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George Washington


First in war--First in peace--First in the hearts of his countrymen--was a just sentiment uttered half a century ago by the foster-son1 of the Great Patriot, when speaking of the character of his noble guardian. And the hand of that son was the first to erect a monumental stone in memory of The Father of his Country, upon which was inscribed: HERE, The 11th of February [O. S.], 1732, George Washington was born. That stone yet lies on the site of his birth-place, in Westmoreland county, Virginia, near the banks of the Potomac. The calendar having been changed,2 we celebrate his birth-day on the 22d of February.

George Washington was descended from an old and titled family in Lancashire, England, and was the eldest child of his father, by Mary Ball, his second wife. He died when George was little more than ten years of age, and the guidance of the future Leader, through the dangers of youthhood, devolved upon his mother. She was fitted for the service; and during his eventful life, Washington regarded the early training of his mother with the deepest gratitude. He received a common English education, and upon that, a naturally thoughtful and right-conditioned mind, laid the foundation of future greatness. Truth and justice were the cardinal virtues of his character. 3 He was always beloved by his young companions, and was always chosen their leader in military plays, At the ago of fourteen years, he wished to enter the navy, but yielded to the discouraging persuasions of his mother; and when he was seventeen years old, he was one of the most accomplished land surveyors in Virginia. In the forest rambles incident to his profession, he learned much of the topography of the country, habits of the Indians, and life in the camp. These were stern but useful lessons of great value in his future life.

Young Washington was appointed one of the adjutants-general of his state at the age of nineteen, but soon resigned his commission to accompany an invalid half-brother to the West Indies. Two years later, when the French began to build forts southward of Lake Erie, he was sent by the royal governor of Virginia, to demand a cessation of such hostile movements. He performed the delicate mission with great credit; and so highly were his services esteemed, that when, in 1755, Braddock came to drive the French from the vicinity of the Ohio, Washington was chosen his principal aid. The young Leader had already been in that wilderness at the head of a military expedition, and performed his. duty so well, that he was publicly thanked by the Virginia legislature. Braddock was defeated and killed, and his whole army escaped utter destruction only through the skill and valor of Colonel Washington, in directing their retreat. 4 He continued in active military service most of the time, until the close of 1758, , when he resigned his commission, and retired to private life.

At the age of twenty-seven years, Washington married the beautiful Martha .Custis, the young widow of a wealthy Virginia planter, and they took up their abode at Mount Vernon, on the banks of the Potomac, an estate left him by his half-brother. There he quietly pursued the business of a farmer until the Spring of 1774, when he was chosen to fill a seat in the Virginia legislature. The storm of the great revolution was then gathering; and toward the close of Summer, he was elected a delegate to the first Continental Congress, which assembled at Philadelphia, in September. He was a delegate the following year, when the storm burst on Bunker Hill, after the first lightning flash at Lexington; and by the unanimous voice of his compatriots he was chosen commander-in-chief of the army of freemen which had gathered spontaneously around Boston.

For eight long years Washington directed the feeble armies of the revolted colonies, in their struggle for independence. That was a terrible ordeal through which the people of America passed! During the night of gloom which brooded over the hopes of the patriots from the British invasion of New York, until the capture of Cornwallis, he was the lode-star of their hopes. And when the blessed morning of Peace dawned at York-town, and the last hoof of the oppress--or had left our shores, Washington was hailed as the Deliverer of his people; and he was regarded by the aspirants for freedom in the eastern hemisphere as the brilliant day-star of promise to future generations.

During all the national perplexities after the return of peace, incident to financial embarrassments and an imperfect system of government, Washington was regarded, still, as the public leader; and when a convention assembled to modify the existing government, he was chosen to preside over their deliberations. And again, when the labors of that convention resulted in the formation of our Federal Constitution, and a president of the United States was to be chosen, according to its provisions, his countrymen, with unanimous voice, called him to the highest place of honor in the gift of a free people.

Washington presided over the affairs of the new Republic for eight years, and those the most eventful in its history. A now government had to be organized without any existing model, and new theories of government were to be put in practice for the first time. The domestic and foreign policy of the country had to be settled by legislation and diplomacy, and many exciting questions had to be met and answered. To guide the ship of state through the rocks and quick-sands of all these difficulties required great executive skill and wisdom. Washington possessed both; and he retired from the theatre of public life without the least stain of reproach upon his judgment or his intentions.

The great Patriot and Sage enjoyed the repose of domestic life, at Mount Vernon, in the midst of an affectionate family and the almost daily congratulations of visitors, for almost three years, when the effects of a heavy cold closed his brilliant career, in death. He ascended to the bosom of his God on the 14th of December, 1799, when almost sixty-eight years of age. 5

1. George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Mrs. Washington, and adopted son of the distinguished Patriot.
2. In consequence of the difference between the old Roman year and the true solar year, of a little more than eleven minutes, the astronomical equinox fell back that amount of time, each annual cycle, toward the beginning of the year. It fell on the 21st of March, at the time of the council of Nice, in 323. Pope Gregory the Thirteenth reformed the calendar in 1532 (when the equinox fell on the 11th of March,) by suppressing ten days in the calendar, and thus restoring the equinox to the 21st of March. The Protestant states of Europe adhered to the old calendar, until 1700; and popular prejudice in England opposed the alterations, until 1762, when the Julian calendar, called Old Style, was abolished by Parliament. The retrogression since Gregory's time made it necessary to drop 11 days, instead of ten. Now the difference is about twelve days, so that Washington's birth-day, according to the New Style, is on the 23d of February.
3. Young Washington was playing in a field one day with another boy, when he leaped upon an un-tamed colt belonging to his mother. The frightened animal used such great exertions to get rid of his rider, that he burst a blood vessel and died. George went immediately to his mother, and gave her a truthful relation of all that had happened. This is a noble example for all boys.
4. Braddock persisted in fighting the Indians according to the military tactics of Europe; and when Washington modestly suggested the policy of adopting the Indian method of warfare, it is said that Braddock haughtily answered, "What! a provincial buskin teach a British general how to fight!.
5. See the Frontispiece. On the Left, below the portrait, is his birth-place; on the right, his tomb. Liberty and Justice are supporters in the midst of Plenty, and surmounting Fame is proclaiming his deeds.

Source: Lossing, Benson J. Eminent Americans: Comprising Brief Biographies of Leading Statesmen, Patriots, Orators and others, Men and Women, Who Have Made American History. New York: John B. Alden, 1883. Pages 55-56.


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Last modified November 24, 2004