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"I Can Read Three or Four Pages Sometimes Without Missing a Word"
The large mantel clock in the dining room at Mount Vernon had just chimed eleven times when the three physicians once again entered George Washington's bedroom and looked despairingly upon his limp body. The doctors had been by the former president's side practically all day long, hoping against all odds that the sixty-seven-year-old warrior would show some signs of improvement. Now, as midnight rapidly approached, they glanced sadly at each other. There was no hope in their faces.
Martha Washington sat nearby, attended by a few house servants and her husband's private secretary, Tobias Lear. The room was cold. A mid-December snowstorm had swept down the Potomac River two days earlier and sent temperatures plummeting. Rushing about to keep the cavernous Mount Vernon as warm as possible, the servants heaped several additional blankets uponWashington's listless body, leaving nothing exposed but his porcelainlike face.
Two of the physicians finally excused themselves and walked downstairs to await the inevitable. Dr. James Craik, a close associate whose friendship dated back to French and Indian War days, continued his vigil as Washington weakened. Shortly before midnight, he called Dr. Craik to his side and murmured, "My breath cannot last long." Sadly, Craik motioned to Martha that the end was near.
Within minutes Washington was dead, most likely from acute epiglottitis caused from a virulent bacterial infection. In his nearly seven decades on earth, he had, as military commander, led his new country to independence from Great Britain; later, as the first president, he orchestrated its great leap forward into the brotherhood of nations. He was indeed as his friend Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee declared a few days later in a resolution before Congress, "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
The Washington dynasty in America began with the arrival from England of John Washington, George's great-grandfather, around 1656. A successful tobacco farmer and public servant, he had, by the time of his death in 1677 at age forty-five, acquired a number of plantations and several thousand acres of Virginia land, including the site of Mount Vernon.
John Washington's son Lawrence was born in 1659 and, at age eighteen, following his father's death, inherited most of the estate. He pursued the life of a planter, served as sheriff ofWestmoreland County, and was elected to four terms in the House of Burgesses. He died in 1698 at age thirty-nine.
In 1694 Lawrence's second son, Augustine, was born on his grandfather's farm. Orphaned at the age of four, the boy was raised by his stepfather. In 1715 he married Jane Butler, by whom he eventually sired four children. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, Augustine became prominent in the community. He served as a justice and as the sheriff of Westmoreland County, was commissioned a captain in the local militia, and owned forty-nine slaves, two iron furnaces, and property in three Virginia counties.
Jane Butler Washington died in 1729, leaving Augustine to care for two sons and a daughter (another child had died in infancy). Sixteen months later, he married Mary Ball from nearby Lancaster County. The couple's first child, George, arrived at ten o'clock on the morning of February 22, 1732 (or, according to the old-style calendar, February 11) at the family plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia.
When George was three years old, his family relocated to Hunting Creek, the future Mount Vernon, another plantation owned by his father and located forty miles up the Potomac River from his birthplace. Three years later, the Washingtons moved again, this time to Ferry Farm, situated on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg. In addition to a modest six-room house and a paltry collection of household furnishings, George's father owned twenty slaves. It can be assumed that young Washington led a normal farm boy's life at Ferry Farm, running and rompingin the woods, fishing, hunting, tormenting frogs and turtles in the nearby creek, playing soldier, and reading.
His hopes of attending school in England died with his father in 1743. His education at Ferry Farm was informaland negligibleespecially compared with the college degrees acquired by his future friends and associates (John Adams, Harvard; Thomas Jefferson, College of William and Mary; James Madison, Princeton). He learned quickly, however, and by age nine was bragging to his boyhood friend Richard Henry Lee, "I can read three or four pages sometimes without missing a word." During his quest for an education, the youngster also learned important maxims that would guide him for the rest of his life. Among his earliest known writings is a list of "The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation," which he reproduced from an old text into his own copybook. Consisting of 110 proverbs, the list included such thoughts as "Keep your nails clean and short, also your hands and teeth clean, yet without showing any great concern for them," and "Use no reproachful language against any one; neither curse nor revile."
Over the next few years, George alternated between his mother's home at Ferry Farm, half brother Lawrence's Mount Vernon plantation, and half brother Augustine's farm, also on the Potomac. His favorite place was Mount Vernon, and in the absence of his father, he grew to rely heavily on the counsel and companionship of Lawrence, fourteen years older and an officer in the British army. His days at Mount Vernon were happy ones, and he rejoiced at hearing the stories of Lawrence's military exploits. On one occasion, he was even privileged to accompanyLawrence to Barbados in search of a cure for the deadly tuberculosis that infected the elder Washington's lungs. The trip did nothing to help Lawrence, but during the journey George contracted a mild case of smallpox that provided him with lifetime immunity to the disease. Years later, during the awful winters of the Revolution, when large numbers of his soldiers died of the malady, he was spared.
Lawrence Washington's father-in-law and close neighbor at Mount Vernon was William Fairfax, the American agent for his cousin, Lord Thomas Fairfax of England. Lord Fairfax had been granted an enormous tract of landat one time approaching five million acresin the Shenandoah Valley and in the Northern Neck, the peninsula formed by the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers and Chesapeake Bay. William Fairfax, the property's overseer, lived at Belvoir, a mansion that deeply impressed young Washington, who visited there often and became accustomed toand appreciative ofthe style of living of Virginia's wealthy class. He even visited with his lordship when the Englishman toured America.
Lord Fairfax took a liking to the youth and used his substantial influence to obtain a Royal Navy commission for him, but the boy's mother adamantly refused to allow him to leave home, especially after her brother opined that it was "better to put [George] apprentice to a Tinker." Still trying to help the lad, now age sixteen, his lordship gave him a job surveying his properties that lay beyond the distant Allegheny Mountains. Washington had always done well in mathematics and easily caught on tothe surveyor's craft. As well as developing his drafting skills, he became an expert horseman and woodsman and learned the mysterious secrets of the trackless forest around him.
While George was apprenticing as a surveyor, several influential Virginians, including Augustine and Lawrence Washington, formed the Ohio Company, a land-speculation partnership whose mission was to settle families on its newly granted lands along the Ohio River. Eventually the company's holdings approached one million acres, and George found himself submerged in survey work across the wilds of Virginia.
For three years, he hiked and explored the colony, ranging as far south as the North Carolina border and as far west as the Shenandoah Valley. He camped in the open and in flea-infested backwoods cabins while he braved summer's heat and winter's cold. On one occasion, he almost drowned while attempting to cross a raging mountain stream. By the time he was eighteen, while many of his friends were attending college or pursuing mundane work, Washington had been appointed the official surveyor of Culpeper County, a position of considerable note. He had also assisted in the survey of the new town of Alexandria and saved enough money to purchase several hundred acres of prime property lying along a tributary of the Shenandoah River.
No longer a boy, he now stood over six feet tall, with reddish hair and blue-gray eyes; he weighed nearly two hundred pounds, wore a size fourteen shoe, and possessed massive hands made strong from his years of callusing labor in the wilderness. But in the midst of his youthful success, tragedy visited the young outdoorsman. His beloved half brother, Lawrence, the one person he idolized, died in 1752.
Even in death, however, Lawrence's influence continued to guide: shortly after he was laid to rest, twenty-year-old George replaced him as adjutant general of the Virginia militia with the rank of major. With no military training whatsoever, he would lead his friends and neighbors in time of war or emergency.
GEORGE WASHINGTON AND THE CHERRY TREE
Probably the most enduring myth surrounding the illustrious life of George Washington is the tale about the felling of his father's favorite cherry tree. The creator of the spurious story was Mason Locke Weems, an Anglican clergyman and part-time book agent for the noted Philadelphia publishing firm of Mathew Carey. Weems also fancied himself as a writer and in 1800 published a book entitled The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington. The first biography to appear after Washington's death the previous year, it was extremely popular in the United States and abroad and throughout its life appeared in more than seventy-five printings.
The cherry-tree episode first emerged in the book's "improved" fifth edition, published with a slightly modified title in Augusta, Georgia, in 1806. Although Weems contended that he was told of the incident twenty years earlier by one of Washington's aged relatives, there is no otherfoundation for its truth. More likely, he invented the story to make a point to young readers that they should model their lives upon truth and honor, similar to the exemplary and unblemished life led by the first president.
In any event, the imaginative Weems portrayed young George's father as quite upset to learn that one of his most promising English cherry trees had been completely debarked and was therefore likely to perish. When he questioned his six-year-old son, the future president declared, "I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet." The proud father responded, "Run to my arms, you dearest boy. Run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold."
Copyright © 2005 by James A. Crutchfield