William H. Wilber wrote a small book in 1970, The Making of George Washington, republished in 2005 by Patriotic Education, 501 W. 23rd St., Baltimore, MD 21211. The book has three parts: a complete list of the rules of civility young George copied, a short statement of the main achievements of our first president, and a presentation of the education of President Washington as a boy and young man. The latter is the main emphasis.
The world of the 18th century was vastly different from our world. We live in cities and are dominated by cities even if we live in small towns. Our emphasis is on manufactures and the making of money. The making of money was important to our early settlers, and George Washington became one of the wealthiest men of early Virginia, but this was a rare achievement. Settlers lived in families separated from each other. People may have met at a local church, at a county seat, or on the village green where one could hear shouts from local wrestlers. Stray peddlers may have come once in a while from the north, or trappers from the mountains, using roads that were little more than woodland paths. Virginians lived at home in the midst of forests, welcoming strangers as they might have welcomed angels, and they showed their guests rich hospitality. The only professional people were the clergy, who also tilled the land, and an occasional lawyer.
With the exception of Franklin, most of the pre-eminent men at the founding of our country had a better formal education than Washington, but all acknowledged him as the most important man of the country, and so did the leaders of Europe. Without Washington the United States might never have been.
Washington's education was provided to him by his father and his two half-brothers. The father and his two sons by his first wife attended Appleby Grammar School in England, which we may suppose was a fine school in the European traditions of the time. The standard of Appleby Grammar School was the standard by which George was taught.
When he was about eleven years old, young George kept notebooks of his studies. Penmanship was emphasized and his work has been preserved. Geometry was studied with many references to Euclid. He had a talent for arithmetic, and went on to surveying, geography, and astronomy. He studied by himself mostly, with oversight provided by his father and two half brothers. He had many, including helping his mother run the farm after the death of his father. His farm duties demanded the skills of a blacksmith, carpenter, and veterinarian. Work on the farm began at 4:00 a.m.
When he was fourteen George spent two shillings and sixpence for a small book devoted to the memory of the Duke of Schomberg, and the cost was considerable for him. The Duke was a successful military commander whose soldiers were bold and had confidence in his ability. When George was around sixteen he bought The Travels of Cyrus, an account of the fables that Cyrus' mother used to influence her son. Corruption almost undermined a kingdom in the fables, but it was saved by a wise king who had sound judgment. The Athenaeum Library in Boston has Washington's copy of this book.
Colonel Fairfax was a neighbor of the young George Washington, and an influence on his education. He had the best education an Englishman of the time could have, and had served for many years in the British military. Most importantly, he had a good library. With the influence of Colonel Fairfax added to the instructions of his brothers, plus the library of Colonel Fairfax, young Washington was given an understanding of Roman history. He learned that the Romans, two thousand years before his time, had developed what we know as the fundamental tenets of English law. He read Plutarch's Lives, Cicero, Seneca, Caesar, and Virgil. In 1752, when he was 19, George bought Smollett's novel, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, which pictured the morals and manners of England. The book made George appreciate more his life in Virginia.
It was normal for George to read the Bible. He memorized the Ten Commandments. His father told him to obey his conscience:
Labor to keep alive in thy breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience; for conscience to an evil man is a never-dying worm. But unto a good man, it is a perpetual feast.
His father described life in London where houses were packed closely, with no trees. Dishonesty was everywhere so that houses had to be locked at night, and the streets had a heavy sprinkling of well-fed loafers who lived by preying on unsuspecting visitors. The necessity of integrity was drilled into young George, with patience, application, and a pursuit of excellence.
George was good at arithmetic and knew how to live off the land, when he had to, so he was able to be a surveyor. Most of the small farmers could not read or write, or even sign their names, so they needed an honest surveyor to give them a genuine title for their land. When he was fifteen years old, George earned two pounds and three shillings for surveying four adjacent plots of land. This was hard money, rather than tobacco certificates, so George became an unofficial banker for friends and his family as his income grew. He supported his mother and gave loans to his brothers and kept accurate accounts for them. We still have his account books. October 16, 1750, when he was eighteen, he bought 453 acres; on October 20, he bought an additional 550; December 4, 450 more acres; March 16, 1752, another 552 acres.
George had a large cash income by the time he was twenty and was a landowner of significance. He was also a Major and Adjutant of the Virginia Militia. He had to make a choice between life on the plantation and life on the frontier. He chose the latter.
In the fall of 1753, when he was twenty-one, he set out on a thousand-mile journey through the wilderness to deliver a note to the commander of the French forces, stating that the country belonged to the British, and the French had to leave. The journey was taken in winter, amidst snow and rain, ice in the streams, with temperatures well below freezing, through Indian country where the natives were hostile and favored the French. On the return, they had to travel 130 miles by canoe. Many times, "they were obliged to get out and remain in the water half an hour or more." Horses were of no use, so they walked. On their safe return, the Governor eulogized the trip because he wanted to arouse the colonies to French encroachment. George Washington was looked on with favor through all the colonies.
When he was twenty-two, he was placed in command of a military force to evict French and Indian forces who were threatening the Virginia frontier. The effort was a failure. He also failed as an aid to General Braddock with the British forces. His only redeeming quality was his courage, thinking himself immune to death, as he collected four bullet wounds in his hat and coat and had two horses killed under him.
His courage and judgment helped salvage the remnant of a beaten force.
At the age of twenty-three he was Commander in Chief of the Frontier forces of Virginia. For three tempestuous years he fought daily with the colonial government to obtain food for his men, uniforms, transport, and funds to pay his men. It was an introduction to what he would have to do later in the war of revolution, and an education showing him the need of a responsible central government. His officers, who were all older than he was, wrote,
In you we place the most implicit confidence. Your presence is all that is needed to cause a steady firmness and vigor to actuate in every breast, despising the greatest dangers, and thinking light of toils and hardships.
The years from twenty to twenty-six preview the behavior of George Washington in the later struggle of the revolutionary war. He had shown an ability to lead. He learnt from many mistakes. He was bold. Above all, he could be trusted. Among the leading men at the constitutional convention and the early years of the republic, he was the outstanding leader in spite of the brilliance of Hamilton, the learning of Madison and Adams, and the ambition of Jefferson.
Washington wanted a strong central government because there could be no nation without one. Hamilton distrusted the people and democracy and would have preferred some form of monarchy. Jefferson was enthused by the French Revolution and distrusted a central government, opposed Washington within his cabinet, and was successful in destroying the Federalists, the party of Washington. Jefferson changed the name of his party from "Republican" to "Democrat," which described accurately his beliefs at that time. Washington stood apart and above the early tensions. He wanted a central government with limited powers so we could be a nation and guarantee the freedom for which we had fought. There had to be something that united the states, by force if need be. He rejected the notion of Jefferson that a sovereign nation violated the purpose of the war of independence.
Washington presided over the discussions of the Constitution and the first eight years of the new country. He was responsible for both. Thirty of the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention had been officers under Washington's command and described Washington. He was patient with impatience, treating all with respect, delegates from both large and small states. Delegates from the small states had solid faith in Washington's judgment and impartiality.
The delegates to the Convention probably did not fully appreciate that they were discussing a solution that was unique among governments. It was a solution that protects minorities and prevents big powerful states or groups from riding roughshod over their less powerful, or less numerous brethren. We should recognize that it goes squarely against the basic tenet of democracy, the rule by the majority.
In our time, politicians and judges misinterpret and dismiss the U.S. Constitution, thinking it was written for another day. No, it is a statement of principle that is applicable to all ages. Those who criticize our constitution desire a different form of government, one with unlimited central economic and moral powers, the same powers as the dreadful dictatorships of the 20th century and of the new century. They are interested in the destruction of our way of life. Present critics of the Constitution neglect the balance Washington sought. When the U.S. Constitution appeared, James Monroe wrote to Jefferson, "Be assured General Washington's influence carried this government." Prime Minister of England, William E. Gladstone, said the U.S. Constitution is "the greatest work of its kind ever turned out by the mind and purpose of man." *
"Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." --George Washington