Born: February 22, 1732
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?
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
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