George Washington's Education

Despite being the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, the President of the Constitutional Convention, and the first President of the United States, George Washington's level of education was far lower than any of the other Founding Fathers of the United States. In fact, he was often scorned by some of the other Founding Fathers for this inadequacy. However, this lack of education was not George Washington's fault. Upon the death of George Washington's father in 1743, George's formal schooling ended. He is thought to have attended the nearby grammar school run by Reverend James Marye, the rector of St. George's Parish, up until this time. Therefore, the extent of young George's formal educational training was in basic mathematics, reading, and writing.

Although his older half-brothers had the opportunity to gain a formal education over in England at the Appleby School, George was required to take on the responsibility of running the family farm after his father's death. This responsibility was thrust upon George largely by the will of his mother. Because of her decision to end his schooling, George began to resent his mother at an early age. Nevertheless, George took it upon himself to educate himself in as many ways as he could. He read numerous books and tried to commit to memory facts that he deemed to be of relevance. Furthermore, he copied the 110 maxims for gentlemanly etiquette from a book called the Transcript of the Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. This book taught both etiquette for members of the upper colonial class as well as basic moral principles. Undoubtedly, this book proved to be of the utmost importance for the young, ambitious George Washington as he sought to gain favor from the elite members of the Virginia upper class.

One of the key principles taught by the Rules of Civility was respect for superiors. George Washington used this principle to advance both his military career as well as his political career. Another important concept proposed by the book was that a colonial gentleman should always put forth an air of sincere humility. Adopting this practice endeared Washington to both his peers and to the public. For example, he always appeared hesitant to accept any great title of fame or of power (such as Commander in Chief or the President of the Constitutional Convention). However, his seemingly humble reluctance to advance his own name only further persuaded those requesting that he take these positions that he was the right candidate to take this position. Therefore, Washington's fiery ambition was hid beneath a shawl of modesty. Beyond his own self-study, Washington received additional training in high culture from his step-brother, Lawrence Washington. Lawrence Washington was able to share with George his own personal experiences with different cultures from his service in the British Royal Navy as well as his time living in England. Beyond his personal experiences, Lawrence was wedded to the daughter of a very influential Virginia family, the Fairfaxes. Lawrence introduced George to the Fairfax family, and Lawrence's father-in-law, William Fairfax, took the young George under his wing as a sort of mentor and surrogate father. George Washington learned much about how colonial high culture from his numerous visits to the Fairfax estate. This informal training was probably more important to George Washington than any formal education he ever received, since it was very important that he be able to associate with the elite members of colonial society in order to further his military and political careers.

Despite being disparaged by the other well-educated Founding Fathers, George Washington's informal training did much to advance his career. Even more importantly, though, his seemingly humble, controlled, and respectful demeanor won the hearts of the American people and established him as a national icon.