Young George Washington

February 14th, 2013

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732 to Augustine Washington (1694–1743) and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington (1708–89), at their family plantation at Popes Creek, Westmoreland County, Virginia. When Washington, at age 11, lost his father to a sudden illness, the family owned nearly 50 slaves and 10,000 acres of land, planting the family firmly in the landed gentry of Virginia—though by no means near the top of that class. With his father’s death also came the news that he would not be able to attend the classical Appleby School in England as his stepbrothers had. This lack of a liberal education was much regretted by Washington as an adult, who would later write that “future years cannot compensate for lost days at this period” of one’s educational life.

Instead, George learned lessons that would benefit him practically as a farmer and landowner: math, geometry, surveying, law (e.g., leases, bonds, and patents) and basic economics (interest, currency conversions, etc.). With an intense desire to improve himself, the teenage Washington regularly mined books for their maxims to live by; he famously copied out all 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”

At the same time, George regularly visited his older stepbrother Lawrence, who had inherited Mount Vernon and, shortly after his father’s death, married Ann Fairfax, daughter of the powerful Colonel William Fairfax. Lawrence regularly invited George to visit him at Belvoir, the Fairfax estate not far from Mount Vernon, and soon George won the approval of the Colonel himself, who took him on fox hunts (George was, even at a young age, already noted for his riding ability) and taught him to navigate the world of the upper gentry.

Also at Belvoir, George took part in regular readings of Joseph Addison’s play Cato: A Tragedy, which tells the (perhaps not-entirely-true) story of Marcus Porcious Cato (95–46 BC), a Roman stoic who resisted the tyranny of Julius Caesar. Noemie Emery explains:

At Belvoir, [Cato] was read often, performed frequently, taken with great reverence by all. [ . . .] What did George take out of Cato [. . .]? Cato was an enemy of Julius Caesar, and his strictures against the rising empire cast the line of values by which the self-conscious classicists lived. George, always one to take instruction seriously, absorbed through this painless medium the idea that civility was to be prized above the state of nature:

A Roman soul is bent on higher views:
To civilize the rude, unpolish’d world,
And lay it under the restraint of laws;
To make man mild and sociable to man,
To cultivate the wild, licencious savage
With wisdom, discipline, and liberal arts,
The embellishment of life. Virtues like these
Make human nature shine, reform the soul,
And break our fierce barbarians into men.

reason over instinct:

Let not a torrent of impetuous zeal
Transport thee beyond the bounds of reason:
True fortitude is seen in great exploits
That justice warrants, and that wisdom guides;
All else is tow’ring frenzy and distraction.

justice over laxity of standards:

. . . this base, degenerate age requires
Severity, and justice in its rigour. . . .
This awes an impious, bold offending world
Commands obedience, and gives force to laws.
When by just vengeance guilty mortals perish
The Gods regard the punishment with pleasure
And lay the uplifted thunderbolt aside.

public service over private comfort:

. . . what pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country. . . .
I should have blushed if Cato’s house had stood
Secure, and flourished in a civil war. . . .
My life is not my own when Rome demands it.

the great ideal of perseverance under pressure:

. . . valour soars above
What the world calls misfortune and affliction . . .
The Gods, in bounty, work up storms about us
That give mankind occasion to exert
Their hidden strength.

the enduring fear of arbitrary power:

Bid him disband his legions,
Restore the commonwealth to liberty,
Submit his actions to the public censure,
and stand the judgment of a Roman Senate,
Bid him do this, and Cato is his friend.

and, over all, the conviction that life without self-determination is worse than no life at all:

. . . let us draw her term of freedom out. . . .
A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty
Is worth a whole eternity in bondage.

Here, distilled, is the credo of the Whig ascendancy, which echoes through his lifetime like a chime: honor, discipline, impartial justice, order, and relentless self-control. An austere doctrine, lifting values over human virtues, with solace for the fortune-stricken but no mercy for the weak. Seductive doctrine for an adolescent, high-minded and unfanciful, conscious of emerging powers, seeking a channel in which they could be at once released and controlled. In their own right, these ideas would have made an impression; backed and sponsored by the men he loved and looked up to, they took a luster that would never fade. Washington would follow them, with the single-minded zeal of a religious postulant, from the first days of his awkward cubhood to his apogee as nationmaker and as head of state. For also in Cato, less noticed, in the beginning, but more telling for the end: “My life is grafted on the fate of Rome.”

For more on George Washington, head over to our new ebook in the American Calendar: “The Meaning of George Washington’s Birthday.

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