George Washington (The American Presidents Series)

George Washington (The American Presidents Series)

by James MacGregor Burns

ISBN: 9780805069365

Publisher Times Books

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Historical

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Fierce Ambition

"Let your Countenance be pleasant but in Serious Matters Somewhat grave." "Wear not your Cloths, foul, unript or Dusty." "When Another speaks be attentive your Self." "Reprehend not the imperfections of others for that belongs to Parents Masters and Superiours." In 1747, an eager and ambitious George Washington, at the green age of fifteen, was already concentrating on making his way in the world. Meticulously, he copied a list of 110 exacting rules of conduct and civility from the English translation of a French seventeenth-century manual on good manners, the equivalent of a modern self-help book, a kind of How to Be a Gentleman in One Hundred and Ten Easy Lessons. Unlike many other seventeenth-century French maxims, these contained few penetrating psychological insights. But they taught that there was little difference between moral qualities and social ones; they explained that one lived one's life among others, and that, to be successful in society, one must be polite, modest, pleasing, and attentive to others; one must strive to win their confidence and respect. They gave instructions on how to behave with men of greater rank and how to balance deference to the mighty with one's own dignity and ambition.

"Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation." "In company of those of Higher Quality than yourself Speak not till you are ask'd a Question." "Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty." "Contradict not at every turn what others Say." Many of these rules of conduct would serve and steady Washington for the rest of his life - and he would pass on their wisdom to others. "Offer your sentiments with modest diffidence - opinions thus given are listened to with more attention than when delivered in a dictatorial stile," he would write to his nephew in 1787.

The young Washington also turned his attention to men's fashion: he designed a new coat for himself, specifying for the tailor such features as the width of the lapels and the placement of all twelve buttons. "First impressions are generally the most lasting," Washington would write more than forty years later to another nephew, advising the young man that, if he wished "to make any figure upon the stage," it was absolutely necessary to "take the first steps right." Washington's letter of advice contained one line on the acquisition of knowledge, one on moral virtues, one on economy and frugality, twelve on choosing well one's friends, and thirty-four on clothing.

Manners and appearance mattered intensely to the adolescent Washington, for his half brother Lawrence had just introduced him to a dazzling, refined, sophisticated world on the Potomac. His eyes lit up when he entered the manor houses of Virginia's upper class, glimpsing the elegant furnishings, hearing the soft-spoken pleasantries of their fashionable inhabitants.

He relished the weeks he was permitted to spend at Lawrence's home, called Mount Vernon, and at Belvoir, the neighboring estate of the Fairfax family into which Lawrence had married. George came to know well Lawrence's brother-in-law, George William Fairfax, and was captivated by his young wife, Sally. The Fairfaxes, like Virginia's other elite, influential families, lived at the pinnacle of Virginia society. Colonel William Fairfax of Belvoir, George William's father, one of the twelve gentlemen who sat on the royal governor's Council of State, was a cousin of Lord Fairfax, peer of the realm, who had been granted title to over 5 million acres of land in Virginia. The colony's political life was transacted on plantations like Belvoir, not in the small towns. In 1760, Virginia had a population of about 173,000 whites and 120,000 slaves, but only a thousand people lived in the capital, Williamsburg, and, probably no more than three hundred in Richmond.

Lawrence had become George's mentor and role model. Fourteen years older than George, he had been educated in England and had already served as an officer in an American regiment of the British army, become the adjutant general of the Virginia militia, and won election to the Virginia House of Burgesses.

Their father, Augustine Washington, a speculator in land, was third-generation American, the owner of more than ten thousand acres of Virginia land, fifty slaves, and an iron mine. Still, the Washingtons were not one of the distinguished, powerful families of the day, who might well have owned ten times that amount of land. At Ferry Farm, where Augustine lived in a modest home with his second wife, Mary Ball, and their five children, young George learned reading, writing, and mathematics, occasionally venturing across the Rappahannock River to the raw little town of Fredericksburg. He did not attend college and for the rest of his life would be conscious of what he termed his "defective education."

On April 12, 1743, when George was eleven, his father died. (The following day, less than a hundred miles away, a baby named Thomas Jefferson was born.) Augustine's two sons from his first marriage inherited most of his land. George would inherit, at age twenty-one, Ferry Farm, two thousand acres, three lots in Fredericksburg, and ten slaves. But more important, after his father's death, George visited more often with Lawrence and the Fairfaxes. Decades later Washington would recall times spent at Belvoir as "the happiest moments of my life."

Mount Vernon and Belvoir: magical kingdoms, the gracious world of Virginia gentlemen-planters, their well-educated, polished sons, their lively daughters. On their estates, they lived "nobly," observed one visitor from France, the Marquis de Chastellux. They dined well; they conversed knowledgeably and interestingly about a wide variety of subjects; they knew and enjoyed the dances of the day. His shrewd intelligence mobilized, George observed them intently. "It is in their power," he wrote to his younger brother, "to be very serviceable upon many occasion's to us, as young beginner's."

The price of membership in the small club of Virginia's prestigious families was land. Mere money "will melt like Snow before a hot Sun," Washington would later write, explaining that "lands are permanent, rising fast in value." As a teenager, he studied the techniques of surveying - the necessary prelude to the acquisition and development of land - and, in 1748, joined George William Fairfax and others mapping out land in the Shenandoah Valley. Acutely conscious of class distinctions, he looked down upon the poor settlers he encountered there, hating the time he had to spend with a "parcel of Barbarian's." The following year he helped survey lots in the newly established town of Alexandria and was appointed county surveyor in Culpeper County. Paid in cash for his work, he made his first purchases of land. By the age of eighteen he had already bought fifteen hundred acres in Virginia.

And yet not even landed wealth was sufficient for membership in the in-group. There was more. Standing over six feet tall, with his reddish hair, it was hard not to notice Washington, and yet it was notice - not just mere visibility but more, that is, the regard and the esteem of others - that he craved most. Success, Washington would emphasize years later to his nephew, depended on how one appeared "in the eyes of judicious men." He began the quest for notice by following in his brother Lawrence's footsteps and entering a career in the military: he traveled to Williamsburg, met with the governor, Robert Dinwiddie, and requested a post in the Virginia militia. George's connection with Colonel Fairfax proved especially helpful. Captivated by the serious, deferential, ambitious young man, Dinwiddie soon complied.

Dinwiddie appointed Major Washington the messenger who would travel into the Ohio country to give an ultimatum to French troops. In the mid-1750s, Britain and France were fighting over control of North America; Versailles had dispatched troops south of Lake Erie to seize control of the vast Ohio country northwest of Virginia. London ordered its Virginia troops to drive the French off "by Force of Arms." It was Washington's mission to find the French position in the wilderness and present the French with a choice: withdraw from the land that Britain claimed or face Virginia troops.

When the French commander rejected the ultimatum, Washington made the arduous trip home and was soon appointed lieutenant colonel in charge of a small force of fewer than two hundred Virginians to confront the French enemy. Although his troops were as untrained in war as he was, he boldly sortied out, in spring 1754, to face a French force of at least a thousand men, aided by large numbers of Indians. Making their way through the thick, trackless forest, led by Indian guides, Washington and his men came upon a small French troop and carried out a surprise attack, only to discover that one of the Frenchmen they killed was an envoy on a mission similar to Washington's earlier one, to warn the British off French land. The shots Washington's men fired marked the start of the French and Indian War.


Excerpted from "George Washington (The American Presidents Series)" by James MacGregor Burns. Copyright © 2004 by James MacGregor Burns. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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