What do most Americans know about George Washington?
Unfortunately, not much! Other than the fact that he was our first President and the subject of a perennial litany of myths, Americans know surprisingly little about George Washington. Most often recited are these. He chopped down the cherry tree and could not tell a lie. He had a mouthful of uncomfortable wooden teeth. He threw a silver dollar clear across the Potomac River. He grew up in the lap of wealth and privilege, and he wore a powdered white wig. Well, not quite. Actually none of these is true. However, for those willing to dig a bit, it is possible to construct a clearer and more complete (and more accurate!) understanding of the Father of our Country.
What were George Washington's earliest years like?
His father, Augustine "Gus" Washington, was a widower with three children when he and Mary Ball wed in 1731. George, the first of their six children, was born on February 22, 1732, at Pope's Creek Plantation on the Potomac. When George was three, the family moved to Little Hunting Creek (later Mount Vernon), and, three years later to Ferry Farm, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. It is fair to presume that George's boyhood was typical of the "middling class" in colonial northern Virginia. Then, in 1743, his father died after a brief illness. It was more than a devastating emotional loss; George's life would be inalterably changed. Primogeniture, the right of the first-born son to inherit an entire estate, was still practiced by custom in colonial Virginia. As a third son George was already at a disadvantage, but, now, his prospects would be further diminished.
What was the social and economic status of the Washington family?
Though the Washington family was not among Virginia's wealthy landed gentry, they lived comfortably. Augustine's 1743 probate inventory reveals an adequate house equipped with numerous, if well used, furnishings. Augustine, ambitious and hardworking, had a business interest in iron mining and managed an iron furnace, but he was, first and foremost, a tobacco "planter." To provide for nine children was no easy task. The inventory lists, also, twenty "Negros At the Home House." The slave system was already deeply entrenched in Virginia's culture and economic underpinnings, and the Washington family was no exception.
What kind of education did George Washington receive?
Had Augustine Washington lived longer, George would probably have been educated at Appleby's Grammar School in England like the Washington men before him. Now a widow, Mary simply could not afford to send him. Nor would he ever receive the university education enjoyed by his fellow Founders. His mother determined to make up the deficit as best she could, arranging to have her children tutored by the rector of St. George's Parish, the Reverend James Marye. A schoolmaster taught him practical math, geography, Latin, and English literature. When George was fourteen, he went to live with his older half-brother Lawrence and his wife, Ann Fairfax. Lawrence introduced him to trigonometry and surveying, among other subjects, and Ann to the world of the well-bred Virginia gentleman, the life to which he now aspired. For the rest of his life, however, George Washington acutely felt the lack of a formal education.
Who and what were the most important influences in young George's life?
From his mother, a formidable figure in her own right, George inherited physical features and attributes, temperament, and personality traits. Like her, he was tall, strong, and an accomplished horseman. Under her guidance, he developed into an ambitious, thoughtful, dignified-sober and shy-young man. Washington, himself, credits her as the formative influence of his life. Lawrence, the half-brother whom he idolized, stepped up as father figure, role model, and mentor during the teenage years. Through him, George was introduced to the profession of land surveying and to military service with the Virginia Militia. Equally important, it was through Lawrence, and his wife Ann, that he nurtured close ties with the wealthy and influential Fairfax family. When Lawrence, after suffering a lengthy decline from tuberculosis, died at thirty-three in 1752, it was a terrible blow. Ironically, his death would catapult twenty-year-old George's social and economic ascent, through inheritance and appointment to an adjutancy in the Virginia Militia. George Washington was poised for the next chapter of his life.
"Getting to Know George" Series next week will focus on 1753 - 1774: Military Leader and Planter. Each week a new article will delve into one more chapter leading to the opening of the exhibit.