Eulogized by Henry Lee as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” George Washington stood preeminent among the pantheon of American Founding Fathers. At his home Mount Vernon, on the battlefield and in the presidency, Washington crossed paths with many others who shaped his life. This is the cast of characters—friend and foe alike—who influenced the development of Washington the man, Washington the general and Washington the president.
Washington the Man
Following the sudden death of her wealthy husband, Daniel Custis, in 1757, 26-year-old Martha Dandridge Custis became perhaps Virginia’s richest and most eligible widow. Among the suitors who came calling at her mansion, dubbed the “White House,” was young Virginia militia officer George Washington. Washington biographer Ron Chernow writes that the future American president “courted Martha with the crisp efficiency of a military man laying down a well-planned siege.” The pair, who wed in January 1759, had no children together but raised Martha’s son and daughter (Jacky and Patsy) from her first marriage. While Martha’s initial appeal may have been more economic than romantic—Washington described her as “an agreeable partner” shortly after they wed—the union grew into one of the most admired marriages in American history. At Washington’s side in winter quarters for nearly half of the Revolutionary War and then as First Lady, Martha provided financial security, emotional support and much-needed stability amid a swirl of turbulent historical events.
“The world has no business to know the object of my love, declared in this manner to you when I want to conceal it,” Washington wrote weeks before his wedding. The letter wasn’t sent to Martha Custis, however, but to Sally Fairfax, the wife of one of his best friends and patrons. Described as an intelligent, “dark-eyed beauty,” Fairfax lived in a neighboring estate four miles downstream of Mount Vernon and married into Virginia’s largest landowning family. It’s unknown if romance actually blossomed between the two—and Fairfax is said to have cut off correspondence with Washington after his engagement to Custis—but a friendship ultimately endured. Fairfax and her husband were frequent guests at Mount Vernon and even traveled with the Washingtons. In a 1798 letter to Fairfax shortly before his death, Washington called the moments spent with her “the happiest in my life.”
Among the dozens of slaves Washington purchased for Mount Vernon was his personal servant, William Lee, often referred to as “Billy.” Bought at auction from wealthy Virginia widow Mary Lee in 1768, Washington’s valet was an expert horseman and a constant presence at his master’s side throughout the Revolutionary War, undertaking tasks such as delivering messages, organizing papers and brushing his master’s hair and tying it with a silk ribbon every morning. According to Washington’s will, Lee was the only one of the Mount Vernon slaves to be freed after his death “as a testimony to my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.” Provided with a $30 annual annuity, Lee lived in his own house at Mount Vernon until his death in 1810.
Washington the Soldier
During the French and Indian War, Washington served as aide-de-camp to British Major General Edward Braddock on a 1755 expedition to seize Fort Duquesne in western Pennsylvania from the French. Braddock’s 45 years of military experience proved useless in the American wilderness, and his forces were routed at the Battle of the Monongahela. In spite of having two horses shot out beneath him and four bullets pierce his jacket, Washington emerged unscathed to organize the retreat after Braddock suffered a fatal wound, earning the future American president the sobriquet “Hero of the Monongahela.”
From Bunker Hill to Yorktown, bookworm Henry Knox served as one of Washington’s most trusted officers and the Continental Army’s chief artillery officer. The Boston bookseller devoured military tomes to become a self-taught expert on battlefield tactics and weaponry. Washington entrusted him with the plan to transport British cannons captured at Fort Ticonderoga, New York, over 300 miles of frozen rivers and snowy mountains on oxen-pulled sleds to Boston, where they forced the British evacuation of the city. Knox managed the logistics for Washington’s 1776 crossing of the Delaware River and, years later, served the first president as secretary of war.
READ MORE: 6 Unsung Heroes of the American Revolution
MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE
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Defying the orders of King Louis XVI, 19-year-old French nobleman Marquis de Lafayette joined the American Revolution in 1777. Although Lafayette lacked combat experience, Congress assigned the wealthy aristocrat to Washington’s staff. The teenager impressed Washington with his passion for the American cause and courage after being wounded at the Battle of Brandywine. “Treat him as if he were my son,” Washington ordered doctors, and the childless general indeed treated Lafayette, 26 years his junior, as a surrogate son. Washington’s “trust in me is deeper than I dare say,” Lafayette wrote during the harsh winter at Valley Forge. Lafayette became a top-ranking officer and played a critical role in the decisive 1781 siege of Yorktown. After the war, Lafayette named his only son after Washington and during the French Revolution sent him a key to the Bastille as a symbol of freedom and friendship.
British-born Horatio Gates not only looked like Washington’s doppelganger at quick glance, he was his chief rival inside the Continental Army. Passed over as revolutionary commander in spite of a superior military résumé, Gates served in the British Army and was wounded in Braddock’s doomed expedition. After feigning sickness to avoid the crossing of the Delaware River, which he opposed, Gates further irked Washington by first alerting Congress of his triumph at the Battle of Saratoga. Washington grew even more furious after his spy network alerted him to the whisper campaign among the “Conway Cabal” to replace him as commander with Gates. Washington suspected Gates was involved in the plot, although it is still a matter of debate. Following a defeat in the 1780 Battle of Camden, Gates found his reputation in tatters after abandoning his army on the battlefield.
While suspicious of Gates, Washington experienced true treachery from someone he had trusted completely. In the early years of the Revolutionary War, Benedict Arnold proved to be the Continental Army’s most daring general in capturing Fort Ticonderoga, stalling the British on Lake Champlain and assisting at Saratoga. Forced to walk with a pronounced limp after suffering two leg wounds in battle, Arnold grew increasingly bitter after being passed over for promotions and accused of corruption. Turning traitor, he offered to deliver to the British the strategic garrison at West Point in return for cash and an army commission. When the patriots discovered the plot at the last moment, Arnold fled to British-held New York City and left Washington blindsided.
READ MORE: Why Did Benedict Arnold Betray America?
Washington the President
Valued for his intelligence and ability to wield a pen, Alexander Hamilton served Washington as an aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War even though he was just in his early twenties. “There are few men to be found of his age who has a more general knowledge than he possesses and none whose soul is more firmly engaged in the cause or who exceeds him in probity and sterling virtue,” Washington wrote of Hamilton. As with Lafayette, Hamilton had a filial relationship with Washington that endured even following an “open rupture” occurred in 1781 after Hamilton chafed at Washington’s temper and not being offered a field command, which he ultimately received at Yorktown. Recruited by Washington to be the country’s first secretary of the treasury, Hamilton served as chief architect of the American financial system and pressed for a powerful federal government. Even after leaving the cabinet in 1795, he remained a chief advisor and collaborated with Washington on his famous Farewell Address.
A pair of tall, redheaded, Virginia plantation owners who married wealthy widows named Martha, Washington and Thomas Jefferson appeared to have much in common. A political rift formed between the two, however, while Jefferson served as Washington’s secretary of state. In contrast to the federalist Hamilton, Jefferson opposed the central Bank of United States, favored a weaker national government and sought closer ties with France than Great Britain. After resigning from the cabinet in 1793 over Washington’s support of Hamilton, Jefferson orchestrated Republican opposition and in private correspondence condemned Washington’s leadership, attacking him as a monarchist and senile devotee of Hamilton. Washington felt betrayed by the man who would be elected president in 1800 in what Martha Washington called the “greatest misfortune our nation has ever experienced.”
A Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress, John Adams actively pushed for Washington’s selection as Continental Army commander. “This appointment will have a great effect in cementing and securing the union of these colonies,” Adams wrote. The Harvard-educated lawyer served as the country’s first vice president, but Washington notably excluded him from his inner circle of advisors and cabinet meetings throughout his presidency. Adams had the unenviable task of succeeding the popular Washington as president and lost his re-election bid in 1800 to Jefferson.
READ MORE: John Adams—Presidency, Facts & Children