George Washington (1732-1799)45 min
- explain why Washington is known as “Father of His Country.”
- explain Washington’s reasons for not seeking a third term as President.
- understand the historical significance of Washington’s home, Mount Vernon.
- understand the purposes of Washington’s Farewell Address.
- analyze how the admonitions of Washington’s Farewell Address apply to modern society.
- appreciate the various roles Washington played in defending and creating the new nation and its government.
- Handout A—George Washington (1732–1799)
- Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C—In His Own Words: George Washington on the Constitution
Additional Teacher Resource
- Review answers to homework questions.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
- Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of George Washington.
George Washington was a Virginia farmer who commanded the Virginia militia and the Continental Army. Washington was chosen to preside over the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787. He was then unanimously elected as the first president. He is known as the “Father of His Country.”
Americans have long appreciated the importance of George Washington to their nation’s history. Deemed “the indispensable man” by one historian, Washington secured American independence as commander of the Continental Army and established republican traditions as the nation’s first president. His unblemished character and force of personality steeled men’s hearts in combat and stirred their souls in peace. But only recently have historians begun to recognize Washington’s intellectual contributions to the formation of the American republic. Though never a systematic thinker, Washington understood the relationship between political theory and practice and was a close associate of many of the leading statesmen of the day, such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, the friendship between Washington and Madison is one of the most important political partnerships of the Founding Era.
During the 1780s, Washington’s home at Mount Vernon served as a crossroads for ideas that led to the shaping of the Constitution in 1787 at Philadelphia. Representatives of the Confederation Congress, delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and members of state ratifying conventions all stopped at Mount Vernon during the decade on their journeys north and south. Few of these conversations are recorded in detail, but no other private home in America was the scene of so many discussions among the politically powerful. It could justly be said that the outlines of the new republic were largely drawn one hundred feet above the Potomac River on a farm whose location marked the exact geographic midpoint between North and South.
Tell students that in his Address, Washington warned Americans to “resist with care the spirit of innovation” regarding the principles of the Constitution. Ask the class if they believe Washington’s message is relevant today. Why or why not?
Students may cite modern controversies about the separation of powers and which branches of government have the authority to do certain things such as declare war, outlaw certain practices, etc. Students may discuss calls for constitutional amendments and whether specific proposed amendments undermine or strengthen the spirit of the Constitution.
- Ask students to list five qualities that George Washington had as a leader and write two or three sentences about how Washington embodied these traits.
- Have students choose one of the following quotes from Washington’s Farewell Address and write a paragraph explaining whether they agree or disagree with Washington’s idea.
- “And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”
- “Promote . . . as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”
- “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”
- Have students research other historical and/or contemporary figures whom they believe embody the same kinds of leadership qualities as George Washington. Students should explain why they chose the leader(s) they did and provide specific examples of the characteristics these leaders have in common with Washington.
- Have students read more of Washington’s Farewell Address and use it as the inspiration for their own Farewell Address that they might deliver to their school upon graduation. The text of George Washington’s Farewell Address can be found at: <https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp>.