The Boyhood of Washington by Horace E. Scudder
It was near the shore of the Potomac River, between Pope's Creek and
Bridge's Creek, that Augustine Washington lived when his son George was
born. The land had been in the family ever since Augustine's
grandfather, John Washington, had bought it, when he came over from
England in 1657. John Washington was a soldier and a public-spirited
man, and so the parish in which he lived—for Virginia was divided into
parishes as some other colonies into townships—was named Washington. It
is a quiet neighborhood; not a sign remains of the old house, and the
only mark of the place is a stone slab, broken and overgrown with weeds
and brambles, which lies on a bed of bricks taken from the remnants of
the old chimney of the house. It bears the inscription:
The 11th of February, 1732 (old style)
SLAB THAT MARKS THE LOCATION OF THE HOUSE WHERE WASHINGTON WAS BORN
The English had lately agreed to use the calendar of Pope Gregory, which
added eleven days to the reckoning, but people still used the old style
as well as the new. By the new style, the birthday was February 22, and
that is the day which is now observed. The family into which the child
was born consisted of the father and mother, Augustine and Mary
Washington, and two boys, Lawrence and Augustine. These were sons of
Augustine Washington and a former wife who had died four years before.
George Washington was the eldest of the children of Augustine and Mary
Washington; he had afterward three brothers and two sisters, but one of
the sisters died in infancy.
It was not long after George Washington's birth that the house in which
he was born was burned, and as his father was at the time especially
interested in some iron-works at a distance, it was determined not to
rebuild upon the lonely place. Accordingly Augustine Washington removed
his family to a place which he owned in Stafford County, on the banks of
the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg. The house is not now
standing, but a picture was made of it before it was destroyed. It was,
like many Virginia houses of the day, divided into four rooms on a
floor, and had great outside chimneys at either end.
Here George Washington spent his childhood. He learned to read, write,
and cipher at a small school kept by Hobby, the sexton of the parish
church. Among his playmates was Richard Henry Lee, who was afterward a
famous Virginian. When the boys grew up, they wrote to each other of
grave matters of war and state, but here is the beginning of their
correspondence, written when they were nine years old.
"RICHARD HENRY LEE TO GEORGE WASHINGTON:
"Pa brought me two pretty books full of pictures he got them in
Alexandria they have pictures of dogs and cats and tigers and
elefants and ever so many pretty things cousin bids me send you one
of them it has a picture of an elefant and a little Indian boy on
his back like uncle jo's sam pa says if I learn my tasks good he
will let uncle jo bring me to see you will you ask your ma to let
you come to see me.
"RICHARD HENRY LEE."
"GEORGE WASHINGTON TO RICHARD HENRY LEE:
"DEAR DICKEY I thank you very much for the pretty picture book
you gave me. Sam asked me to show him the pictures and I showed him
all the pictures in it; and I read to him how the tame elephant took
care of the master's little boy, and put him on his back and would
not let anybody touch his master's little son. I can read three or
four pages sometimes without missing a word. Ma says I may go to
see you, and stay all day with you next week if it be not rainy.
She says I may ride my pony Hero if Uncle Ben will go with me and
lead Hero. I have a little piece of poetry about the picture book
you gave me, but I mustn't tell you who wrote the poetry.
"'G.W.'s compliments to R.H.L.,
And likes his book full well,
Henceforth will count him his friend,
And hopes many happy days he may spend.'
"Your good friend,
"I am going to get a whip top soon, and you may see it and whip
It looks very much as if Richard Henry sent his letter off just as it
was written. I suspect that his correspondent's letter was looked over,
corrected, and copied before it was sent. Very possibly Augustine
Washington was absent at the time on one of his journeys; but at any
rate the boy owed most of his training to his mother, for only two years
after this, his father died, and he was left to his mother's care.
MONUMENT ON THE SITE OF GEORGE
She was a woman born to command, and since she was left alone with a
family and an estate to care for, she took the reins into her own hands,
and never gave them up to any one else. She used to drive about
in an old-fashioned open chaise, visiting the various parts of her farm,
just as a planter would do on horseback. The story is told that she had
given an agent directions how to do a piece of work, and he had seen fit
to do it differently, because he thought his way a better one. He showed
her the improvement.
"And pray," said the lady, "who gave you any exercise of judgment in the
matter? I command you, sir; there is nothing left for you but to obey."
In those days, more than now, a boy used very formal language when
addressing his mother. He might love her warmly, but he was expected to
treat her with a great show of respect. When Washington wrote to his
mother, even after he was of age, he began his letter, "Honored Madam,"
and signed it, "Your dutiful son." This was a part of the manners of the
time. It was like the stiff dress which men wore when they paid their
respects to others; it was put on for the occasion, and one would have
been thought very unmannerly who did not make a marked difference
between his every-day dress and that which he wore when he went into the
presence of his betters. So Washington, when he wrote to his mother,
would not say, "Dear Mother."
Such habits as this go deeper than mere forms of speech. I do not
suppose that the sons of this lady feared her, but they stood in awe of
her, which is quite a different thing.
"We were all as mute as mice, when in her presence," says one of
Washington's companions; and common report makes her to have been very
much such a woman as her son afterward was a man.
I think that George Washington owed two strong traits to his mother,—a
governing spirit, and a spirit of order and method. She taught him many
lessons and gave him many rules; but, after all, it was her character
shaping his which was most powerful. She taught him to be truthful, but
her lessons were not half so forcible as her own truthfulness.
There is a story told of George Washington's boyhood—unfortunately
there are not many stories—which is to the point. His father had taken
a great deal of pride in his blooded horses, and his mother afterward
took great pains to keep the stock pure. She had several young horses
that had not yet been broken, and one of them in particular, a sorrel,
was extremely spirited. No one had been able to do anything with it, and
it was pronounced thoroughly vicious, as people are apt to pronounce
horses which they have not learned to master. George was determined to
ride this colt, and told his companions that if they would help him
catch it, he would ride and tame it.
OLD WHITE CHAPEL, LANCASTER COUNTY, VIRGINIA, WHERE
WASHINGTON AND HIS MOTHER ATTENDED SERVICE
Early in the morning they set out for the pasture, where the boys
managed to surround the sorrel and then to put a bit into its mouth.
Washington sprang on its back, the boys dropped the bridle, and away
flew the angry animal. Its rider at once began to command; the horse
resisted, backing about the field, rearing and plunging. The boys became
thoroughly alarmed, but Washington kept his seat, never once losing his
self-control or his mastery of the colt. The struggle was a sharp one;
when suddenly, as if determined to rid itself of its rider, the creature
leaped into the air with a tremendous bound. It was its last. The
violence burst a blood-vessel, and the noble horse fell dead.
Before the boys could sufficiently recover to consider how they should
extricate themselves from the scrape, they were called to breakfast; and
the mistress of the house, knowing that they had been in the fields,
began to ask after her stock.
"Pray, young gentlemen," said she, "have you seen my blooded colts in
your rambles? I hope they are well taken care of. My favorite, I am
told, is as large as his sire."
The boys looked at one another, and no one liked to speak. Of course the
mother repeated her question.
"The sorrel is dead, madam," said her son. "I killed him!"
And then he told the whole story. They say that his mother flushed with
anger, as her son often used to, and then, like him, controlled herself,
and presently said, quietly:
"It is well; but while I regret the loss of my favorite, I rejoice in
my son who always speaks the truth."
The story of Washington's killing the blooded colt is of a piece with
other stories less particular, which show that he was a very athletic
fellow. Of course, when a boy becomes famous, every one likes to
remember the wonderful things he did before he was famous, and
Washington's playmates, when they grew up, used to show the spot by the
Rappahannock near Fredericksburg where he stood and threw a stone to the
opposite bank; and at the celebrated Natural Bridge, the arch of which
is two hundred feet above the ground, they always tell the visitor that
George Washington threw a stone in the air the whole height. He
undoubtedly took part in all the sports which were the favorites of his
country at that time—he pitched heavy bars, tossed quoits, ran, leaped,
and wrestled; for he was a powerful, large-limbed young fellow, and he
had a very large and strong hand.
(From "Life of George Washington" by Horace E. Scudder, published by
Houghton, Mifflin & Co.)
(The illustrations in this story are copied from the original pictures in
Mr. B.J. Lossing's "Mt. Vernon and its Associations," by permission of
Messrs. J.C. Yorston & Co., Cincinnati, Ohio.)