The Young Man Washington

By Samuel Eliot Morison, 1932

This is Part One of a Three-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Samuel Eliot Morison (1887-1976), widely regarded as one of the great historians of his time, won two Pulitzer Prizes and two Bancroft Prizes writing about a range of American history topics. He wrote the following essay for Harvard’s celebration of the bicentenary of the birth of George Washington.

Morison is author of a major history textbook, “The Oxford History of the American People,” first published in 1965. It’s highly readable, albeit somewhat dated. It has particularly strong sections about the colonial era, the revolution, and the period 1789 to 1865. Another of his works, a history of the U.S. Navy during World War II, may be the best description of military endeavor written by a modern historian.

A parenthetical note. Morison, like everyone who writes about the past, is capable of misinterpretations that look ridiculous with the passage of time. His “The Growth of the American Republic,” co-written with Henry Steele Commager (published in 1930, with several new editions over the years), a college textbook for a couple of generations of students, promulgated the “Sambo” myth of American slavery – the false notion of slaves as entirely submissive, happy, and ingratiating. Morison and Commager based their writing on the scholarship of Ulrich B. Phillips, about whose work the historian Peter Novick scathingly comments, “Felicitously written, based on monumental research, and filled with important insights into the complexities of the slave-master relationship, his work was firmly grounded in his belief in Negro inferiority….Phillips’s books went beyond a ‘sympathetic treatment’ of slavery – they all but recommmended it.” As Novick notes, a number of historians resisted the Sambo thesis during its heyday in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, but not until 1962 did Morison and Commager eliminate the idea from their influential text. See here for a germane comment by historian Nell Irvin Painter on the phenomenon of historical knowledge evolving. – H.F.


Washington is the last person you would ever suspect of having been a young man, with all the bright hopes and black despairs to which youth is subject. In American folklore he is known only as a child or a general or an old, old man: priggish hero of the cherry-tree episode, commander in chief, or the Father of his Country, writing a farewell address. By some freak of fate, Stuart’s Athenaeum portrait of an ideal and imposing, but solemn and weary Washington at the age of sixty-four has become the most popular. This year it has been reproduced as the “official” portrait, and placed in every school in the country; so we may expect that new generations of American schoolchildren will be brought up with the idea that Washington was a solemn old bore. If only Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of him as a handsome and gallant young soldier could have been used instead! His older biographers, too, have conspired to create the legend; and the recent efforts to “popularize” Washington have taken the unfortunate line of trying to make him out something that he was not: a churchman, politician, engineer, businessman, or realtor. These attempts to degrade a hero to a go-getter, an aristocrat to a vulgarian, remind one of the epitaph that Aristotle wished to have carved on the tomb of Plato: “Hic jacet homo, quem non licet, non decet, impiis vel ignorantibus laudare” (Here lies a man whom it is neither permissible nor proper for the irreverent or the ignorant to praise).

Perhaps it is not the fault of the painters and biographers that we think of Washington as an old man, but because his outstanding qualities – wisdom, poise, and serenity – are not those commonly associated with youth. He seemed to have absorbed, wrote Emerson, “all the serenity of America, and left none for his restless, rickety, hysterical countrymen.” The comte de Chastellux, one of the French officers in the war, said that Washington’s most characteristic feature was balance, “the perfect harmony existing between the physical and moral attributes of which he is made up.” Yet Gilbert Stuart, after painting his first portrait of Washington, said that “all his features were indicative of the most ungovernable passions, and had he been born in the forests, it was his opinion that he would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes.” Both men were right. Washington’s qualities were so balanced that his talents, which were great but nothing extraordinary, were more effective in the long run than those of greater generals like Napoleon, or of bolder and more original statesmen like Hamilton and Jefferson. Yet as a young man Washington was impatient and passionate, eager for glory in war, wealth in land, and success in love. Even in maturity his fierce temper would sometimes get the better of him. Here in Cambridge, at his headquarters in the Craigie House, he once became so exasperated at the squabbling of drunken soldiers in the front yard that, forgetting the dignity of a general, he rushed forth and laid out a few of the brawlers with his own fists; and then, much relieved, returned to his office. Under great provocation he would break out with a torrent of Olympian oaths that terrified the younger men on his staff. Tobias Lear, the smooth young Harvard graduate who became Washington’s private secretary, admitted that the most dreadful experience in his life was hearing the general swear!

It was only through the severest self-discipline that Washington attained his characteristic poise and serenity. Discipline is not a popular word nowadays, for we associate it with schoolmasters, drill sergeants, and dictators; and it was certainly not discipline of that sort that made the passionate young Washington into an effective man. His discipline came in a very small part from parents, masters, or superiors; and in no respect from institutions. It came from environment, from a philosophy of life that he imbibed at an impressionable age; but most of all from his own will. He apprehended the great truth that man can only be free through mastery of himself. Instead of allowing his passions to spend themselves, he restrained them. Instead of indulging himself in a life of pleasure – for which he had ample means at the age of twenty – he placed duty first. In fact, he followed exactly that course of conduct which, according to the secondhand popularizers of Freud, make a person “thwarted,” “inhibited,” and “repressed.” Yet Washington became a liberated, successful, and serene man. The process can hardly fail to interest young men who are struggling with the same difficulties as Washington – although, I am bound to say, under the far more difficult circumstances of the depression, machinery, and jazz.

Whence came this impulse to self-discipline? We can find nothing to account for it in the little we know of Washington’s heredity. His family was gentle but undistinguished. George knew little of his forebears and cared less, although he used the family coat of arms. Lawrence Washington, sometime Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, was ejected from his living by the Roundheads as a “malignant Royalist.” His son John came to Virginia by way of Barbados as mate of a tobacco ship, and settled there. As an Indian fighter, John Washington was so undisciplined as to embarrass the governor of Virginia almost as much as did the Indians. His son Lawrence, father of Augustine and grandfather of George, earned a competence in the merchant marine and settled down to planting. Love of the land was a trait that all Washingtons had in common: they might seek wealth at sea or glory in war, but happiness they found only in the work and sport that came from owning and cultivating land.

Usually the Washingtons married their social betters, but the second marriage of George’s father, Augustine, was an exception. Mary Ball, the mother of Washington, has been the object of much sentimental writing; but the cold record of her own and her sons’ letters shows her to have been grasping, querulous, and vulgar. She was a selfish and exacting mother whom most of her children avoided as early as they could; to whom they did their duty, but rendered little love. It was this sainted mother of Washington who opposed almost everything that he did for the public good, who wished his sense of duty to end with his duty to her, who pestered him in his campaigns by complaining letters, and who at the dark moment of the Revolutionary War increased his anxieties by strident complaints of neglect and starvation. Yet for one thing Americans may well be grateful to Mary Ball: her selfishness lost George an opportunity to become midshipman in the Royal Navy, a school whence few Americans emerged other than as loyal subjects of the king.

There is only one other subject connected with Washington upon which there has been more false sentiment, misrepresentation, and medacity than on that of his mother, and that is his religion. Washington’s religion was that of an eighteenth-century gentleman. Baptized in the Church of England, he attended service occasionally as a young man, and more regularly in middle age, as one of the duties of his station. He believed in God: the eighteenth-century Supreme Being, a Divine Philosopher who ruled all things for the best. He was certain of a Providence in the affairs of men. By the same token, he was completely tolerant of other people’s beliefs, more so than the American democracy of today; for in a letter to the Swedenborgian Church of Baltimore he wrote: “In this enlightened age and in the land of equal liberty it is our boast that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the law, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest offices that are known in the United States.” But Washington never became an active member of any church. Even after his marriage to a devout churchwoman, and when as President of the United States the eyes of all men were upon him, he never joined Martha in the beautiful and comforting sacrament of the body and blood of Christ. Considering the pressure always placed on a man to conform by a religious wife, this abstention from Holy Communion is very significant. Christianity had little or no part in that discipline which made Washington more humble and gentle than any of the great captains, less proud and ambitious than most of the statesmen who have proclaimed themselves disciples of the Nazarene. His inspiration, as we shall see, came from an entirely different source.

Washington gained little discipline from book-learning; but like all Virginian gentlemen of the day he led an active outdoor life, which gave him a magnificent physique. When fully grown, he stood a little over six feet, and weighed between 175 and 200 pounds. Broad-shouldered and straight-backed, he carried his head erect and his chin up, and showed a good leg on horseback. There is no reason to doubt the tradition of his prowess at running, leaping, wrestling, and horsemanship. The handling of horses, in which Washington was skilled at an early age, is one of the finest means of discipline that a youngster can have; for he who cannot control himself can never handle a spirited horse. And for the same reason fox-hunting, which was Washington’s favorite sport, is the making – or the breaking – of a courageous and considerate gentleman. His amazing physical vitality is proved by an incident of his reconnaissance to the Ohio. At the close of December 1753, he and the scout Christopher Gist attempted to cross the river just above the site of Pittsburgh, on a raft of their own making. The river was full of floating ice, and George, while trying to shove the raft away from an ice floe with his setting-pole, fell overboard, but managed to climb aboard again. They were forced to land on an island and spend the night there without fire or dry clothing. Gist, the professional woodsman, who had not been in the water, froze all his fingers and some of his toes; but Washington suffered no ill effects from the exposure. For that, his healthy Virginia boyhood may be thanked.

His formal education was scanty. The colonial colleges provided a classical discipline more severe and selective than that of their successors, but George had none of these “advantages.” There were no means to prepare him for William and Mary, the college of the Virginia gentry; his father died when he was eleven years old, and as a younger son in a land-poor family, his only schoolmasters were chosen haphazardly. Endowed with the blood and the instincts of a gentleman, he was not given a gentleman’s education, as he became painfully aware when at adolescence he went to live with his half brother at Mount Vernon.

In modern phrase, George was “parked” on the estate that would one day be his. Evidently there had been some sort of family consultation about what to do with him; and Lawrence good-naturedly offered to take his young brother in hand, if only to get him away from the termagant mother. Lawrence Washington, Augustine’s favorite son and fondest hope, had been sent to England for his schooling, had served under Admiral Vernon in the war with Spain, and had inherited the bulk of his father’s property, to the exclusion of George and the four younger brothers and sisters. The proximity of Mount Vernon to the vast estates of the Fairfax family in the Northern Neck of Virginia gave Lawrence his opportunity. He married a Fairfax, and was admitted to the gay, charmed circle of the First Families of Virginia. He was already a well-established gentleman of thirty when the hobbledehoy half brother came to stay.

George was then a tall, gangling lad of sixteen years, with enormous hands and feet that were continually getting in his way. Young girls giggled when he entered a room, and burst out laughing at his awkward attempts to court them. He was conscious that he did not “belong,” and made every effort to improve his manners. About three years before, a schoolmaster had made him copy out 110 rules of civility from a famous handbook by one Hawkins – a popular guide to good manners already a century and a half old; and George was probably glad to have this manuscript manual of social etiquette ready to consult. One of the most touching and human pictures of Washington is that of the overgrown schoolboy solemnly conning old Hawkins’s warnings against scratching oneself at table, picking one’s teeth with a fork, or cracking fleas in company, lest he commit serious breaks in the houses of the great.

These problems of social behavior no doubt occupied much space in Washington’s adolescent thoughts. But he was also preparing to be a man of action. At school he had cared only for mathematics. He procured more books, progressed further than his schoolmaster could take him, and so qualified to be surveyor to Lord Fairfax. This great gentleman and landowner required an immense amount of surveying in the Shenandoah Valley, and found it difficult to obtain men with enough mathematics to qualify as surveyors, or sufficient sobriety to run a line straight and see a job through. So George at sixteen earned as Lord Fairfax’s surveyor the high salary of a doubloon (about $7.50) a day, most of which he saved up and invested in land. For he had early decided that in the fresh lands of the Virginia Valley and the West lay the road to position, competence, and happiness. His personality as well as his excellent surveying earned him the friendship of the Fairfaxes, liberal and intelligent gentlemen; and this, as we shall see, was of first importance in Washington’s moral and intellectual development.

That friendship, not the doubloon a day, was the first and most fortunate gain from this surveying job; the second was the contact it gave young Washington with frontiersmen, with Indians, and with that great teacher of self-reliance, the wilderness. He had the advantage of a discipline that few of us can obtain today. We are born in crowded cities, and attend crowded schools and colleges; we take our pleasure along crowded highways and in crowded places of amusement; we are tempted to assert ourselves by voice rather than deed, to advertise, to watch the clock, escape responsibility, and leave decisions to others. But a hungry woodsman could not afford to lose patience with a deer he was trying to shoot, or with a trout he was trying to catch; and it did not help him much to bawl out an Indian. If you cannot discipline yourself to quiet and caution in the wilderness, you won’t get far; and if you make the wrong decision in woods infested with savages, you will probably have no opportunity to make another. What our New England forebears learned from the sea, Washington learned from the wilderness.

His life from sixteen to twenty was not all spent on forest trails. This was the golden age of the Old Dominion, the fifteen years from 1740 to the French and Indian War. The old roughness and crudeness were passing away. Peace reigned over the land, high prices ruled for tobacco, immigrants were pouring into the back country; the traditional Virginia of Thackeray and Vachel Lindsay – “Land of the gauntlet and the glove” – came into being. Living in Virginia at that time was like riding on the sparkling crest of a great wave just before it breaks and spreads into dull, shallow pools. At Mount Vernon, on the verge of the wilderness, one felt the zest of sharp contrasts, and one received the discipline that comes from life. On the one side were mansion houses where young Washington could learn manners and philosophy from gentlefolk. He took part in all the sports and pastimes of his social equals: dancing and cardplaying and flirting with the girls. When visiting a town like Williamsburg he never missed a show; and later as President he was a patron of the new American drama. He loved shooting, fox-hunting, horse-racing, and all the gentleman’s field sports of the day; he bet small sums at cards, and larger sums on the ponies, and was a good loser. He liked to make an impression by fine new clothes, and by riding unruly steeds when girls were looking on; for although ungainly afoot, he was a graceful figure on horseback. He belonged to clubs of men who dined at taverns and drank like gentlemen; that is to say, they drank as much wine as they could hold without getting drunk. Tobacco, curiously enough, made George’s head swim; but he learned to smoke the peace pipe with Indians when necessary without disgracing himself.

On the other side of Mount Vernon were log cabins, and all the crude elements of American life: Scots-Irish, Pennsylvania German pioneers, and other poor whites, who, as insubordinate soldiers, who prove the severest test of Washington’s indefatigable patience. The incidents of roughing it, such as the “one thread-bear blanket with double its weight of vermin, such as lice, fleas, etc.” that he records in the journal of his first surveying trip, were not very pleasant, but he took it all with good humor and good sportsmanship. A little town called Alexandria sprang up about a tobacco warehouse and wharf, and young Washington made the first survey of it. There was a Masonic lodge at Fredericksburg, and George, always a good “joiner,” became brother to all the rising journalists and lawyers of the northern colonies. The deep Potomac flowed past Mount Vernon, bearing ships of heavy burden to the Chesapeake and overseas; you sent your orders to England every year with your tobacco, and ships returned with the latest modes and manners, books and gazettes, and letters full of coffee-house gossip. London did not seem very far away, and young George confessed in a letter that he hoped to visit that “gay Matrapolis” before long.

It was probably just as well that he did not visit London, for he had the best and purest English tradition in Virginia. When Washington was in his later teens, just when a young man is fumbling for a philosophy of life, he came into intimate contact with several members of the Fairfax family. They were of that eighteenth-century Whig gentry who conformed outwardly to Christianity, but derived their real inspiration from Marcus Aurelius, Plutarch, and the Stoic philosophers. Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax, was a nobleman devoted to “Revolution Principles” – the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which his father had taken an active part. Of the same line was that General Lord Fairfax, commander in chief of the New Model Army, who of all great soldiers in English history most resembles Washington. The ideal of this family was a noble simplicity of living and a calm acceptance of life: duty to the commonwealth, generosity to fellow men, unfaltering courage, and enduring virtue; in a word, the Stoic philosophy that overlaps Christian ethics more than any other discipline of the ancients. A Stoic never evaded life: he faced it. A Stoic never avoided responsibility: he accepted it. A Stoic not only believed in liberty: he practiced it.