native Americans flared.
Washington also had to contend with America’s first political parties. Washington’s secretary of treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and the secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, disagreed on many issues. Eventually, Hamilton and Jefferson headed different political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. This concerned Washington. He believed the parties created divisions, and he tried not to favor either one.
Washington supported laws that created a strong government. He believed everyone needed to work together for the good of the nation. Washington used treaties with foreign powers and Native Americans to strengthen and protect the United States.
FAREWELL TO GOVERNMENT
After two terms in office, Washington was ready to retire. He had grown weary of politics.
Washington’s farewell speech to the country held several warnings. He warned against the danger of political parties. He warned against getting tangled in the troubles of foreign countries.
Washington gladly went home to Mount Vernon. He died in December 1799. The country deeply mourned the man who guided the new nation through war and peace.