George Washington (1732-1799)
|Washington's early childhood is a mystery. His great grandfather, John Washington, sailed to America to buy tobacco, but when his ship sunk as he was about to return to England, he remained in Virginia.
Washington was born at the family estate, on the banks of the Potomac River, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, at 10 am, February 22, 1732.
Washington's father died when he was 11 years old. Lawrence Washington, George's older brother, apparently became a surrogate father for George. At the age of 16, George moved in with Lawrence at his estate, Mt. Vernon. At 16, Washington helped survey the Shenandoah lands for Thomas, Lord Fairfax.
The next year, 1749, Washington received his first official appointment- as surveyor of Culpepper County, Virginia.
In 1752, his brother died of tuberculosis and Washington inherited the Mt. Vernon estate. That same year, Washington received his first military commission - as a major in the Virginia militia.
During the French and Indian War he oversaw the construction of Fort Necessity in what is today Western Pennsylvania. After the fort was overrun by superior French and Indian troops, Washington resigned his commission. He returned to service in 1755 to serve as the aide-de-camp of General Braddock.
Braddock's ill-fated attempt to seize Fort Duquesne from the French resulted in his death and the defeat of his forces. Washington assumed command, allowing the remaining British forces to retreat. After this battle, Washington was promoted to colonel and regimental commander.
In 1758, Colonel Washington resigned his commission after being elected to the Virginia House of Burgess. In his position with the Virginia assembly, he was a leader of those in the Virginia legislature pressing for strong action against England.
Washington was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress. He was at first a supporter of measures that might bring about an understanding with England. However, he quickly decided that this was unlikely to work.
Washington chaired the committee whose task it was to find ways of arming the impending revolution. Washington became the unanimous choice to lead the new Continental Army. This was due both to his military experience and the prestige of having a prominent Virginian at the head of the army.
As Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, Washington led that army through its early success in liberating Boston to its loss in New York; through the hardship of Valley Forge to the ultimate victory at Yorktown.
Washington was the overwhelming choice to be the President of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
He was a supporter of a strong federal government.
President Washington was a believer in a strong Presidency. As the first President, he could set many rules. Washington believed in working closely with his staff, and relied heavily on advice of his cabinet.
Due to Washington's popularity, Congress did not challenge any of his cabinet appointments. This established the principle that Presidents will automatically have their appointments approved. When the President came to Congress to "consult" on the making of foreign treaties, he felt he was treated beneath the dignity of the office of the Presidency. It was the last time he would consult Congress on a foreign policy decision, thus setting a precedent for future presidents, who rarely confer with Congress before foreign policy decisions.
During the Washington Presidency, two major political battles took place. The first battle was between those who believed in a strict interpretation of the American Constitution and those opposed. The second dispute was between those favoring England and those in support of France in the ongoing European War.
Those who believed in strict Constitutional interpretation were led by Madison. By strict interpretation, they intended the central government to be no stronger than those powers laid out for it in the constitution. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, believed that the government had implied power over the individual states. Hamilton proposed that the Federal Government establish a Bank of the United States to help fuel economic growth. The opposition stated that the government lacked such power under the constitution. Washington sided with the Federalists and the Bank was established.
Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, sided with France in her war with England. Hamilton sided with England. Washington proclaimed a strict policy of neutrality that resulted in Jefferson's resignation. Washington's view was that the United Sates should attempt to stay out of European conflicts. In addition, he felt that it was essential that the United States have as many peacetime years as possible to increase its strength before fighting any further wars.
During his Presidency, Washington personally insured that the Whiskey Rebellion, in protest of a tax imposed on whiskey, was put down. He thus crushed the first challenge to federal authority.
Surprisingly, one of the major events to take place during the Washington Presidency was accomplished with much debate but little conflict. This was the ratification of the first 10 amendments to the constitution - known as the Bill of Rights.
Washington wanted to retire after his first term of office. He was persuaded to retain the Presidency in light of the partisan politics which he felt could undo much of the statebuilding he had accomplished. Washington retired from the Presidency on March 3, 1797.