Before George Washington was named General of the Continental Army and President of the United States, he had to break social barriers to become a leading Virginian. Although he came from a moderately affluent family, the death of Washington’s father halted his path to the type of education he was likely to receive. Washington did not give up, and he was committed to improving himself. As it was typical of colonial society, making social and political connections was often helpful for anyone who wanted to ascend socially. Through his half-brother, Washington met the influential Fairfax family who helped him get established as a surveyor. He took advantage of every opportunity and continued to develop his surveying skills. In 1753, through his self-acquired skills and connections, he secured a commission to Alleghany Expedition and was later promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in what became the French and Indian War. Although the assignments were not easy, Washington gained important leadership experience. He broke social barriers again when his expedition journal was published. People in the colonies and Europe grew familiar with his name and accomplishments. Washington later met and married the wealthy Martha Dandridge Custis who ushered him into the most elite circles of Virginia’s society. By that time, however, Washington was well-respected for his military experience and his surveying skills. Despite the challenges, Washington persisted and broke social barriers by becoming a leading Virginian.

Education

Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility

Most likely as a writing exercise, George Washington copied 110 rules from Rules. It is also likely that these rules influenced his social and political development from childhood into adulthood.

Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation

Many of the rules were instructions on proper etiquette. Making a good impression on people was important in colonial society.

Lifelong Learner

Lifelong Learner

An Analytick Treatise of Conick Sections... 

George Washington purchased this treatise when he was eighteen-years old. He dedicated much of his time to reading and learning from a variety of books.

Don Quixote, 1786

Even as an older and well-established leader, Washington was still an avid reader. While attending the Constitutional Convention, he purchased his own copy of Don Quixote.

Surveying

Military Experience

Allegheny Expedition

Allegheny Expedition

Although Washington had no formal military experience before receiving a commission to the Allegheny Expedition, he possessed valuable surveying skills and the desire to make a name for himself in colonial America.

Primary Source: The Journal of Major George Washington, 1754 

The journal provides details about Washington’s two-and-a-half month experience through the Ohio territory. The journal, printed throughout the colonies, increased his notoriety. Largely as a result of the expedition Washington was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

The French and Indian War

The French and Indian War

Washington faced challenges and defeat while serving under the British Army during the Seven Years War. For example, recruiting and maintaining soldiers in the army was a significant challenge. Washington certainly faced failure when he surrendered Fort Necessity to French forces. However, Washington gained important skills. Among other things, he learned how to handle matters of supplies and how to deal with unruly soldiers. By dealing with Native Americans and foreign armies, he gained important diplomatic skills. This significant episode in Washington’s life also elevated his name in society.

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Marriage

George and Martha's Courtship

George and Martha's Courtship

In March 1758, George Washington travelled to Williamsburg to visit the charming widow, Martha Dandridge Custis whom he might have met through mutual friends. Soon after their first visit, they began making preparations for their wedding.

There was no rush for Martha to remarry, since she was wealthy and capable of managing her late husband’s estate. Martha must have been sure that Washington was a worthy partner, when she chose to marry him. Martha also chose not to have a premarital contract drawn before their wedding. While it is likely that Washington was partly influenced by her significant wealth when he courted her, they were attracted to each other. He was already moderately wealthy and well-known. Furthermore, more colonists, at the time, were starting to place a greater emphasis on love as a basis for marriage. His marriage to Martha, nevertheless, introduced Washington to the most elite circles of Virginia’s society.

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A Leading Gentleman

Although the death of his father had a significant impact on Washington, he focused much of his earlier years to learning as much as he could from a variety of books and guides. Washington broke social barriers, as he dedicated himself to developing his surveying skills. While serving under the British Army, he faced significant challenges. Washington, however, never stopped learning, and he broke social barriers to become a leading Virginian.

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