Study Guide

George Washington

George Washington Introduction

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.

George Washington Trivia

The Continental Congress decided to honor Washington's status as a national institution by suspending the postage requirement for all letters sent to or by him. Although Washington appreciated the gesture, he became so overwhelmed by correspondence that he had to hire assistants.

At the start of Washington's first term, John Adams ignited a lively debate over the president's proper title. Adams suggested the president should be addressed as "His Elective Majesty." Washington was partial to "His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties." The House of Representatives thought the whole thing ridiculous, and the simple "Mr. President" stuck.

On his deathbed, Washington instructed his secretary to wait two days before burying him, just to make sure he was really dead. Apparently, Washington wanted to avoid being buried alive, a fate he believed had befallen a number of historical persons.

The Marquis de Lafayette, Washington's close friend, sent Washington the key to the Bastille prison after it was stormed on 14 July 1789. That event had marked the start of the French Revolution. The key still hangs in Mount Vernon.

Upon Benjamin Franklin's death in 1790, Washington inherited his walking stick. "If it were a scepter," Franklin wrote in his will, "he has merited it, and would become it."

Washington remains the only president of the United States elected by a unanimous vote of the Electoral College.

Washington's so-called "Farewell Address" wasn't really an address at all: it was never delivered orally. It first appeared in the Philadelphia American Daily Advertiser the day after Washington's departure for Mount Vernon.

In 1976, as part of the United States' bicentennial celebrations, George Washington was posthumously promoted to the rank of "General of the Armies of the United States of America." The Congressional act promoting him further specified that no other army officer would ever be able to outrank him.

Parson Weems' fanciful biography notwithstanding, Washington never did chop down that cherry tree. Nor, for that matter, were his false teeth made of wood. He owned a number of different sets, mostly made of metal and ivory.

George Washington Resources

Books

Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, 1948-1957
Freeman's seven-volume Pulitzer Prize—winning monster of a biography is, more than fifty years after its publication, still the definitive scholarly standard. You could read it, but unless you're pursuing a Ph.D. in early American history, you probably won't want to. It does make a fantastic reference biography, though. If your school library doesn't have a copy, your local public library almost certainly does. Also exists in a one-volume abridgment by Richard Harwell.

James Thomas Flexner, George Washington: The Indispensable Man, 1994
Flexner wrote his own multivolume, Pulitzer citation— and National Book Award—winning biography of Washington in the '60s and '70s. Then he had the good sense to edit it down to four hundred pages and one volume. It is considered one of the most readable scholarly biographies. The full four-volume edition isn't so bad either.

John Marshall, The Life of George Washington, 1838
Marshall was as close to Washington as anybody could be: he was his assistant during the Revolutionary War and part of the Federalist Party in the first years of the new republic. After Washington's death, he became the chief justice of the Supreme Court and still holds the record for longest service in that office. His five-volume biography of Washington is considered the first serious study of his life. It's an also an exercise in Federalist historical interpretation: the final volume so incensed Thomas Jefferson, the leader of the Republican Party, that he tried to keep it from being published. Many historians think it inspired Jefferson to organize his own papers so that they would have the ammunition to refute Marshall's take on American history. The biography is now in the public domain, available online through Project Gutenberg.

Joseph Ellis, His Excellency, George Washington, 2004
Ellis' best-selling biography of Washington, based primarily on a close reading of Washington's papers, is short, readable, and insightful. Although it dutifully recounts the events of Washington's life, its primary focus is on unpacking his character. As a result, its coverage of the "facts" of some of the more crucial periods—the Revolutionary War, Washington's first term in office—can feel cursory. Still, for sheer pleasure, it's hard to beat.

Forrest McDonald, The Presidency of George Washington, 1974
Washington is consistently ranked among the top three American presidents. Usually he comes in at number one. If you want to understand why, this is the book to read. McDonald leverages an entire career spent studying early-American history to explain both the simple facts of Washington's two terms in office and their significance. His deep knowledge of American history allows him to put events into multiple historical contexts, from the local and immediate to the sweeping and long-term. It's a short book, too, and very well written.

David Hackett Fisher, Washington's Crossing, 2006
Although military history seems to be going out of style, you'd never know it from reading Fisher's book. In it, he retells the story of Washington's spectacular victories at Trenton and Princeton, in the first year of the Revolutionary War. He reconstructs the history on all sides of the conflict to recount the battles against a rich historical backdrop that helps illustrate their significance. The Pulitzer Prize winner for nonfiction in 2005, this is a colorful, learned, and entertaining book that feels shorter than its five hundred pages.

Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington: Man and Monument, 1958
This little gem of a book was one of the first to investigate the tension between Washington, the man of flesh and blood, and Washington, the father of his country. Although it's a little old, it's still considered one of the best and most reliable one-volume treatments of Washington's life.

Parson Mason Locke Weems, The Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen, 1800
Maybe you grew up hearing the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. Maybe you were too smart to believe it. Either way, this is the book to blame for the tall tale of Washington and his father, and oh so many other lies "Curious Anecdotes" about America's first president. Parson Weems's largely fictional account of Washington's life was the first mythmaking biography of GW, and still the most influential. It's an infamous classic. The book is in the public domain, available online through Google Books

Images

Young Man Washington
Charles Wilson Peale's 1772 portrait of Washington as a young colonel with the Virginia militia

Young Woman Martha
A reconstruction by forensic anthropologists of what Martha probably looked like in her 20s, based on later portraits

Martha's Slippers
Martha Washington's famous, stylish, and oh-so-pricey wedding slippers

Crossing the Delaware
Emanuel Leutze's iconic 1851 depiction of Washington crossing the ice-choked Delaware

Life Bust
Renowned French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon's 1785 life bust of Washington, widely considered the most accurate likeness

Resigning His Commission
John Trumbull's 1817 depiction of Washington resigning his commission at the end of the Revolutionary War

President Washington
One of Gilbert Stuart's many portraits of Washington as president, from 1795

President Washington, bis
Charles Wilson Peale's last portrait of the president from life, from 1795

The Lansdowne Portrait
Gilbert Stuart's monumental, symbol-rich 1796 portrait

Patriae Pater
Rembrandt Peale's 1853 portrayal of a heroic Washington, "father of his country"

Patriae Mater
Rembrandt Peale's companion portrait of Martha Washington

Mount Vernon
Washington's Mount Vernon estate

Movies & TV

National Geographic: The Real George Washington (2009)
National Geographic tries to get beyond Washington the myth to discover Washington the man. The documentary special builds on evidence recovered from the excavation of Washington's childhood home to reconstruct his actual life. This is, without a doubt, the hottest thing to happen in Washington filmography in the last twenty years. Watch at your own risk.

The Revolution (2006)
This ten-hour epic is vintage History Channel: cinematic music, historical reenactments, and enough information to turn you into a bona fide history buff. It comes in thirteen parts, although you'd have to be a brave soul to watch them all. The series tells the story of the colonies from the roots of the Revolutionary War through the adoption of the Constitution, and Washington gets a fair amount of face time. The series has been pretty well received by historians; television audiences were less enthusiastic.

The Patriot (2000)
The blockbuster of Revolutionary War movies! Mel Gibson's award-winning telling of Benjamin Martin's story is an action-adventure thriller. Although the story is fictional, the historical backdrop is more or less accurate. It's certainly the most entertaining movie about the Revolution out there. And hey, it even (sort of) has George Washington in it!

The Crossing (2000)
Jeff Daniels plays George Washington in this retelling of Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware River. This made-for-TV movie was nominated for a prime-time Emmy, but that speaks more to the poor state of U.S. television at the turn of the century than the quality of the flick. Still, it will make you relive the battles, right down to the spirit of surprise and desperation that marked them.

Liberty! The American Revolution (1997)
PBS's six-hour documentary on the American Revolution is still the A/V standby: trustworthy, thorough, well-paced, and surprisingly entertaining. It's especially notable for its use of primary sources: the directors showcase their research by prominently featuring readings from letters and diaries to bring out the human side of the colonists' struggle. It definitely has a patriotic bent, though; you won't find a critical or revisionist perspective here.

Websites

George Washington: A Resource Guide
Your first stop for George Washington research. This resource guide, maintained by the Library of Congress, includes selections from George Washington's papers, a detailed timeline of Washington's service in the Revolutionary War, an orientation to the Library of Congress's many Washington-themed holdings, and links to other valuable internet resources.

George Washington's Mount Vernon Estates and Gardens
Washington made his home at Mount Vernon starting in his late twenties. The former plantation now belongs to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, a nonprofit organization that maintains the property, at private expense, as a national historic site. Their web presence includes online exhibitions of personal effects from Washington's life, detailed biographical information, analytic essays on Washington's domestic and political life, and a host of other educational resources.

George Washington: A National Treasure
Assembled by the Smithsonian Institution to celebrate the first cross-country tour of Gilbert Stuart's famous 1796 presidential portrait, this website uses imagery to open up Washington's world. The site's centerpiece is an interactive reproduction of the portrait, with commentary on the symbolic, artistic, and biographical significance of the painting's many details. Also includes a timeline, helpful orienting essays, and various games and puzzles.

American President: An Online Reference Resource
A wonderful little website that gives a snapshot of Washington and his presidential administrations through short biographies. Also includes links to some of Washington's speeches, a bibliography, and a guide for further research.

Liberty!: The American Revolution
This website was designed as a companion to the 2004 PBS special Liberty!. Although focused on the Revolutionary War, it includes a trove of multimedia resources designed to put the war into context, including photographs, interactive maps, timelines, interviews with prominent scholars, and short informative historical essays.

Rediscovering George Washington
Launched in conjunction with a 2002 special on George Washington, this website seeks to humanize Washington by exploring his character and accomplishments. It includes short assessments of key historical events, a timeline, and ideological, moralistic essays of dubious value. Even so, the website is worth a look for its rich document collection: it includes highlights from the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, excerpts from famous eulogies on Washington, and even recordings of Charlton Heston reading from Washington's writings.

Video & Audio

Kermit the Frog and Young George Washington
Kermit interviews the young George Washington and his father about the mythical cherry tree

Fisher on Washington
Historian David Hackett Fisher discusses his Pulitzer Prize—winning book Washington's Crossing

Backstory Radio
A historical reconstruction of Washington's presidential inauguration (starts about 26:25 into the podcast)

Washington's Farewell Address
Charlton Heston performs Washington's Farewell address for PBS

Washington, Washington
Crass but popular viral video by YouTube sensations Cox and Combes

Primary Sources

The Papers of George Washington
The companion site to the comprehensive modern edition of Washington's papers, it includes a treasure trove of digital documents spanning Washington's entire life, many with editorial notes and essays

The Avalon Project: The Papers of George Washington
The most important papers and speeches from Washington's time as president

The Writings of George Washington
Fitzpatrick's 39-volume edition of Washington's writings

George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress
The Library of Congress's massive, digitized, searchable Washington archive

Spy Letters of the American Revolution
A collection of documents about espionage and intelligence during the Revolutionary War