1732 - 1799
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Battle of Long
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
The War Moves
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
the United States
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ….
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 ….
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
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.”