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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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GEORGE WASHINGTON: " Part I: Four Generations of Virginians

George Washington’s great-grandfather, John Washington, came from a prominent English family that lost their estate and political standing during one of England’s civil wars.  As a consequence, in 1655, John relocated to the British colony of Virginia in order to build a new life.  He purchased land in Westmoreland County and in 1660, he married Anne Pope, started a family, and served as a colonel in the British military.  After his death in 1677, his eldest son, Lawrence, inherited his father’s
Westmoreland farm, which he named Mount Vernon. 

Lawrence and Mildred Washington had two sons, John and Augustine.  However, when Lawrence unexpectantly passed away, his sons were just 6 and 4 years old.  Mildred then married a British ship captain and the family relocated to his home in England.  When Mildred died during a difficult childbirth, John and Augustine’s uncle, John Washington, who lived in Virginia, became their legal guardian.  He retained the surname of Washington for his nephews and enrolled them in the prestigious Appleby Grammar Boarding School in England where both he and the boy’s father, Lawrence, had attended.  After the boys graduated from Appleby’s, their uncle brought them back to live in Virginia.  Augustine would later become the father of George Washington.

Augustine, a powerfully-built man, was a successful farmer, surveyor, and part-owner of an iron mine in Maryland.  He was respected in his community and, like his father, also served as an officer in the British militia.  He was elected as Justice of the Peace and served as an Officer of the Court in Westmoreland County, Virginia.

In 1715, Augustine married Jane Butler and they had three children together. Their firstborn was Lawrence, followed by Augustine, Jr., and Jane.  After his wife, Jane, passed away he spent two years as a widower tending to his family, farm, and civic responsibilities.  Augustine then married Mary Ball in 1730.

Mary had also lost her parents when she was young and was raised by sympathetic neighbors.  Being orphaned at such an early age caused her to have an anxious personality.  As was often the case for girls in colonial times, Mary was homeschooled and had to learn to be disciplined, and self-reliant.  These experiences shaped her adult life, and she was known to be a stern woman with strong opinions.

Even though Mary, in her mid-twenties, was considered “older,” she and Augustine had six children together.  The family Bible records that George, the eldest child from this second marriage, was born on February 11, 1731, on the family farm, less than a mile from the Potomac River.

Augustine’s two sons from his first marriage, Lawrence and Augustine, Jr., had already attended his alma mater, Appleby Grammar School in England.  As George neared school age, he was looking forward to traveling to England to be educated in the same tradition as his father, uncle, and his two half-brothers.  However, when George was 11 years old, his father died suddenly, causing many adjustments to be made in the Washington household.  Mary was now on her own raising her six children while keeping the farm operational to cover the household expenses.  Under these circumstances, Mary Washington had to rely on her eldest son to manage the farm.  It also became clear that there were no available funds to send George to England to receive a formal education.

At that time, Virginia was still an English colony and was steeped in the British customs of societal ranking.   A person could only achieve status in one or more ways: family connections; classical education; being chosen for leadership positions; owning land; or, being an officer in the military.  Captain Augustine Washington met all of the criteria, as did his two first-born sons.  After Augustine’s death his older sons, Lawrence and Augustine also inherited their father’s estates, Mount Vernon and Pope’s Creek, respectively.  As third in line, George inherited the smaller Rappahannock River farm.  He missed the guiding hand of a father, lacked formal education, and was too young for military service.  It was up to George to prepare himself for adulthood.

In his book, Washington, a Life, author Ron Chernow states that after her husband’s untimely death, Mary was forced “to eliminate any frills of family life, and her Spartan style as a businesswoman, frugal and demanding, had a discernible impact on her son … one is tempted to say that the first formidable general George Washington ever encountered was his mother.”    While George did not have the social ranking of his older half-brothers, he attended local schools and furthered his education through self-directed study.  He showed a strong aptitude for math and geometry, competed in fencing contests, and was known to be an expert horseman.  George also felt that he should have experience as a seaman, so at 15 he made arrangements to join the British Navy.  He had just boarded the ship when he discovered his mother raising such a furor on shore, he disembarked and agreed to her demands that he return with her and help run the farm.

Intent on self-improvement, George, at the age of 16, hand-copied the one-hundred-ten Rules for Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, written by French Jesuits in 1595.  Some of these rules may seem archaic and even humorous today.  However, upon closer inspection, they reveal that one’s small personal sacrifices enhance civility in polite society.  The Civility manual of etiquette and morality clearly helped mold the character of this future general and U.S. President.

As he took on more farm management responsibilities, Virginia's uncharted backwoods also held endless fascination for young George.  Using the surveying equipment left to him by his father, he began learning the trade of land surveying and map making.  When he was 17, George was appointed to his first public office as Surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia.  By the time he was 19, he had purchased his first property, consisting of 1,500 acres in the Virginia wilderness, with money he earned as a professional surveyor.

George’s half-brother, Lawrence, who was fourteen years his senior, became a father figure to George after their father, Augustine had passed away.  He spent many happy hours with Lawrence and his wife, Ann, in their home at the Mount Vernon estate, which had been built by their father in 1734.  Lawrence was a Captain in the British Army, and George paid rapt attention as Lawrence shared his wartime adventures during the time the British and Spanish governments fought over land ownership in the Caribbean.  These stories prompted George to add books about military strategies to his reading list.

Lawrence contracted tuberculosis and died when George was 20 years old.  He had made provisions in his will that George would be third in line, after his wife and daughter, to inherit the Mount Vernon estate.

The British Royal Governor of Virginia chose George to fill Lawrence’s post as Adjutant General of Virginia’s Southern District and he also served in the Virginia House of Burgesses.  The following year, the governor enlisted him in the British Army with the rank of Lt. Colonel.

Washington’s early military experiences included having to surrender his small militia and his hastily built Fort Necessity to a larger contingent of French troops.  This seeming failure was soon overshadowed by his heroic leadership during the French and Indian War.  Washington then returned to Mount Vernon to resume the life of a farmer.  On January 6, 1759, he married the widow, Martha Custis.  Although they did not have children together Washington was devoted to Martha and her two children, and together they enjoyed a happy and busy life at Mount Vernon.

Washington was an accomplished horseman and he took a particular interest in breeding and training horses in his well-maintained stables.  Along with growing wheat and other grains, Washington improved crop rotation methods and created an innovative sixteen-sided treading barn and gristmill which produced 8,000 pounds of flour and cornmeal a day.  He also supervised a distillery and had three fisheries.  Mount Vernon was a highly productive farm.

Even though George Washington was content living at Mount Vernon, he felt compelled to serve his country.  Initially, his military service was as a Lt. Colonel in the British Army.  However, as years passed, Washington stood with his fellow colonists against the British government because of their oppressive and ever-increasing taxation of the colonies, while denying them legal representation as British citizens.  When the Revolutionary War became inevitable, he was chosen to be the Commander in Chief of America’s Continental Army.  After defeating the British, George Washington was unanimously chosen by a grateful country to serve two terms as the first President of the United States.


Ron Chernow, Washington, A Life (Penguin Random House, 1998);