George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799) was an American political leader, military general, statesman, and founding father who served as the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797. Previously, he led Patriot forces to victory in the nation’s War for Independence. He presided at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which established the U.S. Constitution and a federal government. Washington has been called the “Father of His Country” for his manifold leadership in the formative days of the new nation.
Washington was somewhat reserved in personality, but he generally had a strong presence among others. He made speeches and announcements when required, but he was not a noted orator or debater. He was taller than most of his contemporaries; accounts of his height vary from 6 ft (1.83 m) to 6 ft 3.5 in (1.92 m) tall, he weighed between 210-220 pounds (95-100 kg) as an adult, and he was known for his great strength. He had grey-blue eyes and reddish-brown hair which he wore powdered in the fashion of the day. He had a rugged and dominating presence, which garnered respect from his male peers.
Washington suffered frequently from severe tooth decay and ultimately lost all his teeth but one. He had several sets of false teeth made which he wore during his presidencynone of which were made of wood, contrary to common lore. These dental problems left him in constant pain, for which he took laudanum. As a public figure, he relied upon the strict confidence of his dentist.
Washington was a talented equestrian early in life. He collected thoroughbreds at Mount Vernon, and his two favorite horses were Blueskin and Nelson. Fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson said Washington was “the best horseman of his age and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback”; he also hunted foxes, deer, ducks, and other game. He was an excellent dancer and attended the theater frequently. He drank in moderation but was morally opposed to excessive drinking, smoking tobacco, gambling, and profanity.
Religion and Freemasonry
Washington was descended from Anglican minister Lawrence Washington (his great-great-grandfather), whose troubles with the Church of England may have prompted his heirs to emigrate to America. Washington was baptized as an infant in April 1732 and became a devoted member of the Church of England (the Anglican Church). He served more than 20 years as a vestryman and churchwarden for Fairfax Parish and Truro Parish, Virginia. He privately prayed and read the Bible daily, and he publicly encouraged people and the nation to pray. He may have taken communion on a regular basis prior to the Revolutionary War, but he did not do so following the war, for which he was admonished by Pastor James Abercrombie.
Washington believed in a “wise, inscrutable, and irresistible” Creator God who was active in the Universe, contrary to deistic thought. He referred to God by the Enlightenment terms Providence, the Creator, or the Almighty, and also as the Divine Author or the Supreme Being. He believed in a divine power who watched over battlefields, was involved in the outcome of war, was protecting his life, and was involved in American politicsand specifically in the creation of the United States. Modern historian Ron Chernow has posited that Washington avoided evangelistic Christianity or hellfire-and-brimstone speech along with communion and anything inclined to “flaunt his religiosity”. Chernow has also said Washington “never used his religion as a device for partisan purposes or in official undertakings”. No mention of Jesus Christ appears in his private correspondence, and such references are rare in his public writings. He often quoted from the Bible or paraphrased it, and often referred to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. There is debate on whether he is best classed as a Christian or a theistic rationalistor both.
Washington emphasized religious toleration in a nation with numerous denominations and religions. He publicly attended services of different Christian denominations and prohibited anti-Catholic celebrations in the Army. He engaged workers at Mount Vernon without regard for religious belief or affiliation. While president, he acknowledged major religious sects and gave speeches on religious toleration. He was distinctly rooted in the ideas, values, and modes of thinking of the Enlightenment, but he harbored no contempt of organized Christianity and its clergy, “being no bigot myself to any mode of worship”. In 1793, speaking to members of the New Church in Baltimore, Washington proclaimed, “We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition.”
Freemasonry was a widely accepted institution in the late 18th century, known for advocating moral teachings. Washington was attracted to the Masons’ dedication to the Enlightenment principles of rationality, reason, and brotherhood. The American Masonic lodges did not share the anti-clerical perspective of the controversial European lodges. A Masonic lodge was established in Fredericksburg in September 1752, and Washington was initiated two months later at the age of 20 as one of its first Entered Apprentices. Within a year, he progressed through its ranks to become a Master Mason. Before and during the American Revolution, he used Masonic lodges as meeting places to plot against the British. He had a high regard for the Masonic Order, but his personal lodge attendance was sporadic. In 1777, a convention of Virginia lodges asked him to be the Grand Master of the newly established Grand Lodge of Virginia, but he declined due to his commitments leading the Continental Army. After 1782, he corresponded frequently with Masonic lodges and members, and he was listed as Master in the Virginia charter of Alexandria Lodge No. 22 in 1788.
Washington was born into a world that largely used slavery and accepted the practice without question. He owned and worked African slaves throughout his adult life. The socio-economic life of colonial Virginia largely depended on slave labor, while Washington initially held no moral opposition towards the institution and viewed slave workers as human property. However, during Washington’s day, many patriots recognized the gap between the ideals of liberty and slavery, as expressed by his close friends Lafayette and Hamilton, leading to his apparent and gradual disapproval of the institution beginning in the American Revolution. Washington inherited Mount Vernon, a “substantial agriculture estate” that consisted of five farms. He also inherited his first 10 to 12 slaves from his father and later obtained them from various family members, and by marriage. Washington, while president, publicly kept silent on slavery, believing it was a nationally divisive issue that could destroy the union. His views on slavery were private, complex, and gradually evolved.
The many contemporary reports of slave treatment at Mount Vernon are varied and conflicting. Historian Kenneth Morgan (2000) maintains that Washington was frugal on spending for clothes and bedding for his slaves, and only provided them with just enough food, and that he maintained strict control over his slaves, instructing his overseers to keep them working hard from dawn to dusk year round. However, historian Dorothy Twohig (2001) said: “Food, clothing, and housing seem to have been at least adequate”. Washington faced growing debts involved with the costs of supporting slaves. He held an “ingrained sense of racial superiority” over African Americans, but harbored no ill feelings toward them.
Historian James Flexner maintains that Washington’s attitudes toward his slaves were patriarchal, paternal, commercial, and lacking empathy for their plight but, also, he did not separate families without their consent.[dubious – discuss] Some slave families worked at different locations on the plantation but were allowed to visit one another on their days off. Washington’s slaves received two hours off for meals during the workday, and given time off on Sundays and religious holidays. Washington frequently cared for ill or injured slaves personally, and he provided physicians and midwives and had his slaves inoculated for smallpox. In May 1796, Martha’s personal and favorite slave Ona Judge escaped to Portsmouth. At Martha’s behest Washington attempted to capture Ona, using a Treasury agent, but this effort failed. In February 1797, Washington’s personal slave Hercules escaped to Philadelphia and was never found.
Some accounts report that Washington opposed flogging, but at times sanctioned its use, generally as a last resort, on both male and female slaves. Washington used both reward and punishment to encourage discipline and productivity in his slaves. He tried appealing to an individual’s sense of pride, gave better blankets and clothing to the “most deserving”, and motivated his slaves with cash rewards. He believed “watchfulness and admonition” to be often better deterrents against transgressions, but would punish those who “will not do their duty by fair means”. Punishment ranged in severity from demotion back to fieldwork, through whipping and beatings, to permanent separation from friends and family by sale. Historian Ron Chernow maintains that overseers were required to warn slaves before resorting to the lash and required Washington’s written permission before whipping, though his extended absences did not always permit this. Washington remained dependent on slave labor to work his farms and negotiated the purchase of more slaves in 1786 and 1787.
In February 1786, Washington took a census of Mount Vernon and recorded 224 slaves. By 1799, slaves at Mount Vernon totaled 317, including 143 children. Washington owned 124 slaves, leased 40, and held 153 for his wife’s dower interest. Washington supported many slaves who were too young or too old to work, greatly increasing Mount Vernon’s slave population and causing the plantation to operate at a loss.
Abolition and emancipation
Based on his letters, diary, documents, accounts from colleagues, employees, friends and visitors, Washington slowly developed a cautious sympathy toward abolitionism that eventually ended with the emancipation of his own slaves.
In a 1778 letter to Lund Washington, he made clear his desire “to get quit of Negroes” when discussing the exchange of slaves for land he wanted to buy. The next year, he stated his intention not to separate families as a result of “a change of masters”. During the 1780s Washington privately expressed his support for gradual emancipation of slaves. Between 1783 and 1786 he gave moral support to a plan proposed by Lafayette to purchase land and free slaves to work on it, but declined to participate in the experiment. Washington privately expressed support for emancipation to prominent Methodists Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury in 1785, but declined to sign their petition. In personal correspondence the next year, he made clear his desire to see the institution of slavery ended by a gradual legislative process, a view that correlated with the mainstream antislavery literature published in the 1780s that Washington possessed.
In 1788, Washington declined a suggestion from a leading French abolitionist, Jacques Brissot, to establish an abolitionist society in Virginia, stating that although he supported the idea, the time was not yet right to confront the issue. The historian Henry Wiencek (2003) believes, based on a remark that appears in the notebook of his biographer David Humphreys, that Washington considered making a public statement by freeing his slaves on the eve of his presidency in 1789. The historian Philip D. Morgan (2005) disagrees, believing the remark was a “private expression of remorse” at his inability to free his slaves. Other historians agree with Morgan that Washington was determined not to risk national unity over an issue as divisive as slavery. Washington never responded to any of the antislavery petitions he received, and the subject was not mentioned in either his last address to Congress or his Farewell Address.
The first clear indication that Washington was seriously intending to free his own slaves appears in a letter written to his secretary, Tobias Lear, in 1794. Washington instructed Lear to find buyers for his land in Western Virginia, explaining in a private coda that he was doing so “to liberate a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings”. The plan, along with others Washington considered in 1795 and 1796, could not be realized because of his failure to find buyers for his land, his reluctance to break up slave families and the refusal of the Custis heirs to help prevent such separations by freeing their dower slaves at the same time.
On July 9, 1799, Washington finished making his last will; the longest provision concerned slavery. All his slaves were to be freed after the death of his wife Martha. Washington said he did not free them immediately because his slaves intermarried with his wife’s dower slaves. He forbade their sale or transportation out of Virginia. His will provided that old and young freed people be taken care of indefinitely; younger ones were to be taught to read and write and placed in suitable occupations. Washington freed more than 160 slaves, including 25 he had acquired from his wife’s brother in payment of a debt freed by graduation. He was among the few large slave-holding Virginians during the Revolutionary Era who emancipated their slaves.
A year after George Washington’s death, on January 1, 1801, Martha Washington signed an order freeing his slaves. Many of them, having never strayed far from Mount Vernon, were naturally reluctant to try their luck elsewhere; others refused to abandon spouses or children still held as dower slaves (the Custis estate) and also stayed with or near Martha. Following George Washington’s instructions in his will, funds were used to feed and clothe the young, aged, and sickly slaves until the early 1830s.
Historical reputation and legacy
Washington’s legacy endures as one of the most influential in American history, since he served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, a hero of the Revolution, and the first president of the United States. Various historians maintain that he also was a dominant factor in America’s founding, the Revolutionary War, and the Constitutional Convention. Revolutionary War comrade Light-Horse Harry Lee eulogized him as “First in warfirst in peaceand first in the hearts of his countrymen”. Lee’s words became the hallmark by which Washington’s reputation was impressed upon the American memory, with some biographers regarding him as the great exemplar of republicanism. He set many precedents for the national government and the presidency in particular, and he was called the “Father of His Country” as early as 1778.
In 1885, Congress proclaimed Washington’s birthday to be a federal holiday. Twentieth-century biographer Douglas Southall Freeman concluded, “The great big thing stamped across that man is character.” Modern historian David Hackett Fischer has expanded upon Freeman’s assessment, defining Washington’s character as “integrity, self-discipline, courage, absolute honesty, resolve, and decision, but also forbearance, decency, and respect for others”.
Washington became an international symbol for liberation and nationalism, as the leader of the first successful revolution against a colonial empire. The Federalists made him the symbol of their party, but the Jeffersonians continued to distrust his influence for many years and delayed building the Washington Monument. Washington was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on January 31, 1781, before he had even begun his presidency. He was posthumously appointed to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States during the United States Bicentennial to ensure he would never be outranked; this was accomplished by the congressional joint resolution Public Law 94-479 passed on January 19, 1976, with an effective appointment date of July 4, 1976.
Parson Weems‘s wrote a hagiographic biography in 1809 to honor Washington. Historian Ron Chernow maintains that Weems attempted to humanize Washington, making him look less stern, and to inspire “patriotism and morality” and to foster “enduring myths”, such as Washington’s refusal to lie about damaging his father’s cherry tree. Weems’ accounts have never been proven or disproven. Historian John Ferling, however, maintains that Washington remains the only founder and president ever to be referred to as “godlike”, and points out that his character has been the most scrutinized by historians, past and present. Historian Gordon S. Wood concludes that “the greatest act of his life, the one that gave him his greatest fame, was his resignation as commander-in-chief of the American forces.” Chernow suggests that Washington was “burdened by public life” and divided by “unacknowledged ambition mingled with self-doubt”. A 1993 review of presidential polls and surveys consistently ranked Washington number 4, 3, or;2 among presidents. A 2018 Siena College Research Institute survey ranked him number;1 among presidents.
Jared Sparks began collecting and publishing Washington’s documentary record in the 1830s in Life and Writings of George Washington (12 vols., 1834-1837). The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799 (1931-44) is a 39-volume set edited by John Clement Fitzpatrick, who was commissioned by the George Washington Bicentennial Commission. It contains more than 17,000 letters and documents and is available online from the University of Virginia.
Places and monuments
Currency and postage
George Washington appears on contemporary U.S. currency, including the one-dollar bill and the quarter-dollar coin (the Washington quarter). Washington and Benjamin Franklin appeared on the nation’s first postage stamps in 1847. Washington has since appeared on many postage issues, more than any other person.