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The United States of America: A History
Book 2: Chapter I - George Washington


IN the year 1740 there fell out a great European war. There was some doubt who should fill the Austrian throne. The Emperor had just died, leaving no son or brother to inherit his dignities. His daughter, Maria Theresa, stepped into her father's place, and soon made it apparent that she was strong enough to maintain what she had done. Two or three Kings thought they had a better right than she to the throne. The other Kings ranged themselves on this side or on that. The idea of looking on while foolish neighbours destroyed themselves by senseless war, had not yet been suggested. Every King took part in a great war, and sent his people forth to slay and be slain, quite as a matter of course. So they raised great armies, fought great battles, burned cities, wasted countries, inflicted and endured unutterable miseries, all to settle the question about this lady's throne. But the lady was of a heroic spirit, well worthy to govern, and she held her own, and lived and died an Empress.

During these busy years, a Virginian mother, widowed in early life, was training up her eldest son in the fear of God—all unaware, as she infused the love of goodness and duty into his mind, that she was giving a colour to the history of her country throughout all its coming ages. That boy's name was George Washington. lie was born in 1732. His father —a gentleman of good fortune, with a pedigree which can be traced beyond the Norman Conquest—died when his son was eleven years of age. Upon George's mother devolved the care of his upbringing. She was a devout woman, of excellent sense and deep affections; but a strict disciplinarian, and of a temper which could brook no shadow of insubordination. Under her rule—gentle, and yet strong—George learned obedience and self-control. In boyhood he gave remarkable promise of those excellences which distinguished his mature years. His schoolmates recognized the calm judicial character of his mind, and he became in all their disputes the arbiter from whose decision there was no appeal. He inherited his mother's love of command, happily tempered by a lofty disinterestedness and a love of justice, which seemed to render it impossible that he should do or permit aught that was unfair. His person was large and powerful. His face expressed the thoughtfulness and serene strength of his character, lie excelled in all athletic exercises. His youthful delight in such pursuits developed his physical capabilities to the utmost, and gave him endurance to bear the hardships which lay before him.

Young gentlemen of Virginia were not educated then so liberally as they have been since. It was presumed that Washington would be a mere Virginian proprietor and farmer, as his father had been; and his education was no higher than that position then demanded. He never learned any language but his own. The teacher of his early years was also the sexton of the parish. And even when he was taken to an institution of a more advanced description, he attempted no higher study than the keeping of accounts and the copying of legal and mercantile papers. A few years later, it was thought he might enter the civil or military service of his country; and lie was put to the study of mathematics and land-surveying.

George Washington did nothing by halves. In youth, as in manhood, lie did thoroughly what he had to do. His school exercise-books are models of neatness and accuracy. His plans and measurements made while he studied land-surveying were as scrupulously exact as if great pecuniary interests depended upon them. In his eighteenth year lie was employed by Government as surveyor of public lands. Many of his surveys were recorded in the county offices, and remain to this day. Long experience has established their unvarying accuracy. In all disputes to which they have any relevancy, their evidence is accepted as decisive. During the years which preceded the Revolution he managed his estates, packed and shipped his own tobacco and flour, kept his own books, conducted his own correspondence. His books may still be seen. Perhaps no clearer or more accurate record of business transactions has been kept in America since the Father of American Independence rested from book-keeping. The flour which he shipped to foreign. ports came to be known as his, and the Washington brand was habitually exempted from inspection. A most reliable man; his words and his deeds, his professions and his practice, are ever found in most perfect harmony. By some he has been regarded as a stolid, prosaic person, wanting in those features of character which captivate the minds of men. Not so. In an earlier age George Washington would have been a true knight- errant with an insatiable thirst for adventure and a passionate love of battle. He had in high degree those qualities which make ancient knighthood picturesque. But higher qualities than these bore rule within him. lie had wisdom beyond most, giving him deep insight into the wants of his time. He had clear perceptions of the duty which lay to his hand. What he saw to be right, the strongest impulses of his soul constrained him to do. A massive intellect and an iron strength of will were given to him, with a gentle, loving heart, with dauntless courage, with purity and loftiness of aim. lie had a work of extraordinary difficulty to perform. History rejoices to recognize in him a revolutionary leader against whom no questionable transaction has ever been alleged.

The history of America presents, in one important feature, a very striking contrast to the history of nearly all older countries. In the old countries, history gathers round some one grand central figure—some judge, or priest, or king—whose biography tells all that has to be told concerning the time in which he lived. That one predominating person—David, Alexander, Ceasar, Napoleon—is among his people what the sun is in the planetary system. All movement originates and terminates in him, and the history of the people is merely a record of what he has chosen to do or caused to be done. In America it has not been so. The American system leaves no room for predominating persons. It affords none of those exhibitions of solitary, all-absorbing grandeur which are so picturesque, and have been so pernicious. Her history is a history of her people, and of no conspicuous individuals. Once only in her career is it otherwise. During the lifetime of George Washington Tier history clings very closely to him; and the biography of her great chief becomes in a very unusual degree the history of the country.


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