The lasting legacy of George Washington on the United States can be seen throughout the nation: his portrait on the dollar bill, statues in Boston Common and on Wall Street and, of course, the nation’s capital being named after him. But perhaps his greatest impact can be felt in the thoughts and ideas the first American President left behind.
The eldest of Augustine and Mary Washington’s six children, Washington was born February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Although childhood stories about him chopping down a cherry tree and throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac were likely made up, he did show great skill as an agricultural surveyor in his teens.
After his father died when Washington was 11 and his older half-brother died when he was 20, he inherited and began running Mount Vernon, the family estate, a few years later. He also showed his leadership skills by joining the Virginia militia, and commanding regiments in the French and Indian War. He resigned from his commission in 1758 — and returned home, where he married Martha Dandridge Custis a month later and started his political career in Virginia's House of Burgesses, the oldest democratically elected legislative body in the British colonies.
In September 1774, he attended the First Continental Congress as a Virginia delegate; the following May, he attended the second one, dressed in military uniform and prepared for war. By June, he was appointed Major General and Commander-in-Chief of the colonial forces, ready to fight Great Britain for independence. And on December 26, 1776, after leading the stealth crossing of the Delaware River the night before, he claimed victory for his troops' surprise attack in Trenton, the first major victory for the Americans after a string of demoralizing losses — a major momentum-changer in the war.
After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, Washington was called back to politics in 1787, unanimously chosen president of the Constitutional Convention. Two years later, he received another unanimous vote — this time to become the first president of the United States.
His inherent leadership skills as a military hero and Founding Father built the groundwork for the country, but it’s his words — captured through letters and speeches — that reflect his innermost beliefs. Here are 10 of Washington’s greatest quotes:
On honesty: “I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is the best policy.”
On friendship: “Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence — true friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation.”
On bad excuses: “It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one.”
On freedom: “Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.”
On empathy: “When one side only of a story is heard and often repeated, the human mind becomes impressed with it insensibly.”
On truth: “Truth will ultimately prevail where pains is taken to bring it to light."
On war: “I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”
On love: "Love is a mighty pretty thing; but like all other delicious things, it is cloying; and when the first transports of the passion begins to subside, which it assuredly will do, and yield, oftentimes too late, to more sober reflections, it serves to evince, that love is too dainty a food to live upon alone, and ought not to be considered farther than as a necessary ingredient for that matrimonial happiness which results from a combination of causes."
On happiness: “Happiness depends more upon the internal frame of a person's own mind than on the externals in the world.”
On being American: “Citizens by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of ‘American’ which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”