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Home > History & Tours > Past Presidents > George Washington
On April 30, 1789, George Washington, standing on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall
Street in New York, took his oath of office as the first President of the United
States. "As the first of every thing, in our situation will serve to establish a
Precedent," he wrote James Madison, "it is devoutly wished on my part, that these
precedents may be fixed on true principles."
Born in 1732 into a Virginia planter family, he learned the morals, manners, and body
of knowledge requisite for an 18th century Virginia gentleman.
He pursued two intertwined interests: military arts and western expansion. At 16 he
helped survey Shenandoah lands for Thomas, Lord Fairfax. Commissioned a lieutenant
colonel in 1754, he fought the first skirmishes of what grew into the French and
Indian War. The next year, as an aide to Gen. Edward Braddock, he escaped injury
although four bullets ripped his coat and two horses were shot from under him.
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From 1759 to the outbreak of the American Revolution, Washington managed his lands
around Mount Vernon and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Married to a
widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, he devoted himself to a busy and happy life. But like
his fellow planters, Washington felt himself exploited by British merchants and
hampered by British regulations. As the quarrel with the mother country grew acute,
he moderately but firmly voiced his resistance to the restrictions.
When the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in May 1775,
Washington, one of the Virginia delegates, was elected Commander in Chief of the
Continental Army. On July 3, 1775, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, he took command of
his ill-trained troops and embarked upon a war that was to last six grueling years.
He realized early that the best strategy was to harass the British. He reported to
Congress, "we should on all Occasions avoid a general Action, or put anything to the
Risque, unless compelled by a necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn."
Ensuing battles saw him fall back slowly, then strike unexpectedly. Finally in 1781
with the aid of French allies--he forced the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Washington longed to retire to his fields at Mount Vernon. But he soon realized that
the Nation under its Articles of Confederation was not functioning well, so he became
a prime mover in the steps leading to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia
in 1787. When the new Constitution was ratified, the Electoral College unanimously
elected Washington President
He did not infringe upon the policy making powers that he felt the Constitution gave
Congress. But the determination of foreign policy became preponderantly a
Presidential concern. When the French Revolution led to a major war between France
and England, Washington refused to accept entirely the recommendations of either his
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who was pro-French, or his Secretary of the
Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who was pro-British. Rather, he insisted upon a neutral
course until the United States could grow stronger.
To his disappointment, two parties were developing by the end of his first term.
Wearied of politics, feeling old, he retired at the end of his second. In his
Farewell Address, he urged his countrymen to forswear excessive party spirit and
geographical distinctions. In foreign affairs, he warned against long-term
Washington enjoyed less than three years of retirement at Mount Vernon, for he died
of a throat infection December 14, 1799. For months the Nation mourned him.
For more information about President George Washington, please visit
George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
United in Service
Take a look at presidential biographies made by kids and videos about service from
the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation.
Born: February 22, 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia
Died: December 14, 1799 in Mount Vernon, Virginia
Married to Martha Dandridge Washington
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