Life of George Washington

Lawrence Washington had something of the old military spirit of the family,
and circumstances soon called it into action. Spanish depredations on
British commerce had recently provoked reprisals. Admiral Vernon,
commander-in-chief in the West Indies, had accordingly captured Porto
Bello, on the Isthmus of Darien. The Spaniards were preparing to revenge
the blow; the French were fitting out ships to aid them. Troops were
embarked in England for another campaign in the West Indies; a regiment of
four battalions was to be raised in the colonies and sent to join them at
Jamaica. There was a sudden outbreak of military ardor in the province; the
sound of drum and fife was heard in the villages with the parade of
recruiting parties. Lawrence Washington, now twenty-two years of age,
caught the infection. He obtained a captain’s commission in the newly
raised regiment, and embarked with it for the West Indies in 1740. He
served in the joint expeditions of Admiral Vernon and General Wentworth, in
the land forces commanded by the latter, and acquired the friendship and
confidence of both of those officers. He was present at the siege of
Carthagena, when it was bombarded by the fleet, and when the troops
attempted to escalade the citadel. It was an ineffectual attack; the ships
could not get near enough to throw their shells into the town, and the
scaling ladders proved too short. That part of the attack, however, with
which Lawrence was concerned, distinguished itself by its bravery. The
troops sustained unflinching a destructive fire for several hours, and at
length retired with honor, their small force having sustained a loss of
about six hundred in killed and wounded.

We have here the secret of that martial spirit so often cited of George in
his boyish days. He had seen his brother fitted out for the wars. He had
heard by letter and otherwise of the warlike scenes in which he was
mingling. All his amusements took a military turn. He made soldiers of his
schoolmates; they had their mimic parades, reviews, and sham fights; a boy
named William Bustle was sometimes his competitor, but George was
commander-in-chief of Hobby’s school.

Lawrence Washington returned home in the autumn of 1742, the campaigns in
the West Indies being ended, and Admiral Vernon and General Wentworth being
recalled to England. It was the intention of Lawrence to rejoin his
regiment in that country, and seek promotion in the army, but circumstances
completely altered his plans. He formed an attachment to Anne, the eldest
daughter of the Honorable William Fairfax, of Fairfax County; his addresses
were well received, and they became engaged. Their nuptials were delayed by
the sudden and untimely death of his father, which took place on the 12th
of April, 1743, after a short but severe attack of gout in the stomach, and
when but forty-nine years of age. George had been absent from home on a
visit during his father’s illness, and just returned in time to receive a
parting look of affection.

Augustine Washington left large possessions, distributed by will among his
children. To Lawrence, the estate on the banks of the Potomac, with other
real property, and several shares in iron works. To Augustine, the second
son by the first marriage, the old homestead and estate in Westmoreland.
The children by the second marriage were severally well provided for, and
George, when he became of age, was to have the house and lands on the

In the month of July the marriage of Lawrence with Miss Fairfax took place.
He now gave up all thoughts of foreign service, and settled himself on his
estate on the banks of the Potomac, to which he gave the name of MOUNT
VERNON, in honor of the admiral.

Augustine took up his abode at the homestead on Bridges Creek, and married
Anne, daughter and co-heiress of William Aylett, Esquire, of Westmoreland

George, now eleven years of age, and the other children of the second
marriage, had been left under the guardianship of their mother, to whom was
intrusted the proceeds of all their property until they should severally
come of age. She proved herself worthy of the trust. Endowed with plain,
direct good sense, thorough conscientiousness, and prompt decision, she
governed her family strictly, but kindly, exacting deference while she
inspired affection. George, being her eldest son, was thought to be her
favorite, yet she never gave him undue preference, and the implicit
deference exacted from him in childhood continued to be habitually observed
by him to the day of her death. He inherited from her a high temper and a
spirit of command, but her early precepts and example taught him to
restrain and govern that temper, and to square his conduct on the exact
principles of equity and justice.

Tradition gives an interesting picture of the widow, with her little flock
gathered round her, as was her daily wont, reading to them lessons of
religion and morality out of some standard work. Her favorite volume was
Sir Matthew Hale’s Contemplations, moral and divine. The admirable maxims
therein contained, for outward action as well as self-government, sank deep
into the mind of George, and, doubtless, had a great influence in forming
his character. They certainly were exemplified in his conduct throughout
life. This mother’s manual, bearing his mother’s name, Mary Washington,
written with her own hand, was ever preserved by him with filial care, and
may still be seen in the archives of Mount Vernon. A precious document! Let
those who wish to know the moral foundation of his character consult its

Having no longer the benefit of a father’s instructions at home, and the
scope of tuition of Hobby, the sexton, being too limited for the growing
wants of his pupil, George was now sent to reside with Augustine
Washington, at Bridges Creek, and enjoy the benefit of a superior school in
that neighborhood, kept by a Mr. Williams. His education, however, was
plain and practical. He never attempted the learned languages, nor
manifested any inclination for rhetoric or belles-lettres. His object, or
the object of his friends, seems to have been confined to fitting him for
ordinary business. His manuscript school books still exist, and are models
of neatness and accuracy. One of them, it is true, a ciphering book,
preserved in the library at Mount Vernon, has some school-boy attempts at
calligraphy; nondescript birds, executed with a flourish of the pen, or
profiles of faces, probably intended for those of his schoolmates; the rest
are all grave and business-like. Before he was thirteen years of age he had
copied into a volume forms for all kinds of mercantile and legal papers;
bills of exchange, notes of hand, deeds, bonds, and the like. This early
self-tuition gave him throughout life a lawyer’s skill in drafting
documents, and a merchant’s exactness in keeping accounts; so that all the
concerns of his various estates; his dealings with his domestic stewards
and foreign agents; his accounts with government, and all his financial
transactions are to this day to be seen posted up in books, in his own
handwriting, monuments of his method and unwearied accuracy.

He was a self-disciplinarian in physical as well as mental matters, and
practised himself in all kinds of athletic exercises, such as running,
leaping, wrestling, pitching quoits and tossing bars. His frame even in
infancy had been large and powerful, and he now excelled most of his
playmates in contests of agility and strength. As a proof of his muscular
power, a place is still pointed out at Fredericksburg, near the lower
ferry, where, when a boy, he flung a stone across the Rappahannock. In
horsemanship too he already excelled, and was ready to back, and able to
manage the most fiery steed. Traditional anecdotes remain of his
achievements in this respect.

Above all, his inherent probity and the principles of justice on which he
regulated all his conduct, even at this early period of life, were soon
appreciated by his schoolmates; he was referred to as an umpire in their
disputes, and his decisions were never reversed. As he had formerly been
military chieftain, he was now legislator of the school; thus displaying in
boyhood a type of the future man.



The attachment of Lawrence Washington to his brother George seems to have
acquired additional strength and tenderness on their father’s death; he now
took a truly paternal interest in his concerns, and had him as frequently
as possible a guest at Mount Vernon. Lawrence had deservedly become a
popular and leading personage in the country. He was a member of the House
of Burgesses, and Adjutant General of the district, with the rank of major,
and a regular salary. A frequent sojourn with him brought George into
familiar intercourse with the family of his father-in-law, the Hon.
William Fairfax, who resided at a beautiful seat called Belvoir, a few
miles below Mount Vernon, and on the same woody ridge bordering the

William Fairfax was a man of liberal education and intrinsic worth; he had
seen much of the world, and his mind had been enriched and ripened by
varied and adventurous experience. Of an ancient English family in
Yorkshire, he had entered the army at the age of twenty-one; had served
with honor both in the East and West Indies, and officiated as governor of
New Providence, after having aided in rescuing it from pirates. For some
years past he had resided in Virginia, to manage the immense landed estates
of his cousin, Lord Fairfax, and lived at Belvoir in the style of an
English country gentleman, surrounded by an intelligent and cultivated
family of sons and daughters.

An intimacy with a family like this, in which the frankness and simplicity
of rural and colonial life were united with European refinement, could not
but have a beneficial effect in moulding the character and manners of a
somewhat homebred schoolboy. It was probably his intercourse with them, and
his ambition to acquit himself well in their society, that set him upon
compiling a code of morals and manners which still exists in a manuscript
in his own handwriting, entitled “rules for behavior in company and
conversation.” It is extremely minute and circumstantial. Some of the rules
for personal deportment extend to such trivial matters, and are so quaint
and formal, as almost to provoke a smile; but in the main, a better manual
of conduct could not be put into the hands of a youth. The whole code
evinces that rigid propriety and self control to which he subjected
himself, and by which he brought all the impulses of a somewhat ardent
temper under conscientious government.

Other influences were brought to bear on George during his visit at Mount
Vernon. His brother Lawrence still retained some of his military
inclinations, fostered no doubt by his post of Adjutant General. William
Fairfax, as we have shown, had been a soldier, and in many trying scenes.
Some of Lawrence’s comrades of the provincial regiment, who had served with
him in the West Indies, were occasional visitors at Mount Vernon; or a ship
of war, possibly one of Vernon’s old fleet, would anchor in the Potomac,
and its officers be welcome guests at the tables of Lawrence and his
father-in-law. Thus military scenes on sea and shore would become the
topics of conversation. The capture of Porto Bello; the bombardment of
Carthagena; old stories of cruisings in the East and West Indies, and
campaigns against the pirates. We can picture to ourselves George, a grave
and earnest boy, with an expanding intellect, and a deep-seated passion for
enterprise, listening to such conversations with a kindling spirit and a
growing desire for military life. In this way most probably was produced
that desire to enter the navy which he evinced when about fourteen years of
age. The opportunity for gratifying it appeared at hand. Ships of war
frequented the colonies, and at times, as we have hinted, were anchored in
the Potomac. The inclination was encouraged by Lawrence Washington and Mr.
Fairfax. Lawrence retained pleasant recollections of his cruisings in the
fleet of Admiral Vernon, and considered the naval service a popular path to
fame and fortune. George was at a suitable age to enter the navy. The great
difficulty was to procure the assent of his mother. She was brought,
however, to acquiesce; a midshipman’s warrant was obtained, and it is even
said that the luggage of the youth was actually on board of a man of war,
anchored in the river just below Mount Vernon.

At the eleventh hour the mother’s heart faltered. This was her eldest born.
A son, whose strong and steadfast character promised to be a support to
herself and a protection to her other children. The thought of his being
completely severed from her and exposed to the hardships and perils of a
boisterous profession, overcame even her resolute mind, and at her urgent
remonstrances the nautical scheme was given up.

To school, therefore, George returned, and continued his studies for nearly
two years longer, devoting himself especially to mathematics, and
accomplishing himself in those branches calculated to fit him either for
civil or military service. Among these, one of the most important in the
actual state of the country was land surveying. In this he schooled himself
thoroughly, using the highest processes of the art; making surveys about
the neighborhood, and keeping regular field books, some of which we have
examined, in which the boundaries and measurements of the fields surveyed
were carefully entered, and diagrams made, with a neatness and exactness as
if the whole related to important land transactions instead of being mere
school exercises. Thus, in his earliest days, there was perseverance and
completeness in all his undertakings. Nothing was left half done, or done
in a hurried and slovenly manner. The habit of mind thus cultivated
continued throughout life; so that however complicated his tasks and
overwhelming his cares, in the arduous and hazardous situations in which he
was often placed, he found time to do every thing, and to do it well. He
had acquired the magic of method, which of itself works wonders.

In one of these manuscript memorials of his practical studies and
exercises, we have come upon some documents singularly in contrast with all
that we have just cited, and, with his apparently unromantic character. In
a word, there are evidences in his own handwriting, that, before he was
fifteen years of age, he had conceived a passion for some unknown beauty,
so serious as to disturb his otherwise well-regulated mind, and to make him
really unhappy. Why this juvenile attachment was a source of unhappiness we
have no positive means of ascertaining. Perhaps the object of it may have
considered him a mere school-boy, and treated him as such; or his own
shyness may have been in his way, and his “rules for behavior and
conversation” may as yet have sat awkwardly on him, and rendered him formal
and ungainly when he most sought to please. Even in later years he was apt
to be silent and embarrassed in female society. “He was a very bashful
young man,” said an old lady, whom he used to visit when they were both in
their nonage. “I used often to wish that he would talk more.”

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