Washington, George (1732–1799)

AuthorDennis J. Mahoney

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The people of the United States are indebted to no man so much as they are to George Washington. And the debt extends to his role in the creation of the American Constitution. As the general who led the revolutionary armies to victory and so vindicated American independence, as one of the few men who had traveled in virtually every part of the United States, including the vast Western wilderness, and as a leading citizen of northern Virginia, Washington was actively involved in the movement of affairs that culminated in the CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1787. When the Convention met, he became its presiding officer. During the controversy over the RATIFICATION OF THE CONSTITUTION, the opposition to a strong executive was overcome by the universal assumption that Washington would be the first man to hold the office. When the Constitution was ratified and Washington did become President, he self-consciously seized the opportunity to set precedents for the conduct of governmental affairs. And when, after two terms in that office he handed

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over the reins of executive authority, he did so in perfect constitutional order and retired to his country seat.

The third son of a prosperous planter, Washington learned the surveying trade in his teens, and as a surveyor he traveled widely in the area west of the Appalachian Mountains. At twenty-one he was appointed to major in the Virginia militia, and when the French and Indian War broke out in 1754 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed second in command of a regiment dispatched to the Ohio Valley. On his colonel's death, Washington took command and managed, without supplies, funds, competent subordinates, or trained noncommissioned officers and troops, to achieve initial military success. He was subsequently made an aide to the British commanding general, and in 1755, at the age of twenty-three, was promoted to colonel and made commander-in-chief of all Virginia forces, the highest ranking American military officer.

In 1759, Washington married Martha Custis, the wealthiest widow in Virginia, and, adding her holdings to his own, achieved a financial independence that would subsequently permit him to engage in a career of uncompensated public service. For a decade and a half he lived the life of a gentleman planter, with the attendant civic duties of serving as a justice of the peace and as a member of the House of Burgesses.

In 1769 Washington introduced in the House of Burgesses a series of resolutions (drafted by his friend and neighbor GEORGE MASON) denying the right of the British Parliament to tax the colonies and initiating the first ASSOCIATION. After passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774, Washington introduced in the house the Fairfax County Resolves closing Virginia's trade with Britain. He was also elected a delegate to the FIRST CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, which he attended in military uniform.

The Revolutionary War began in Spring 1775 when the Massachusetts militia forcibly resisted the attempt of British troops to seize its weapons and supplies. In June, on the motion of JOHN ADAMS, the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS adopted the Massachusetts militia as the Continental Army and appointed Washington commander-in-chief. The war lasted eight and one-half years, and Washington was the American commander for the whole period. The war was not an unrelieved military success on the American side, but the commander did learn to deal with Congress and with foreign allies, and he became, in his own person, the symbol of American national unity. Just before resigning his commission in 1783, he resisted the suggestion that the army, which had been shamefully left unpaid, should overthrow the Congress and establish its own...

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