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Although there is much that is unknown about Washington’s childhood, some events and influences stand out. He spent most of his youth on Ferry Farm, a plantation on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia. His father died when he was 11. And despite popular lore, he never chopped down a cherry tree nor did he deliver the famous “I cannot tell a lie” line.
Washington was not formally educated past the approximate age of 15. At age 17 he became a surveyor on the Virginia frontier.
Washington kept a journal of his adventures, which was later published, causing a sensation in the colonies and abroad.
In 1755 Washington accompanied British Major General Edward Braddock on a mission to drive the French from the Ohio Valley once and for all. But in a surprise attack, French and Indian forces killed Braddock and most of his officers. Braving both enemy and friendly fire, Washington rescued the remaining British troops and led them to safety. Word of his heroism spread, and he was placed in charge of all the Virginia forces. In 1758 he resigned his commission, returned home to Mount Vernon, and married Martha Custis.
By 1758 Washington was engaged in colonial politics and was elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses. All the while, he became increasingly resentful of British economic forces at play in both his personal finances and those of the colonies. In the fall of 1774 he traveled to Philadelphia as one of seven Virginia representatives to the Continental Congress. In 1775 the Revolutionary War broke out between the American colonies and Great Britain, and Washington was unanimously elected commander in chief of the Continental Army. When he arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts to take command of the American forces, battles had already been fought at Lexington and Concord, and the British were occupying Boston. The Americans were outnumbered ten to one and sorely lacking in funding, arms, training and supplies.
The highlights, both good and bad, of Washington’s tenure as commander of the Continental Army included the early British takeover of New York, which was counterbalanced by Washington’s famous Christmas night crossing of the Delaware in 1776, when his men won the Battle of Trenton, New Jersey. Washington’s attempts to defend Philadelphia were crushed at the Battle of Brandywine and an American counterattack at nearby Germantown also failed. The Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey resulted in a standoff. Finally, in 1781, with considerable help from French allies, the Americans victoriously attacked the British at Yorktown, marking the end to the Revolutionary War. The world was in awe.
In one of his finest moments, Washington resigned his commission in 1783, giving up power when he could have usurped it. Washington returned home to Mount Vernon with the expectation that his days of public service were over.
But the weak state of the union under the Articles of Confederation began to trouble Washington more and more. In 1787 he traveled to Philadelphia where his sterling reputation and austere manner helped to usher through a totally new constitution. In 1789 he was elected as the nation’s first president.
Washington’s second term centered on foreign affairs, and he wisely let his preference for neutrality be known. He dealt firmly with the Whiskey Rebellion and sent Chief Justice John Jay to England to negotiate an unpopular peace treaty with the British. He also asserted his distaste for emerging political parties, which were coming to dominate the American system of government.