"First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” That famous description of George Washington by his friend and fellow patriot Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee is probably still the best summation of the man who, over a hard but resolute lifetime, became the savior of a war and the father of a country. Washington’s earliest ambitions, though, aimed more at the prosaic than the glorious. He probably imagined nothing better than following in the footsteps of his father, Augustine, who had been an ambitious Virginia planter and merchant. Augustine was hardly a major player in the hierarchical world of the aristocracy, but he was nonetheless a bona fide member of the gentry. George was the eldest son of Augustine’s second wife, Mary, who was not, and at no point aspired to be gentry.
When George was just 11, Augustine died, leaving his younger children in the hands of Mary, a domineering, pious, possibly pipe-smoking woman who ran her farm with a firm hand and read daily to her children from Contemplations Moral and Divine. Though George’s two older stepbrothers, then grown, had been sent to the fine schools required of the Virginia gentry, George had no resources for that, and Mary, in any case, had no interest in investing in her eldest son’s education. Indeed the two clashed their entire lives, and some biographers speculate that George modeled himself after everything that his mother was not.
Apparently determined to better himself from a young age, George found mentors among the gentry and emulated their ways. He also copied by hand the Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. These 110 rules had been conceived by French Jesuits as a teaching tool almost a century and a half before, dealing with everything from table manners to posture to facial expressions to gossip. Despite their stuffy formality, George seems to have internalized them because they echoed through his behavior for the rest of his life. As a young man, George impressed the colonial power-brokers of British Virginia, who made him a surveyor of western lands and an officer with the British during the French and Indian War. He first saw battle in his very early twenties, and he learned that he liked it. As far away as Britain, the young colonel’s calm and courage under fire was appreciated, with a London gazette running a line from one of his letters: “I have heard the bullets whistle; and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”