Born into a modest Virginia gentry family, George Washington(1732-1799) emerged as the most important figure in America’s revolutionary struggle. His accomplishments were twofold: 1) he bravely led the Continental Army to its military victory over the British in the War for Independence, and 2) as the first president of the United States, he oversaw the establishment of a stable and respected federal government after the ratification of the Constitution.
Exceedingly ambitious as a youth, Washington entered the Virginia colonial militia as a major at the age of 21. He fought well in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) which began soon after he gained his commission. During this conflict, Washington learned a great deal about the craft of war – from fighting, to disciplining soldiers and officers, to inspiring unmotivated men. All of these traits would later serve him well when the American Revolution broke out.
Washington was appointed the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief by the Continental Congress in June 1775. The move was both political and military in nature. Congress wanted to avoid placing a New Englander in the top post and, therefore, settled upon the Virginian who had military experience as well as a reputation for integrity.
Although Washington lost a number of his initial engagements – most notably, the terrible defeat at the Battle of Long Island (August 1776) – he held the Continental Army together over many years despite terrible losses and great deprivations of food and supplies. He also possessed the ability to learn from his own mistakes. At the siege of Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781, Washington, the Continental Army, and their French allies captured a British army of General Lord Cornwallis. This victory ended the military portion of the Revolution. In December 1783, shortly after the Treaty of Paris was signed, Washington resigned from the army at the peak of his popularity.
From 1783 to 1787, Washington worked his plantation at Mount Vernon as a private citizen. Because of the political and economic problems brought about by the reestablishment of peace and the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation, Washington reentered public life to attend and preside over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
After the Constitution’s ratification, Washington was twice unanimously elected President of the United States. In this capacity, Washington oversaw the creation of an enduring central government. Moreover, he established a number of lasting precedents for the office of the presidency, including the tradition of the nation’s chief executive serving only two terms in office. Without a doubt, George Washington was America’s “indispensable man” (as his biographer James Thomas Flexner called him).