George Washington (1732-1799) was commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and the first president of the United States of America. A Virginia planter, surveyor, and land speculator, he sought a commission in the British Army before the Revolution, but in the 1770s, he became an early advocate for separation from Great Britain. During the war, he became synonymous with the cause of independence.
Washington prevailed against incredible odds: he led a rag-tag assortment of militiamen mixed with Continental soldiers against one of the best trained and most powerful armies in the world. In more than one instance, the respect and loyalty that Washington commanded helped avert mutiny and catastrophe when the Continental Congress failed to provide adequate food, clothing, or shelter. At Valley Forge in the brutal winter of 1776-7, Washington tried to improve morale by having Thomas Paine's stirring words read aloud to his troops: "These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." Washington again saved the fledgling U.S. government from chaos and collapse with a moving speech to his fellow officers in the midst of the 1782 Newburgh Conspiracy. Some officers, encouraged by frustrated congressmen and creditors, had threatened mutiny to force the revision of the Articles of Confederation to enact a government that could ensure supplies and back-pay to the soldiers. Washington urged them to be patient and dutiful, and promised to personally press the officers' case to Congress. His confession that he was growing blind stunned the audience and ensured their continued devotion to Washington, which prevented the conspiracy from succeeding. When the Revolution ended, many wanted to enshrine Washington as something like a new king. If not for Washington's unique character and restraint, the country might well have become accustomed to entrusting a strong charismatic leader with a lifetime in office.