Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.


By Judy Leithe

George Washington’s parents, Augustine and Mary Washington, were both born in Virginia, and coincidently, lost their fathers by the age of three. However, when both of Mary’s parents died, she was farmed out to a kindly neighbor. Being orphaned at such an early age caused her to have an anxious personality, but Mary learned to be self-reliant and disciplined. She likely had little formal schooling, but developed a strong faith and even stronger opinions.

After Augustine’s father Lawrence died, his mother Margaret was left to raise her two sons John and Augustine. Margaret then married a British ship captain and the family relocated to England. When Margaret died in childbirth, the boy’s step-father enrolled them in the Appleby Grammar School. Both John and Augustine kept their birth-father’s name of Washington, and eventually returned to Virginia.

The second son, Augustine, a powerfully-built man, was a successful farmer, and part-owner of a Maryland iron mine. He was respected for his even temper, and was a Justice of the Peace as well as an officer of the county court in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His first wife, Jane, passed away in 1729, leaving him with three children, Lawrence, John, and Jane. The two boys were sent to England to attend their father’s alma mater, Appleby Grammar School, while Jane remained at home to learn homemaking skills as was the custom of the day. While running his farm and mine operations, Augustine was also now the sole parent for his children.  He proposed marriage to Mary Ball, and they were wed in 1731.

Even though, at 26, Mary was considered “older,” she and Augustine had six children together. The family Bible states that the eldest child, George, was born on the family arm on February 11, 1732, less than a mile from the Potomac River.

As George neared school-age, he was looking forward to going to England to study at the Appleby Grammar School, just as his father, uncle, and his two half-brothers had done. However, when George was 11 years old, his father died causing many adjustments to be made in the Washington household. Suddenly, Mary was on her own with six children to raise, as well as keeping the farm operational to cover the household expenses. George’s mother began to make even more demands on her eldest son, and it soon became clear that there would be no funds or opportunities for his formal education.

In his book, Washington, a Life, Ron Chernow 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, fugal and demanding, had a discernible impact on her son," Chernow goes on to say, "one is tempted to say that the first formidable general George Washington ever encountered was his mother.”

George attended some local schools, but colonial Virginia did not offer the level of classical education he would have received in England. Young George read numerous books, competed in fencing contests, and as history shows, he had a strong aptitude for math, with special interest in geometry. Also he believed that he should have experience at sea, so at 15 he made arrangements to join the British Navy. Washington had just boarded the ship when he discovered his mother raising such a furor on shore that he quickly disembarked and agreed to her demand that he return with her to the farm.

Virginia was well steeped in British customs of societal ranking which a family accrued from Crown-appointed leadership positions, land ownership, or high military ranking. Even though Augustine Washington was a land owner and an officer of the court, his unexpected death meant that George (his eldest son from his second marriage) did not have the benefit of an established family name.

Ever intent on self-improvement, at 16 George 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, but closer inspection reveals that they suggest small personal sacrifices one makes for the good of all for the sake of living together in society. The Civility manual of etiquette and morality helped mold the character of this future general and U.S. President.

The backwoods of Virginia also held endless fascination for George. Using the surveying equipment left to him by his father, he began learning the trade of land surveillance 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 his earnings allowed him to purchase 1,500 acres in what was considered Virginia wilderness.

George was close to all of his siblings, but his step-brother Lawrence, fourteen years his senior, became a father-like figure to George. George spent many happy hours in the home of Lawrence and Anne Washington. Having been an officer in the British Army, Lawrence gave George his first taste of military life by regaling him with many tales of his wartime adventures. As a result George began to add military strategy books to his reading list. 

Lawrence contracted tuberculosis and died when George was 20 years old. Then British Royal Governor of Virginia Robert Dinwiddie chose George to fill the post of Adjutant General of Virginia’s Southern District, the position left vacant by Lawrence’s death. For the next fourteen years, George followed Lawrence’s example by also serving in the Virginia House of Burgesses. As the eldest son from Augustine’s first marriage, Lawrence had received the largest inheritance from their father’s estate, which included Mount Vernon. However, after the deaths of Ann Washington, and later, her daughter, Mount Vernon was passed on to George.

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