Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Valley Forge, Chester County
George Washington and his Continental Army spent the terrible winter of 1777 at Valley Forge.
Born in Virginia on February 22, 1732, President George Washington committed the better part of his life to military and public service. In his mid-teens he began keeping a journal and writing letters, practices he continued during his years serving the British and later Colonial armies. Numerous campaigns took Washington through Pennsylvania, the most notable being the six month encampment at Valley Forge. After the war, through his two presidential terms and until his death at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799, Washington managed his own correspondence and, because he knew they would one day provide insight into America’s formative years, preserved all his writings.
George Washington was born in Virginia on February 22, 1732, on a small farm on the banks of the Potomac River; he was the first child of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington. Little is known about Washington’s formal schooling; at the age of 16, he began working as a surveyor and was grooming for a gentleman’s life. At 20, he entered military service. In 1759, Washington married the wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, who had two children from her previous marriage. George and Martha had no children together.
Washington’s long career in military and public service began in 1753 and, despite several brief retirements, did not truly end until his death in 1799. After the French and Indian War, he resigned from his first military command and, after suffering two defeats, was elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses in 1758. He continued to serve the House of Burgesses as an elected official in 1761, 1765, 1768, 1769, 1771, and 1774. In the 1760s, he became a vestryman, (elected official) to two churches in Virginia. In 1774, with British taxes on the rise and a growing unrest in the colonies, Washington and George Mason drafted the Fairfax Resolves promoting a boycott of British goods. That same year, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia; Washington attended as one of seven delegates from Virginia. In 1775, after the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress elected Washington to command the Continental forces.
Nine years later, in 1783, after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, General Washington returned home to Mount Vernon and “retirement.” Yet in 1787, Washington presided as president of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. After the ratification of the Constitution, Washington again retired to his farm. He was again called back to public service in 1789, this time to the office of president. He served two terms before taking his final retirement to Mount Vernon. Even then, in 1789, with the stirrings of French displeasure towards the United States, Washington was commissioned as commander in chief of the army.
Washington’s journal of his 1753 trip through what is today western Pennsylvania, up the Ohio Valley (through what is now Pittsburgh) to the French forts surrounding Lake Erie, became his first publication. In this time of competitive European expansion, the French and the British frequently disagreed about land ownership. Governor of Virginia Robert Dinwiddie sent Washington as a courier to deliver England’s message to leave the Ohio Valley, and also as a spy with instructions to note the locations and defenses of the French forts, map the lands surrounding them, and ultimately learn French intentions. Upon Washington’s return, Governor Dinwiddie had Washington’s journal published as a small book, as well as in several newspapers in the colonies and in London.
Washington’s writings were many and varied, yet his skills as a rhetorician proved most powerful and most useful when securing pay and supplies for his men. During the desperate, 1777-1778 winter at Valley Forge in particular, he sent letter upon letter to the Continental Congress. A practical leader; he understood that his men could not fight for patriotism alone. Carolyn Yoder quotes him in George Washington: The Writer, saying that Washington knew that, if his men received no benefits or compensation for their efforts, they would remain “without discipline, without energy, incapable of acting with vigor, and destitute of those cements necessary to promise success.” Sources speculate that Washington may have exaggerated the actual condition of his army to elicit response. Regardless, his tactics never failed to bring the supplies his forces needed and deserved.
Perhaps his most famous work, Washington’s farewell address, written near the close of his second term as president, looked beyond all accounts of war and victory to the future needs of the country. During his time in office and even before, as president of the Constitutional Convention, Washington witnessed the beginnings of a vicious, two-party political system. In his own words, quoted again in Yoder:
Observe good faith & justice towds all Nations. Cultivate peace & harmony with all—Religion & morality enjoin this conduct: and can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a People always guided by justice & benevolence.
And so, in this message still applicable today, Washington stressed the importance of national unity and good faith over even our own interests and beliefs.
On December 14, 1799, after three days of battling a fever and a violent sore throat, former president George Washington sat in his bed, took his own pulse, and passed away in the company of doctors, servants, friends, and his wife of 40 years. In his last will, which he drafted himself without the aid of a lawyer, he provided for the release of all of his slaves upon Martha’s death, making him the first and only founding father to do so. He set aside funds for the creation of a free school and an academy, which eventually became Washington and Lee University. Ever mindful of the historical purpose they might serve, he bequeathed all of his carefully preserved papers and his library to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, for safe keeping.
Because Washington did not leave behind a notable document, such as the Declaration of Independence or the Federalist Papers, some do not consider him a great political thinker. Yet within the legacy he did leave, his presented his opinions on governing the young United States in an earnest, accessible, and effectively personal way. Similarly, he shared invaluable historical accounts from the perspective of the citizen, soldier, and the gentleman farmer. Washington’s writings offer a glimpse not only into the mind of one of the most influential leaders of his time, but also provide a sensitive and detailed account of America’s first bold steps as a self-governing nation.
Washington’s Inaugural Address of 1789. Washington: National Archives and Records Administration, 1986.
Washington’s Farewell Address to the People of the United States. Washington: GPO, 2004.
The Diaries of George Washington. Eds. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig. Six volumes. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1976-1979.
The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series. Eds. W.W. Abbot, et al. Ten volumes. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1983-1995.
The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series. Eds. Philander D. Chase, Edward G. Lengel, Frank E. Grizzard, Jr., and David R. Hoth. 13 volumes. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1985-2003.
The Papers of George Washington: Confederation Series. Ed. W.W. Abbot. Six volumes. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992-1997.
The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series. Eds. Dorothy Twohig, Robert F. Haggard, Mark A. Mastromarino, Christine Sternberg Patrick, Jack D. Warren, and Jack D. Warren, Jr. 11 volumes. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1987-2002.
The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793-1797. Ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1981.
The Papers of George Washington: Retirement Series. Eds. W.W. Abbot, and Edward G. Lengel, eds. Four volumes. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1998-1999.
Pennsylvania Historical Commission. Washington in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1942.