The Young George Washington and His Papers

By W. W. Abbot
Online Edition of A Keepsake From the Bicentennial
In Honor of Washington’s Death
Presented in the Dome Room of the University of Virginia Rotunda
11 February 1999


W. W. Abbot
Photo by Stephanie Gross

In honor of the bicentennial of the death of George Washington, the Papers of George Washington and the Associates of the University of Virginia Library have presented the exhibits “A Concert of Mourning: The Death of Washington” and “In His Own Hand: Editing the Papers of George Washington.” W. W. Abbot, Professor Emeritus of the Corcoran Department of History and Editor Emeritus of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, opened the exhibits on 11 February 1999 in the Dome Room of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia with his lecture, “The Young George Washington and His Papers.” An earlier version of this lecture was given at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, as part of the Huntington’s special exhibit, “The Great Experiment: George Washington and the American Republic,” in November 1998.

Current editor of the Papers of George Washington, Philander D. Chase, introduced Professor Abbot as a “master of dialogue—the art of conversation that brings out the latent wisdom in people.” In the following lecture Professor Abbot discusses Washington the young beginner trying to define himself, thus extracting Washington’s own latent wisdom.

The publication of the papers of the founding fathers is the most important development in American historical scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century. So historian Edmund S. Morgan is quoted as saying. That may be saying a bit too much, but the University of Virginia can take some satisfaction that two of the six editorial projects to which Professor Morgan was referring are housed in Alderman Library.

It was at President Edgar Shannon’s initiative that the editing of the Papers of George Washington was undertaken at the University in 1968 under the direction of Donald Jackson, ably assisted by Dorothy Twohig. I succeeded Jackson as editor in 1977. Dorothy Twohig followed me in 1992, and Phil Chase, who joined the staff in 1973, took over in 1998. But the project has been, and still is, a cooperative effort, with different historians on the staff editing individual volumes in a number of separate chronological series, each assisted by other editors, notably Beverly Runge and Beverly Kirsch, both of whom have been with the papers since the 1970s, as well as by a constantly shifting host of transcribers, copy editors, footnote checkers, cataloguers, and gofers, most of them university graduate students. By the time we reach the two hundredth anniversary of Washington’s death on 14 December, we will have forty-six volumes in print, and Phil and six other historians are hard at work to turn out that many more volumes to complete the publication of Washington’s revolutionary and presidential papers.

George Parker’s engraving after Charles Willson Peale’s famous 1772 portrait of Washington.

As for me, I was 55 years old when I began my acquaintance with young George Washington. For the next ten years, five or six days a week, up to eight or ten hours a day, I followed his tracks, document by document, from his youth until he went off to fight the British in 1775. I did not go to war with him. Instead, I spent six years poring over the record of his life from the time of his return to Mount Vernon late in 1783, until his departure for New York in 1789 to become President. Then, six years ago, I picked up his story at his retirement from the presidency in March 1797. I finally called it quits last spring when I completed my work on his will and on Tobias Lear’s account of his death.

In short, I have spent twenty-one years editing, with the help of others to be sure, in twenty volumes, all the papers of George Washington, from his childhood to his death—all, that is, except the two largest and most important segments, those relating to the American Revolution and to those of his presidency. Seven editors are still hard at work on these two huge collections. When they are finished in 2015, we will have published in all ninety or more six hundred-page volumes.

After all these years I should have been able to dash off for this occasion a fresh, coherent, and authoritative sketch of the life and character of the young George Washington. I could not do it, though. I did not even attempt it. The job of the textual editor is to take things apart, not put them together. He never lets the big picture get in the way of the little detail. Forget the forest; watch the tree. Let me explain.

The editors of Washington’s papers in 1968 began collecting and cataloging well over 100,000 photographic copies of letters and other papers written by and to Washington. That done, each editor sat down, pulled out the first document, placed it before him on his desk, and kept it there until he had mastered it—until he was certain that he knew what the document was, what it said, and what it meant. Then he checked, and checked again, his transcription of the text of the manuscript, to which he appended whatever he had learned that might be useful to others. And then to the next document. That’s it. Like shelling peas. But it’s a little more difficult to do and a whole lot more fun.

What matters at the moment, however, is whether such labors have left me with anything to say about young George Washington of any use or interest to you. Maybe so, maybe not. There is one thing I have going for me. Through our long and uninterrupted immersion in Washington’s papers, my colleagues and I have become better acquainted with the private man than almost anyone else is. Not that I can recall most of the details of his youth or middle years any more than I can remember those of my own. Nor do I claim to understand him better than others do. I just know him when I see him. I can recognize him from afar as I would a relative or an old friend. When someone gets him right, I know it. I know it, too, when anyone gets him wrong. That is my reward for the years with the documents. I have been given a special, if one-sided, relationship with a great man. For the next thirty minutes or so I’ll try to put this sort of familiarity to some use by reminding you of the pattern that his early life took, which is itself instructive, and pointing to several things about these formative years that strike me as somehow interesting, or significant.

Barely two hundred of the more than 2,500 pages of documents from Washington’s life before the age of 27 relate to his first twenty-one years. Consequently, we know relatively little about his boyhood. Born in 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on Popes Creek within a mile of the Potomac River, George Washington was the first child of Mary Ball Washington, the second wife of Augustine Washington, a third generation Virginian who was an active land trader, planter, and entrepreneur in Virginia’s fast-developing Northern Neck, between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers. Two sisters and three brothers were to follow within seven years. Two older half brothers were away at school in England. At the age of 3 George was taken by his parents from the house on Popes Creek up to the place on the Potomac, which was to become Mount Vernon. Three years later, Gus Washington bought a farm across the Rappahannock from the town of Fredericksburg and moved his family there. Ferry Farm, as it was called, was home to George until he reached the age of 16, and intermittently thereafter for a few more years. His school exercise books, his surveys, and other of his writings demonstrate that while at Ferry Farm he received, from someone, sound training in basic mathematics, in surveying, and in English composition—and in proper deportment.

An early lithograph of Washington as a young surveyor.

In 1743, when George was 11, his father died suddenly. His half brother, Lawrence Washington, had returned from England a few years before. At this time, Lawrence was managing his father’s place on the Potomac, which he now inherited and named Mount Vernon. In 1746, he proposed to secure for his 14-year-old brother a berth in the Royal Navy. Mother said no. Two years later young George’s life took an abrupt turn. At 16, he traveled over the mountains for the first time into sparsely settled regions of Virginia. He went with Lawrence’s brother-in-law and neighbor George William Fairfax. One of the very few instances of George Washington’s own words as a youth is the journal he kept of this trip, his first surveying expedition. He wrote of Indian war dances, of settlers who to his disgust spoke only German, of lice and fleas, of rum and wine drunk, but also of beautiful maples and rich land–and most of all about his surveying. Two things had happened here in the summer of 1748: George Washington had been taken up by the Fairfaxes, and he had been introduced to the frontier, to the unsettled West. George William Fairfax’s father, William Fairfax, the master of Belvoir plantation near Mount Vernon and member of the provincial council, was, at Lawrence’s death, to become George’s invaluable patron and guide. And it was the frontier, the West, that launched Washington’s career and in so many ways shaped his life.

During the next three years, from the ages of 17 to 19, Washington worked as a professional surveyor. We have the record of nearly two hundred surveys that he made in unsettled areas of the Fairfax proprietary. A few of these were to claim land for himself. In the summer of 1751, his brother Lawrence, whose three children had died and was himself in the advanced stages of tuberculosis, went for relief to Barbados, taking his younger brother with him. It was George Washington’s first time out of Virginia and his first and only true sea voyage. Nothing but fragments of his journal of the trip survive. The next summer, back at Mount Vernon, Lawrence died.

A page from the diary Washington kept of his trip to Barbados in 1751-52. Library of Congress

After Lawrence’s death, Lawrence’s father-in-law, the influential William Fairfax, helped launch George Washington’s military career and remained his patron until his own death in 1757. Thereafter, as far as I have been able to determine, George Washington never again looked to an older man for continuing guidance and support. I will go so far as to assert that he never again betrayed any sign of regarding, or treating, another person as his natural and rightful superior. It can be no surprise that a young man of this temperament would eventually find his colonial status uncongenial and that he would be ready to embrace American independence when the time came. Incidentally, I have sometimes wondered whether the decided preference Washington showed in his middle and later years for the company of women and younger men to that of his contemporaries and elders was not somehow rooted in these early losses. Perhaps, and more likely, there is hidden somewhere in all of this, in the losses and the adjustments he made to the losses, a clue to the unremitting demands that Washington placed on himself until the very hour of his death. I am myself drawn to the spectacle, both moving and intriguing, of the fatherless and childless Father of his Country as he labored over his will during the hot summer before his death, working with meticulous care to tear apart what he had spent a lifetime putting together, apportioning its parts among nieces and nephews, step grandchildren, old servants and retainers, and, yes, among slaves. All these people, relatives or not, in one way or another, some briefly, some for decades, had been under his care and protection, and his direction—his children.

And then there was Mary, mother of George. Any speculation about the influence of the father must be about the effect of his absence. As for the mother, who was left a widow with five children under the age of 12 and never remarried, she remained in the land of the living to see her eldest son become a very famous man. The record shows that Washington was a dutiful son, providing Mary Ball Washington substantial financial support throughout her life. He understandably was not at all pleased late in the war to learn that she had put out the word that the neglect of her children had left her destitute and was angling for public support. On the other hand, there is no reference in Washington’s diaries or correspondence to his mother’s ever visiting him and Martha at Mount Vernon. His long letter to the old lady near the end of her life explaining to her how much she would dislike living with him at Mount Vernon is both revealing and very funny. Dutiful son and troublesome mother kept their distance, it would seem. In the nineteenth century she was the sainted Mary Ball Washington. She is now generally seen as something of a harridan. Still, she appears to have done all right by her son to the age of 16. Thereafter she did not, or could not, prevent him from becoming his own man. Good for her, I say.

A sketch of a portion of the Mount Vernon estate near the Mansion House and Little Hunting Creek, about 1747.
Library of Congress

Whatever can, and cannot, be said about Washington’s childhood and about parental influences, the multiplying documents after 1753 allow us to speak with greater authority about his young manhood. His trip over the mountains with George William Fairfax at 16, followed by three years of surveying, marked the passing of the farm boy and set into motion things to come. Beginning in 1752, Washington moves, step by step, at a very fast pace, from the teenage surveyor to youthful military commander, all in the same sparsely settled regions of Virginia. It was during the next five years that he served his apprenticeship for the role he was to play in the winning of American independence and the founding of the Republic. His first military appointment at the age of 20 was as adjutant of the Virginia militia, a post obtained through the influence of William Fairfax. The next year, at Fairfax’s urging, Governor Dinwiddie chose the young adjutant to take his message to the French on the Ohio demanding their withdrawal. A year later, in 1754, because Colonel Joshua Fry fell off his horse and broke his neck, Washington found himself in command of the fifty-two Virginians being sent out to build a fort at the Forks of the Ohio. On a dark night in May in the Pennsylvania woods, Washington and his men opened fire on a party of French soldiers, killing its commander, Joumonville, and nine others. Two months later Washington surrendered to the French at Fort Necessity and returned to Williamsburg. Through a series of missteps and defeats the young provincial officer at the age of 22 had made his name known far and wide. He also had started a war that would last nine years in the New World, seven in Europe.

The following spring an army commanded by General Edward Braddock arrived in Virginia to drive the French from the Ohio. Washington volunteered to serve as an aide to the general. In early summer he accompanied Braddock into Pennsylvania, with high hopes of making a career in the British army. A disabling attack of dysentery held Washington up, but he arrived on the Monongahela at the scene of Braddock’s defeat in time to take “4 bullets through my coat” and have “Two Horses shot [from] under” me.

News of the destruction of Braddock’s army threw the Virginia backcountry, indeed the whole colony, into a state of panic. Governor Dinwiddie promptly made Washington commander in chief of all Virginia’s military forces. Washington was authorized to raise a regiment of sixteen companies of soldiers with which to protect the backcountry settlers from the expected raids of French and Indians. At his appointment in August 1755, the 23-year-old colonel of the new Virginia regiment had much to do. To begin with, he had to assert his authority over fifty or so subordinate officers already named or being named, many if not most older than he and some with considerably more military experience. He had to oversee the recruiting of more than one thousand men for the companies and to find sources and establish lines of supply for their support. Finally, there were orders to be given to company commanders telling them how to proceed and where to go.

Before winter set in, the regiment was formed and more or less in place. For the next three years, Washington spent most of his time with his troops guarding the frontier, which was subject to sporadic raids. As commander in chief of all Virginia military forces, Washington not only was responsible for the welfare, discipline, and effectiveness of the officers and men of his own regiment, and for Virginia militia companies when they were called out, but he also had to deal with parties of Cherokee and Creek warriors and detachments of troops from other southern colonies who came up to fight and went away again. He corresponded more and more with the commanding general of the British forces in America, and he was in constant communication with the governor from whom he derived his authority and with the legislature that provided him funds. In 1756 and 1757, Washington was, in effect, the supreme military commander in his limited theater of Britain’s war with France.

Clearly, George Washington at an early age was given military responsibilities and opportunities not given to any other Virginian of his generation. That is why he, not one of them, was chosen in 1775 to lead the American army. But it is not just that the other Virginians did not share his experiences as a young man. He did not share theirs, either. The significance of this is often overlooked. Washington was out on his own at, what for the Virginia gentry, was a very early age. He was not kept down on the plantation. He did not hang about in Williamsburg, riot at the College, play the young blade. Although he developed a passion for fox hunting and dancing, at both of which he became consummately skillful, and he always had to hold in check his love of gambling, the life he led as an adolescent and young adult meant the visiting back and forth, the balls, the horse races, and card playing had, in large part, to be deferred to a later day. The ten years between 16 and 27 are impressionable years in anyone’s life. At the time when Washington’s outlook on the world and assumptions about it were being formed, he was sufficiently removed from the society to which he belonged to be freed of some of its patterns of behavior and habits of thought. He was the least Virginian of the great Virginians. He was the least bound by parochial views. He took command of the American army in 1775 without regional or sectional hang-ups. The success he had as commander in chief in holding things together for nearly nine years and seeing them through to the end may owe as much to this openness as to his previous military experience. If the Revolution made him a nationalist, it was his earlier years that prepared him to be an all-embracing one. The transmontane West of the eighteenth century, with its rivers to be made navigable to the Ohio and down to the Mississippi and its vast lands to be cleared and settled, caught young Washington’s imagination and forever held it. He learned early to think big.

One down side of all this, his limited schooling, Washington always felt put him at a disadvantage. But he was not the first person, nor the last, whose lack of formal education set off in him a lifelong effort to acquire the intellectual skills and knowledge that he felt he was missing. One need only take a look at the list of books that he bought for his library and the hundreds and hundreds of pages that he copied from them. Nor is it surprising that Washington valued higher education more than most who had experienced it. Read the scores of letters that he wrote in his losing battles to assure that Martha Washington’s son, Jacky Custis, and her grandson George Washington Parke Custis received the education that he himself had not. Over many years, he paid for the education of various of his nephews, and made regular payments to sons of friends so that they could go off to schools such as Princeton. Hardly a day passed without his giving to charity, but the only large gifts he ever made for public purposes were for education, the largest being for a school that was to become Washington and Lee University, and for a national university, which was never to be.

The development of Washington’s handwriting.

In the richly revealing mass of letters of his colonelcy, we can see the young Washington very much on the make. We also can see the George Washington of later fame in the making. Once he has made it, and has made himself, he keeps us at a distance, quite deliberately, I believe, and quite successfully. Only in his very last years when what he had made during his lifetime, and had made of himself, seemed to him, like life itself, to be slipping away, does he reveal as much of the inner man.

In the first letters from the new colonel, written in 1755 and 1756, to his brother, to the governor, and to others, we find a raw young Virginian embracing responsibility and its promise of distinction with a sort of fierce joy. We also see a young man with skin so thin that any hint of criticism brings forth a spate of self-justification or angry rebuttal. His official letters to Governor Dinwiddie are sometimes petulant, sometimes fawning, often self-serving, and not always clear. This is the young Washington that my old friend Douglass Adair once found so unattractive, and I, at my time in life, find rather beguiling. But things changed. Washington, like any military commander, wrote letters, reports, and orders every day and kept copies of them. This wonderful flow of letters allows us to observe how he learned over time to write with clarity and force. As he gains experience and grows in self-confidence, he learns to address the nabobs in Williamsburg with great clarity and firmness, resorting to wheedling, cajoling, or to angry outbursts only when the situation required. George Washington came to understand in the 1750s, not the 1770s, how a military commander must deal with the civil authority who controls the purse strings.

Implicit in the letters and in the trajectory of his career in the Virginia Regiment is the emergence of a personal style, a kind of persona that takes its final and almost impenetrable form in later years. The letters also tell, above all else, the story of personal success. In asserting and maintaining control over the rambunctious young officers and raw recruits, Washington started out with certain advantages. There was his size: he was big, well over six feet tall, while most of his soldiers were almost a foot shorter. He was a splendid athlete. He could outride, and for all I know, outshoot, outwrestle, and outrun them all. He was a woodsman, familiar with the life he was to live and with the terrain he was to defend. Natural advantages aside, he had the wit to adopt certain measures and to develop techniques that assured his success. His letters reveal that he quickly learned not to be caught unawares; he always did his homework. He was not one to make the same mistake twice. It also gradually becomes plain from his letters that he was adopting the practice of keeping a certain distance between himself and his officers while going to great lengths to remain on good terms with them. He treated them with consideration and fairness. He learned to react to breeches of discipline among the soldiers quickly and firmly, harshly even, so as to show himself lenient when circumstances allowed. It is appalling to see the number of men ordered hanged, a relief to learn how few hangings there were.

I will conclude by referring to two episodes in Washington’s career as colonel of the Virginia Regiment, one coming early, the other coming late. They illustrate how far along he had traveled by 1759, and will, I hope, give a little weight to some of the things I have been trying to say about him.

When Braddock’s army was defeated and Braddock was killed in July 1755, Washington retreated with the remnants of the Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina contingents of the army to Fort Cumberland, which was on the Potomac across from Virginia at the western tip of Maryland. After being made colonel of the Virginia Regiment in August, Washington left Lt. Col. Adam Stephen in charge at Fort Cumberland, and traveled out to Fort Dinwiddie on Jackson’s River to inspect it and its garrison. He then set up his temporary headquarters in the backcountry town of Winchester. From there, he supervised the recruiting and provisioning for his regiment, which would have its headquarters at Fort Cumberland.

In early October, Stephen wrote Washington from the fort: “I have reason to believe Capt. Dagworthy will look upon himself as Commanding Officer after You have joined the Troops here.” Washington was completely thrown off balance by Stephen’s words.

Here is the situation. In 1746, John Dagworthy, a New Jersey shopkeeper, received from the king a captain’s commission to be held during an expedition into Canada, which never took place. Nearly ten years later, in 1755, Horatio Sharpe, the governor of Maryland, made Dagworthy captain of the Maryland company that participated in Braddock’s expedition. Since any officer holding a royal commission in the regular British army outranked any provincial officer whatever his rank, Dagworthy now maintained that because he had received a captain’s commission from the king he outranked Washington who held his colonel’s commission from a provincial governor.

Declaring that he could “never submit to the command of Captain Dagworthy,” Washington beseeched Governor Dinwiddie to act. He got the powerful speaker of the House and influential councilors to intervene with the governor. He urged that Fort Cumberland be abandoned and a new fort built on the Virginia side of the river, from which Captain Dagworthy could be barred. He begged Dinwiddie to ask the commander in chief of the British forces in North America, Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts, to give him (Washington) a commission, which would have settled the matter. In the meantime, he took great pains to stay away from Fort Cumberland where Dagworthy now was. In December, Washington went down from Winchester to Williamsburg to push for action. Dinwiddie wrote Shirley asking that he issue commissions to Washington and the other two field officers of the Virginia Regiment, and he wrote Sharpe protesting Dagworthy’s claims. When Washington persisted in his entreaties for further action, Dinwiddie wrote him: “I am of the opinion You might have obviated the Inconsistent Dispute with Capt. Dagworthy by asking him if he did not command by Virtue of Sharpe’s Commission as that the [commission] he had formerly from His Majesty now ceases as he is not on the Half-Pay List; if so, the Method You are to take is very obvious as Your Commission from me is greater than what he has.” Washington hastily wrote Stephen at Fort Cumberland quoting Dinwiddie’s statement and the statements of others denying the legitimacy of Dagworthy’s claims, and urged Stephen to try out these pronouncements on Dagworthy. When Dagworthy did not turn tail and run, Washington got his officers to sign a petition to Shirley that the Virginia Regiment be made a part of the royal establishment. Washington then obtained Dinwiddie’s permission to take the petition to Shirley in Boston. On 3 February 1756, he mounted his horse and headed north, stopping only briefly in New York City to dally with the heiress Mary Eliza Philipse. He then rode to New London, where he left his weary horse with a transplanted Virginian, and sailed on up to Boston, arriving in the City three weeks and three days after leaving Alexandria. Shirley rejected the petition, but he issued an order that whenever the two officers were together Colonel Washington would outrank Captain Dagworthy. Washington was back in Virginia at the end of March, eased in mind.

An engraving of Mount Vernon by Lossing & Barritt, 1859.

Two years later, in the winter of 1757-1758, Washington had left his regiment and was at home, lying, as he believed, near death. He recovered in the spring and learned that a new British general was coming to lead an army against the French at Fort Duquesne. He no longer had any illusion that a career in the British army was open to him, but he decided to go on this campaign before leaving the service. At 26, Washington had become an experienced and supremely confident military commander. Now master of Mount Vernon, he was facing the pleasing prospect of making a charming and very rich young widow its mistress. In April he returned to his regiment now stationed at Fort Loudon, the fort he had built at Winchester, and in late June led his men to an encampment near Fort Cumberland. There he awaited orders from the British General John Forbes to join his army in its march to the Forks of the Ohio. Washington soon discovered to his dismay that Forbes did not intend to use the old Braddock road from Virginia to the Ohio, but intended instead to build a new one from Rastown across Pennsylvania. The barrage of letters that Washington wrote in July and August to Forbes’s chief of staff, Henry Bouquet, push his protest of the general’s decision to the verge of insubordination. His letters to the Virginia speaker of the House of Burgesses and to the new governor, Francis Fauquier, attacking Forbes and his decision, are those of a man of affairs speaking to other men of affairs on equal terms. Washington presents his case for the Braddock Road and against a new one most fully in a letter to Bouquet of 2 August, the first paragraph of which reads: “Those matters we talkd of relative to the roads has since our parting been the object of my closest attention: and so far am I from altering my opinion that the more time and attention I give thereto the more I am confirmed in it: as the validity of the reasons for taking the old Road appear in a stronger point of view. To enumerate the whole of these Reasons would be tedious: and to you who is become so much the Master of the subject, unnecessary. Therefore, I will mention only a few which I conceive so obvious in themselves as must to any unbiass’d Mind effectually remove what is objected to General Braddock’s Road and urged in favor of a Road to be opened from Rays Town.” There is no wheedling and whining here. And no lack of clarity, either.

In September, Washington joined Forbes at Rastown and commanded, with obvious ease, one of the divisions of Forbes’s army as it forged its way across Pennsylvania to the Ohio. He arrived at the Forks with the army on 25 November 1758 to find Fort Duquesne abandoned and burned. He then left the regiment, married Martha Custis, and returned to Mount Vernon to become a planter on a large scale, a great landowner, a vestryman, a county court judge, a leading member of the House of Burgesses. And in time he became a revolutionary leader, which he was quite ready to become and very well prepared to be.

The keepsake booklet upon which this online article is based was prepared for publication by the staff of The Papers of George Washington. © 1999 W. W. Abbot.

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