George Washington was the father of his country. His service to the American nation was almost total. As general of the Continental army, he led the fight that achieved the country's independence. As chair of the Constitutional Convention, he helped give that country its government. And as that government's first president, he not only guided the nation safely through its most vulnerable years, but established the precedents that still shape the presidency today. He was an international celebrity and a national hero, even in his own day. It's only a small exaggeration to say that the very existence of the United States is his legacy.
The middle child of a middling Virginia family, Washington knew from a young age that he would have to earn his own glory; he would never inherit it. Trained as a surveyor and comfortable with the frontier West, he joined the Virginia militia as a means of social advancement. The French and Indian War soon gave him opportunities to distinguish himself, and he rose through the ranks, becoming the most famous fighting man in America. He left the army, a full colonel, to marry the most eligible widow in Virginia, her fortune allowing him to live a life of privilege among Virginia's elite.
The slights he suffered while serving in Virginia's colonial assembly, together with exposure to Whig ideology, turned him into a radical defender of colonists' rights. When, following the Boston Tea Party, Britain took an increasingly aggressive stance against the colonies, Washington steeled himself for war. Chosen unanimously to lead the colonial forces, he built an army and led it to victory, becoming the most powerful symbol of a new American nationhood. Independence secured, he voluntary relinquished power, earning the world's awe.
When the new government appeared too weak to rule the nation he had fought for, Washington returned to public life, chairing the convention to rewrite its founding charter and serving as the new government's first president. His unquestionable virtue, wise judgment, and unmatched record of service united a disparate country, lending legitimacy to the government. Retiring only after the new government was firmly established, and ever concerned about his legacy, Washington freed his slaves upon his death, lest his public and private lives seem out of harmony. He remains, more than two hundred years after his death, the quintessential embodiment of American greatness.