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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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George Washington's Boyhood - Part I
By Judy Leithe, Contributing Editor

George Washington's parents, Augustine and Mary Ball Washington, were a study in contrasts.  By the time Mary was three years old, both of her parents were dead and she was farmed out to a kindly neighbor, George Eskridge (namesake of George Washington).  Although being orphaned at such an early age caused her to have an anxious personality, Mary learned to be self-reliant and disciplined.  She likely had little schooling but developed a strong faith, and even stronger opinions.  At twenty-six, Mary Ball was considered "older" when she married Augustine Washington. 

Augustine Washington's father, Lawrence, also died when Augustine was three or four years old.  His widowed mother, Mildred, married George Gale, a British ship captain.  In May of 1700, a pregnant Mildred, and her boys, John and Augustine, sailed with Captain Gale from Cumberland GA to England.  Mildred and her baby girl died shortly after their arrival, so Captain Gale enrolled the boys in the Appleby Grammar School, in northwest England, which provided them with a classical education, with emphasis on Latin.  The young men eventually returned to Virginia.  Not a lot is known about Augustine except that he was reported to be a successful farmer, and part owner of a Maryland iron mine.  He was a powerfully built man, was respected for his even temper and was community-minded (like his son, George).  He was named a justice of the peace and sat on the county court. 

Augustine's first wife, Jane Butler, passed away in 1729, leaving him with three children, Lawrence (who will figure prominently in George's life), John "Austin", and Jane.  The boys were sent to Appleby Grammar School, but trying to run his business and oversee his family by himself was difficult so, in 1731, he married Mary Ball.  The family Bible states that on February 11, 1732, their first of their six children, George Washington, was born at the family farm at Pope's Creek in Westmoreland County VA, less than a mile from the Potomac River.  (Note: By the mid-eighteen hundreds, the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar, which changed GW's birthdate to February 22nd.)

Since his father, and his two brothers-in-laws, from Augustine's first marriage, attended Appleby Grammar School, George assumed he would also travel to England to receive the same classical education.  However, when George was eleven years old, his father died.  There were many adjustments that came with the death of the Washington household.  Suddenly widowed, Mary had to raise her six children, ages six to eleven, as well as keep the farm operational, which caused her to make even more demands on her eldest son.  It now became clear to young George that there would be no funds for his formal education. 

In Ron Chernow's book, "Washington, a Life," he states that "...Mary was unbending and even shrewish."  Her husband's untimely "...death forced Mary to eliminate any frills of family life, and her Spartan style as a businesswoman, frugal and demanding, had a discernable impact on her son...one is tempted to say that the first formidable general George Washington ever encountered was his mother."

Augustine left a working farm (or plantation) to each of his six sons from his two marriages; as was the custom, it was expected that his three daughters would have security in marriage.  George inherited the home and acreage of Ferry Farm, along with assorted lots in Fredericksburg VA.  (However, since George was only eleven, his mother kept a firm hold on his property, and wouldn't fully relinquish it to him even after he turned 21.) 

In next week's CONSTITUTION CORNER: George Washington begins a life of purpose.