Why Did George Washington Become a Revolutionary?

Critical Thinking

February 16, 2015
by Ray Raphael Also by this Author


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In 1758, just before returning home from the French and Indian War, George Washington ran for a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses. Given his social standing and renown, the office was his for the taking, and on the day of the election he treated the 397 men who showed up at the poll to 46 gallons of beer, 35 gallons of wine, 2 gallons of hard cider, 3½ pints of brandy, 40 gallons of “Rum Punch,” and “1hhd [hogshead] & 1 Barrell of Punch, consisting of 26 Gals. best Barbados Rum & 12½ Pds S. Refd. Sugar.”[1] As a Burgess, Washington was expected to represent his constituents’ interests, dole out patronage, and help the colony govern itself in local matters; in return for his services, he would earn respect, deference, and some degree of power. Certainly, when he entered the political arena, the returning war hero did not expect to engage in heated disputes with the British Parliament or challenge the status quo in any other way.

How, then, did George Washington, one of America’s elite 1%, become its leading revolutionary? His evolution came in stages.

Stage 1: Accruing Debt

Early the following year, George Washington married the wealthy widow, Mary Custis, and by combining their fortunes—primarily in land and slaves—George and Martha created one of Virginia’s most impressive estates.[2] Buying out his neighbors, Washington more than doubled his Mount Vernon plantation, expanded his mansion, and purchased all the finest clothing and home furnishings that his factor in London, Robert Cary, could procure.[3] By the fall of 1760, less than two years into his spending spree, Washington noticed a serious discrepancy between the money he made (the season’s yield from tobacco, his main source of income, had been very low due to a wet summer) and the money he spent (the fall shopping list he sent to Cary included hundreds of items, ranging from “1 pair crimson velvet breeches” to “1 dozn stone chamber pots”).[4] Despite the expense, Washington grumbled that the clothes Cary sent him didn’t fit, and worse yet, they were dated. “Instead of getting things good and fashionable … we often have articles sent us that coud only have been used by our forefathers in the days of yore,” he wrote to Cary. “’Tis a custom … with many shop keepers, and tradesmen in London when they know goods are bespoke for exportation to palm sometimes old, and sometimes very slight and indifferent goods upon us, taking care at the same time to advance 10, 15 or perhaps 20 prct upon them.”[5]

By 1763, Washington reported to a friend that after “some purchases of lands and Negroes I was necessitated to make adjoining me — (in order to support the expences of a large family),” his expenditures had “swallowed up before I well knew where I was, all the money I got by marriage nay more.” Years of free spending had “brought me in debt,” he admitted.[6]

As yet, Washington perceived no link between his financial troubles and British imperial policies, but he was clearly upset by his dependent relationship with London merchants in general and with Robert Cary in particular.

Stage 2: Seeking Western Lands

It did not take Washington long to realize that tobacco and the slaves who produced it—the mainstays of Virginia’s economy—would not get him out of debt. In fact, tobacco had helped plunge him into it; through the early 1760s the crop was poor and the market just as bad. Because he depended on a single cash crop, his economic well being was determined by two things beyond his control: the market price for tobacco and the savvy of Robert Cary. Repeatedly, Washington protested that Cary was selling his tobacco at too low a price while charging too much for the wide variety of goods he was shipping to Mount Vernon.[7]

Since his days as a surveyor for the Ohio Company of Virginia, Washington had understood that the wealth of America lay in development of her western lands. At the close of the French and Indian War, he and other investors formed the Mississippi Land Company, which petitioned King George III for rights to 2,500,000 acres on the east shore of the Mississippi, land just acquired from France. The Crown turned them down; instead, it issued its sweeping Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited settlement past the Appalachian Divide. This thwarted the hopes of the Ohio Company and the Mississippi Land Company, and it placed on hold Washington’s access to bounty land that was his due as a veteran of the war.[8]

In 1767, however, Washington heard that upcoming negotiations with Iroquois Indians would soon open up sections of the West for white settlement. Seizing the moment, he contacted William Crawford, a former officer in his regiment during the French and Indian War who had moved illegally with his family across the Appalachians. “I can never look upon that Proclamation [of 1763] in any other light (but this I say between ourselves) than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians & must fall of course in a few years,” he wrote. “Any person therefore who neglects the present opportunity of hunting ou[t] good lands & in some measure marking & distinguishing them for their own (in order to keep others from settling them) will never regain it.” He then asked Crawford, who knew the region well, to locate the best lands that they each might claim. Speed and secrecy were key to the enterprise, he cautioned: “If the scheme I am now proposing to you was known it might give alarm to others & by putting them upon a plan of the same nature (before we coud lay a proper foundation for success ourselves) set different Interests a clashing and very probably overturn the whole.” To keep the matter under “silent management,” Washington suggested that Crawford travel “under the pretence of hunting other game which you may I presume effectually do at the same time you are in pursuit of land.”[9]

Crawford liked Washington’s idea. Indeed, he had already entertained “the same sceem in my head,” including the “hunting sceem, which I intend befor you wrote me.”[10]

On his end, Washington petitioned the Virginia Council to deed the 200,000 acres promised to himself and his soldiers, and when the Council approved their petition, he ventured a visit to the lands Crawford had located, confident of his claims. This would not be the end of the matter, however.

Stage 3: Opposing Imperial Taxation

Although Washington sat out the Stamp Act controversy of 1765, the furor over the Townshend Duties in the late 1760s captured his attention. In 1769, after receiving a copy of the Philadelphia merchants’ nonimportation agreement, he teamed up with George Mason to fashion a similar document suited for the particular exigencies of Virginia. While he, like others, was upset about taxation without representation, the idea of shunning British imports resonated with him personally. There were “private as well as public advantages” to adopting a nonimportation agreement that Virginia gentry like himself might sign, Washington told Mason. Many were “considerably indebted to Great Britain,” and “a scheme of this sort will contribute more effectually than any other I can devise” to relieve that burden. Speaking in the third person instead of the first, he elucidated the benefits that would accrue to people who had wrung up large tabs with British merchants, as he had done:

The extravagant & expensive man … is thereby furnished with a pretext to live within his bounds, and embraces it.—Prudence dictated economy to him before, but his resolution was too weak to put it in practice; for how can I, says he, who have lived in such a manner change my method? I am ashamed to do it: and besides, such an alteration in the system of my living, will create suspicions of a decay in my fortune, & such a thought the World must not harbour.[11]

A nonimportation agreement, in other words, would allow indebted planters, without being viewed as parsimonious, to cut their expenses in the name of patriotism.

Washington’s proactive role in the nonimportation movement brought him into the mainstream of political protest in the colonies. Henceforth, if imperial land policies thwarted his western enterprises, he would do more than stew over his dependent relationship with the mother country. Working with others, he would endeavor to change it.

Stage 4: Lands Denied: Lord Hillsborough’s Bombshell

Early in 1774, Washington flew into a rage at Lord Hillsborough, recently Secretary of State for the Colonies, who suddenly maintained that when the Proclamation of 1763 promised land to veterans of the French and Indian War, it had meant to reward only British Regulars, not Americans. Having failed during that war to gain a commission as a British officer, and having spent a great deal of energy for a decade trying to gain title to land he thought he had been promised, Washington fumed obsessively about “his Lordships malignant disposition towards us poor Americans; founded equally in Malice, absurdity, & error.” Aside from the danger such a view presented to the patents Washington was trying to secure, Hillsborough’s declaration insulted all Americans. Bombastically, Washington asked “why Americans (who have serv’d his Majesty in the late war with as much fidelity, & without presumption, with as much success, as his British troops) should be stigmatiz’d.”[12]

Fortuitously, as Washington stewed at this latest threat to his acquisition of western lands, Parliament struck back at the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party by shutting its port and revoking key provisions of the Massachusetts Charter. Suddenly he “connected the dots,” as we say today, or to use terms more appropriate to Washington’s time and vocation, he meted the line between terminal points. Past politics and resentments, however disparate, fell into a pattern: Parliament’s continuing insistence on taxation without representation, the preferential treatment given to British land speculators, his financial dependence on Robert Cary, his indebtedness to other British merchants, and perhaps even his rejection by Lord Loudoun, the British commander who had passed over his request for a commission almost two decades past. From his new perspective, this was all of a piece, and the vindictive, mean-spirited punishment of Boston proved the point once and for all: there was a “regular, systematick plan” to curtail American rights. Again and again in his letters during the summer of 1774, he seethed about the deliberate designs of the British ministry, which was attempting to impose “the most despotick system of tyranny that ever was practiced in a free government.”[13]

Since British officials had already made up their minds to repress American colonists, there was no longer any point in petitioning them for their favors. The time for pleading had passed. “Shall we after this whine & cry for relief, when we have already tried it in vain?” he asked rhetorically. “Shall we supinely sit, and see one Provence after another fall a sacrifice to despotism?” Certainly not. “The crisis is arrivd when we must assert our rights, or submit to every imposition that can be heap’d upon us; till custom and use, will make us as tame, & abject slaves, as the Blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.”[14]

Stage 5: The Final Insult: American Surveys Null and Void

As aggravating as it was, Lord Hillsborough’s pronouncement was not yet official policy. All glimmer of hope disappeared the following spring, however, when Washington heard that surveys of the 200,000 acres of bounty land had just been declared illegal—the ostensive reason being that William Crawford, the surveyor, did not possess the proper credentials. Initially, Washington treated the news as too “incredible” to believe; at worst, he thought, it was a trick of professional surveyors “to filtch a little more money from us.” But when the rumors continued, he wrote an impassioned letter to Virginia’s Governor Lord Dunmore, begging him to intervene. Five years earlier, after going through all the proper channels, Crawford had been assigned to survey the 200,000 acres “with all possible expedition,” Washington explained, and since that time, many of Crawford’s patents had been officially granted “under your Lordships signature & the seal of the colony.” How could all this be reversed at so late a date, and why? “It appears in so uncommon a light to me, that I hardly know yet how to persuade myself into a belief of the reality of it,” he concluded.[15]

To this letter, over one thousand words long, Dunmore penned a perfunctory reply: the reason for declaring the surveys “null and void” was “a report that the surveyor who surveyed those lands did not qualify agreeable to the Act of Assembly directing the duty and qualification of surveyors.” That’s all he said. Dunmore’s token response was penned on April 18, the day British Regulars set out from Boston toward Lexington and Concord.[16]

Such a piece of bureaucratic chicanery pushed George Washington completely over the edge. William Crawford was his good friend, business associate, and indispensable agent in the West. With many years of experience and unsurpassed knowledge of the lands he surveyed, Crawford was certainly better qualified than any quill-pushing official three thousand miles away, and besides, he had been pre-approved. In fact, Crawford knew the land so well that countless others had asked him to survey it, and Lord Dunmore himself had just relied on him to lead a dangerous expedition into Indian country. The move was so blatantly illogical that only one explanation remained: British authorities would stoop to any level to keep colonials from receiving legitimate title to lands across the mountains.

Washington concluded there was no way for Americans to expand into the West without addressing the arrogant abuses of governmental authority coming from the East. Two months later, when the Continental Congress asked him to command a rebel army, he readily agreed.

This is not to say that George Washington went to war simply to acquire western lands for himself. His mission was broader than that. From the beginning, he envisioned an expansive nation—at first a British nation—extending into the fertile interior of the North American continent. When British officials, rather than encouraging such an endeavor, did everything in their power to hinder colonial subjects from developing the West, he vowed to fight for liberty and the right to realize that nationalist vision. Then, following independence and a successful conclusion to the Revolutionary War, he devoted his energies to establishing a Potomac Canal that would connect the Atlantic seaboard with the interior. Viewed through Washington’s lens, the Revolutionary War becomes not only a war of liberation but also a war of expansion, the way Native people saw it. Our identity as a nation, like the Revolutionary War, encompasses both dimensions.


[1] George Washington, The Papers of George Washington, W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, eds., (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1983-), Colonial Series. 5:323, 331-343, 374. Each voter cast ballots for two of the four candidates, and Washington was the top vote getter—by different tallies, he received 307, 309, or 310 votes. He was not present on election day, but he thanked those who put on the party on his behalf. “I am extreme thankly to you & my other friends for entertaining the Freeholders in my name—I hope no exception were taken to any that voted against me but that all were alike treated, and all had enough it is what I much desired—my only fear is that you spent with too sparing a hand.” (Washington to James Wood, July c. 28, 1758, Washington, Papers, Colonial Series, 5:349.)

[2] Since a married woman at that time could not possess her own property, one-third of Martha’s wealth passed to George for the duration of his life, and the other two-thirds went in trust to her son John, with George as the administrator.

[3] George Washington, The Diaries of George Washington, Donald Jackson, ed., (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1976-1979), 1:241.

[4] Invoice to Robert Cary, September 28, 1760, Washington, Papers, Colonial Series, 6:461-464.

[5] Washington to Charles Lawrence and Washington to Robert Cary, September 28, 1760, Washington, Papers, Colonial Series 6:458-460.

[6] Washington to Robert Stewart, April 27, 1763, Washington, Papers, Colonial Series 7:206.

[7] Washington to Robert Cary & Co., August 10, 1764, Washington, Papers, Colonial Series 7:323.

[8] For the Mississippi Land Company, see Washington, Papers, Colonial Series 7:242-246. See also 7:219-225, 415-417, and 511-513. Blocked from the West, Washington invested in a scheme to the southeast: 40,000 acres of wet, uninhabited terrain near the North Carolina border. After gaining title from the legislature, each of the ten “Adventurers for Draining the Dismal Swamp”(as the Dismal Swamp Land Company was initially called) agreed to contribute five slaves, who to be charged with emptying out the water. They would log the swamp as they drained it, and then start farming. Washington himself surveyed the land, and he dutifully purchased new slaves to fulfill his commitment, but the project literally got bogged down, for the draining proved more difficult than anticipated, and Washington lost more money than he made. (Washington, Papers, Colonial Series 7:269-276, 300, 314; Washington, Diaries, 1:319-326.) For the complete story of this venture, see Charles Royster, The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of George Washington’s Times (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).

[9] Washington to William Crawford, September 17, 1767, Washington, Papers, Colonial Series 8:26-29.

[10] Crawford to Washington, September 29, 1767, Washington, Papers, Colonial Series 8:39.

[11] Washington to George Mason, April 5, 1769, Washington, Papers, Colonial Series 8:177-180.

[12] Washington to James Wood, February 20, 1774, and Washington to William Preston, February 28, 1774, Washington, Papers, Colonial Series 9:490 and 501. See also letters of February 17 and 28 (483 and 501).

[13] Washington to Bryan Fairfax, July 20 and August 24, 1774, Washington, Papers, Colonial Series 10:130 and 156.

[14] Washington to Bryan Fairfax, July 20 and August 24, 1774, Washington, Papers, Colonial Series 10:130 and 155. These words, penned to an aristocratic neighbor who had been siding with British policies, signal Washington’s cognizance of the ironic use of the term “slavery” in the colonists’ complaints.

[15] Washington to Lord Dunmore, April 3, 1775, Washington, Papers, Colonial Series 10:320-322.

[16] Lord Dunmore to Washington, April 18, 1775, Washington, Papers, Colonial Series 10:337-338.


  • Great article, Ray, with important insights into the development of Washington’s dismay with British policies.

    Winning the Seven Years War and seeing France off of the North American continent was a lot like the end of the Cold War and Russia falling apart. Suddenly, Britain was faced with challenges it could never have foretold, and which included trying to hold the status quo on western development as it struggled with how to protect the Indians from exploitation.

    With France gone and the pressure valve it allowed Britain when it occupied Canada keeping the colonists quelled, entrepreneurs like Washington suddenly sprang up to pursue their individual plans. Clearly, colonists were not willing to give Britain the breathing space it needed to both understand its new responsibilities and then fashion reasoned policies to deal with them.

    Yes, Washington did come to the forefront as a patriot, but its genesis, as you describe, was in the pursuit of personal gain; certainly, not an uncommon response to the times as many did the same thing.

    1. I don’t want to dismiss Washington’s motivation as merely personal gain, though. That might have spurred him, but he evolved as a person and a leader with a grand national vision. This is important if we wish to understand not only his military leadership but also his role in forming a national government with some clout — a theme explored in Ed Larson’s book “The Return of George Washington,” reviewed earlier in JAR.

  • I certainly cannot disagree with your financial/economic view of Washington as the pragmatic businessman. However, as someone who attaches a great deal of importance to human ego as a motivating force, I do believe that British authorities unwillingness to give Washington an officer’s commission and his related treatment as a “lesser” figure than such officers during his younger years also significantly affected his evolution into a patriot.

    Very logically argued article, and most enjoyable.

  • In one short article, you’ve summarized many of the reasons for the Revolution—a mix of ideology and personal. These personal reasons always seem to get lost amid the propaganda of American exceptionalism.

  • I enjoyed your article and thank you for writing it. I do agree that the relationship between large planters and their merchant bankers were often structured to the benefit of the merchant bankers. I do want to point out that Washington’s relationship with Robert Cary & Company was winding down by 1772. And according to an article in Mount Vernon.org on Robert Cary & Company: “By 1773, Washington ceased listing items imported by Cary in his plantation ledgers. In November of that year, Washington ordered Cary to discharge his debts after the death of Patsy Custis. Washington gained control over money in Custis’ account with Cary and used it to pay off some of his lingering debts. By 1774, Washington was no longer conducting regular business dealings with Cary.”

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