The True George Washington: Education: Adulthood

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


The end of Washington's school-days left him, if a good "cipherer," a bad speller, and a still worse grammarian, but, fortunately, the termination of instruction did not by any means end his education. From that time there is to be noted a steady improvement in both these failings. Pickering stated that "when I first became acquainted with the General (in 1777) his writing was defective in grammar, and even spelling, owing to the insufficiency of his early education; of which, however, he gradually got the better in the subsequent years of his life, by the official perusal of some excellent models, particularly those of Hamilton; by writing with care and patient attention; and reading numerous, indeed multitudes of letters to and from his friends and correspondents. This obvious improvement was begun during the war." In 1785 a contemporary noted that "the General is remarked for writing a most elegant letter," adding that, "like the famous Addison, his writing excells his speaking," and Jefferson said that "he wrote readily, rather diffusely, in an easy and correct style. This he had acquired by conversation with the world, for his education was merely reading, writing and common arithmetic, to which he added surveying at a later day."

There can be no doubt that Washington felt his lack of education very keenly as he came to act upon a larger sphere than as a Virginia planter. "I am sensible," he wrote a friend, of his letters, "that the narrations are just, and that truth and honesty will appear in my writings; of which, therefore, I shall not be ashamed, though criticism may censure my style." When his secretary suggested to him that he should write his own life, he replied, "In a former letter I informed you, my dear Humphreys, that if I had talents for it, I have not leisure to turn my thoughts to Commentaries. A consciousness of a defective education, and a certainty of the want of time, unfit me for such an undertaking." On being pressed by a French comrade-in-arms to pay France a visit, he declined, saying, "Remember, my good friend, that I am unacquainted with your language, that I am too far advanced in years to acquire a knowledge of it, and that, to converse through the medium of an interpreter upon common occasions, especially with the Ladies, must appear so extremely awkward, insipid, and uncouth, that I can scarce bear it in idea."

In 1788, without previous warning, he was elected chancellor of William and Mary College, a distinction by which he felt "honored and greatly affected;" but "not knowing particularly what duties, or whether any active services are immediately expected from the person holding the office of chancellor, I have been greatly embarrassed in deciding upon the public answer proper to be given.... My difficulties are briefly these. On the one hand, nothing in this world could be farther from my heart, than ... a refusal of the appointment ... provided its duties are not incompatible with the mode of life to which I have entirely addicted myself; and, on the other hand, I would not for any consideration disappoint the just expectations of the convocation by accepting an office, whose functions I previously knew ... I should be absolutely unable to perform."

Perhaps the most touching proof of his own self-depreciation was something he did when he had become conscious that his career would be written about. Still in his possession were the letter-books in which he had kept copies of his correspondence while in command of the Virginia regiment between 1754 and 1759, and late in life he went through these volumes, and, by interlining corrections, carefully built them into better literary form. How this was done is shown here by a single facsimile.

With the appointment to command the Continental Army, a secretary was secured, and in an absence of this assistant he complained to him that "my business increases very fast, and my distresses for want of you along with it. Mr. Harrison is the only gentleman of my family, that can afford me the least assistance in writing. He and Mr. Moylan,... have heretofore afforded me their aid; and ... they have really had a great deal of trouble."

Most of Washington's correspondence during the Revolution was written by his aides. Pickering said,?

"As to the public letters bearing his signature, it is certain that he could not have maintained so extensive a correspondence with his own pen, even if he had possessed the ability and promptness of Hamilton. That he would, sometimes with propriety, observe upon, correct, and add to any draught submitted for his examination and signature, I have no doubt. And yet I doubt whether many, if any, of the letters ... are his own draught.... I have even reason to believe that not only the composition, the clothing of the ideas, but the ideas themselves, originated generally with the writers; that Hamilton and Harrison, in particular, were scarcely in any degree his amanuenses. I remember, when at head-quarters one day, at Valley Forge, Colonel Harrison came down from the General's chamber, with his brows knit, and thus accosted me, 'I wish to the Lord the General would give me the heads or some idea, of what he would have me write.'"

After the Revolution, a visitor at Mount Vernon said, "It's astonishing the packet of letters that daily comes for him from all parts of the world, which employ him most of the morning to answer." A secretary was employed, but not so much to do the actual writing as the copying and filing, and at this time Washington complained "that my numerous correspondencies are daily becoming irksome to me." Yet there can be little question that he richly enjoyed writing when it was not for the public eye. "It is not the letters of my friends which give me trouble," he wrote to one correspondent; to another he said, "I began with telling you that I should not write a lengthy letter but the result has been to contradict it;" and to a third, "when I look back to the length of this letter, I am so much astonished and frightened at it myself that I have not the courage to give it a careful reading for the purpose of correction. You must, therefore, receive it with all its imperfections, accompanied with this assurance, that, though there may be inaccuracies in the letter, there is not a single defect in the friendship." Occasionally there was, as here, an apology: "I am persuaded you will excuse this scratch'd scrawl, when I assure you it is with difficulty I write at all," he ended a letter in 1777, and in 1792 of another said, "You must receive it blotted and scratched as you find it for I have not time to copy it. It is now ten o'clock at night, after my usual hour for retiring to rest, and the mail will be closed early to-morrow morning."

To his overseer, who neglected to reply to some of his questions, he told his method of writing, which is worth quoting:

"Whenever I set down to write you, I read your letter, or letters carefully over, and as soon as I come to a part that requires to be noticed, I make a short note on the cover of a letter or piece of waste paper;?then read on the next, noting that in like manner;?and so on until I have got through the whole letter and reports. Then in writing my letter to you, as soon as I have finished what I have to say on one of these notes I draw my pen through it and proceed to another and another until the whole is done?crossing each as I go on, by which means if I am called off twenty times whilst I am writing, I can never with these notes before me finished or unfinished, omit anything I wanted to say; and they serve me also, as I keep no copies of letters I wrote to you, as Memorandums of what has been written if I should have occasion at any time to refer to them."

Another indication of his own knowledge of defects is shown by his fear about his public papers. When his Journal to the Ohio was printed by order of the governor, in 1754, in the preface the young author said, "I think I can do no less than apologize, in some Measure, for the numberless imperfections of it. There intervened but one Day between my Arrival in Williamsburg, and the Time for the Council's Meeting, for me to prepare and transcribe, from the rough Minutes I had taken in my Travels, this Journal; the writing of which only was sufficient to employ me closely the whole Time, consequently admitted of no Leisure to consult of a new and proper Form to offer it in, or to correct or amend the Diction of the old." Boucher states that the publication, "in Virginia at least, drew on him some ridicule."

This anxiety about his writings was shown all through life, and led Washington to rely greatly on such of his friends as would assist him, even to the point, so Reed thought, that he "sometimes adopted draughts of writing when his own would have been better ... from an extreme diffidence in himself," and Pickering said, in writing to an aide,?

"Although the General's private correspondence was doubtless, for the most part, his own, and extremely acceptable to the persons addressed; yet, in regard to whatever was destined to meet the public eye, he seems to have been fearful to exhibit his own compositions, relying too much on the judgment of his friends, and sometimes adopted draughts that were exceptionable. Some parts of his private correspondence must have essentially differed from other parts in the style of composition. You mention your own aids to the General in this line. Now, if I had your draughts before me, mingled with the General's to the same persons, nothing would be more easy than to assign to each his own proper offspring. You could neither restrain your courser, nor conceal your imagery, nor express your ideas otherwise than in the language of a scholar. The General's compositions would be perfectly plain and didactic, and not always correct."

During the Presidency, scarcely anything of a public nature was penned by Washington,?Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and Randolph acting as his draughtsmen. "We are approaching the first Monday in December by hasty strides," he wrote to Jefferson. "I pray you, therefore, to revolve in your mind such matters as may be proper for me to lay before Congress, not only in your own department, (if any there be,) but such others of a general nature, as may happen to occur to you, that I may be prepared to open the session with such communication, as shall appear to merit attention." Two years later he said to the same, "I pray you to note down or rather to frame into paragraphs or sections, such matters as may occur to you as fit and proper for general communication at the opening of the next session of Congress, not only in the department of state, but on any other subject applicable to the occasion, that I may in due time have everything before me." To Hamilton he wrote in 1795, "Having desired the late Secretary of State to note down every matter as it occurred, proper either for the speech at the opening of the session, or for messages afterwards, the inclosed paper contains everything I could extract from that office. Aid me, I pray you, with your sentiments on these points, and such others as may have occurred to you relative to my communications to Congress."

The best instance is furnished in the preparation of the Farewell Address. First Madison was asked to prepare a draft, and from this Washington drew up a paper, which he submitted to Hamilton and Jay, with the request that "even if you should think it best to throw the whole into a different form, let me request, notwithstanding, that my draught may be returned to me (along with yours) with such amendments and corrections as to render it as perfect as the formation is susceptible of; curtailed if too verbose; and relieved of all tautology not necessary to enforce the ideas in the original or quoted part. My wish is that the whole may appear in a plain style, and be handed to the public in an honest, unaffected, simple part." Accordingly, Hamilton prepared what was almost a new instrument in form, though not in substance, which, after "several serious and attentive readings," Washington wrote that he preferred "greatly to the other draughts, being more copious on material points, more dignified on the whole, and with less egotism; of course, less exposed to criticism, and better calculated to meet the eye of discerning readers (foreigners particularly, whose curiosity I have little doubt will lead them to inspect it attentively, and to pronounce their opinions on the performance)." The paper was then, according to Pickering, "put into the hands of Wolcott, McHenry, and myself ... with a request that we would examine it, and note any alterations and corrections which we should think best. We did so; but our notes, as well as I recollect, were very few, and regarded chiefly the grammar and composition." Finally, Washington revised the whole, and it was then made public.

Confirmatory of this sense of imperfect cultivation are the pains he took that his adopted son and grandson should be well educated. As already noted, tutors for both were secured at the proper ages, and when Jack was placed with the Rev. Mr. Boucher, Washington wrote: "In respect to the kinds, & manner of his Studying I leave it wholely to your better Judgment?had he begun, or rather pursued his study of the Greek Language, I should have thought it no bad acquisition; but whether if he acquire this now, he may not forego some useful branches of learning, is a matter worthy of consideration. To be acquainted with the French Tongue is become part of polite Education; and to a man who has the prospect of mixing in a large Circle absolutely necessary. Without Arithmetick, the common affairs of Life are not to be managed with success. The study of Geometry, and the Mathematics (with due regard to the limites of it) is equally advantageous. The principles of Philosophy Moral, Natural, &c. I should think a very desirable knowledge for a Gentleman." So, too, he wrote to Washington Custis, "I do not hear you mention anything of geography or mathematics as parts of your study; both these are necessary branches of useful knowledge. Nor ought you to let your knowledge of the Latin language and grammatical rules escape you. And the French language is now so universal, and so necessary with foreigners, or in a foreign country, that I think you would be injudicious not to make yourself master of it." It is worth noting in connection with this last sentence that Washington used only a single French expression with any frequency, and that he always wrote "faupas."

Quite as indicative of the value he put on education was the aid he gave towards sending his young relatives and others to college, his annual contribution to an orphan school, his subscriptions to academies, and his wish for a national university. In 1795 he said,?

"It has always been a source of serious reflection and sincere regret with me, that the youth of the United States should be sent to foreign countries for the purpose of education.... For this reason I have greatly wished to see a plan adopted, by which the arts, sciences, and belles-lettres could be taught in their fullest extent, thereby embracing all the advantages of European tuition, with the means of acquiring the liberal knowledge, which is necessary to qualify our citizens for the exigencies of public as well as private life; and (which with me is a consideration of great magnitude) by assembling the youth from the different parts of this rising republic, contributing from their intercourse and interchange of information to the removal of prejudices, which might perhaps sometimes arise from local circumstances."

In framing his Farewell Address, "revolving ... on the various matters it contained and on the first expression of the advice or recommendation which was given in it, I have regretted that another subject (which in my estimation is of interesting concern to the well-being of this country) was not touched upon also; I mean education generally, as one of the surest means of enlightening and giving just ways of thinking to our citizens, but particularly the establishment of a university; where the youth from all parts of the United States might receive the polish of erudition in the arts, sciences and belles-lettres." Eventually he reduced this idea to a plea for the people to "promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge," because "in proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened." By his will he left to the endowment of a university in the District of Columbia the shares in the Potomac Company which had been given him by the State of Virginia, but the clause was never carried into effect.

It was in 1745 that Washington's school-days came to an end. His share of his father's property being his mother's till he was twenty-one, a livelihood had to be found, and so at about fourteen years of age the work of life began. Like a true boy, the lad wanted to go to sea, despite his uncle's warning "that I think he had better be put apprentice to a tinker; for a common sailor before the mast has by no means the liberty of the subject; for they will press him from a 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." His mother, however, would not consent, and to this was due his becoming a surveyor.

From his "Young Man's Companion" Washington had already learned the use of Gunter's rule and how it should be used in surveying, and to complete his knowledge he seems to have taken lessons of the licensed surveyor of Westmoreland County, James Genn, for transcripts of some of the surveys drawn by Genn still exist in the handwriting of his pupil. This implied a distinct and very valuable addition to his knowledge, and a large number of his surveys still extant are marvels of neatness and careful drawing. As a profession it was followed for only four years (1747-1751), but all through life he often used his knowledge in measuring or platting his own property. Far more important is the service it was to him in public life. In 1755 he sent to Braddock's secretary a map of the "back country," and to the governor of Virginia plans of two forts. During the Revolution it helped him not merely in the study of maps, but also in the facility it gave him to take in the topographical features of the country. Very largely, too, was the selection of the admirable site for the capital due to his supervising: all the plans for the city were submitted to him, and nowhere do the good sense and balance of the man appear to better advantage than in his correspondence with the Federal city commissioners.

In Washington's earliest account-book there is an item when he was sixteen years old, "To cash pd ye Musick Master for my Entrance 3/9." It is commonly said that he played the flute, but this is as great a libel on him as any Tom Paine wrote, and though he often went to concerts, and though fond of hearing his granddaughter Nelly play and sing, he never was himself a performer, and the above entry probably refers to the singing-master whom the boys and girls of that day made the excuse for evening frolics.

Mention is made elsewhere of his taking lessons in the sword exercise from Van Braam in these earlier years, and in 1756 he paid to Sergeant Wood, fencing-master, the sum of 1.1.6. When he received the offer of a position on Braddock's staff, he acknowledged, in accepting, that "I must be ingenuous enough to confess, that I am not a little biassed by selfish considerations. To explain, Sir, I wish earnestly to attain some knowledge in the military profession, and, believing a more favorable opportunity cannot offer, than to serve under a gentleman of General Braddock's abilities and experience, it does ... not a little contribute to influence my choice." Hamilton is quoted as saying that Washington "never read any book upon the art of war but Sim's Military Guide," and an anonymous author asserted that "he never read a book in the art of war of higher value than Bland's Exercises." Certain it is that nearly all the military knowledge he possessed was derived from practice rather than from books, and though, late in life, he purchased a number of works on the subject, it was after his army service was over.

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