George Washington: The First President (1789-1797)

Do you have some money in your pocket? Take a look at a quarter or a dollar bill. The man whose face you see is George Washington! As the first president of the United States, Washington helped to establish what it means to be president. He was also the commanding general of the army that won the American War of Independence from Great Britain. Because of his courage, his honesty, and his actions as the first president, Washington was without a doubt an outstanding figure in our history.

ALL ABOUT WASHINGTON

NICKNAME: The Father of His Country

BIRTH: February 22, 1732; Westmoreland County, VA

DEATH: December 14, 1799; Mount Vernon, VA

YEARS AS PRESIDENT: 1789–1797

SPOUSE: Martha Dandridge Custis (1731–1802)

VICE PRESIDENT: John Adams of Massachusetts (1789–1797)

Early Life

Washington's father died when he was still very young, and he didn't get along very well with his mother. We know this from the letters they wrote each other. As a result, he was very close to his older brother, Lawrence, who was like a father to George.

Lawrence was fourteen years older than George, and George looked up to him. (If you have an older brother or sister, you probably know what that's like!) Lawrence taught the future first president good manners. When George was sixteen, he went to live with Lawrence on his estate at Mount Vernon (which George later inherited). Lawrence arranged for George to learn surveying. Surveying is the practice of measuring land to be used for buildings, roads, or other manmade structures.

Professional Career Before Becoming President

George Washington had a lot of jobs and was very successful even before he became our first president. Washington worked as a surveyor and farmer, was a member of Virginia's colonial legislature (the place where laws for the state of Virginia were made), and was an officer in Virginia's colonial militia (which was sort of like today's National Guard). He rose to the rank of colonel and was a hero of the French and Indian War.

When the American Revolution (1775–1783) began, Washington asked the new American Congress if he could lead the army. He was quickly appointed commander-in-chief, or leader, of the Continental army.

Over the next eight years Washington led American troops through the harsh winter at Valley Forge and in battles at Morristown, Trenton, and Princeton. Because people liked him and he was brave in battle, General Washington became the main symbol of the Revolution to most Americans.

After the British lost at the Battle of Yorktown, which ended the Revolution, Washington gave up his position of commanding general of the Continental army and went back home to his plantation at Mount Vernon.

However, his country still needed him, and he eventually agreed to return to government and serve as president of the special convention that wrote the United States Constitution (1789). Have you ever heard of the Constitution? This is the document that first established our country as a union of states. The same convention also elected Washington as the first president under the new system of government.

FUN FACTS

WASHINGTON AND THE CHERRY TREE

Have you ever heard the story of Washington and the cherry tree? The story goes that when Washington was a boy, he chopped down a cherry tree and then told his father what he had done. It is a nice story, but it's actually not true! A man named Parson Weems made up the story after Washington's death. Weems hoped that by putting such stories of Washington's honest nature into a book, he could make lots of money.

Washington's Presidency

When President Washington took office, he was the first president, so the things that he did while he was in power set a precedent that all forty-two men who came later have followed in one way or another. Talk about influential!

Two of Washington's most famous advisors were also personal friends of his: Alexander Hamilton, who was the first secretary of the treasury, and Thomas Jefferson, who was the first secretary of state. (Washington set the precedent of having a cabinet, or a group of advisors, and he gave each one the title of “secretary.”) Although both men were close friends of the president, they disagreed politically and came to hate each other. Jefferson eventually resigned as secretary of state.

Two other important precedents that Washington set as our first president were the tradition of delivering a State of the Union message to the Congress and the tradition of retiring from office after serving only two four-year terms. In those days, presidents did not make the speeches themselves in front of a television audience. Instead, they had their speech delivered to the Congress, where a clerk read it aloud to everyone.

Washington didn't want to stay president too long because he thought it was important that a president not become like a king. Kings stayed in power until they died, and this made it difficult for any real changes to be made during a king's reign. Washington felt that a president should have a limit on the amount of time that he was president so that he wouldn't grow too powerful. All the U.S. presidents but one have honored this precedent, and that one (Franklin D. Roosevelt) had a very good reason to run for more than two terms in office (you'll read more about that in Chapter 8).

Retirement and Death

When his second term of office ended in 1797, George Washington was only too happy to return to his place at Mount Vernon, Virginia. With his wife Martha at his side, he enjoyed the simple life as a gentleman farmer for a number of years.

In December of 1799, Washington caught a chill while out on one of his daily rides. The chill quickly became a fever and turned into pneumonia, and he died on December 14, 1799.

In his will, George Washington freed the slaves who worked for him on his plantation. He was the only slave-owning founding father to do so.

FUN FACTS

THE MYTH OF GEORGE WASHINGTON'S WOODEN TEETH

George Washington did not have wooden teeth. They were real teeth — they just weren't his teeth. In fact, they weren't even human teeth! They were made from hippopotamus ivory (in other words, they were carved from a hippo's teeth), and were very expensive. They were also very painful. They're one of the main reasons why we have no paintings of Washington smiling!

COULD YOU BE PRESIDENT SOMEDAY?

The United States Constitution says that in order for a person to serve as president, he or she must be: (1) a “natural born citizen” of the United States; (2) at least thirty-five years old; and (3) a resident of the United States for at least fourteen years. A “natural born citizen” is anyone who was born in the United States or in any place that is considered United States property, such as the grounds of any U.S. embassy overseas or what used to be the United States Canal Zone in Panama.

Still Going Strong

Fill in the numbered spaces with the correct letters to learn this amazing fact about presidents!

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