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Chapter One. The Youth of George Washington

Jessica E. Brunette

Subject Imperial, Colonial, and Postcolonial History » Colonial History

Place Americas » Northern America

Period 1000 - 1999 » 1700-1799

Key-Topics education, family

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781444331035.2012.00003.x


In 1841 the celebrated novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne wittily remarked that George Washington “was born with his clothes on and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world” ( Wills (1984) 194). For many Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was difficult to imagine that the revered Father of our nation had ever been a child, romping around in the Rappahannock River, practicing his penmanship in copybooks, and wooing girls. The severe lack of legitimate documentation of his youth did not aid this understanding. Tremendous gaps in surviving records have allowed eager hagio-graphical mythmakers like Mason Weems to fill in Washington's early life with didactic and entertaining stories that praise the great man he would become. Many of those stories – the most famous being young Washington chopping down the cherry tree – have permeated the American memory and become acknowledged as fact. This is all much to the chagrin of many 20th and 21st century Washington historians who have ignored Weems entirely and looked at a wide variety of sources and studies to cobble together a more complete and truthful picture of Washington's youth. The resulting image is a young man with a voracious sense of ambition who yearned to be free of life at the family farm and rise above his middling status. Young George Washington desired greatness and exploited ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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