The True George Washington: Education

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


Formal Education

The father of Washington received his education at Appleby School in England, and, true to his alma mater, he sent his two elder sons to the same school. His death when George was eleven prevented this son from having the same advantage, and such education as he had was obtained in Virginia. His old friend, and later enemy, Rev. Jonathan Boucher, said that "George, like most people thereabouts at that time, had no education than reading, writing and accounts which he was taught by a convict servant whom his father bought for a schoolmaster;" but Boucher managed to include so many inaccuracies in his account of Washington, that even if this statement were not certainly untruthful in several respects, it could be dismissed as valueless.

Born at Wakefield, in Washington parish, Westmoreland, which had been the home of the Washingtons from their earliest arrival in Virginia, George was too young while the family continued there to attend the school which had been founded in that parish by the gift of four hundred and forty acres from some early patron of knowledge. When the boy was about three years old, the family removed to "Washington," as Mount Vernon was called before it was renamed, and dwelt there from 1735 till 1739, when, owing to the burning of the homestead, another remove was made to an estate on the Rappahannock, nearly opposite Fredericksburg.

Here it was that the earliest education of George was received, for in an old volume of the Bishop of Exeter's Sermons his name is written, and on a flyleaf a note in the handwriting of a relative who inherited the library states that this "autograph of George Washington's name is believed to be the earliest specimen of his handwriting, when he was probably not more than eight or nine years old." During this period, too, there came into his possession the "Young Man's Companion," an English vade-mecum of then enormous popularity, written "in a plain and easy stile," the title states, "that a young Man may attain the same, without a Tutor." It would be easier to say what this little book did not teach than to catalogue what it did. How to read, write, and figure is but the introduction to the larger part of the work, which taught one to write letters, wills, deeds, and all legal forms, to measure, survey, and navigate, to build houses, to make ink and cider, and to plant and graft, how to address letters to people of quality, how to doctor the sick, and, finally, how to conduct one's self in company. The evidence still exists of how carefully Washington studied this book, in the form of copybooks, in which are transcribed problem after problem and rule after rule, not to exclude the famous Rules of civility, which biographers of Washington have asserted were written by the boy himself. School-mates thought fit, after Washington became famous, to remember his "industry and assiduity at school as very remarkable," and the copies certainly bear out the statement, but even these prove that the lad was as human as the man, for scattered here and there among the logarithms, geometrical problems, and legal forms are crude drawings of birds, faces, and other typical school-boy attempts.

From this book, too, came two qualities which clung to him through life. His handwriting, so easy, flowing, and legible, was modelled from the engraved "copy" sheet, and certain forms of spelling were acquired here that were never corrected, though not the common usage of his time. To the end of his life, Washington wrote lie, lye; liar, lyar; ceiling, cieling; oil, oyl; and blue, blew, as in his boyhood he had learned to do from this book. Even in his carefully prepared will, "lye" was the form in which he wrote the word. It must be acknowledged that, aside from these errors which he had been taught, through his whole life Washington was a non-conformist as regarded the King's English: struggle as he undoubtedly did, the instinct of correct spelling was absent, and thus every now and then a verbal slip appeared: extravagence, lettely (for lately), glew, riffle (for rifle), latten (for Latin), immagine, winder, rief (for rife), oppertunity, spirma citi, yellow oaker,?such are types of his lapses late in life, while his earlier letters and journals are far more inaccurate. It must be borne in mind, however, that of these latter we have only the draughts, which were undoubtedly written carelessly, and the two letters actually sent which are now known, and the text of his surveys before he was twenty, are quite as well written as his later epistles.

On the death of his father, Washington went to live with his brother Augustine, in order, it is presumed, that he might take advantage of a good school near Wakefield, kept by one Williams; but after a time he returned to his mother's, and attended the school kept by the Rev. James Marye, in Fredericksburg. It has been universally asserted by his biographers that he studied no foreign language, but direct proof to the contrary exists in a copy of Patrick's Latin translation of Homer, printed in 1742, the fly-leaf of a copy of which bears, in a school-boy hand, the inscription:

"Hunc mihi quaeso (bone Vir) Libellum Redde, si forsan tenues repertum Ut Scias qui sum sine fraude Scriptum.

Est mihi nomen,
Georgio Washington,
George Washington,

It is thus evident that the reverend teacher gave Washington at least the first elements of Latin, but it is equally clear that the boy, like most others, forgot it with the greatest facility as soon as he ceased studying.

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