George Washington could trace his family’s presence in North America to his great-grandfather, John Washington, who migrated from England to Virginia. The family held some distinction in England and was granted land by Henry VIII. Much of the family’s wealth was lost during the Puritan revolution and in 1657 George’s grandfather, Lawrence Washington, migrated to Virginia. Little information is available about the family in North America until George’s father, Augustine, who was born in 1694.
Augustine moved the family up the Potomac River to another Washington family home, Little Hunting Creek Plantation, (later renamed Mount Vernon) in 1735 and then moved again in 1738 to Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River, opposite Fredericksburg, Virginia, where George Washington spent much of his youth. By his early teens, he had mastered growing tobacco, stock raising and surveying.
In the early 1750’s, Washington showed early signs of natural leadership and Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor, Robert Dinwiddie, appointed Washington adjutant with a rank of major in the Virginia militia. He led many battles in the French and Indian War and was eventually captured and soon released. Though a little embarrassed at being captured, he was grateful to receive the thanks from the House of Burgesses and see his name mentioned in the London gazettes.
Washington was given the honorary rank of colonel and joined British General Edward Braddock’s army in Virginia in 1755. The British had devised a plan for a three-prong assault on French forces attacking Fort Duquesne, Fort Niagara and Crown Point. During the encounter, the French and their Indian allies ambushed Braddock, who was mortally wounded. Washington escaped injury with four bullet holes in his cloak and two horses shot out from under him.
Though he fought bravely, he could do little to turn back the rout and led the broken army back to safety. In August, 1755, Washington was made commander of all Virginia troops at age 23. He was sent to the frontier to patrol and protect nearly 400 miles of border with some 700 ill-disciplined colonial troops and a Virginia colonial legislature unwilling to support him. It was a frustrating assignment. His health failed in the closing months of 1757 and he was sent home with dysentery.
From his retirement from the Virginia militia until the start of the Revolution, George Washington devoted himself to the care and development of his land holdings, attending the rotation of crops, managing livestock and keeping up with the latest scientific advances. He loved the landed gentry’s life of horseback riding, fox hunts, fishing, and cotillions. He worked six days a week, often taking off his coat and performing manual labor with his workers. He was an innovative and responsible landowner, breeding cattle and horses and tending to his fruit orchards. He also entered politics and was elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses in 1758.
After having led the American colonies throughout the Revolutionary war and its subsequent victory, Washington was once again called upon to serve this country. During the presidential election of 1789, he received a vote from every elector to the Electoral College, the only president in American history to be elected by unanimous approval. He took the oath of office at Federal Hall in New York City, the capital of the United States at the time.
In the last months of his presidency, Washington felt he needed to give his country one last measure of himself. With the help of Alexander Hamilton, he composed his Farewell Address to the American people, which urged his fellow citizens to cherish the Union and avoid partisanship and permanent foreign alliances. In March 1797, he turned over the government to John Adams and returned to Mount Vernon, determined to live his last years as a simple gentleman farmer. His last official act was to pardon the participants in the Whiskey Rebellion.
On a cold December day in 1799, Washington spent much of his time inspecting the farm on horseback in a driving snowstorm. When he returned home, he hastily ate his supper in his wet clothes and then went to bed. The next morning, on December 13, he awoke with a severe sore throat and became increasingly hoarse. He retired early, but awoke around 3 a.m. and told Martha that he felt sick. The illness progressed until he died late in the evening of December 14, 1799. The news of his death spread throughout the country, plunging the nation into a deep mourning. Many towns and cities held mock funerals and presented hundreds of eulogies to honor their fallen hero. When the news of this death reached Europe, the British fleet paid tribute to his memory, and Napoleon ordered ten days of mourning.
George Washington was not only considered a military and revolutionary hero, but a man of great personal integrity, with a deep sense of duty, honor, and patriotism. For over 200 years, Washington has been acclaimed as indispensible to the success of the Revolution and the birth of the nation. But his most important legacy may be that he insisted he was dispensable, asserting that the cause of liberty was larger than any single individual.