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First FathersThe Men Who Inspired Our Presidents
By Harold I. Gullan
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-46597-6
Chapter OneFathers of Founders
Augustine Washington John Adams Sr. Peter Jefferson James Madison Sr. Spence Monroe
IN MASSACHUSETTS AS IN VIRGINIA, the upwardly mobile fathers of our "founding fathers," whether their holdings remained relatively modest or had expanded to abundance, inspired their sons with examples of entrepreneurship, the significance of service, and the value of education.
Augustine Washington seems to have been sent by central casting. One can imagine this genial giant embracing a son incapable of telling a lie, or matching him in tossing silver coins across the Rappahannock. By all accounts he was a fitting father for the nation's founding father. The problem is the paucity of such accounts. Our picture of Augustine Washington has been framed by people who never knew him. He died when his most famous son was only eleven. As George Washington sadly reflected, "I was early deprived of a father."
That didn't prevent writers from putting words in George's mouth. According to Washington biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, the youth remembered his father as "tall, fair of complexion, well proportioned and fond of children." James Thomas Flexner, the other most prominent Washington biographer, adds that Augustine, called "Gus" by his friends, "was blond, of fine proportions andgreat physical strength and stood six feet in his stockings." Most of these family recollections, gathered by Augustine's step-grandson, are so similar that they must represent more than mythology.
As historian Miriam Anne Bourne writes, it is inconceivable that such an energetic man as Augustine Washington "would not have had some influence on his best-known son." Yet particularly the last decade of Augustine's forty-nine years on this earth was so frenetic that he could scarcely have spent very much time with George. What he left was the influence of an image.
For generations the Washingtons had lived in the Essex region of England, rising to become landed country gentry, just below the aristocracy, before finding themselves on the losing side of the English civil war of the 1640s. High-spirited John Washington, working his way over as a lowly mate on a sailing ship, arrived in Virginia in 1657. He lost little time finding himself a prosperous bride, the most direct form of upward mobility, and exercising what biographer John Alden calls his "passion for acreage"-both qualities to be demonstrated by future Washingtons. Much of his rich Westmoreland County land was inherited by his more sedate son, Lawrence, an eminently respectable lawyer. He had ambitious plans for his offspring, but unfortunately he died too soon. His younger son, Augustine, was only three. By the time Augustine came of age in 1715, his robust good looks, generous nature, and possession of at least a remnant of his parents' land made him an attractive catch. At twenty-one he married sixteen- or seventeen-year-old Jane Butler.
Starting their life together on a 1,700-acre plantation at Popes Creek, the young couple were not truly wealthy by patrician Virginia standards, but they were much admired, a bright future seemingly stretching out before them. Eventually Augustine built a handsome home called "Wakefield." By then Jane had given birth to four children, three of whom survived. The two boys had familiar names-Lawrence and another Augustine. The senior Augustine was already a justice of the peace and a member of the county court. He would go on to be named a church warden, high sheriff of Westmoreland County, and eventually a trustee of Fredericksburg-an acknowledged leader in each of the three Virginia localities in which his family would reside.
What changed Augustine's life was the discovery of a rich deposit of iron ore at Popes Creek, turning him from a gentleman farmer to an overburdened entrepreneur. Augustine entered into a partnership with British investors to form the Principio Company. By the mid-eighteenth century the company would manufacture and export over 3,000 tons of pig iron. Managing the complex enterprise not only frequently separated Augustine from his family, it also took a considerable psychological toll. Normally renowned for his equanimity, Augustine, at least in running his business, became nervous, uncertain, and irritable. Records indicate that he was often engaged in litigation of one kind or another. While he was in England in 1729, meeting with his increasingly contentious partners, Jane, his wife of fourteen years, passed away.
Despite feelings of guilt and grief, Augustine was obliged to find a new mother for his children. Amiable widows were hardly in short supply in Virginia, but Augustine, now a mature thirty-seven, settled on an "old maid" of twenty-three named Mary Ball. Flexner describes Mary as "a healthy orphan of moderate height, rounded figure, and pleasant voice." Not everyone was to find her voice so pleasant in future years. She brought to their marriage in 1731 some property of her own and a very strong will, more than a match for her obliging husband.
Eleven months later, on the morning of February 22, 1732, Mary gave birth to a baby described as large enough to be a proper son of Augustine Washington. He was called George, not for a prior Washington but for George Eskridge, who had been Mary's devoted guardian. By the time he learned to walk, George had a sister named Betty; in a year and a half, he had a brother named Samuel. They were followed by John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred. That five of these six children survived to adulthood, an unlikely percentage at that time and place, testifies to the vigor of both parents. While growing up, George hardly wanted for playmates, black as well as white. At Popes Creek, the natural world was just outside his door, supplemented by a menagerie of dogs, chickens, calves, pigs, and horses. Throughout, Augustine was the parent on the move, Mary the parent in place.
That place would change when George was three. Augustine moved his family from Westmoreland County to a much larger plantation farther up the Potomac, at Little Hunting Creek in what is now Fairfax County, Virginia. A few years later, in 1738, the family moved for the final time, to be closer to Augustine's principal iron mine and furnace, at Accokeek Creek, in present-day Stafford County, on the Rappahannock River, near the new town of Fredericksburg. Called "Ferry Farm," it was truly George's childhood home. If, indeed, he cut down that cherry tree, it was likely here. A precocious, lively child, George loved to hunt in the nearby woods and to fish, swim, and sail in the river, narrow enough for a strong youth to hurl a heavy coin across. Some of this activity had to be in the company of his nature-loving father, although by now Augustine was immersed not only in the iron business and farming tobacco and other crops but in buying, selling, and leasing land to others.
For a time George was enrolled in a small school in Fredericksburg operated by an Anglican clergyman, but his education was largely in the hands of tutors. George learned to write in a fine, flourishing hand. His studies tended toward the practical, although they included moral and natural philosophy. He became a proficient draftsman, essential for a future surveyor, and was good at arithmetic. His classical education was intended to come later, at the Appleby School in England, where George's half-brothers were already enrolled.
It was probably they, particularly Lawrence Washington, whom George had in mind when he wrote with such care in his notebook all 110 maxims of the "Rules of Civility in Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." Devised by Jesuits for Spanish or French nobility, they were equally applicable to the proprietary gentry of Virginia. When Lawrence returned from England, for a few precious months George saw his two role models together. He greatly admired his father's commanding presence and his half-brother's effortless ease in any company. Together they represented the ideal gentleman. Lawrence's later return, in 1743, as a dashing young captain in a Virginia regiment that had taken part in a British expedition against Spain in the Caribbean completed the picture of gentility. Lawrence was engaged now to lovely Anne Fairfax, whose family stood at the very pinnacle of Tidewater society. Such acceptance marked the apogee of ascension for the Washington family, after only three generations in America. Surely George could do no less.
He was visiting nearby cousins when a messenger arrived with the urgent summons to return home. His father was dying. It may have been exacerbated by pneumonia, but the official cause of death was "gout of the stomach." At the age of forty-nine, Augustine Washington passed away on April 12, 1743. His will was predictably detailed and included provisions for everyone. To Lawrence, the elder son of his first marriage, went the house at Little Hunting Creek. He would rebuild and rename it Mount Vernon, in honor of English admiral Edward Vernon, under whom he had served. To George, to be kept in trust for him by his mother until he came of age, went Ferry Farm and its surroundings.
The impact on George was immense. Beyond the immediacy of the loss, he had looked forward not only to going to school in England but probably to William and Mary College as well. All his life he would feel keenly his lack of formal education and exposure to the wider world. He was only to travel once outside the original colonies, to Barbados with Lawrence. George Washington might be first in command or even character, but he never viewed himself as the intellectual equal of Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, or Madison-and they concurred.
His widowed mother, who never remarried, intended that George should become titular head of her bustling household, under her relentless supervision, at the tender age of eleven. It is not surprising that he preferred the more congenial company of Lawrence at Mount Vernon and the neighboring Fairfaxes at their palatial Belvoir estate. Alas, Lawrence, too, would die young, of tuberculosis. Before he was twenty, George had lost both of his male role models. Biographer Paul Longmore writes, "Perhaps we can see in the loss of his father the origins of his extraordinary drive for public fame." In the creation of his own austere official image, George Washington may have been less genial than his father, but no less commanding.
For all its initial promise, the time-consuming iron business did not lead to wealth substantially greater than that accumulated by Augustine's ambitious father or his swashbuckling grandfather. But appraisals of the life of Augustine Washington should not be circumscribed by such ready conclusions as historian Bernard Fay's: "He had been a good husband, a good father, a good worker, and a good Virginian, but he died too young." It was not too young to inspire his famous son. Had they been able to spend more time together, inspiration would have been enhanced by influence.
John Adams Sr.
Augustine Washington was at home on two continents. "Deacon" John Adams rarely strayed from Braintree, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but the scope of his ambition was no less. It was not so much for himself as for his firstborn son, who would also be named John. He must go to college, which at that time and place meant Harvard. He could then attain the noblest of callings and become an eminent Congregational minister. At the very least, he would be prepared to enter one of the other learned professions. It was all preordained. As the son recalled a lifetime later, "My father had destined his firstborn, long before his birth to a public education"-meaning "public" in the English sense.
It seems unfair, a sort of educational primogeniture. Families were large in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, although these Adamses were to have only three children. Who was to say which one might benefit best from advanced learning? Still, arbitrary or not, the firstborn son remained the repository of parental hopes. And there was a more compelling reason. Deacon John could afford to send only one of his sons to college. He would try to make it up in due course to the others, if there were to be others. There was only one problem. Young John didn't want to go.
At ten he had already experienced some five years of preliminary education. Why must he, and only he, go on to college? "What would you do, child?" his exasperated father asked. "Why, be a farmer like you," his son replied. "A farmer! I'll show you what it is to be a farmer," Deacon John responded, and the next morning he took his son out with him to the marshes to cut thatch, a particularly laborious task. They didn't return until dark. "Well," asked the Deacon, not unkindly, "are you satisfied with being a farmer?" His son persisted. "I like it very well, sir." The father grew sterner. "Aye, but I don't like it so well. So you shall go back to school."
John Adams Sr. was not called Deacon merely to differentiate him from his oldest son. It was an affirmation of his devotion to both church and community. If not quite so theocratic as they had been at their inception, such Massachusetts towns as Braintree, in the eighteenth century, still merged the temporal with the spiritual. As biographer Page Smith writes, "A good Puritan kept a kind of daily audit of his soul's state of grace and submitted the account to God in private prayer and public meeting." Such intense introspection within so close-knit a community could be either stifling or inspiring. Young John Adams grew up in what would seem a foreign country to young George Washington. Yet despite the rigors of life in New England, and its climate, life expectancy was actually greater than in Virginia.
By the time young John Adams was born, the strictures of Calvinism had so relaxed that taverns dotted the village, more social contacts between young people often led to illegitimate births, and-most shocking of all-a small Anglican church, more liberal in its theology, nestled near the meetinghouse. In reaction, a Great Awakening was spreading throughout New England, calling the faithful back to their roots. The Congregational meetinghouse, called the North Precinct Church, reflecting these sentiments, remained at the center of Braintree in both location and life. During both extensive services every Sunday, its elders sat in front. The deacon's central place faced the pulpit. For fourteen years the senior John Adams was selected for this honor, so often that man and mission seemed to merge.
The Adams family had been among the first to settle in this town, before it had even been incorporated. They came from another Braintree across the sea, in Somersetshire.
Excerpted from First Fathers by Harold I. Gullan Excerpted by permission.
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