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Lesson Plan George Washington: First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen

George Washington: First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen consists of three lessons examining George Washington's leadership in the French and Indian War, at the Federal Convention, and as chief executive. They are based on primary source documents from George Washington Papers. The documents from Washington's Letterbooks include focus questions that may be used in Socratic seminars, cooperative learning, individual and group work.

In preparation, teachers should review the documents and suggested readings accompanying each lesson to determine appropriateness for their students. Recognizing that eighteenth-century conventions of grammar, vocabulary, and spelling may be distracting, teachers may choose to read selected documents aloud, and/or use vocabulary building activities before reading. Students might also transcribe documents into contemporary English. Teachers may also wish to refer to Using Primary Sources before beginning the unit.


Students will be able to:

  • Interpret primary source documents in historical context.
  • Explain the characteristics of good leadership.
  • Evaluate Washington's military leadership and his rise to a position of prominence in British America.
  • Explain the factors that led to the calling of the Federal Convention and evaluate Washington's role at the Convention.
  • Analyze how Washington as chief executive responded to issues confronting the United States.

Time Required

Three to five classes

Lesson Preparation

Resources Used

Lesson One:

Lesson Two:

Lesson Three:

Lesson Procedure

Lesson One: Honor and Passion for Glory: George Washington in the Ohio Valley

This lesson examines ways in which George Washington demonstrated his leadership abilities as a young British colonial officer. Textbooks make little reference to his military career during the mid-eighteenth century Anglo-French contest for empire. The lesson includes a reading to acquaint students with Washington's first adventures as a military leader and draws upon his letterbooks to explore his role in the struggle between Britain and France for control of North America between 1753 and 1758.

Preliminary Activity:

  1. Set the stage for the lesson by brainstorming leadership traits. Discuss the qualities of a good leader. What are the responsibilities of leadership? Record and save student responses to reference at the conclusion of the lesson.
  2. Read selections from a textbook or encyclopedia on the eighteenth-century colonial conflicts between Britain and France in North America leading up to the Seven Years' War (French and Indian War).
  3. Examine a map of colonial North America ca. 1750. Possibilities include:
    Why were both Britain and France interested in the Ohio Valley?
    What English colonies laid claim to the Ohio Valley?
  4. Students may read and discuss a secondary text discussing Washington as a military leader. Questions to consider include:
    How might the Ohio Company of Virginia influence actions taken by the House of Burgesses regarding the colony's interest in the Ohio Valley?
    What were the prospects for success of this mission?
    Why would Washington want to assume command of the mission?
  5. Distribute (or project) "The humble Address of the Officers of the Virginia Regiment" who served under George Washington on the occasion of his retirement as commander of the Virginia Regiment in 1758.

What does the address by officers under Washington's command indicate regarding his military leadership?


Divide the class into five groups to read different documents revealing Washington's perspective on the campaign about which the officers of the Virginia Regiment had expressed their sentiments. Groups report to the entire class on their readings regarding the difficulties Washington faced during his campaign in the Ohio Valley. Students should take notes during the group presentations. Refer students to the Timeline to help them place their reading in a historical context.

Group 1


Consider such questions as:

  • What was the tone of Washington's reply to the invitation to accept a commission under Governor Sharpe's command?
  • What are the reasons Washington gives for rejecting the appointment?
  • To what extent would Washington's reply to Governor Sharpe's offer reflect negatively on his military career?
  • What does this letter reveal about Washington's character?

Group 2


  1. George Washington to Robert Orme, April 2, 1755
  2. George Washington to William Bird, April 20, 1755

Consider such questions as:

  • Why would Washington wish to serve under General Braddock as a volunteer?
  • Would service under General Braddock enhance Washington's military career?
  • Under what conditions would Washington serve?
  • Why do you think General Braddock would agree to Washington's request for special privileges?
  • What does the letter to William Bird reveal about Washington's motives for serving under General Braddock?

Group 3


  1. George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, July 18, 1755
  2. George Washington to John Augustine Washington, July 18, 1755

Consider such questions as:

  • According to Washington, what was the reason for the British defeat at the hands of a smaller French and Indian force?
  • How does Washington describe the actions of the British regulars in the battle?
  • What were the consequences of the British defeat?

Group 4


Consider such questions as:

  • How does Washington respond to accusations against him?
  • How does Washington defend himself?
  • What is the tone of the letter?
  • How does Virginia Governor Dinwiddie respond?

Group 5


  1. George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, September 24, 1757
  2. George Washington to Francis Fauquier, November 28, 1758

Consider such questions as:

  • What is Washington's assessment of the situation on the frontier in his letter to Virginia Governor Dinwiddie?
  • How does Washington describe the fall of Fort Duquesne to Virginia Governor Fauquier?
  • What credit does Washington give to his troops during the long campaign to dislodge the French from the Ohio Valley?
  • How does the British victory affect relations with the Indians?

Culminating Activities:

  1. Discuss how Washington succeeded in becoming a prominent figure in the Virginia militia.
    What risks was Washington willing to take in order to achieve recognition?
    What leadership qualities did he demonstrate during the 1753-54 expedition?
    In the 1754-58 campaign?
    What advice would you have given Washington if you had served as his adjutant during the campaigns against the French in the Ohio Valley?
  2. Assume the role of a member of the House of Burgesses and draft a resolution recognizing Washington's service to Virginia between 1753 and 1758.
  3. Review leadership traits from the earlier brainstorming activity. Does Washington exemplify these qualities? Explain.

Extension Activities

  1. Compare Washington's letters to Virginia Governor Dinwiddie during the Ohio Valley campaigns with his letters to the Continental Congress during the American Revolution regarding the failure to provide adequate supplies and monetary support for the military.
    What was the basis for Washington's criticisms of the Virginia governor and House of Burgesses during the campaigns against the French in the Ohio Valley?
    How did Washington react to the failure of the Continental Congress to adequately supply his forces during the American Revolution?
    What similarities do you see in Washington's letters to Governor Dinwiddie and in his later chastisements of the Continental Congress?
    How do these letters reflect on Washington as a military leader?
  2. A military leader is often called upon to deal with desertion within his command.
    How did Washington handle deserters during the Ohio Valley campaigns? Compare this with Washington's disciplinary actions during the American Revolution. Search on deserters and select from letters corresponding to the dates of Washington's campaigns, 1754-58 and 1775-83.

Lesson Two: The Happy Progress of Our Affairs: George Washington and the U.S. Constitution

This lesson addresses George Washington's leadership in forging a new government for the United States after the break from England in 1776. The historical period covered by the documents in the lesson ranges from a few days after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, to late May 1790, when Rhode Island became the last of the thirteen colonies to ratify the new Constitution. The lesson uses Washington's own words to illustrate the events leading to the establishment of our national government, and the crucial roles he played throughout that process.

Preliminary Activity:

  1. Set the stage for the lesson by reviewing the events leading to the split between England and the American colonies, including the formal Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

    Distribute or project an excerpt of Letter from George Washington to General Artemas Ward, July 9, 1776, in which he requests that the message of the Declaration of Independence be shared with all colonial troops.
  2. Use a textbook or the Timeline to briefly review social, economic, and political events in the years 1776-1790.
    After winning the War for Independence, what were some of the challenges faced by George Washington and his countrymen?
    What were some of the perceived weaknesses of government under the Articles of Confederation?
    What was Shays's Rebellion?


1. In order to investigate George Washington's concerns about the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and the revolt known as Shays's Rebellion, divide the class into six groups of students, and ask each group to read and highlight key passages from excerpts of one of six documents:

  1. George Washington to James McHenry, August 22,1785
  2. George Washington to David Humphreys, October 22, 1786
  3. George Washington to Henry Lee, October 31, 1786
  4. George Washington to James Madison, Jr., November 5, 1786
  5. George Washington to Henry Knox, December 26, 1786
  6. George Washington to Henry Knox, February 25, 1787
  7. Ezra Stiles to George Washington, February 7, 1787, with roughly sketched map of the area of Shay's operations

Consider such questions as:

  • What evidence of economic problems among the states is seen in the letters?
  • What is the nature of the "commotions" to which Washington repeatedly refers?
  • What impact does Washington think Shays's Rebellion will have on the image of the United States in foreign countries?
  • What, as reflected in his own words, is Washington's personal view of this domestic crisis?

Students can prepare a group presentation to share excerpts of their document with their classmates. Each group should report in turn, according to the date of their correspondence. Place a large timeline on the board, and ask one member of each group to write a key phrase from their letter that captures George Washington's growing sense of alarm and exasperation regarding developments in Massachusetts. Students should take notes during the presentations.

2. George Washington played a key role in the drafting of the Constitution of the United States. In order to investigate how deeply involved he was in the political and philosophical development of the document, divide students again into six groups, and distribute to each group excerpts of one of six documents:

  1. George Washington to Lafayette, March 25, 1787
  2. George Washington to James Madison, Jr., March 31, 1787
  3. George Washington to David Stuart, July 1, 1787
  4. George Washington to Lafayette, February 7, 1788
  5. George Washington to Lafayette, May 28, 1788
  6. George Washington to James Madison, Jr., September 23, 1788

Consider such questions as:

  • To whom was the document written? What role, if any, did this correspondent play in the American Revolution? What was the person's relationship to Washington?
  • What is Washington's view of the federal convention to be held in Philadelphia beginning in May 1787? What does he insist must happen there?
  • How does Washington characterize the proceedings of the Convention from his vantage point as an eyewitness to the events? What evidence exists of the famous compromises that occurred there?
  • What does Washington's correspondence reveal regarding the struggle in each of the states over the ratification of the Constitution?

Students can report out key passages from their group's document, presenting the material according to chronological order. Students should take notes during the presentations, and write a summary of Washington's unique role as a participant and commentator during the writing and ratification of the Constitution of the United States.

Culminating Activity:

Ask each student to read Letter from George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, June 3, 1790. After reading the letter, students can write an essay recounting the events of 1785-90 that were illuminated in the lesson activities. They should compare and contrast George Washington's attitude regarding the future of the United States at different points during those fifteen years.

Extension Activities

Discuss or project an excerpt from George Washington to Congress, November 19, 1794, in which he sets down his view of the importance of the U.S. Constitution.

  • What did Washington's words say to his contemporaries about the creation of the American republic?
  • What applications do his words have for the present generation of Americans?

Lesson Three: Integrity and Firmness is All I Can Promise: The Washington Presidency

This lesson addresses George Washington's leadership as President of the United States. The documents in the lesson range from a few days before his inauguration through his presidency and includes one letter from retirement that summarizes foreign policy issues between the United States and the French Republic. The documents explore several key issues during the administration that Washington highlighted in his Farewell Address of September 19, 1796.

Preliminary Activity:

Refer to textbook accounts of Washington's administration and list the accomplishments and unresolved issues of his presidency.


1. Divide the class into four groups and assign each one of the following topics: Federal Union, Political Factions, Whiskey Rebellion, and Permanent Alliances.

2. Working in groups, students read and discuss Washington's views on each topic as revealed in his correspondence.

Group 1 - Federal Union


  1. George Washington to Congress, April 30, 1789, First Inaugural Address
  2. George Washington to David Humphreys, July 20, 1791

Consider such questions as:

  • How is the American nation guided by divine providence?
  • According to Washington, why is the United States unique among nations of the world?
  • How does government best serve the interests of the people?
  • What are the feelings of Southerners toward the national government? According to Washington, what factors are responsible for these attitudes?
  • What concerns does Washington express regarding future adherence to the excise tax on whiskey?

Group 2 - Political Factions


  1. George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, August 26, 1792
  2. George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, July 6, 1796 (Secretary of Treasury)

Consider such questions as:

  • According to Washington, should differences of opinion be put aside in the interest of unity?
  • How do political factors obstruct the functions of government?
  • Why does Washington feel that the nation will be torn asunder by political factions?
  • According to Washington, what role have gazettes (newspapers) played in promoting discord?
  • What is the tone of Washington's letter to Jefferson?

Group 3 - Whiskey Rebellion


  1. George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, September 7, 1792
  2. George Washington to Daniel Morgan, October 8, 1794
  3. George Washington to Henry Lee, August 26, 1794

For additional evidence explore:

Consider such questions as:

  • Why does Washington believe it is important for the government to act?
  • According to Washington, what are the consequences of taking no action?
  • What is Washington referring to when he says "we may bid adieu to all government in this Country, except Mob and Club Govt."?
  • In Washington's view, once a law is passed by the Congress what is the responsibility of citizens?
  • According to Washington, to what extent was Citizen Edmund Genet, the French ambassador, responsible for the discontent in western Pennsylvania?

Group 4 - Permanent Alliances


  1. George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, April 12, 1793, photostat (Secretary of State)
  2. George Washington, April 22, 1793, Neutrality
    NOTE: [Neutrality Proclamation is not transcribed]
  3. George Washington to Lafayette, December 25, 1798

Consider such questions as:

  • Why is Washington concerned over the outbreak of war in Europe?
  • Why does Washington believe there is a need for immediate action?
  • Why did Washington feel neutrality was the wisest course of action?
  • According to Washington, was the Proclamation of Neutrality a violation of the Franco-American alliance?
  • Why would Washington advise the nation to "steer clear of permanent alliances?" In your opinion, was this good advice in the 1790s? Would you consider it a wise policy in today's world? Explain.

For additional evidence on Washington's admonition to avoid permanent alliances, search on Genet (Citizen Edmund Genet, the French Ambassador to the United States).

3. Review George Washington's September 17, 1796, Farewell Address for sections that relate to the topic your group investigated.

4. Prepare a report to the class explaining Washington's views on the subject under investigation. What advice did Washington offer to the nation? Why?

Culminating Activities:

Write an essay developing one topic that Washington discussed in his Farewell Address and explain how his comments were either consistent with or diverged from policy statements during his administration.

Today, the warning about political parties and "entangling" alliances are the two issues most commonly referred to in the Farewell Address. Read sections from the Farewell Address that relate to both these issues. Assume the role of a modern television journalist and prepare a news program relating these issues to the present day.

Extension Activities

What are the paramount issues included in Washington's Farewell Address? From Washington's perspective, how are domestic and foreign policy issues interrelated?

"Chart the points Washington makes in his Farewell Address under the headings, Personal Reflections, Admonitions, and Recommendations." What does Washington have to say regarding each of these issues.

What central issues of the day were not included in Washington's Farewell? Why do you think they were omitted? Explain.

Research how later generations have viewed Washington's Farewell Address.

Lesson Evaluation

Assess student participation in discussions and other classroom activities as well as products resulting from culminating activities according to criteria that you specify or develop in discussion with the class.


Kirk Ankeney & David Vigilante