Washington, George (1732-99), commander in chief of the Continental army during the American Revolution, and later the first president of the United States. He symbolized qualities of discipline, aristocratic duty, military orthodoxy, and persistence in adversity that his contemporaries particularly valued as marks of mature political leadership.
Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the eldest son of Augustine Washington, a Virginia planter, and Mary Ball Washington. Although Washington had little or no formal schooling, his early notebooks indicate that he read in geography, military history, agriculture, deportment, and composition and that he showed some aptitude in surveying and simple mathematics. In later life he developed a style of speech and writing that, although not always polished, was marked by clarity and force. Tall, strong, and fond of action, he was a superb horseman and enjoyed the robust sports and social occasions of the Virginia planter society. At the age of 16 he was invited to join a party to survey lands owned by the Fairfax family (to which he was related by marriage) west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. His journey led him to take a lifelong interest in the development of western lands. In the summer of 1749 he was appointed official surveyor for Culpeper County, and during the next two years he made many surveys for landowners on the Virginia frontier. In 1753 he was appointed adjutant of one of the districts into which Virginia was divided, with the rank of major.
Early Military Experience
Washington played an important role in the struggles preceding the outbreak of the French and Indian War. He was chosen by Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia to deliver an ultimatum calling on French forces to cease their encroachment in the Ohio River valley. The young messenger was also instructed to observe the strength of French forces, the location of their forts, and the routes by which they might be reinforced from Canada. After successfully completing this mission, Washington, then a lieutenant colonel, was ordered to lead a militia force for the protection of workers who were building a fort at the Forks of the Ohio River. Having learned that the French had ousted the work party and renamed the site Fort Duquesne, he entrenched his forces at a camp named Fort Necessity and awaited reinforcements. A successful French assault obliged him to accept articles of surrender, and he departed with the remnants of his company.
Washington resigned his commission in 1754, but in May 1755 he began service as a volunteer aide-de-camp to the British general Edward Braddock, who had been sent to Virginia with a force of British regulars. A few kilometers from Fort Duquesne, Braddock's men were ambushed by a band of French soldiers and Native Americans. Braddock was mortally wounded, and Washington, who behaved gallantly during the conflict, narrowly escaped death. In August 1755 he was appointed (with the rank of colonel) to command the Virginia regiment, charged with the defense of the long western frontier of the colony. War between France and Britain was officially declared in May 1756, and while the principal struggle moved to other areas, Washington succeeded in keeping the Virginia frontier relatively safe.
The American Revolution
After the death of his elder half brother Lawrence, Washington inherited the plantation known as Mount Vernon. A spectacular rise in the price of tobacco during the 1730s and '40s, combined with his marriage in 1759 to Martha Custis, a young widow with a large estate, made him one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. Elected to the House of Burgesses in 1758, he served conscientiously but without special distinction for 17 years. He also gained political and administrative experience as justice of the peace for Fairfax County.
Like other Virginia planters, Washington became alarmed by the repressive measures of the British crown and Parliament in the 1760s and early '70s. In July 1774 he presided over a meeting in Alexandria that adopted the Fairfax Resolves, calling for the establishment and enforcement of a stringent boycott on British imports prior to similar action by the First Continental Congress. Together with his service in the House of Burgesses, his public response to unpopular British policies won Washington election