Under physiological conditions, the arterial endothelium exerts a powerful protective influence to maintain vascular homeostasis. However, during the development of vascular disease, these protective activities are lost, and dysfunctional endothelial cells actually promote disease pathogenesis. Numerous investigations have analyzed the characteristics of dysfunctional endothelium with a view to understanding the processes responsible for the dysfunction and to determining their role in vascular pathology. This review adopts an alternate approach: reviewing the mechanisms that contribute to the initial formation of a healthy protective endothelium and on how those mechanisms may be disrupted, precipitating the appearance of dysfunctional endothelial cells and the progression of vascular disease. This approach, which highlights the role of endothelial adherens junctions and vascular endothelial–cadherin in endothelial maturation and endothelial dysfunction, provides new insight into the remarkable biology of this important cell layer and its role in vascular protection and vascular disease.