GEORGE WASHINGTON | 1789-1797
On April 30, 1789, George Washington became 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 February 22, 1732 into a Virginia planter family, Washington pursued two interests: military arts and western expansion. At 16 he helped survey Shenandoah lands. In 1754, he fought the first skirmishes of the French and Indian War. He escaped injury although four bullets ripped his coat and two horses were shot from under him.
From 1759 to the outbreak of the American Revolution, Washington managed his lands at Mount Vernon and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He devoted himself to a busy life. Like his fellow planters, Washington felt exploited by British merchants and regulations. He moderately but firmly voiced his resistance to the restrictions.
When the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in May 1775, Washington was elected commander in chief of the Continental Army. He took his ill-trained troops and embarked upon a war that lasted six grueling years. 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 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 him president.
He did not infringe upon the policy-making powers he felt the Constitution gave Congress. But the determination of foreign policy became a preponderantly presidential concern. When the French Revolution led to a major war between France and England, Washington 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. Weary of politics, he retired at the end of his second. In his Farewell Address, he urged his countrymen to forswear any excessive party spirit and geographical distinctions. In foreign affairs, he warned against long-term alliances.
Washington enjoyed less than three years of retirement at Mount Vernon, where he died of a throat infection on December 14, 1799.
Permission granted to re-post by The White House Historical Association