George Washington is unanimously referred to as the “father of America”. The first president of the United States of America, Washington set the manner for what was to become the most powerful seat of government in the country. The purpose of this paper is to provide biographical information on Washington and to explain why he is known as the “father of America”. Born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on February 22, 1732, George Washington was the eldest son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington.
His five younger brothers and sisters were Elizabeth, Samuel, John, Augustine, Charles, and Mildred (who died in infancy). Washington’s two half brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, were fourteen and twelve years older than he, but the three boys liked and respected one another. 1 When Washington was three the family moved to a larger plantation further up the Potomac River. It was called Epsewasson, or Little Hunting Creek, from the name of the stream it faced. Young Washington grew to love the estate with a passion that lasted all his life.
Some years later Augustine bought a farm on the Rappahannock, opposite Fredericksburg, and moved the family there. The plantation, Ferry Farm, was the place where Washington chopped the cherry tree down. 2 When Washington was eleven, his father died. The plantation at Epsewasson was granted to Lawrence. Lawrence added to the estate and renamed it Mount Vernon, in honor of Admiral Vernon, under whom he had served in the West Indies. George went to live with Augustine at Wakefield because Henry William’s school, one of the best in the colony, was located nearby. 3
Little is know of George Washington’s schooling. He was probably tutored at home for a while, and may have attended school in Fredericksburg before going to Henry William’s school. At fifteen he was ready to do practical surveying. He was good in mathematics; he was a neat penman and an accurate mapmaker. In 1748, Washington went to live with his half brother, Lawrence, at Mount Vernon. Lawrence, who became something of a substitute father for Washington, had married into the Fairfax family, prominent and powerful Virginians who helped launch Washington’s career.
An early ambition to become a naval officer had been discouraged by Washington’s mother; instead he turned to surveying. 4 Lord Fairfax, a cousin of Lawrence’s wife and master of more than five million Virginia acres, was fond of Washington and hired him to help survey his holdings beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. The work was difficult, but Washington did well. In about a year, the surveying was completed, and, partly through Fairfax’s influence, Washington was appointed surveyor of Culpeper County, his first public office. He took the oath of office on July 20, 1749. 5
By 1753, the growing rivalry between the British and the French over the control of the Ohio Valley, soon to erupt into the French and Indian War, created new opportunities for Washington. He was a grown man at twenty, who already owned his first plot of Virginia land, bought with money borrowed from Lawrence. In 1753, Governor Dinwiddie made him a major of militia and sent him, with a message, to the French commander of Fort Le Boeuf. The note protested the building of a chain of French forts between Lake Ontario and the Ohio River. Near Great Meadows, Washington surrounded and attacked a party of thirty-three Frenchmen.
Ten Frenchmen were killed, and twenty-two were captured. This action has been credited with starting the Seven Year’s War. The French sent out nine hundred men to retaliate this slaughter. Washington, upon hearing of the arriving French threat, built a crude fort, aptly named Fort Necessity. The French badly beat Washington and he signed a document that he thought stated he attacked the party at Great Meadows. However, the document was written in French, which Washington could neither read nor speak, and the document that Washington signed stated he assassinated the party.
The confession of the attack set off the world war. 6 In 1755, Washington volunteered to join General Braddock and a large army to attack Fort Duquesne. Despite Washington’s warnings, Braddock’s troops marched in typical European fashion-long rows of men, drums beating and banners flying. For the French and Indians hiding in the woods and behind rocks, it was little more than target practice. Out of 1,400 officers and men, three fourths were killed or wounded; even Braddock himself was killed. 7
That same year, Governor Dinwiddie made Washington colonel and commander of all Virginia militia forces. This was a high and well-deserved honor for the 23-year-old officer. The colony expanded its forces to 1,000 men, who were able to patrol and defend the whole 350-mile frontier. In 1758, Washington and his men took possession of the ruins of Fort Duquesne, burned to the ground by the French. Washington’s service in the French and Indian War was finally over. Assured that the Virginia frontier was safe from French attack, Washington left the army in 1758 and returned to Mount Vernon.
In January 1759, he married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy and attractive young widow with two small children. It was to be a happy and satisfying marriage. After 1769, Washington became a leader in Virginia’s discord with England’s colonial policies. As a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, Washington did not actively participate in the deliberations, but his presence was undoubtedly a positive influence. In June 1775, he was Congress’s undisputed choice as commander in chief of the Continental forces. 8
In May 1787, Washington headed the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and was elected presiding officer. His presence added importance to the proceedings, and although he made few direct contributions, he generally supported the advocates for a strong central government. After the new Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification and became legally effective, he was unanimously elected president in 1789. 9 Washington was reelected president in 1792, and might have been president a third term, but he refused to run again.
In March 1797, when Washington left office, the country’s financial system was well established and the Indian threat east of the Mississippi River had been largely eliminated. His vice-president, John Adams, succeeded him. 10 On December 12, 1799, Washington rode over his farms for about five hours. It was snowing when he started, and later changed to hail and rain. Without changing his wet clothes on his return, he sat down for dinner. The next day he complained of a sore throat. During the night of the 13th he became seriously ill, but he would not disturb the household or allow Mrs.
Washington to get up for fear she would catch cold. He grew weaker the next day, and died late that night, on Saturday, December 14, 1799. Washington was America’s “father” in many ways. He was commander in chief of the American forces in the American Revolution, chairman of the convention that wrote the United States constitution, and the first president. He led the men who turned America from an English colony into a self-governing nation. His ideals of liberty and democracy set a standard for future presidents and for the whole country.