Article abstract: As commander in chief of the Continental army during the American Revolution, as president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and as first president of the United States, Washington was the principal architect of the nation’s independence and its federal political system.
Born on February 11 (February 22, New Style), 1732, into a family of middling standing among Virginia’s planter elite, George Washington was the eldest son of his father’s second marriage. A favorite of his half brother Lawrence Washington of Mount Vernon, young George capitalized on this brother’s marriage into the prominent Fairfax family and the inheritance of Lawrence Washington’s estate. Thus, despite his losing his father at age eleven and his being a low-priority heir to his father’s lands, he was by his mid-twenties able to achieve greater prominence both in estate and position than his ancestors.
His connections allowed him to succeed Lawrence Washington as a major and adjutant of militia in 1752, and the following year he carried a message from Virginia’s governor to the French forces encroaching on Virginia-claimed lands in the upper Ohio valley. In 1754, Lieutenant Colonel Washington surrendered a small Virginia detachment under his command to French forces in southwestern Pennsylvania. Thus began the French and Indian War (known as the Seven Years’ War in Europe).
Washington’s war record was solid but undistinguished, except for his well-recognized bravery during General Edward Braddock’s defeat on the Monongahela River in 1756. Failing to receive the royal military commission he sought, he returned to Mount Vernon, engaged in modern farming techniques, expanded his land holdings, and, in 1759, married a wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Custis. Their marriage was childless, but Washington adopted her two children.
Elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, Washington never achieved a reputation of outspokenness comparable to that of a Patrick Henry. A delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, Washington impressed his colleagues with his mastery of military affairs and was selected by them to serve as commander in chief of the newly formed Continental army in 1775. He took command of the mostly New England force shortly after its defeat at Breed’s (Bunker) Hill and immediately sought to reform it into an effective fighting force. Containing the British forces inside Boston during the winter of 1775-1776, he forced them to evacuate the city the following spring. Action then moved to New York City, where he suffered defeats on Long and Manhattan islands and was eventually driven across the Hudson into and across New Jersey. His counterattacks at Trenton and Princeton during the winter of 1776-1777 revived American hopes and allowed his forces to winter in northern New Jersey.
The following year, he countered the two-pronged British invasion from Canada down the Lake Champlain-Hudson Valley route and from New York via sea against Philadelphia by sending General Horatio Gates with some of his regulars to join local units in combating the northern invasion and by leading the Pennsylvania campaign himself. In the latter area, Washington was soundly defeated by General Sir William Howe’s forces but escaped to rebuild his army during the bitter winter at Valley Forge. General Gates won a remarkable victory at Saratoga which encouraged the French government to recognize the United States. The subsequent alliance with France allowed the Americans to continue their efforts and forced the British to concentrate their naval and military forces against an ever-widening war that eventually saw combat from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean Sea.
The new international conflict caused the British to withdraw from Philadelphia to New York in 1778. When Washington sought to destroy their forces at Monmouth, New Jersey, the result was an indecisive battle which could have turned into a route had not the American commander personally rallied his troops. For the next three years, Washington headquartered his forces near West Point, New York, while combating some British raids and pinning the British forces in the New York City-Long Island vicinity. When the British developed a southern strategy to return Georgia and the Carolinas to the empire, Washington countered by sending Generals Benjamin Lincoln and Horatio Gates to the region. The result was defeat for both officers at Charleston and Camden. In early 1781, Washington sent Nathanael Greene southward, and that officer was able to conduct an effective area defense that thwarted General Charles Lord Cornwallis’ attempts to conquer the Carolinas. Exasperated, Cornwallis sought to cut off Greene’s supply line and to draw him northward by invading Virginia. At this point, Washington coordinated with General Count Jean Baptiste de Rochambeau, commander of a French expeditionary force currently in Rhode Island, and through him Admiral Count François de Grasse, commander of the French West Indian fleet, to unite their forces against Cornwallis in Virginia. The resultant surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in October, 1781, effectively ended British attempts to reintegrate the United States into the Empire even though the treaty of peace would not be signed until 1783.
After Washington resigned his commission in 1783 (a remarkable event in itself, since...
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