George Washington Introduction

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George Washington


General, statesman, and first president of the United States, George

Washington was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on February 22

(February 11, old style), 1732. His father was Augustine Washington,

who had gone to school in England, had tasted seafaring life, and was then

managing his growing Virginia estates. His mother was Mary Ball, whom

Augustine, a widower, had married early the previous year. The paternal

lineage had some distinction; an early forebear was described as

"gentleman," Henry VIII later gave the family lands, and its members held

various offices. But family fortunes fell with the Puritan revolution in

England, and John Washington, grandfather of Augustine, migrated in

1657 to Virginia. The ancestral home at Sulgrave, Northamptonshire, is

maintained as a Washington memorial. Little definite information exists on

any of the line until Augustine. He was an energetic, ambitious man who

acquired much land, built mills, took an interest in opening iron mines, and

sent his two oldest sons to England for schooling. By his first wife, Jane

Butler, he had four children; by his second, six. Augustine died April 12,


Childhood and youth.

Little is known of George Washington's early childhood, spent largely on

the Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River, opposite Fredericksburg,

Virginia. Mason L. iHe attended school irregularly from his seventh to his 15th

year, first with the local church sexton and later with a schoolmaster named

Williams. Some of his schoolboy papers survive. He was fairly well trained

in practical mathematics--gauging, several types of mensuration, and such

trigonometry as was useful in surveying. He studied geography, possibly

had a little Latin, and certainly read some of The Spectator and other

English classics. The copybook in which he transcribed at 14 a set of

moral precepts or Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company

and Conversation was carefully preserved. His best training, however,

was given him by practical men and outdoor occupations, not by books.

He mastered tobacco growing and stock raising, and early in his teens he

was sufficiently familiar with surveying to plot the fields about him.

At his father's death, the 11-year-old boy became the ward of his eldest

half brother, Lawrence, a man of fine character who gave him wise and

affectionate care. Lawrence inherited the beautiful estate of Little Hunting

Creek, which had been granted to the original settler, John Washington,

and which Augustine had done much since 1738 to develop. Lawrence

married Anne (Nancy) Fairfax, daughter of Col. William Fairfax, cousin

and agent of Lord Fairfax, one of the chief proprietors of the region.

Lawrence also built a house and named the 2,500-acre holding Mount

Vernon, in honour of the admiral under whom he had served in the siege of

Cartagena. Living there chiefly with Lawrence (though he spent some time

with his other half brother, Augustine, called Austin, near Fredericksburg),

George entered a more spacious and polite world. Anne Fairfax

Washington was a woman of charm, grace, and culture; Lawrence had

brought from his English school and his naval service much knowledge and

experience. A valued neighbour and relative, George William Fairfax,

whose large estate, Belvoir, was about four miles distant, and other

relatives by marriage, the Carlyles of Alexandria, helped form George's

mind and manners.
The youth turned first to surveying as a profession. Lord Fairfax, a

middle-aged bachelor who owned more than 5,000,000 acres in northern

Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, came to America in 1746 to live with

his cousin George William at Belvoir and to look after his properties. Two

years later he sent to the Shenandoah Valley a party to survey and plot his

lands to make regular tenants of the squatters moving in from Pennsylvania.

With the official surveyor of Prince William County in charge, Washington

went along as assistant. The 16-year-old lad kept a disjointed diary of the

trip, which shows skill in observation. He describes the discomfort of

sleeping under "one thread Bear blanket with double its Weight of Vermin

such as Lice Fleas & c"; an encounter with an Indian war party bearing a

scalp; the Pennsylvania-German emigrants, "as ignorant a set of people as

the Indians they would never speak English but when spoken to they speak

all Dutch"; and the serving of roast wild turkey on "a Large Chip," for "as

for dishes we had none."
The following year (1749), aided by Lord Fairfax, Washington received

an appointment as official surveyor of Culpeper county, and for more than

two years he was kept almost constantly busy. Surveying not only in

Culpeper but also in Frederick and Augusta counties, he made journeys far

beyond the tidewater region into the western wilderness. The experience

taught him resourcefulness and endurance and toughened both body and

mind. Coupled with his half brother Lawrence's ventures in land, it also

gave him an interest in western development that endured throughout his

life. He was always disposed to speculate in western holdings and to view

favourably projects for colonizing the West, and he greatly resented the

limitations that the crown in time laid on the westward movement. In 1752

Lord Fairfax determined to take up his final residence in the Shenandoah

Valley and settled there in a log hunting lodge, which he called Greenway

Court, after a Kentish manor of his family. There Washington was

sometimes entertained and had access to a small library that Fairfax had

begun accumulating at Oxford.

The years 1751-52 marked a turning point in Washington's life, for they

placed him in control of Mount Vernon. His half brother Lawrence,

stricken by tuberculosis, went to Barbados in 1751 for his health, taking

George along. From this sole journey beyond the present borders of the

United States, Washington returned with the light scars of an attack of

smallpox. In July of the next year, Lawrence died, making George

executor and residuary heir of his estate in the event of the decease of his

daughter, Sarah, without issue. As she died within two months,

Washington at the age of 20 became head of one of the best Virginia

estates. He always thought farming the "most delectable" of pursuits. "It is

honorable," he wrote, "it is amusing, and, with superior judgment, it is

profitable." And of all the spots for farming, he thought Mount Vernon the

best. "No estate in United America," he assured an English correspondent,

"is more pleasantly situated than this." His greatest pride in later days was

to be regarded as the first farmer of the land.
He gradually increased the estate until it exceeded 8,000 acres. He

enlarged the house in 1760 and made further enlargements and

improvements on the house and its landscaping in 1784-86. He tried to

keep abreast of the latest scientific advances.

For the next 20 years the main background of Washington's life was the

work and society of Mount Vernon. He had to manage the 18 slaves that

came with the estate and others he bought later; by 1760 he paid tithes on

49 slaves--though he strongly disapproved of the institution and hoped for

some mode of abolishing it. He gave assiduous attention to the rotation of

crops, fertilization of the soil, and the management of livestock.

For diversion he was fond of riding, fox hunting, and dancing; of such

theatrical performances as he could reach; and of duck hunting and

sturgeon fishing. He liked billiards and cards and not only subscribed to

racing associations but ran his own horses in races. In all outdoor pursuits,

from wrestling to colt breaking, he excelled. A friend of the 1750s

describes him as "straight as an Indian, measuring six feet two inches in his

stockings"; as very muscular and broad shouldered, but though large

boned, weighing only 175 pounds; and as having long arms and legs. His

penetrating blue-gray eyes were overhung by heavy brows, his nose was

large and straight, and his mouth was large and firmly closed. "His

movements and gestures are graceful, his walk majestic, and he is a

splendid horseman." He soon became prominent in community affairs, was

an active member and later vestryman of the Episcopal Church, and as

early as 1755 expressed a desire to stand for the Virginia House of


i Weems's stories of the hatchet and cherry tree and of

young Washington's repugnance to fighting are apocryphal efforts to fill a

manifest gap.

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