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George Washington

Born: February 22, 1732George Washington
Died: December 14, 1799

The first president of the United States, George Washington, is often referred to as the Father of Our Country. He was known for his love of the land and farming, and his dislike of war. He was a distinguished general and commander in chief of the colonial armies in the American Revolution.  He married a widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, and they lived at Mount Vernon, Washington's plantation in Virginia on the Potomac River.

George Washington the Soldier

At 16, Washington helped survey and plot the lands of Lord Fairfax, who owned more than 5 million acres in northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley. After surveying for a few years, he was commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel in 1754 and fought in the French and Indian War. In 1755, he was serving as an aide to British General Edward Braddock at a fateful battle in Pennsylvania on July 9. That day the British made an attempt to capture Fort Duquesne.

George Washington had been sick during most of the month of June but he insisted on joining the battle. The British suffered a terrible defeat that day. Out of 1,459 soldiers, almost 1,000 were killed or wounded. The French and their Indian allies routed the British who were not accustomed to the guerrilla warfare style of combat. General Braddock was killed, and Washington had to help lead the Virginians and British in retreat to safety. Do you think this experience was frightening to the young cavalry officer?

Washington kept a record of his life, in letters and journals. Ten days after the battle he wrote a letter to his mother, Mary Ball Washington. He said that he had escaped uninjured but "I had four Bullets through my Coat, and two Horses shot under me."

No doubt Mrs. Washington was worried about her son, but he proved to be an excellent soldier. Washington was made commander of all Virginia troops. Due to difficult circumstances and hardships in the wild, Washington became very ill and his doctor insisted he go home to his estate in Virginia to recover.

Washington recovered from his illness, and then returned to lead the Virginia army. He attained the rank of brigadier general and was a major factor in Britain's defeat of the French and capture of Fort Duquesne (renamed Fort Pitt by the British) in 1758. Immediately after his return to Virginia, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis on January 6, 1759.

Wilderness fighting had made Washington a trained military man. This training helped prepare him for his greatest military challenge--leading the American revolutionary forces as commander in chief during the fight for independence that began in 1775 with the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

George Washington the Husband

After Washington resigned from the French and Indian War and returned home to Mount Vernon, he married Martha Dandridge Custis on January 6, 1759. He had met Martha Custis, a widow, the previous March and had proposed at that time. This cartoon of Washington proposing makes fun of what Washington might have said, "Dear Martha, will you be the mother of your country...?"

Martha had been married to Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy planter in Virginia, and they had two children together before Daniel died. John ("Jacky") was six and Martha ("Patsy") was four when George and Martha married. Washington was very fond of his stepchildren and treated them as his own. George and Martha had a happy marriage. For eight years, while he was at war, Mrs. Washington joined her husband at his headquarters every winter. She did everything she could to help encourage the soldiers and she was determined to keep a positive outlook. What other characteristics do you think were important for the wife of the president to have?

As a young woman growing up in Williamsburg Virginia, Martha Dandridge had lessons in sewing, housekeeping, cooking, dancing, and music. She also had private tutors to teach her how to read and write. Martha liked her private life and enjoyed being at Mount Vernon with her family.

Even when she couldn't be there or when her husband was away, she was, "... still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances."

George Washington, too, loved being at Mount Vernon. He enjoyed farming and wrote that "it is honorable, it is amusing, and, with superior judgment, it is profitable." He believed Mount Vernon was the best estate in America for farming. Later in his life, he took great pride in being thought of as the first farmer of the land.

Independence and the Presidency

You might have thought that George Washington was in Philadelphia with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and the other delegates of the Continental Congress as they wrote the Declaration of Independence, but he wasn't. In July 1776, Washington was in New York with his troops. On July 9, he received his copy of the Declaration with a note from John Hancock telling Washington to share the news with the troops. Can you imagine how the troops reacted?

The soldiers were so excited and filled with patriotism after they heard the Declaration that they rushed over to the Bowling Green and tore down the statue of King George III. Shortly after this the British, as Washington expected, attacked the colonists and the American Revolution was under way. The colonists fought eight long, hard years (1775-1783) for their independence from Britain.

After the war was over, Washington hoped he would be able to retire and return to Mount Vernon. Instead, in 1789, the electors unanimously voted George Washington the first president of the United States. Because it was such an honor, and he felt a great duty to his country, he accepted. He left Mount Vernon on April 16 and arrived in New York City on April 30 for his inauguration. As he took his oath standing on the balcony of Federal Hall, a crowd broke into cheers. The members of his first Cabinet included Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state, Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury, Henry Knox as secretary of war, and Edmund Randolph as attorney general.  

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