The Presidents Fact Book

The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, and Legacies of Every President


By Roger Matuz

By Bill Harris

By J Craughwell

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This in-depth history of our nation’s 46 presidents is now fully revised and updated to include Donald Trump’s eventful term in office, Joe Biden’s path to the presidency, and the election of Kamala Harris, the nation’s first female, black vice president.

The Presidents Fact Book is the complete compendium of all things presidential and a sweeping survey of American history through the biography of every president from George Washington to Joe Biden.

Organized chronologically by president, each entry covers the major accomplishments and events of the presidential term; cabinet members, election results, groundbreaking legislation, and Supreme Court appointments; personality and personal habits including hobbies, odd behaviors, and outlandish penchants; a behindthescenes look at the wives, families, friends, and foes; and much more. Major moments from administrations – from the Bill of Rights and the Emancipation proclamation to the Civil Rights Era and the coronavirus pandemic – provide a glimpse into the crucial moments of America's storied past.
Perfect for students, history buffs, and political junkies, The Presidents Fact Book is at once an expansive collage of the American presidency and a comprehensive view of American history.


George Washington

“The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

—George Washington, first inaugural address

First president of the United States, 1789–1797

Full name: George Washington

Born: February 22, 1732, Westmoreland County, Virginia

Died: December 14, 1799, Mount Vernon, Virginia

Burial site: Washington burial vault, Mount Vernon, Virginia

Parents: Augustine and Mary Ball Washington

Spouse: Martha Dandridge Custis (1732–1802; m. 1759)

Children: John Custis (1754–81), Martha Custis (1755–73) (stepchildren)

Religion: Episcopalian

Education: Home-schooled

Occupation: Surveyor, planter, general

Government positions: Virginia House of Burgesses, member; Continental Congress, representative; Constitutional Convention, chairman

Political party: Federalist

Dates as president: April 30, 1789–March 4, 1793 (first term); March 4, 1793–March 4, 1797 (second term)

Age upon taking office: 57

George Washington is called “the father of his country” for several reasons. He was an outspoken early proponent of American independence from Great Britain. He commanded the American Continental Army in its long and ultimately successful struggle in the Revolutionary War (1775-83), and after the war, Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention (1787), which established the country’s representative form of government. As the first president of the United States, Washington proved by example that the American system could work by creating a model of how the presidency should function.

The young nation’s unity was threatened by political differences, and Washington served a second term as president to keep the increasingly divided nation together. During that second term, he avoided a war with Great Britain that could have slowed the nation’s progress, and when he left office, the peaceful transition to another elected president proved that the American system of government was sound.

Many myths about him suggest that George Washington was a man with almost superhuman virtues, but among the realities, according to some historians, was that he had a quick temper, which they claim led to several questionable decisions as a military leader. Some also say that his dealings with Great Britain as America’s chief executive were often too lenient. His contemporaries also mistook his dignified reserve as a sign of pomposity.

However, these human flaws are balanced by Washington’s positive qualities, which included sound decision-making. He understood the concerns of the American people, and he held firm to his beliefs, both as a general and as president. These qualities led his fellow Virginian, Henry Lee, to remark at the time of the president’s death that George Washington had been “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Washington was first in the hearts of other as well. England’s King William IV, the son of Washington’s old adversary, George III, called him “the greatest man who ever lived.”

Close to the Land

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on his father Augustine’s farm, Wakefield. Augustine had two sons and a daughter before becoming a widower; his second wife, Mary Ball Washington, gave birth to six more children, including George. The family moved to nearby Ferry Farm in 1738, where Augustine Washington died five years later, when George was eleven.

Young George was schooled primarily at home because his mother didn’t want to send him to England for his education, as was customary at the time. He was especially interested in mathematics, and that prompted him to learn the art of land surveying.

Washington was close to his older half-brother, Lawrence, who was married to Anne Fairfax, a daughter of a wealthy and distinguished Virginia family. When he was sixteen, George accompanied Anne’s brother, George Fairfax, to measure and map the family’s land holdings in western Virginia, across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Shenandoah Valley. A year later, because of his success with that assignment, he became the official surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia.

Washington’s survey of the Fairfax holdings.

Washington’s earliest job was as a surveyor in Virginia.

By then, at the age of seventeen, Washington was growing into a large man, eventually weighing 175 pounds in his prime. As an adult he stood six-foot-two and wore size thirteen shoes. Always fashionably dressed, he was erect in bearing, muscular, and broad-shouldered. He had a long, high-cheekboned face with a large straight nose and a determined chin. His blue-gray eyes were set under heavy brows, and he frequently powdered his dark brown hair, tying it back in a queue. He lost all but one of his teeth, and wore dentures, which were frequently replaced. They were generally made of human teeth or those of animals, sometimes of ivory and sometimes lead, but never did George Washington wear wooden false teeth, as is popularly believed.

In 1751, Washington accompanied Lawrence to the Caribbean island of Barbados. Lawrence was suffering from tuberculosis and hoped that the warmer climate would help improve his health, although he died the following year. In the meantime, Washington contracted a mild case of smallpox, which left him with permanent scars on his face. However, his bout with smallpox gave him immunity to the disease—likely saving him later during the Revolutionary War, when many of his men were afflicted with smallpox under rough conditions.

After he returned to Virginia from Barbados, Washington inherited the family estate of Mount Vernon from his late half-brother. It would be his home for the rest of his life. He was also appointed to Lawrence’s former post as an officer in the Virginia militia, which made him responsible for enlisting, inspecting, and commanding troops.

In 1753, Virginia’s royal governor, Robert Dinwiddie, dispatched Washington on a 300-mile journey to the Ohio River Valley to present demands from King George II of England to the French authorities. The king ordered the French soldiers to stop building a fort (Fort La Boeuf) in English territory. But the French officers rejected it, and Washington trudged back home through miserable winter conditions, memorizing details of the landscape along the way. When he got back to Virginia, he delivered a map pointing to a strategic location where the British might build a fort of their own.

Military Ambitions Thwarted

Washington was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in 1754. His idea for a new fort was approved, and he followed the builders to the site, which is where Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium stands today. When he arrived, Washington found the builders scattered. Instead, the French were at work constructing a stronghold of their own, which they called Fort Duquesne. Washington led an attack on it, killing ten French soldiers and their commander, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers.

Washington built a stockade nearby, which he called Fort Necessity, and waited for reinforcements. Before they arrived, though, his own troops were overcome, and Colonel Washington was forced to surrender. The terms were lenient, but the document that made the surrender official was written in French. Washington, who didn’t speak the language, had no idea that by signing it he was confessing to the assassination of Ensign Coulon.

The taking of Fort Necessity was a setback in Washington’s early military career.

The skirmish, which seemed insignificant, coupled with Washington’s “confession,” which wasn’t, gave the French an excuse to brand Washington and the British troops he led as aggressors. This, in turn, contributed to the start of the French and Indian War, which raged on the frontier from 1754 to 1763 between British and French forces and their respective Native American allies.

Washington received a hero’s welcome when he got back to Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia. He expected that his performance would earn him a command position, but the British military had a policy that only men born in Great Britain could lead their troops. This, Washington decided, was another example of British arrogance toward the colonists, and it kindled his passion for American independence.

In 1755, Washington was appointed aide to the British general Edward Braddock, who was to lead thirteen hundred men in an attack on Fort Duquesne. The attack was a failure: British soldiers fought in their conventional manner—in the open and in succeeding lines—while the French and Indian fighters were scattered and used the dense woods to their advantage. Washington and a group of colonial soldiers held their ground, but they were forced to join the British retreat. The French and Indian tactics of using the natural environment would later serve Washington well in the Revolutionary War.

After Braddock’s defeat, Washington was made a colonel of the colonial troops, and for the next few years, his assignment was to guard Virginia’s three-hundred-mile frontier from attack by the French. The attacks never came, but in 1758 he joined the British regiment that recaptured Fort Duquesne, after which he resigned his commission.

Gentleman Farmer

On January 6, 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow with two children, whom he affectionately called “Patsy.” Martha had a home in Williamsburg and seventeen thousand acres of farmland to add to his five thousand adjacent acres at Mount Vernon. Washington’s expanded holdings allowed him to become a substantial planter, and the “Old Man,” as Patsy called him (although she was a year older), settled into the life of a gentleman farmer, experimenting with new agricultural methods and equipment. He lost money growing tobacco, and he was convinced that it was because British sales agents were cheating him. He turned to other crops, particularly wheat, and built a mill, fisheries, ironworks, and even a brewery.

The French and Indian War gave young Washington valuable experience in military tactics.

As a gentleman farmer, Washington branched out with other activities, including a profitable mill.

Washington’s anti-British sentiments deepened in the years between 1759 and 1774, when he was a member of the Virginia legislature, the House of Burgesses. Other colonists were joining with him, especially in protesting what they regarded as unfair taxation, beginning with the 1765 Stamp Act, which required the purchase of stamps to make documents legal. The taxes on imported goods included one on tea, which led Massachusetts patriots to dump cargoes of it into Boston harbor in 1773 (an act that came to be known as the “Boston Tea Party”).

When Virginia’s House of Burgesses seemed to be growing increasingly rebellious, the British authorities dissolved it. Washington made his burgeoning anti-British activism clear in a secret meeting of former burgesses at Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern. The former legislators, including Washington and Thomas Jefferson, voted to express sympathy for Massachusetts in its refusal to pay the onerous taxes imposed by the British. Washington was later chosen as Virginia’s representative to the First Continental Congress when it convened with delegates from all thirteen colonies at Philadelphia in 1774.

A year later, after assuming command of five Virginia militia units, Washington was chosen as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, and he arrived in Philadelphia in full military dress. The colors of the Fairfax Militia, blue and beige, were adopted for the Continental Army, and in June 1775, George Washington was appointed its commander in chief.

The Long Fight for Independence

The Continental Army was made up of all the local and state militias representing the solidarity of all the colonies against Great Britain. It was also augmented by volunteers eager to join the American cause.

The Revolutionary War had already begun when Washington assumed command. On April 18, 1775, a unit of the Massachusetts militia—who called themselves “Minutemen,” because they could be ready to fight at a moment’s notice—routed a 700-man British force at Concord Bridge, about twenty miles west of Boston. The British had hoped to seize a cache of guns and ammunition, but went back to Boston empty-handed. The British were met there by more Minutemen, who kept them under siege.

General Washington took command of the American forces at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 2. While continuing to lay siege to Boston, he concentrated on training and organizing his army of about thirteen thousand men. Armed with cannons captured from a British fort at Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, Washington’s forces occupied a hill outside of Boston and threatened to attack the city itself. In March 1776, 11,000 British troops under General William Howe evacuated Boston by ship, and sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Boston Tea Party was one of the first anti-British demonstrations that led to a full rebellion.

As Washington continued to organize his troops, Howe’s army landed in New York at the end of June to begin fighting in earnest. Howe’s well-equipped force consisted of 32,000 soldiers, including 8,000 German mercenaries, professional soldiers known as Hessians because most of them came from the Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau regions of Germany. In the battles that followed, Washington’s men were forced into a series of demoralizing defeats—from Brooklyn to Manhattan and then across New Jersey. Washington led his forces across into Pennsylvania in early December and appeared to be settling in for the winter. The enemy retreated to Manhattan, leaving several outposts in New Jersey, which were manned by some 12,000 Hessians.

The war hadn’t been going well for the Continental Army, and Washington himself said, “I think the game is pretty much up.” But he made a bold move that not only won back some ground but cheered his weary troops. On Christmas night in 1776, Washington led his men back across the icy Delaware River, where they overwhelmed the surprised Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. Moving north, Washington’s army routed three enemy units at Princeton on January 3. Then Washington established a camp at Morristown, New Jersey, and began rebuilding his forces.

In a bold move, Washington crossed the Delaware River to attack the enemy at Trenton on Christmas night in 1776.

Washington took command of his troops at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 2, 1775.

Washington had made it a point to avoid any all-out battles with the British. He preferred smaller engagements, all the while looking for an edge that would give the Americans the advantage, but gaining such an edge would take time. In August 1777, Washington’s army failed to stop a British advance on Philadelphia at the Battle of Brandywine Creek; two months later it was forced to withdraw again after attacking Howe’s forces at Germantown. With those bitter defeats haunting them, Washington’s 11,000 men retreated to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where they barely survived the frigid winter of 1777-78.

Meanwhile, the performance of the Continental Army had made an impression on Great Britain’s other enemies. Early in 1778, Washington received secret messages from Benjamin Franklin, the American minister to France, informing him that the French were ready to recognize the independence of the colonies; to sign a treaty of commerce and alliance; and to supply arms, clothing, money, and a French fleet.

The Continental Army spent the brutal winter of 1777–78 encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

The Revolutionary War came to an end at Yorktown, Virginia, more than five years after it began.

Washington resigned his command in New York and headed back to Mount Vernon and retirement as a farmer.

Washington also learned from British sources that London was growing tired of the war, and he began to hope for a major triumph that might break the weakened British resolve. Still, the battles dragged on into 1781 before he finally found the opportunity for which he had been looking.

Twenty-nine French ships were sailing toward Chesapeake Bay, and with the prospect of their help, Washington decided to attack the forces of British general Charles Cornwallis, which were camped at Yorktown, Virginia. Washington’s forces and those of French general Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau—a total of about 16,000 men—advanced on land while the French also attacked by water. The French ships drove off a British fleet and cut off their access from Yorktown to the sea, thereby making retreat impossible. After several unsuccessful attempts to break through Washington’s siege, Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781.

Although several minor skirmishes erupted after that, Yorktown proved to be the decisive battle of the war. In March 1782, the British House of Commons declared its unwillingness to continue supporting the war in America. Peace was declared in April of 1783, and The Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the war, was signed in September. On December 4, 1783, Washington took leave of his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York City, and nineteen days later, resigned his commission at Annapolis, Maryland.

The Constitution

After the war, Washington went home to Mount Vernon with empty pockets. He had used some of his own resources during the war and had refused to accept pay for his services. He began to repair his farm, and in 1784, crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains to survey 30,000 acres of land he owned in the Ohio Valley. Parts of the land had been claimed by squatters, however, and he found other areas guarded by Native Americans.

The difficulty of crossing over the mountains to the frontier led Washington to consider an alternate route. He worked out a plan for a system of canals that could be extended from the Potomac River, and he formed the Potomac Company to make it a reality. In March of 1785, Washington presented his idea to members of the Virginia and Maryland legislatures, whose borders were formed by the river—it was the first such gesture extended to them as free and independent states.

The meetings of state representatives were so successful that Virginian James Madison proposed a convention of representatives from all states to discuss issues of mutual interest, such as the Potomac Canal. The convention was held the following year in Annapolis, Maryland, but only five of the thirteen states sent delegates. Still, those present decided to hold yet another convention in May 1787 at Philadelphia. Washington’s canal idea never materialized, but once again he displayed his ability to bring Americans together.

Meanwhile, with little power to raise taxes or make binding decisions, the post-revolutionary colonial government was failing. The British government enacted commercial sanctions meant to intimidate the new country, and the individual states responded differently to them. The growing presence of British forces on the frontier beyond the borders of the new United States, as well as on the Great Lakes, was a looming threat. A 1786 uprising of debt-ridden farmers in Massachusetts—known as Shay’s Rebellion—further exposed the weakness of the central government.

The 1787 convention at Philadelphia was intended to firm up the Articles of Confederation that united the thirteen former colonies, and to strengthen the government. Washington was elected to preside over what would later become known as the Constitutional Convention.

Representatives from the states argued over many issues all summer long, including whether or not it was a good idea to establish a strong central government. They came together in the end, and adopted the Constitution of the United States. It wouldn’t become binding until nine of the thirteen former colonies had approved it, and in June of 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to do so. Among its many provisions, the new Constitution called for the election of a president.

America was farm country in the 1790s, which was very much to the president’s liking.

Each of the thirteen states was represented by electors for the first presidential election, with the number of electors in each state based on its population. Each of these electors voted for two men, and the man receiving the most votes would become president; the man with the second-highest number became vice president. George Washington was elected unanimously to serve as the nation’s first president, and John Adams became the first vice president.


Presidential/Vice Presidential Candidates: George Washington

Popular Vote:

Electoral vote: 69

Presidential/Vice Presidential Candidates: John Adams

Popular Vote:

Electoral vote: 34

Presidential/Vice Presidential Candidates: John Jay

Popular Vote:

Electoral vote: 9

Presidential/Vice Presidential Candidates: Others

Popular Vote:

Electoral vote: 15


Presidential/Vice Presidential Candidates: George Washington

Popular Vote:

Electoral vote: 132

Presidential/Vice Presidential Candidates: John Adams

Popular Vote:

Electoral vote: 77

Presidential/Vice Presidential Candidates: George Clinton

Popular Vote:

Electoral vote: 50

Presidential/Vice Presidential Candidates: Others

Popular Vote:

Electoral vote: 5

Popular votes were not yet part of these presidential elections. Washington received all 69 electoral votes in 1789, and all 132 in 1792. Under the system, the person with the second-highest number of electoral votes—John Adams in these elections—became the vice president.


On Sale
Sep 7, 2021
Page Count
848 pages

Roger Matuz

About the Author

Roger Matuz writes about American history and culture and develops electronic resources in conjunction with school, academic, and trade publishers. His areas of specialty include popular culture and media. He lives in Michigan.

Bill Harris is a freelance editor and the author who worked at the New York Times for twenty-five years. He currently lives in Texas.

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of several nonfiction books, including Failures of the Presidents and Stealing Lincoln's Body, which was adapted into a documentary by the History Channel. He lives in Bethel, Connecticut. Thomas passed away in 2018.

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Bill Harris

About the Author

Bill Harris is a freelance editor and the author of One Thousand New York Buildings as well as sixteen other books about New York. He worked at the New York Times for twenty-five years and was a licensed New York City tour guide before moving to Dallas, Texas, where he currently resides.

Learn more about this author