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Biography of George Washington


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GEORGE WASHINGTON, the Father of American Independence, and first President of the United States, was born in Westmoreland county, Virginia, February 22nd, 1732. He was the son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball; a descendant of John Washington, who emigrated to Virginia from England about 1657, who was a grandson of John Washington, mayor of Northampton, and first lay-proprietor of the Manor of Sulgrave in Northamptonshire. Lawrence, an elder brother of John, studied at Oxford; John resided at one time at South Cave, Yorkshire. Being royalists in the time of Cromwell, both emigrated, and became landed proprietors and planters in Virginia, in the district between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. Augustine Washington died when his second son, George, was twelve years old, leaving a large property to his widow and five children. His education in the indifferent local schools extended only to reading, writing, arithmetic, book-keeping, and land surveying, then an important acquisition. He grew tall, had great physical strength, and was fond of military and athletic exercises. At the age of thirteen, he wrote out for his own use, 11O maxims of civility and good behavior. In 1740, his elder brother, Captain Lawrence Washington, served under Admiral Vernon in the expedition against Carthagena, and named his residence on the Potomac Mount Vernon, in honor of his commander, who offered George a commission as midshipman, which, but for the opposition of his mother, he would have gladly accepted. He then spent his time chiefly with his brother at Mount Vernon, and with Lord Fairfax, who owned great estates in the Virginia valley; and in 1748, he engaged to survey these wild territories for a doubloon a day, camping out for months in the forest, in peril from Indians and squatters. At the age of nineteen, at the beginning of the Seven Years' War, he was appointed adjutant of the provincial troops, with the rank of Major; in 1751, he made his only sea voyage - a trip to the Barbadoes - with his brother Lawrence, who died soon after, and left George heir to his estates at Mount Vernon. At twenty-two (1754), he commanded a regiment against the French, who had established themselves at Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburg), and held Fort Necessity against superior numbers, until compelled to capitulate. The year following, when two regiments of regulars were led against Fort Duquesne by General Braddock, Washington volunteered, and at the disastrous ambuscade of July 9th, 1775, he was the only aide not killed or wounded. He had four bullets through his coat, and two horses were shot under him. The Indians believed that he bore a charmed life, and his countrymen were proud of his courage and conduct. Two thousand men were raised, and he was selected to command them. In 1759, he married Mrs. Martha Custis, a wealthy widow, resigned his military appointments, and engaged in the improvement of his estates, raising wheat, and tobacco, and carrying on brick yards and fisheries. He was, like nearly all Americans of property at that period, a slaveholder, and possessed at his death 124 slaves, whom he directed, in his will, to be emancipated at the death of his wife (who survived him but three years), so that the slaves of the two estates, who had intermarried, might not be separated.

He was for some years a member of the Virginia Assembly, and in 1774, though opposed to the idea of independence, and in favor of the union with Great Britain, so ardently desired by all British Americans, he was ready to fight, if necessary, for the constitutional rights of the colonists. He spoke seldom and briefly, but Patrick Henry declared him to be, "for solid information and sound judgment, unquestionably the greatest man in the assembly." The news of the battle of Lexington, April 19th, 1775, called the country to arms, and Washington, then a member of the Continental Congress, was elected Commander-in-Chief by that body. He hastened to the camp at Cambridge and took command of the patriot army.

The story of the long struggle which followed, how unshaken amid disasters, undaunted in the face of every peril and discouragement, with what skill, prudence, and unfaltering purpose he led the American forces through the dark years of the revolution to their final triumph, is familiar to every reader of American history and need not here be detailed.

The independence of the country achieved, he retired from the army to Mount Vernon, which he had, during the eight years of war, but once visited. He refused pay, but kept a minute account of his personal expenses, which were reimbursed by Congress. In 1784, he crossed the Alleghanies to see his lands in Western Virginia, and planned the James River and Potomac canals. The shares voted him by the state, he gave to endow Washington College, at Lexington, Va., and for a university. The federation of states having failed to give an efficient government, Washington proposed conventions for commercial purposes, which led to the convention of 1787, of which he was a member, which formed the present federal constitution, considered by him as the only alternative to anarchy and civil war. Under this constitution, he was chosen president, and inaugurated at New York, April 30th, 1789. With "Lady Washington," so termed by the courtesy of the period, he presided over a federal court, far more formal and elegant than exists at this day, and made triumphal progresses in the north and south. During his second term of office, he was disgusted by the opposition of the Republican party, under the leadership of Jefferson and Randolph, and refused a third election; in 1796, he issued his farewell address and retired to Mount Vernon. In 1797, when there arose a difficulty with France, threatening hostilities, he was appointed Lieutenant-General and Commander-in-Chief. On the 12th of December, he was exposed in the saddle, for several hours, to cold and snow, and attacked with acute laryngitis, for which he was repeatedly and largely bled, but sunk rapidly and died, December 14th. His last words were characteristic. He said: "I die hard, but I am not afraid to go. I believed from my first attack that I should not survive it. My breath cannot last long." A little later he said: "I feel myself going. I thank you for your attentions, but I pray you to take no more trouble about me. Let me go off quietly. I cannot last long." After some instructions to his secretary about his burial, he became easier, felt his own pulse, and died without a struggle. He was mourned even by his enemies, and deserved the record: "First in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Washington was six feet two inches high, with brown hair, blue eyes, large head, and strong arms; a bold and graceful rider and hunter; attentive to his personal appearance and dignity; gracious and gentle, though at times cold and reserved; childless, but very happy in his domestic relations, and his adopted children - nephews and nieces. His best portraits are those by Stuart, and the statue by Houdin, at Richmond. He was an exemplary member of the Episcopal Church.