His Mother's Son
When it came to family, Mary Ball Washington, George Washington's mother, was always unlucky. Her father died when she was an infant. By the time she turned twelve, she had buried her stepfather, her half brother, and her mother. Mary's two surviving siblings, although grown and married, did not take her in; instead, she became the legal ward of a neighbor.
Her life immediately got worse. The man who had worked for her late family as an overseer successfully sued her for back wages, and Mary, as a girl in early America, would have little opportunity to recover the financial loss. For her, everything depended on marrying well, just as it had for her mother, who had come to America as an indentured servant.
In 1731, at the age of twenty-three, Mary found a promising match. Augustine Washington, an educated widower fourteen years her senior, was a justice of the peace who owned a small tobacco farm, and an increasing number of slaves.
The details of their twelve-year marriage are scant, but one thing is for sure: It produced six children, whom they raised at Ferry Farm, a modest enterprise outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia. George was their first, followed by Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles Washington. (Their youngest daughter, Mildred, died at sixteen months old.) They lived in a two-story house that looked out on the Rappahannock River and slave quarters, rough wooden structures that housed about twenty people of African descent. The tobacco-drying sheds, the dairy barn, the smokehouse, and Mary's vegetable and medicinal herb gardens lay beyond.
Mary's husband and stepsons had attended the prestigious Appleby Grammar School in England, and she planned to send her own sons there, too, no doubt with dreams of social advancement in mind. Mary had never left Virginia, but her sons would see the motherland.
And then, in 1743, her husband died. Augustine was buried with his first wife, a sign of things to come for Mary and her five children. His sons from his first marriage, Lawrence, twenty-five, and Augustine, Jr., twenty-three, inherited the bulk of the estate-including Mount Vernon. Lawrence gifted his stepmother a mourning ring, but neither he nor his brother had any legal obligation to her. Mary and her five children were left to manage Ferry Farm on their own. George was never going to Appleby.
Mary, now thirty-five, took up the job of maintaining a property that legally belonged to her eleven-year-old son. Having learned at an early age how it felt to be powerless, she started off decisively, selling off some of the family's best tracts. The corn, flax, wheat, oat, rye, vegetables, and tobacco grown on the remaining land would have to be enough to feed and support her family, the people she enslaved, and her farm animals. With great luck and even better weather, there might be a big enough yield to sell in Great Britain.
Unfortunately for Mary, the years that followed were recorded as dry. She managed to scrape together enough to sell abroad, but that was only half the battle. British merchants had a monopoly on trade, and they couldn't be depended on to deal fairly. Their terms stated that no sale was final until the product reached Great Britain. This allowed them to accuse American farmers, and they often did, of including inferior crops, especially with small operations. When Mary tried to sell her tobacco, she was twice accused-and twice vindicated. By the 1760s, she had decided the enterprise wasn't worth the trouble.
And throughout all this struggle, Mary's efforts, past immediate survival, offered her no long-term guarantees. At the age of twenty-one, Washington would inherit the entirety of Ferry Farm. But that was it. Augustine had made no provisions in his will to educate his younger sons, abroad or at home. Soon, Washington would have to drop out of a local school. He would spend the rest of his life trying to catch up.
Mary could have remarried. It was such a commonplace practice, in fact, that Augustine's will anticipated it. A new husband would have offered her some degree of financial security and, presuming she was lonely, companionship, even love. And Mary was a catch: She had a home, however temporary, and a hearty constitution. But Mary wasn't eager to submit to a new husband's demands. (Perhaps she had learned a lesson from her own mother's second marriage. Tellingly, her eldest son would later come to the defense of remarried widows, against husbands who illegally withheld their wives' property.) Instead, she poured her energy into the farm and her children, especially George and Betty.
Mary remained strategically close to her stepsons. Lawrence, who was ten years her junior, had come back from Appleby with the entitlement and ambition of a colonizer, not of a man born in the colonies. With a commission from King George II, he had served as a captain in the War of Jenkins' Ear, fighting the Spanish in the West Indies. Lawrence returned the summer after his father died and immediately capitalized on his recent inheritance and glamorous war experience by marrying exceptionally well. Ann Fairfax, daughter of Colonel William Fairfax, lived at Belvoir, the grand estate bordering Lawrence's Mount Vernon. She offered him entry into what was arguably the colony's most powerful family.
Mary made sure that Washington was a frequent visitor at Mount Vernon, and thus also at Belvoir, where he could observe elite masculinity up close. Washington supplemented his fieldwork by studying Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a sixteenth-century book on etiquette. He likely copied down all 110 lessons merely to work on his penmanship, but what he managed to absorb didn't hurt his reputation among the gentry.
The Abridged Rules of Civility
2 When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usualy Discovered.
7 Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chambers half Drest.
24 Do not laugh too loud or too much at any Publick [Spectacle].
54 Play not the Peacock, looking every where about you, to See if you be well Deck't, if your Shoes fit well if your Stockings sit neatly, and Cloths handsomely.
56 Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for 'tis better to be alone than in bad Company.
73 Think before you Speak pronounce not imperfectly nor bring ou[t] your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly.
82 Undertake not what you cannot Perform but be Carefull to keep your Promise.
90 Being Set at meal Scratch not neither Spit Cough or blow your Nose except there's a Necessity for it.
92 Take no Salt or cut Bread with your Knife Greasy.
100 Cleanse not your teeth with the Table Cloth Napkin Fork or Knife but if Others do it let it be done wt. a Pick Tooth.
Washington understood his role. He moved with seeming ease between the sometimes desperate conditions of Ferry Farm and the genteel abundance of Mount Vernon. On one occasion, however, he could not make the two-day ride to visit Lawrence because there wasn't enough corn to feed his horse. According to Washington, the animal was "in very poor order," a startling admission in Virginia, where men who traveled even the shortest distances on foot were understood to be poor. If the animals were hungry, then the future president and his family-and most of all, their slaves-were likely suffering, too.
The masters of Mount Vernon and Belvoir knew that Washington was not one of them, but they recognized that he was a quick study. His eagerness to be helped no doubt flattered their egos, and he became a kind of pet project. They decided that he was in need of travel and adventure, and that the only way to get it was by sea. But since Washington could not pay his own way, they concluded he would have to join the British Royal Navy as a midshipman. They then launched an almost conspiratorial campaign to achieve their goal.
Mary Washington was no fool. At first, she seemed open to the idea of Washington's enlistment in the navy, but it didn't take long for her to realize she was being set up. She had learned in her youth to view the world with a critical eye, and in her time running a small farm, that eye had sharpened. Would Washington really find opportunity at sea? Was it better than what he would find at home? And what were the risks to her fourteen-year-old son?
Mary had good reason to believe they were great. Lawrence's own letters home from service had been full of tales of disease, deprivation, and death. His brother-in-law had lost his life in a naval battle with the French. And both had been officers; Washington would be a midshipman, one of the lowest-ranking, subjugated positions on a vessel. (As it happens, her instincts were right. Of the recruits who joined the navy at Washington's age, about a third did not survive their first two years in the navy-and there was little chance of promotion before then.)
It seems Mary tried to discuss these concerns with Lawrence's co-conspirators, but they had no patience for them. Robert Jackson, the executor of her late husband's will, dismissed them as "trifling objections such as fond and unthinking mothers naturally suggest."
Others, however, agreed with her. Joseph Ball, Mary's half brother in England, thought the whole thing was a terrible idea:
I think he had better be put apprentice to a tinker, for a common sailor before the mast has by no means the common liberty of the subject; for they will press him from ship to ship where he has fifty shillings a month, and make him take twenty-three, and cut and slash and use him like a negro, or rather like a dog.
And with that, the matter was settled. Whether Mary handed down her decision or she reached it in consultation with her son, we'll never know. But in the aftermath, no one seemed at odds over it. Washington visited Mount Vernon just as often, and Lawrence called on Joseph Ball the next time he went to England. He even brought back presents for Mary.
If Washington had ever truly wanted to become a midshipman, his interest was probably less about the experience than the twenty-three shillings a month he would have earned. The situation at Ferry Farm was increasingly dire. "With much truth I can say, I never felt the want of money so sensibly since I was a boy of 15 years old," he would later write. But his mother wouldn't sacrifice him to the navy, no matter how bad things got.
Mary's children stayed at home with her until there was a good reason for them to leave. In 1750, Washington gave away his sister, Betty, age seventeen, to Fielding Lewis, the son of a respectable merchant in town. Like her mother and grandmother, she pushed the boundaries of wifehood in early America: Her mark and signature can be found alongside her husband's on business transactions, from land purchases to tobacco shipments.
Washington, meanwhile, was becoming Mary's business partner more than her child. An appetite for land ran in his father's family, a side he seemed eager to emulate, and so Mary encouraged him to become a surveyor. The job attracted young men precisely because it offered upward mobility; a surveyor might earn a hundred pounds annually, and he was first on the scene, able to buy the choicest properties for himself. The profession suited Washington's personality: He liked the outdoors, he was good at math, and he could use his father's surveying tools. (He later brought some of those tools on his presidential tours of the northern and southern states.)
Lawrence and the Fairfaxes were supportive, too. They hired Washington to look after their western holdings, allowing him to skip a long apprenticeship. They also talked him up among the local gentry. By age seventeen, he was the surveyor of Culpeper County, the youngest ever hired, and by eighteen he had purchased thousands of acres of land in the Shenandoah Valley. Thanks to him, there was finally steady money coming in at Ferry Farm.
"Pleases My Taste"
While Washington was thriving, his half brother was failing. Lawrence's misfortunes began in 1749 with a cough so bad that he had to sail to England for medical care. It was tuberculosis, which only worsened during the trip. Nor did his illness improve the following year when he traveled to the spa town of Warm Springs, Virginia, to bathe in its reputedly restorative waters. Facing another long, frigid Virginia winter, during which he would most likely be quarantined from his wife, who had just given birth to a baby girl and had already lost three newborns, Lawrence set his sights on the Caribbean.
He chose to risk hurricane season in the West Indies in hopes that a few warm months of rest and relaxation in Barbados would help. He invited Washington, who had never been outside of Virginia, and together they boarded the Success, a small trading ship. For six weeks, Washington distracted himself from the "fickle & Merciless Ocean" by recording the weather and by fishing for barracuda, mahi mahi, and shark. (He rarely caught anything.) Finally, at four o'clock in the morning on November 2, 1751, they arrived in Barbados, a diminutive land mass that had become the economic and political hub of the British Empire.
The nineteen-year-old Washington was immediately taken with the flora and fauna. He sampled avocados, guavas, and pineapples for the first time, writing "[N]one pleases my taste as dos the Pine." But he was most interested in the people-though not the enslaved Africans who were brought there in chains to grow and harvest sugar. "[A] Man of oppulent fortune And infamous Charactar was indicted for committing a rape on his servant Maid," he reported, "and was brought in Guiltless and sav'd by one single Evidence." Washington watched the "not overzealously beloved" governor in action and dined with the island's elite. They invited him to their "Beefsteak and Tripe Club," where he met judges and admirals and listened to the concerns of wealthy merchants and commodores. It was a far more diverse and worldly set of men than Lawrence knew back home.
Washington hardly mentions Lawrence, then thirty-four, who was usually too weak to leave his quarters. Soon enough, illness came for Washington, too. "Was strongly attacked with the small Pox," he wrote in his diary on November 16, 1751. Although he emerged with some scarring on his face, he also acquired the gift of immunity. Smallpox was rare in the Colonies, and his resistance to the virus would serve him well during the Revolution.
Washington recovered quickly. Lawrence did not. In late December 1751, they parted ways in Barbados. Lawrence boarded a ship for Bermuda, and Washington headed home on the Industry. He spent nearly the entire trip seasick and was at one point robbed by a fellow passenger, but he was a changed man. He had survived a great illness and traveled what would ultimately be the farthest distance of his life.
When Washington returned home, he delivered letters from the gentry of Barbados to Robert Dinwiddie, the British governor of Virginia, who welcomed him with a dinner invitation. He seemed to finally feel like a person of distinction, confident enough of his prospects to court one wealthy, unattainable young woman after another. When Elizabeth Fauntleroy rejected him, he wrote to her father, who owned a considerable amount of land, seeking a visit with "Miss Betcy, in hopes of a revocation of the former, cruel sentence and see if I can meet with any alteration in my favor." During a visit to Belvoir, Washington wrote to a friend that he'd flirted with George Fairfax's sister-in-law, Mary Cary. She's "a very agreeable Young Lady," he said, but one who "revives my former Passion for your Low Land Beauty." (The identity of the Low Land Beauty has never been confirmed.) If Miss Betcy's wary father wrote back, Washington did not keep the letter-but it is safe to assume that Fauntleroy, a member of the Richmond elite, was uninterested in a young man of no fortune or great estate.