Today In History: George Washington Dies
Today in 1799, George Washington, the first American president and one of the most influential figures in the country’s history, died of laryngitis. He passed away at his Mount Vernon, Virginia estate at sixty-seven years old.
Washington first served in the Virginia colonial militia. After two years, he was placed in charge of defending Virginia’s western frontier in the French and Indian War. He quit his position to return to his quieter agricultural life. He also took a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses.
He parlayed this position to be the Virginia representative at the Continental Congress in 1774. When the Revolution came, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. He was actually chosen more for his home state than his personal accomplishments. The Congress believed that a Virginian at the helm of the army would help solidify the southern colonies’ commitment to the war effort. It ended up being a fortuitous choice.
Washington led his far-outgunned and less-experienced troops against the British redcoats using what amounted to guerrilla tactics. The British army, virtually undefeated in their military campaigns around the world, relied on strategies developed to face a standing army. What they encountered instead was not a rival line, but individual colonial soldiers firing on their line from seemingly disorganized positions, often from behind cover.
Washington was instrumental in forcing British General Charles Lord Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, Virginia to surrender, one of the culminating events of the Revolutionary War.
He retired to his estate a hero. In 1787, he was asked to preside over the Constitutional Convention. In 1789, he was elected the first American president by unanimous vote.
Washington as president is generally lauded for his exercise of executive restraint. He was so admired, and wielded such great influence, that he could easily have turned the new office into a kind of informal kingship. In fact, many people were terrified that this is exactly what would happen. He was a fairminded and even handed president though, and served only two terms despite being urged to serve for a third.
He died two years after once again retiring to Mount Vernon.