On this day in 1732, George Washington is born. “No American is more completely misunderstood than George Washington,” one of his biographers writes. “He is generally believed to have been, by birth and training, a rich, conservative, British-oriented Virginia aristocrat. As a matter of fact, he was, for the environment in which he moved, poor during his young manhood.”
In other words, Washington overcame more disadvantages than most people realize.
George was the first of six children born to Augustine and Mary Ball Washington. Little is known about George’s relationship with his father, but Augustine’s unexpected death in April 1743 had a dramatic effect on the course of young George’s life.
For one thing, George would never be able to travel to England for an expensive education, as his older half-brothers had done. Instead, he would end up with even less formal education than Presidents such as Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. By today’s standards, it was equivalent to about an elementary school education.
Which leads to another thing that people don’t realize about George Washington: He read. A lot! He was sensitive about his lack of formal schooling and always seemed to be trying to make it up through self-education.
When George’s father passed away, his half-brother Lawrence became like a second father to him. Lawrence had inherited the land that would become Mount Vernon, and George spent a lot of time there with his older brother. Perhaps those factors, taken together, help explain why Mount Vernon became so important to George?
Lawrence married into the powerful Fairfax family. It was a connection that ended up helping George, too. The young George spent time foxhunting with Lord Fairfax, and the elder gentleman took an interest in George’s career. Mary Washington had refused to let George join the Royal Navy, but George developed an interest in surveying. The Fairfaxes helped George get started as a surveyor.
“Perhaps the first indication of George’s unusual qualities,” historian James Thomas Flexner writes, “was the way in which the young boy was taken into the bosom of the Fairfax clan.”
In the meantime, Lawrence’s health was deteriorating, and he was plagued with a constant, racking cough. A trip to the warmer climate in Barbados seemed like a possible cure. Would George go, too? The trip was a serious commitment: George would lose at least a season of surveying work. But Lawrence was his brother and his “best friend.”
There was never any real doubt about what George would do.
The trip proved beneficial to George in an unexpected way. While he was in Barbados, he was “strongly attacked with the small Pox,” as he would write in his diary. The illness—and the recovery—gave George immunity from a disease that would later plague the Continental Army.
Unfortunately, the trip didn’t help Lawrence, who passed away in July 1752. His single remaining heir, a small daughter, passed away in 1754. George would inherit Mount Vernon upon the death of Lawrence’s widow, although he leased the property from her before that.
George soon followed in Lawrence’s footsteps in one last way: He joined the military and was appointed district adjutant of the Virginia militia.
The new Major George Washington was still only 20 years old.
“Instead of going to college, Washington went to war,” historian Joseph Ellis once wrote. And that’s exactly what happened in the years after Lawrence’s death. Naturally, those are stories for another day.
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Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington, a Biography, Vol. I: Young Washington (1948)
James Thomas Flexner, Washington, the Indispensable Man (1974 reprint)
Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (2004)
Lease of Mount Vernon (Dec. 17, 1754)
The Manuscript: George Washington’s Barbados diary