George Washington (1732-1799)

Founding Father and first President of the United States

George Washington
George Washington.

George Washington, military leader of the American War of Independence, was born into the gentry of colonial Virginia in February 1732. Washington led the victory against Great Britain as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. He later became known as 'the Father of his country'.

In this video, Foreign Collections curators Chris Taylor and Dora Petherbridge highlight a selection of rare items relating to different periods in Washington's life.

You can also read a transcript of this video.

Early exemplary virtues

The exemplary virtues which Washington would later become famous for appear to have been established from a young age. When Washington was about 16, he copied out the following 'rules of civility and decent behaviour' into his school book:

'Shew not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.'

'Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.'

These two statements would echo through Washington's extraordinary life and career.

Fighting on the British side

From 1754-1758 a young George Washington served as a Virginian officer alongside British forces during the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

This was a war fought primarily by the colonies of Britain and France over a territorial dispute across several colonies. It eventually erupted into a worldwide conflict between the two countries. The name refers to the two main enemies of the British colonists: the French forces and the various Native American forces allied with them.

Washington was at the centre of the conflicts in the much disputed area of the Ohio River Valley. He showed himself to be a talented soldier despite early setbacks for the British.

In 1756, France published propaganda regarding the war's early engagements to counter British claims. Copies of the French work were found on a ship captured by a New York based privateer. New York printers Parker, Weyman and Gaine published an English translation of the French edition in 1757. The French reproduced Washington's journal with particularly critical footnotes.

This is the first item Curator Chris Taylor talks about in the video.


George Washington's signature
View large page
on Flickr

Washington gradually began to oppose British control and influence over his personal finances and those of the colonies. By 1769 he was organising protests against Britain and a boycott of British goods.

In June 1775 Washington was elected Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Forces in the war to gain independence from Great Britain. He was to command the American troops for the entirety of the war and became renowned for his perseverance and courage.

Washington's official letters to Congress written during the conflict were not published until 1795. This was 12 years after the end of the war when he was in the second term of his presidency.

The editor of the letters, John Carey, sent Washington two sets of the work. In one set, Carey made many notes about his editorial methods to show Washington he had taken great pains with his work. It is this set that you can see at the National Library of Scotland. The title pages of both volumes are signed by Washington himself.

Curator Dora Petherbridge shows these letters in the video.

On the front line

First page of handwritten letter
Letter to
Major General
View large
letter image

As Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, General Washington showed a keen interest in keeping updated on supplies, logistics, and his troops.

In 1781, with help from the French, Washington victoriously attacked the British at Yorktown. His boldness and heroism gained him international regard.

In 1782 he writes from his headquarters in Newburgh, New York, to Major General Smallwood who was in charge of American forces in Annapolis, Maryland. Washington requests information about supplies and recruits. Although the British had been defeated at Yorktown in Virginia, both men remain vigilant.

Smallwood went on to become Governor of Maryland. George Washington would become the first President of the United States in 1789.

You can see this letter and hear Curator Chris Taylor read part of it in the video.


Since independence, the young republic had been struggling under the Articles of Confederation. This was a structure of government which centered power with the states but the states were not unified. They fought among themselves over boundaries and navigation rights. They also argued about paying off the nation's war debt.

Map of the USA
1792 map of the
United States.
View large map
on Flickr

Dismayed, Washington slowly came to realise something needed to be done to improve the situation.

In 1787, Washington was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention representing the state of Virginia.At this convention, the United States Constitution was created. This set out the distribution of power between national and state governments.

In 1789, Washington was unanimously elected President by the Electoral College. This was made up of representatives of each State. He was elected for a second term in 1793.

Property matters and life in retirement

After two terms in office, Washington gave his farewell address 'to the people of the United States' and retired to his beloved Virginia estate, Mount Vernon. There he set about taking care of his land and running his household. He also began making rye whisky with his farm manager, James Anderson, a distiller from Scotland.

This letter, written when Washington was 65, is about appointing household staff. Alexander Spotswood, to whom the letter is addressed, was a friend and factotum to the Washingtons. He had been helping the family find a household steward.

The postscript of the letter, however, regards a different matter — what Washington called his 'Kentucky Land.' This land was 5,000 acres on Rough Creek in Kentucky. Washington got the land from General Henry Lee in exchange for his Arabian stud horse Magnolio.

Washington was particularly concerned with this small portion of his extensive land holdings. There were a number of complex ownership difficulties because the land had been sold to two other people, one of whom was Spotswood.

You can see this letter and hear Curator Dora Petherbridge talk about it in the video.

Items featured in video

  • Item 1: 'A memorial containing a summary view of facts, with their authorities. In answer to the Observations sent by the English Ministry to the courts of Europe. Translated from the French.' Published in 1757 by Hugh Gaine, New York [NLS shelfmark: H.S.608]
  • Item 2: 'Official letters to the Honorable American Congress, written, during the war between the United Colonies and Great Britain, by His Excellency, George Washington.' London: printed for Cadell Junior and Davies, 1795. 2 volumes [NLS shelfmark: H.S. 597]
  • Item 3: Letter from George Washington to Major General Smallwood, July 1782. [NLS shelfmark: MS 594, no. 2050]. This letter is used by kind permission of the Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland
  • Item 4: Letter from George Washington to Alexander Spotswood, November 1797. [NLS shelfmark: MS 594, no. 2051]. This letter is used by kind permission of the Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland.

Suggested questions for discussion

  • Read the two lines Washington wrote in his schoolbook again. What sort of 16 year-old do you think he was? Try re-writing these lines so that young people today could use them as 'rules of civility and decent behaviour'.
  • Washington served as an officer in the French and Indian War when he was only 22, how do you think this might have shaped his outlook? How do you think it might have shaped his political career?
  • Propaganda was often produced by opposing sides during conflicts in the 18th century and existed even before then. What types of propaganda exist today? Are these effective tools for undermining the opposition? Why or why not?
  • As you have seen, great efforts were made into compiling and publishing Washington's letters. Why is it important, do you think, for this work to be done?

Additional information

American political history page


Find out more about American collections at NLS

American collections including presidential and colonial history, the civil war, and politics.


Foreign Collections provides an overview of current overseas material.


Scots Abroad: Stories of Scottish Emigration for an insight into Scots in America.

NLS learning for you

If there's a topic you'd like more information about or if you have any suggestions for learning, email us.

Speak me