Celestial Fire

George Washington was born on February 11, and if that doesn’t sound right, hang on.  Bear in mind that for the first 20 years of his life, the eleventh day of February was when Washington himself understood his birthday to be. After that, not so much. You see, his birth occurred in the year 1731 (which doesn’t sound right either) when the British Empire was still using the Julian calendar. When the British finally adopted the more accurate Gregorian calendar in 1752, they had to tinker with time to bring themselves into line with most of the rest of the world. The problem was twofold. The Gregorian calendar achieves greater accuracy by adjusting for the fact that the calendar year of 365 days is a wee bit shorter than the astronomical year, the actual time it takes the Earth to complete its journey around the sun. The Gregorian calendar makes up for the shortfall with “leap years.” The Julian calendar, however, had been falling behind actual time ever since 1582, the year the Catholic world had switched to the Gregorian model. It was eleven days behind, in fact. The British resolved the difference by adding eleven to the date of any event that occurred before 1752.  That was how Washington’s birthday got moved to February 22. 

But the other fold of the twofold problem produced yet another wrinkle. The British crown began the year on March 25, making even Washington’s birth year wrong under the Gregorian system. As we all know, it starts the year on January 1. So rather than having been born in 1731, as he thought for the first twenty years of his life, Washington suddenly discovered he had been born in 1732. 

Confused? Well, don’t be. (We’ll not even get into the “Old Style”/“New Style” nomenclature.) In fact, let’s return to the simpler time when George Washington’s birthday was tomorrow, February 11, before remote authorities began switching things around and fiddling with time. Gaze on young Washington at nineteen — the good face of a good boy becoming a good man. Here’s a bit about how that happened. 

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Young Washington


George Washington was too young to remember life at Pope’s Creek where he was born, and he was still a little boy when his father Augustus (often called just “Gus”) moved the family from Epsewasson on Little Hunting Creek to a farm on the Rappahannock River in 1738. Because it featured a river crossing that the Washingtons used but never operated, that place in Stafford County would eventually be named “Ferry Farm,” but never when the Washington family lived there. This place was George’s home for the remainder of his boyhood.

The structure was simple and standard and would now be considered austere. Colonial life in the eighteenth century was drab and tedious for most. The house on the Rappahannock had no pictures and only a single mirror. In those days large rooms were “halls” and the paths between them passageways. Gus Washington’s house was laid out this way. On the main floor, a central passageway divided four rooms. The main hall, which was the dining room, had sturdy chairs with leather seats and two tables, furniture prized more for its durability than beauty. As was the custom in large families, a parlor doubled as a bedchamber. A second floor had two or possibly three rooms with ceilings sloping with the slant of the roof. The house was simple but relatively large — almost 54 feet in length and a bit more than 28 feet deep — and it sat pleasantly near the edge of a steep drop to the Rappahannock. Outbuildings typical for a working plantation included a dairy, smokehouse, and a storage shed. A kitchen sat apart from the main house to save it from heat in the summer and fire in all seasons. Even so, on Christmas Eve in 1740, a fire so damaged the house that at least part of the family had to live in the kitchen during repairs. George Washington never lost a deep uneasiness about the possibility of a house fire.

It was at this place that young Washington was said to have cut down the cherry tree, to have thrown a coin across the Rappahannock, and to have learned how to survey uncharted territory. The cherry tree was a myth, but the coin toss could have been possible because George was strapping and the river was not too broad. Nevertheless, it was out of character for him at any age to throw money away. He did learn how to plot and map uncharted land, though. It was George Washington’s earliest gainful employment. 

It isn’t clear how and where Washington learned the rudiments of surveying. The most we know is that Gus had stored a transit, tripod, and other instruments for land surveying in a shed on the farm. Young George apparently claimed these and found someone to show him how to use them. He was a quick study and mastered the knowledge well enough to warrant wages at it. Eventually, he became the official surveyor for Culpeper County.

The work appealed to him, and he never lost his love for it. Mathematical accuracy could transform confused landscapes into orderly maps with sharp lines and defined boundaries. It was the essence of chaos shaped into a system, and that sort of thing became George Washington’s driving purpose from boyhood to old age. He helped his older half-brother Lawrence lay out the town called Bellhaven, a name that was changed by the House of Burgesses to recognize the most significant proprietors of the site, a family named Alexander. Working on the site of Alexandria prepared George for important tasks and more responsibility. In 1748 Lord Fairfax, the titled cousin of Lawrence’s father-in-law, came from England to inspect his lands on Virginia’s uncharted western frontier and had Washington’s friend George William Fairfax accompany him. It was how George Washington also joined the journey, and not just to tag along but to run lines and draw maps. It was something of a life-changing event for him. Washington gazed across a panorama of lush trees set against blue-hazed mountains. The occasional Indian village populated with native people was alien to anything he had ever known.

Neither George William Fairfax nor Lord Fairfax grasped the majesty of the region the way George Washington did. The elder Fairfax — heavy set, jowly, and soured by a failed courtship that made him an unwavering misogynist — was more interested in the terrain as real estate. George Washington had known about this vast and sometimes menacing western region only secondhand and dimly at that, but this first trip opened his eyes like a slap in the face.

When he parlayed his surveying skills to become Culpeper County’s surveyor, he began making good money to match his fees from private contracts. He bought nice clothes, an indulgence that became a lifelong habit, but he also saved money like a miser. He used it to purchase land in the West, for the mostly silent sixteen- year-old had been dazzled by a place where he had seen something beyond the trees, streams, dark mountains, and loamy soil.

Despite his youth, George Washington combined physical presence, stamina, and resolve with a pleasant manner. Sometimes he lost his temper, but usually, he was gracious. Moreover, he always seemed older than his years, even though he remained boyish in appearance into his twenties. He was more mature than many youngsters his age, and his behavior always impressed people in authority. Barely out of his teens, they would entrust him with significant responsibilities that decided the fate of empires.

Why did this happen? In part, Washington grew up quickly because he had to. His father’s early death meant the boy could have become an idler, shirking his obligations and getting by on cunning and deceit, but he went another way. Whether his father’s example of diligence or some other influence determined it, Washington was intuitively conscientious. His advice years later to a nephew to act like a man when the boy was only sixteen could seem unreasonable and demanding, but that was what George Washington himself had done. He never asked of anyone anything that he would not do himself.

In Washington’s formative years, an additional influence came from a remote past. A hundred and fifty years before George was born, French Jesuits had put together a set of rules entitled Bienséance de la Conversátion entree les Hommes. Wherever there were Catholics this little instruction manual for polite behavior was translated, first into Latin and then into many European languages. An English version appeared in 1640, allegedly the product of a prodigy named Francis Hawkins who, it was said, was only eight-years-old. The Hawkins translation became widely popular in an Anglican country with Puritan strains and went through numerous printings for the next thirty years. A copy eventually came to young George’s hands, possibly from Lawrence.

Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation was on its face an etiquette manual that covered table manners, conversation, attire, and hygiene. Washington was not yet sixteen when he began the laborious work of copying the rules into a notebook, and possibly it started as nothing more than a penmanship drill. If so, at some point the real substance of the text made the work something beyond an exercise. The rules were, in reality, more than a guide to proper conduct. They were more than even a recipe for success in polite society. They were the key to good character.

His behavior throughout his life bears witness to that. The precepts were different from biblical homilies or the homespun truths popularized by Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard. Those rules were fashioned to improve personal discipline (“Early to bed, early to rise”) or refine social skills (“Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days”). Washington’s precepts had a more subtle purpose: do what was right in large and small matters as a spontaneous act, not a deliberate calculation. Consideration for others was paramount. Protect their feelings and shield them from deliberate offense and especially from unconscious rudeness, the worst offense. The quaint antiquity of how to preserve individual dignity in an aristocratic hierarchy dates the precepts for modern readers — “When you meet with one of Greater Quality than yourself, Stop, and retire” — and the rules about manners can be amusing — “When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usualy Discovered” — but in sum, the instructions counsel rather than prescribe.

When Washington finished his copying, he had amassed an abundance of these precepts, 110 to be exact, the unusual number alone suggesting that it remained a work in progress. But Washington regarded the notebook’s application to his life the real work in progress, one that understandably had some lapses. Rule 16 advised, “Do not . . . thrust out the lips, or bite them or keep the Lips too open or too Close,” but Washington’s bad teeth more or less compelled him to do this very thing. And Rule 4’s advice not to “Drum with your Fingers or Feet” in the presence of others was sometimes violated at his dining table when he was bored between courses.

Other rules became habits of a lifetime. His way of speaking slowly and deliberately appears in Rule 73: “Think before you Speak [and] pronounce not imperfectly or bring out your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly.” Some interpreted Washington’s halting speech in later years as a symptom of advancing age, but the weight of the advice was on thinking rather than talking. Washington from boyhood to the last of his days spoke “with great diffidence” and often hesitated over a word, but it was “always to find one particularly well adapted to his meaning.” 

Washington’s notebook with his "Rules of Civility" comes to an end curiously. After sixteen directives on table manners — they are of the “do not talk with your mouth full” variety — the last three take a different arc. The first concerns a biblical command: “When you Speak of God or his Atributes, let it be Seriously & wt. Reverence. Honour & Obey your Natural Parents altho they be Poor.” The next lectures that “Recreations be Manfull not Sinfull.” The final one soars. “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.”

The pleasant young man sprouting like a weed had set himself a challenging standard. He would speak, eat, and act correctly. He would respect the feelings of friends and strangers. But he would also tend to his soul, nurturing its little bright spark to light the truth, forge character, summon dreams, and like a good surveyor, bring order out of chaos.  

( Heidlers Photo Credit: Don Jones, Studio Nine Commercial Photography)  © David and Jeanne Heidler 2018