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George Washington

A Successful Planter

On the World Stage in the French and Indian War

A Successful Planter, page 2

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After resigning his command in 1758, Washington returned to civilian life. He spent the next fifteen years prosperously and peacefully, enlarging his estate at Mount Vernon and living the life of a typical Virginia planter. These were the least eventful, but certainly the most pleasant, years of his adult life. In 1758 Washington was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. In 1759 he married Martha Dandridge Custis, the wealthy widow of Daniel Park Custis. She brought two children into the marriage, John Parke Custis and Patcy Custis, aged four and two. Washington's marriage to Martha was a happy one, but it failed to produce more children.

Washington continued to acquire land in the Shenandoah Valley and elsewhere. As part of his reward for service against the French, he collected over 30,000 acres of land along the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers in what is now West Virginia. While these lands were vast and fertile, they would never be profitable unless the Ohio River Valley were linked, politically and economically, to the eastern colonies. This fact encouraged Washington to think of America in continental rather than regional terms long before most Americans did.

Washington bought land, slaves, and materials to expand his house into a grand estate. He bought fine Chinese porcelain, silver cutlery, works of art, and gifts for Martha. He entertained a constant string of visitors in traditional Virginia style. He lived, in short, the aristocratic life of a planter.

Washington was not the typical planter, however. While most plantations produced only tobacco, Washington attempted to grow other crops. Tobacco, Washington realized, ruined the soil. It also made him dependent on the London-based merchants who bought Virginian tobacco in massive quantities. Aiming for economic security and self-sufficiency, Washington experimented with wheat, hemp, corn, and other crops. He attempted primitive irrigation techniques and crop rotations. Though he never struck upon a winning combination, he managed on the whole to stay out of debt and remain prosperous. This is more than can be said of his contemporaries such as Thomas Jefferson, who had essentially bankrupted his estate by the end of his life.

In 1770 he took up the cause of his former soldiers, to whom the Governor of Virginia had promised land as a reward for their service against the French. Washington made a difficult and dangerous journey by canoe to locate the land his soldiers were to receive; this trip revived his interest in the west and influenced his frontier policy as president. When Martha's daughter Patcy died of an epileptic fit in 1773, Washington acquired another chunk of Daniel Parke Custis's fortune and expanded his land holdings. All the while Washington performed his duties in the House of Burgesses, from where he nervously watched the growing conflict between Britain and the colonies.


Washington has generally been portrayed as a man who took power reluctantly and gave it up willingly. Though some biographers have suggested that Washington was actually greedy and power hungry, most conclude that he genuinely wished to remain a private citizen. Clearly he sought fame and honor as a soldier; he also sought wealth and influence through his land acquisition. Yet by the time Washington resigned from the militia in 1758, he had reached the top rung of the social ladder. His ambition was more or less complete; now it was a matter of quietly prospering and enjoying his retirement. He could not have foreseen that he would be called to lead the colonies to independence and nationhood. As a Virginia planter in the 1760s, he had no desire to disturb the social order, to revolt against Britain, or to make himself leader of an entire country. From all the available evidence, he seems truly to have been content with private life.

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