"Washington—the perfect citizen."
T HE "young Virginian" spoken of by Horace Walpole was destined to do great things for England in America. The stories of his boyhood shadow forth his wonderful career.
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in a little farmhouse on the Potomac river in Virginia. His great-grandfather had sailed over to America in the days of Oliver Cromwell, and his father was now a successful landowner. The eldest son, Lawrence, was sent to England to be educated, but George was taught by the village sexton at home. He led a free open-air life, playing in the meadows, and grew up to be a manly and truthful boy.
One day his father gave him a hatchet, and the little boy had carelessly tried its edge on the bark of a young English cherry-tree which was much valued by his father. The bark was injured, and Mr Washington was seriously displeased, and began to question the servants as to who could have done such a thing.
"I did it, father," suddenly said George, looking him straight in the face and holding out the hatchet, which he knew he must forfeit; "I did it with my new hatchet."
"Come to my arms, brave boy," said his father, drawing George to him; "I would rather every tree I possess were killed, than that you should deceive me."
When he was about eight years old the big brother Lawrence returned from England, and soon a very strong friendship had sprung up between the two brothers. Not long after his return to Virginia he volunteered for service in the West Indies, and George saw him depart, in his soldier's uniform, to the martial sound of drum and fife, with a heavy heart. But a martial spirit had been aroused in the boy, and from this time forward his favourite occupation was playing at soldiers. A stick or broom-handle served for gun or sword, the meadow by the river was the battlefield, and George Washington was always the commander-in-chief. He was a good-looking boy, tall and straight, athletic and muscular. He bore a high character at home and also at school.
"George has the best writing-book in the school," his master used to say.
After his death, among his papers was found an old copy-book—which must have been written about this time—in a quaint schoolboy handwriting. It was called "Rules for Behaviour in Company and Conversation," and there were no less than one hundred of these rules carefully copied out. Here are a few of them:—
"Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust."
"Undertake not what you cannot perform, but be careful to keep your promise."
"Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another, though he were your enemy."
"Make no show of taking delight in your victuals; feed not with greediness, lean not on the table, neither find fault with what you eat."
"Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called Conscience."
After his father's death in 1743, George went to live with his beloved brother Lawrence, who was now married and living at Mount Vernon in Virginia. Here he rode and hunted, helped to survey the surrounding country, and heard much talk of the disputed boundary between the French and English possessions in North America. War was in the air.
Virginia was now divided into military districts. At the age of nineteen George Washington found himself in command of one of these. So capable a soldier did he become, that, two years later, he was the "young Virginian" selected by the Governor of Virginia to carry his message a thousand miles across country to the French. The story of how he delivered that message, and its answer, has already been told.
From this time, George Washington was a marked man and a public character. His name was known in the Court at Paris as well as in London, and it was to him the Virginians now looked to help them in their troubles. They did not look in vain: Washington was one of the greatest men America ever produced. His greatness did not consist so much in his intellect, in his skill, or in his genius, but in his honour, his utter truthfulness, his high sense of duty. He left behind him, when he died, one of the greatest treasures of his country, the example of a stainless life—of a great, honest, pure and noble character— a model for his nation to form themselves by in all time to come.
"No nobler figure ever stood in the forefront of a nation's life." He was, as Emerson, the great American thinker, had said, a "perfect citizen." He was, as a fellow-citizen said after his death in 1799, "The man first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens."