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George Washington (1732–1799)

Biography |Timeline of His Life | Words of Washington | Fascinating Facts About Him
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g_washingtonby Damon Huss

George Washington was one of the most honored heroes of the American Revolution. He commanded the Continental Army. After the revolution, he was elected the first president of the United States of America.

George Washington was born in the colony of Virginia in 1732. His mother was Mary Ball Washington. His father was Augustine Washington, also known as “Gus.” Gus was a planter of tobacco, an important crop in Virginia’s economy. He also taught George at home.

When George was 11 years old, Gus died. George had learned a lot from him, but not enough to become a planter himself. Fortunately, George had an older brother, Lawrence, who became his mentor. Lawrence had married into the powerful family of Lord Fairfax in Virginia.

George studied mathematics, trigonometry, and map-making. He used these skills to become a surveyor. Surveyors measure distances between different points on land.

At age 16, George helped survey land in Virginia for Lord Fairfax, who met George and made notes about him. Fairfax remarked on George’s height (George was 6' 3" tall). He also commented that George was “at all times composed and dignified.” The following year, George was appointed surveyor for Culpepper County, Virginia.

A major turning point in Washington’s life came with the French and Indian War, which began in 1754. It was a conflict between England and France for control of land in America. Washington first became a major in the Virginia militia. By the end of the war, he was a colonel.

The war gave Washington a chance to gain fame in Virginia. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Monongahela, where a French ambush left him the only officer to survive the battle. Four French bullets left holes in his coat, and one shot off his hat.

After the war, Washington married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow. Washington helped raise her two children on the estate known as Mount Vernon. He turned to tobacco planting, though he was not very successful. He was, however, elected to the Virginia colonial legislature.

In 1773, Patriots in Boston dumped 50 tons of tea into the harbor in the Boston Tea Party. Parliament punished the colonists by passing a group of laws known as the Intolerable Acts. Washington wrote in a letter that “Americans will never be taxed without their own consent” and that “the cause of Boston...is and ever will be the cause of America....”

Washington was chosen as a delegate from Virginia to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774. He was 42 years old and impressed the other delegates with his skills as a legislator. They were also impressed with his commitment to the cause of independence.

When the Second Continental Congress met in 1775, John Adams nominated Washington to be the commander in chief of the Continental Army. The delegates all agreed. On June 15, Washington was promoted from colonel in the militia to full general. He refused to accept any salary throughout the war.

He described the army as “a mixed multitude of people...under very little discipline, order or government.” He intended to change that. Thinking back on his experience in the French and Indian War, he wrote, “Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable....”

The war was not easy. In August 1776, the British had defeated the Continental Army in New York. The army then camped in New Jersey for the winter, and the troops were cold and hungry. They had signed up to fight only through the end of 1776. Washington needed to motivate them to keep fighting.

crossindelawareOn Christmas night 1776, Washington quietly led 2,500 across the Delaware River. They then marched nine miles through the snow and ambushed British troops in Trenton, New Jersey. A week later, Washington led them to another victory in Princeton, New Jersey.

These successes were exactly what Washington needed to keep his soldiers dedicated to the revolution. They also inspired Washington’s friend, the influential Marquis de Lafayette of France, to support the cause. Washington’s additional victory at Saratoga, New York (October 1777) brought France’s full support of American independence.

The winter of 1777 was another difficult time for the army. From that time through the spring of 1778, the army camped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. They were struck by typhus and smallpox. At least a quarter of the 10,000 men camped there died.

Yet the army emerged from the hardship. The troops trained hard, and French assistance continued. Washington beat the British at Monmouth, New Jersey (June 1778) and in other battles over the next three years.

With assistance from French troops, the American army finally trapped the British redcoats at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. The British general Lord Cornwallis surrendered to Washington. In the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Britain had to recognize the United States as an independent nation.

Many expected Washington to assume some authority in the nation. Instead, he said farewell to his officers in December 1783 and retired to Mount Vernon. He provided his leadership again only when the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787.

The delegates unanimously chose Washington to preside over the convention. Washington was silent most of the time, but his presence was important. One observer noted that the delegates kept Washington in mind when they outlined presidential powers in the Constitution.

Soon after the Constitution was ratified in 1789, Washington was elected the first president of the United States. The electors from every state chose Washington. It was another unanimous decision to give him authority. John Adams was elected vice president.

g_washington2Washington knew that as the first president that he had an important responsibility. “I walk on untrodden ground,” he wrote in a private letter in 1790. “There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.”

One of his first acts was to appoint members of his Cabinet, or advisors. He appointed Alexander Hamilton secretary of the treasury, Henry Knox secretary of war, and Thomas Jefferson secretary of state.

Britain and France were on their way to fighting a war against each other. Washington chose not to take sides in the European conflict. In 1793, he issued the Proclamation of Neutrality. The United States would have only “conduct friendly and impartial towards the belligerent powers.”

The next year, Washington faced a crisis. Farmers in western Pennsylvania rebelled against a tax on whiskey they made with their excess grain. Washington led the army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion.

Some thought Washington’s action was unnecessary, even tyrannical. Jefferson resigned at the end of 1794. Still others claimed Washington favored too close of relations with Britain. Some in the press called Washington a “tyrant.”

Even though Washington was elected for a second term, he refused to run for a third. Jefferson and Hamilton had been bitter rivals. Their differences led to the development of political parties, which Washington hated. In his Farewell Address in 1796, he called for neutrality and an end to fighting between opposing political groups.

Washington retired again, just as he did after the Revolutionary War. He lived for three more years at Mount Vernon with Martha. In December 1799, he inspected his farm in the rain and got a severe sore throat. He died as his doctors used bloodletting to treat him, which historians believe may have been the real cause of his death.

Biography |Timeline of His Life | Words of Washington | Fascinating Facts About Him
Slide Shows: The Life of George Washington | Tributes

Timeline of George Washington’s Life

1732

Feb. 22

George is born in Virginia. (According to the calendar of the time, he was born on Feb. 11, but the old calendar was changed.)

1743

George’s father dies.

1749

George is appointed county surveyor.

1752

George’s brother, Lawrence, dies.

Washington is appointed as a major in the Virginia militia and later fights in the French and Indian War.

1759

Washington marries Martha Custis.

1775

Congress names Washington commander in chief of the Continental Army.

1776

Washington leads the army across the Delaware River and defeat the British in a surprise attack at Trenton, New Jersey.

1777–1778

Washington and his army spend the long winter at Valley Forge, Virginia.

1781

British army surrenders at Yorktown, Virginia.

1783

Treaty of Paris is signed, officially ending the Revolutionary War.

Washington resigns as commander in chief and returns to Mount Vernon.

1787

Washington presides over the convention that writes the U.S. Constitution.

1788

Washington is elected the first president of the United States.

1792

Washington is re-elected to a second term as president.

1797

Washington refuses to run for a third term and retires to Mount Vernon.

1799

 

Washington dies at Mount Vernon.

Biography |Timeline of His Life | Words of Washington | Fascinating Facts About Him
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Words of George Washington

Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all.
—Letter (1759)

But lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.
—Speech accepting command of the Continental Army (1775)
The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves . . . .
—Speech to Continental Army (1776)
Example, whether it be good or bad, has a powerful influence.
—Letter (1780)
Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.
—Speech to Congress on resigning from the Army (1783)
The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.
—First Inaugural Address (1789)

To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.
—Speech to Congress (1790)

It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.
—Letter (1791)

We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth & reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition, and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart.
—Letter (1793)

When one side only of a story is heard and often repeated, the human mind becomes impressed with it insensibly.
—Letter (1795)

’Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances, with any portion of the foreign world.
—Farewell Address (1796)

The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish Government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established Government.
—Farewell Address (1796)

Rise early, that by habit it may become familiar, agreeable, healthy, and profitable. It may, for a while, be irksome to do this, but that will wear off; and the practice will produce a rich harvest forever thereafter; whether in public or private walks of life.
—Letter (1798)

It is infinitely better to have a few good men than many indifferent ones.
—Letter (1798)

Biography |Timeline of His Life | Words of Washington | Fascinating Facts About Him
Slide Shows: The Life of George Washington | Tributes

Fascinating Facts

In 1751, Washington sailed with his brother and mentor Lawrence to Barbados in the Caribbean Sea. His brother was seeking a cure for his tuberculosis. During the journey, George was struck with smallpox but survived. Because of this, he had an immunity to the disease that would later lead to the deaths of so many of his soldiers at Valley Forge.

When he arrived at the Second Continental Congress, he wore his military uniform from his days as a colonel in the Virginia militia.

When the Second Continental Congress appointed him commander-in-chief, he wrote to Martha “far from seeking this appointment I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it....”

Washington had serious dental problems for most of his adult life. It is commonly believed that he wore wooden dentures, but laser scans of his dentures at the Smithsonian Institution show that they were actually made from gold, ivory, lead, human teeth, and animal teeth (horse and donkey).

Martha left Mount Vernon and stayed with him during the harsh winters of 1777 and 1778.

Thomas Paine dedicated his pamphlet The Rights of Man to “George Washington, President of the United States of America.” Paine wrote directly to Washington:

Sir,

I present you a small Treatise in defence of those Principles of Freedom which your exemplary Virtue hath so eminently contributed to establish. That the Rights of Man become as universal as your Benevolence can wish, and that you may enjoy the Happiness of seeing the New World regenerate the Old, is the prayer of

Sir,

Your much obliged, and
Obedient humble servant,

THOMAS PAINE

When Washington resigned as commander-in-chief of the army, he was often compared to Cincinnatus, a Roman farmer and consul in the fifth century B.C. When Rome was invaded by enemies, Cincinnatus was made dictator with absolute authority to defend Rome. After he successfully drove out the enemies, he gave up his power and returned to his farm. The city of Cincinnati, Ohio, is named for him. It also honors Washington, the Cincinnatus of his day.

According to one account, King George III asked the painter Benjamin West (a friend of Benjamin Franklin) what he thought Washington would do after the Revolutionary War. West replied that Washington would probably return to his farm. “If Washington does that,” said the king, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Biography |Timeline of His Life | Words of Washington | Fascinating Facts About Him
Slide Shows: The Life of George Washington | Tributes

The Life of George Washington

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Biography |Timeline of His Life | Words of Washington | Fascinating Facts About Him
Slide Shows: The Life of George Washington | Tributes

Tributes to George Washington


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