George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799) was the dominant military and political leader of the new United States of America from 1775 to 1799. He led the American victory over Britain in the American Revolutionary War as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775–1783, and he presided over the writing of the Constitution in 1787. As the unanimous choice to serve as the first President of the United States (1789–1797), he developed the forms and rituals of government that have been used ever since, such as using a cabinet system and delivering an inaugural address. As President, he built a strong, well-financed national government that stayed neutral in the wars raging in Europe, suppressed rebellion and won acceptance among Americans of all types, but also saw the advent of contentious political parties. Washington was universally regarded as the "Father of his country".
Early Life and Rise to PowerEdit
In Colonial Virginia, Washington was born into the provincial gentry in a wealthy, well connected family that owned tobacco plantations using slave labor. He was home schooled by his father and older brother, but both died young, and he became attached to the powerful Fairfax clan, who promoted his career as a surveyor and soldier. Strong, brave, eager for combat, and a natural leader, young Washington quickly became a senior officer of the colonial forces, 1754–58, during the first stages of the French and Indian War. Indeed, his rash actions helped precipitate the war. Washington's experience, his military bearing, his leadership of the Patriot cause in Virginia, and his political base in the largest colony made him the obvious choice of the Second Continental Congress in 1775 as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army to fight the British in the American Revolution. He forced the British out of Boston in 1776, but was defeated and nearly captured later that year when he lost New York City. After crossing the Delaware River in the dead of winter, he defeated the enemy in two battles, retook New Jersey, and restored momentum to the Patriot cause. Because of his strategy, Revolutionary forces captured two major British armies at Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown in 1781. Negotiating with Congress, governors, and French allies, he held together a tenuous army and a fragile nation amid the threats of disintegration and invasion. Historians give the commander in chief high marks for his selection and supervision of his generals, his encouragement of morale, his coordination with the state governors and state militia units, his relations with Congress, and his attention to supplies, logistics, and training. In battle, however, Washington was repeatedly outmaneuvered by British generals with larger armies. Washington is given full credit for the strategies that forced the British evacuation of Boston in 1776 and the surrender at Yorktown in 1781. After victory had been finalized in 1783, Washington resigned rather than seize power, and returned to his plantation at Mount Vernon, proving his opposition to dictatorship and his commitment to republican government.
The Constitutional ConventionEdit
Washington presided over The Constitutional Convention that drafted the United States Constitution in 1787 because of his dissatisfaction with the weaknesses of Articles of Confederation that had time and again impeded the war effort. Washington became the first President of the United States in 1789. He attempted to bring rival factions together to unify the nation, opposing the emerging political parties.
Presidency and LegacyEdit
President Washington's presidency set a precedent for all who followed him, which made his tenure perhaps the hardest other than that of Abraham Lincoln.
One of the most notable facets of Washington's accomplishments was the fiscal program as suggested by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and his acolytes the Federalists, which advocated for a stronger federal government. Hamilton's agenda included the assumption of state debts, funding at par, the placing of excise taxes and tariffs, the promotion of manufacturing, and most controversially, a national bank. Although Hamilton's plan was passed into law, it received steep opposition from Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and his arising political faction, the Democratic Republicans, who saw his program as unconstitutional and an attempt to reinstall British ideals in the American republic.
However, the excise taxes as advocated by Hamilton had an unintended consequence. Secretary Hamilton pushed excise taxes on whiskey, which was wildly unpopular for the masses. This 'whiskey tax' lead farmers in Pennsylvania to revolt, beginning the Whiskey Rebellion, which the farmers declaring that this excise tax was against the American ideal of "no taxation without representation." Quickly, Washington headed over to crush the revolt, the first time he had seen a battle camp in over a decade, stating that the taxes were approved by an assembly elected by the people, and that the farmers' argument was absurd. This episode proved that the Constitution could do something that the Articles failed at doing: crushing a rebellion swiftly and efficiently.
Across the Atlantic, news reached the fledgling nation that a violent revolution was occurring in France, with the revolutionaries aiming to overthrow the monarchy and start a republic. Again, Washington's cabinet was divided on whether to support the revolution, with Thomas Jefferson viewing it as a sequel to the American Revolution, and Alexander Hamilton being disgusted by the violence occurring over there, seeing no resemblance to the America's conflict a decade earlier. Washington decided to stay safe and not support or oppose it.
In 1793, upon hearing that the French and British had once again declared war, Washington issued his Neutrality Proclamation, which stated that America would stay neutral in the conflict. This became a key tenet of his administration, and he forever advised that America should not meddle in the affairs of Europe.
While Washington was president, Britain was impressing American soldiers into service for the Royal Navy. Fed up with this, Washington dispatched Chief Justice John Jay to Britain to negotiate a treaty. The treaty, however, did not achieve the goal of stopping British impressment. The treaty instead forced Britain to leave their military forts in American territory and granted the U.S. "most favored nation" status, but Britain still levied serious trade restrictions on America. The Senate passed the Treaty twenty to ten, but Jay's Treaty was wildly unpopular. Jay once remarked that he could walk across the eastern seaboard by "the light of his burning effigies."
A far more popular treaty passed under Washington was Pinckney's Treaty between the Spanish Empire and America. This treaty permitted American use of the Mississippi River and clearly defined the American and Floridian border at the thirty-first parallel. Overall, the treaty developed a cordial relationship with Spain, a British rival.
Washington would shock the world when he announced that he would step down after his second term. "The American Cincinnatus" would even be called by King George III "the greatest man of the age" for his modesty and humility. This was announced in American newspapers by the "Farewell Address," which stressed national unity over sectionalism and warned against foreign entanglements. Washington stepping down began a precedent only broken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Washington had a vision of a great and powerful nation that would be built on republican lines using federal power. He sought to use the national government to improve the infrastructure, open the western lands, create a national university, promote commerce, found a capital city (later named Washington, D.C.), reduce regional tensions and promote a spirit of nationalism. "The name of American," he said, must override any local attachments. At his death, Washington was hailed as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen". The Federalists made him the symbol of their party but for many years, the Jeffersonians continued to distrust his influence and delayed building the Washington Monument. As the leader of the first successful revolution against a colonial empire in world history, Washington became an international icon for liberation and nationalism. His symbolism especially resonated in France and Latin America. Historical scholars consistently rank him as one of the two or three greatest presidents.