J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

Clues to Young George’s Education

A couple of months back, the Oxford University Press blog ran an extract from Kevin J. Hayes’s George Washington: A Life in Books discussing the first President’s school days and early reading.

Here’s an extract from that extract:
Further evidence shows that at one point in his education Washington did attend school with other boys. Friend and fellow patriot George Mason mentioned to him a man named David Piper, whom he described as “my Neighbour and Your old School-fellow.” Like Washington, Piper would turn to surveying once he left school, becoming surveyor of roads for Fairfax County. He was also something of a bad boy. Piper was repeatedly brought to court on various civil and criminal matters. Together Washington and Piper could have attended school at the Lower Church of Washington Parish, Westmoreland County, where Mattox Creek enters the Potomac River, but there is no saying for sure. The story of Washington’s education is shrouded in mystery.

His school exercises indicate what he studied inside the classroom and out. They show him mastering many different subjects, learning what he would need to make his way through colonial Virginia whether that way took him down a deer track or up Duke of Gloucester Street. Some of the exercises are dated, revealing that this set of school papers as a whole ranges from 1743 to 1748, that is, from the year Washington turned eleven to the year he turned sixteen. Other evidence demonstrates that he continued his studies beyond the latest exercises in the manuscript collection. Altogether the exercises and the books Washington read during his school days reveal his early literary interests, his fascination with mathematics, and the genesis of his career as a surveyor.

Washington became curious about poetry in his youth, as two manuscript poems that survive with the school exercises reveal. When he first read these poems, he transcribed them to create personal copies he could reread whenever he wished. His copies reveal Washington’s ambition to excel in penmanship, and their texts shed light on his state of mind at the end of adolescence.
I’m not convinced about that last interpretation. A big part of a gentleman’s education in the eighteenth century was learning elegant handwriting, and boys learned that by copying models provided or written out by their teachers. These poems, which appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1734 and 1743, might therefore have been handwriting exercises, with their content mattering less than their form.

Certainly young George set down those two poems in a handsome hand. In the same copybook he wrote out twenty-one pages of legal forms, instructions “To Keep Ink from Freezing or Moulding,” and the famous “Rules…of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”

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