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George Washington

George Washington, born February 22, 1732 in Virginia, was a natural leader, instrumental in creating a united nation out of a conglomeration of struggling colonies and territories. The first president of the United States of America is affectionately honored as "the father of his country."

Shortly after his twenty-second birthday, Washington served in the army of King George III of England and was put in command of a troop of soldiers. The French were settling on British soil and turning the local Indians against the British colonists. Later, in the war against the French and Indians, Washington commanded large troops of soldiers and showed courage that inspired all his soldiers.

At this time, King George III of England dominated the thirteen colonies along the east coast and much of the surrounding territories. Colonists began to want their freedom, and live with a set of rules based on democracy, not under the rule of a faraway king. The Boston Tea Party of 1773, a colonial rebellion against taxes, helped to spark the American Revolution. Washington led and encouraged his inexperienced armies against the British forces for eight years until the colonies won their independence.

Laws for the new country were written into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The laws called for a President, and here again George Washington was considered the natural choice. He agreed to serve his country as the first President. George Washington moved from Mount Vernon, his family home south of Alexandria, Virginia, to New York City, then the capital of the United States. The trip took a week by horse and carriage. All along the way, people waited eagerly to glimpse the Revolutionary War general and their first President.

Washington was a reluctant leader. As he inspired his soldiers through two wars, he saw himself serving his country, not leading it. When he accepted two terms as president, he saw himself serving God and his country in peacetime. He turned down a third term as president, wishing only to retire to his beautiful family home, Mount Vernon.

Americans celebrated Washington's birthday while he was still alive. They were grateful for a strong leader who had proven that democracy was a feasible way to govern the growing country. And, while he was alive, legends grew up about him. The most famous one says that he was so strong, he threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. Some Americans argue that this is a true story. Parts of the Potomac River, they say, were extremely narrow a few hundred years ago! Another story which has never been proven, but Americans pass down to their children as a lesson:

When George Washington was young, his father gave him a hatchet. He tried to cut down a cherry tree with it. His father noticed the cuts on the tree, and asked his son how they got there. "I cannot tell a lie," George said, "I did it with my hatchet." Perhaps George Washington had no hatchet, and perhaps there were no cherry trees where he grew up. However, George Washington today represents honesty, and cherry pies have become a favorite food associated with his birthday.

Various communities observe the holiday by staging pageants and reenactments of important milestones in Washington's life. Also, the holiday has taken on another side, much more commercial in nature. Many shopping malls and stores run Presidents' Day sales to attract shoppers who have the day off from work or school.

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The White House

While in office, George Washington held a contest for the best architectural design of a "President's Palace." Among the competitors was Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and an architect.

His design was entered anonymously, sighed only with the initials "A. Z." It didn't win. An Irish architect named James Hoban won $500, a piece of land, and of course the honor of having his plans used in the final design.

Americans called it the "President's House" because the word "palace" reminded them of the monarchy that they recently broke away from. The official name was the "Executive Mansion" from 1818-1902. Today it is called simply "The White House." Some historians say that people began calling it the White House because it was painted white after being restored after it had been burned by the British in 1812. Another legend is that George Washington named it after his wife's house in the state of Virginia.

The first president never had the chance to stay there. Washington died on December 14, 1799, one year before the White House was completed during the Presidency of John Adams. In 1806, Thomas Jefferson had another chance at designing the White House when he moved in as third President. Much of the house and Jefferson's additions were destroyed in the War of 1812. When it was rebuilt, however, James Hoban supervised the work. The White House was redecorated in 1881 and again in 1902 by the current presidents, and each change reflected the style of the times. It was completely renovated in 1949 when Harry S. Truman was President.

In 1960 when John Kennedy became President, his wife Jacqueline redecorated the White House to display the beauty of American furnishings and art. The gardens outside were beautified and enlarged. Since then the presidents' wives have continued to maintain their home in a tasteful style.

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George Washington

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.

The Making of a President

Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the eldest son of Augustine Washington (died 1743), a member of the colonial aristocracy, and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington (1708-89). After his father's death, he moved to Mount Vernon, a large estate in Fairfax County, the home of his elder half brother Lawrence (1718-52).

Although Washington had little or no formal schooling, his early notebooks indicate that he read widely 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, strongly built, and fond of action, he was a superb horseman and enjoyed the robust sports and social occasions of the planter society in which he moved. At the age of 17 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.

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The American Revolution

After the death of his half brother Lawrence, Washington inherited 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 more than a decade. He also gained wide legal 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 as a Virginia delegate to the First Continental Congress in September and October 1774 and to the Second Continental Congress the following year.

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The Opening Campaigns of the War

When fighting broke out between Massachusetts and the British in 1775, Congress named Washington commander of its newly created Continental army, hoping thus to promote unity between New England and Virginia. He took command of the makeshift force besieging the British in Boston in mid-July, and when the enemy evacuated the city in March 1776, he moved his army to New York. Defeated there in August by a superior force under Sir William Howe, he withdrew from Manhattan to establish a new defensive line north of New York City. In November he retreated across the Hudson River into New Jersey, and a month later crossed the Delaware to safety in Pennsylvania.

Although demoralized by Howe's easy capture of New York City and northern New Jersey, Washington spotted the points where the British were overextended. Recrossing the icy Delaware on the night of December 25, 1776, he captured Trenton in a surprise attack the following morning, and on January 3, 1777, he defeated British troops at Princeton. These two engagements restored patriot morale, and by spring Washington had 8000 new recruits. Impressed by such tenacity, Howe delayed moving against Washington until late August, when he landed an army at the head of Chesapeake Bay. The American commander tried unsuccessfully to block Howe's advance toward Philadelphia at the Battle of Brandywine Creek in September. Following the British occupation of the city, he fought a minor battle with them at Germantown, but their superior numbers forced him to retreat. Washington and his men spent the following winter at Valley Forge, west of Philadelphia. During these months, when his fortunes seemed to have reached their lowest point, he thwarted a plan by his enemies in Congress and the army to have him removed as commander in chief (see Conway Cabal).

In June 1778, after France's entry into the war on the American side, the new British commander, Sir Henry Clinton, evacuated Philadelphia and marched overland to New York; Washington attacked him at Monmouth, New Jersey, but was again repulsed. Washington blamed the defeat on General Charles Lee's insubordination during the battle the climax of a long-brewing rivalry between the two men.

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Washington spent the next two years in relative inactivity with his army encamped in a long semicircle around the British bastion of New York City from Connecticut to New Jersey. The arrival in 1780 of about 6000 French troops in Rhode Island under the comte de Rochambeau augmented his forces, but the weak U.S. government was approaching bankruptcy, and Washington knew that he had to defeat the British in 1781 or see his army disintegrate. He hoped for a combined American-French assault on New York, but in August he received word that a French fleet was proceeding to Cheseapeake Bay for a combined land and sea operation against another British army in Virginia, and reluctantly agreed to march south.

Washington and Rochambeau's movement of 7000 troops, half of them French, from New York State to Virginia in less than five weeks was a masterpiece of execution. Washington sent word ahead to the marquis de Lafayette, commanding American forces in Virginia, to keep the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, from leaving his base of operations at Yorktown. At the end of September the Franco-American army joined Lafayette. Outnumbering the enemy by two to one, and with 36 French ships offshore to prevent Yorktown from being relieved by sea, Washington forced Cornwallis to surrender in October after a brief siege.

Although peace and British recognition of United States independence did not come until the Paris Peace Treaty, Yorktown proved to be the last battle of the American Revolution.

After leaving office in 1797, Washington retired to Mount Vernon, where he died on December 14, 1799.

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More About George Washington

George Washington was commander in chief of the Continental army during the American Revolution and first president of the United States (1789-97).

Early Life and Career

Born in Westmoreland County, Va., on Feb. 22, 1732, George Washington was the eldest son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington, who were prosperous Virginia gentry of English descent. George spent his early years on the family estate on Pope's Creek along the Potomac River. His early education included the study of such subjects as mathematics, surveying, the classics, and "rules of civility." His father died in 1743, and soon thereafter George went to live with his half brother Lawrence at Mount Vernon, Lawrence's plantation on the Potomac. Lawrence, who became something of a substitute father for his brother, had married into the Fairfax family, prominent and influential Virginians who helped launch George's career. An early ambition to go to sea had been effectively discouraged by George's mother; instead, he turned to surveying, securing (1748) an appointment to survey Lord Fairfax's lands in the Shenandoah Valley. He helped lay out the Virginia town of Belhaven (now Alexandria) in 1749 and was appointed surveyor for Culpeper County. George accompanied his brother to Barbados in an effort to cure Lawrence of tuberculosis, but Lawrence died in 1752, soon after the brothers returned. George ultimately inherited the Mount Vernon estate.

By 1753 the growing rivalry between the British and French over control of the Ohio Valley, soon to erupt into the French and Indian War (1754-63), created new opportunities for the ambitious young Washington. He first gained public notice when, as adjutant of one of Virginia's four military districts, he was dispatched (October 1753) by Gov. Robert Dinwiddie on a fruitless mission to warn the French commander at Fort Le Boeuf against further encroachment on territory claimed by Britain. Washington's diary account of the dangers and difficulties of his journey, published at Williamsburg on his return, may have helped win him his ensuing promotion to lieutenant colonel. Although only 22 years of age and lacking experience, he learned quickly, meeting the problems of recruitment, supply, and desertions with a combination of brashness and native ability that earned him the respect of his superiors.

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French and Indian War

In April 1754, on his way to establish a post at the Forks of the Ohio (the current site of Pittsburgh), Washington learned that the French had already erected a fort there. Warned that the French were advancing, he quickly threw up fortifications at Great Meadows, Pa., aptly naming the entrenchment Fort Necessity, and marched to intercept advancing French troops. In the resulting skirmish the French commander the sieur de Jumonville was killed and most of his men were captured. Washington pulled his small force back into Fort Necessity where he was overwhelmed (July 3) by the French in an all-day battle fought in a drenching rain. Surrounded by enemy troops, with his food supply almost exhausted and his dampened ammunition useless, Washington capitulated. Under the terms of the surrender signed that day, he was permitted to march his troops back to Williamsburg.

Discouraged by his defeat and angered by discrimination between British and colonial officers in rank and pay, he resigned his commission near the end of 1754. The next year, however, he volunteered to join British general Edward Braddock's expedition against the French. When Braddock was ambushed by the French and their Indian allies on the Monongahela River, Washington, although seriously ill, tried to rally the Virginia troops. Whatever public criticism attended the debacle, Washington's own military reputation was enhanced, and in 1755, at the age of 23, he was promoted to colonel and appointed commander in chief of the Virginia militia, with responsibility for defending the frontier. In 1758 he took an active part in Gen. John Forbes's successful campaign against Fort Duquesne. From his correspondence during these years, Washington can be seen evolving from a brash, vain, and opinionated young officer, impatient with restraints and given to writing admonitory letters to his superiors, to a mature soldier with a grasp of administration and a firm understanding of how to deal effectively with civil authority.

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Virginia Politician

Assured that the Virginia frontier was safe from French attack, Washington left the army in 1758 and returned to Mount Vernon, directing his attention toward restoring his neglected estate. He erected new buildings, refurnished the house, and experimented with new crops. With the support of an ever-growing circle of influential friends, he entered politics, serving (1759-74) in Virginia's House of Burgesses. 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 opposition to Great Britain's colonial policies. At first he hoped for reconciliation with Britain, although some British policies had touched him personally. Discrimination against colonial military officers had rankled deeply, and British land policies and restrictions on western expansion after 1763 had seriously hindered his plans for western land speculation. In addition, he shared the usual planter's dilemma in being continually in debt to his London agents. As a delegate (1774-75) to the First and Second Continental Congress, Washington did not participate actively in the deliberations, but his presence was undoubtedly a stabilizing influence. In June 1775 he was Congress's unanimous choice as commander in chief of the Continental forces.

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American Revolution

Washington took command of the troops surrounding British-occupied Boston on July 3, devoting the next few months to training the undisciplined 14,000-man army and trying to secure urgently needed powder and other supplies. Early in March 1776, using cannon brought down from Ticonderoga by Henry Knox, Washington occupied Dorchester Heights, effectively commanding the city and forcing the British to evacuate on March 17. He then moved to defend New York City against the combined land and sea forces of Sir William Howe. In New York he committed a military blunder by occupying an untenable position in Brooklyn, although he saved his army by skillfully retreating from Manhattan into Westchester County and through New Jersey into Pennsylvania. In the last months of 1776, desperately short of men and supplies, Washington almost despaired. He had lost New York City to the British; enlistment was almost up for a number of the troops, and others were deserting in droves; civilian morale was falling rapidly; and Congress, faced with the possibility of a British attack on Philadelphia, had withdrawn from the city.

Colonial morale was briefly revived by the capture of Trenton, N.J., a brilliantly conceived attack in which Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776 and surprised the predominantly Hessian garrison. Advancing to Princeton, N.J., he routed the British there on Jan. 3, 1777, but in September and October 1777 he suffered serious reverses in Pennsylvania--at Brandywine and Germantown. The major success of that year--the defeat (October 1777) of the British at Saratoga, N.Y.--had belonged not to Washington but to Benedict Arnold and Horatio Gates. The contrast between Washington's record and Gates's brilliant victory was one factor that led to the so-called Conway Cabal--an intrigue by some members of Congress and army officers to replace Washington with a more successful commander, probably Gates. Washington acted quickly, and the plan eventually collapsed due to lack of public support as well as to Washington's overall superiority to his rivals. After holding his bedraggled and dispirited army together during the difficult winter at Valley Forge, Washington learned that France had recognized American independence. With the aid of the Prussian Baron von Steuben and the French marquis de LaFayette, he concentrated on turning the army into a viable fighting force, and by spring he was ready to take the field again. In June 1778 he attacked the British near Monmouth Courthouse, N.J., on their withdrawal from Philadelphia to New York. Although American general Charles Lee's lack of enterprise ruined Washington's plan to strike a major blow at Sir Henry Clinton's army at Monmouth, the commander in chief's quick action on the field prevented an American defeat.

In 1780 the main theater of the war shifted to the south. Although the campaigns in Virginia and the Carolinas were conducted by other generals, including Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan, Washington was still responsible for the overall direction of the war. After the arrival of the French army in 1780 he concentrated on coordinating allied efforts and in 1781 launched, in cooperation with the comte de Rochambeau and the comte d'Estaing, the brilliantly planned and executed Yorktown Campaign against Charles Cornwallis, securing (Oct. 19, 1781) the American victory.

Washington had grown enormously in stature during the war. A man of unquestioned integrity, he began by accepting the advice of more experienced officers such as Gates and Charles Lee, but he quickly learned to trust his own judgment. He sometimes railed at Congress for its failure to supply troops and for the bungling fiscal measures that frustrated his efforts to secure adequate materiel. Gradually, however, he developed what was perhaps his greatest strength in a society suspicious of the military--his ability to deal effectively with civil authority. Whatever his private opinions, his relations with Congress and with the state governments were exemplary--despite the fact that his wartime powers sometimes amounted to dictatorial authority. On the battlefield Washington relied on a policy of trial and error, eventually becoming a master of improvisation. Often accused of being overly cautious, he could be bold when success seemed possible. He learned to use the short-term militia skillfully and to combine green troops with veterans to produce an efficient fighting force.

After the war Washington returned to Mount Vernon, which had declined in his absence. Although he became president of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of former Revolutionary War officers, he avoided involvement in Virginia politics. Preferring to concentrate on restoring Mount Vernon, he added a greenhouse, a mill, an icehouse, and new land to the estate. He experimented with crop rotation, bred hunting dogs and horses, investigated the development of Potomac River navigation, undertook various commercial ventures, and traveled (1784) west to examine his land holdings near the Ohio River. His diary notes a steady stream of visitors, native and foreign; Mount Vernon, like its owner, had already become a national institution.

In May 1787, Washington headed the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convension in Philadelphia and was unanimously elected presiding officer. His presence lent prestige to the proceedings, and although he made few direct contributions, he generally supported the advocates of a strong central government. After the new Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification and became legally operative, he was unanimously elected president (1789).

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The Presidency

Taking office (Apr. 30, 1789) in New York City, Washington acted carefully and deliberately, aware of the need to build an executive structure that could accommodate future presidents. Hoping to prevent sectionalism from dividing the new nation, he toured the New England states (1789) and the South (1791). An able administrator, he nevertheless failed to heal the widening breach between factions led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Because he supported many of Hamilton's controversial fiscal policies--the assumption of state debts, the Bank of the United States, and the excise tax--Washington became the target of attacks by Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.

Washington was reelected president in 1792, and the following year the most divisive crisis arising out of the personal and political conflicts within his cabinet occurred--over the issue of American neutrality during the war between England and France. Washington, whose policy of neutrality angered the pro-French Jeffersonians, was horrified by the excesses of the French Revolution and enraged by the tactics of Edmond Genet, the French minister in the United States, which amounted to foreign interference in American politics. Further, with an eye toward developing closer commercial ties with the British, the president agreed with the Hamiltonians on the need for peace with Great Britain. His acceptance of the 1794 Jay's Treaty, which settled outstanding differences between the United States and Britain but which Democratic-Republicans viewed as an abject surrender to British demands, revived vituperation against the president, as did his vigorous upholding of the excise law during the WHISKEY REBELLION in western Pennsylvania.

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Retirement and Assessment

By March 1797, when Washington left office, the country's financial system was well established; the Indian threat east of the Mississippi had been largely eliminated; and Jay's Treaty and Pinckney's Treaty (1795) with Spain had enlarged U.S. territory and removed serious diplomatic difficulties. In spite of the animosities and conflicting opinions between Democratic-Republicans and members of the Hamiltonian Federalist party, the two groups were at least united in acceptance of the new federal government. Washington refused to run for a third term and, after a masterly Farewell Address in which he warned the United States against permanent alliances abroad, he went home to Mount Vernon. He was succeeded by his vice-president, Federalist John Adams.

Although Washington reluctantly accepted command of the army in 1798 when war with France seemed imminent, he did not assume an active role. He preferred to spend his last years in happy retirement at Mount Vernon. In mid-December, Washington contracted what was probably quinsy or acute laryngitis; he declined rapidly and died at his estate on Dec. 14, 1799.

Even during his lifetime, Washington loomed large in the national imagination. His role as a symbol of American virtue was enhanced after his death by Mason L. Weems, in an edition of whose Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington (c.1800) first appeared such legends as the story about the cherry tree. Later biographers of note included Washington Irving (5 vols., 1855-59) and Woodrow Wilson (1896). Washington's own works have been published in various editions, including The Diaries of George Washington, edited by Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig (6 vols., 1976-79), and The Writings of George Washington, 1745-1799, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick (39 vols., 1931-44).

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Ode [For General Washington's Birthday]
By Robert Burns
(a proud Scotsman and lover of freedom and liberty)

No Spartan tube, no Attic shell,
No lyre Eolian I awake;
'Tis Liberty's bold note I swell,
They harp, Columbia, let me take.
See gathering thousands, while I sing,
A broken chain, exulting, bring,
And dash it in a tyrant's face!
And dare him to his very beard,
And tell him, he no more is feared,
No more the Despot of Columbia's race.
A tyrant's proudest insults braved,
They shout, a People freed! They hail an Empire saved.

Where is Man's godlike form?
Where is that brow erect and bold,
That eye that can, unmoved, behold
The wildest rage, the loudest storm,
That e'er created fury dared to raise!
Avaunt! thou caitiff, servile, base,
That tremblest at a Despot's nod,
Yet, crouching under th' iron rod,
Canst laud the arm that struck th' insulting blow!
Art thou of man's imperial line?
Dost boat that countenance divine?
Each sculing feature answers, No!
but come, ye sons of Liberty,
Columbia's offspring, brave as free,
In danger's hour still flaming in the van:
Ye know, and dare maintain, The Royalty of Man.

Alfred, on thy starry throne,
Surrounded by the tuneful choir,
The Bards that erst have stuck the patriot lyre,
And roused the freeborn Briton's sout of fire,
No more thy England own.--
Dare injured nations form the great design,
To make detested tyrants bleed?
Thy England execrates the glorious deed!
Beneath her hostile banner waving,
Every pang of honor braving,
England in thunders calls--'The Tyrant's cause is mine!'
That hour accurst, how did the fiends rejoice,
And hell thro' all her confines raise th' exulting voice,
That hour which saw the generous English name
Linkt with such damned deed of everlasting shame!

Thee, Caledonia, thy wild heaths among,
Famed for the martial deed, the heaven-taught song,
To thee, I turn with swimming eyes.--
Where is that soul of Freedom fled?
Immingled with the mighty Dead!
Beneath that hallowed turf where Wallace lies!
Hear it not, Wallace, in they bed of death!
Ye babbling winds in silence sweep;
Disturb not ye the hero's sleep,
Nor give the coward secret breath.--
Is this the ancient Caledonian form,
Firm as her rock, resistless as her storm?
Shew me that eye which shot immortal hate,
Blasting the Despot's proudest bearing:
Shew me that arm which, nerved with thundering fate,
Braved Usurpation's boldest daring!
Dark-quenched as yonder sinking star,
No more that glance lightens afar;
That palsied arm no more whirls on the waste of war.

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