Wednesday, December 9, 2015

George Washington—No English Gentleman

by Stephen Yoch

George Washington’s highest aspiration was to be an educated English gentleman and military officer. His frustration in achieving that goal transformed him into a rebel and one of the most respected men of his era.

Augustine Washington
George’s father, Augustine Washington, was a third generation transplant from Sulgrave Manor near Banbury. As with all prosperous colonials, he sent his two older sons, Lawrence and Austin, to complete their educations in England. Unfortunately, for Washington, his father died when George was eleven, relegating him to an eighth grade education at the local church.

Unable to be educated like a proper English gentleman, George chose the next best avenue, serving the Crown in the navy. At age 14, Washington sought to be a midshipman, but his efforts were thwarted when his mother refused to grant permission, relying on the advice of George’s English uncle, that colonials in the navy were “beneath contempt” and would be treated “worse than negroes or even dogs.”

Lawrence Washington
Disappointed, but undaunted, George continued to pine for a military career. He viewed his brother Lawrence as the quintessential example of an English Colonial gentleman. After his English schooling, Lawrence Washington fought for the Crown against the Spanish in the (oddly named) War of Jenkins Ear. While the campaign was generally unsuccessful, Lawrence comported himself well and returned to the colony as a respected military and community leader. Lawrence served in the House of Burgess and married the beautiful and wealthy Ann Fairfax. When Lawrence died at age 36, the 20-year old George was in the ideal position to assume Lawrence’s commission as Major in the Virginia militia.

Colonial Colonel Washington
Volunteering at the first possible opportunity to serve the Crown, Washington led a group of men through the wilderness in the winter of 1753-1754 to deliver an ultimatum to the French who were occupying lands west of the colonies. Shortly thereafter, Washington and a group of soldiers and Indians intercepted a French party led by the emissary Joseph Coulon de Villers, sieur de Jumonville. Washington’s party attacked the French and Jumonville was murdered by an Indian chief under Washington’s command.

Battle of Monongahela
Washington managed to minimize his failures and promote his successes during the French & Indian War (a/k/a the Seven Years War), elevating him to the full Colonel in charge of the entire Virginia militia at only age 22. A year later, his bravery at the Battle of Monongahela made him one of the most famous and respected men in the colonies. However, one laurel remained elusive: the affirmation of his status as an English gentleman by receiving a Royal Officer’s Commission.

Lord Loundoun
On multiple occasions, Washington made trips to the various Supreme Commanders of the War in the Colonies, pleading to have his militia colonelcy converted into a Royal Commission. Not only were his efforts thwarted, but in March 1757, he was dressed down and treated particularly rudely by John Campbell, Earl of Loudoun. This humiliation would smolder inside Washington for the rest of his life. The repeated denials of a Royal Commission left a deep-seated impression on the proud and young Virginian. He would never forget, and could not forgive, the British refusal to accept him.

By the end of the French & Indian War in America, Washington was arguably the second most famous man in the Colonies (behind only Benjamin Franklin). After marrying the wealthy widow Martha Custis, Washington took his seat at the House of Burgess and was welcomed by a unanimous resolution:
Thanks of the House be given to George Washington, Esq; a Member of this House, late Colonel of the First Virginia Regiment, for his faithful Service to His Majesty, and this Colony, and for his brave and steady Behaviour, from the first Encroachments and Hostilities of the French and their Indians, to this Resignation, after the happy Reduction of Fort Du Quesne.
Over the next 20 years, Washington lived the life of an English colonial gentleman, managing and growing his plantations. In 1775, when the Colonies were looking for a general to lead their forces against the King, Washington attended the Second Continental Congress in his Virginia Colonel’s military uniform. It was a clear announcement to his fellow delegates that he was ready to pick up the mantle of leadership and prove, once and for all, that the British had made a mistake in not inviting him into their ranks. One cannot help but speculate how Washington’s life, and American and British history, might have been different, if his mother had let him be a midshipman, or he had been granted a Royal Commission.

In the end, Washington received the affirmation from the English he was looking for in his youth, albeit in a different way. By the 1780s, and indeed for the rest of his life, he would be lauded in the English press. Westminster Magazine intoned: With one voice, his country placed “the firmest confidence in his integrity and abilities. . . . that nature has given him extraordinary military talents will hardly be controverted by his most bitter enemies . . . when, I say, all this comes to be impartially considered, I think I may venture to pronounce that General Washington will be regarded by mankind as one of the greatest military ornaments of the age, and his name will command the veneration of the latest posterity.” While he was never the “English Gentleman” he had wished, according to the London Chronicle, he will “certainly be received by posterity as one of the most illustrious characters of the age in which he lived.”


Stephen Yoch’s book, Becoming George Washington, traces the early and largely unknown life of America’s leading founding father through the French & Indian War. This meticulously researched historical fiction follows Washington’s rise from a fatherless insecure boy to the Revolution’s indispensible man.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. Thank you. Washington is fascinating. He could read people and situations keenly it seems to me. Another thing that spurred on his rebel feelings was forever being cheated by English merchants. They made him pay though the nose for inferior goods which he, of course, as a Colonial had to buy or go without. It drove him wild. I seem to recall a carriage that came apart upon arrival particularly enraged him...because it's more than inferior goods, it show up one's inferior position. That carriage cost England dear


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