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excerpt > William Walsh > Forty-four American Boys

He was a product of his father’s second marriage.

The little boy born February 22, 1732, in the tidewater area of Virginia, had a knack for making it against the odds.

He had been born a British subject, as had everyone born in the thirteen American colonies. He had five brothers and a sister, so he had a very large family growing up!

He was a fourth-generation Virginian. His sparsely docu-​mented early years have subsequently been littered with legends and lore, all designed to align his childhood with either the dramatic achievements of his later career or the mythological imperatives of America’s preeminent national hero.

What can be seen in him with great clarity is that his overweening ambition was visible from an early age. His childhood was a roving and unsettled one.

He learned etiquette as well, some of it from The Rules of Civility, and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, a century-old collection of 110 maxims of gentlemanly behavior that he found somewhere and copied in his own hand. He took pride in his penmanship.

His mother drilled habits of thrift and industry into all of her children, including rising early with the sun, a strict farmer’s habit that he retained for the rest of his life.

Death first encroached on his life when, right before his third birthday, his older half-sister Jane died.

In 1735, when he was three, his father relocated the family sixty miles upstream to a 2,500-acre tract at Little Hunting Creek on the Potomac, an unspoiled area of pristine forests.

There was nothing cosseted about his provincial boyhood, and he had little exposure to any pampered society that might have softened the rigors of his rural upbringing.

The meadow was his play-ground, and the scene of his early athletic sports.

Six years old, he climbed his favorite oak tree and scanned the horizon. He could see the swirling waters of Little Hunting Creek emptying into the mile-wide Potomac River. Four ships, majestic with their sails billowing in the stiff breeze, maneuvered their way along the river. He knew the ships had come from England, across the Atlantic Ocean, through Chesapeake Bay, and on up the Potomac. And now, as they sailed past Epsewasson, he could make out sailors standing on their aft decks.

He hiked seven miles to school and back until he was twelve years old. He loved the outdoors, particularly fishing and foxhunting. In adolescence he underwent a metamorphosis from a callow youth into a more polished young man.

He had once had his heart set on being an officer in the British army.

He had intended to go to the same school his father and older half-brothers had gone to—Appleby, in England. However, there wasn’t enough money left for him to follow in their footsteps after his father died.

But before he would be ready for school anywhere, he needed to learn to read, write, and do math. So when he was seven years old, his parents decided he was ready to start learning. His mother taught him the basics of reading and writing and how to add and subtract numbers. After this, he began attending a small school in Fredericks-burg, where he enjoyed learning how to draw maps most of all.

He read to learn about the world, as well as to implant in his mind a vision of the kind of person he wanted to become. He didn’t skim books to prepare for an exam. He read fewer books than his brothers had read, but he read them more deeply. For him, reading was a privilege, a key he used to understand the world and expand his mind and horizons.

He loved to stand at his bedroom window and gaze across the river to Fredericksburg. Watching the barges being loaded and unloaded, he could hardly wait until the time when he would be climbing aboard a ship and setting sail for England to attend school.

Down by the ferry dock, he watched as goods such as wood, rice, indigo dyes, tobacco, and animal furs were loaded on to barges to be taken downriver to be loaded onto ships bound for England. The barges would return upriver laden with clothing, glass, cocks, books, kettles, and carpenters’ tools from England.

His father had planted an orchard of fine fruit trees: there were apple trees, peach trees, pear trees, plum trees, and cherry trees. One very special cherry tree came to his father from across the ocean. His father planted it on the edge of orchard, and he told everyone on the farm to watch it carefully to see that it was not broken or hurt in any way. He watched his father’s cherry tree grow and blossom in the spring. His father was pleased that the family would soon have cherries from the little tree. Just about this time, his father gave him a shiny new hatchet. He took it and went about chopping sticks, hacking into the rails of fences, and cutting whatever else he passed. At last he came to the edge of the orchard, and thinking only of how well his hatchet could cut, he chopped into the little cherry tree. The bark was soft, and it cut so easily that he chopped the tree right down and went on with his play. That evening, when his father came from inspecting the farm, he sent his horse to stable and walked down to the orchard to look at the cherry tree. His father stood in amazement when he saw how it was cut, and he wondered, Who would have dared do such a thing? When no one on the farm could say what had happened to the cherry tree, his father asked him, in an angry voice, Do you know who killed my cherry tree? He was staggered under for a moment by his father’s question, but he recovered quickly and answered, I cannot tell a lie, father; I did it with my hatchet.

Although he was a superb physical specimen, with a magnificent physique, his family’s medical history was blighted by truncated lives.

He was eleven when his father died. He inherited parcels of land and ten slaves.

With painstaking effort, he learned to write in a round hand that lacked elegance but had great clarity. It took him time to compose clean, declarative sentences—his teenage prose was often turgid and ungrammatical—but by dint of hard work, his powers grew steadily until he became a writer of considerable force, able to register his wishes with precision.

His manuscript schoolbooks still exist, and are models of neatness and accuracy. One of them, it is true, a ciphering book, preserved in the library of Mount Vernon, has some of his schoolboy attempts at calligraphy; nondescript birds, executed with a flourish of the pen, or profiles of faces, probably intended for those of his schoolmates; the rest are all grave and business-like.

He had seen his brother fitted out for the wars. All his amusements took a military turn. He made soldiers of his schoolmates; they had their mimic parades, reviews, and sham fights.

He inherited from his mother a high temper and a spirit of command, but her early precepts and example taught him to restrain and govern that temper, and to square his conduct on the exact principles of equity and justice.

It was his nature to make the most of experience and observation and learn from his mistakes.

Before he was thirteen years of age he had copied into a volume forms for all kinds of mercantile and legal papers; bills of exchange, notes of hand, deeds, bonds, and the like. His early self-tuition gave him throughout life a lawyer’s skill in drafting documents and a merchant’s exactness in keeping accounts.

He never had a formal education. What he learned was practical—arithmetic, or ciphering, as it was called, geography, surveying, and etiquette. He received the modern equivalent of a grade-school education, but was never exposed to the classical curriculum or encouraged to attend William and Mary, a deficiency that haunted him throughout his subsequent career among American statesman with more robust educational credentials.

He was a superb rider. His fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson said he was “the best horseman of his age and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback.”

He got his first job—assisting a surveyor who was laying out the town of Alexandria—when he was sixteen. He kept notes, watched the surveyor as he worked, hunted wild turkeys, lived in a tent, cooked over an open fire. He acquired a love for the west and decided to pursue a career as a surveyor. In July 1749, he was named official surveyor of the newly formed Culpepper County.

By his late teens, he stood six feet two inches, taller than most men at that time. He had light blue eyes, auburn hair, and, contemporaries said, the largest hands and feet they had ever seen.

In September 1751, he travelled to Barbados where he attended the theater for the first time, exulted in the “beautiful prospects” of the island, and then became ill with smallpox. He did not fully recover until mid-December. It left him with a few pockmarks on his face and an immunity that was to prove a blessing.

Keep reading:

In this book, the stories of our presidents' childhoods are told through fragments and quotes appropriated from more than 300 children’s books, pop history books and scholarly biographies. Each one is numbered, without a name, though a list of the corresponding presidents is in the book, along with a complete bibiliography. William Walsh is the author four previous books of fiction and nonfiction. His texts and stories are published widely. Learn more about Forty-four American Boys.

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