Who was George Washington? That question isn’t as easily answered as you might think. Washington assumed various titles and positions throughout his life – many of which contradicted each other. He was a slave owner, a military leader with many failures on his record, a founding father of the United States, and America’s very first president.
Centuries after his passing, Washington holds an almost sacred, deified place in American history for many people. For others, he is an incredibly contentious figure who has not properly been taken to task. Today, we’re presenting the facts about George Washington’s life and legacy. Whether or not he was a hero, a villain, or some mixture of both will be entirely up to you to decide.
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Virginia. George’s father, Augustine Washington, was a county sheriff and a justice of the peace (JP), as well as a plantation and slave owner. Augustine suddenly passed away in 1743, leaving Lawrence Washington, George’s older brother, as the heir of his estate and affairs. George, conversely, received both a classical education at home and a practical education among the planters and backwoodsmen he associated with. He learned farming and surveying from these men and became the official surveyor of Culpeper County at age 17.
At age 19, Lawrence contracted tuberculosis. Unsure of how to treat the illness, George took his brother on a trip to Barbatos – hoping that a change of scenery would improve Lawrence’s condition. However, Lawrence’s condition worsened until he passed away in 1752. When George returned to Virginia, he succeeded his father and older brother as the head of the Washington estate. He also assumed ownership of the family’s plantations and hundreds of slaves.
George sought to join the Colonial Militia when he was 21 years old. Likely due to his family’s reputation, Washington was accepted and quickly granted the rank of Major. He participated in the “Battle of Jumonville Glen” – the first major engagement of the French and Indian War (aka the “Seven Years’ War”) – by staging an assault on the French forces via the counsel of Tanacharison, the chief of the Seneca tribe. Washington and his men slew scores of French soldiers, including their Commander Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. Washington gained much reverence from the Colonial forces, but he also stoked the fires of the French and Indian War.
March 5, 1770 marks a significant date in Washington’s life and in American history. What started as a fistfight between British soldiers and Colonial citizens evolved (or devolved) into the Boston Massacre. 5 Americans were shot down by British forces, the first of which was Crispus Attucks – a mixed-race former slave turned soldier. The American Revolution would officially begin on April 19, 1775 – and George Washington would soon become embroiled in another military campaign.
Delegates from the original Thirteen American Colonies held the Second Continental Congress on May 10, 1775. Washington represented Virginia, but he was the only attendee to wear a military uniform to the meeting. Many believe that Congress appointed Washington as the General & Commander in chief of the Continental Army because of his attire, his height (he was 6′ 2″ at the time), and his prior military experience.
American Independence and Presidential Term
Washington would participate in a myriad of battles, sieges, ambushes, and skirmishes over the next seven years – attaining notable victories (such as the Battles of Trenton and Princeton) and suffering crushing defeats (namely two back-to-back losses at Long Island and Kip’s Bay). Ultimately, Washington’s pragmatism, experience, alliances with Indian and French forces, and command of over 231,000 Continental soldiers (between 5,000 to 8,000 of which were Black) helped the Colonies gain their independence from Britain.
No longer bound to Britain, Congress sought to establish the United States of America – and appoint its first President – as quickly as possible. The Articles of Confederation was drafted in 1777 and ratified in 1781, though its inadequacies (no national army, no executive branch, etc.) proved too great to ignore. Congress replaced the articles with the Constitution of the United States in 1787. They were confident that they had created a stronger document that protected and included “all people” – thought Black Americans, Indigenous people, women, LGBTQ+ people, and many other minority groups were ill-represented by the Constitution.
Nevertheless, George Washington and 38 other delegates signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787. Washington was unanimously elected as the first President of the United States on April 30, 1789. During his tenure, he set a number of precedents in place; Washington normalized the concept of a presidential cabinet, signed the first copyright law into effect, and was adamant that Presidents only serve for two terms at maximum.
George Washington passed away on December 14, 1799, leaving behind no known biological children. Washington’s colleagues and admirers extolled his virtues and cemented him as the “Father of our Country.” However, others were critical of his actions – and inactions – as President. Washington never officially put an end to slavery, despite the thousands of Black soldiers he commanded and his own disillusionment with forced and indentured servitude. Washington also purportedly had numerous affairs and problematic interactions with women, and his relationships with Indigenous peoples were tenuous at best.
Who precisely was George Washington? People are debating that question to this day. And perhaps that’s how things should be; perhaps people should continue to reevaluate the actions, beliefs, and legacy of America’s first President as time and academic discourse progress. And maybe we can continue to acknowledge his deeds and misdeeds much more openly and critically.