Youth and Family
George Washington, the first president of the United States, was born on February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was the son of Augustine Washington and great-grandson of John Washington, who had arrived from Britain empty-handed in 1658. George's mother was Mary Ball Washington. She was Augustine's second wife; the first one had died after bearing two children.
George's childhood was modest. He lived in a six-room house crowded with beds and frequent visitors. From what evidence we have, George seems to have been happy as a child, spending much of his time outdoors. In 1743, Augustine Washington died. He left most of his estate to his two oldest sons. George inherited only a few hundred acres and ten slaves. With his two older half- brothers already married and living on their own estates, George became the head of his household at age 11. Along with his mother, he took care of his younger brothers and sister.
George's formal education ended near this time. He had studied reading, writing, mathematics, draftsmanship, and mapmaking. George also read a lot and enjoyed fine art and music. After the death of his father, George found a new role model and mentor in his half-brother Lawrence, who was fourteen years older. Lawrence took George hunting and fishing and told him stories of his military adventures in South America. George's admiration for Lawrence probably influenced his desire to become a soldier.
In 1748, when he was seventeen, Washington accompanied a surveying party into the Shenandoah Valley. The Shenandoah was then wilderness; in the month he spent there, Washington gained valuable knowledge of the frontier. He also proved himself as a good surveyor, and a year later was appointed the surveyor of Culpeper County. His surveying work was interrupted in 1751 when Lawrence became ill with tuberculosis. George accompanied him to Barbados, where Lawrence hoped to recover. This was to be the only trip outside of the original thirteen colonies George took during his entire life. While in Barbados Washington caught smallpox, but he recovered. Having already had the disease, he was now immune–later, when during the Revolutionary War soldiers died from smallpox by the hundreds, Washington remained unaffected.
Despite the trip to Barbados, Lawrence died in 1752. George inherited Lawrence's estate, Mount Vernon, and he began his lifelong project of enlarging and improving the house and grounds. Later that year, Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie appointed Washington to a position in the Virginia militia. As a lieutenant, Washington drilled his troops and prepared to defend the hostile frontier, where Indians and French soldiers challenged Virginia's claims. Within a year, Washington would be deeply involved in this conflict.
What were George Washington's origins? On one hand, he was a member of Virginia's landowner class. This made him something like an aristocrat. In colonial Virginia, planters owned large tracts of land with grand mansions, producing tobacco with the forced labor of slaves. Though the planters were often in debt, they lived in high style, imitating the manners, lifestyles, and social customs of English aristocrats. This small group of white, English men held all power in Virginia. Washington was born into this group.
On the other hand, he was born into the bottom of this group. His father had been a mediocre businessperson who, though he owned some land and slaves, had little power or influence. His mother had been an orphan who did not marry until age twenty-five, which at that time was considered old. George's only reasonable hope for becoming powerful or wealthy was to get an education in England among the upper class. When his father died this hoped was crushed.
Were it not for the success of his half-brother Lawrence, George would probably have remained a nobody. Lawrence had served in the British Navy and was a member of the House of Burgesses. He was also married to Anne Fairfax, daughter of the powerful Fairfax family. Lawrence introduced George to the Fairfaxes, who were impressed with the young man and accepted him into their circle. The Fairfaxes helped George get a commission in the Virginia militia. Without their help this probably wouldn't have happened. Between Lawrence and the Fairfax family, George was well connected.
Given his social background and his father's unfortunate death, Washington's rise at such a young age is remarkable. While still a teenager he held the important job of surveyor; before he was twenty he commanded a regiment. Without the help of powerful friends he couldn't have achieved this, but were it not for his own intelligence, ambition, and strength of character, he would never have made these friends. Therefore, we can safely say that George Washington was privileged to some extent, but also was an extraordinary young man.
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