Washington's World: Biography
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732 on a small farm in northern Virginia, the first-born son of his father Augustine's second marriage. When George was only 11 years old his father died, leaving him to the sole care of a very stern, religious and controlling mother. He attended a one-room school house for 7 or 8 years and because of his father's death he never went to England to further his formal education as his older half brother Lawrence had done. In fact, he never was out of the country in his life except when he accompanied Lawrence to Barbados in 1752 in an attempt to help Lawrence find a cure for the illness (tuberculosis) that would shortly take Lawrence's life. As Lawrence was the first born of the first marriage, he had inherited Mount Vernon. With his passing he left a wife and a daughter who subsequently died and his wife remarried thus leaving the door open for George to acquire Mount Vernon as he was now the oldest surviving son and the legitimate heir based on the rights of primo-geniture.
The French and Indian War, 1753-1760, proved the young Virginia Colonel to be a very brave and inspiring leader; and taught him much about military tactics, supply and leadership that would prove invaluable to him and the great cause for which he would someday devote his life, fortune and sacred honor. His marriage to the Widow Martha Custis on January 6, (Twelfth Night was religiously significant) 1759 would last until his death almost 41 years later. Although they never had any children of their own, he would help raise her two surviving children and later two of the grandchildren.
So, who was this man who was raised in a very rural and insular environment, surrounded with slaves and people of privilege? Virginia and the South itself were a country unlike the rest of America. In fact the American colonies were really like three separate nations with differing economic systems, values and to some degree, culture. What they shared was a common language, historical perspective and fierce independence. It would take an extremely talented and exceptional leader to pull them together and keep them focused on the cause for 8 1/2 years. The early death of his father leaving him with a very strict and possessive mother who would always be demanding of his time and attention even when he was Commander-in-Chief during the Revolution in a perverse way helped mold him into a highly disciplined, driven and patient leader. As a child, 13 or 14 years old, he copied out 110 Rules of Civility which he apparently practiced his entire life. Virtually everyone thought of George Washington as their friend and a person who always had the welfare of the country uppermost in his mind and actions. In a letter to friends back home in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1790, Vice President Adams' wife Abigail wrote in part describing our first President thusly:
"He is Polite with Dignity, Affable without Familiarity, Grave without Austerity; Modest, Wise and Good."
Lawrence Washington, his much older half brother, was admired for his worldly knowledge and Naval experiences, installing an interest in military life as well as introducing the teenager to high society with its many connections. Lawrence's marriage to a daughter of their wealthy neighbor, Lord Fairfax, brought the young Washington to the attention of the highly influential Fairfax family where he learned civility, fox hunting and dancing, as well as training to become a surveyor; and help in acquiring his first lucrative contract at age 16 which nearly cost him his life, taking him into the wild and dangerous forests for two years! Stamina, discipline, planning skills and goal orientation became part of his character. George's embarkation on a military life at age 20, fighting in the French and Indian War, distinguishing himself in battle and being hailed as a national hero helped establish his credentials for his eventual selection less than two decades later as the Commanding General of the revolution. In the interim, he served many years in the Virginia House of Burgesses and established a reputation for being calm, civil, fair and non-partisan. He was largely viewed as the quintessential man of virtue. Early in the war a young female poet submitted a poem to a Boston newspaper describing her view of General Washington as he rode out onto the battlefield; here are just a couple lines of that piece:
"Serene, Majestic. See, he gains the field!
His Heart is Pure. His Arms are Steel!"
By the time the revolution was over, Washington had become a living caricature of himself. Somewhat aloof, regal in bearing (gentlemen removed their hats and ladies curtsied when meeting him or seeing him pass by), rarely speaking in public as he was more of a listener, polite to everyone, very modest and thoughtful of others and a reflective thinker, he inspired people and was generally spoken of with awe. What the 18th Century admired in a leader, the 21st century American finds it difficult to emulate that which we cannot hope to duplicate. It was common for people to name their first-born son George Washington and to teach him to be like Washington. Indeed, many well-known people such as the Marquis de La Fayette named their first-born son George Washington. Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State in the first administration of President George Washington, wrote a few weeks after Washington's death on January 2, 1800:
"He was in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man...The whole of his character was in its mass perfect, in nothing bad, in a few points indifferent. And it may be truly said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance..."
Henry (Light Horse Harry) Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee, in a memorial funeral oration at Christ Church in Philadelphia uttered these immortal words:
"Vice shuddered at his presence, and Virtue always felt his fostering hand. He was first in War, first in Peace, and first in the Hearts of his Country Men. And he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of family life."
George Washington never wrote an autobiography; nor did he allow anyone in his lifetime to write a biography about him as he considered it the ultimate in immodesty. He was the epitome of Virtue, the hero's hero, the leader extraordinaire, the most humble of all our leaders. I end with a few thoughts from America's greatest Founding Father.
"...the man who acts from principle, who pursues the paths of truth, moderation and justice, will regain his influence."
"...Though I prize, as I ought, the good opinion of my fellow citizens; yet, if I know myself, I would not seek or retain popularity at the expense of one social duty or moral virtue."
"...The confidence and affection of his fellow Citizens is the most valuable and agreeable reward a Citizen can receive. Next to the happiness of my Country, this is the most powerful inducement I can have to exert myself in its Service."
"...Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder."