George Washington - Ada Russell

The Rebel's Childhood

George washington was descended from an old planter family of Virginia, who had left England under the Commonwealth, and so had the reverse of republican ancestry. His ancestors indeed departed from the Old Country a few years after the execution of Charles I, full of sorrow and indignation at that act.

They belonged to an old English family, undistinguished on the whole, but occasionally producing some notable person. Their chief seat was at Sulgrave in Northamptonshire, where stained glass and a few ancient brasses still preserve their name and arms. Sir Henry Washington fought for Charles I in the Civil War and showed some of the qualities of soldier and ruler that George afterward possessed. The Washingtons found England neither a safe nor pleasant place under the Puritan Commonwealth, and set sail in 1657 for Virginia, the loyal Church of England colony, where they could preserve in safety their loyalty and their religion. John and Lawrence, the uncles of Sir Henry, were the founders. They purchased lands on the west bank of the Potomac River, built a house there, and continued to live, so far as changed conditions permitted it, the life of English country gentlemen. The elder of the two brothers, Colonel John Washington, great-grandfather of George, stands out as a wealthy planter and pioneer in Indian warfare, for in the border States Indian warfare was a constant feature. He removed the seat of his family to Bridges Creek, a short distance from the Potomac. His elder son Lawrence had three children—among them Augustine, father of George. Augustine was twice married and had a good many children, of whom George was the eldest by the second wife.

George Washington, the future President of the United States, was born on the 22nd February, 1732, at Bridges Creek in the house built by his great-grandfather, Colonel John Washington, of which not a stone remains to-day. A simple inscription only tells that it was the birthplace of Washington.

When he was about five years old his family left this house for another at the banks of the Rappahannock, a mighty river neighbouring Indian territory and hitherto navigated chiefly by the Indian's light canoe. It was bordered by primeval forests and represented the boundary of British civilisation as extended by the Washingtons and other big planters. Here Washington grew up and learned gradually to manage estates and deal prudently with a vast overseas commerce, for his family like their fellow planters shipped their own goods to Great Britain without the help of the shipping agencies. Here he studied the social and political life of his colony and took his part in its festivities, learning to ride, fish, hunt, and to protect himself against Indians. Part of his training was how to tame exuberant nature, and another part, and not the least important, was to face the bravest and most skilful foes the white man has ever met in his wanderings—the Redskins. In the border colonies there was a continual danger of Indian raids, of villages and farms being set on fire and the inhabitants scalped.

George played at. Redskins at a period when they were still prowling round the White Klan's settlements and stalking him, and in his teens he sat in their tents and watched their war-dances and heard their grim songs. When he was very small he played at soldiers, having a set of toy grenadiers, and he would assemble the negro children on his father's plantation and drill them like a martinet.. He never dreamed of any other career for himself than that of a soldier.

His half-brother Lawrence, eldest son and heir, was sent to England to be educated. Having received the best instruction "Home" (as the colonist's still called the Old Country) could give, he returned to America to receive a commission as captain in His Britannic Majesty's Army, and served with distinction under Admiral Vernon against Spain. The excitement of George knew no bounds when he heard of his brother's doings and promotion.

Being a younger son, he was not sent to the Old Country for his education. However, he learned "what's what" from Lawrence, who took great pains with him, and carefully observed the manners and ways of the English gentlemen and distinguished colonials he met from time to time. Lord Fairfax, a typical eighteenth century English gentleman, a great sportsman and yet a patron of the arts—even himself a contributor to that quintessence of intellectual England, The Spectator—had wide estates in these parts and was on the most intimate terms with the Washingtons. It was astonishing, however, how little Americans really learned from eighteenth century England. They picked up her amusements and fashions in dress and furniture, but they were almost proof against her intellectual outlook at that time. The eighteenth century is one on which Britons may well look back with pride in almost every direction. England had built up a great commercial empire; she had established what for the time was a model system of government at home; and she had a constellation of famous literary men whose works are still among the chief treasures of the race. But the literature produced at that time dealt largely in epigram and irony and could only have been produced and appreciated by a highly artificial society. It was full of humour and scholarship, and sparkled with wit, but it seemed to Americans to be too far removed from life. It incited to no high ideals or noble conduct; it made little appeal to the passions; it had no "heart." There was therefore between Great Britain and her colonies no intellectual bond which should endear her to them. Literary sympathy is often the best conductor of liking between nation and nation, and this literary sympathy in that age America found more in France than in England.

For good or for evil, George Washington never had the slightest touch of the literary spirit of eighteenth century England, and there is nothing to make us suppose that he had the slightest sense of humour. His character was formed to greater issues, and he was perhaps fortunate in escaping from the cynical, ironical spirit that nearly became a plague in eighteenth century life at Home. In all other respects he grew up to the height of the age as a perfect gentleman, wise, sensible, straightforward, magnanimous, courteous, charitable, obstinate, patient, strong in every way; and the wonderful thing about him is that he showed most of these qualities almost as soon as he could speak. He was tall and handsome; he excelled every other boy in all manly games; and a place is still shown where he threw a stone across the Rappahannock at the lower ferry; he ran like a deer, he leapt like a cat; he could tame a wild horse like Alexander, and wrestle without a peer. His parents took more than ordinary pains that their children should be straightforward, truthful and religious.

Among many famous stories of George and his father, the only one I can be sure that every reader will have heard of is that of the Lie, and as none of you like this story—because nice people do not generally say that they "cannot tell a lie"—I am glad to be able to tell you that it is almost certainly false. The beautiful English cherry-tree spoiled by the toy hatchet has gone with the little boy who could not tell a lie to the land where nearly every other tale of Washington's childhood has fled. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it was never a very truthful tale itself. The Hatchet of History has been applied mercilessly to the fertile legend of Washington's childhood and has left us literally nothing in the way of anecdote.

When he was five years old he was sent to the school of the village sexton, one Hobby, although his father remarked that. "a bright boy will run Hobby dry in two or three years"; and although Hobby might claim in later years to have laid the foundations of Washington's greatness, it is plain that the boy learned at home what was most valuable to him—the Scriptures, stories of history, and the description of other countries. He had little of the scholar in his disposition, and through lack of opportunity he never learned any foreign tongue, not even French, Legend says that both in the school and in the playground he was a model boy.

From Hobby's hands he passed to the school of one Mr. Williams, the best teacher to be found in Virginia, and went in especially for the study of arithmetic, book-keeping and surveying, as it was thought that these subjects would he most useful to him as a planter.

At thirteen he was already a man in stature and maturity of character, and had already drawn up sets of legal and commercial forms that he thought would be useful to him. His experience in making this Book of Forms, still preserved, "gave him," says his biographer, Washington Irving, "throughout life a lawyer's skill in draughting 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 Governments, and all the financial transactions to this day are to be seen posted up in books, in his own handwriting, monuments of his method and unvaried accuracy." He mapped and measured the farms near the school as if he were a professional surveyor. He also wrote out "Rules of Behaviour in Company and Conversation"—110 of them—such as:

"Sleep not when others speak; it not when others stand; speak not when you should hold your peace; walk not when others stop."

"Break not a jest where none take pleasure in mirth; laugh not aloud nor at all without occasion; deride no man's misfortune, though there seem to be some cause."

"Speak not injurious words, neither in jest nor earnest; scoff at none although they give occasion."

"Detract not from others, neither be excessive in commending."

"Give not advice without being asked; and when desired do it briefly."

"Reprehend not the imperfections of others; for that belongs to parents, masters and superiors."

"Be not apt to relate news, if you know not the truth thereof."

George must have framed these rules on his reading, not on his experience, but the older members of his family agreed that if any one living were capable of carrying them out it was he.

His kind, wise father died shortly before George went to Mr. Williams' school. He was overcome with the most passionate sorrow, for he "thought the world of his father," it was said, "and his father thought the world of him." Lawrence married one of the Fairfax girls very shortly afterward, and settled on an estate near by, bequeathed him by his father, calling it after his favourite admiral, by the now famous name of Mount Vernon, to be associated in later days with his famous brother. George soon spent all his spare time and holidays here. The estate on the Rappahannock was settled on him.

Washington and mother


George was not quite sixteen when he left school for good, and he was already in the throes of his first love affair, of which the object was a lady identified by tradition with the future mother of General Henry Lee, one of the heroes of the Revolution. Perhaps he was influenced, as he was very much in everything, by the marriage of Lawrence; anyway he wrote verses to the Lady of his Thoughts, and was very unhappy for an unusually long time. It is an episode without a fellow in a life that was to be romantic indeed, but in a bigger way.

At Mount Vernon, where he met many officers, George, strongly encouraged by Lawrence, once turned his thoughts to the British Navy; a midshipman's warrant was obtained for him and his trunk actually put aboard the man-of-war in the Potomac, when his mother repented and begged him to stay with her. After a sharp struggle, George consented to do so, and so the big man-of-war sailed away with his first ambition as the unknown fair lady sailed away with his first love. Not in vain had his parents taught him obedience and quoted often the grim text:

"The eye that mocketh at his father and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it."

Washington's mother, unlike his father, lived to see the harvest of the virtues she had so carefully planted, and in the coming days of the American Republic "the mother of Washington" enjoyed a renown not unlike that of the "Mother of the Gracchi" under the Roman Republic of old. To the end of her days she maintained her authority over children and household; George still obeyed her when he became President of the United States, and a relation wrote of the times when the children were young:

"Of the mother I was ten times more afraid than I ever was of my own parents. She awed me in the midst of her kindness, for she was, indeed, truly kind. I have often been present with her sons, proper, tall fellows, too, and we were all as mute as mice; and even now, when time has whitened my locks, and I am grandparent of a second generation, I could not behold that remarkable woman without feelings it is impossible to describe. Whoever has seen that awe-inspiring air and manner so characteristic in the Father of his Country, will remember the matron as she appeared when the presiding genius of her well-ordered household, commanding and being obeyed."