The New International Encyclopædia/Washington, George

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Edition of 1905.  See also George Washington and Martha Washington on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

WASHINGTON, George (1732-99). Commander in chief of the Continental forces in the War of the American Revolution, and first President of the United States. He was born in Westmoreland County, Va., near the confluence of Bridges' Creek and the Potomac River, February 22, 1732, and was the oldest son of Augustine Washington by his second wife, Mary Ball. His great-grandfather was John Washington, who emigrated from England about 1657 with his brother Lawrence. John became a landed proprietor and planter in Virginia, in the ‘Northern Neck,’ a district between the Potomac and the Rappahannock rivers, and left two sons, Lawrence and John, the former being the father of Augustine. The little recorded concerning Augustine Washington represents him as a man of high character. By his first wife he had three sons and a daughter; by Mary Ball, who was endowed with great intelligence and beauty, four sons and two daughters. Soon after George's birth his father removed to a farm on the Rappahannock River, opposite Fredericksburg, where he died in 1743. This estate was bequeathed to George; the other children were handsomely provided for, Lawrence receiving the estate afterwards called Mount Vernon. But while the family had a competency and were large landed proprietors, the facilities for education in the colonies — particularly in the South — were at this time so meagre that the younger children were forced to depend on the poor common schools of the neighborhood, where they acquired only the rudimentary branches. Yet, though naturally diffident, George saw something of planter society, and at the age of thirteen he wrote out for his own use 110 maxims of civility and good behavior.

He was athletic in form, much given to exercising, a graceful and expert rider, and fond of the wild life of the woods and encampments. He had the customary boyish proclivity toward imitation of military service, possibly in a marked degree, and appears to have been generally chosen as a leader by the companions of his youth, and to have been deferred to by them in the settlement of disputes which arose. As a growing lad, he was not remarkable as a scholar; was rather reserved and sedate in his demeanor; and was of a more serious turn of mind than is usual among boys. In 1740-42 his half-brother, Lawrence Washington, served, as a captain of Virginia troops, under Admiral Vernon in the expedition against Cartagena, and later named his residence on the Potomac Mount Vernon, in honor of his commander. This connection led to the offer of a midshipman's commission to George, which, but for the opposition of his mother, he would have accepted. Such education as the boy received was completed by the time he was sixteen years of age, his last two years of schooling having been devoted mainly to the study of engineering, geometry, trigonometry, and surveying, probably from his having a mathematical turn of mind, and also because the profession promised advantages, in view of the wild state of the country and the increasing demand for accurate surveys.

In 1748 Washington received a commission aa public surveyor, and the summer months of the next three years were occupied by him in the duties of his profession, more particularly in the region of the Alleghanies, and especially on the immense tracts of land owned by Lord Fairfax, the first surveys of which he made in March and April, 1748. Surveyors were scarce, and the remuneration was ample, and as the young Virginian was economical, he saved money, and acquired property by purchase long before he reached his majority. This fact and his qualities of character which he displayed gained him a solid reputation; and he was thus early regarded with esteem and confidence by the leading men in the colony.

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The year 1751 found the frontiers threatened by the French and Indians, and frequent attacks and depredations occurred, necessitating some provision for the public safety. The colony was accordingly divided into military districts, to each of which an adjutant-general was appointed, with the rank of major, and a salary of £150 per annum. George Washington received one of these appointments, and entered with zeal on the study of military tactics and strategy, chiefly under Adjutant Muse, a Virginian, and Jacob Van Braem, a Dutch soldier of fortune. These studies were interrupted in 1751-52 by an excursion to Barbados with Lawrence, who was sent thither by his physicians. During this visit George had an attack of smallpox, recovering after a month's illness. On his death, in July, 1752, Lawrence bequeathed to George the estate of Mount Vernon, which had been left to him by his father. The care of this property and his military duties occupied George until 17533, when he was sent as a commissioner by Governor Dinwiddie to gain information concerning the intentions of the French, who had sent an expedition to the headwaters of the Ohio, and to warn them against trespassing upon territory claimed by Virginia. Washington acquitted himself of this mission very creditably, displaying great judgment, coolness, and address. He set out from Williamsburg in October, 1753, with no escort, and performed his journey through nearly 600 miles of wilderness in a most intrepid manner in spite of treachery and accidents, which are recorded in his modest account. In the spring of 1754 he was made second in command of the regiment which formed the military establishment of the colony, and, with half the regiment, was sent forward to occupy the outposts on the Ohio. His superior officer, Col. Joshua Fry, suddenly died, and he was soon left in sole command. This was his first campaign, and he at once distinguished himself by defeating a detachment of the French under Jumonville. The skirmish of Great Meadows (July 3, 1754), which followed, resulted in the capitulation of the provincial forces on terms honorable to Washington. On a reorganization of the Virginia troops, which meant an inferior military grade for him, he resigned his commission and retired to Mount Vernon, refusing in a dignified way offers from Governor Sharpe of Maryland of a renewal of his commission under conditions he deemed incompatible with self-respect.

In 1755, however, he accepted a position as aide on General Braddock's staff and passed through the ill-fated campaign of that year with great éclat. His personal bravery under fire was conspicuously shown in the disastrous battle of the Monongahela, July 9th, in which he displayed the greatest gallantry, and it was recognized that Braddock's defeat was largely due to neglect of Washington's wise counsel. The duty now fell to Washington of reorganizing the provincial troops, and he retained the command of them until the close of the campaign of 1758, when he resigned his commission and retired to private life. But he did not resign before he had made a brief visit to Governor Shirley at Boston (February, 1756) to settle unpleasant questions of precedence between provincial and crown military officers—a trip that enlarged his knowledge of men and of his native country—or before he had seen Fort Duquesne occupied (November 25, 1758). See Pittsburg.

On January 6, 1759, Washington married Mrs. Martha Custis, a young widow with two children, John and Martha Parke Custis, and wealthy in her own right. The management of her large estate, combined with that of his own, now occupied most of his time, at least until about 1763. Having been elected to the House of Burgesses of Virginia shortly before his marriage, he now began to appear prominently in public affairs, attending regularly every meeting of the Assembly, and, though seldom speaking, taking care to be thoroughly informed upon every prominent public question. He moved much in society; was also an enthusiastic hunter; practiced a generous hospitality at Mount Vernon; associated constantly with the leading men of the colony; and soon, and imperceptibly, gained a recognized position as a man of great ability and marked personal influence. At this time he was frequently made the depositary of important trusts, and was very often chosen to act as arbitrator in disputes arising among the colonists. His devotion to business and affairs was untiring, his industry extraordinary. He personally took charge of all his numerous accounts and business records, conducted his large and increasing correspondence, and drafted all his own contracts and deeds. At the outbreak of the Revolution he was recognized as the leading man in the Colony of Virginia, and was certainly one of the wealthiest in the colonies.

When the disputes between the colonies and England began. Washington held that arms should be the last resort. His respect for lawful authority made him dread any rupture; nevertheless, he drew up in 1769 a non-importation agreement, which was signed by the House of Burgesses, and at the provincial convention at Williamsburg, August 1, 1774, he was among the foremost in asserting the right of the colonies to self-government. It was at this time that he made one of the few impulsive speeches recorded of him. Touched by the sufferings of Boston, resulting from the enforcement of the Boston Port Bill (q.v.), he exclaimed: “I will raise a thousand men, subsist them at my own expense, and march with them, at their head, for the relief of Boston.” He was one of the six Virginia delegates appointed to the first Continental Congress, which met in September, 1774; and on June 15, 1775, was chosen by that body commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, his nomination having been formally made by Thomas Johnson of Maryland and warmly seconded by John Adams. He accepted with great modesty, refused any pay for his services, and asked only that his expenses be refunded to him after the war. For this important position his previous education had singularly adapted him. Not only was he competent in military affairs and skilled by precept and experience in the art of war, but his extensive knowledge of the geographical character of the country, and his familiarity with the characteristics and qualifications of the royal army, made him certainly the most dangerous antagonist, as a commanding officer, with whom that army could have to cope in the colonies.

Washington left Philadelphia on June 21st, joined the army at Cambridge, and assumed command on July 3, 1775. This army numbered about 16,000 men, all told, including the sick. It was in want of everything that could make it an effective fighting force—arms, ammunition, accoutrements, and, worse than all, esprit de corps. The course pursued by Congress in making its appointments had occasioned much discontent among the general officers; the organization was defective; a commissary and adjutant-general were more needed than a brave warrior or a skillful tactician. In Washington, fortunately for the country, were combined all three. He proceeded at once to complete an effective organization of his army, by forming it into six brigades of six regiments each, keeping together the troops from each colony, as far as practicable, and placing them under a commander from their colony. He maintained a constant correspondence with Congress, pressing his views earnestly upon that body, and, though slowly, with marked success. All the officers were commissioned anew by Congress, and gradually a Continental army was formed. Washington corresponded with the heads of the different colonial governments, and afterwards with the Governors of the several States, and succeeded at length, not only in creating the American Army, but in becoming the sole channel of communication between it and the numerous and complicated depositories of authority in the United States. But all this was accomplished amid embarrassments innumerable. The army itself became diminished by the expiration of terms of enlistment; there were cabals among the officers, and disagreements with the civil authorities; yet, despite all opposing influences, the British were closely besieged in Boston during the winter of 1775-76, and until a new army could be collected, and arms and ammunition supplied. On March 4, 1776, the Americans took possession of Dorchester Heights, and on the 17th the British evacuated Boston, and their fleet put to sea; whereupon Washington at once proceeded to New York, with the design of preventing a landing. In this he was foiled, partly through the insufficiency of the forces at his disposal, partly on account of the royalist strength in New York. The landing was effected; the Americans were defeated in the battle of Long Island (q.v.), August 27, 1770; and Washington was forced to abandon New York to its fate and retreated northward. After opposing the British in the northern part of Manhattan Island and north of the Harlem River, notably at White Plains (q.v.), October 28th, he crossed the Hudson early in November with only about 6000 men under his immediate command. He was hotly pursued through New Jersey by the British, and when he crossed the Delaware into Pennsylvania had less than 3000 weary, half-starved, dispirited soldiers under his command. Three weeks later (December 26th) he captured more than 1000 Hessians at Trenton (q.v.), and stole away from the superior forces of Cornwallis, defeating his reserve at Princeton (q.v.), and then went into winter quarters at Morristown, N. J. By March 1, 1777, not a British or Hessian soldier was to be found in New Jersey, save a small detachment at New Brunswick and Perth Amboy. By his brilliant movements between December 25, 1776, and January 4, 1777, Washington had not only saved his small army, but had inspired the almost despairing colonists with renewed confidence and hope. In the mean time Congress had seen the necessity of enlisting a regular army of men for a longer period than a year, which had been its previous practice; and it now conferred for a period of six months almost dictatorial powers on Washington. The campaign of 1777 in this theatre of the war opened about the middle of June, and was disastrous to the Americans from the beginning. They were defeated in the battle of the Brandywine (September 11th), and the British entered Philadelphia two weeks later. On October 4th the patriots were again defeated at Germantown, and about the middle of December Washington and his half-clothed and worn-out command went into winter quarters at Valley Forge (q.v.) in a fortified encampment. During the winter Washington and his troops were subjected to the severest privations. To add to his embarrassment, a conspiracy among some of his own general officers nearly resulted in deposing him from his command in favor of General Gates, whose victory over Burgoyne at Saratoga had been, as Thomas Paine soon showed, rendered possible by Washington's admirably conceived and executed manœuvres; but it was fortunately frustrated, and only added to Washington's influence. (See Conway Cabal.) Meanwhile, the men suffered for lack of food and proper clothing; the quartermaster's and commissariat departments were deranged and inadequate; and the patriot cause was at the lowest ebb of its fortunes. But Congress took up the question of properly recruiting and providing the army; a treaty with France was ratified, May 4, 1777, with great rejoicing on the part of the Americans; and the British, although only 20 miles distant from the American camp, permitted the winter and spring to pass without any offensive movement. All these circumstances combined enabled Washington to open the campaign of 1778 in somewhat better condition, and with an army in good spirits and rendered more efficient through the energetic drilling of Steuben. Sir Henry Clinton, who had replaced Howe as commander-in-chief of the British forces in America on May 18th, evacuated Philadelphia on June 18th, and Washington crossed the Delaware with his whole army, attacking the enemy at Monmouth (q.v.) on June 28th, when they retreated, after a sharp engagement, which, but for the insubordination of General Charles Lee (q.v.), would probably have resulted in a victory for the Americans. Washington continued his march to the Hudson, which he crossed, and encamped, July 20th, near White Plains. He now distributed his troops in a line of cantonments around New York and in New Jersey, extending from Long Island Sound to the Delaware; arranged for the defense of New England; and in December went into winter quarters. During the whole of 1779 Washington retained his position in the Highlands of the Hudson, and remained on the defensive. In 1780 the French Government sent out Count Rochambeau, who arrived at Newport, R. I., July 10th, with an expedition; and combined operations were concerted, but not carried out, on account of the naval superiority of the British. The features of importance of this year were the discovery of the treason of Benedict Arnold, followed by the execution of Major André, and the success of the British in the South, where, however, in the next year they were foiled by General Greene, Washington's most reliable subordinate. The year 1781 found Washington hampered by a vacillating and unreliable Congress, doubtful of its own powers, and, although he had now every hope that he would be strongly supported by the French auxiliary fleet, he was unable to utilize this advantage to the necessary extent. In August and September Washington, greatly strengthened by a French reinforcement under Rochambeau (q.v.), transferred his troops to the South and invested Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Va., a French fleet under De Grasse (q.v.) shutting off any assistance which might have come to the British by sea and preventing Cornwallis's escape. On October 17th the British commander proposed a cessation of hostilities, and two days later he capitulated with his whole army. (See Yorktown.) This practically concluded the active operations of the war. Washington now exerted himself in endeavoring to obtain from Congress a settlement of the claims of his officers. It is probable that, had Washington so desired, he could at this time have founded a monarchy, sustained by his army. He took the course, on the contrary, of quelling this disposition on the part of his soldiers whenever it showed itself. On June 8, 1783, he issued his splendid letter to the Governors of the States with regard to the necessity of establishing a firm and dignified Federal Government. On November 25, 1783, the British evacuated New York; on December 4th Washington delivered his farewell address to the army; and on December 23d, at Annapolis, he resigned his commission to Congress and retired to private life. For further details concerning his services during the Revolution, see the article United States, and the articles on the various battles.

During the five years following the close of Washington's military career, he found sufficient occupation in attending to the affairs of his homestead and property, and in fostering the progress of his native State. Mount Vernon was now constantly the scene of a profuse hospitality over which Washington presided with the courtly dignity natural to him. He maintained his keen interest in public affairs, greatly regretting the general chaos and such disgraceful outbreaks as Shays's Rebellion, and helped by his correspondence to bring the leading men of the country to a determination to form a more perfect Union. He was president of the Philadelphia convention of 1787, which framed the Constitution of the United States. Washington was unanimously chosen the first President of the United States, and on April 30, 1789, took the oath of office in New York, where Congress was then sitting.

Washington's administration of the civil government was marked by the methodical precision which had characterized his conduct through life. His conscientious habit of undertaking no duty until he comprehended its entire scope and bearing was also especially apparent in his new position. He thoroughly informed himself concerning all affairs of state, and every political act of importance which had been performed by the Government and its agents since his retirement. He personally directed the organization of the different departments of the Government under the new system, and in accordance with the Constitution, and no act of his was more significant than his appointment as heads of departments of such distinguished and able men as Jefferson, Hamilton, Knox, and Edmund Randolph. Meanwhile, before the work of Congress began, Washington found time to make a tour through the Eastern States, better to acquaint himself with the views of the men who were presently to lay the foundations of the commercial and industrial greatness of the United States. Before Congress, in his first message, he laid an eminently judicious series of suggestions of laws and provisions, which were at once made the basis of legislation. He refrained sedulously from allying himself with either of the two parties, Federalist and Democratic Republican, forming under Hamilton and Jefferson; and, on the contrary, strove to reconcile the differences between the leaders which he foresaw must inevitably in the future bring about wider differences among the people. The success of his first administration, and the universal sense of a security under his leadership, which did not appear in the least to be certain under that of any other, produced a general anxiety, as his term of office drew to a close, that Washington should accept the Presidency for a second term. Jefferson and Hamilton — wide apart as the poles in their political opinions, and personally at enmity with each other — agreed in this; and each wrote a letter to Washington urging his compliance with what was now a great popular demand. To their solicitation and that of others he acceded; he was reëlected unanimously, and on March 4, 1793, took the oath of office for the second time as President of the United States.

The very beginning of Washington's second administration saw the United States drawn into the vortex of European politics. The French Revolution was culminating in a Reign of Terror. Great Britain and France were at war, and gratitude seemed to demand that the Western Republic should sustain her sister State and former ally in the existing struggle. But Washington was especially opposed to foreign complications, and while he recognized the French Republic, and received its representative, he steadfastly adhered to his resolution to avoid interference in European turmoils, and issued a proclamation of neutrality on April 22, 1793. Factions now arose in the United States, the one side seeking to enforce practical adherence to the cause of France and the other sustaining Washington in the face of bitter accusations of bias in favor of the recent enemy of America, Great Britain. Between Republicans and Federalists the line was now drawn strictly on this basis. Dissensions and resignations occurred in the Cabinet. Among the people Jacobin clubs were formed, which were as virulent in the expression of their animosities as were their prototypes in France. In the midst of all the excitement consequent upon such a state of affairs, which was greatly increased by the injudicious, not to say insulting, defiance of the proclamation of neutrality by Genet, the French representative to the United States, Washington sent John Jay as envoy extraordinary to England. Jay negotiated a commercial treaty which, though by no means satisfactory, was better than nothing, and this was signed by Washington on August 18, 1795. The publication of the terms of this treaty aroused the most violent discussion in and out of Congress. That body called upon the President for the correspondence and instructions involved in the negotiations, and these Washington declined to furnish. Acrimonious debate followed, but the President held firm to his position, and the matter died out. (See Jay Treaty.) Thus, by his wisdom and determination, did Washington prevent his country—just emerging from the trials and vicissitudes of the War of Independence—from engaging in “entangling alliances” which would certainly have precipitated renewed warfare and perhaps have rendered impossible the growth of the magnificent superstructure of which the solid foundation had been laid.

Among the important events of Washington's administration were the admission of Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee into the Union, the assumption of the war debts of the States by the Federal Government, the chartering of the Bank of the United States, the establishment of the national mint, the Whisky Insurrection (q.v.) of 1794 in western Pennsylvania (which was speedily put down without bloodshed), the unsuccessful expedition of General Harmar against the Northwestern Indians in 1790, the disastrous defeat of General St. Clair by them in 1791, and the victory gained by General Wayne over them at Fallen Timbers, August 20, 1794. The retirement of Jefferson from the Cabinet, and the more decided ascendency of Hamilton in the councils of the Administration, also should be mentioned, as well as the scurrilous attacks upon Washington by the radical adherents of the former. While Washington leaned to the Federalist side, he was far from being the mere instrument of the brilliant Hamilton.

On September 19, 1796, Washington, declining to serve again, issued his Farewell Address to the country he had been so largely instrumental in forming almost out of chaos. He delivered his last Presidential message, turned over his office to his successor, John Adams, and retired to his home at Mount Vernon, followed by the love and veneration of his people. For further details concerning his two administrations as President, see the article United States.

At Mount Vernon he devoted himself to agriculture. In 1798 the prospect of a war with France led to his appointment as commander-in-chief of the National Army. On December 12, 1799, he was exposed in the saddle, for several hours, to cold and snow, and attacked with acute laryngitis, for which he was repeatedly and largely bled. He sank rapidly, and died on December 14th. His last words were characteristic. He said: “I die hard; but I am not afraid to go. I believed from my first attack that I should not survive it. My breath cannot last long.” A little later he said: “I feel myself going. I thank you for your attentions; but I pray you to take no more trouble about me. Let me go off quietly. I cannot last long.” After some instructions to his secretary about his burial he became easier, felt his own pulse, and died without a struggle, partly, it would seem, a victim to the malpractice of that day.

When news of his death reached Europe, the mourning became almost as widespread as it had been in America. The armies of Bonaparte and the Channel fleet of Great Britain did homage to his memory. It was admitted on all hands that a cosmopolitan statesman of the highest rank, and a noble friend of mankind, was lost to the world. The eulogy of ‘Light-Horse Harry’ Lee that he was “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” thus had a wider meaning than its author intended perhaps to give it—a meaning which the lapse of years has extended rather than diminished.

Washington was six feet two inches in height, with brown hair, blue eyes, large head and hands, and strong arms. The portraits painted in his early life are perhaps the most truthful, as the artificial teeth worn in his later years altered decidedly the expression of his face. The statue by Houdon, at Richmond, has been accepted as the typical likeness, but the forehead is probably too retreating. The earliest known portrait, by Charles Wilson Peale, was painted in 1772. That by Joseph Wright, painted in 1782, was highly approved by Washington himself. Those by Trumbull and Sharpless are considered faithful in most respects. Those by Stuart are somewhat idealized. No one picture can be accepted as entirely satisfactory. Washington was a forcible, but not a fluent, speaker. He was attentive to his personal appearance and somewhat fond of display. To a natural diffidence was doubtless due the cold and reserved manner that distinguished him when in public life. Toward young people, and especially toward his nieces and nephews—his adopted children, for he had none of his own—he was gracious and gentle. He was fond of fox-hunting, visited the theatre occasionally, and was a moderate wine-drinker, but was opposed to the use of tobacco, although he raised it on his plantations. He was, like nearly all Americans of property at that period, a slaveholder, but he was a considerate master. He possessed at his death 124 slaves, whom he directed, in his will, to be emancipated at the death of his wife, so that the negroes of the two estates who had intermarried might not be separated. As early as 1786 he expressed himself in favor of abolition by legislative authority. He was not a scholar, and the 1200 or more volumes that composed his library were chiefly on agricultural and military topics. He was a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church, but the exact nature of his religious opinions is a subject of controversy.

The early biographers of Washington erred in representing him as an ideal being of almost superhuman excellence. The criticism of later times deems it but honest to portray the man as he was. There are writers who, forgetting that balance of genius is rarer and more commendable often than brilliance, are inclined to rate him below Hamilton or Jefferson in political wisdom; but even these echo the tributes paid by the world to his unselfish devotion to duty, especially to the cause of independence, to his courage, his sublime hopefulness under defeat, his strong will, his marvelous insight into character, his abiding faith in God, and his absolute integrity and purity of motives. When these virtues are considered, few, if any, heroes of history can be placed beside him.

Washington's wife, who was of nearly the same age with him, is described as having been amiable in character and lovely in person. She was the daughter of Colonel John Dandridge, of New Kent County, and was born in May, 1732. Her first husband, to whom she was married in June, 1749, was Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy planter. By the courtesy of the period she was called Lady Washington, and whether in her own home or at the ‘federal court,’ she presided with great dignity and grace. She died at Mount Vernon, May 22, 1802.

Consult: Sparks, Life and Writings of Washington (12 vols., Boston, 1834-37); Life of Washington, by Chief Justice Marshall (5 vols., Philadelphia, 1804); Life of Washington, by Washington Irving (5 vols., New York, 1855-59), and the abridged edition, John Fiske (New York, 1888); The Writings of Washington, collected and edited by W. C. Ford (14 vols., New York, 1889); lives by Hale (1887), Lodge (“American Statesmen,” 2 vols., 1880), B. T. Johnston (1894), P. L. Ford and Woodrow Wilson (1896). See also the many publications of Lossing and Baker, and histories of the Revolution, such as those by Fiske and by Trevelyan. For the history of Washington's administrations, see Schouler's and McMaster's histories of the United States.