George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799) was an American political and military leader who is often referred to as the Father of the United States due to his leading role in the formation of his country as well as in setting its foundation. Washington first gained renown for his military skills as a 21 year old while serving for Great Britain in the French and Indian War against France. When the American Revolutionary War began in 1775, he was made the Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed Continental Army. He soon became the de-facto leader of the revolt of the colonies against Great Britain. Through his able leadership, Washington transformed an inexperienced militia into a capable force that ultimately defeated the mightiest military power in the world. After securing victory for the United States, Washington resigned from his post. In 1789, Washington was unanimously elected as the first President of the United States. He served for two 4 year terms as president after which he relinquished his post. George Washington is widely regarded as one of the greatest leaders in the world. Know about his leadership in the Revolutionary War, his domestic and foreign policy as President; and more, through his 10 major accomplishments.
Note: This article was originally published on 07 June 2015
#1 HE LED THE CONTINENTAL ARMY DURING THE AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY WAR
Prior to the American Revolution, George Washington had served in the French and Indian War (1754–1763) on the side of Great Britain against France. During the conflict, he had gained valuable military experience including how to organize supply, how to command, how to build forts and how to manage subordinates. The American Revolutionary War broke out with the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. At that point, the colonial revolutionaries did not have an army. Instead, they relied on local militia. The Second Continental Congress convened on May 10 with Washington attending as a delegate from Virginia. Congress created the Continental Army on June 14, 1775. The following day, George Washington was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed army. Apart from his previous military experience, Washington was given the post due to his stature and in the hope that a southerner leading what was then majorly an army of northerners would help unite the colonies. Washington would go on to lead the Continental Army throughout the course of the Revolutionary War.
“Ten Facts About George Washington and the French & Indian War”. George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
“George Washington’s Commission as Commander in Chief“. Library of Congress.
#2 HIS VICTORY AT THE BATTLE OF TRENTON WAS A PIVOTAL MOMENT IN THE WAR
Washington began his campaign of the Revolutionary War with the successful Siege of Boston (April 19, 1775 – March 17, 1776) forcing the British out of the city. He then moved his army to defend New York. He was soundly defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn on August 27, 1776; narrowly escaping a disaster by evacuating his army to Manhattan. He then suffered a series of defeats that forced his army to withdraw completely out of New York and to retreat through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. Due to these defeats, the morale of the Continental Army was very low and many men had deserted. At such a juncture, Washington laid out a bold plan to attack the enemy forces stationed at Trenton in New Jersey. The American forces first made the famous crossing of the Delaware River, which was accomplished “with almost infinite difficulty”. They then swiftly defeated the German missionaries at Trenton capturing around 900 soldiers along with provisions; and arms and ammunition. Victory at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, is regarded as a pivotal movement of the Revolution due to its impact. Among other things, it boosted the morale of the Patriots and inspired people to join the forces. Washington followed up the success in Trenton with the capture of the British garrison at Princeton, New Jersey on January 3, 1777.
#3 HE LED AMERICA TO VICTORY IN THE DECISIVE SIEGE OF YORKTOWN
Washington lost the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. The British followed this by taking the American capital Philadelphia and forcing the Continental Congress to move to York, Pennsylvania. However, American victory at the Battles of Saratoga convinced the French that the colonies could win the war. This resulted in the formal Franco-American alliance in 1778. The activities of George Washington from late 1778 to 1780 were more diplomatic and organizational. On August 19, 1781, 3000 American soldiers under Washington and 4000 French soldiers under General Comte de Rochambeau began their march from Newport, Rhode Island, to Yorktown, Virginia. During this march, Washington send out fake dispatches to make British General Henry Clinton believe that his army was going to attack New York. This convinced Clinton that Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown was not in any danger. On September 28, 1781, Washington completed encircled Yorktown beginning the Siege of Yorktown. Off the coast, French Admiral François de Grasse strategically positioned his naval fleet to prevent escape or assistance through the sea. With his army’s supplies of food and ammunition exhausted; and no hope of escape; Cornwallis surrendered his army of some 8,000 men to General Washington on October 19, 1781. This effectively ended British hope of winning the war as they lacked the financial resources to raise a new army.
Freeman, Douglas S (1948–1957). “George Washington: A Biography”. pp. 5:152–155
Lengel, Edward (2005). “General George Washington”. p. 335
Davis, Burke (2007). “The Campaign that Won America”. p. 36.
“Surrender at Yorktown“. Library of Congress.
#4 HE LED U.S. TO VICTORY IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY WAR
The Siege of Yorktown was the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War. It forced the British to negotiate an end to the conflict. In 1782, peace negotiations began and on September 3, 1783, United States was recognized as a free and independent nation after signing of the Treaty of Paris. On December 23, 1783, General George Washington resigned as commander in chief of the Continental Army and returned to civilian life. Washington performed a number of roles during the Revolutionary War. He directed the strategy of the war; turned the Continental army from inexperienced militia into a solid regular army; forced the politicians in Congress to support him; and emerged as the one who would lead the nation. Though he lost more battles than he won during the war, Washington never surrendered his army. He is also given credit for keeping a fighting force in the field through the difficult early years of the war. Washington faced an opposition which was a superpower and had much more military experience. In comparison, the Americans had neither a standing army nor a navy; and its soldiers had little to none military experience. Moreover, throughout the war, he had to deal with shortages of men, shoes, shirts, blankets and gunpowder. In leading America to victory against such odds is a phenomenal achievement of George Washington.
Blythe, Bob. “George Washington (1732 – 1799)”. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.
E. Ambrose, Stephen (November 2002). “Founding Fathers and Slaveholders“. Smithsonian Magazine.
#5 HE WAS UNANIMOUSLY ELECTED THE FIRST PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
After the Revolutionary War, Washington served as the president of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The historic result of the Convention was the crafting of the United States Constitution. From December 15, 1788 to January 10, 1789, the presidential electors were chosen in each of the states. Article II of the Constitution gave two votes to each of the electors. With 69 electoral votes, Washington won the support of each participating elector. He was thus unanimously elected the first president of the United States. On April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall in New York City, the first capital of the United States, Washington took the presidential oath of office. In the 1792 United States presidential election, Washington was elected to a second term, again by a unanimous vote. In 1796, Washington declined to run for a third term of office, thus setting a precedent of a two-term limit which was followed till 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt broke the unwritten rule amid the Second World War. George Washington served as the first President of the United States from April 30, 1789 to March 4, 1797.
“Presidential Election of 1789”. George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
“On this day: Term limits for American Presidents”. National Constitution Center.
#6 THE BILL OF RIGHTS WAS PASSED DURING HIS PRESIDENCY
As United States was a fledgling nation when George Washington took over as President, he went on to establish several precedents. The Departments of State, War and Treasury as well as the office of Attorney General were established. Each was headed by a presidential advisor forming the four man cabinet of George Washington. The most important legislation passed during the presidency of George Washington was perhaps the Bill of Rights. Congress approved 12 amendments to the U.S. Constitution on September 25, 1789. 10 of the 12 proposed amendments became ratified by the requisite number of states and became collectively known as the Bill of Rights. Among other things, the bill guarantees civil rights and liberties to the individual, like freedom of speech, press and religion. It sets rules for due process of law and reserves all powers not delegated to the Federal Government to the people or the States. Several other important legislation were passed during Washington’s term including the following:-
Tariff Act of 1789
Signed into law by President Washington on July 4, it was the first major legislation passed after the ratification of the United States Constitution. It aimed to solve the pressing issue of how to raise revenue for the federal government. The act levied a 50¢ per ton duty on goods imported by foreign ships and 6¢ per ton on American owned vessels. To enable the federal government to collect these import duties, Congress also passed the Collection Act of 1789. This Act established the United States Customs Service to collect the tax.
Judiciary Act of 1789
Signed into law by President Washington on September 24, it established the federal judiciary of the United States. Among other things, it set the number of Supreme Court justices at six: one Chief Justice and five Associate Justices.
Bank Bill of 1791
Signed it into law on February 25, it established the first Bank of the United States.
Coinage Act of 1792
Signed into law on April 2, 1792, it created the United States dollar as the country’s standard unit of money, established the United States Mint, and regulated the coinage of the United States.
Naval Act of 1794
Signed into law on March 27, 1794, it authorized the creation of a fleet of six ships which eventually became the first ships of the present-day United States Navy.
“The Bill of Rights: What Does it Say?”. National Archives.
Miller, John C. (1960). “The Federalists: 1789-1801”. p. 19.
Bordewich, Fergus M. (2016). “The First Congress”. pp. 102–103.
“The First Bank of the United States”. Office of the Historian. U.S. Department of State.
Nussbaum, Arthur (November 1937). “The Law of the Dollar”. Columbia Law Review.
#7 HIS SUPPRESSION OF WHISKEY REBELLION ESTABLISHED AN IMPORTANT PRECEDENT
An excise tax on domestically distilled spirits, known as the “Whiskey Act”, became law on March 3, 1791. This taxation was violently opposed in western Pennsylvania with attacks on tax collectors and the formation of several well-armed resistance movements. The rebellion became known as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. George Washington summoned the militias of Pennsylvania, Virginia and several other states. He then personally took command of the 12,950 men in the build up to encourage them. The army marched into Western Pennsylvania in October 1794. The rebellion collapsed quickly with little violence and the resistance movements disbanded. In crushing the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington set a precedent that dissatisfied minorities can protest peacefully but cannot take arms against even the most unpopular official acts.
Knott, Stephen. “George Washington: Domestic Affairs“. Miller Center.
#8 HE KEPT U.S. OUT OF FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY WAR IN EUROPE
The foreign policy of the Washington administration was dominated by the French Revolution, which began in 1789. In 1792 war broke out in Europe between France and several European powers including Great Britain. Although there was pro-French sentiment in America, George Washington believed that the United States was too weak and unstable to fight another war. He thus issued the Proclamation of Neutrality on April 22, 1793 that declared the United States neutral in the war in Europe. The Proclamation was formalized into law by the Neutrality Act of 1794, which made it illegal for an American citizen to wage war against any country at peace with the United States. The Neutrality Act has been updated but remains in force till date. George Washington thus kept the young nation out of war and set a key precedent of America being neutral in foreign quarrels. Other important foreign policy successes of the Washington presidency include the Pinckney’s Treaty, which resolved territorial disputes between the United States and Spain.
** GEORGE WASHINGTON PRESIDENCY: MAJOR SUCCESSES AND FAILURES
Domestic Policy Major Successes
Note: The first and third points have been covered in the main article also
- As United States was a fledgling nation when George Washington took over as President, he went on to establish several precedents. In fact, he wrote to James Madison: “As the first of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent, it is devoutly wished on my part, that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.” The Departments of State, War and Treasury as well as the office of Attorney General were established. Each was headed by a presidential advisor forming the four man cabinet of George Washington.
- In 1785, several Native American tribes formed an alliance to jointly deal with the United States. President Washington first instructed Brigadier General Josiah Harmar to deal with the threat posed by this Confederacy. However, Harmer was defeated in October 1790. The following year, another force under Major General Arthur St. Clair was routed by the Native Americans in the Battle of Wabash River. 632 American soldiers were killed or captured while 264 were wounded. Washington then turned to Revolutionary War veteran General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Wayne spent months training his troops to fight using forest warfare in the style of the Native Americans. He then led U.S. to decisive victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20, 1794 bringing an end to the Northwest Indian War. The Treaty of Greenville was signed in 1795 which opened parts to American settlement of what would become the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.
- An excise tax on domestically distilled spirits, known as the “Whiskey Act”, became law on March 3, 1791. This taxation was violently opposed in western Pennsylvania with attacks on tax collectors and the formation of several well-armed resistance movements. The rebellion became known as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. George Washington summoned the militias of Pennsylvania, Virginia and several other states. He then personally took command of the 12,950 men in the build up to encourage them. The army marched into Western Pennsylvania in October 1794. The rebellion collapsed quickly with little violence and the resistance movements disbanded. In crushing the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington set a precedent that dissatisfied minorities can protest peacefully but cannot take arms against even the most unpopular official acts.
Domestic Policy Major Failures
- During the Washington presidency, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was passed which required all states, including those that forbid slavery, to forcibly return slaves who had escaped from other states to their original owners. It is to be noted that Washington was himself a slave owner. However, he is the only one of the nine presidents who owned slaves, to free all his slaves; in his 1799 will.
- George Washington was against the two party system. In fact, the Founding Fathers entirely omitted political parties from the new nation’s Constitution. However, despite his efforts, two competing factions formed within Congress during his presidency led by Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury; and Thomas Jefferson, the secretary of state. This ultimately led to the nation’s first two political parties. Though there are alternate views on America’s two party system, it may be seen as a failure of Washington’s domestic policy. This is due to the fact at that time, the founding fathers wanted to avoid parties, including Washington.
Foreign Policy Major Successes
Note: The first point has been covered in the main article also
- The French Revolution began in 1789 and, in 1792, war broke out in Europe between France and several European powers including Great Britain. Although there was pro-French sentiment in America, George Washington believed that the United States was too weak and unstable to fight another war. He thus issued the Proclamation of Neutrality on April 22, 1793 that declared the United States neutral in the war in Europe. The Proclamation was formalized into law by the Neutrality Act of 1794, which made it illegal for an American citizen to wage war against any country at peace with the United States. The Neutrality Act has been updated but remains in force till date. George Washington thus kept the young nation out of war and set a key precedent of America being neutral in foreign quarrels.
- There was discord between America and Spain regarding the western and southern borders of the United States. On October 27, 1795, “Treaty of Friendship, Limits, and Navigation Between Spain and the United States” was signed between the two nations. Thomas Pinckney negotiated the treaty for the United States and Don Manuel de Godoy represented Spain. Known as the Pinckney’s Treaty, it was an important diplomatic success for the United States. It resolved territorial disputes between the two nations. Moreover, it granted the American ships free navigation of the Mississippi River and duty-free transport through the port of New Orleans, then under Spanish control.
- Before United States became independent, piracy was not an issue as the Royal Navy protected American vessels. With the disbanding of the Continental Navy post independence, American ships had no protection against intervention from foreign powers. By 1793, the loss of American ships to the Algerian pirates had become a serious issue. To counter it, President Washington asked Congress to approve a bill authorizing the creation of a naval force to protect American merchant vessels. Naval Act of 1794 was signed by him on March 27, 1794. It authorized the creation of a fleet of six ships which eventually became the first ships of the present-day United States Navy.
Foreign Policy Major Failures
- After the Revolution, United States and Britain had a number of unresolved issues which were a cause of fiction between the two nations. While British exports flooded the American markets, American exports were blocked by British trade restrictions and tariffs. The British still occupied northern forts which they had agreed to vacate in the Treaty of Paris (1783). The last major issue was Britain’s impressments of American sailors and seizure of naval and military supplies. As the French Revolution broke out, American politicians became divided into pro-British and pro-French factions. Fearing the repercussions of a war with Britain, Washington sent pro-British Chief Justice John Jay to negotiate with the British Government. This resulted in a treaty between the two nations on November 19, 1794, which became known as the Jay’s Treaty. This treaty is considered very unfavorable for the United States. It addressed few U.S. interests, and ultimately granted Britain additional rights. Its only gains were surrender of the northwestern posts, which had already been agreed in the Treaty of Paris; and granting U.S. the “most favored nation” status commercially. All other outstanding issues, including the Canadian-Maine boundary, compensation for pre-revolutionary debts and British seizures of American ships were left unresolved by the Jay’s Treaty. Further, it had negative effects for the remainder of Washington’s term as President. These include the French harassing American ships claiming that U.S. was in alliance with their enemy.
Knott, Stephen. “George Washington: Domestic Affairs”. Miller Center.
Hickman, Kennedy (March 06, 2018). “Northwest Indian War: Battle of Fallen Timbers”. ThoughtCo.
Norton Smith, Richard (1994). “The Surprising George Washington”. National Archives.
“Congress Enacts First Fugitive Slave Law”. History.
E. Ambrose, Stephen (November 2002). “Founding Fathers and Slaveholders”. Smithsonian Magazine.
Pruitt, Sarah (March 7, 2019). “The Founding Fathers Feared Political Factions Would Tear the Nation Apart”. History.
McMaster, John Bach (2006). “A History of the People of the United States: From the Revolution to the Civil War”. pp. 539–540.
Knott, Stephen. “George Washington: Foreign Affairs”. Miller Center.
“Neutrality Proclamation, 22 April 1793”. Founders Online. National Archives.
“Formation of the U.S. Navy”. The Mariners’ Museum.
“John Jay’s Treaty, 1794–95”. Office of the Historian. U.S. Department of State.
#9 HIS FAREWELL ADDRESS HAS HAD A LONG AND CONTINUING INFLUENCE
After Washington decided that he would not seek re-election for a third term, he decided to write his farewell address with the help of his friend and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. It is to be noted that the initial draft of this address had been prepared by James Madison in 1792. Washington’s farewell address was first published in the American Daily Advertiser on September 19, 1796. The 7,641-word document may be divided into three main principles. Washington first stresses on the importance of unity in the nation reminding Americans that “the Independence and Liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts, of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.” He then warns of the dangers of putting party and regional loyalty above the interests of the nation. Finally, he states his belief that it is in the interest of the United States to stay clear of foreign disputes as it was the safest way to maintain national unity and stability. Washington’s Farewell Address is considered to be one of the most important documents in American history. The recommendations made by him have exerted a strong and continuing influence on American statesmen and politicians.
Pruitt, Sarah (Feb 10, 2020). “George Washington Warned Against Political Infighting in His Farewell Address“. History.
“Religion and the Founding of the American Republic”. Library of Congress.
#10 HE IS REGARDED AS ONE OF THE GREATEST AMERICAN PRESIDENTS
Twice during the American Revolution, George Washington was granted virtually unlimited power to carry on the war effort. He shouldered the responsibility and gave the authority back as soon as possible. Following the formal end of hostilities in the Revolutionary War, Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief and went back to his home. He did this when he was in a position to take solitary control of the new nation and become its dictator. Then, after becoming President of the United States, Washington willingly resigned after two-terms inaugurating the democratic traditions of the United States. It was Washington’s ability to cede power which sets him apart from other great leaders. When he resigned from presidency, King George III proclaimed him “the greatest character of the age.” Due to his manifold leadership in the formation of the United States, Washington is often referred to as the “Father of His Country”. Along with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, he is usually ranked among the top three presidents by historians and scholars. In the Murray-Blessing 1988 survey of historians, Washington was ranked 3rd; in the poll conducted by The Wall Street Journal of professors of history, law and political science in 2005, he was ranked 1st; and according to a Rasmussen poll conducted in 2007, he ranked 1st with 94% Americans viewing him favorably.
Spalding, Matthew. (Feb 5, 2007). “The Man Who Would Not Be King“. The Heritage Foundation.
“George Washington resigns as commander in chief“. History.
Nichols, Curt. “The Presidential Ranking Game: Critical Review and Some New Discoveries”. Baylor University.