This series provides essential and authoritative overviews of the scholarship that has shaped our present understanding of the American past. Edited by eminent historians, each volume tackles one of the major periods or themes of American history, with individual topics authored by key scholars who have spent considerable time in research on the questions and controversies that have sparked debate in their field of interest. The volumes are accessible for the non-specialist, while also engaging scholars seeking a reference to the historiography or future concerns.


A Companion to the American Revolution
Edited by Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole
A Companion to the Civil War and Reconstruction
Edited by Lacy K. Ford
A Companion to 19th-Century America
Edited by William L. Barney
A Companion to American Technology
Edited by Carroll Pursell
A Companion to the American South
Edited by John B. Boles
A Companion to African-American History
Edited by Alton Hornsby
A Companion to American Indian History
Edited by Philip J. Deloria and Neal Salisbury
A Companion to American Immigration
Edited by Reed Ueda
A Companion to American Women’ s History
Edited by Nancy Hewitt
A Companion to American Cultural History
Edited by Karen Halttunen
A Companion to Post-1945 America
Edited by Jean-Christophe Agnew and Roy Rosenzweig
A Companion to California History
Edited by William Deverell and David Igler
A Companion to the Vietnam War
Edited by Marilyn Young and Robert Buzzanco
A Companion to American Military History
Edited by James Bradford
A Companion to Colonial America
Edited by Daniel Vickers
A Companion Los Angeles
Edited by William Deverell and Greg Hise
A Companion to 20th-Century America
Edited by Stephen J. Whitfield
A Companion to American Environmental History
Edited by Douglas Cazaux Sackman
A Companion to the American West
Edited by William Deverell
A Companion to Benjamin Franklin
Edited by David Waldstreicher
A Companion to American Foreign Relations
Edited by Robert Schulzinger

In preparation:

A Companion to American Urban History
Edited by David Quigley
A Companion to the History of American Science
Edited by Mark Largent
A Companion to American Legal History
Edited by Sally Hadden and Alfred L. Brophy
A Companion to Supreme Court History (2 volumes)
Edited by John Vile
A Companion to World War Two (2 volumes)
Edited by Thomas Zeiler
A Companion to American Sports History
Edited by Steven Riess


Published :

A Companion to Franklin D. Roosevelt
Edited by William Pederson
A Companion to Lyndon B. Johnson
Edited by Mitchell Lerner
A Companion to Richard M. Nixon
Edited by Melvin Small
A Companion to Theodore Roosevelt
Edited by Serge Ricard
A Companion to Thomas Jefferson
Edited by Francis D. Cogliano
A Companion to George Washington
Edited by Edward G. Lengel

In preparation:

A Companion to Abraham Lincoln
Edited by Michael Green
A Companion to James Madison and James Monroe
Edited by Stuart Leibiger
A Companion to Harry S. Truman
Edited by Daniel S. Margolies
A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams
Edited by David Waldstreicher
A Companion to Andrew Jackson
Edited by Sean Patrick Adams
A Companion to the Antebellum Presidents, 1837–61
Edited by Joel Silbey
A Companion to Woodrow Wilson
Edited by Ross A. Kennedy
A Companion to the Reconstruction Presidents, 1865–81
Edited by Edward Frantz
A Companion to Dwight D. Eisenhower
Edited by Chester J. Pach
A Companion to Gerald R. Ford & Jimmy Carter
Edited by V. Scott Kaufman
A Companion to Ronald Reagan
Edited by Andrew L. Johns
A Companion to Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover
Edited by Katherine A. S. Sibley


List of Figures

The New York Campaign, 1776.
Howard Chandler Christy, Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States (1940). Architect of the Capitol.
Fabric and paper soft-sculpture figure of Washington, folk art Badge of Mourning. Ca. 1799–1800. (Private collection of Gerald E. Kahler. Photo by Karol Rice Photography, Bastrop, Texas).
Mourning locket (front) decorated with Washington’s tomb (Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia).
Mourning locket (back) containing intertwined locks of hair from George and Martha Washington (Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia).
Edward Savage, The Washington Family (engraving, 1798) became the most familiar representation of Washington at home, copied and adapted by engravers, lithographers, and amateur artists. Mount Vernon Ladies Association.
Claude Regnier after Junius Brutus Stearns, The Marriage of Washington to Martha Custis (lithograph, 1854). In four paintings, Stearns portrayed a series of scenes from Washington’s life. Mount Vernon Ladies Association.
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Washington and His Family, 1798 (oil on canvas, early 20th century). Ferris typically depicted Washington in his family circle, frequently with a slave in livery and domestic animals nearby. Virginia Historical Society.

Notes on Contributors

Robert J. Allison teaches at Suffolk University and the Harvard Exten­sion School. He lives in the shadow of Dorchester Heights, and as president of the South Boston Histori­cal Society, helps oversee annual commemorations of the Evacuation of Boston, March 17. He has ­written about the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party, and his most recent book is The American Revolution: A Concise History (Oxford, 2011).

Patricia Brady, retired director of publications at the Historic New Orleans Collection and currently a research associate at Loyola University New Orleans, is the author of Nelly Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book (1982), George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly (1991), Martha Washington: An American Life (2005), and A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson (2011). She has contributed chapters to Louisiana Women Writers (1992), Cross, Crozier, and Crucible (1993), The Presidential Companions (2003), Printmaking in New Orleans (2006), Louisiana Women (2009), and In Search of Julien Hudson (2011).

Jessica E. Brunelle recently served as the Social Media Coordinator at the Papers of George Washington Documentary Editing Project at the University of Virginia. She established the project’s digital ­presence through the creation and maintenance of Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia accounts. She has an undergraduate degree from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and a Master’s Degree in American History from the University of Virginia.

Scott E. Casper is Foundation Professor of History at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the author of two books: Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine (2008); and Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (1999). He has served as Acting Editor of The William and Mary Quarterly and edits the annual “Textbooks and Teaching” section of The Journal of American History.

Nicholas P. Cole is Departmental Lecturer in American History at the University of Oxford and Harmsworth Junior Research Fel­low in History at St Peter’s College, Oxford. His doctorate focused on the use made of the classics by the political thinkers of the founding generation, and he is currently working on a book examining the concept of executive power in the antebellum period. He has been a visiting Fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello.

Cheryl R. Collins is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Virginia, completing a dissertation on experiments in interstate coordination during the American Revolution. Her master’s thesis at the University of Utah explored fears of American disunion during the 1780 s and the reciprocal influence of regional rivalry and emerging ­concepts of federalism. She has given presentations for numerous ­conferences and public audiences, and was the 2010–2011 Bruce Baky Valley Forge Dissertation Fellow for military history at the McNeill Center for Early American Studies.

Carol S. Ebel is an Assistant Professor and Assistant Editor at the Papers of George Washington Documentary Editing Project at the University of Virginia. She has ­co-edited volume 16 of the Presidential Series and is a scholar of the southern frontier, religion in early America, and political culture of the United States during the eighteenth century.

Meredith Eliassen is operations manager for Special Collections at the J. Paul Leonard Library at San Francisco State University. She is interested in how legislation has influenced family life and shaped historic memory in the United States. Most of Eliassen’s work reflects event in the San Francisco Bay Area, but she is currently studying folk literature (fables and fairy tales) produced in the United State between 1790 and 1820.

Jason E. Farr writes about the incorporation of western lands as a fundamental aspect of securing American independence. He also has a scholarly interest in the cultural history of southern Appalachian frontier. Jason earned his B.A from the University of Tennessee and has studied or taught history at Western Carolina University, the College of Charleston (SC), and the University of Virginia, where he will complete a Ph.D. in early American history in 2012.

William M. Ferraro is an Associate Professor and Associate Editor at the Papers of George Washington Documentary Editing Project at the University of Virginia. He has assisted with volume 19 of the Washington Papers in the Revolutionary War Series and will be the editor of volume 21 in that series. In previous editorial positions, he has contributed to volumes in the Salmon P. Chase Papers and the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant.

William M. Fowler, Jr., the former director of the Massachusetts Historical Society, is Distinguished Professor of History at Northeastern University. He is the former editor of The New England Quarterly and the author of a number of books relating to American history including: William Ellery A Rhode Island Politico and Lord of Admiralty; Rebels Under Sail: The Navy in the Revolution; The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock; Jack Tars and Commodores: The American Navy 1783–1815; Silas Talbot: Captain of Old Ironsides; Under Two Flags: The American Navy in the Civil War; Samuel Adams: Puritan Radical and Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle For North America, 1754–1763. He wrote the Intro­duction and Epilogue to Boston Looks Seaward and he is co-author of America and The Sea: A Maritime History of America. His forth­coming book (2011) is American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781–1783.

John W. Hall is the Ambrose-Hesseltine Assistant Professor of U.S. Military History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Uncommon Defense: Indian Allies in the Black Hawk War (2009) and a contributor to Between War and Peace: How America Ends its Wars (2011). He is presently working on a military history of Indian removal. Dr. Hall is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

John B. Hattendorf has served as the Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, since 1984. An officer in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, he studied history at Kenyon College (A.B., 1964), Brown University (A.M., 1971), and the University of Oxford (D.Phil., 1979). He is the author or editor of more than forty volumes on maritime history, including the Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History (2007).

Alexia Jones Helsley, a retired archivist, currently is an instructor in history for the University of South Carolina Aiken. Helsley, a graduate of Furman University and the University of South Carolina, is the author of a number of books, including Beaufort, SC: a History, South Carolinians in the War for American Independence, South Carolina’s African American Confederate Pensioners, and the Hidden History of Greenville County, SC. Helsley is vice-chair of the Old Exchange Commission, dedicated to the preservation of the Old Exchange building in Charleston, SC where citizens feted George Washington during his southern tour in 1791.

Benjamin L. Huggins is an Assistant Professor and Assistant Editor at the Papers of George Washington Documentary Editing Project at the University of Virginia. He is currently editing Volume 22 of the Revolutionary War Series of the Washington Papers.

Stuart Leibiger, associate professor and chair of the History Department at La Salle University, published Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic in 1999. He has written numerous articles on the Founders for historical magazines and journals, and has been a historical consultant for television documentaries and museums. An Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer, he is currently editing A Companion to James Madison and James Monroe.

Mark Edward Lender is Professor Emeritus and former Vice President for Academic Affairs at Kean University. He has written widely on early American social and military history, and is author or co-author of eight books: “A Respectable Army”: The Military Origins of America (1982, 2006), Drinking in America (1982, 1987), Citizen Soldier: The Revolutionary War Diary of Joseph Bloomfield (1982), all with James Kirby Martin. Other titles include Dictionary of American Temperance Biography (1984), One State in Arms (1991), Middlesex Water Company (1994), and This Honorable Court (2006).

Peter C. Luebke earned his BA in American History from the College of William & Mary and his MA in American History from the University of Virginia. He edited Albion W. Tougée’s regimental history, The Story of a Thousand, for Kent State University Press’s Civil War in the North series. He has also worked on both the Papers of George Washington and Encyclopedia Virginia. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.

James M. Mac Donald is an Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. He teaches classes on the Colonial and Revolutionary Period, the Early Republic, and Slavery. Dr. Mac Donald is the author of “Theodore Roosevelt and the Heirs of Lincoln,” in Lincoln’s Enduring Legacy: Perspectives from Great Thinkers, Great Leaders, and the American Experiment, eds. Robert P. Watson, William D. Pederson, and Frank J. Williams (2011).

Jeffrey J. Malanson is Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. He has published articles on Early American politics and foreign policy in Diplomatic History and the New England Journal of History, and his current research focuses on the popular and political uses and interpretations of George Washington’s Farewell Address in the first half of the nineteenth ­century. He received his Ph.D. from Boston College in 2010.

Thomas J. McGuire is a teacher, historian, and author of six books: Stop the Revolution: America in the Summer of Independence and the Conference for Peace (Stackpole, 2011); The Philadelphia Campaign, Vols. I and II (Stackpole, 2006 and 2007); Brandywine Trail of History Guide (PHMC and Stackpole, 2003); Battle of Paoli (Stackpole, 2000); and The Surprise of Germantown (Cliveden of the National Trust and Thomas Publications, 1994). He also worked with David McCullough as a researcher and proof-reader for John Adams and 1776. A native of the Philadelphia area, he served as ­vice-president of the Paoli Battle­field Preservation Fund and is an historical and educational consultant for Valley Forge NHP, Cliveden of the National Trust, Brandy­wine Battlefield Park, and Paoli Battlefield. He has taught history at Malvern Preparatory School since 1980.

John A. Nagy is a Scholar in Residence at Saint Francis Univer­sity, Loretto, Pennsylvania and a ­consultant for the William L. Clements Library of the University of Michigan. He is a founder and President of the American Revolu­tion Round Table of Philadelphia. He is the author of two books: Rebellion in the Ranks Mutinies of the American Revolution (2007) and Invisible Ink Spycraft of the American Revolution (2010). He has appeared on the History Channel, C-SPAN, and the ­Penn­sylvania Cable Network.

L. Scott Philyaw is Associate Professor of History and director of the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University. He earned his M.A. from the College of William and Mary and his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, where he studied under Don Higginbotham. His publications include Virginia’s Western Visions: Cultural and Political Expansion on an Early American Frontier (2004), and “A Slave for Every Soldier: The Strange History of Virginia’s Forgotten Recruitment Act of 1 January 1781” in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. In 2003, he served as Scholar in Residence at the Summer Institute of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts at Old Salem. He is recipient of the UNC Board of Governors’ Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Paul A. Reid Distinguished Service Award, and a Mellon Fellowship from the Virginia Historical Society.

Dennis J. Pogue is Vice President for Preservation at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, where he is in charge of all preservation related activities. He has lectured widely and published extensively on various topics relating to historical archaeology, early American history, George Washington, and Mount Vernon. His articles have appeared in professional journals such as Historical Archaeology, Winterthur Portfolio, Historic Alexandria Quarterly, and The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.

Thomas A. Rider II is an active-duty Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army and combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is an assistant professor in the Department of History, United States Military Academy at West Point where he teaches courses in military history, colonial American history, and has taught on the relationship between war and technology.

Whit Ridgway, who specializes in early American History, is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland – College Park. His publications include Community Leadership in Maryland, 1790–1840 (1979) and The Bill of Rights: Our Written Legacy (1993), which he co-edited with Joseph Melusky. He is currently writing a book on the Alien and Sedition Acts and the politics of the 1790s.

John K. Rowland is a retired Associate Dean at the National Military Intelligence College in Washington, DC. He received an AB from the George Washington University, MA from the College of William and Mary, and PhD from the Ohio State University, all in ­history. He is also a graduate of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces with a certificate in national military strategy and logistics.

Barnet Schecter’s books include George Washington’s America: A Biography Through His Maps and The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution. A contributing editor of the three-volume Encyclope­dia of the American Revolution and Landmarks of the American Revolution, he is also a contributor to the Encyclopedia of New York City. A fellow of the New York Academy of History, he leads tours and military staff rides. He has appeared nationally as a lecturer and in a variety of television ­documentaries.

Robert A. Selig is an independent historian, writer and historical ­consultant who received his PhD in eighteenth-century history from the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (Germany). His special interest focus on the contributions of French forces under the comte de Rochambeau to the American victory in the War of Independence. As project historian to the U.S. National Park Service for the Washington-Rochambeau Revolu­tionary Route National Historic Trail he has written multi-volume historical and architectural resource inventories and site and road ­surveys for the nine states through which the trail runs. His most recent book is Hussars in Lebanon! A Connecticut Town and Lauzun’s Legion during the American Revolution, 1780–1781 (2004).

Dana John Stefanelli is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Virginia. His dissertation, “A Capital City: Financing the Construction of Early Washington, D.C.,” examines the partnership formed between government and individuals to build the Federal City. A native of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Dana attended college at Florida State University. Prior to graduate school he worked as a tax and banking policy analyst for former U.S. Senator Bob Graham. Dana and his wife live in Arlington, Virginia.

Mary Stockwell is a Professor of History at Lourdes University where she teaches American History and Constitutional Law. Her specialties are America’s Early National Period and American Intellectual History. She has authored several articles on the revolutionary period, most recently an essay on the relationship of George Washington and Anthony Wayne. Her last book, “Woodrow Wilson: The Last Romantic,” was published in 2008. Her next book, “Many Trails of Tears: The Removal of the Ohio Tribes,” will be published in 2012 by Ohio University Press. A major biography of Anthony Wayne will be her next project.

Taylor Stoermer is the Senior Historian of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and an Invited Scholar at Brown University. He earned a Ph.D. in Early American History from the University of Virginia and an M.A. in Colonial American History from the Johns Hopkins University. He has received fellowships and awards from Yale University, Brown University, Harvard University, the Huntington Library, and the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. He is currently working on a book about the American Revolution as a clash of transatlantic political cultures.

Mary V. Thompson is the Research Historian at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, where she has been a staff member since 1980. A graduate of Samford University (BA in History, with a minor in Folklore), she received an MA in history from the University of Virginia. She is the author of In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington (2008).

Rosemarie Zagarri is Professor of History at George Mason University and is the author of Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (2007), The Politics of Size: Representation in the United States, 1776–1850 (1987) and A Woman’s Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution (1995). She is also the editor of David Humphreys’ “Life of General Washington” with George’ Washington’s “Remarks” (1991).


Edward G. Lengel

James Thomas Flexner thought that there would be little left to learn about George Washington after the publication of the fourth volume of his biography of the Great Man in 1972. “I was confident that almost all papers directly of importance to the study of Washington had already come, one way or another, into my ken,” Flexner wrote in his autobiography. “It would take a discovery of blockbuster impact – it was hard to conceive where it could come from – that would do more than change details in a study like mine already grounded on so various an accumulation of evidence” (Flexner (1996) 405). Curious historians might as well move along, Flexner declared like a policeman at the scene of a crime. The action had ended; there was nothing left to see.

Fortunately, few historians have taken Flexner at his word. Since the revival of interest in the Founding Fathers over the last quarter of the twentieth century – due in part to the popularity of Flexner’s biography – dozens of new books about Washington have appeared in print. Most recently, Ron Chernow’s magisterial Washington: A Life (2010), along with works by distinguished historians such as Joseph J. Ellis, John Ferling and others have given the lie to the idea that there is nothing new to learn about George Washington.

The relative value of the plethora of recent books about Washington greatly depends on the extent to which they make use of the modern edition of The Papers of George Washington. This massive editorial project at the University of Virginia, which Flexner likened to a “brontosaurus snuffling at my tail,” has spent almost fifty years identifying, transcribing, annotating, and publishing every known letter to and from Washington. To date, the editors of the Washington Papers have amassed copies of some 140,000 documents from repositories all over the world – and dozens of new documents are uncovered every year. Washington letters, sometimes of great significance, do indeed still turn up in musty old scrapbooks and creaky attics.

Few of these letters, to be sure, have shattered our understanding of Washington’s personality or his deeds. More often, the most interesting discoveries incrementally adjust our perceptions. In 2001, for example, the editors of the Washington Papers discovered a previously unknown note from Martha to George Washington written on the day of the Battle of Brandywine, September 11, 1777. “My love,” Martha wrote, “the silver cup I mentioned to you in my letter by the last post – Wt 113 ouz.” (PGW, Revolution, 11:203). Normally, such a minor piece of correspondence would raise few eyebrows; and the identity of the “silver cup” is unknown. However, Martha’s destruction of all but a few pieces of her correspondence with George shortly before her death in 1802 makes this item extremely rare – and the fact that she addressed her husband as “my love” in a casual note offers unique insight into the intimacy of their relationship.

One of the greatest obstacles to a keen understanding of any historical figure is the tendency to view him or her as frozen at a particular moment in time, or within a specific, narrow context. Thus, studies and biographies of Washington too often focus on him as young, middle-ahed, or old; or as a soldier, farmer, or politician. In truth, of course, Washington’s life was a journey (if the somewhat trite phrase may be forgiven). Many qualities of his personality – most notably his temper and his ambition – changed profoundly over the course of his life; and Washington’s capacity for assessing himself dispassionately and learning from his mistakes eventually set him on the road to greatness.

Tracing the evolution of Washington’s personality is impossible without recourse to his papers, which he deemed “a species of Public property, sacred in my hands” (Lengel (2007) 253). Reading his correspondence from day to day, one gets a sense, for example, of his mind’s vast capacity for detail. Like Napoleon, Washington understood that military (and political) success depended to a great degree on attention given to matters that others might deem insignificant. A careful perusal of Washington’s letters might also help to temper recent assertions that he was ruthlessly ambitious, a cold-hearted realist, or suspicious of the will of the people in a democratic form of government (see Henriques (2006); Ferling (2009); Chernow (2010)). In fact, Washington’s sense of “ambition” evolved significantly between the beginning of the French and Indian War in 1754 and the onset of the Revolutionary War in 1775; his “realism” warred endlessly with his essentially idealistic character; and his view of the possibilities and pitfalls of democratic government changed dramatically between his presidential inauguration in 1789 and his retirement in 1797.

The essays in this volume assess Washington from almost every conceivable angle. They explore his family experiences; development of Mount Vernon; evolving concepts of slavery; early travails on the frontier; and growth as a politician. They also trace his development as a military commander, from his involvement in key battles and understandings of strategy and tactics to his skills as an administrator, spymaster, and practitioner of irregular warfare. Washington’s involvement in the creation and establishment of the United States government inspire essays on his participation in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and his conduct as President from 1789–1797. The concluding essays describe his intellectual development and religious beliefs, and reveal Washington’s ongoing symbolic importance to the United States in the centuries following his death.

A unifying element in these essays is their reliance on careful study of his papers and correspondence, including items as yet unpublished. In aggregate, they provide important new insights into Washington’s life and accomplishments, and his role in the creation of the United States. The authors of these essays do not, of course, agree in every particular; disagreement and debate is in the nature of historical inquiry. Even so, they point unerringly to one uncontrovertible fact: we still have much to learn about George Washington.

Chapter One


Jessica E. Brunelle

In 1841 the celebrated novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne wittily remarked that George Washington “was born with his clothes on and his hair ­powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world” (Wills (1994) 194). For many Americans in the 19th and early 20th ­centuries it was difficult to imagine that the revered Father of our nation had ever been a child, romping around in the Rappahannock River, ­practicing his penmanship in copybooks, and wooing girls. The severe lack of legitimate documentation of his youth did not aid this understanding. Tremendous gaps in surviving records have allowed eager hagiographical mythmakers like Mason Weems to fill in Washington’s early life with didactic and entertaining stories that praise the great man he would become. Many of those stories – the most famous being young Washington chopping down the cherry tree – have permeated the American memory and become acknowledged as fact. This is all much to the chagrin of many 20th and 21st century Washington historians who have ignored Weems entirely and looked at a wide variety of sources and studies to cobble together a more complete and truthful picture of Washington’s youth. The resulting image is a young man with a voracious sense of ambition who yearned to be free of life at the ­family farm and rise above his middling ­status. Young George Washington desired greatness and exploited circumstances and connections to achieve it – though not even he could have dreamed the greatness he would attain.

If we do not know much about the young George Washington, we know even less about his parents. His father, Augustine Washington, was born in 1694 to Lawrence Washington and Mildred Warner. In 1715 or 1716 he married Jane Butler, who died unexpectedly on November 24, 1729 after bearing him three children: Lawrence, Augustine, Jr (or “Austin,” as he was known), and Jane. A year and a half later, in 1731, Augustine married Mary Ball, an orphan who brought middling property to the marriage. The value of Augustine’s land and investments put his growing family within the wealthiest 10% of Virginians, but they were in the second tier of the gentry, a level below the stately Lees, Byrds, and Fairfaxes. Augustine seems to have been an ambitious man, however, intent on moving up the socio-economic ladder. He served as a Justice of the Peace, sheriff, and church warden and sent Lawrence and Austin to the Appleby School in England to receive educations befitting gentlemen. He also acquired numerous properties throughout the region, including a plantation in Stafford County, 2,500 acres along the Potomac known as Little Hunting Creek, and a managing interest in an iron foundry built on his land.

Mary Ball Washington, born in the winter of 1708–1709, was 23-years old when she married Augustine. After the deaths of both of her parents she had lived under the guardianship of George Eskridge, a highly-respected lawyer, landowner, and burgess. It appears that when she gave birth to her first child she chose to honor her guardian by naming her son after him. And so, on February 22, 1732 George Washington was born. At this time the Washingtons lived in Westmoreland County, Virginia at a farm known as Popes Creek. In 1735 Augustine relocated his growing family sixty miles northward to Little Hunting Creek and in 1738 they moved again, this time to a 260-acre plantation on the Rappahannock River across from the burgeoning town of Fredericksburg. By this time Mary had given birth to all six of her children: George, Elizabeth, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred, the latter dying soon after in 1740.

The Washingtons lived comfortably at the new property, named Ferry Farm due to its proximity to the boat that took people across the Rappahannock. An inventory of their possessions lists curtained beds, silver spoons, napkins, tablecloths, and some 50 slaves, but the home’s primary value was its nearness to Fredericksburg, a growing town that offered tremendous investment opportunities for someone as ambitious as Augustine. Fredericksburg also gave young George his first glimpse of a real town and he likely took the ferry to explore all it had to offer.

In 1738, Lawrence Washington returned from England and George met his half-brother for the first time. He was 20 or 21 (his exact date of birth is unknown), graceful and refined after years of thorough schooling. George was quite taken with his brother and admired and revered his polish and worldliness. That reverence expanded in late 1740 when Lawrence was commissioned captain of a Virginia company being raised for the British army’s campaign in Cartagena. Britain was embroiled in a conflict with Spain – known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear – over trade in the Caribbean and launched this operation to obtain one of Spain’s principal ports. Though he did not actually participate in the battle, Lawrence sent home a detailed account of the fighting and made sure to emphasize that he had quickly learned to disregard the roar of the cannons. It is unclear whether Lawrence’s adventure awakened a military spirit in the then nine-year old George, but it seems likely that his deep admiration for his brother would have inspired him to follow in his footsteps, wherever they led.

In the spring of 1743 George was visiting his cousins in the Chotank district of the Potomac when he received word that his father was very ill. He returned home immediately, in time to see his father pass away on April 12. Augustine’s death had a profound impact on George, though likely not due to any particular emotional closeness between the two. In the few years before his death, Augustine had been overseas, spending much time in England consulting with partners on his financial interests. Rather, Augustine’s death directly affected George’s education and created circumstances that forced his childhood to come to a rapid end.

Augustine’s hard work and investments allowed him to bequeath land to each of his six sons, but the bulk of the property went to the eldest. Lawrence received Little Hunting Creek, his father’s interest in the foundry, town lots in Fredericksburg, and the largest share of slaves. By comparison, George received Ferry Farm – a property 1/5 the size of Little Hunting Creek and much less fertile – three lots in Fredericksburg, a half interest in an undeveloped tract in Stafford County (land so bad and unfertile that he never tried to develop it) and ten slaves. On its own, Ferry Farm would allow George to be a second-class planter, but not until he turned 21 and could inherit the property outright. For the time being all of George’s inheritance would remain under the control of his mother. And so would George. Even though Mary Washington’s youth and property made her attractive to potential suitors, she never remarried. It is unclear why she did this, though one possibility is that she did not want to run the risk of a new husband ­distributing her family’s property among his children and leaving hers without. Whatever her reasons, Mary’s decision forced the 11-year old George, as the oldest male at Ferry Farm, to absorb the family burdens and assist his mother with the maintenance of the plantation. This new day-to-day duty, plus the family’s newly diluted income, made it impossible for George to go overseas to receive a formal education like his eldest brothers had. Whatever education he would receive would be basic, disjointed, and sporadic.

Historians and biographers have posited many different theories about the alternative and informal education young George received during this period. Some have stated that he was taught by one of Augustine’s tenants, a man by the name of Mr. Hobby. Others have suggested that he attended Reverend James Marye’s school in Fredericksburg, but there is very little direct evidence to validate either of these statements. David Humphreys’ Life of General Washington states that George was educated by a domestic tutor, but no further information is given (Zagarri (1991) 6). What is known for sure is that from the ages of 10 to 13 George completed ­exercises in geometry and trigonometry, calculated money conversions and interest, and copied poems and legal forms. Over 200 pages of these exercises and documents have survived and they very clearly indicate that young Washington’s education was focused on learning the basic financial and agricultural understandings of a planter (see PGW, Colonial, 1: 1–4).

Noticeably absent from those surviving documents are lessons in ­philosophy, languages like Latin and French, and books of classical and English literature, all of which were the hallmarks of an 18th-century ­gentleman’s liberal education. We do not know how the 10–13-year old George felt about not receiving instruction in these areas. We do know how he felt later, however. In 1785 he referred to his education as “defective” and refused to write his memoirs because he believed he did not have the talent (PGW, Confederation, 3:148–151). Later, he turned down all invitations to France because he did not want to speak through an interpreter. He felt intellectually inferior when in the company of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and many of the other founders. Whereas his peers had studied the arts and humanities and gone to college, he had scratched out texts and solved practical geometry problems. He had to work exceptionally hard to master his native language, let alone a second one. But his own sense of academic inadequacy inspired him to desire the best for his family. In a letter to Jonathan Boucher about the education of his step-son, John Parke Custis, Washington lamented the fact that Custis was “unacquainted with several of their classical authors … ignorant of Greek … knows nothing of French…little or nothing acquainted with arithmetic and totally ignorant of the mathematics,” of which, “nothing can be more essentially necessary to any person possessed of a large landed estate” (PGW, Colonial, 8: 495).

Whatever the type and amount of schooling Washington experienced, he received it at a time when he was living at home with his mother. Much has been written about Mary Ball Washington, ranging from adoring ­presentations of her as the ideal republican mother to ruthless critiques of her as an unrelenting shrew. 19th-century hagiographers intent on idolizing the woman who raised the father of the nation, created the former interpretation, one that 20th-century historians took great pains to destroy. They, in contrast, promoted the latter image, one based on Washington’s frustrated letters and references to Mary from the 1780 s. Historians have recently refuted that interpretation as well, declaring that while George and his mother’s relationship may have been strained in the later years of her life, it is unfair to also assume that it had always been like that (see Warren (1999) 5795–5796).

This is not to suggest, however, that Mary Washington in the 1740 s was a passive and subdued woman who did what she was told. Instead, she was a 34-year old widow with five children, in charge of a plantation and a few dozen slaves. To ensure that Ferry Farm ran in working order she had to be stern, determined, and exacting; and under her guidance, young George learned firsthand what it was like to give orders and see to it that they were followed. The farm reports that the Washingtons demanded from their overseers are incredibly detailed and suggest that the farm was run with great precision and discipline. But the similar management styles and personalities that allowed Ferry Farm to succeed likely created tension between Mary and her son. George was, after all, entering his adolescence and undoubtedly preferred to explore the countryside and visit his brothers than to stay home with his mother and younger siblings.

Upon inheriting the Little Hunting Creek property Lawrence renamed it Mount Vernon in honor of his admiral from the Cartagena campaign. The house was exciting, fancy, and bustling and not stifling, rough, and overly disciplined like Ferry Farm. George became a frequent visitor at Mount Vernon and Lawrence regaled him with stories from his brief stint as a soldier, making him an infinitely more welcome housemate than Mary (of whom, one of his cousins claimed, he was more afraid than his own parents) (Conkling (1858) 22). George still harbored a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for his brother who reciprocated through taking an active interest in seeing George succeed.

In September 1746 Lawrence informed George that he wanted him to apply for an open position of midshipman aboard a royal ship currently anchored at Alexandria. Much later in his life Washington acknowledged that he had had little desire to go to sea, but that at the time he recognized his brother’s authority and influence and resolved to fulfill his wish (Zagarri (1991) 7). As he was only 14, however, the final decision rested with Mary. Initially, she did not veto the proposal, but Robert Jackson, a Fredericksburg friend and neighbor of the Washingtons, believed that she was just waiting for someone to give her a good reason to reject it. “I find that one word against [George’s] going has more weight than ten for it,” he wrote to Lawrence (PGW, Colonial, 1:54). Mary finally appealed to her older brother Joseph, a successful merchant and lawyer living in London, and got exactly what she wanted to hear. In his response dated May 19, 1747, Joseph quipped that if George were to join the navy he might as well be ­apprenticed to a common tinsmith. As a colonial and not a Briton, Joseph continued, George would be used “like a negro, or rather, like a dog” and he very bluntly added that “as for any considerable preferment … there are always too many grasping for it here, and he has none” (Warren (1999) 5808). Joseph’s response was exactly what Mary was looking for. She decided against George becoming a sailor and the subject was never ­mentioned again.

A few years earlier, in July 1743, Lawrence married Ann Fairfax, the daughter of Colonel William Fairfax and niece of Thomas, Lord Fairfax. The union made Mount Vernon all the more attractive to young George as it made him a welcome guest at the Fairfaxes’ nearby estate, Belvoir. Located four miles downstream from Mount Vernon, Belvoir, with its stately brick facade, two floors, nine rooms, and outbuildings, was the ­pinnacle of life among the Virginia gentry. George spent a great deal of time at the estate over the next few years and witnessed firsthand the ­prestige and privilege of elite landowners. He was by no means poor, but he did not live on the same level as the Fairfaxes. With his second-tier upbringing and informal education, George did not quite fit into Belvoir’s elite image – but that did not deter or embarrass him. He was very much his father’s son and as he entered his adolescence began to demonstrate a prominent streak of ambition and drive that inspired him to hone his ­rugged and informally educated self into a refined and polished gentleman.

One of the easiest changes George could make was to upgrade his ­appearance. In 1748 he drafted a diary entry entitled “Memorandum of What Clothes I Carry into Fairfax” and listed the necessary items for his ­upcoming visit to Belvoir. Shortly afterward he drafted another memo, this one giving very specific instructions about a new frock coat he wanted made. It was “not to have more than one fold in the Skirt and the top to be made just to turn in and three Button Holes” (PGW, Colonial, 1:46). George took steps to look the part, but he also needed to act it. At least five years earlier he had, as part of a writing exercise, copied out the “Rules … of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation,” a book of etiquette that originated with French Jesuits in the sixteenth century. While it does not seem that he consciously sought to heed the rules when he first wrote them out, it is possible that he referred to them at this time. The rules outlined such crucial aspects to gentility as dress, posture, manner, and attitude. They spoke to a level of refinement that George had not ­experienced as a boy running around Ferry Farm, but that he would need if he wanted to continue visiting Belvoir.

Polishing his manners and presenting a respectable figure was also ­significant to George as he began to take an interest in women. Sometime in 1749 or 1750 he wrote to his cousin Robin that while there was a “very agreeable Young Lady” at Belvoir, her presence “revives my former Passion for your Low Land Beauty.” It is unclear who this girl or what the nature of her relationship with George was, but it is certain is that she left a ­profound impact on him. In the same letter he wrote that the only way to end his heartache was “by burying that chast and troublesome Passion in the grave of oblivion or etarnall forgetfuless” (PGW, Colonial, 1: 41). Despite his heartache over the “Low Land Beauty,” (PGW, Colonial, 1:41) however, the “agreable” lady at Belvoir certainly intrigued George and he mentioned her in two further letters. It is likely that this young woman was Mary Cary, the sister of Sarah “Sally” Cary Fairfax (PGW, Colonial, 1:43). George probably first met the sisters in December 1748 before Sally’s marriage to George William Fairfax, son of Colonel William Fairfax. Sally was a beautiful and vivacious 18-year old, just two years older than George. They exchanged a number of letters throughout the 1750 s that reveal that George was quite taken with her – much more so than her sister – but historians agree that despite Sally’s playful return of the flirtation, George probably never acted upon his feelings.