|Interment Location||Visited||Sequence in Graves I Have Visited|
|Mount Vernon, VA||July 2003||1st Constitution Signer visited; 4th President visited|
After his funeral on December 18, 1799, George Washington — commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and the first president of the United States — was laid to rest at Mount Vernon, his plantation along the Potomac River in Virginia. Washington’s remains were originally interred within a deteriorating family vault, but his last will and testament stipulated that a new tomb be constructed close by. The commander-in-chief and his relatives were removed from the sepulcher pictured here after construction concluded on the new chamber in spring 1831.
After Washington’s death, Mount Vernon became a pilgrimage site for many (primarily white) people who desired to establish a connection between themselves and “the Father of His Country.” In the first half of the nineteenth century, a number of enslaved individuals laboring near the tomb regaled tourists with real and fabricated accounts about their interactions with the late president. Satisfied listeners often distributed food or money to these individuals, who used white visitors’ affinity for Washington to improve their quality of life as best as they could from within the institution of slavery.
Washington and his wife, former First Lady Martha Washington, are interred in marble sarcophagi created by Philadelphia stonemason John Struthers in 1837. Twenty-five members of their extended family are interred out of view in the back vault. These other inhabitants include Martha’s daughter from her first marriage, Patsy Custis, and the couple’s nephew, Bushrod Washington. Bushrod, who served three decades as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, inherited Mount Vernon after his Aunt Martha’s death in May 1802.
This image is from my family’s trip to Mount Vernon on a sweltering day in late July 2003, when I was eight years old. Although Washington’s tomb was the fourth presidential grave site I traveled to, it was the first I was photographed with. I took the previous pictures on this page during my second visit on July 11, 2015. On that occasion, I was selected to enter the Washington tomb and lay a boxwood wreath next to the general’s sarcophagus. Click here to watch.
Born: February 22, 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia
Spouse: Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (m. 1759-1799)
Highest Military Rank: Lieutenant General — Continental Army; General of the Armies (posthumous) — U.S. Army
Political Affiliation: None
Presidential Tenure: 1789-1797
Vice President: John Adams
Died: December 14, 1799 in Mount Vernon, Virginia
Cause of Death: Quinsy
Last Words: “‘Tis well.”
Interment: George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Mount Vernon, Virginia
"Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest, or advantage, to the common good. It is in vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account--the fact is so, the experience of every age and nation has proved it, and we must, in a great measure, ch[ange] the constitution of man, before we can make it otherwise. [No] institution, not built on the presumptive truth of these ma[xims,] can succeed."
- George Washington
January 29, 1778 concerning pay for soldiers in a letter to a Continental Congress Camp Committee
George Washington was born at Popes Creek in Westmoreland County in the British colony of Virginia on February 11, 1732 (a date now recognized as February 22nd under the Gregorian calendar, which was adopted by Great Britain and its colonies in 1752). Popes Creek was the site of the tobacco plantation owned by his father, Augustine Washington. Augustine died in 1743, which left his wife, Mary Ball Washington, widowed. Through his father’s last will and testament, eleven-year-old George was set to inherit ten Black people held captive in chattel slavery, a number which increased by the time he came of age in 1750.
Whereas his elder half-brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, Jr., were educated at Appleby Grammar School in Cumbria, England, George was unable to follow in their footsteps due to the financial constraints that encumbered the family once their father died. The widowed Mary Washington raised George and his young siblings and provided for them as best as she could. This included by selling tracts of land and managing what remained of the Washingtons’ Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River. Though his formal education was limited, young George learned through independent studying and experience. He familiarized himself with the etiquette book Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. George’s mother did not allow him to enlist in the British Royal Navy at age 14, but she encouraged him to embrace work as a land surveyor. He had a great start, as he was able to use his late father’s equipment and was taken on by his half-brother Lawrence’s in-laws, the prestigious Fairfax family, to survey their holdings in Western Virginia. At age 17 he was commissioned by the College of William and Mary to be the surveyor for Culpepper County.
In 2008, archaeologists discovered the foundation of the Washington home at Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia. An interpretive replica of the home was constructed on the site subsequent to my visit of 2015. It opened in 2018. A historical marker at the location noted that, had it actually occurred, Ferry Farm was where a young George would have cut down his father’s cherry tree and admitted the deed, proclaiming, “I cannot tell a lie.” This was a fable conveyed by Mason Locke Weems in his biography of the first president from 1800. In truth as opposed to fantasy, Ferry Farm was where George and his siblings were raised by their widowed mother and where enslaved people toiled.
After Lawrence’s death in 1752, Washington successfully advocated for himself to replace his brother as an adjutant in the Virginia Militia. In October 1753, Washington received a commission to investigate reports that the French were establishing posts in the Ohio Valley on land claimed by the British Crown. Allied with Seneca natives who wanted to drive out the French from their ancestral lands, Lieutenant Colonel Washington’s regiment confronted a French encampment on the morning of May 28, 1754. The chaotic Battle of Jumonville Glen, as it became known, was the first conflict of the French and Indian War. After most of the French soldiers were killed and scalped, it came to light that the contingent, commanded by Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, was on a peaceful mission with the goal of prompting the British to withdraw. The diplomatic nightmare and the subsequent defeat at the poorly-planned Fort Necessity – which was built to Washington’s specifications – combined for an inauspicious start to the 22-year-old’s military career. Soon thereafter, Royal Governor Robert Dinwiddie restructured the colony’s militia and stifled upward mobility for colonists. Rather than accept a demotion to captain and serve under British regulars whom he had previously commanded, Washington resigned in October 1754.
His return to private life was brief. In spring 1755 he accepted an invitation to serve as a volunteer aide-de-camp to General Edward Braddock, whose regiments were tasked with driving the French out of the western lands. The arrangement made Washington subordinate only to the general. On July 9, 1755, on their way to destroy Fort Duquesne, a French post near present-day Pittsburgh, Braddock’s troops were crushed by French and Indigenous forces. Braddock was mortally-wounded and, of his aides, only Washington was unharmed — which left him in charge of organizing the retreat. Though the Battle of Monogahela was a British defeat, Washington was lauded for saving Braddock’s forces from annihilation. The following month, he was recommissioned as a colonel and given charge of the Virginia Regiment. He served until late 1758, when the French exploded and abandoned Fort Duquesne as an expedition of troops under General John Forbes — including Washington’s regiment — closed in on their position and the forks of the Ohio River. Washington then resigned once again from the militia and returned to Virginia, where he married wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis on January 6, 1759.
The couple established themselves at Mount Vernon, the riverfront plantation George leased from Anne Fairfax Washington Lee, his half-brother Lawrence’s widow. George’s marriage to Martha enhanced his status and increased the number of enslaved people under his purview. Under Virginia law, Martha was entitled to a third of the estate of her first husband — the late Daniel Parke Custis — which provided her 84 dower slaves, whom, along with any offspring, would legally pass on to Martha’s beneficiaries upon her death. In the meantime, they were under the legal control of her new husband. Washington also leased enslaved laborers from other plantation owners nearby, and they lived and labored on the five farms that comprised the Mount Vernon estate, which the future president inherited after Anne Fairfax Washington Lee died in 1761. Most of them spent their lives working within and resisting the oppressive institution of slavery.
In addition to his work as a farmer and enslaver, Washington was active in politics. He was elected to his first public office in July 1758, while he was still with the Virginia Regiment. Washington was chosen to serve in the colonial legislature, the House of Burgesses, representing Frederick County. During the 1760s and 1770s, while Washington was a burgess, the British Parliament imposed measures that were largely unpopular with the North American colonists impacted by them, who also felt they did not have proper representation to give a voice to their opposition. This included levying taxes, which violated the established precedent of that right being reserved by colonial legislatures. As the French and Indian War and the accompanying Seven Years War concluded, Great Britain looked to use these taxes to alleviate its national debt of 130 million pounds. It also banned colonists from buying or selling land out west of the Appalachians due to trade with Indigenous populations. This affected Washington personally, as he owned 60,000 acres in that region. In correspondence, he also criticized the Stamp Act of 1765, which required paper materials in the colonies such as newspapers, legal documents, and playing cards be printed on London-stamped paper. The law banned the printing of colonial money, which made funds scarce and affected Washington’s ability to collect from debtors. Washington also opposed the Townshend Acts, the tea tax, and the punitive Coercive Acts which punished Bostonians for the Boston Tea Party. He represented Virginia in the First Continental Congress, which met in September and October 1774 to determine how to respond to the British blockade of Boston. They settled on a boycott of British goods. The following spring, after conflict broke out between colonists and British regulars in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, a pre-arranged Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia. The body elected to form a Continental Army, and delegate John Adams nominated Washington to lead it. The 43-year-old veteran was unanimously chosen.
On July 3, 1775, General Washington assumed his role as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His circumstances were not to be envied — the 16,500 men under him were mostly untrained and undisciplined. This was a disconcerting predicament, as he was tasked with using these men to expel the world’s mightiest military from Boston. The original strategy was to hold a defensive position and cut off British supply lines, and little fighting occurred on this front of the war. In November, Washington tasked Colonel Henry Knox with transporting cannons secured during the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point in New York. When Knox’s contingent arrived with fifty-nine artillery pieces in March 1776, Washington ordered them placed atop the strategically advantageous Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston. The British soon withdrew, which brought an end to the Siege of Boston. In April, Washington moved his forces from Boston to New York, which marked a fraught period for the Continental Army. Overmatched by the British in the Battle of Long Island that August, Washington successfully evacuated his decimated troops from Brooklyn to Manhattan. A succession of defeats drove Washington’s soldiers southward, into New Jersey and then Pennsylvania.
By using the Roadside Presidents mobile app by Roadside America, I became aware of this monument at Cambridge Common. It reads, “Under this tree, Washington first took command of the American Army. July 3D. 1775.”
In December 1776, the Continental Army was in dire shape, and the cause for independence from Great Britain with it. The redcoats were gaining ground and the terms of service for most of the continentals were expiring at the end of the year. With morale so low, it was imperative for Washington to improve the optics if men were to re-enlist and keep the fight for independence from the crown alive. On Christmas night, into the early hours of December 26th, the Americans crossed the frigid Delaware River into New Jersey and surprised Hessian troops hired by the Brits. Of the 1,500 Hessians encamped in Trenton, Washington’s men killed 22 and captured approximately 900. The victory went a long way in persuading colonists to remain in the Continental Army.
In his post as commander-in-chief during the Revolutionary War, which lasted until 1783, Washington lost more battles than he won. As opposed to quantity of victorious confrontations, Washington’s contributions to the success of the American Revolution came in other forms. He kept the fledgling military together by instilling discipline, stamping out mutinies, and feathering the prop with his troops and advocating for them in his communications with the Continental Congress. He guided his troops through dreadful winter conditions such as those at Valley Forge and bore hardships along with them. His 1777 smallpox inoculation mandate for soldiers passing through Philadelphia preserved lives (he professed that without a mandate his army would have more to dread from the epidemic “than from the Sword of the Enemy,”). He surrounded himself with a skilled group of subordinates such as Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, and the Marquis de Lafayette, who were among the officers he consulted with in councils of war. He coordinated well with French commander the Comte de Rochambeau in advance of the Battle of Yorktown, the last major conflict of the war. Above all, even in the aftermath of defeat, he never allowed his forces to be put in a position where he had to surrender. Of additional significance, after the Treaty of Paris was signed and the hostilities officially ended and the redcoats withdrew, Washington resigned his commission. Whereas military figures across the globe typically used victory in war to seize the seat of power, Washington did not. When painter Benjamin West conveyed to King George III that Washington would resign, the British monarch replied, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” On December 23, 1783, Washington did just that. He addressed the Second Continental Congress’ successor, the Congress of the Confederation, and announced his retirement “from the great theatre of Action.” Washington arrived the next day at Mount Vernon, where he intended to spend the rest of his life.
In 2014, a bronze statue of George Washington was placed in the restored Old Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House in Annapolis, where the Congress of the Confederation held sessions in 1783 and 1784. The figure by StudioEIS stands on the approximate spot where on December 23, 1783 Washington delivered the speech in which he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Congressman James McHenry wrote, “the spectators all wept, and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears.”
In the years that immediately followed the American Revolution, the former colonies that acquired their independence from Great Britain were far from united states. The nation’s governing document, the Articles of Confederation, lacked enforcement power. States were not inclined to pay heed to the Federal Government’s tax demands, and the burgeoning country was unable to pay off its debt. The states’ efforts to collect taxes of their own met resistance from some Americans. In Massachusetts, for example, farmers who fought in the Revolution returned home and found themselves struggling to pay taxes or eliminate debts. When their reformative petitions to local and state governments were ignored, the farmers rose up in August 1786. Armed protestors, called Regulators, prevented courts from convening in Northampton and other locales. The insurgency became known as Shays’ Rebellion, named after leader Daniel Shays. It required a privately-funded militia to quell the rebellion in January 1787 as the Regulators were on their way to attempt to gain control of an arsenal in Springfield. As the Articles of Confederation stood, the Federal Government did not have the power to put down the insurrections or to alleviate the financial hardships that inspired them. Also, if the U.S. could not become a cohesive entity, it would look unsteady to potential allies and vulnerable to possible foes.
Concerned about the country’s direction and prodded by his contemporaries, Washington traveled to Philadelphia in spring 1787 for a gathering to address the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. The delegation met in secrecy in the Pennsylvania State House and unanimously selected the former commander-in-chief of the Continental Army as its president. Although some delegates intended to simply revise the Articles, the end result of the four-month Philadelphia Convention was a new Constitution signed by thirty-nine delegates, including Washington. The U.S. Constitution, if ratified by two-thirds of state legislature-created conventions, would empower a stronger Federal Government comprised of three branches: Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. The Executive Branch would be headed by the president of the United States, whose duty it would be to execute and enforce laws and other responsibilities laid out in Article II. Between December 1787 and June 1788, the proposed document was ratified by delegates from Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire. This nullified the authority of the Articles of Confederation and enacted the U.S. Constitution as the law of the land.
In December 1788 and January 1789, the nine aforementioned states and the subsequent addition of Virginia chose presidential electors, per the process laid out in the Constitution. The electors convened as the Electoral College on February 4, 1789. Each of the 69 electors cast one of their two votes for George Washington, and he was chosen as the first U.S. president. Washington was the most widely-known and respected figure in America and the parameters of the office of the president had been crafted with the former general in mind. He was possibly the lone person equipped to keep the nation together in its nascency. John Adams, who had most recently served as the first U.S. minister to the United Kingdom, received the second greatest number of electoral votes — 34 — and was elected vice president.
Washington’s funds were tied up in his acreage, and thus he was “land rich, cash poor.” He borrowed money to travel from Virginia to New York to attend his own inauguration and reach the temporary seat of government. On April 30, 1789, a crowd gathered at Federal Hall in Manhattan to watch Robert Livingston, chancellor of the state of New York, administer the oath of office to 57-year-old Washington.
George Washington took the first presidential oath of office upon a Bible that was printed in London in 1765. It was loaned by freemasons from St. John’s Lodge No. 1 in New York for the ceremony, during which it was held by the secretary of the Senate, Samuel Allyne Otis. Today the book is displayed inside the Federal Hall National Memorial, an 1842 Greek-Revival building which stands on the site of Washington’s 1789 inauguration.
While some of the parameters of the office of the president were explained in the Constitution, many aspects of the position were excluded. This was done purposely, with the intention that Washington would create wise precedents for successors to follow. Washington would have set few standards had he not recovered from the anthrax infection that beset him in June and July 1789. He spent much of the four-year term determining how to present himself to the public, how to interact with diplomats, and what constituted a proper working relationship between the president and members of the Executive Branch and the two other branches of the Federal Government. This included the six original Supreme Court justices, who were nominated to their positions on the bench by President Washington. In fall 1789 during the first congressional recess he toured the New England states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. In a letter to John Adams from the previous May, Washington inquired if his vice president thought it would be advantageous for him to tour the various states of the Union “in order to become better acquainted with their principal Characters & internal Circumstances, as well as to be more accessible to numbers of well-informed persons, who might give him useful informations and advices on political subjects[.]” He then visited Rhode Island in August 1790, only after it ratified the Constitution, becoming the last of the thirteen North American colonies that rebelled against Great Britain to do so. Washington toured the southern states in spring 1791.
One of the most influential precedents Washington created was forming a cabinet of department secretaries. The notion of executive departments and secretaries as their heads carried over from the Confederation Congress. The Constitution noted that the president “may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices,” but did not stipulate that they meet as a group. Two years into his term, President Washington drew upon his experience as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, when he convened councils of war. In November 1791, he called his first cabinet meeting. The officers were his old House of Burgesses colleague Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state, his former aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph — another of Washington’s former aides-de-camp and his personal lawyer. He gathered them together to solicit their advice on relations with France and Great Britain, a topic which consumed much of his tenure.
Washington voiced to confidants his desire to retire from the presidency after one term. He wished to return with the first lady to Mount Vernon, away from sectional disputes, partisan disagreements that were embroiling the Congress and his cabinet (particularly between Jefferson and Hamilton), and criticism that his administration was using a strong executive to trend toward monarchy. Washington’s advisors beseeched him to run for the highest office once more. Jefferson wrote to the president, “The confidence of the whole union is centered in you. Your being at the helm, will be more than an answer to every argument which can be used to alarm and lead the people in any quarter into violence or secession. North and South will hang together, if they have you to hang on[.]” In the election of 1792, Washington was again elected unanimously, with Adams chosen to continue on as his vice president.
Washington’s second term, which began on March 4, 1793, was more trying than his first four years in office. A month prior, France — which was in the middle of a revolution and had just executed its dethroned king, Louis XVI — declared war on the Dutch Republic and Great Britain. Other nations and their colonies became embroiled in the conflict as well. Washington was concerned that U.S. involvement on the side of its French allies would put the new country at risk financially — in part because Great Britain was America’s most prolific trade partner. Furthermore, conflict could endanger American independence should the states come to blows with Great Britain and lose. In advance of their first cabinet meeting on the matter, the president wrote to his secretary of state, “War having actually commenced between France and Great Britain, it behoves the Government of this Country to use every means in it’s power to prevent the citizens thereof from embroiling us with either of those powers, by endeavouring to maintain a strict neutrality.” Meeting on April 19th, the secretaries agreed that the U.S. should remain impartial. On April 22nd, Washington issued a Neutrality Proclamation drafted by Attorney General Randolph.
Another aspect of the Neutrality Crisis caused an impasse in the presidential cabinet. The quarrel concerned how to receive the new French minister, Edmond-Charles Genêt, who was expected to arrive on the American shore shortly thereafter. Members of the burgeoning Republican Party (aka the Democratic-Republicans) viewed the French Revolution as a continuation of the American Revolution and wanted to honor its treaties with France. Federalist Party members were concerned with the violence that consumed France and argued that their diplomatic agreements were nullified when France abolished its monarchy. The issue split the presidential cabinet, with Jefferson and Randolph taking the Republican view and Hamilton and Knox advocating the Federalist perspective. Once he received written opinions from his cabinet members, the president decided to receive Citizen Genêt as an ally. However, unbeknownst to the members of the Executive Branch, the French minister landed on April 8th in Charleston, South Carolina, over 600 miles away from the temporary capital of Philadelphia. On his slow journey up the coast, Citizen Genêt stirred up pro-France fervor and recruited Americans to serve as privateers for the French cause. Even after Jefferson, sympathetic to France, tried to temper Genêt’s actions and expectations by explaining the administration’s position of neutrality, the diplomat continued to push his agenda. This caused Washington to quickly sour on the ambassador. In the end, the persistent flouting of the executive’s authority by a foreign agent — Genêt — was too much for many Americans to tolerate, and even congressional Republicans endorsed the decision to have the French minister recalled. In June 1794, Congress supported the president’s authority on foreign affairs by passing the Neutrality Act.
During his presidency, Washington asked for counsel from his cabinet on issues concerning presidential authority and precedents — whether they believed specific matters should fall under the purview of the president, Congress, or state governments. This included issues both foreign and domestic. A significant domestic dispute that had simmered for three years came to a boiling point in summer 1794. In 1791, Congress approved a tax on whiskey that had been proposed by Treasury Secretary Hamilton to help pay off the national debt. The new duty was an excise tax, so it was applied to whiskey manufacturers as opposed to consumers. The tax quickly drew the ire of poor farmers in western rural communities. Because grain was expensive to transport to coastal markets, these farmers distilled much of their harvest into whiskey to cover the exorbitant transportation costs. Furthermore, whiskey was sometimes used as barter in these regions. Dissatisfaction was prevalent in North Carolina and Kentucky, but Western Pennsylvania was where the full force of resentment was felt. On July 15, 1794 revenue inspector John Neville and Marshal David Lenox served writs to distillers near Pittsburgh who were delinquent on their excise taxes. At the residence of William Miller, firearms were discharged at Neville and Lenox, who fled. The following day, armed protestors approached Neville’s home — Bower Hill — and demanded he surrender Marshal Lenox, who they incorrectly believed was in the house. A member of the crowd was killed in a skirmish, and the next day hundreds of insurgents surrounded Bower Hill. Their leader, Major James McFarlane, was killed and Bower Hill was set aflame and destroyed.
President Washington called a cabinet meeting so he could poll his secretaries on courses of action. Federalists Hamilton and Knox favored a military intervention. Edmund Randolph, who switched from attorney general to secretary of state after Thomas Jefferson’s resignation, advised Washington to negotiate with the hostiles. New attorney general William Bradford, another Federalist, proposed the course of action that Washington followed — to send a peace commission while simultaneously galvanizing militias from various states should peaceful negotiations prove unsuccessful. Washington and his secretaries believed this was the best course of action — that waiting until Congress returned from its recess to respond to the violence was not an option, and that the Pennsylvania State Government had failed to enforce the law for three years and was either unwilling or incapable of doing so. Pursuant to the Militia Act of 1792, Washington’s administration presented their case to Associate Justice James Wilson, who granted the president the authority to call out the militias to enforce the law and suppress the rebellion. The administration announced in advance that it would use military force to stop the rebellion if the peace commission failed, and when it did, the president ordered the militias from Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to coalesce in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Though Pennsylvania governor Thomas Mifflin — a rival of Washington’s since the American Revolution — initially objected to such use of presidential authority, he eventually acquiesced. On October 4, President Washington arrived in Carlisle from Philadelphia and reviewed the troops. He rode with them as far west as Bedford before he started to return east to Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter, the forces arrived in Pittsburgh under the command of Virginia’s governor, Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. Intimidated by the arrival of the militias, the rebels disbanded. Some were arrested, but few were found guilty of treason. Those who were convicted were eventually pardoned. The authority of the Federal Government to levy taxes — and of the president to enforce the nation’s laws — was further cemented.
Meanwhile, tensions were high with Great Britain. Among the issues were that the Royal Navy seized 250 neutral U.S. vessels that were transporting goods to France, and the British had not honored their agreement in the Treaty of Paris to, “with all convenient speed […] withdraw all […] Armies, Garrisons & Fleets” from the U.S. Additionally, southern enslavers wanted to be compensated for the losses they incurred when enslaved people escaped to the British during the American Revolution. On the other side, Britain was angered by the U.S. neglecting to repay British creditors and pay restitution to loyalists whose property was confiscated, as had been agreed to in the 1783 treaty. On April 15, 1794, President Washington met with Chief Justice John Jay and requested he travel to London as a special envoy to negotiate another treaty and stave off a second war with Great Britain. Jay emerged from negotiations with British Foreign Minister William Grenville with the best treaty he believed was possible to achieve at the time. The document was signed in London on November 19, 1794. President Washington received the treaty on March 7, 1795. The Congress was again in recess, so the administration called for senators to return to Philadelphia for a special session in June. The Senate secretly debated the treaty and on June 24th it passed by one vote, 20-10. The body then successfully voted to allow the agreement’s contents to become public knowledge.
Two days before the Executive Branch planned to have the full treaty published in the Federalist-friendly Philadelphia Gazette, its details were printed in a noted anti-administration publication, the Aurora General Advertiser. It revealed an agreement that benefited U.S. commercial interests to some extent, but largely favored Great Britain. Republicans assailed Jay, who was burned in effigy in numerous communities. Even after Washington signed the treaty in August, politicians and citizens alike criticized the document heavily via protests and newspaper publications. On March 2, 1796, Representative Edward Livingston of New York’s 2nd District introduced a resolution that called for the president to take his instructions to Jay and other correspondence pertaining to the treaty and submit them to the House.
Previously, Washington received a similar request to have his cabinet officers turn over Executive Branch documents. At the president’s direction, the U.S. Army was attempting to solidify its hegemony in the Northwest Territory, which was ceded to the United States by the British in the Treaty of Paris. On November 4, 1791, a confederation of Indigenous tribes fought for their sovereignty and soundly defeated Major General Arthur St. Clair’s colonizing forces. In March 1792, A specially-created congressional committee requested executive papers related to St. Clair’s Defeat at the Battle of Wabash. Whereas Washington complied with the request in 1792, in 1796 he declined to do the same with Jay Treaty documents. In doing so, Washington asserted executive privilege for the first time in the office’s history. In a letter drafted by his third and final secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, Washington professed, “The nature of foreign negotiations requires caution, and their success must often depend on secrecy.” Revealing every behind-the-scenes detail might negatively affect future arbitrations or upset other nations. The letter continued, “To admit […] a right in the House of Representatives to demand and to have as a matter of course all the papers respecting a negotiation with a foreign power would be to establish a dangerous precedent.” Washington also remarked that, having presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he knew the principles on which the Constitution was formed and that “the power of making treaties is exclusively vested in the President,” after which two-thirds of the Senate is needed to adopt such agreements, which had already occurred. In the end, Federalist sentiment prevailed and Congress passed a bill to allocate funds to enforce the Jay Treaty without Washington submitting the papers.
By spring 1796, Washington was 64 years old. His health was not what it once was, and he was eager to retire to Mount Vernon, out of the spotlight and away from the dogged criticism of Republicans. He announced his decision in a farewell address printed in Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser on Monday, September 19, 1796. Washington took this route so that his announcement would be directed not to government officials but to the populace he served. The letter was crafted by his close advisor Alexander Hamilton, who combined his writings with an unused draft written for Washington by Congressman James Madison in 1792, which Washington had recently added additions to. The address touted the Constitution, a strong central government, and unity among the states. Meanwhile, it warned against sectionalism and the divisiveness of political parties, as well as “permanent alliances” with foreign powers. By declining the opportunity of another term and becoming a private citizen, Washington set one of his final precedents — serving no more than eight years as president. In the election held that fall, John Adams was elected to succeed Washington. Adams took the presidential oath on March 4, 1797, signifying the first transition of executive power under the U.S. Constitution. Twice Washington relinquished authority that some citizens were willing to bestow upon him for life.
As conflict arose with the French Republic in July 1798, President Adams appointed his retired predecessor as commander of the Provisional Army of the United States. Washington was surprised by the move, but having always been inclined to act when called upon, he accepted the appointment on the condition that he would not leave Mount Vernon for duty “until the army is in a situation to require my presence.” No such situation arose.
After the Residence Act of 1790 designated that the permanent U.S. capital would be situated along the Potomac River, President Washington selected the exact site of the city that would soon be named in his honor. He also laid the cornerstone of the Capitol Building and chose the location of the Executive Mansion. Washington is the only president who never lived in the White House, or even Washington, D.C., though he did have townhouses constructed there. A marker in Upper Senate Park partially reads, “HERE WERE THE LOTS ACQUIRED ON OCTOBER 3, 1798 BY GENERAL GEORGE WASHINGTON AND ON WHICH HE BUILT TWO BRICK DWELLINGS FROM DESIGNS BY DR. WILLIAM THORNTON.” The former president recorded in his diary that he viewed the buildings on November 9, 1799 — 35 days before his death. The bronze plaque was placed in 1932 to coincide with the bicentennial of Washington’s birth.
According to a list compiled in 1799 — Washington’s third year of retirement — at that time 317 enslaved people were living and working on the five farms that comprised the 8,000-acre Mount Vernon estate. The first president’s relationship with slavery was lifelong, having been born into an enslaver family. At least 577 people are known to have been forced to labor at Mount Vernon while George Washington was its proprietor. He allowed them some privileges and dignities, such as recognizing their marriages and permitting excursions to other plantations, but he was also exacting and expressed paternalistic views toward Black people and the institution of slavery. The elite enslaver looked down on many of “[his] people” for what he perceived as innate clumsiness and ineptitude but was truthfully resistance to their subjugation. He instructed overseers to use physical punishment sparingly, but he was not wholly against it. In 1793, when Washington was in Philadelphia serving as president, Mount Vernon estate manager Anthony Whiting reported to his boss that he used a hickory switch to whip Charlotte — a seamstress at the Mansion House Farm — for refusing to do work. The president replied that Whiting’s decision to whip Charlotte was “very proper.”
Even when Washington was away from Mount Vernon, slavery was an ever-present part of his life. During the American Revolution, he was accompanied by his valet, William Lee, whom he purchased in 1768. Lee’s duties included delivering messages and organizing Washington’s papers, among many other tasks. At least ten enslaved people worked in George and Martha Washington’s presidential households in New York and Philadelphia from 1789 to 1797 — the youngest being Richmond, age eleven.
George Washington’s attitudes and behavior toward the institution of slavery are complex, with some aspects indicating either evolution of thought or contradictions and hypocrisy — perhaps both in some instances. During his early times as an enslaver, he bought and sold Black people — actions that in his later years he swore not to do again because they separated families. In 1786, Washington wrote financier Robert Morris that although he disagreed with certain tactics employed by abolitionists, “I hope it will not be conceived from these observations, that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people, who are the subject of this letter, in slavery. I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.” Washington voiced his favorable views on gradual abolition in private conversations and correspondence, but did not advocate for it publically. Research historian Mary V. Thompson postulates that Washington could have feared tearing the nation in two as he recollected the vehement disagreements between northern and southern delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
Furthermore, when the federal legislature did not restrict slavery but rather strengthened it by passing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, Washington signed it into law. And on a personal level, he spent three years unsuccessfully seeking the return of self-liberated maid Ona Judge, who recounted late in her life that she “left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner” in May 1796. In the president’s view, Judge was “brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant” and expressed sentiments of betrayal.
Prejudice and paternalism alone did not prolong Washington’s status as an enslaver. In 1782, Virginia made it legal for enslavers to free their slaves without the requirement of government approval. The same legislation required masters or their estates to financially support the people they manumitted if a court determined they were not “of sound mind and body, or being above the age of forty-five years, or being males under the age of twenty-one, or females under the age of eighteen years[.]” Each newly-freed person also needed a clerk-signed manumission paper that would cost Virginia enslavers five schillings apiece. Washington did not earn a salary during the American Revolution and returned to find his plantation had been mismanaged by his cousin Lund. Washington owed substantial sums to creditors, which he had difficulty paying off due to poor crop yields. And, being land rich but cash poor, he would need to sell his thousands of acres of western lands in order to raise enough money to free his slaves and the Custis dower slaves brought under his control by his marriage to Martha. Freeing the dower slaves would bring the extra expense of reimbursing the Custis heirs for the loss of their “property.” Washington attempted to sell 23,000 acres of land in 1798 to raise funds, but the deal fell through when the prospective buyer failed to pay any of the agreed-to sum.
Washington continued to struggle with thoughts about his finances and manumission. In July 1799, he signed a new last will and testament that paved a path to freedom for the 123 men, women, and children he personally owned, but only after the death of Mrs. Washington. Of the 123 people Washington owned, his longtime valet Billy Lee was the lone individual he offered immediate emancipation to in his will. The president still stored his previous will in his desk, but on his deathbed he directed his wife to burn the older document. The newer one which enabled manumission for the Washington slaves was enacted.
On December 12th, Washington rode through hail, snow, and rain to inspect the Mount Vernon farms. When he returned to the mansion for the afternoon meal, he declined to change out of his wet clothes because to do so would have made him tardy, something the particular and punctual general loathed. The following day, sore throat and all, he went through his usual routine about the estate. Early the next morning, he awoke to greater discomfort. He was first attended to by plantation overseer George Rawlins, who at the ill man’s request drew his blood. Throughout the day three doctors arrived. Per the prevailing medical practices of the era, the physicians applied blisters, administered an enema, and bled him three additional times, among other tactics. Washington continued to deteriorate. As he took his own pulse, the first U.S. president died in the ten o’clock hour that evening — December 14, 1799.
The Washingtons’ bedchamber, located on the second floor of the Mount Vernon mansion. The bedframe is original, purchased in Philadelphia in the early 1790s by Martha Washington. George Washington’s death occurred in this room, and his secretary, Tobias Lear, wrote a detailed record of the event, which he remarked would “be memorable in the History of America, and perhaps of the world[.]”
On December 18th, Washington’s lead-lined, mahogany coffin was laid to rest in the family vault on Mount Vernon, south of the mansion. Despite the tribalism that sullied Washington’s standing among Republicans during his presidency, few had anything but praise to foist upon the leader of the Continental Army upon his decease. Tributes poured in from throughout the nation, perhaps with none more enduring than the eulogy written by Light-Horse Harry Lee. The then-congressman extolled Washington as “First in war- first in peace- and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Sources Consulted and Further Reading
Berggren, D. Jason. “Presidential Election of 1789.” mountvernon.org. Accessed November 22, 2021. https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/presidential-election-of-1789/.
Carbone, Gerald M. Washington: Lessons in Leadership. Washington: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.
Chervinsky, Lindsay M. The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020.
Chervinsky, Lindsay M. “The Enslaved Household of President George Washington.” White House Historical Association, September 6, 2019. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-enslaved-household-of-president-george-washington.
Coe, Alexis. You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington. New York: Viking, 2020.
Costello, Matthew R. The Property of the Nation: George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2019.
Ebel, Carol. “Jay Treaty.” mountvernon.org. Accessed December 5, 2021. https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/jay-treaty/.
Engel, Jeffrey and Lindsay Chervinsky. “George Washington and Executive Power.” The Past, the Promise, the Presidency. Podcast audio, October 7, 2021. https://www.pastpromisepresidency.com/season-2/episode30-george-washington-executive-power.
“George Washington: Message to the House Regarding Documents Relative to the Jay Treaty March 30, 1796.” From Yale Law School, The Avalon Project. Accessed December 6, 2021. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/gw003.asp.
“George Washington’s Houses Plaque.” Architect of the Capitol. Accessed December 5, 2021. https://www.aoc.gov/explore-capitol-campus/art/george-washingtons-houses-plaque.
Hammond, George. George Hammond to Thomas Jefferson, March 5, 1792. Letter. From National Archives, Founders Online. Accessed December 5, 2021. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-23-02-0180.
Heidler, David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler. Washington’s Circle: The Creation of the President. New York: Random House, 2015.
Jefferson, Thomas. Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, May 23, 1792. Letter. From National Archives, Founders Online. Accessed December 5, 2021. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-23-02-0491.
Mountvernon.org. “A Community Divided.” Accessed September 4, 2022. https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/slavery/a-community-divided/.
Mountvernon.org. “Room by Room.” Accessed September 29, 2023. https://www.mountvernon.org/the-estate-gardens/the-mansion/the-mansion-room-by-room/.
National Park Service. “George Washington Inaugural Bible.” Last modified May 28, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/feha/learn/historyculture/george-washington-inaugural-bible.htm.
NCC Staff. “On this day, Shays’ Rebellion starts in Massachusetts.” Constitution Daily (blog), National Constitution Center, August 29, 2021. https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/on-this-day-shays-rebellion-starts-in-massachusetts.
Reiné, Roel and Matthew Ginsburg, dir. Washington. Season 1, episode 1, “Loyal Subject.” Aired February 16, 2020, on History Channel.
Reiné, Roel and Matthew Ginsburg, dir. Washington, Season 1, episode 2, “Rebel Commander.” Aired February 17, 2020, on History Channel.
Reiné, Roel and Matthew Ginsburg, dir. Washington. Season 1, episode 3, “Father of His Country.” Aired February 18, 2020, on History Channel.
“Senate roll call on the Jay Treaty, June 24, 1795.” visitthecapitol.gov. Accessed December 6, 2021. https://www.visitthecapitol.gov/exhibitions/artifact/senate-roll-call-jay-treaty-june-24-1795.
Thompson, Mary V. “’In a Private Manner, without Parade or Funeral Oration’: The Funeral George Washington Wanted, But Didn’t Get.” In Mourning the Presidents: Loss and Legacy in American Culture, edited by Lindsay M. Chervinsky and Matthew R. Costello, 11-32. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2023.
Thompson, Mary V. “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019.
“Transcript of Treaty of Paris (1783).” ourdocuments.gov. Accessed December 5, 2021. https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=6&page=transcript.
Washington, George. George Washington to a Continental Congress Camp Committee, January 29, 1778. Letter. From National Archives, Founders Online. Accessed December 10, 2021. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0335.
Washington, George. George Washington to John Adams, May 10, 1789. Letter. From National Archives, Founders Online. Accessed December 5, 2021. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-02-02-0182.
Washington, George. George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, April 12, 1793. Letter. From National Archives, Founders Online. Accessed December 5, 2021. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-12-02-0353.
Washington, George. George Washington to William Shippen, Jr., February 6, 1777. Letter. From National Archives, Founders Online. Accessed December 7, 2021. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-08-02-0281.
“Washington’s Family Buried at Mount Vernon.” mountvernon.org. Accessed November 14, 2021. https://www.mountvernon.org/the-estate-gardens/the-tombs/buried-at-mount-vernon/.
“The Whiskey Rebellion.” mountvernon.org. Accessed December 5, 2021. https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/the-first-president/whiskey-rebellion/.
Zax, David. “Washington’s Boyhood Home.” Smithsonian Magazine. September 2008. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/washingtons-boyhood-home-7113627/.