George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799) served as the first President of the United States of America, (1789–1797), and led the Continental Army to victory over the Kingdom of Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783).
The Continental Congress appointed Washington commander-in-chief of the American revolutionary forces in 1775. The following year, he forced the British out of Boston, lost New York City, and crossed the Delaware River in New Jersey, defeating the surprised enemy units later that year. As a result of his strategy, Revolutionary forces captured the two main British combat armies at Saratoga and Yorktown. Negotiating with Congress, the colonial states, and French allies, he held together a tenuous army and a fragile nation amid the threats of disintegration and failure. Following the end of the war in 1783, Washington retired to his plantation on Mount Vernon, prompting an incredulous King George III to state, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Dissatisfied with the Articles of Confederation, he presided over the Philadelphia Convention that drafted the United States Constitution in 1787. Washington became President of the United States in 1789 and established many of the customs and usages of the new government’s executive department. He sought to create a great nation capable of surviving in a world torn asunder by war between Britain and France. His unilateral Proclamation of Neutrality of 1793 provided a basis for avoiding any involvement in foreign conflicts. He supported plans to build a strong central government by funding the national debt, implementing an effective tax system, and creating a national bank. Washington avoided the temptation of war and began a decade of peace with Britain via the Jay Treaty in 1795; he used his prestige to get it ratified over intense opposition from the Jeffersonians. Although never officially joining the Federalist Party, he supported its programs and was its inspirational leader. Washington’s farewell address was a primer on republican virtue and a stern warning against partisanship, sectionalism and involvement in foreign wars.
Washington is seen as a symbol of the United States and republicanism in practice. His devotion to civic virtue made him an exemplary figure among early American politicians. Washington died in 1799, and in his funeral oration, Henry Lee said that of all Americans, he was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Washington has been consistently ranked by scholars as one of the greatest U.S. Presidents.
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732 [O.S. February 11, 1731] the first son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington, on the family’s Pope’s Creek Estate near present-day Colonial Beach in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was educated in the home by his father and older brother.
In his youth, Washington worked as a surveyor, and acquired what would become invaluable knowledge of the terrain around his native Colony of Virginia. Washington embarked upon a career as a planter and in 1748 was invited to help survey Baron Fairfax’s lands west of the Blue Ridge. In 1749, he was appointed to his first public office, surveyor of newly created Culpeper County, and through his half-brother, Lawrence Washington, he became interested in the Ohio Company, which aimed to exploit Western lands. In 1751, George and his half-brother travelled to Barbados, staying at Bush Hill House, hoping for an improvement in Lawrence’s tuberculosis. This was the only time George Washington travelled outside what is now the United States. After Lawrence’s death in 1752, George inherited part of his estate and took over some of Lawrence’s duties as adjutant of the colony.
Washington was appointed a district adjutant general in the Virginia militia in 1752, which made him Major Washington at the age of 20. He was charged with training the militia in the quarter assigned him. At age 21, in Fredericksburg, Washington became a Master Mason in the organization of Freemasons, a fraternal organization that was a lifelong influence.
In December 1753, Washington was asked by Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia to carry a British ultimatum to the French on the Ohio frontier. Washington assessed French military strength and intentions, and delivered the message to the French at Fort Le Boeuf in present day Waterford, Pennsylvania. The message, which went unheeded, called for the French to abandon their development of the Ohio country, setting in motion two colonial powers toward worldwide conflict. Washington’s report on the affair was widely read on both sides of the Atlantic.
Memorial to Washington at the United States Military Academy.Archaeologists and an excavation team, led by Philip Levy, associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, and David Muraca, director of archeology for the George Washington Foundation, owner of the National Historic Landmark site Ferry Farm, announced on July 2, 2008, the discovery of remains of George’s boyhood home just across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, VA, 50 miles south of Washington. Built in the 1740s 113-acre Ferry Farm, the county-level gentry house was a 1 1/2-story residence perched on a bluff. George was 6 when the family moved to the farm in 1738. George inherited the farm and lived in the house until his early 20s, though he also stayed with his half-brother Lawrence at Mount Vernon. Washington’s mother lived in the house until 1772, when she moved to Fredericksburg, and the farm was sold in 1777. As goal, they were set to restore the house.
French and Indian War
In 1754, Dinwiddie commissioned Washington a lieutenant colonel and ordered him to lead an expedition to Fort Duquesne to drive out the French. With his American Indian allies led by Tanacharison, Washington and his troops ambushed a French scouting party of some 30 men, led by Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. Washington and his troops were overwhelmed at Fort Necessity by a larger and better positioned French and Indian force. The terms of surrender included a statement that Washington had assassinated Jumonville after the ambush. Washington could not read French, and, unaware of what it said, signed his name. Released by the French, Washington returned to Virginia, where he was cleared of blame for the defeat, but resigned because he did not like the new arrangement of the Virginia Militia.
In 1755, Washington was an aide to British General Edward Braddock on the ill-fated Monongahela expedition. This was a major effort to retake the Ohio Country. While Braddock was killed and the expedition ended in disaster, Washington distinguished himself as the Hero of the Monongahela. While Washington’s role during the battle has been debated, biographer Joseph Ellis asserts that Washington rode back and forth across the battlefield, rallying the remnant of the British and Virginian forces to a retreat. Subsequent to this action, Washington was given a difficult frontier command in the Virginia mountains, and was rewarded by being promoted to colonel and named commander of all Virginia forces.
In 1758, Washington participated as a brigadier general in the Forbes expedition that prompted French evacuation of Fort Duquesne, and British establishment of Pittsburgh. Later that year, Washington resigned from active military service and spent the next sixteen years as a Virginia planter and politician.
Between the wars
George Washington was introduced to Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow who was living at the White House Plantation on the south shore of the Pamunkey River in New Kent County, Virginia, by friends of Martha when George was on leave from the French and Indian War. George only visited her home twice before proposing marriage to her 3 weeks after they met. George and Martha were each 27 years old when they married on January 6, 1759 at her home, known as The White House, which shares its name with the future presidential mansion. The newlywed couple moved to Mount Vernon, where he took up the tuckahoe life of a genteel planter and political figure. They had a good marriage, and together they raised her two children by her previous marriage to Daniel Parke Custis, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis, affectionately called “Jackie” and “Patsy.” George and Martha never had any children together — an earlier bout with smallpox followed by tuberculosis may have left him sterile. Later the Washingtons raised two of Mrs. Washington’s grandchildren, Eleanor Parke Custis (“Nelly”) and George Washington Parke Custis (“Washy”) after their father died in 1781.
Washington’s marriage to a wealthy widow greatly increased his property holdings and social standing, and after his marriage, George Washington was the wealthiest man in Virginia, if not in the colonies. He acquired one-third of the 18,000 acre (73 km²) Custis estate upon his marriage, and managed the remainder on behalf of Martha’s children. He frequently purchased additional land in his own name, and was granted land in what is now West Virginia as a bounty for his service in the French and Indian War. By 1775, Washington had doubled the size of Mount Vernon to 6,500 acres (26 km²), with over 100 slaves. As a respected military hero and large landowner, he held local office and was elected to the Virginia provincial legislature, the House of Burgesses, beginning in 1758, and he served as a justice of Fairfax, and held court in Alexandria, Virginia between 1760 and 1774.
Washington first took a leading role in the growing colonial resistance in 1769, when he introduced a proposal drafted by his friend George Mason which called for Virginia to boycott imported English goods until the Townshend Acts were repealed. Parliament repealed the Acts in 1770. Washington also took an active interest in helping his fellow citizens. On September 21, 1771 Washington wrote a letter to Neil Jameson on behalf of Jonathan Plowman Jr., a merchant from Baltimore whose ship had been seized for exporting non-permitted items by the Boston Frigate, and requested his help toward recovery of Plowman’s ship. Washington regarded the passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774 as “an Invasion of our Rights and Privileges.” In July 1774, he chaired the meeting at which the Fairfax Resolves were adopted, which called for, among other things, the convening of a Continental Congress. In August he attended the First Virginia Convention where he was selected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.
The American Revolution
After fighting broke out in April 1775, Washington appeared at the Second Continental Congress in military uniform, signaling that he was prepared for war. Washington had the prestige, the military experience, the charisma and military bearing, the reputation of being a strong patriot, and he was supported by the South, especially Virginia. Although he did not explicitly seek the office of commander and even claimed that he was not equal to it, there was no serious competition. Congress created the Continental Army on June 14, 1775; the next day, on the nomination of John Adams of Massachusetts, Washington was appointed Major General and elected by Congress to be Commander-in-chief.
Washington assumed command of the Continental Army in the field at Cambridge, Massachusetts in July 1775, during the ongoing siege of Boston. Realizing his army’s desperate shortage of gunpowder, Washington asked for new sources. British arsenals were raided (including some in the Caribbean) and some manufacturing was attempted; a barely adequate supply (about 2.5 million pounds) was obtained by the end of 1776, mostly from France. Washington reorganized the army during the long standoff, and forced the British to withdraw by putting artillery on Dorchester Heights overlooking the city. The British evacuated Boston and Washington moved his army to New York City.
Although negative toward the patriots in the Continental Congress, British newspapers routinely praised Washington’s personal character and qualities as a military commander. Moreover, both sides of the aisle in Parliament found the American general’s courage, endurance, and attentiveness to the welfare of his troops worthy of approbation and examples of the virtues they and most other Britons found wanting in their own commanders. Washington’s refusal to become involved in politics buttressed his reputation as a man fully committed to the military mission at hand and above the factional fray.
Bust of Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon based on a life mask cast in 1786.In August 1776, British General William Howe launched a massive naval and land campaign designed to seize New York and offer a negotiated settlement. The Continental Army under Washington engaged the enemy for the first time as an army of the newly-declared independent United States at the Battle of Long Island, the largest battle of the entire war. This and several other British victories sent Washington scrambling out of New York and across New Jersey, leaving the future of the Continental Army in doubt. On the night of December 25, 1776, Washington staged a counterattack, leading the American forces across the Delaware River to capture nearly 1,000 Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey. Washington followed up his victory at Trenton, with another one at Princeton in early January. These winter victories quickly raised the morale of the army, secured Washington’s position as Commander, and insprised young men to join the army.
British forces defeated Washington’s troops in the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. Howe outmaneuvered Washington and marched into Philadelphia unopposed on September 26. Washington’s army unsuccessfully attacked the British garrison at Germantown in early October. Meanwhile, Burgoyne, out of reach from help from Howe, was trapped and forced to surrender his entire army at Saratoga, New York. France responded to Burgoyne’s defeat by entering the war, openly allying with America and turning the Revolutionary War into a major world-wide war. Washington’s loss of Philadelphia prompted some members of Congress to discuss removing Washington from command. This attempt failed after Washington’s supporters rallied behind him.
Washington’s army camped at Valley Forge in December 1777, staying there for the next six months. Over the winter, 2,500 men of the 10,000-strong force died from disease and exposure. The next spring, however, the army emerged from Valley Forge in good order, thanks in part to a full-scale training program supervised by Baron von Steuben, a veteran of the Prussian general staff. The British evacuated Philadelphia to New York in 1778 but Washington attacked them at Monmouth and drove them from the battlefield. Afterwards, the British contiuned to head towards New York. Washington moved his army outside of New York, and in the summer of 1779, at Washington’s direction, General John Sullivan, in retaliation for Iroquois and Tory attacks against American settlements earlier in the war, carried out a decisive scorched earth campaign that destroyed at least forty Iroquois villages throughout what is now upstate New York. He delivered the final blow in 1781, after a French naval victory allowed American and French forces to trap a British army in Virginia. The surrender at Yorktown on October 17, 1781 marked the end of most fighting. Though known for his successes in the war and of his life that followed, Washington suffered many defeats before achieving victory.
Depiction by John Trumbull of Washington resigning his commission as commander-in-chief.In March 1783, Washington used his influence to disperse a group of Army officers who had threatened to confront Congress regarding their back pay. The Treaty of Paris (signed that September) recognized the independence of the United States. Washington disbanded his army and, on November 2, gave an eloquent farewell address to his soldiers. On November 25, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington and the governor took possession. At Fraunces Tavern on December 4, Washington formally bade his officers farewell and on December 23, 1783, he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief, emulating the Roman general Cincinnatus, an exemplar of the republican ideal of citizen leadership who rejected power. During this period, the United States was governed under the Articles of Confederation without a President, the forerunner to the Constitution.
Washington’s retirement to Mount Vernon was short-lived. He made an exploratory trip to the western frontier in 1784, was persuaded to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, and was unanimously elected president of the Convention. He participated little in the debates involved (though he did vote for or against the various articles), but his high prestige maintained collegiality and kept the delegates at their labors. The delegates designed the presidency with Washington in mind, and allowed him to define the office once elected. After the Convention, his support convinced many, including the Virginia legislature, to vote for ratification; the new Constitution was ratified by all 13 states.
The Electoral College elected Washington unanimously in 1789, and again in the 1792 election; he remains the only president to receive 100% of electoral votes. John Adams was elected vice president. Washington took the oath of office as the first President under the Constitution for the United States of America on April 30, 1789 at Federal Hall in New York City although, at first, he had not wanted the position.
The 1st United States Congress voted to pay Washington a salary of $25,000 a year—a large sum in 1789. Washington, already wealthy, declined the salary, since he valued his image as a selfless public servant. At the urging of Congress, however, he ultimately accepted the payment, to avoid setting a precedent whereby the presidency would be perceived as limited only to independently wealthy individuals who could serve without any salary.
Washington attended carefully to the pomp and ceremony of office, making sure that the titles and trappings were suitably republican and never emulated European royal courts. To that end, he preferred the title “Mr. President” to the more majestic names suggested.
Washington proved an able administrator. An excellent delegator and judge of talent and character, he held regular cabinet meetings to debate issues before making a final decision. In handling routine tasks, he was “systematic, orderly, energetic, solicitous of the opinion of others but decisive, intent upon general goals and the consistency of particular actions with them.”
Washington reluctantly served a second term as president. He refused to run for a third, establishing the customary policy of a maximum of two terms for a president which later became law by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.
Washington was not a member of any political party, and hoped that they would not be formed out of fear of the conflict and stagnation they could cause governance. His closest advisors, however, formed two factions, setting the framework for the future First Party System. Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton had bold plans to establish the national credit and build a financially powerful nation, and formed the basis of the Federalist Party. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, founder of the Jeffersonian Republicans, strenuously opposed Hamilton’s agenda, but Washington favored Hamilton over Jefferson.
In 1791, Congress imposed an excise on distilled spirits, which led to protests in frontier districts, especially Pennsylvania. By 1794, after Washington ordered the protesters to appear in U.S. district court, the protests turned into full-scale riots known as the Whiskey Rebellion. The federal army was too small to be used, so Washington invoked the Militia Act of 1792 to summon the militias of Pennsylvania, Virginia and several other states. The governors sent the troops and Washington took command, marching into the rebellious districts. There was no fighting, but Washington’s forceful action proved the new government could protect itself. It also was one of only two times that a sitting President would personally command the military in the field. These events marked the first time under the new constitution that the federal government used strong military force to exert authority over the states and citizens.
A statue of George Washington in the Place d’Iéna, Paris, FranceIn 1793, the revolutionary government of France sent diplomat Edmond-Charles Genêt, called “Citizen Genêt,” to America. Genêt issued letters of marque and reprisal to American ships so they could capture British merchant ships. He attempted to turn popular sentiment towards American involvement in the French war against Britain by creating a network of Democratic-Republican Societies in major cities. Washington rejected this interference in domestic affairs, demanded the French government recall Genêt, and denounced his societies.
Hamilton and Washington designed the Jay Treaty to normalize trade relations with Britain, remove them from western forts, and resolve financial debts left over from the Revolution. John Jay negotiated and signed the treaty on November 19, 1794. The Jeffersonians supported France and strongly attacked the treaty. Washington and Hamilton, however, mobilized public opinion and won ratification by the Senate by emphasizing Washington’s support. The British agreed to depart their forts around the Great Lakes, the Canadian-U.S. boundary was adjusted, numerous pre-Revolutionary debts were liquidated, and the British opened their West Indies colonies to American trade. Most importantly, the treaty delayed war with Britain and instead brought a decade of prosperous trade with Britain. It angered the French and became a central issue in political debates.
A bust of Washington by Giuseppe Ceracchi.Washington’s Farewell Address (issued as a public letter in 1796) was one of the most influential statements of American political values. Drafted primarily by Washington himself, with help from Hamilton, it gives advice on the necessity and importance of national union, the value of the Constitution and the rule of law, the evils of political parties, and the proper virtues of a republican people. While he declined suggested versions that would have included statements that there could be no morality without religion, he called morality “a necessary spring of popular government”. He said, “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Washington’s public political address warned against foreign influence in domestic affairs and American meddling in European affairs. He warned against bitter partisanship in domestic politics and called for men to move beyond partisanship and serve the common good. He called for an America wholly free of foreign attachments, saying the United States must concentrate primarily on American interests. He counseled friendship and commerce with all nations, but warned against involvement in European wars and entering into long-term “entangling” alliances. The address quickly set American values regarding religion and foreign affairs.
Retirement and death
After retiring from the presidency in March 1797, Washington returned to Mount Vernon with a profound sense of relief. He devoted much time to farming and, in that year, constructed (or oversaw the construction of) a 2,250 square foot (75-by-30 feet, 200 m²) distillery, which was one of the largest in the new republic, housing five copper stills, a boiler and 50 mash tubs, at the site of one of his unprofitable farms. At its peak, two years later, the distillery produced 11,000 gallons of corn and rye whiskey worth $7,500, and fruit brandy.
On July 13, 1798, Washington was appointed by President John Adams to be Lieutenant General and Commander-in-chief of all armies raised or to be raised for service in a prospective war with France. He served as the senior officer of the United States Army between July 13, 1798 and December 14, 1799. He participated in the planning for a Provisional Army to meet any emergency that might arise, but did not take the field.
Mount Vernon.On December 12, 1799, Washington spent several hours inspecting his farms on horseback, in snow and later hail and freezing rain. He sat down to dine that evening without changing his wet clothes. The next morning, he awoke with a bad cold, fever and a throat infection called quinsy that turned into acute laryngitis and pneumonia. Washington died on the evening of December 14, 1799, at his home aged 67, while attended by Dr. James Craik, one of his closest friends, and Tobias Lear V, Washington’s personal secretary. Lear would record the account in his journal, writing that Washington’s last words were Tis well.
Modern doctors believe that Washington died largely because of his treatment, which included calomel and bloodletting, resulting in a combination of shock from the loss of five pints of blood, as well as asphyxia and dehydration. Washington’s remains were buried at Mount Vernon. To protect their privacy, Martha Washington burned the correspondence between her husband and herself following his death. Only three letters between the couple have survived.
Following his death, the British Navy lowered their flags at half mast, the American army wore black armbands for 6 months and Napoleon ordered 10 days of mourning throughout France.
During the United States Bicentennial year, George Washington was posthumously appointed to the grade of General of the Armies of The United States by the congressional joint resolution Public Law 94-479 of January 19, 1976, approved by President Gerald R. Ford on October 11, 1976, and formalized in Department of the Army Order Number 31-3 of March 13, 1978 with an effective appointment date of July 4, 1976. This restored Washington’s position as the highest ranking military officer in U.S. history, which had been undone when General John J. Pershing was made General of the Armies at the end of World War I.
Congressman Henry Lee, a Revolutionary War comrade and father of the Civil War general Robert E. Lee, famously eulogized Washington as:
First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding; his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting…Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues…Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.
Lee’s words set the standard by which Washington’s overwhelming reputation was impressed upon the American memory. Washington set many precedents for the national government and the presidency in particular.
As early as 1778, Washington was lauded as the “Father of His Country.”
He was upheld as a shining example in schoolbooks and lessons: as courageous and farsighted, holding the Continental Army together through eight hard years of war and numerous privations, sometimes by sheer force of will; and as restrained: at war’s end taking affront at the notion he should be King; and after two terms as President, stepping aside.
Washington manifested himself as the exemplar of republican virtue in America. More than any American he was extolled for his great personal integrity, and a deeply held sense of duty, honor and patriotism. He is often seen more as a character model than war hero or founding father. One of Washington’s greatest achievements, in terms of republican values, was refraining from taking more power than was due. He was conscientious of maintaining a good reputation by avoiding political intrigue. He rejected nepotism or cronyism. Jefferson observed, “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
Monuments and memorials
Today, Washington’s face and image are often used as national symbols of the United States, along with the icons such as the flag and great seal. Perhaps the most prominent commemoration of his legacy is the use of his image on the one-dollar bill and the quarter-dollar coin. Washington, together with Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, is depicted in stone at the Mount Rushmore Memorial. The Washington Monument, one of the most well-known American landmarks, was built in his honor. The George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, constructed entirely with voluntary contributions from members of the Masonic Fraternity, was also built in his honor.
Many things have been named in honor of Washington. Washington’s name became that of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., and the State of Washington, the only state to be named after an American (Maryland, the Virginias, the Carolinas and Georgia are named in honor of British monarchs). George Washington University and Washington University in St. Louis were named for him, as was Washington and Lee University (once Washington Academy), which was renamed due to Washington’s large endowment in 1796. Countless American cities and towns feature a Washington Street among their thoroughfares.
The Confederate Seal prominently featured George Washington on horseback, in the same position as a statue of him in Richmond, Virginia.
Washington and slavery
On the death of his father in 1743, the 11-year-old inherited 10 slaves. At the time of his marriage to Martha Custis in 1759, he personally owned at least 36 (and the widow’s third of her first husband’s estate brought at least 85 “dower slaves” to Mount Vernon). Using his wife’s great wealth he bought land, tripling the size of the plantation, and additional slaves to farm it. By 1774 he paid taxes on 135 slaves. (This does not include the “dowers”.) The last record of a slave purchase by him was in 1772, although he later received some slaves in repayment of debts.
Before the American Revolution, Washington expressed no moral reservations about slavery, but by 1778 he wrote to his manager at Mount Vernon that he wished “to get quit of negroes.” Maintaining a large, and increasingly elderly, slave population at Mount Vernon was not economically profitable. Washington could not legally sell the “dower slaves,” however, and because these slaves had long intermarried with his own slaves, he could not sell his slaves without breaking up families.
As president, Washington brought 7 slaves to New York City in 1789 to work in the first presidential household — Oney Judge, Moll, Giles, Paris, Austin, Christopher Sheels, William Lee. Following the transfer of the national capital to Philadelphia in 1790, he brought 9 slaves to work in the President’s House — Oney Judge, Moll, Giles, Paris, Austin, Christopher Sheels, Hercules, Richmond, Joe (Richardson). Oney Judge and Hercules escaped to freedom from Philadelphia, and there were foiled escape attempts from Mount Vernon by Richmond and Christopher Sheels.
Pennsylvania had begun an abolition of slavery in 1780, and prohibited non-residents from holding slaves in the state longer than 6 months. If held beyond that period, the state’s Gradual Abolition Law gave those slaves the power to free themselves. Washington argued (privately) that his presence in Pennsylvania was solely a consequence of Philadelphia’s being the temporary seat of the federal government, and that the state law should not apply to him. On the advice of his attorney general, Edmund Randolph, he systematically rotated the President’s House slaves in and out of the state to prevent their establishing a 6-month continuous residency. This rotation was itself a violation of the Pennsylvania law, but the President’s actions were not challenged.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 established the legal mechanism by which a slaveholder could recover his property, a right guaranteed by the Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article IV, Section 2). Passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by Washington, the 1793 Act made assisting an escaped slave a federal crime, overruled all state and local laws giving escaped slaves sanctuary, and allowed slavecatchers into every U.S. state and territory.
Washington was the only prominent, slaveholding Founding Father who succeeded in emancipating his slaves. His actions were influenced by his close relationship with the Marquis de La Fayette. He did not free his slaves in his lifetime, however, but included a provision in his will to free his slaves upon the death of his wife. At the time of his death, there were 317 slaves at Mount Vernon — 123 owned by Washington, 154 “dower slaves,” and 40 rented from a neighbor.
Martha Washington bequeathed the one slave she owned outright — Elisha — to her grandson George Washington Parke Custis. Following her death in 1802, the dower slaves were inherited by her grandchildren.
Washington did not speak out publicly against slavery, argues historian Dorothy Twohig, because he did not wish to risk splitting apart the young republic over what was already a sensitive and divisive issue. Even if Washington had opposed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, his veto probably would have been overridden. (The Senate vote was not recorded, but the House passed it overwhelmingly, 47 to 8.)
In addition to Martha’s biological family noted above, George Washington had a close relationship with his nephew and heir Bushrod Washington, son of George’s younger brother John Augustine Washington, who became an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court after George’s death.
As a young man, Washington had red hair. A popular myth is that he wore a wig, as was the fashion among some at the time. Washington did not wear a wig; instead he powdered his hair, as represented in several portraits, including the well-known unfinished Gilbert Stuart depiction.
Washington suffered from problems with his teeth throughout his life. He lost his first tooth when he was twenty-two and had only one left by the time he became President. According to John Adams, he lost them because he used them to crack Brazil nuts, although modern historians suggest it was probably the mercury oxide he was given to treat illnesses such as smallpox and malaria. He had several sets of false teeth made, four of them by a dentist named John Greenwood. Contrary to popular belief, none of the sets were made from wood. The set made when he became President was carved from hippopotamus and elephant ivory, held together with gold springs. The hippo ivory was used for the plate, into which real human teeth and also bits of horses and donkeys teeth were inserted. Dental problems left Washington in constant discomfort, for which he took laudanum, and this distress may be apparent in many of the portraits painted while he was still in office, including the one still used on the $1 bill.
One of the most enduring myths about George Washington involves him as a young boy chopping down his father’s cherry tree and, when asked about it, using the famous line “I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet.” In fact, there is no evidence that this ever occurred. It, along with the story of Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River, was part of a book of stories authored by Mason Weems that made Washington somewhat of a legendary figure.