Study Guide

George Washington Childhood & the Cherry Tree Myth

Childhood & the Cherry Tree Myth

He certainly didn't start off seeming indispensible. George Washington was born on 22 February 1732, the third son of members of Virginia's lower gentry. His father, Augustine Washington, was a prosperous planter who already had a pair of sons when he married George's mother. Mary Ball, Augustine's second wife, bore him six more children, of whom George was the first. George was an almost forgettable addition to a large and growing family.

As a middle son in a colonial Virginian household, George could not count on much support. His father was wealthy enough to provide his eldest sons with a "proper" education abroad, but his death in 1743 robbed George of this opportunity. (It also robbed young George of the "opportunity" to cut down his father's favorite cherry tree, then admit it because he "could not tell a lie." That famous story never happened; it's a bit of pure mythology, invented by an over-imaginative biographer shortly after Washington's death.)As was typical for Virginia families at that time, most of Augustine's inheritance went to Lawrence, his eldest son. Augustine Jr., the second son, was next in line. George's mother got what was left to support herself and raise the remaining children. George got nothing. Thus George became keenly aware that he would not inherit wealth or status; if he wanted recognition, he was going to have to earn it himself.

After Augustine's death, Lawrence became a surrogate father to George. Lawrence had followed in his father's footsteps as a respectable Virginia gentleman, with all the accompanying aristocratic pretensions. He married into the Fairfax family, an elite clan with ties to the English nobility, and improved his own social standing by cultivating a large estate at Mount Vernon and serving in the Virginia militia. Lawrence encouraged George to consider a career in the military, too, as a way to raise himself up. George hardly needed the encouragement; he idolized his brother even more than his father, and dreamed of making Lawrence's lifestyle his own.blank" rel="nofollow">John Adams would later joke that Washington was elected to chair every deliberative body he joined because he was always the tallest man in the room.) His stature alone suggested he'd go far if opportunities for promotion presented themselves. His connection to the Fairfaxes and other Virginia gentry certainly wouldn't hurt him. And then, of course, there was the matter of his qualifications. Washington had a good knowledge of the Virginia backcountry from his work as a surveyor, and he was already accustomed to the harsh conditions of independent life on the frontier. He was becoming a superb horseman. And he had drive.

For Washington, the military was pure opportunity. Young and unmarried, he didn't feel like he had much to lose. He would be risking only his life in a war—no small thing, but, as the untimely deaths of his father and brother had taught him, not something he could really count on holding onto anyway. Meanwhile, in exchange for putting his already-at-risk life on the line, he would earn a chance to gain major social prestige. It was, as far as Washington was concerned, more than a fair deal.