On April 30, 1789, George Washington, standing on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York, took his oath of office as the first President of the United States. "As the first of every thing, in our situation will serve to establish a Precedent," he wrote James Madison, "it is devoutly wished on my part, that these precedents may be fixed on true principles."
Born in 1732 into a Virginia planter family, he learned the morals, manners, and body of knowledge requisite for an 18th century Virginia gentleman.
He pursued two intertwined interests: military arts and western expansion. At 16 he helped survey Shenandoah lands for Thomas, Lord Fairfax. In 1749, Washington received his surveyor's liscense from the College of William and Mary, and was commissioned as a surveyor of Culpeper County, Va.
Commissioned a lieutenant colonel in 1754, he fought the first skirmishes of what grew into the French and Indian War. The next year, as an aide to Gen. Edward Braddock, he escaped injury although four bullets ripped his coat and two horses were shot from under him.
When the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in May 1775, Washington, one of the Virginia delegates, was elected Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. On July 3, 1775, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, he took command of his ill-trained troops and embarked upon a war that was to last six grueling years.
He realized early that the best strategy was to harass the British. He reported to Congress, "we should on all Occasions avoid a general Action, or put anything to the Risque, unless compelled by a necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn." Ensuing battles saw him fall back slowly, then strike unexpectedly. Finally in 1781 with the aid of French allies -- he forced the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Washington longed to retire to his fields at Mount Vernon. But he soon realized that the Nation under its Articles of Confederation was not functioning well, so he became a prime mover in the steps leading to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. When the new Constitution was ratified, the Electoral College unanimously elected Washington President
He did not infringe upon the policy making powers that he felt the Constitution gave Congress. But the determination of foreign policy became preponderantly a Presidential concern. When the French Revolution led to a major war between France and England, Washington refused to accept entirely the recommendations of either his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who was pro-French, or his Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who was pro-British. Rather, he insisted upon a neutral course until the United States could grow stronger.
To his disappointment, two parties were developing by the end of his first term. Wearied of politics, feeling old, he retired at the end of his second. In his Farewell Address, he urged his countrymen to forswear excessive party spirit and geographical distinctions. In foreign affairs, he warned against long-term alliances.
Washington enjoyed less than three years of retirement at Mount Vernon, for he died of a throat infection December 14, 1799. For months the Nation mourned him.
In light of the damages suffered by the College during the Revolutionary War, Washington wrote that "...the seat of literature at Williamsburg has, even in my view, been an object of veneration. As an institution, important of its communication of useful learning and conducive to the diffusion of the true principles of rational liberty, you may be assured, that it shall receive every encouragement and benefaction in my power towards its re-establishment."
On January 18, 1788, the visitors elected Washington as chancellor, and College Rector Samuel Griffin of Williamsburg wrote the general extending the invitation.
Washington's response, written at Mount Vernon on February 20, asked the Board of Visitors to be more specific regarding his duties as chancellor. "Although...I know not specifically what these functions are, yet, sir, I have conceived that a principal duty required of the chancellor might be a regular and indispensable visitation once or perhaps twice a year. Should this be expected, I must decline accepting the office. For, notwithstanding, I most sincerely and ardently wish to afford whatever little influence I may possess, in patronizing the cause of science, I cannot, at my time of life and in my actual state of retirement, persuade myself to engage in new and extensive avocations."
Although the board's reply to Washington has not survived, apparently the word was sufficiently reassuring. In a later letter to Rector Griffin, dated April 30, 1788, also from Mount Vernon, Washington wrote, in part:
"Influenced by a heartfelt desire to promote the cause of science in general and the prosperity of the College of William and Mary in particular, I accept the office of chancellor in the same."
The next year, Washington was elected President of the United States, but he continued to serve in the post of Chancellor of the College of William and Mary throughout his presidency. In fact, he continued to serve until his death on December 14, 1799.
It is significant that strong mutual ties of affection bound Washington and the College, for both Washington's first and last public offices were held under College auspices, as county surveyor at age 17 and as chancellor when he died at age 67.
William and Mary, however, did not continue the post of chancellor until years after Washington's death.
-- Sources: White House, the College of William and Mary