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George Washington

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George Washington was born on February 22, 1732 in northern Virginia. He was the son of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington. His father died in 1743, leaving Washington with little inheritance. His hopes for school dashed, Washington found work surveying and took several journeys to the frontier where he developed an interest in the West. In 1752 George's half-brother Lawrence died, and Lawrence's estate at Mount Vernon went to George. Washington also was appointed an officer in the Virginia militia the same year. In 1754 he led a diplomatic mission to evict the French from the Ohio River Valley but created an international incident when he killed a French soldier and was later defeated. He returned in 1755 with British General Edward Braddock to evict the French but failed as Braddock's army lost. The British finally secured the valley in 1758.

After, Washington resigned from the militia and concentrated on working his plantation. He married Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759, joined the Virginia House of Burgesses, and promoted a scheme to build a canal between the Ohio and Potomac Rivers. He also experimented with different crops and growing techniques on his land. When the colonies began to protest British laws in the 1760s, Washington was a leader of the movement in Virginia to boycott British goods. In 1774, he attended a meeting in Fairfax County where the delegates resolved to use force against Britain if it would not listen to American complaints. He then attended the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. By the time of the Second Continental Congress in 1775, the Revolutionary War had begun. The delegates decided to raise an army to fight Britain. Washington was elected to lead it.

Washington traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to take command of the army. It consisted only of several thousand poorly trained militia members. Washington trained the army and succeeded in driving the British out of Boston, which they had occupied. He then led the army south to New York, where he met the British at Long Island. This battle was disastrous and forced Washington to retreat through New York and into New Jersey. With winter coming, his supplies low, and his troops eager to go home, Washington was on the verge of losing the war. Then he struck the British by surprise, capturing the Hessian mercenaries at the Battle of Trenton. He eventually retook most of New Jersey. The following summer he lost the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown but proved that the American army could withstand the British. He fended off an attempt by members of Congress to have him fired, then camped with his army for the winter at Valley Forge, where his men suffered greatly from cold and hunger.

In the spring of 1778 France agreed to join the war on America's side. Washington led his troops against the British at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, which was a stalemate. In 1780 a French army arrived under the command of the Comte de Rochambeau, Washington and de Rochambeau gave up plans to attack New York and marched instead to Yorktown, Virginia, where they defeated the British army with the help of France's navy. This spectacular victory effectively ended the Revolution. Washington remained in command until a formal agreement to end the war was reached; in the meantime he tried to keep his restless soldiers from overthrowing Congress. In December of 1783, he resigned his command of the army, an act of selflessness that amazed the entire world.

Eager to resume his private life, Washington returned to Mount Vernon to find it in shambles. He set to fixing it up and continued to promote plans for a canal. He grew concerned, however, by the weakness and instability of the federal government. When delegates from a number of states met in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation in order to make the government stronger, Washington attended. This became the Constitutional Convention when his fellow Virginia delegates introduced an ambitious plan to completely scrap the Articles of Confederation and draw up a new document. Washington's support and prestige helped the delegates agree on the new Federal Constitution. The Constitution called for a strong president to balance the power of Congress; many people feared a president would become a tyrant, but agreement among the delegates and the people at large that Washington would be president helped eased their fears. When the Constitution was ratified in 1788, Washington was indeed elected president, by a unanimous vote.

Washington was inaugurated in April of 1789 and took up office in the capital, which was then in New York City. He took the office very seriously and tried to act with formality and dignity, knowing that future presidents would follow his example. He made appointments to his cabinet that reflected his desire to hear all points of view. This sometimes led to arguments, especially between his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. Washington attempted to stay above this divide, but hefound himself supporting Hamilton's financial plan and the general pro-business and pro-British policies of the Federalists. He was to step down after one term but was convinced by his friends that he was the only person who could lead an increasingly divided nation. He ran again and was unanimously elected. In his second term he faced a threat by way of the conflict between France and Britain, and he issued the Neutrality Proclamation in response. He later approved Jay's Treaty with Britain, which inched America closer to the British side. He left office in 1796, leaving behind a cabinet and Congress bitterly divided into Federalists and Republicans. He died in 1799.

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