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George Washington

A Successful Planter

On the World Stage in the French and Indian War

Called to Duty

Summary

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.

Analysis

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.

Washington probably married Martha to have an heir. Though they never produced a child, they got along very well and remained happily married their entire lives. Nevertheless, they married less out of love than out of practicality. If Washington ever had a passionate love it was not for Martha but for Sally Fairfax, a daughter of the Fairfax family who lived nearby. They corresponded for their entire lives. There is no evidence that Washington was ever unfaithful to Martha. We will never know much about his relationship to Martha, though. She burned all of their letters after his death.

In private life Washington was in some ways very traditional. As a planter he owned slaves; though he treated his slaves with relative kindness, he perpetuated human bondage in a way that contradicted his own ideas of life and liberty. Like his fellow Founders, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, he was a hypocrite in this regard. He was also an aristocrat of sorts. Although colonial Virginia had no aristocracy in the traditional sense, and no one held titles such as Lord or Baron, plantation owners like Washington completely controlled their society. They lived glamorous lives, lavishing banquets and balls on their families and guests. Their plantations often held dozens of family members and friends and hundreds of slaves; they were essentially feudal kingdoms. It was in this social context that Washington and his fellow planters expressed ideals of liberty and democracy; clearly their notion of democracy was very different from ours.

While traditional in some ways, Washington was ahead of his time in seeing the need to be less dependent economically on the London merchants who bought his crops and sold him household goods. British laws strictly regulated what the colonies could produce and where they could sell it; the laws were intended to keep Britain and the colonies bound together but put the planters at a disadvantage. Planters relied on the London merchants, known as factors, for nearly everything they bought. Washington's experiments with new crops and new techniques reflected this desire to be financially independent. His ideas of the proper social role of the planter were also ahead of his time: though he held slaves and profited from their labor, he personally hated the institution of slavery.

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