Key Facts About George Washington

General of the Continental Army:

June 15, 1775 to December 23, 1783

President of the United States:

April 30, 1789 to March 4, 1797

BIRTH DATE: 1732 at Pope’s Creek, Virginia

DEATH DATE: 1799 at Mount Vernon, Virginia (Age 67)

HEIGHT: 6′ 2″ (1.879m)

WEIGHT: 174lbs (79kg) in 1760

WIFE: Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (Married in 1759)

CHILDREN: None

RELIGION: Anglican/Episcopalian

POLITICAL AFFILIATION: None

Learn More: Washington’s Biography

Learn More: Interactive Timeline

★ George Washington was born at Pope’s Creek in 1732

George Washington was born on February 22,  1732 (February 11, 1731/2 Old Style) at Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland  County, Virginia, about 40 miles south of Mount Vernon.  His  great-grandfather came to America from England in 1657 aboard a ship  named Sea Horse of London.

★ George Washington did not have a middle name

Surprising to some, George Washington did not have a middle name.

★ George Washington did not attend college

The death of Washington’s father in 1743  ended George’s formal education.  Unlike his father and two older  half-brothers, lack of money prevented the boy from studying in England,  and unlike many of the Founding Fathers, Washington did not attend  college.  Always sensitive to this lack of formal education, Washington  embarked upon a lifelong pursuit of self-education.  Washington was an  avid reader and was continually seeking the latest texts on a variety of  subjects ranging from military arts to agriculture and political  topics.

One of George Washington's surveying instruments in the collection at Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon Ladies' Assocaition)One of George Washington’s surveying instruments in the collection at Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

★ George Washington learned to be a surveyor

Eager to learn a new and important trade,  George Washington read mathematical texts to learn the geometric  principles necessary for surveying.  At seventeen years of age and  largely through the Fairfax influence that he had cultivated, Washington secured an appointment as  county surveyor for the newly created frontier county of Culpeper,  Virginia. He was well on his way to a successful and profitable career.  Not only did he receive substantial fees fur surveying, but he  discovered firsthand an ability to identify and select the best plots of  land for purchase, an especially important consideration in colonial  America, where land equaled power.

Learn More:  Washington the Surveyor

★ George Washington did not throw a silver dollar across the Potomac

This myth is frequently told to demonstrate  Washington’s considerable physical strength.  The Potomac River is over a  mile wide at Mount Vernon and even George Washington did not have the  arm to fling a silver dollar that far.  Moreover, there were no silver  dollars when Washington was a young man.  His step-grandson reported  that Washington once threw a piece of slate across the Rappahannock  River in Fredericksburg, which is much narrower, and that may be the  origin of this story.

★ Washington wanted to join the Royal Navy, but his mother would not let him

In September 1746, George’s half-brother  Lawrence and his friend and mentor Colonel William Fairfax, hatched a  plan for the 14 year old that would have him joining a Royal Navy  frigate anchored along the Virginia shore as a midshipmen.  George, who  valued his older half-brother and mentor’s advice, was prepared to seek  his mother, Mary Washington’s, approval.   Mary, who sought out the  advice of neighbors and relations in England, became convinced that this  was not a prudent career move for young George and withheld her  all-important permission.  Whether this decision came from reasoned  analysis or a desire to retain her eldest son on the Fredericksburg  farm, Mary Washington did the American cause a great service in  withholding her approval.

Island of Barbados - the only location outside of North America that Washington traveled to  (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)

Island of Barbados – the only location outside of North America that Washington traveled to (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

★ Washington contracted smallpox while visiting Barbados with his half-brother Lawrence

In 1751 George Washington accompanied his older half-brother Lawrence to the island of Barbados – the only foreign  country that Washington would visit during his lifetime.  It was hoped  that the tropical climate of this British island would help cure  Lawrence of his tuberculosis.  The stay in Barbados proved to be a  challenging one for both of the Washingtons.  Lawrence found the  oppressive heat miserable to bear and the climate did not improve his  condition.  And Washington on November 17, 1751 contracted smallpox on the island.  Fortunately for young George Washington, not only was  he able to recover from the affliction, but he also inherited, as a  result, a life-long immunity to this dreaded killer for the rest of his  life.  This would become crucial in the American Revolution, when the  country was threatened by a smallpox epidemic.

Learn More:  Washington’s Decision to Inoculate the Army

★ Washington inherited his first slaves at age 11

George Washington inherited ten slaves from  his father when he was just 11 years old.  By the end of Washington’s  life, over 300 African American slaves lived in bondage at Mount Vernon.

Learn More:  Slavery at Mount Vernon

★ Washington inherited Mount Vernon in 1761

George Washington did not inherit Mount  Vernon until after his elder half-brother Lawrence Washington passed  away in 1752, and both of the intervening heirs had died.  Following the  death of Lawrence’s young daughter Sarah in 1754, he began renting  Mount Vernon from Lawrence’s widow, Ann, who had remarried and moved  away. The estate became George Washington’s when Ann died in 1761.  By  the end of his life, Washington expanded his land holdings at Mount  Vernon to 8,000 acres, with 3,000 acres under cultivation.

★ In 1754 Washington led an attack that started a world war

Directed to press Virginia and Britain’s  claim to the Ohio country to the French, George Washington led a force  of soldiers from the Virginia Regiment and Native-American warriors to  Jumonville Glen in Pennsylvania on May 28, 1754.   While both sides  claim the other side fired first, Washington’s forces killed many of the  French soldiers camped beneath the rocks.   This attack in the back  woods of the Ohio Country is considered to be the trigger event for the  Seven Years’ War  – a war that would quickly escalate into a world war  stretching to Europe, West Africa, India and the Philippines.

Panoramic view of Jumonville Glen.  Washington's attack on French and allied Native-American warriors at this site in 1754 initiated the French & Indian War  (Rob Shenk)

Panoramic view of Jumonville Glen. Washington’s attack on French and allied Native-American warriors at this site in 1754 initiated the French & Indian War (Rob Shenk)

Learn More:  Washington in the French & Indian War

★ Washington was known as an energetic and excellent dancer

Dancing was considered an important part of  the social fabric of 18th century life.  And as George Washington’s  social stature began to rise, the number of balls, cotillions, parties,  and dances he was invited to also rose considerably.  Young Washington,  blessed with an athletic frame, quickly came to love dancing and there  are many accounts of his dancing throughout the night with an array of  female guests.

Video:  The Social George Washington

★ Washington was first elected to public office in 1758

George Washington served in the Virginia House of Burgesses for fifteen years before the American Revolution. After a failed bid  for a seat in December 1755, he won election in 1758 and represented  Frederick County until 1761. That year he ran in Fairfax County, winning  a seat which he would retain until 1775. During his tenure, Washington  was not an outspoken burgess, nor did he introduce expansive or  innovative legislation. Meeting in Williamsburg with elder statesmen  such as John Robinson, Peyton Randolph, and George Wythe, as well as  newer burgesses such as George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson, Washington learned to navigate political spheres and began his lessons in statecraft.

Learn More:  Washington in the House of Burgesses

★ Washington was considered by some to be the best horseman of his time

Widely acknowledged as a pre-eminent  equestrian, it was Thomas Jefferson who described George Washington as  “the best horseman” of his time.  Washington may have developed his  riding skills during the many fox hunts that he participated in as a  young man.  Washington usually trained his own horses, even as commander  in chief.

Martha Dandridge Custis, by Adrian Lamb, 1981, after John Wollaston (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

★ Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759

On January 6th, 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis,  a charming and vivacious young widow from the Tidewater area of  Virginia. Martha brought enormous wealth, along with two small children,  “Jacky” and “Patsy,” to the marriage.  It was her second marriage and his first.

Learn More:  Martha Washington

★ Washington suffered from dental problems all his adult life

Despite his legendary physical strength and  iron constitution, George Washington’s failing teeth were a source of  regular suffering. At age 24, Washington recorded in his diary that he  paid 5 shillings to a “Doctr Watson” who removed one of his teeth.  Letters and diary entries later in his life make regular reference to  aching teeth, lost teeth, inflamed gums, ill-fitting dentures, and a  host of other dental miseries. Payments to dentists and purchases of  toothbrushes, tongue scrapers, dental tools, toothache medication, and  cleaning solutions are also regularly present in Washington’s  communications throughout his life.

Learn More:  10 Facts about Washington’s Teeth

★ Washington did not have children of his own

While Washington was fond of children, he  and Martha did not have any children of their own.  Martha Washington  brought two children, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis, into  the union from her previous marriage.  Many have speculated as to why  Martha and George could not have children, but it is impossible to know  exactly why the couple was childless.  Despite that fact, there were  always children in the Washington household throughout their marriage.   Together they raised Mrs. Washington’s two children, as well as two of  her four grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews.  A  great-grandchild was born at Mount Vernon just two weeks before George  Washington’s death.

View of the reconstructed 16-Sided Barn at the Pioneer Farm site on the Mount Vernon estate. (Rob Shenk)

★ Washington was called the “foremost farmer” of America

An Englishman described Washington as the  “foremost farmer” in America after visiting Mount Vernon.  Washington,  who believed that America should become a “granary to the world,” was a  pioneer in improving many aspects of farming.  His advanced crop  rotations, use of fertilizers, experimentation with crops, and  innovative farm equipment made him one of the leading agricultural  leaders in America.

Learn More:  Washington the Farmer

★ Washington represented Virginia as a delegate at the First and Second Continental Congresses

George Washington was appointed by Virginia  as one of seven delegates from the colony to the First Continental  Congress (September 1774 to May 1775).  He was later appointed as a  delegate to the Second Continental Congress (established on May 10,  1775).  It was during the Second Continental Congress that George  Washington was appointed commander in chief of the newly established  Continental Army.  Shortly after his appointment, Washington left  Congress and headed to take command of the forces outside of Boston.

★ Washington was appointed as commander of the Continental Army in 1775

George Washington crossing the Delaware River  (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

George Washington crossing the Delaware River (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

With the military situation becoming even  more serious around Boston in 1775, the Second Continental Congress was  eager to appoint an overall commander of the Continental Army forces  assembling.  George Washington, a member of the Second Continental  Congress, was appointed as the commanding general on June 15, 1775.   Washington’s prior military experience with the British army was  important, particularly given the inexperience of many colonial  regulars. The fact that he was a Southerner, when most of the army in  those early days was from New England, was also appealing, because it  illustrated that the patriot forces were united and that this was not  just a conflict between Britain and northeastern colonies.  After his  appointment in Philadelphia, Washington headed directly to Boston to take command of the American forces.  He would not return to Mount Vernon until September 1781, during the Yorktown Campaign.

Learn More:  Washington in the Revolutionary War

★ Washington lost more battles than he won, but his leadership helped secure American independence

Given Washington’s ultimate success during  the Revolution, it’s important to consider that he lost more battles  than he won throughout his military career.  The Battles of Fort  Necessity, Monongahela, Long Island,  White Plains, Fort Washington, Brandywine, and Germantown were all  battles that Washington either directly led or played an important role  in…and in each of these battles Washington’s forces were defeated.    Despite this roster of tactical defeats, Washington brought many  important characteristics to his military command.  His ability to rally  men under fire, his ability to sustain the Continental Army‘s  morale, his administrative talents, and his grasp of the larger  strategic imperatives all made Washington the great general that history  remembers and celebrates.

Learn More:  Crossing the Delaware★ Washington had many close calls, but was never seriously wounded in battle

George Washington exhibited great steadiness  and courage in battle and was frequently near the front lines during  his many battles.  At the Battle of Monongahela in 1755, Washington had  two horses shot out from underneath him and his coat was pierced by four  musket balls.  At Kip’s Bay and the Battle of Princeton, Washington risked his own life when rushing to the front lines to rally his flagging troops.

George Washington at the Battle of Princeton Yale University Art Gallery)

George Washington at the Battle of Princeton (Yale University Art Gallery)

★ Washington is known as the “American Cincinnatus”

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was a statesman  and hero of the early Roman Republic.  Chosen to lead when Rome was  threatened by an invading army,  he left his plow in the field to take  command of the situation.  Once Rome was safe, he gave up power and  returned to his farm.  Like Cincinnatus, Washington wanted to be a  private citizen and farmer, but answered the call of his country.  At  the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington peacefully returned his  commission as commander in chief of the Continental Army to Congress,  thereby helping to confirm the principle of civilian control of the  military.

Museum Objects

★ Washington designed and oversaw the expansion of Mount Vernon

The Mount Vernon home that George Washington  inherited from his brother Lawrence was a much smaller affair than the  home most people know today.  Washington designed and oversaw two large  expansions to his mansion while also directing many landscape  improvements to his land.

Learn More:   Explore Washington’s Mount Vernon

★ Washington was an investor in a company that built a canal around the Great Falls of the Potomac

Washington believed that it was vital to the  growing nation that the east and west be knitted more strongly together  via commerce.  Hoping to establish the Potomac River as the avenue of  trade that would help to accomplish this goal, Washington helped found  the Potomac Company in 1785.  One of the major projects of the Potomac  Company was the creation of a canal that would skirt the Great Falls of  the Potomac, one of the largest and most ambitious civil engineering  projects in America.   The Potowmack Canal was finally completed in  1802, several years after Washington’s death, and it led a troubled  existence until it was sold to the nearby Chesapeake & Ohio Canal  Company in 1828.

Learn More:  The Potomac Company

★ Washington came to own tens of thousands of acres in North America

George Washington became one of the largest  land holders in the United States at the time.  Not only did Washington  own 8,000 acres at Mount Vernon, but through numerous land transactions  and land bounties, Washington owned more than 50,000 acres in the  western portions of Virginia and what is now West Virginia, as well as  in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, and the Ohio country.   These considerable acquisitions not only made Washington wealthy in  terms of his land holdings, but also encouraged his strong interest in  the westward expansion of the United States.

★ Washington was the first to sign the Constitution

As the President of the Constitutional  Convention, George Washington was permitted to be the first to sign this  important document.

Learn More:  Washington’s Acts of Congress

★ Washington was unanimously elected President of the United States, twice

At this early stage in the development of  the United States, presidents were selected solely/only through the vote  of the Electoral College, not by popular vote.  The 69 votes that  Washington received in 1789, and the 132 he received in 1792 represented  all of the available Electoral College votes, thereby making Washington  the only president in United States history to have been unanimously  elected.

★ Washington espoused the right of all Americans to follow their conscience in matters of religion

In regard to religion, Washington was  generally private about his personal beliefs, but he was an active  member of the Anglican (later Episcopal) Church for his entire life, and  even served as a vestryman and church warden for many years in his  local parish. Family members recalled him reading sermons aloud to them  on Sunday afternoons.  Both family members and former aides mentioned  that he set aside time for prayer and Bible reading each day.  One  well-known report stated that Washington’s nephew witnessed him doing  personal devotions with an open Bible while kneeling, in both the  morning and evening.

The Washington Family Bible  (Mount Vernon Ladies Association)

The Washington Family Bible (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

Washington also firmly believed in the  concept of religious liberty or freedom of conscience.  During his  lifetime, he attended services of multiple Christian denominations. As  President, Washington wrote a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in  Newport, Rhode Island, standing in favor of religious freedom,  explaining: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it  was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the  exercise of their inherent natural rights.  For happily the government  of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution  no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection  should demean themselves as good citizens…May the children of the stock  of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the  goodwill of the other inhabitants.”

 

★ Washington never occupied the White House

George Washington was the only U.S.  President who did not occupy the White House, which was not completed  until after his death.   During his two terms as president, the U.S.  Capital was located first in New York and then in Philadelphia.  George  Washington played a large role, however, in the development of the new  Federal City that was named after him, and in overseeing the design of  both the Capitol Building and the White House.

Learn More:  Our First President

US Half-Eagle coin from 1795  (Wikimedia Commons)

US Half-Eagle coin from 1795 (Wikimedia Commons)

★ Washington’s presidency founded the United States Navy, established the  nation’s official currency, created the State Department, and  established the Supreme Court

As the first President of the United States,  Washington quickly learned that the newly adopted Constitution only  provided a framework for how the government would function.   Moving  quickly to fill in many important gaps, Washington signed into law the  Judiciary Act of 1789 which established a six-member Supreme Court and  the position of Attorney General.  On July 27, 1789 Washington signed a  bill authorizing the creation of a Department of Foreign Affairs (future  State Department) and a Secretary of State.  In 1792 Washington signed  the Coinage Act that established the dollar as the official currency of  the United States.  And with his signature, Washington, through the  Naval Act of 1794, authorized the construction of six frigates – thereby  creating the United States Navy.

★ George Washington did not wear a wig

Even though wigs were fashionable,  Washington kept his own hair, which he wore long and tied back in a  queue, or ponytail.  Washington did, however, powder his hair which was  the custom of the time.

★ Washington helped establish a number of charitable organizations, schools, and colleges

Despite not having formal education,  Washington was a strong supporter of education.   Toward the end of the  Revolution, he gave 50 guineas to Washington College in Chestertown,  Maryland, which was used to purchase scientific equipment.  In his 1799  will, Washington left money for the support of a free school for poor  and orphaned children in Alexandria, Virginia, and for Liberty Hall  Academy, which later became Washington & Lee University.    Washington also left money for the establishment of a national  university within the Federal City (Washington DC), but this never came  about.

★ Washington helped promote the use of mules in the United States

George Washington was instrumental in  popularizing the mule in the United States.  His study of agriculture  convinced him that mules (the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse) were better suited to farm work because they were  stronger and had more endurance than a horse.  When he began breeding  mules at Mount Vernon in the 1780s, using imported donkeys from Spain,  Malta, and South America, he was proved right.

★ George Washington operated the largest distillery in America at its time

Towards the end of his life, Washington  established a rye and corn whiskey distillery on his Dogue Run farm.  In  1799, the year of Washington’s death, the distillery produced 10,942  gallons of whiskey – thereby making it the largest distillery in America  at the time.  Washington also was the only founding father to own and  operate his own whiskey distillery.

Learn More:  Washington’s Distillery

View of George Washington's distillery at Mount Vernon (Rob Shenk)

View of George Washington’s reconstructed distillery at Mount Vernon (Rob Shenk)

★ Washington died on December 14, 1799 after taking ill following a ride around his farms

On Thursday, December 12, 1799 George  Washington was out on horseback supervising farming activities during a  wretched day filled with light snow, hail, and rain.  The next day  brought heavy snow, but despite having a cold and sore throat, he went  out in the afternoon to mark some trees between the mansion and the  Potomac River.  After turning in for the night, Washington awoke in  great discomfort and indicated that he was having trouble breathing.   Despite the close attention paid him by Dr. James Craik and two other attending physicians, Washington’s condition worsened and  between 10 and 11pm on the night of December 14, 1799, George  Washington passed away.  Modern doctors have indicated that the cause of  death was probably acute epiglottitis.

Learn More:  The Tombs at Mount Vernon

View of the New Tomb and George Washington's sarcophagus at Mount Vernon  (Mount Vernon Ladies' Assocation)

View of the New Tomb and George Washington’s sarcophagus at Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Assocation)

★ Washington made provisions to free all his slaves in his will – the only slave-owning president to do so

Washington’s attitude toward slavery  gradually changed as he grew older and especially as he fought for  liberty in the American Revolution.  In his will, he arranged to free  those slaves belonging to him upon his wife’s death (about 123) and, as  was required by law, his estate paid for the care of former Mount Vernon  slaves for decades after his death.  Washington is the only slave  owning president who freed all of his slaves.   The remaining slaves  (153 people) at Mount Vernon belonged to the estate of Martha  Washington’s first husband and were known as dower slaves.  By law,  Washington had no legal rights to free those individuals, who were  inherited by Martha Washington’s descendants upon her death in 1802.   Another 43 slaves, who were rented from a neighbor, were returned to  their owner after George Washington’s death.

Learn More:  Washington’s 1799 Will

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