George Washington

1732 - 1799

George Washington, first president of the United States (1789-1797) and one of the most important leaders in American history. His role in gaining independence for the American colonies and later in bringing them into a federated union under the new U.S. Constitution cannot be overestimated. Laboring against great difficulties, he created the Continental Army, which fought and won the American Revolution (1775-1783), out of what was little more than an armed mob. After an eight-year struggle, his design for victory brought final defeat to the British at Yorktown, Virginia, and forced Great Britain to grant independence to its richest overseas possession.

With victory won, Washington was the most revered man in the United States. A lesser person might have used this power to establish a military dictatorship or to become king. Washington sternly suppressed all such attempts on his behalf by his officers and continued to obey the weak and divided Continental Congress. He was a leading influence in persuading the states to participate in the Constitutional Convention, over which he presided, and he used his immense prestige to help gain ratification of its product, the Constitution of the United States.

Although worn out by years of service to his country, Washington reluctantly accepted the presidency of the United States.  Washington fully understood the significance of his presidency. “I walk on untrodden ground,” he said. “There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn in precedent.” During eight years in office, Washington laid down the guidelines for future presidents.

Washington lived only two years after turning over the presidency to his successor, John Adams. The famous tribute by General Henry Lee, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” accurately reflected the emotions that Washington’s death aroused. Later generations have crowned this tribute with the simple title “Father of His Country.”

Early Life

George Washington was born on his father’s estate in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on February 22, 1732. He was the eldest son of a well-to-do Virginia farmer, Augustine Washington, by his second wife, Mary Ball. The Washington family was descended from two brothers, John and Lawrence Washington, who emigrated from England to Virginia in 1657. The family’s rise to modest wealth in three generations was the result of steady application to farming, land buying, and development of local industries.

Young George seems to have received most of his schooling from his father and, after the father’s death in 1743, from his elder half-brother Lawrence. The boy had a liking for mathematics, and he applied it to acquiring a knowledge of surveying, which was a skill greatly in demand in a country where people were seeking new lands in the West. For the Virginians of that time the West meant chiefly the upper Ohio River valley. Throughout his life, George Washington maintained a keen interest in the development of these western lands, and from time to time he acquired properties there.

George grew up a tall, strong young man, who excelled in outdoor pursuits, liked music and theatrical performances, and was a trifle awkward with girls but fond of dancing. His driving force was the ambition to gain wealth and eminence and to do well whatever he set his hand to.

 His first real adventure as a boy was accompanying a surveying party to the Shenandoah Valley of northern Virginia and descending the Shenandoah River by canoe. An earlier suggestion that he should be sent to sea seems to have been discouraged by his uncle Joseph Ball, who described the prospects of an unknown colonial youth in the British Navy of that day as such that “he had better be put apprentice to a tinker.” When he was 17 he was appointed surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia, the first public office he held.

In 1751 George had his first and only experience of foreign lands when he accompanied his half-brother Lawrence to the island of Barbados in the West Indies. Lawrence was desperately ill with tuberculosis and thought the climate might help, but the trip did him little good. Moreover, George was stricken with smallpox. He bore the scars from the disease for the rest of his life. Fortunately this experience gave him immunity to the disease, which was later to decimate colonial troops during the American Revolution.

Early Career


Militia Officer

Lawrence died in 1752. Under the terms of his will, George soon acquired the beautiful estate of Mount Vernon, in Fairfax County, one of six farms then held by the Washington family interests. Also, the death of his beloved half-brother opened another door to the future. Lawrence had held the post of adjutant in the colonial militia. This was a full-time salaried appointment, carrying the rank of major, and involved the inspection, mustering, and regulation of various militia companies. Washington seems to have been confident he could make an efficient adjutant at the age of 20, though he was then without military experience. In November 1752 he was appointed adjutant of the southern district of Virginia by Governor Robert Dinwiddie.

First Mission

During the following summer, Virginia was alarmed by reports that a French expedition from Canada was establishing posts on the headwaters of the Ohio River and seeking to make treaties with the Native American peoples. Governor Dinwiddie received orders from Britain to demand an immediate French withdrawal, and Major Washington promptly volunteered to carry the governor’s message to the French commander. His ambition at this time was to secure royal preference for a commission in the regular British army, and this expedition promised to bring him to the king’s attention.

Washington took with him a skillful and experienced frontiersman, Christopher Gist, together with an interpreter and four other men. Reaching the forks of the Ohio, he found that the French had withdrawn northward for the winter. After inconclusive negotiations with the Native Americans living there, who were members of the Iroquois Confederacy, he pressed on and finally delivered Dinwiddie’s message to the French commander at Fort Le Boeuf, not far from Lake Erie. The answer was polite but firm: The French were there to stay. Returning, Washington reached Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia, to deliver this word to the governor in mid-January 1754, having made a hard wilderness journey of more than 1600 km (1000 mi) in less than three months. With his report he submitted a map of his route and a strong recommendation that an English fort be erected at the forks of the Ohio as quickly as possible, before the French returned to that strategic position in the spring.

Dinwiddie, who was himself a large stockholder in companies exploiting western lands, acted promptly on this suggestion. He sent William Trent with a small force to start building the fort. Major Washington was to raise a column of 200 men to follow and reinforce the advance party.


This was Washington’s first experience with the difficulties of raising troops while lacking equipment, clothing, and funds. Apparently he thought his efforts worthy of some recognition and successfully applied to Dinwiddie for a lieutenant colonel’s commission. He left Alexandria, Virginia, early in April with about 150 poorly equipped and half-trained troops.

First Battles

Before he had advanced very far, Washington received news that the French had driven Trent’s men back from the Ohio forks. He did not turn back, but pushed on to establish an advanced position from which, when reinforced, he hoped to turn the tables. He set part of his men to work building a log stockade, which he named Fort Necessity. On May 27, 1754, he surprised a French force in the woods and routed it after a short battle. The French commander, Ensign Joseph Coulon, sieur de Jumonville, was killed in the clash, and Washington took prisoners back to Fort Necessity. He had won his first victory.

The French, on hearing of Jumonville’s death, sent out a larger force. Unfortunately for Washington, these troops reached Fort Necessity before he had received either the men or the supplies he expected from Virginia. On July 3 the fort was attacked by the French and some Iroquois who had allied with them, beginning what would be called the French and Indian War (1754-1763). The fort did not have the soldiers or arms to hold out. However, the French offered surrender terms that were not humiliating: The Virginians were to abandon the fort and withdraw to their own settlements, leaving two hostages for good faith. Washington’s papers and journal were taken, and he was to sign a surrender document. Washington accepted the terms on July 4 after the surrender document was translated for him and did not appear to contain any offensive statements.

Back in Williamsburg, Washington had become famous. The victory over Jumonville was applauded, and he was not blamed for surrendering his fort to superior forces. The expedition was written up in a British magazine and thereby came to the attention of the king, George II. The magazine quoted Washington as saying that he found “something charming” in the sound of the bullets whizzing past his head at the Jumonville skirmish. At this the king remarked, “He would not say so if he had been used to hear many.”

There were two repercussions that caused Washington some regrets. First, he found that his translator had been mistaken. An accurate translation of the surrender document showed it to contain the phrase “assassination of sieur de Jumonville,” implying that Washington had killed the French commander dishonorably. Secondly, the French published a translation of Washington’s journal. But it was heavily edited and the emphasis changed to make it appear that the French soldiers were merely on a diplomatic mission. Representatives of King George inquired into the matter but were satisfied that Washington had acted correctly. He was not held to account for the mistake of his translator.


Washington had succeeded in getting the king’s attention, but he did not get the royal commission he hoped for. The king’s military advisers, while admitting his “courage and resolution,” believed that officers in the British regular army were better qualified to lead troops against the French. Later in 1754, the Virginia military was reorganized in accordance with that opinion, now made policy: Regular army officers coming from Britain would now have command over officers who held colonial commissions. This meant that Washington might find himself reporting to officers he outranked and who had less experience than he had. Finding that possibility intolerable, he resigned his commission. However, a strong British force under Major General Edward Braddock arrived early in 1755 with orders to drive the French from Fort Duquesne, which they had built at the forks of the Ohio. Washington’s local military reputation was such that Braddock invited him to join the staff as a volunteer aide-de-camp.

 The advance was slow, and the British soldiers were not at their best in forest warfare. On July 9, 1755, the column was surprised and routed by the French and their Native American allies, only 11 km (7 mi) from Fort Duquesne. The British troops, in Washington’s words, were “immediately struck with such a deadly Panick that nothing but confusion prevail’d amongst them.” Braddock was mortally wounded. Washington did his best to try to rally the regulars and to use a few Virginia troops to cover the retreat. His coolness and bravery under fire enhanced his reputation.

Militia Commander


The western frontier of Virginia was now dangerously exposed, and in August 1755, Governor Dinwiddie appointed Washington commander in chief of all the colony’s troops, with the rank of colonel. For the next three years, Washington struggled with the bitter and endless problems of frontier defense. He never had enough resources to establish more than a patchwork of security, but he acquired valuable experience in the conduct of war with the logistical and political problems peculiar to American conditions. In the fall of 1758 he had the satisfaction of commanding a Virginia regiment under British General John Forbes, who recovered Fort Duquesne from the French and renamed it Fort Pitt.

With Virginia’s strategic objective attained, Colonel Washington resigned his commission and turned his attention to the quieter life of a Virginia planter. In January 1759 he married Martha Dandridge Custis, a charming and wealthy young widow.

Virginia Planter

As a planter, Washington showed eager interest in improving the productivity of his fields and the quality of his livestock. He read all available works on progressive agriculture and constantly experimented in crop rotation. He invested in new implements and used new methods and fertilizers. He found that planting only tobacco, the chief cash crop of Virginia, did not pay. It was too dependent on the weather, the state of the British market, and the honesty of the British agents who managed the overseas end of the transactions. He developed fisheries, increased his production of wheat, set up a mill and an ironworks, and taught his slaves cloth-weaving and other handicrafts.

The Mature Washington

During his years as a gentleman farmer, Washington matured from an ambitious youth into the patriarch of the Washington clan and a solid member of Virginia society. He remained somewhat shy and reserved throughout his life. He was sensitive and emotional, with a violent temper that he usually held firmly in check. But most of all he was a man of great personal dignity. His connection with the wealthy and powerful Fairfax family, through his half-brother Lawrence’s marriage, perhaps as much as his own energies, made him a wealthy landowner and, from 1759 to 1774, a member of the House of Burgesses, the lower chamber of the Virginia legislature. In all, as Washington prospered and his responsibilities grew, his character was enriched and grew to keep pace.

Washington’s perspective broadened, and he became involved in the protests of Virginians against the restrictions of British rule. He became yearly more convinced that the king’s ministers and British merchants and financiers regarded Americans as inferior and sought to control “our whole substance.” His wartime experience had given him ample evidence of the contempt felt by British military men for colonial officers. Now he began to see the deepening division between the true interests of the American people and the view held of those interests in Britain. As a member of the House of Burgesses he opposed such measures as the 1765 Stamp Act, which imposed a tax on the colonies without consulting them, and he foresaw that British policy was moving toward doing away with self-government in America altogether.

 Washington’s anti-British feelings were strengthened by the introduction of the Townshend Acts in 1767. These acts imposed more unpopular taxes. His voice joined in Virginia’s decision in 1770 to retaliate by banning taxable British goods from the colony. His belief in the colonies’ right of free action resounds in his words written to Virginia statesman George Mason: “ … as a last resource … Americans should be prepared to take up arms to defend their ancestral liberties from the inroads of our lordly Masters in Great Britain.”

Political Leader

By 1774, when the spirit of American resistance was well developed, Washington had become one of the key Virginians supporting the colonial cause. He was elected to the First Continental Congress, an assembly of delegates from the colonies to decide on actions to take against Britain. Although he did not enter much into debate, his viewpoint was uniformly sound and acceptable. However, he knew that more than paper resolutions would be needed to safeguard American liberties, and he spent the winter of 1774 and 1775 organizing militia companies in Virginia.

When Washington attended the Second Continental Congress in May 1775, he appeared in the blue and buff uniform of the Fairfax County militia. These colors were later adopted for the army of the colonies, called the Continental Army. As he entered the hall, the country was already ringing with the news from Massachusetts, where the battles at Lexington and Concord had been fought, and the only British army in the colonies was besieged in Boston by the militia of the surrounding towns (see American Revolution).

General of the Continental Army

On June 15, 1775, the Continental Congress unanimously elected George Washington as general and commander in chief of its army. He was chosen for two basic reasons. First, he was respected for his military abilities, his selflessness, and his strong commitment to colonial freedom. Secondly, Washington was a Virginian, and it was hoped that his appointment would bind the Southern colonies more closely to the rebellion in New England. Congressman John Adams of Massachusetts was the moving spirit in securing the command for Washington. He realized that, although the war had begun in Massachusetts, success could come only if all 13 colonies were united in their protest and in their willingness to fight.

On June 25, 1775, Washington set out for Massachusetts, and on July 3, he halted his horse under an elm on the common in Cambridge, drew his sword, and formally took command of the Continental Army. In his general order of the following day, Washington’s emphasis was on unity: “ … it is to be hoped that all distinction of colonies will be laid aside, so that one and the same spirit may animate the whole, and the only contest be, who shall render, on this great and trying occasion, the most essential service to the common cause in which we are all engaged.” To this high ideal of unity in a common cause, Washington remained unswervingly loyal through many trials and disappointments.

Building an Army

Washington found his army in high spirits due to the heavy losses inflicted on the British troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17. He was pleased at what had been done toward entrenching the semicircular American front, but he was appalled at the disorganization and lack of discipline among his soldiers and the officers’ ignorance of their duties. Also, he soon realized that the term of service of most of his men was soon to expire, producing for him the double task of trying to train one army while raising another to take its place.

Washington began at once to impress these difficulties on Congress, pointing to the need for longer terms of enlistment. He asked for better pay, which alone could induce men to enlist for the necessary term. Almost immediately he came up against Congress’s fear that a standing army would bring with it the peril of a military dictatorship. The legislators only gradually understood that the immediate peril of political dictatorship by the king’s ministers was much more real than a possible future threat of a military dictator.

However, Washington did the best he could with the available means. He took stern measures to restore discipline. Insubordination and desertion were punished by flogging with the cat-o’-nine-tails. A few deserters, especially those who repeated the offense, were hanged. The worst problem of supply was the shortage of gunpowder. It hampered all of Washington’s plans for months, and appeals to neighboring colonies brought little help.

Siege of Boston


Meanwhile, the only British army in North America remained cooped up in Boston throughout the winter. There was no real fighting, but Washington was preparing a surprise for Sir William Howe, the British commander. During the winter 50 heavy cannon from the captured British Fort Ticonderoga in northern New York were dragged by sled to Boston. In a brilliant move, Washington mounted the cannon on Dorchester Heights, which commanded the city. Howe, recognizing that his position was untenable, evacuated the city by sea on March 17, 1776. From there the British went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Howe awaited reinforcements from across the Atlantic. The rebellious American colonies were, for the time being, entirely free of British troops.

Appeal to Congress

 Amid much public praise and rejoicing, Washington arrived in New York City, which was the obvious objective of the British forces now gathering in Nova Scotia. Having seen to the immediate measures necessary for the defense of that city, he proceeded to Philadelphia with the aim of persuading Congress to rectify the enlistment situation. This time he came in the bright glow of victory, which gave authority to his arguments.

Congress not only authorized three-year enlistments for the future, but also voted bounties for the enlistees. In addition, a permanent Board of War and Ordnance was created to deal with military matters in place of the makeshift committees that had previously held this responsibility. However, these measures, although wise, proved of no immediate help to Washington in meeting what was then his chief military problem: the forthcoming British attack on New York City.

War in the North


Battle of Long Island

British ships carrying the first units of Howe’s army of 20,000 arrived in New York Bay on June 29, 1776, and the troops began landing on Staten Island. By mid-August the British force, which included German mercenaries (soldiers serving merely for the pay), had increased to more than 30,000, backed by a powerful naval squadron. Howe moved slowly, and this gave Washington time to gather a considerable force of militia from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Even so, his total strength was not more than 18,000, and at least half of these had little or no training.

Washington feared that Howe’s opening move might be to send ships straight up the Hudson River to land a strong force behind the city. However, the British general chose to begin his operations by landing on Long Island. The only American fortifications there were at Brooklyn Heights, covering the approaches to the East River and Manhattan Island. Some 9000 American troops, about half of Washington’s total force, were on Long Island when 20,000 British and German troops began landing at Gravesend Bay on August 22. About 4000 of the Americans were deployed well in front of the Brooklyn Heights fortifications to observe and delay the enemy’s progress.

These troop placements have been more severely criticized than any other military act of Washington’s career, since they exposed his army to the danger of being destroyed piece by piece. Howe, moving deliberately, made a surprise attack on the 4000 men in forward positions and hurled them back in headlong flight to Brooklyn Heights, with the loss of more than one-third of their number. Had Howe instantly followed through by throwing his whole force against the American lines on the heights, he would certainly have overwhelmed them, and Washington would have lost half his army. However, by not doing so, he gave Washington a chance to retrieve his original error, a chance Washington seized and exploited (see Long Island, Battle of).

During the next 24 hours, working desperately against time—for at any moment the British warships might block his line of retreat—Washington gathered all the barges, boats, and small craft he could and assigned men from Colonel Glover’s Massachusetts regiment to operate them. During the night of August 29, under Washington’s personal command and direction, the entire American force on Long Island, with all its stores, artillery, and equipment, was ferried across the East River to Manhattan without a single casualty.

Retreat North

Thus Washington brilliantly redeemed his original error, and his later conduct of the war showed that he was fully capable of learning from experience. Never again did he offer battle to a British army under conditions that denied him full freedom of action to preserve his own army should the battle turn against him. Howe finally decided to occupy New York City on September 15. To avoid being outflanked, Washington fell back and fought delaying actions at Harlem Heights and then, in October, at White Plains (see White Plains, Battle of).

 During the last two months of 1776, Washington was in constant retreat. He stationed a force under Major General Heath near West Point, New York, to guard the vital entrance to the highlands of New York state. He then withdrew across the Hudson into New Jersey and moved slowly southwestward to the Delaware River at Trenton. There he collected all available boats and crossed the river into Pennsylvania on December 8, just as the advance guard of the pursuing British column entered the town.

This was the darkest hour of the new American republic. Howe proclaimed complete victory. Congress shared his view and fled south from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Washington, with only a remnant of his army, some 3000 men, seemed already defeated and of no further account.

Battle of Trenton


On December 13, 1776, Major General Charles Lee was captured in New Jersey by a British patrol. The command of his troops passed to Brigadier General John Sullivan, who immediately marched south to join Washington. This raised the commander’s total force to about 6000. Thus reinforced, Washington planned a victory that would electrify the entire country. The British had pulled back most of their troops to winter in New York City, leaving scattered garrisons of German mercenaries in New Jersey. These German troops were called Hessians because most of them were hired from the German state of Hessen-Kassel. The nearest of these Hessian garrisons to Washington’s camp was at Trenton and consisted of about 1200 men. Washington decided to capture this force and set the morning of December 26 for the attack. He was reasonably sure that lonely troops in a foreign land would have had much alcohol to drink to celebrate Christmas Day, and would still be groggy from the effects. This was a good time to surprise them.

On December 25, despite a raging storm, Washington led his small army of 2500 across the ice-clogged Delaware. The surprise was complete. The Hessians’ scattered attempts at resistance collapsed in minutes, and the garrison at the next post fled in haste on receiving the news. Washington was able to recross the Delaware with his prisoners and booty without interference. But he considered Trenton only a beginning because he now received fresh troops that doubled the size of his forces. These were Pennsylvania militiamen who had been induced to extend their enlistments after Washington pledged his own money to cover their pay. On December 29, with 5000 men, he again crossed the Delaware.

Battle of Princeton

 Washington’s objective now was to force the British to withdraw from New Jersey altogether and to station his army in a secure position in the hills near Morristown, New Jersey, on the flank of the British route to Philadelphia. Attacked at Trenton by a British force under General Charles Cornwallis, he withdrew during the night of January 2, 1777. He then circled around the British flank and, near Princeton, severely defeated three British regiments marching to reinforce Cornwallis. Washington then again eluded the main body of British troops and moved north to Morristown. By attacking Cornwallis’s supply lines, he forced the British to retreat to New York City. Thus the British were compelled to abandon all but a small corner of New Jersey to American control. See Also Princeton, Battle of.

Winter in Morristown

At Morristown, during the remainder of the winter, Washington’s chief concern was recruitment. Although recruits came in slowly, Washington had the satisfaction of knowing that they could now be fitted into the framework of a permanent army organization. The Continental Army was entirely Washington’s creation. He had overcome every obstacle, using the lessons of painful experience as skillfully against his opponents in Congress as against those on the battlefield.

Capture of Philadelphia

Howe wasted the first six months of 1777 on feeble skirmishing in northern New Jersey. Washington met this with bold action. Then, in July, when British General John Burgoyne was deep in the wilderness of northern New York state and fully committed, Howe loaded 14,000 troops aboard ship and sailed for Philadelphia, leaving Burgoyne to face inevitable disaster.


Washington could not expect to keep Howe out of Philadelphia, but for the sake of morale he would not give up the city without a fight. In a defensive battle at Brandywine Creek on September 11 a turning movement by Cornwallis rolled up Washington’s right flank, but American Major General Nathanael Greene’s division fought a stout rear-guard action to cover the withdrawal of the defeated units (see Brandywine, Battle of the). This spoke well for the improved quality of Washington’s Continental Army. Howe moved on to Philadelphia without any serious attempt to follow up his success.


On October 5, Washington made a surprise attack on the British at Germantown, west of Philadelphia, and gained initial successes that could not be maintained because of fog, confusing orders, and stout British resistance (see Germantown, Battle of). But Washington’s boldness in launching this attack so soon after his defeat at Brandywine Creek produced a favorable effect both at home and in France. The news of Brandywine and Germantown reached Paris in December and gave the French government ministers enough confidence in Washington to recommend to King Louis XVI that he sign a treaty of alliance with the United States. Soon afterward came news that Burgoyne had surrendered at the Battle of Saratoga, and the French king’s lingering doubts were overcome.

Valley Forge


Howe’s army passed the winter in fairly comfortable quarters in Philadelphia. Washington’s army wintered under conditions of extreme privation at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where they could observe any move Howe made. It was during this winter that a coalition of Congress members and discontented officers tried to replace Washington with General Horatio Gates, in a scheme known as the Conway Cabal. However, the cabal’s end result was to establish Washington’s influence in the Continental Congress on a stronger foundation than before.

Alliance With France

On May 1, 1778, Washington heard the news that transformed the nature of the war: A treaty of alliance had been signed between the United States and the king of France. Washington’s reaction was immediate: “If there is war between France and Britain, Philadelphia is an ineligible situation for the Army under Sir William Howe.” This remark is the first definite evidence of the idea taking form in Washington’s mind: to catch a British army in a situation where it could be hemmed in by a superior land force, with its escape or reinforcement by sea cut off. Washington did not know it, but blockading the British army in Philadelphia was exactly the enterprise that the French admiral the Comte d’Estaing, already at sea, had in mind. General Sir Henry Clinton, who took control of the British forces when Howe resigned that spring, was forewarned of the aim of the French fleet and withdrew his men and equipment to New York City. Washington ordered an attack on the retreating British at Monmouth, New Jersey, on June 28, 1778, but the attack failed because of the perfidy of General Charles Lee, who had been released and had resumed his command. Lee ordered his troops to retreat, an action that was revealed many years later as part of a plan of betrayal that he had agreed to with the British while they held him prisoner (see Monmouth, Battle of).

Effects of the Campaign

A letter written by Washington contains a striking description of the military situation in the summer of 1778: “It is not a little pleasing … to contemplate that after two years’ manoeuvring and undergoing the strangest vicissitudes … both armies are brought back to the very place they set out from, and that the offending [British] army at the beginning is now reduced to the use of the spade and pickaxe for defense.”

 Washington was aware of the negative effect produced in Britain by the utter collapse of British military efforts in America. His strategy became one of infinite patience, avoiding at all costs any serious disaster to his army, keeping the French firmly convinced of American reliability, and watching and planning to present the British with one more defeat comparable to Saratoga. Then the will of the British people to sustain the American war might well suffer a complete collapse.

The War Moves South

During 1779, Washington strengthened the positions that held the main British army in New York City. He also sent a strong expedition to lay waste the land of the Iroquois, whose British-incited raids on the frontier had become intolerable. But there was little he could do to stem British successes in the south. Savannah, Georgia, was lost in 1778 and Charles Town (now Charleston), South Carolina, in 1779, and Cornwallis had 5000 troops in the South to “reduce the Carolinas to the King’s obedience.”

Naval Superiority

In July 1779 a French force of 6000 under the Comte de Rochambeau arrived, escorted by a naval squadron under Admiral de Ternay. Washington’s note discussing future operations began with a most significant sentence: “In any operations and under all circumstances, a decisive naval superiority is to be considered as a fundamental principle ….” This superiority was finally attained for the siege of Yorktown more than a year later.


The victory at Yorktown was one of Washington’s greatest triumphs. He had been forced to check his strong urge for a “vigorous offensive” until the second French fleet arrived. This happened in the late summer of 1781, and Washington with great energy coordinated a sea and land operation against Cornwallis’s force that trapped it in the city. With the British surrender on October 19, Washington obtained the victory he hoped would end the war. The following March the House of Commons, a chamber of Britain’s Parliament, declared its unwillingness to support the war in America.

End of Hostilities

Washington’s judgment, patience, and soldierly fortitude had established the military foundation on which U.S. independence was to be erected. However, his duties as commander in chief were not yet ended. Although hostilities had virtually ceased by April 1782, Washington knew that the British king, George III, had yielded to the wishes of the House of Commons reluctantly. He was most anxious that there should be no visible relaxation of American vigilance while the peace negotiations dragged along their weary course. “There is nothing,” he wrote, ”which will so soon produce a speedy and honorable peace, as a state of preparedness for war.”

Washington rejected, with anger and abhorrence, a suggestion, which had some support in the army, of establishing a monarchy with himself as king. In March 1783, with Congress still dawdling, anonymous letters appeared calling a meeting of officers. Washington promptly broke this up by calling a meeting on his own authority. He begged the officers to do nothing “that would tarnish the reputation of an army which is celebrated throughout Europe for its fortitude and patriotism.” His appeal averted what might have been serious trouble.

Return Home

Peace was officially proclaimed on April 19, 1783, but not until November 25, as the last British boats put off to the ships, did Washington’s troops enter New York City. On December 4, Washington took leave of his principal officers at Fraunces Tavern and departed at last for home and the peace and quiet of a planter’s life. He stopped at Annapolis, Maryland, where Congress was temporarily meeting, to take his leave of the civilian power he had always so meticulously obeyed and to surrender his commission as commander in chief. He reached Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve of 1783. There he hoped ardently, as he wrote in a letter at the time, to remain “a private citizen, under the shadow of my own vine and my own figtree [and] move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my fathers.”

At Mount Vernon, Washington found himself confronted by financial problems. After eight years of relative neglect, Mount Vernon needed much rebuilding and there was little capital to do it with. During the dark war years of 1778 to 1780, Washington had refused pay for his services and had unhesitatingly poured almost all of his private fortune into the purchase of loan certificates issued by Congress to finance the war. This paper was of dubious value, either then or later. But he made no complaint and firmly refused offers of a grant or other stipend from Congress.

Ohio Valley Lands

Washington spent a busy summer in 1784 devoting himself to his farms, making improvements on his mansion, and entertaining countless visitors, some uninvited and unwelcome. Then in the fall he visited his lands in the Ohio River valley, where he held more than 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres). He found some of his property settled by squatters, who refused to move, and he could not reach his holdings near the mouth of the Kanawha River because of Native American unrest. On his return journey he looked over the terrain of the region where the Potomac River’s headwaters are nearest those of the Monongahela. This investigation reflected his interest in creating a system of canals and portages that would give access, through the mountains, to the broad Western lands.

Potomac Company

At Mount Vernon again in October 1784, Washington became absorbed in this new project. A combination of waterways and roads connecting the Potomac with the Ohio valley would benefit the nation by hastening settlement of the western lands, increasing trade, and binding the settlers closer to the United States.

Washington asked the Virginia legislature to pass measures providing for a company managed jointly with Maryland to make the Potomac navigable. The legislature complied with Washington’s request and appointed him as Virginia’s representative in negotiations with Maryland. After conferences at Annapolis he had the satisfaction of seeing his proposal embodied in identical bills passed by the two state legislatures to create the Potomac Company, complete with an appropriation of money to get the plan under way.

Washington’s own careful preparation, and rough but effective surveys of the region of the headwaters, had played an important part in achieving this agreement in little more than three months.

Fears for the Confederation

 The two-state agreement had been necessary because, under the Articles of Confederation by which the United States was then governed, Congress could do nothing of much importance without the consent of the states affected. Washington was deeply troubled about the national government’s weakness and disunity. In 1785 he wrote: “The Confederation appears to me to be little more than a shadow without the substance.” Problems had arisen that the central government should have settled but could not: Rhode Island and Connecticut were not paying their taxes on imported goods. The British placed commercial sanctions against the United States and refused to remove their troops from forts along the northern frontier. This indicated to Washington that Britain hoped to force eventual resubmission of the 13 states to British authority.

The forts enabled the British to control the Great Lakes and thus threatened the hundreds of U.S. settlers north of the Ohio. Washington, who knew the western country better than most Americans of his day, realized that an increasing flood of settlers would be crossing the Appalachian Mountains to seek new opportunities. Unless the U.S. government gave the settlers protection and provided a ready access to markets on the Atlantic seaboard, they might eventually seek protection and markets from the British. Without a strong central government and assured revenues, the United States could do none of these things.

Mount Vernon Conference

The Potomac Company laws were immediately followed by an agreement between Virginia and Maryland assuring freedom of navigation on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay on a basis of complete equality. The commissioners who met at Alexandria, Virginia, to draft the details of this pact were greeted by Washington and invited to adjourn to the quiet comfort of Mount Vernon. There, in March 1785, they signed the agreement. It included, apparently at Washington’s suggestion, a provision for annual consultations between representatives of the two legislatures to deal with commercial questions.

This provision was the seed from which the Constitutional Convention grew. In the Maryland legislature, ratification of the Mount Vernon Conference agreements resulted in a suggestion that Pennsylvania and Delaware be invited to the next annual conference to widen the program of development. When this idea reached Richmond, Virginia, state legislator James Madison suggested a meeting of all the states. An invitation was accordingly sent by the Virginia legislature to all the other states suggesting an early meeting to consider the trade of the United States, and “how far a uniform system in their commercial regulation may be necessary for their common interest and their permanent harmony; and to report to the several States such an act relative to this great object as … will enable the United States in Congress effectually to provide for the same.”

Annapolis Convention

The meeting convened in Annapolis in September 1786. Although all the states had accepted the invitation, only five sent delegates. However, among the 14 delegates who came to Annapolis were 2 to whom Washington had fully opened his mind. These were Madison and Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s trusted wartime aide. The delegates at Annapolis sent out a summons for a convention to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787 to consider measures “to render the constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.”

Shays’ Rebellion

Washington was shocked over news of Shays’ Rebellion, an insurrection led by debt-ridden farmers against the government of Massachusetts in 1786. A letter from his old comrade Henry Knox, now secretary of war, indicated that the federal government was almost helpless to deal with the insurrection. Washington wrote to Madison at Richmond urging that Virginia make haste to set a good example in seeking a stronger central government. “Without some alteration in our political creed, the superstructure we have been seven years raising at the expense of so much blood and treasure, must fall. We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion.”

Constitutional Convention


 The Virginia legislature answered this appeal swiftly. Virginia would set an example. Its delegates would go to Philadelphia instructed to seek “a general revision of the federal system,” and the legislature unanimously chose Washington to lead the delegation. Washington was bitterly reluctant to be dragged from his long-sought retirement, but now many who had his friendship and respect appealed to their old commander in chief to lead them again.

At Philadelphia, Washington was elected president of the convention. In the weary days of labor and successive crises that followed, he made little public contribution to the debates. He kept scrupulously to the impartiality he believed was the duty of the presiding officer. Off the floor, however, it was otherwise. His deep concern for the future of the nation was somehow conveyed not only to his fellow delegates, but to the country at large. “To please all is impossible,” Washington wrote, “and to attempt it would be vain”; and to New York delegate Gouverneur Morris he said, “If, to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hands of God.” On September 17, 1787, the convention’s work was done. The completed Constitution of the United States received the formal signatures of the delegates, and the convention adjourned.

Fight for Ratification

The next day Washington started for home, bent once more on quiet withdrawal from the turmoil of public life, but already disturbed by suggestions that he and only he could fill the new office that the Constitution, when ratified, would create; that of president of the United States.

Ratification by nine states was required before the new government could be organized, and Washington, whatever his qualms about the presidency, threw himself with vigor into the struggle. He was convinced that the Constitution was the best that could be hoped for at the time, and his anger was roused by those, especially in his own Virginia, who wanted to call a new convention and start all over again. He was startled to find, from many sources, that the most appealing argument in favor of the Constitution was simply that George Washington had signed and approved it. He hammered home this point at every opportunity. Through the spring and early summer of 1788 the struggle dragged on in 13 state capitals. In June the great decision became final when New Hampshire produced the ninth and decisive ratification of the Constitution.

President of the United States


Election of 1789

Under the terms of the Constitution, the formal election for president was done by electors, who were collectively called the Electoral College. Each elector was to vote for the two persons he considered most qualified; the winner would be the president, and the runner-up would be the vice president. The electors themselves were chosen January 7, 1789, by the direct vote of the people in some states, and by the legislature in other states. The electors met in each state on February 4 and unanimously voted for George Washington, who thereby became president. Their second choice, far from unanimous, was John Adams of Massachusetts. This pleased Washington because he had feared that the vice presidency might go to Governor George Clinton of New York, who favored drastic amendment of the Constitution. Washington, considering these amendments dangerous, had allowed word to go out that votes for Adams would be agreeable to him because he considered Adams to be a “safe man” and a strong supporter of the Constitution. Also, Washington still had a lingering hope that, after getting the new government well started, he might resign from office and hasten home to Mount Vernon. He could not reconcile this hope with his conscience unless a man he considered safe was next in line of succession.

 “My movements to the chair of government,” he wrote to Henry Knox, “will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of execution …. I am sensible that I am embarking the voice of the people and a good name of my own on this voyage; but what returns will be made for them, Heaven alone can foretell.” Washington’s state of mind was probably not improved by the embarrassing fact that he had to borrow $600 from a wealthy neighbor to pay a few pressing debts and meet the expenses of his removal to New York City, where the seat of government was still provisionally maintained.

In mid-April Congress sent Washington official notice of his election as president. His journey northward was one continuous triumphant progress. On April 30, 1789, Washington took the oath of office on the portico of Federal Hall, on Wall Street, New York City, in the presence of Vice President Adams, both houses of the newly organized Congress of the United States, and an enormous throng of cheering townsfolk. Immediately thereafter he delivered his inaugural address to Congress, a short and modest effort that contained only one specific political suggestion. He suggested that, while Congress must decide how far it would go in proposing amendments to the Constitution, its members “would carefully avoid every alteration which might endanger the benefits of an united and effective government, or which ought to await the future lessons of experience.”

Constitutional Amendments

Washington knew that there was a widespread wish to add a Bill of Rights to the original Constitution, specifying in plain words the inalienable rights of individual citizens, and this he approved. But he also knew that an attempt might be made to bring forward amendments eliminating the clauses that gave Congress power to levy taxes, including customs duties on imports, and to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states. These provisions had been hotly debated in the convention, and although adopted, were bitterly disliked by such powerful political figures as Clinton and Virginia statesman Patrick Henry. To Washington, however, they provided the means of regaining fiscal stability and restoring the national credit, and were therefore indispensable.

Feeling as strongly as he did on these points, it is significant that Washington should have used such restraint in letting Congress know of his sentiments. He held himself in check because he was resolved above all else not to overstep the limits of his branch of government, the executive, as established by the Constitution. He scrupulously respected the independence of the legislative and judicial branches of government. He was especially anxious to set no precedents that would start a dangerous trend toward monarchy or any form of dictatorship, but at the same time he was determined to be a strong president, not merely a figurehead.

 If Washington entered on his first days as president with anything like a basic political philosophy, it perhaps was developed from his dealings with Congress during the war. He learned to keep a balance between the views and interests of the propertied class, naturally conservative in its tendencies, and the more liberal outlook of the farmers and artisans who made up the bulk of the population. His own background, both political and economic, inclined him to the conservative viewpoint. He was aware of this tendency and tried to give recognition to more liberal points of view as he set about organizing the executive branch.

First Session of Congress

Under the Constitution, Congress moved slowly at first, with long debates on most subjects and a tendency to be jealous of its prerogatives. But a satisfactory tariff (tax on imports) bill, promising to provide the government with an adequate source of revenue, came to Washington for signature in June. Congress also called on the executive branch to submit to the next session a plan for disposing of the national debt. The controversial decision on the location of the permanent seat of government was also postponed to the next session, and ten constitutional amendments, to be known as the Bill of Rights, were approved for consideration by the states. None of these was objectionable to the president. By September, as the session was drawing to a close, bills had been passed establishing the three executive departments represented in the president’s Cabinet: State, Treasury, and War. Provision was also made for a federal judiciary comprising a Supreme Court of one chief justice and five associate justices, and 13 district courts. An attorney general was to be the government’s principal law officer. Here were Washington’s first really important appointments, and he chose with care. Typically, although he had some preliminary discussions and had his mind pretty well made up, he made no specific offer until the offices legally existed.


For his immediate circle of advisers, Washington sought to maintain a balance between liberals and conservatives. The Cabinet members, who were the heads of their departments, were called secretaries. As secretary of the treasury he chose Alexander Hamilton, whose views on government finance Washington fully approved. As secretary of war his unhesitating choice was his faithful friend Henry Knox, who had held that appointment under the Confederation. Both these men had conservative views: For liberal balance, Washington offered the post of attorney general to Edmund Randolph of Virginia. Randolph, a lawyer of high repute, had performed brilliantly as one of the leaders in the Constitutional Convention, but refused to sign the finished document because he thought it “insufficiently republican” in tenor. Later, however, he supported ratification. The remaining choice, that of secretary of state, troubled Washington. He knew that another well-tried friend, John Jay of New York, who had handled foreign affairs under the old government, wanted, and expected to be asked, to continue in that task. However, the wealthy Jay would have overbalanced Washington’s advisers to the conservative side, with resultant criticism and difficulties. To resolve the dilemma, Washington nominated Jay as chief justice of the Supreme Court and left the State Department post vacant for the time being. He was awaiting the return home of his fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, who was at that time U.S. diplomatic representative to France.

Although Washington did not know Jefferson intimately, Jefferson’s fame as the drafter of the Declaration of Independence had given him national prestige. More importantly, Washington foresaw U.S. foreign policy as based on continued French support against the British, and Jefferson’s five years in Paris provided the right background for guiding such a policy. Also, it was well known that Jefferson had pronounced liberal leanings in domestic affairs. Thus, the political equilibrium of the executive branch would be maintained.

Foreign Policy Precedents

The first session of the 1789 Congress saw two important foreign policy precedents established by President Washington. He had thought of his constitutional power to negotiate treaties “with the advice and consent of the Senate [the upper house of Congress]” as perhaps requiring him to appear personally before the Senate to seek such advice before starting to negotiate a treaty. He tried this procedure once, in connection with a proposed treaty with the Creek nation. But the senators argued over every little detail, and Washington went away muttering that he would never try this again. He concluded instead that it was better for the chief executive to carry through the delicate process of treaty negotiation first, and then submit the finished product for the Senate’s advice and consent. This procedure has been followed ever since.

Also, Washington initiated the convenient practice of using nonpermanent executive agents, who did not require confirmation by the Senate, in the conduct of informal or preliminary negotiations with foreign powers. In the first use of this method, Washington requested Gouverneur Morris, then traveling in Europe, to sound out the view of the British ministry regarding a commercial treaty with the United States.

Social Routine

While Congress was in recess in the fall of 1789, Washington made arrangements to move to a larger house, which was made ready by the following February. The details of his social routine were by this time fairly well established. He received visitors only by appointment except at two receptions each week for those who desired merely to pay their respects. He made no visits himself. Mrs. Washington held a weekly reception of her own, at which the president usually appeared for a time.

 There was some objection to the ceremony the president thought appropriate to his office. His use of six cream-colored horses to draw his carriage on occasions of ceremony, the servants in his hall with powdered hair, and his elaborate dinners were all criticized as exhibiting monarchical tendencies. For the support of his establishment the president had a salary fixed by Congress at $25,000 a year. Determined to make no profit from public service, Washington saw to it that expenses slightly exceeded this sum.

National Finances

When Congress reconvened in January 1790, by far the most important business was the financial plan submitted by Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton. It called for the paying of arrears in interest on the national debt and the funding of the principal. It also proposed the assumption by the national government of the war debts of the individual states. Payment of the foreign debt was to be supported by negotiating new loans abroad at lower interest rates. Revenue from higher tariffs on some items and a specific, or excise, tax on spirits distilled in the United States would meet the interest on the domestic debt.


In the spring of 1790, Washington was felled by a severe cold and then by influenza. For several days it was thought that he could not live. The illness and the anxiety it caused throughout the country underlined Washington’s importance to the new nation. Abigail Adams, wife of the vice president, wrote: “It appears to me that the union of the states and consequently the permanency of the government depend under Providence upon his life. At this early day when neither our finances are arranged nor our government sufficiently cemented to promise duration, his death would … have … the most disastrous consequences.”


At the time of Washington’s illness the question of the location of the permanent seat of government arose again and became entangled with the debate over Hamilton’s proposed financial legislation. The result was perhaps the first example in congressional history of the practice of logrolling. This expression came from the frontier and originally referred to the help that settlers gave each other in building their log cabins. Jefferson helped Hamilton by lending support to Hamilton’s financial proposals, and Hamilton in turn supported Jefferson’s efforts to locate the seat of government on the Potomac River.

The seat-of-government proposal was passed in July 1790. Philadelphia was to serve as the capital until 1800, when a federal district on the Potomac would be established. The finance bill, a simplified form of Hamilton’s original draft, but embodying its essential features except for the excise tax on whiskey, came to Washington for signature on August 2. Washington was pleased with both accomplishments and with the teamwork developed by his Cabinet members on these issues.

Rigid or Flexible Constitution

This harmony, however, was to prove short-lived. Hamilton, requested by Congress to report to the next session any further action necessary to establish the public credit, had his next step well in mind. In December 1790 he submitted a proposal for the chartering of a national bank with a capital stock of $10 million. A dispute immediately arose over whether Congress had the power to charter a bank. The text of the Constitution did not say so explicitly, and argument was heated. Along with the bank proposal, Hamilton asked again for an excise tax on distilled spirits, the production of which was rising rapidly. The bank bill won final passage in February 1791, amid protests by opponents that it was unconstitutional. With the bill presented to him for signature, Washington now had to decide the question. He consulted his advisers, and this time Jefferson and Hamilton locked horns.

Jefferson asserted that the bank bill was unconstitutional because the Constitution nowhere vested Congress in plain words with power to charter a bank. Hamilton’s opposing view was vigorously expressed: The Constitution did give Congress wide powers in such matters as taxation, payment of the public debt, coining of money, and regulation of commerce. To Hamilton a national bank was essential for the effective exercise of these powers.

 Here for the first time was at issue the great question of rigid versus flexible interpretation of the Constitution that has been the subject of heated partisan dispute through much of the life of the United States. Washington set down nothing in writing on this point, but he had frequently made clear his unshakable belief that a strong central government was essential to the survival of the United States. A strong government required reasonable freedom of action because unexpected situations were certain to arise. Washington signed the bill in February 1791, creating the first Bank of the United States. The excise bill was passed on March 1 and also approved.

Foreign Relations

The French Revolution, which had begun in 1789, soon brought on the general European conflict known as the French Revolutionary Wars. American sentiments were deeply divided. The Hamiltonians generally supported Britain while the Jeffersonians sided with America’s ally, France. In North America not only were the British constantly at work stirring up trouble and distributing arms to Native Americans on the northwestern frontier, but their allies, the Spanish governors at New Orleans, kept close contact with the southwestern Native American peoples and intrigued with various American adventurers who dreamed of wilderness empires.

Washington realized that the United States was still too weak to risk war if it could honorably be avoided. “The public welfare and safety,” he declared, “enjoin a conduct of circumspection, moderation and forebearance.” Most Americans resented British hostility. Washington hoped for eventual conciliation with Spain, expansion of trade with the Spanish West Indies, and free navigation of the Mississippi River.

France was a special case. By the wartime treaty of 1778, France and the United States were allies. But France was now in the throes of revolution, and its future was uncertain. Moreover, by 1792, the excesses of the revolutionary party in France seemed likely to result in war between France and Britain. For Washington this situation was complicated by strong partisan enthusiasm among many Americans for the cause of the French Revolution.

Growth of Faction

On Washington’s 60th birthday, which was marked by nationwide celebrations, he seems to have hoped that he was about to enter on his last year in public office. He sought to persuade himself that the deepening differences between his two principal advisers, Jefferson and Hamilton, did not imply personal animosity, though he had to admit that these differences were fundamental, representing basically differing philosophies of government. This realization troubled Washington all the more because in his own concept of federal government public servants should work in amity for the public good, whether in the executive branch or in Congress. He regarded partisan contests, which he called faction, with horror. However, during 1792, Washington became convinced that faction was becoming an established element of American political life and that his two chief advisers had to be regarded as rival leaders whose political differences could not be reconciled. The Hamiltonians evolved into the Federalist Party, and the Jeffersonians organized what was to become the Democratic-Republican Party.


As the 1792 election drew near, the President’s advisers were unanimous in their opinion that the times were too perilous for the nation to risk a transfer of the executive power to a new president. Washington must be president for a second term. About this time an event occurred that caused him to agree. He vetoed a plan to reapportion seats in the House of Representatives because, he believed, it was unconstitutional. It favored the Northern states over the Southern and, although Washington carefully avoided any mention of this in listing his objections, a congressional uproar resulted that was divided along sectional lines. Washington told Jefferson that he was anxious over this growing tendency of the North and South to part ways on political matters. He expressed fear that this might eventually bring about the dissolution of the Union. Jefferson’s answer was firm: “North and South will hang together if they have you to hang on.” Washington saw himself as an impartial administrator whose enormous personal popularity could be used to channel sectional feeling into a trust in the federal government. Therefore he could not allow himself to do what he most wanted to do: publish a farewell address and retire from public life. Instead he said nothing on the subject, with the inevitable result that he was again the unanimous choice of the electors in the 1792 presidential election. Adams was again elected vice president.

Second Term as President


French Revolutionary Wars

 On March 4, 1793, in a brief ceremony, Washington was inaugurated for his second term of office. Just two weeks after the inauguration, news reached Philadelphia of the execution in France of King Louis XVI. Two weeks later came the word that Washington had feared: Revolutionary France had declared war on Britain, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Already the president had indicated the course he desired to take by asking both Jefferson and Hamilton for suggestions on how to maintain a strict neutrality and to prevent “the citizens from embroiling us with either France or England.” He propounded specific questions: Should he issue a proclamation of neutrality? Should the treaties of 1778, concluded with Louis XVI, be renounced or suspended? Should he receive Citizen Genêt, the newly appointed diplomat from the French republic? See Genêt, Edmond Charles Édouard.

As Washington must have foreseen, his advisers did not agree. The result was uneasy compromise. American neutrality was proclaimed in a document that did not actually use the word. The new diplomat would be received. The treaties stood, but they should be cautiously interpreted. A storm of criticism beset these decisions from every quarter.

Citizen Genêt

Genêt did not add to Washington’s peace of mind. After landing at Charleston, South Carolina, he commissioned some privateers and set up a French court of admiralty to dispose of British prizes. These proceedings enraged Washington and brought furious protests from the British diplomatic representative. Genêt arrived in Philadelphia as a celebrity. He was soon busy organizing groups called democratic societies, which he cheerfully described as a means of appealing to the people of the United States against the “unfriendly” attitude of their president.

 Probably nothing in his public life aroused Washington’s opposition more than these societies, the aim of which, he said flatly, was “nothing less than subversion of the Government of these States.” He treated Genêt with icy courtesy during three months of Genêt’s mounting insolence and effrontery. When Genêt, against specific prohibition, sent an armed French privateer to sea from the port of Philadelphia, Washington demanded that the French government recall the diplomat to France. This was done; but Washington, fearing that Genêt would be executed by his own government on returning home, let him stay in the United States as a private citizen.

Violation of Neutral Rights

In late August 1793 a dispatch arrived from the American diplomat in London, Thomas Pinckney. It informed Washington of a British order in council of June 8, 1793, that directed British warships to seize cargoes of grain or flour bound for France in neutral ships. This was, from the British viewpoint, a perfectly logical act. To Americans, however, the British order was an outrageous invasion of neutral rights. When the news spread, angry mobs demonstrated near Washington’s house in Philadelphia. However, these riots ended with the sudden outbreak of yellow fever in the city. Washington took a house in Germantown for his temporary use and carefully considered whether he had the constitutional right to ask Congress to meet in any place other than that appointed by law.

Jefferson Retires

The last days of 1793 brought the end of Jefferson’s service as secretary of state. His desire to retire from public life could no longer be denied. He was succeeded by Edmund Randolph, who had developed into Washington’s closest adviser after the breach between Jefferson and Hamilton became complete. William Bradford, a Pennsylvanian, took over Randolph’s post as attorney general.

Threat of War

In the spring of 1794 the danger of war with Britain increased. British warships were seizing all neutral vessels trading with the French West Indies, and Washington approved a 30-day embargo on all sailings from U.S. ports to avoid further encounters. However, a report soon came that the British government had rescinded the order affecting trade with the French West Indies. This dangerous situation had produced one desirable result: Congress agreed to authorize the construction of six frigates. These were the first additions to the navy since the revolution.

Tensions still ran high, and a constructive effort to preserve the peace seemed urgent. Washington resolved to send a special envoy to London to try to find some basis of agreement with the British ministers. His choice fell on Chief Justice John Jay. There were immediate protests from Jeffersonians, and Secretary of State Randolph insisted that Jay should not be empowered to negotiate a commercial treaty. Washington stood firm and left Jay free to use his own judgment, though he himself seems to have laid strong emphasis on securing British agreement to evacuate the northern frontier posts.

Jay sailed from New York on May 12, 1794. A week later came news that the British commander at Detroit, one of the posts in question, had sent troops to erect a fort on the Maumee River in northwestern Ohio. Farther south, the frontier difficulties followed familiar patterns: Kentuckians were clashing with the Spaniards in the Mississippi River Valley, and Georgian squatters were pushing ever deeper into territory that by treaty belonged to the Creek.

Whiskey Rebellion

Bad news also came from western Pennsylvania, where three of Genêt’s democratic societies had become focal points of rebellion over the excise tax on whiskey. Officers collecting the tax met with increasing resistance. The house of the district inspector of excise was burned, and gatherings of armed people took place. Washington could not “suffer the laws to be trampled upon with impunity, for there is an end to representative government.” He saw the threat of western uprising as “the first formidable fruit of the democratic societies.” Governor Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania reported that the state could not muster enough militia to suppress the rebellion. Washington therefore summoned the militias of New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, providing a total force of some 15,000. When these troops moved into the affected area, resistance immediately collapsed. The Whiskey Rebellion was over by the end of November.

Fallen Timbers

Meanwhile, Washington was cheered by the news that Major General Anthony Wayne won a decisive victory over a coalition of northwestern Native American peoples at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, near the present site of Toledo, Ohio, on August 20, 1794. This battle and the systematic devastation of their fields and villages that followed broke the power of these nations for a generation.

Jay’s Treaty

As Congress adjourned in March 1795, Washington was still anxiously awaiting word from Jay. Unofficial word from ship captains and travelers indicated that a treaty with Britain had been negotiated. Speculation in Jeffersonian newspapers about the terms of the treaty proclaimed it a sellout of U.S. interests. When Washington received the text of Jay’s Treaty, together with Jay’s bleak statement that “to do more was not possible,” he realized that the treaty would be exceedingly unpopular. Viewed in terms of meeting U.S. hopes, its only real accomplishment was a firm promise to evacuate the northwestern forts by June 1, 1796. But, in Washington’s view, the treaty accomplished his basic purpose in sending Jay to Britain. It provided solid insurance against a disastrous war with Britain if only the Senate could be induced to ratify it. Its concessions to British maritime policy were heavy, but, with Wayne’s victory, the treaty consolidated the U.S. hold on the great Northwest Territory. Improved relations with the world’s greatest sea power in turn provided assurance of American commercial prosperity and preservation of Hamilton’s structure of national credit.

On June 8, 1795, Washington called the Senate into special session to consider the treaty. After 16 days of fierce debate behind closed doors, the treaty was approved by a vote of 20 to 10, exactly the two-thirds majority needed. Meanwhile the country was swept by a violent outburst against the treaty as its provisions became known.

Randolph’s Apparent Betrayal

But all of this was unimportant compared to the terrible blow that now befell Washington. It came without warning, on his return to Philadelphia from a brief visit to Mount Vernon. He was confronted by Secretary of War Timothy Pickering and Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr., with what seemed irrefutable proof that Secretary of State Randolph, his lifelong friend, had been secretly seeking money from the French diplomat Joseph Fauchet in return for using his influence against Jay’s Treaty.

Washington decided that he must sign the treaty at once, before bringing Randolph’s guilt or innocence under examination. He signed it on August 18, 1795, against Randolph’s strong objections. The next day he presented Randolph with the evidence against him in the presence of Pickering and Wolcott. Randolph resigned, angrily proclaiming his innocence.

Later that year Fauchet found out why Randolph had left. He protested that Randolph had done nothing dishonest and that his report to his government, from which the suspicion of betrayal had come, had been misunderstood. But this was not enough to remove the cloud of suspicion, and Randolph never again held federal office. He returned to his successful law practice and continued to be a leading figure in Virginia. His name was not completely cleared until after his death in 1813.

Treaty With Spain

On February 22, 1796, Washington received the Treaty of San Lorenzo, concluded with Spain by Thomas Pinckney the previous October. By the terms of this document the Spanish government granted U.S. citizens unrestricted use of the Mississippi River “in its whole breadth, from the source to the ocean,” with a privilege of tax-free export of goods through the port of New Orleans. Spain also made a satisfactory agreement on the boundaries of West Florida and promised to discourage Native American raids on the frontier. This complete reversal for Spanish policy was a diplomatic triumph. Delivered to the Senate on February 26, it was approved by unanimous vote on March 3.

Treaty With Algiers

 Washington was less happy over the conclusion of a treaty with the dey of Algiers. Algiers was one of the Barbary states, which had practiced piracy against ships on the Mediterranean Sea for nearly 300 years. The dey had held ten captured American sailors for ransom since 1785. The treaty accomplished the release of American captives and bound the dey to cease attacks on American shipping in the Mediterranean. However, it subjected the United States to the humiliation of paying a ransom of $800,000 for the prisoners and an annual tribute of $24,000 as the price of continued security against piracy. When some in Congress saw in this an excuse for suspending work on four of the six new frigates, Washington declared grimly that he regarded the paying of bribes to pirates as a national degradation that could only be removed by sufficient naval armament.

Northwestern Treaty

Still another treaty that was ready for submission to the Senate was the one concluded by General Wayne with the Shawnee, Miami, and other Native American peoples of the northwest. In it the tribes gave up their long-maintained claim to the Ohio River as their eastern boundary and opened vast areas of Ohio and southern Indiana to white settlers.

Congressional Intervention

As Jay’s Treaty approached its last congressional hurdle, the appropriation of the necessary funds for its implementation, the Jeffersonian majority demanded that Washington submit to the House of Representatives (Congress’s lower chamber) copies of Jay’s instructions and all related correspondence. To avoid setting a precedent, Washington replied, “It is perfectly clear to my understanding that the assent of the House of Representatives is not necessary to the validity of a treaty …. A just regard to the Constitution and to the duty of my Office … forbids a compliance with your request.”

Debate on the appropriations dragged on until April 29. On that day the question was voted on by the House sitting as the committee of the whole, with the result a tie, 49 to 49. The deciding vote of the chairman, Frederick Muhlenberg, himself a Jeffersonian, carried the measure.

Farewell Address


Although Washington did not announce it publicly until September 1796, he was determined that under no conditions would he allow his name to be put forward for a third term. He had guided his country for eight years, averted the danger of a ruinous war, opened the economic gateways of the West, and established precedents that would prove true bulwarks of the Constitution. It was time for the transfer of power, by constitutional means, to other hands.

Washington embodied the reasons for his decision not to run again, together with much thoughtful advice to his fellow citizens, in his famous Farewell Address. Parts of the address were written by Hamilton and Madison, and there is no doubt that both were of great help to the president in preparing it. But in its final form it represents the thoughts and character of George Washington.


Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports …. Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened. As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit …. Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all ….

 The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave …. The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible ….



Last Years

Washington attended the inauguration of President John Adams on March 4, 1797, and left Philadelphia two days later for Mount Vernon. There he wrote to an old friend that he did not intend to allow the political turmoil of the country to disturb his ease. “I shall view things,” he said, “in the light of mild philosophy.”

But he did not always adhere to this resolve. He accepted the nominal command of the army should the undeclared hostility with France develop into open war. The last journeys of his life, in 1799, were to the army camp at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), and to Philadelphia to consult on army matters.

Early on the morning of December 14, 1799, Washington awoke with an inflamed throat. His condition rapidly worsened. He was further weakened by medical treatment that included frequent blood-letting. He faced death calmly, as “the debt which we all must pay,” and died at 11:30 that night.

In the national mourning that followed, many tributes were paid to Washington. President Adams called him “the most illustrious and beloved person which this country ever produced.” Adams later added: “His example is now complete, and it will teach wisdom and virtue to magistrates, citizens, and men, not only in the present age but in future generations as long as our history shall be read.”