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Washington was the son of a tobacco planter in Virginia. He began his career as a surveyor, helping with a survey of the Shedandoah Valley at the age of 16. He became county surveyor for Culpeper County in 1749. In 1754 he took a lease of Mount Vernon, a house overlooking the Potomac which was owned by his half-brother's widow Anne. The house became Washington's when Anne died.
In 1753 Washington became an adjutant in the local militia. In 1753 and 1754 he was involved in skirmishes with the French which were the prelude to the Seven Years War. From 1755 to 1758 he was colonel of the Virginian provincial regiment, which he failed to have recognized as a regiment in the British military establishment. He resigned in 1758, married, and was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses.
Washington, in common with many colonists, opposed the British government's taxation policy. He was one of those elected from Virginia to the First Continental Congress in 1775. At the Second Continental Congress, Washington was selected as the general and commander-in-chief of the continental army. His achievement in recruiting and keeping together an irregular army during the years of warfare was impressive.
His first major defeat was at the battle of Long Island in August 1776. He retreated to New Jersey and Pennsylvania but attacked the garrison at Trenton and captured Princeton in surprise moves at the end of the year. In the autumn of 1777 Washington was defeated by General Howe at the battle of Brandywine, and the British took Philadelphia. In the winter of 1777-78 Washington engaged the Prussian officer Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben to train the Americans, a policy which bore fruit in the battle of Monmouth in June 1778.
In 1778 the French entered the war. Washington had been planning to attack New York, but in August 1781 an opportunity presented itself for the Americans to work with the French to attack General Cornwallis in his exposed position at Yorktown, Virginia. Rear-Admiral François Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse, moved with warships and soldiers to Chesapeake Bay, while Washington marched with his army, and an army of French soldiers under Rochambeau. British naval reinforcements were unable to reach Cornwallis, who surrendered on 19 October 1781.
Washington resigned as commander-in-chief when the last British troops left America in 1783, and retired to Mount Vernon to look after his estate. However, he realised that the constitution adopted in wartime conditions in 1776 was inadequate, and was the leader of the Philadelphia convention which drafted a new version in 1787.
Elected as the first President of the United States of America on 4 February 1789, Washington took the oath of office on 30 April. He served two terms, stepping down in 1796 to be replaced by John Adams. He was behind the creation of the District of Columbia, which was carved out of Maryland and Virginia and planned to a design by Pierre Charles L'Enfant. The new capital city was named Washington in his honour.
Washington remained active in politics and the military after his presidency ended. In 1798, in the face of growing French hostility, Adams asked him to be the commander of the army. Washington fell ill suddenly and died on 14 December 1799 at Mount Vernon, where he was buried.