Study Guide

George Washington in Washington's Farewell Address

By George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison

George Washington

If you ever want to go down in history, being the first president of a country is a pretty good way to do it.

In fact, if you've ever sung "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and yelled out the fun little additions at the end, you'll notice that you probably sang "he'll go down in history (like George Washington!)."

Unfortunately, you've missed your chance to be the first president of the United States, thanks to George Washington. Also, you can't lead the American colonists to victory against their overlords—he got there first, too. Or, you know, sign the Constitution; again, Georgie was No. 1.

Virginia Is for Washingtons

George Washington came from an old American family. They'd been around since 1657—basically, when the idea of the United States was just a faraway, impossible dream. By the time little George was born, the Washingtons had reached the lower levels of the Virginia elite. His father died when he was 11, so his mother struggled to raise him and his siblings, with the help of his older half siblings (source).

George's older half brother Lawrence was particularly influential. He helped George get a job as a land surveyor at age 16, and the only time George ever left the country (or colonies, rather) was to take Lawrence to Barbados to try and cure his tuberculosis. It didn't work, and Lawrence died, leaving his estate to his little brother (source).

That estate was Mount Vernon

How Do You Say "My Bad" in French?

Washington's military career didn't have the greatest start. He petitioned to take over his brother Lawrence's military commission when he died, and in 1754, the young commander was sent to help protect settlers in the Ohio region from encroaching French troops.

Washington ended up leading a surprise attack on a group of French soldiers near Fort Duquesne, killing an envoy with a diplomatic message in the process. If we've learned anything from Star Wars, it's that attacking people on diplomatic missions is not cool. The incident at Fort Duquesne inflamed existing tensions between Britain and France and helped start the French and Indian War (source).

Whoops.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Because It's 1776)

Washington resigned from the British military in 1758, and his life at Mount Vernon was made tougher by trade regulations that favored British merchants over the colonists (source).

He didn't get really involved in the independence movement, though, until the Townshend Acts of 1767, which taxed a bunch of things and inspired a lot of people to push for independence.

By the time the First Continental Congress was called in 1774 to discuss American independence, Washington had become a prominent leader in Virginia, and one of the first such leaders to openly come out against British policies in the colonies (source). Not that surprisingly, he was elected to be a delegate to both the First and Second Continental Congresses, in 1774 and 1775, respectively.

Not only that, but once the "shot heard round the world" was fired at Lexington in 1775, and independence was declared in 1776, Washington was put in charge of all the colonial military forces.

That's right, all of them.

You see, the same skirmish that made the British angry at Washington back in 1754 had made him a hero to the colonists, mostly because the British government blamed the colonies for their bad relationship with the French, and that annoyed them. He had military experience, was a pillar of the community, and, as an added bonus, was a Virginian. That meant he could potentially help convince some of the more reluctant Southern states to get on board the independence train (source).

We won't go into all the details of the American Revolution—you can find all that good stuff over here.

The main points, though, are that Washington wasn't really the most qualified military mind, but he was really effective at keeping up morale and adjusting to new styles of warfare. He realized quickly that he couldn't match the British in traditional open-field battles, so he started using smaller, guerilla attacks like he'd seen the Native Americans use in the French and Indian War (source).

He also just kept troops around somehow.

Early in the war, the Continental Army had a serious problem maintaining their numbers since guys would just go home at the end of their short assignments. Conditions were rough, but Washington convinced many of them to stay (source). He also was big on his soldiers behaving their best. He thought they should prove they deserved independence and republicanism through their upstanding moral behavior (source).

Peer Pressure for President

As soon as the Revolutionary War was over, people immediately started trying to convince Washington to be president (or even king—seriously, some people were pushing for that). He just wanted to retire to his plantation at Mount Vernon, which he did for a while, but he heard the call of duty again in 1787 when the Constitutional Convention came together to write the Constitution.

Basically, everyone wanted Washington to be the first president. He avoided the whole debate as long as he could, trying to get Mount Vernon in shape and staying above the fray (source).

Finally, the Constitution was ratified, and he couldn't avoid the fact that everyone wanted him to be president.

And we mean everyone. He's the only president to have been unanimously chosen by the Electoral College. Not just once, but twice.

Washington wasn't exactly pumped to be president. He didn't think he had the right skill set for the job, and he didn't want to ruin his own reputation. Also, his wife, Martha, wasn't a fan of moving to New York City and dealing with all those politics (source).

But in the end, he couldn't ignore the call of the people. Washington felt that the country needed strong central leadership (although definitely not a monarch), and the country had been struggling because the colonies were too absorbed in their own independent, corrupt worlds when they needed to be a more cohesive unit (source).

First POTUS

George Washington was inaugurated on April 30th, 1789, in New York City, which was the capital of the United States at the time. He rented a mansion on Cherry Street and refused every invitation he received so he wouldn't show favoritism toward any particular group of people (source). Nice work, George.

Despite his severe reluctance to take on the job of president, Washington was pretty dang good at it. He was a good administrator, and he surrounded himself with a very capable Cabinet—that he actually listened to. He stayed modest and was all about restraint (source).

During Washington's presidency, from 1789 to 1796, he dealt with the Whiskey Rebellion, the declaration of war between Britain and France (both major trading partners of the United States), and the formation of the American judicial system. He also tried to act independently of Congress when he had the chance since he tended to get frustrated with them (source). For example, he issued his own Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793 to try and stay out of the Britain-France conflict, without going through Congress (source).

That got a pretty mixed reaction, as some thought it was awfully heavy-handed of him to make that decision on his own.

Retirement (Finally)

Washington really wanted to step down after his first term. Not only had he not wanted the job in the first place, but his body was basically rejecting it. A few months after he was inaugurated, he had to have a golf ball-size carbuncle (a cluster of boils) removed from his leg. Without anesthesia (source).

His eyesight and hearing were deteriorating, given that he was 60 by the end of his first term. All he wanted to do was go back to his farm, but he realized that there was still too much to do and the country needed some continuity.

But finally, after issuing his farewell address in September 1796, Washington was free to return to the now-bankrupt Mount Vernon and retire on his farm like he'd always wanted. For a couple of years, at least.

In 1799, it looked like the United States might go to war with France (thanks, Napoleon), and John Adams, then president, got a militia gathered just in case. Washington was asked to head up the armed forces. Being the reluctant-yet-obliging guy he was, he just couldn't shirk what he saw as his duty, and he agreed. In the end, Adams used diplomacy to avoid war, and Washington's service wasn't needed. Phew—close call.

Later that year, Washington spent hours one day riding around examining Mount Vernon in rain and hail. The next day, he came down with a severe illness, and he died quickly. Eerily, it was almost exactly the same way his father had died, almost 70 years earlier.

In typical George Washington fashion, he had wanted a small, intimate funeral but instead got a big, public one with thousands of mourners (source).

The Man, the Myth, the Legend

George Washington basically set the bar for what a president of the United States should be (even if a lot of future ones didn't reach that bar). He believed sincerely that government leaders needed to serve out of a genuine desire to serve the country, rather than for selfish reasons. The republican experiment that is the United States depended on it (source).

His attempts to remain modest and impartial set a standard for presidents, to set them apart from the monarchs of the Old World that the colonists had fought to free themselves from.

His legacy isn't completely perfect, though. The biggest issue that people have had with Washington was his somewhat confusing stance on slavery.

He had a lot of slaves, whom he freed upon either his death or that of various family members. During the Constitutional Convention, he would have preferred to outlaw slavery, but he decided that getting the Constitution passed was more important. When some of his own slaves escaped, he posted an ad asking for their recapture, but he had also taken an antislavery stance in the Virginia House of Burgesses (source).

Like we said, a little confusing. Generally, historians see him as someone who didn't like slavery but was so indebted to its economic importance, and so devoted to unifying the country, that he didn't put up much of a fight against it (source).

Mostly, though, Washington is remembered for his military role in freeing the colonies from British rule and then setting a standard for the presidency that pretty much no one has lived up to. Hence the title "Father of His Country."

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