The "Father of His Country", George Washington (1732-1799) 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 man ever 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 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.
There does 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.
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.
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.
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 set them free upon retiring.
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...
He never would have been turned into a patriot
Never gained his military reputation
Never understood how to run an army
Never comprehend how to be a savvy financier (saving his estate from debt) or agreed with Alexander Hamilton on the creation of a National Bank:
"To contract new debts is not the way to pay old ones."
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 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.
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.
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.
"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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Washington in fiction
Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John story "Vandy, Vandy" features an appearance not of the actual Washington's ghost, but the evil-smiting myth-encrusted figure described above.
In the Masters of Horror episode "The Washingtonians," Washington and his descendants are revealed to be cannibals, though its more of a "campy and ridiculous" sort of horror than a real scary one. (Note that the real Washington was probably sterile.)
In one of the Animorphs' many time travel adventures, at one point they're sent back to the Revolutionary War, just as Washington's about to cross the Delaware. Marco steals George's spare boots because his feet are cold. His friend Jake later gets shot in the head, prompting the first major timeline divergence in the series.
Appears in Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. As a fellow surveyor he talks shop with the protagonists before they set out to draw their Line. Then, Pynchon being Pynchon, the three of them test out Mt. Vernon's latest hemp crop, leading to dancing on the porch while Martha fetches in the munchies.
Fairly OddParents depicts him as a maniac with an axe with an uncontrollable urge to chop wood. (Because why else would he chop down his father's prize cherry tree, then immediately confess?)
Histeria! depicts him as talking like Bob Hope. (Both were famous for making speeches to the troops.)
How I Met Your Mother. According to Barney Stinson. George and Benjamin Franklin were friends with Barnabus Stinson (Barney's ancestor) who wrote "The Bro Code". George and Ben also once did a "Devil's Threeway".
Snoopy every so often talked (or pretended to talk) to the then-general during the Valley Forge winter. Being the World Famous Patriot didn't prevent Snoopy from tossing in some Anachronism Stew, including at one point offering to let Washington drive a Zamboni at a proposed ice-skating rink.
In James Fenimore Cooper's 1820 novel The Spy, a romance thriller based during the Revolution, the identity of the Rebel spymaster is revealed at novel's end to be George Washington. Washington was a so-so general but an absolute master of counter intelligence. He got the British to swallow some real whoppers, so much for never telling a lie.
Bob Newhart did a Standup Comedy routine about a soldier in Washington's army complaining, as soldiers always have and always will. It starts with the sound of tramping feet and the words:
You hear what Nutty George did last night? The dollar across the Potomac — they didn't tell you about that? Had us up till three in the morning looking for the damned thing.
Portrayed as The Eeyore in the musical 1776, where he never appears but his letters from the front line are a constant discouragement to the Continental Congress.
David Drake's Into the Hinterlands is essentially a retelling of George Washington's early career IN SPACE!
Dan's target of the week in Dan Vs. "George Washington". He believes that George Washington chopped down a palm tree that wrecked his car, since an axe with the initials G.W. carved into handle was still stuck in the tree. Chris and Elise try to convince Dan that Washington couldn't have done it since a) the cherry tree thing is a myth and b) he's been dead for over two centuries. Dan believes that Washington's ghost wrecked his car, and travels to Washington's home to commit vandalism as payback. The ending confirms Dan's theory.
Washington's execution is the Point Of Divergence in the alternate-history/Libertarian fantasy comic book The Probability Broach. The author claims that Washington's handling of the Whiskey Rebellion was the beginnings of over-reaching federal power in America. The man who got Washington convicted is then elected President, and promptly disbands any federal infrastructure, creating the "North American Confederacy."
In The Two Georges by Harry Turtledove, Washington is responsible for a different point of divergence ... it's his leadership of a diplomatic mission to Britain that heads off the Revolution in the first place, keeping America a loyal and valued part of the British Empire. The book's title comes from a painting of George Washington and George III together, each surrounded by his associates.
In the episode of The Simpsons "Lisa the Iconoclast", he appears to Lisa as a vision to scold her when she considers giving up her effort to expose Jebidiah Springfield as a fraud. ("We had quitters during the Revolution, too," says Washington. "We called them 'Kentuckians'.")
Washington's role in the series has been hinted at as early on as Assassin's Creed II, where he is shown in the glyph puzzles to have possessed a Piece of Eden. Following the hallucination he experiences in The Tyranny of King Washington showing how he would become a mad tyrant under its influence, he begs Connor to take it and throw it into the sea. His last scene shows him outraged at the very suggestion that he become a monarch with absolute power.
The Crossing, a 2000 made-for-TV movie about Crossing of the Delaware, starring Jeff Daniels. Makes a concerted effort to show Washington as a human being, along with just how desperate the first year of the Revolution was.
In the live action segment of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, Mario and Luigi decided to turn their home into a boarding house and tried to lure potential guests with a sign reading "George Washington Slept Here". Washington came back to haunt them for that lie. In the animated one, they helped a Washington Expy to defeat Koopa, who was dressed like a British soldier.
Woody Woodpecker once told his nephew and his niece Washington was trying to hit one of Woody's ancestors when he took down the cherry tree.