"First in War." "First in Peace." "First in the Hearts of his Countrymen."
The "Father of His Country", George Washington
(February 22, 1732 — December 14, 1799) was the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army
and the first President of the United States under the Constitution, beginning his term in 1789 and finishing it in 1797
. He was succeeded by John Adams
, and preceded by no-one, 'cause he was the first. There were a number of people who led the country as specified under the Articles of Confederation, but those are generally glossed over when most Americans think about history, mainly because the national government under the Articles was a total joke with no power whatsoever. He was the only president that wasn't from a political party; in his Farewell Address, he warned Americans against the dangers that political parties could cause
Commander of the American forces during the Revolutionary War, as chosen by the Continental Congress. Before that, he was a Lieutenant Colonel and later Colonel during the French-and-Indian War. And before that
he was the head of a small diplomatic mission to try and get the French to evacuate their forts who started
the French-Indian War by bungling every conceivable aspect of the mission horribly.
He was captured by the French after losing the Battle of Fort Necessity, but he was soon set free. Highlights from his command during the revolution include the Battle of Trenton (where he led a group of American soldiers across the frozen Delaware River to slaughter a bunch of Hessian mercenaries in the middle of the night on Christmas of 1776) and his encampment at Valley Forge (where his troops rested for the bitter winter of 1777-1778 - many of them died and all suffered terribly, but Washington is remembered as being very noble about the whole thing). After America's victory in 1783, Washington resigned his commission and went back to private life, leading King George III to claim that he would be "the greatest man in the world" if he actually went through with it. He was instrumental in persuading Army officers not to carry out a planned mutiny over their lack of pay. When he was unable to persuade them because of the disgrace or the fact that mutinying would not get them their pay, he tried to read a letter to them to persuade them. He had to pull out his glasses to do so, and the officers realized that his health was failing, and so refrained to avoid distressing him. Even better, according to legend, he said "Forgive me, for I have grown blind as well gray at the cause of Liberty" while doing so. Many of the men present were reportedly driven to tears
. These events were instrumental in presenting him as an American Cincinnatus
The original Articles of Confederation did not work well. As such, a new Constitution was written in 1787 (with Washington serving as the president of the Constitutional Convention), and Washington was unanimously elected President in 1788 and again in 1792. He remains, to this day, the only
to be elected American President by unanimous vote, which admittedly wasn't hard to accomplish, as he was essentially running unopposed (it's generally accepted among historians that the office's powers were designed with Washington's qualities and temperament in mind). His runner-up, John Adams
, served as Vice President because that's how things worked back then. As president, he used a cabinet system of Secretaries (which wasn't mentioned in the Constitution) to oversee and advise him on certain issues, knowing that it would be borderline-impossible for one man to keep check of everything by himself. The tradition has been carried on by all of the succeeding presidents. Supported the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton
, who was his chief-of-staff during the Revolutionary War and his Secretary of the Treasury as President; these policies included the federal government assuming the debt the states gathered as colonies and under the Article of Confederation and the creation of a national bank. Stopped the Whiskey Rebellion without using the national army (he instead used state militias) and without firing a single shot. On the foreign policy front, he announced that America would not get involved in The French Revolution
and all of its resulting conflicts (resulting in a policy of American neutrality in European affairs that lasted for over a century) and oversaw improved relations with Great Britain through peaceful means and the signing of very good trade treaties. Admitted Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee to the Union, the first states that were not former colonies. During his presidency, the District of Columbia (created between Virginia and Maryland) was chosen as the permanent seat of the federal government, though he didn't live long enough to see that happen (he passed just ten and a half months before John Adams became the first President to move in, and a little over a year before the District of Columbia was formally established).
He served two terms (refusing a third, despite
popular demand), then retired to live on his plantation at Mount Vernon. This set a tradition for a "maximum of two terms in office" for Presidents, which was kept until Franklin D. Roosevelt
was elected President four
times in a row, after which the Constitution was amended to have the maximum of ten years be an actual rule. (Usually it's just eight, since the President can't serve half a term, unless he was a vice president who succeeded halfway through his predecessor's term.)
The closest thing Americans have to a real-life superhero.
While he might or might not have been Batman, Washington was definitely Bruce Wayne: His extensive real estate holdings made him the wealthiest man in Virginia, possibly in all North America. A man known as Parson Weems
wrote many stories about Washington, including the famous one that as a child, Washington chopped down his father's prize cherry tree, but, being unable to tell a lie
, promptly confessed to it. Another (equally apocryphal) story says that he was able to throw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. Other rumors include tidbits like how his teeth were made of wood, and he was a Christian who prayed every day - though neither would have been unusual at the time. The American capital, Washington, D.C., is named for him, as is the state of Washington
on the opposite side of the country (it gets confusing sometimes). Also no less than 30 counties, 27 cities and villages, 241
townships, and numerous parks, streets, and public schools throughout the United States.
And the one time a British sniper caught him unarmed, at close range, with only one guard. Washington just turned and went the other way, and the sniper couldn't bring himself to shoot a man who could so calmly face death. It's said that an Indian leader who led the attack that saw only Washington uninjured had said that Washington "is the particular favorite of Heaven, and who can never die in battle." Eerie as all heck. Although given how he died in real life (by slowly choking to death, probably either of diphtheria or a tonsillar abscess) he might have preferred a quick bullet.
Still, he did enjoy the battlefield for as long as he did, he once wrote to his brother of one of his battles saying "I heard the bullets whistle and, believe me, there is something charming to the sound of bullets." The contents of the letter made it all the way back to England where and unimpressed King George II, the last British monarch to lead troops in battle, reportedly remarked that Washington's attitude would change if he'd heard a few more.
Washington had also established his own spy ring during the Revolution and even used double agents to help him in his Battle of Trenton. Washington has also become a bit more popular due to Kenneth C. Davis's Don't Know Much About History
, in which he paints a picture of Washington as "the plain-spoken frontiersman, not the marbleized demigod" of Weems' stories. In particular, Davis recounts an anecdote told by General Henry "Ox" Knox. In Washington's boat on the night of the Trenton crossing, Knox was 6'3" and 280lbs, making him a large man even by modern standards. As Washington got into the boat, he nudged Knox with his boot and said "Shift that fat ass, Harry. But slowly, or you'll swamp the damned boat."
By U.S. law,
Washington is permanently senior to all US military officers
, current, former, or future. Which means that if John J. Pershing were to be formally awarded a six-star General (General of the Armies) rank, Washington would be 7-star
Washington was also extremely well-traveled within America, both for military and presidential purposes, at one point conducting a grand tour of all the states in the Union. You can find a plaque or exhibit claiming "Washington slept here" at just about every city and inn along the Atlantic coast—especially in Virginia.
Tropes related to G.W.:
- 10-Minute Retirement: He wanted to retire but then Britain and its colonies went to war. After the war he tried to retire again but then he got elected president.
- The Ace: Good luck digging up dirt on Washington.
- There might exist some, but old Georgie is so lionized in modern American society that, assuming anyone could prove it to be true, (which, as with any historical figure, is a big if due to both historic and contemporary bias and a complete lack of living witnesses) it is ''very'' likely no one would listen/care.
- An Asskicking Christmas: The crossing of the Delaware river. (At the time, Christmas wasn't a big celebration in the States, as opposed to the German Hessian mercenaries.)
- Asskicking Equals Authority: The prestige he gained as the main general of the continental army made him an uncontested candidate for the first presidency.
- Badass: In the American Revolution.
- Black Best Friend: His personal slave, Billy Lee.
- Boisterous Bruiser: He suppressed this quality because he aspired to be a gentleman, only letting go of himself when he was alone with his soldiers.
- Broken Pedestal: Defied for that very reason. He ordered many of his personal papers destroyed after his death. He did so, because he knew how much the American people admired him; and feared the affect on morale if they learned he was only human, and as such flawed.
- Call to Agriculture: His farms on Mount Vernon.
- Cannot Tell a Lie: The Trope Namer, of sorts. The story goes that when he was young, Washington chopped down his father's favorite cherry tree and afterwards confessed because he could not bring himself to lie. However, the story goes like that because it is just that: a story. Washington Irving made up the annecdote to glorify Washington's well-known real life honesty. In reality, he was an expert in misinformation, realizing that keeping the British on the wrong foot would be vital to his army's success.
- The Captain
- Cincinnatus: Refusing kingship of the United States on moral as well as practical grounds (Washington had no heirs, for one).
- He would have served only one term as President, but Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson both convinced him that he needed to serve a second term for the survival of the government. To put it in perspective, it was the only time Hamilton and Jefferson ever completely agreed on anything. Washington indeed proved to be an awesome Chief Executive.
- Definitely Just a Cold: Plagued by a chronic malaria that he caught during his war days. On the eve of his death, Washington shrugged off a "trifling" sore throat.
- The Determinator: Dr. Benjamin Rush visited Washington shortly before the attack on Trenton. He noticed Washington repeatedly scribbling something on bits of paper and then tossing the paper to the floor. Rush picked one piece of paper up, and saw that Washington was writing "Victory or Death".
- Dropped a Bridge on Him: When the doctor failed to arrive, he had someone else bleed him. Then the doctor arrived and bled him some more.
- Edible Ammunition: A popular fact regarding Fruitcake dates back to the American War of Independence where an Officer asked George Washington what he was supposed to do with no more ammunition. The reply that he got was "You have plenty of Fruitcakes, don't you? Use those instead!"
- Face Death with Dignity: This arguably saved Washington's life multiple times.
- Fair for Its Day: Felt that the culture of the Native American tribes was inferior to Christian European society. Still, his unusual belief that the natives as a people deserved the same rights as white Americans made him popular with many different tribes, to the point where Handsome Lake, a Seneca religious leader, claimed he would be the only white man to get into heaven.
- A Father to His Men: One of Washington's best traits as a general was sharing in the hardships and leading from the front as much as he could. He literally became a father figure to many of the young officers - especially LaFayette and Hamilton - who served under him.
- He was even nice to his slaves, which was completely unheard of at the time, to the point where he specified in his will that they were all to be set free upon his wife's death.
- The Fettered: Americans today owe GW a great deal of thanks for being this trope. See the Cincinnatus entry for more on that.
- For Want of a Nail: If Washington hadn't started the French and Indian War at 22 years old...
- Founder of the Kingdom: There is a reason why he is known as "The Father of His Country".
- General Failure: Played with. While even his strongest advocates recognize his less than ideal tactical mind, his Nice Guy persona and father to his men qualities made him very strong suited to keeping his generally ramshackle, unprofessional army together and in getting the Second Continental Congress to give the Continental Army the supplies and financial support, what have you, it needed. But of course, there was that one time he accidentally ignited a world war...
- The Hero: To most Americans, at least, thanks to Historical Hero Upgrade, particularly when portrayed by popular media. Otherwise, less so.
- Hidden Depths:
- He was a hell of a dancer and tasteful interior decorator. He was also, apparently, an avid cricketer. And he designed military uniforms.
- He was also very kind to his slaves, something that was completely taboo at the time. He even broke the law numerous time by allowing slave couples to marry and move in on his proporty
- He was also an effective Spymaster, the nation's first.
- Historical-Domain Character: Every February, President's Day is celebrated, and many commercials put up his likeness and/or Abraham Lincoln to sell products. He shows up more than Abe in commercials year-round because his face is on the dollar bill.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Washington's reputation was inflated and used as propaganda even within his own lifetime to help bind the fledgling United States around a strong personality. Of course, the man was human and had a variety of flaws. He was a slaveholder, which people don't generally like to acknowledge. The tribes he fought during his years as an Indian fighter named him "Town Burner" for his practice of burning native villages to the ground after utterly decimating their populations (women and children included). Military historians also note that he was not a very good tactician, and his early career was marked with outright blunders.
- Ideal Hero: Portrayed as this.
- Idiot Hero: Due to recklessly attacking a French diplomatic party, Washington started the French and Indian War... because neither he nor anyone else in his party neither understood French nor Indian.
- Large and in Charge: At 6'2, Washington would be considered tall even today, but in the 18th century he was massive. Even enemy troops were impressed with Washington's great height.
- The Men First: During the desperate retreat from Brooklyn Heights, Washington was on the last boat.
- The Munchausen:
- He may have never told a lie (or so they say, see below), but he seemed to be fond of tall tales. His favorite song was said to be "The Derby Ram", an English folk song about a ram of titanic proportions and the problems involved in killing and butchering it.
- A lot of tall tales are told about him too by others. The famous tree story, cutting down a cherry tree and admitting it to a grateful father, was a lie made up by Washington's biographer (Mason Weems) after his death. The story about him throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac was untrue too; such coins did not even exist during his lifetime. This was actually an exaggeration of an earlier story told by Martha Washington's grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, to illustrate Washington's well-known strength. The true story claims that he threw a piece of slate across the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Historians assert that he could possibly have done this, but it was never verified.
- My God, What Have I Done?: By the end of his life, Washington deeply regretted ever owning slaves.
- My Greatest Failure: While he was a slave owner in his life, Washington's view on the practice grew very dim in his later years, but he was unable to do anything about it for fear of breaking the fledgling country in two. Needless to say, it weighed heavy on his mind.
"There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see some plan adopted for abolition."
- Nice Guy: He was a gentleman to the end. Interestingly, he actually holds up as being a good person by modern standards.
- Except small detail such as the ownership of human beings, of course.
- One Head Taller: George Washington (6'2") and Mary Custis (5'). It was said that he would always bend down to speak with her so that she didn't have to crane her neck up to look at him. To put it in perspective, this was during the 1700's, when people in general were shorter than they are in the early 21st century, meaning Washington was likely this trope for almost everyone he met.
- Our Founder: Monuments to Washington tend to be chiseled like a Greek God, glossing over such inconvenient facts as his pockmarked face (likely caused by smallpox).
- Perpetual Frowner: The result of dentures, making him look uncommonly grim in pictures. Washington's scary countenance so frightened John Adams that he refused to wear dentures himself.
- Plague of Good Fortune: One drawback of becoming the world's most famous man is that Mount Vernon became "a well-resorted tavern" to every tourist on the east coast. This proved costly as it meant entertaining visitors with lavish dinners, no small matter considering his dwindling bank account and infertile farmland. Washington considered moving up north or (if need be) to Canada (yes, really), but a few trips outside the state confirmed the worst: He would be recognized anywhere.
- Plot Armor: Washington's luck on the battlefield can only be matched by the heroes of fictional stories. No bullet could touch him. Even from his more youthful escapades as a colonial officer, people trying to shoot him even at close range never left a mark. He had several horses shot under him during the disastrous Braddock campaign of the Seven Years' War, and was never injured during the Revolution even in the battles where Washington was in the thick of fighting, although bullets passed through his coat on multiple occasions.. He also survived a childhood smallpox outbreak, and was thus immune to the disease for the rest of his life.
- The Prophecy: George's view on slavery grew very dim later in life, condemning the practice and being the only founding father to free all of his slaves. He saw slavery as morally against the principles the republic was based on, and predicted that if nothing was done about it; it would tear the nation apart. Sixty one years later, cue one of the bloodiest wars in American history on that exact issue
""I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principal."
- Rags to Royalty: Averted. He almost became America's first king.
"I did not fight a war against George III so I can become George I."
- Rank Inflation: One of the United States' two six-star generals, the other being General John Pershing. Interestingly, the United States posthumously awarded Washington the six-star grade, and then made it retroactive to July 4, 1776. This means that no one ever has or ever will outrank Washington.note
- Red-Headed Hero: Almost nobody other than historians or avid history students seems to be aware of it though, due to virtually every famous portrait of Washington being made after his hair greyed (or was powdered, depending on which year we're talking about).
- Reluctant Ruler:
- He did not want to be President, and only accepted the position because some states would only accept the Constitution as it was written on the condition that he became the first President. Many historians say that he was "drafted" into the Presidency, which is somewhat accurate. His reluctance to ascend to the Presidency served his country well, as it prevented setting a negative precedent of future Presidents staying in office for multiple terms till death, as unfortunately happened after many other nations' revolutions throughout history. Lampshaded in the TV series Sleepy Hollow, when Ichabod—in reference to Washington's humility—notes that it's always a good idea to give power only to those who least desire it, rather than those who do. Needless to say, America has vastly benefited from Washington's being this trope, thanks to the precedent his actions set.
- His wife also opposed the idea, and refused to attend his inauguration. Despite this, she was known to be a gracious hostess at many affairs of state at New York and Philadelphia during their roles as temporary capitals.
- On a related note, many officials who worked under him addressed him with fancy titles like "Your Excellence" and "Your Honor"; Washington put a stop to that quickly, insisting he simply be addressed as "Mr. President". This tradition has endured until the present day.
- Ironically enough, this over time has ensured that (at least to some people, and more often than not), the title "Mr. President" is used with the same degree of deference today.
- Resigned to the Call: "In confidence I tell you," he wrote to an old friend, "that my movement to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution."
- Science Marches On: Bloodletting was still very much in vogue during Washginton's lifetime. When he became ill with a throat infection in 1799, Washington's doctors treated him by draining five pints of blood from his body! In modern times, it's often speculated that he was killed by the bloodletting rather than the throat infection. At the very least, it certainly didn't help.
- Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: George was remarkably kind to his slaves even in the years he supported the practice, breaking the law numerous times by allowing them to marry and move in together. Several times this lead to his estate losing money due to large slave families that included the elderly.
- Shirtless Scene: Horatio Greenough's statue of him in a toga.
- The Spymaster: America's first
- Sweet Tooth: According to Alton Brown, he spent $200 on ice cream over the course of one summer, "And this was a time when $10 could buy you a really fast horse."
- Trademark Favorite Food: He wasn't as known for his tastes in food as some other Presidents, but a few of his favorite foods are known, including cream of peanut soup and mashed sweet potatoes with coconut. He also liked to snack on hazelnuts.
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom: The guy started a world war because he couldn't keep his Indian allies off a French negotiating party. Though it's likely that Britain and France would have been drawn into an inevitable clash anyway due to their competing claims over North America.
- To call him the instigator of the Seven Years War is dramatically overstating his role. His actions might have been the spark which ignited the colonial fighting between France and Britain but tension had built up for years and the main European theater had it's own Casus Bellis.
- Values Dissonance: Had a soldier drummed out of the Continental Army for sodomy. Arguably Fair for Its Day, though, in that homosexual activity then was usually punished with jail time, castration, or sometimes even the death penalty.
- During the episode in Valley Forge, Washington had local Quakers jailed for refusing to swear loyalty to the United States, which went against their religious beliefs.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Had a bristled relationship with his mother, Mary Ball Washington.
- Worthy Opponent: After Washington turned down the possibility of becoming king of the United States, King George III said of him:
"If true, then he is the greatest man in the world."
- Even during the Revolution, Washington was perceived as a noble figure in Britain. Since he was quiet on his views on politics, the British did not associate him with the more vocal "rabble rousers" of the American Revolution. This was particularly evident after the British Army seized New York City. Even as Washington retreated and his military opponent General Gates secured one of America's worst defeats of the war, the press in Britain lauded Washington and criticized Gates for his actions (not entirely undeserved).
- When he died, the British Navy flew their flags at half-mast.
- There's a statue of him in London. Gifted to the British by the Americans once the nations had gotten beyond their differences, of course.
- A poll of British historians recently had General Washington listed as the most formidable military commander ever to fight against British forces, putting him ahead of Napoleon in the opinion of the historians polled.
Washington in fiction