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Biographical Sketch

George Washington (February 22, 1732 - December 14, 1799) led American forces during their brutally long and hard revolutionary struggle against the greatest military power of the day and prevailed. Washington then chaired the Constitutional Convention of 1787, clothing its proceedings with his enormous prestige, gravitas and calm. Against all odds, that gathering of delegates from the various states, often deeply divided, designed an effective national government to replace the destructively ineffective one under the Articles of Confederation. In his third transcendent gift to a country still in its infancy, Washington gave life to the new Constitution’s Executive Branch of Government, serving as the first President of the United States. He remained in office for only two terms, before laying down his mantle and returning home to Mount Vernon.

During the Revolutionary War, King George III asked an American loyalist in London what Washington would do if the Americans won. The loyalist responded: “he would retire to a private situation.” “If he does that,” the King replied, “he would be the greatest man in the world.” When Washington left the presidency after a mere two terms, the King described him as “the greatest character of the age.” Washington might well have been King of America, succeeding George III, but he chose to retire to his farm and private life.

George Washington is considered the father of his country. Americans of every century are in his debt for what he accomplished and the example he set during our Revolutionary and Early National Eras as one of the United States’ greatest servant leaders.

Washington owed his wealth, in part, to the extensive land he acquired during his life, starting while a surveyor in his early years. Other land he inherited, and still more land he controlled thanks to his wife Martha’s holdings from her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, which she held in trust for their children. Equally crucial, he owed his wealth to the unpaid labor of hundreds of Black people whom he enslaved.

Washington was a hereditary master, acquiring his first 10 slaves at his father’s death in 1743, when Washington himself was 11 years old. At his death in 1799, he had the use of 317 enslaved people. He owned 124 of them, with the rest either rented or held by his wife Martha for use during her life and then for inheritance by her children from the Custis estate.

As his life progressed, Washington came to reject slavery first in economic terms and, later, morally, believing it could not and should not be sustained in the United States. In his will, he directed immediate freedom for his valet William Lee, with freedom for the other 123 people he personally owned to come at the death of his wife, Martha. She, in turn, freed them a year after Washington’s death.

According to historian and W&M alumnus Joseph Ellis, Washington opposed the continuation of slavery in the United States, and he did not “ever embrace the racial arguments for black inferiority that Jefferson advanced. . . . He saw slavery as the culprit preventing the development of diligence and responsibility that would emerge gradually and naturally after emancipation.”

George Washington and William & Mary

He was often in Williamsburg before the Revolutionary War while serving as a representative in the House of Burgesses. He received his surveyor’s license from William & Mary and surely knew the campus and the school’s reputation as one of the colonies’ leading academic institutions.

In 1788, Washington agreed to become William & Mary's first American Chancellor and held the post for eleven years, including while President of the United States.

Washington’s portrait hangs in the Wren Building, first among the U.S. Presidents with ties to William & Mary. The academic hall named for him stands on the south side of the Sunken Garden.

Washington had flaws, of which enslaving people was his greatest. He was, however, one of history’s most consequential leaders, vital to the birth and early survival of our republic during a time of autocratic rule elsewhere in the world.

References and Further Reading

Preceded by

William & Mary Chancellor

Succeeded by

Richard Terrick 1764-1776

George Washington 1788-1799

John Tyler 1859-1862

Material in the Special Collections Research Center


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A note about the contents of this site

This website contains the best available information from known sources at the time it was written. Unfortunately, many of the early original records of William & Mary were destroyed by fires, military occupation, and the normal effects of time. The information in this website is not complete, and it changes as we continue to research and uncover new sources.