This is a guest note from Richard Vague’s Delancey Place which ran on 16 November 2009.
In today’s excerpt – for young George Washington, a father dying young, the resulting interruption of his education, and the dashing example of an older half-brother helped forge a burning ambition and determination:
“At his birth in 1732, George Washington’s prospects were poor. He was a product of his father’s second marriage. The sons from the first marriage, George’s half-brothers, had been provided a formal education, including study abroad. They also received a bountiful inheritance when their father, Augustine Washington, died in 1743. But Augustine’s demise appeared to stop George’s ascent before it began. There was no money for continuing George’s formal education, much less for sending him to England to complete his schooling, and his inheritance was meager. George received ten slaves and Ferry Farm, a worn-out tract across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Virginia. With that bequest he might become an important figure in King George County, though no one in the broader world would know him. But from an early age, George Washington wanted more. He wanted to stand apart from others. He wanted to be seen as a man of substance.
“George said almost nothing about his father, mentioning him in only three passing references in thousands of pages of correspondence. Augustine had accumulated a small fortune as a tobacco planter, land speculator, and proprietor of an iron forge, and he was a prominent figure in northern Virginia, where he held several local offices. Ambitious young males usually aspire to surpass the accomplishments of their fathers, and that appears to have been true of George. Yet it was not Augustine who was George’s role model. It was Lawrence Washington, an older brother from their father’s first marriage.
“Fourteen years older than George, Lawrence had studied in England. After returning home, he enlisted as an officer in a colonial army raised to fight alongside British regulars in a war with Spain, the oddly named War of Jenkins’ Ear that erupted in 1739. Lawrence was sent to the Caribbean, then to South America, where he experienced combat. The war was a bloodbath for the American troops, and Lawrence was fortunate to survive and return home. Worldly, educated, well-to-do, dashing in his resplendent uniform, and deferred to as a hero by the most influential men and captivating women in Virginia, Lawrence cut an impressive figure.
“His stature increased when he was appointed adjutant general of Virginia, a post that made him the foremost soldier in the province. Soon, he was elected to the House of Burgesses, Virginia’s assembly, a feat never realized by Augustine. The crowning touch came in 1743. Lawrence married into the Fairfax family, which claimed title to six million acres in Virginia and, needless to say, was the most prominent clan in the Northern Neck, the area around the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers. Lawrence and his bride took up residence on a lush green rolling estate overlooking the Potomac River. Having inherited the property from his father, Lawrence named his country farmhouse in honor of a British officer under whom he had recently served. He called it Mount Vernon.”
John Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon, Bloomsbury Press, Copyright 2009 by John Ferling, pp. 9-10, 13.
— Richard Vague