Much has been written about George Washington’s lack of formal education and his eager grasp of learning from other men, especially those of status and wealth such as Thomas, Lord Fairfax. Probably the most influential man in the young Washington’s early life was his older half-brother, Lawrence.
Born in 1718, Lawrence was the eldest surviving son of Augustine and Jane Washington. Augustine was a fairly successful Virginian with several small businesses and land holdings that included a small tract along Little Hunting Creek on the Potomac River. Lawrence had a younger brother Augustine and younger sister Jane. His mother died in 1729 and the elder Augustine married Mary Ball. Mary had six children of which George was the oldest born in 1732. Lawrence was fortunate to receive an excellent education at the Appleby School near Whitehaven in northern England. His brother Augustine also attended the school but Mary’s children did not receive the same formal education or travel to England.
Upon return to Virginia, the well-educated and erudite young Lawrence was given the management, and de facto ownership, of Little Hunting Creek Plantation in 1738. The rest of the family moved to Fredericksburg. He quickly acquired more land adjacent to the property and became well known in Virginia as a successful landowner. He would become owner of Little Hunting Creek upon the death of his father.
In 1739, England fought against Spain in what became known as the War of Jenkin’s Ear. Parliament instructed the colonies to raise a force of 3,000 men to attack Spanish possessions in the Caribbean; Virginia contributed 400. Lt. Gov. William Gooch of Virginia was able to choose officers to command four companies. On June 17, 1740, he chose as the senior captain Lawrence Washington.
The colonials left Virginia in October 1740 and joined the fleet in Jamaica. Vice Admiral Edward Vernon was in overall command of the expedition with the ground forces led by Brig. Gen. Thomas Wentworth. They decided to attack the Spanish fortress at Cartagena in present day Columbia. The expedition proved to be a disaster, and Wentworth turned out to be an incompetent planner and leader. Hundreds of British soldiers died, including many colonials, both in battle and as the result of disease. Cartagena was never captured despite the fleet reducing several forts that protected the main fortification.
Fortunately, Lawrence was spared the agony of a land campaign as he was appointed as captain of Marines aboard HMS Princess Caroline, Admiral Vernon’s flagship. Observing the battle and taking part in the reduction of several Spanish forts, Lawrence wrote to his family, “War is horrid in fact but much more so in imagination. We there have learned to live on ordinary diet; to watch much and disregard the noise or shot of cannon.” He participated in a short campaign in Cuba before the colonials were disbanded and returned home in December of 1742. Despite the unsuccessful expedition, Lawrence was impressed with Admiral Vernon and named the Little Hunting Creek Plantation “Mount Vernon.”
Upon his return to Virginia, Lawrence was named adjutant general of the colony. Augustine Washington, Lawrence and George’s father, died on April 12, 1743. George was eleven. After his father’s death, George visited Mount Vernon more frequently, escaping his mother who lived in Fredericksburg.
In 1742, Lawrence was elected to the House of Burgesses. He married Anne Fairfax, a fifteen-year-old nicknamed Nancy, on July 19, 1743. It was a fortuitous match for Lawrence, as Anne was the daughter of wealthy William Fairfax, the cousin of Thomas, Lord Fairfax. Thomas arrived in Virginia in 1742 to oversee his vast tracts of land and built a permanent home for himself. As George spent many hours with Lawrence at Mount Vernon, he naturally benefited from his brother’s providential connection with the Faifaxes. He went to dinners and parties with Lawrence to Belvoir, the seat of William Fairfax. George’s first major surveying job was for Thomas Fairfax.
George would always have a close relationship with his family but especially with Lawrence. Others noticed George’s esteem for his brother. Twelve-year old George was visiting with William Fairfax when the wealthy landowner wrote to Lawrence, “George has been with us and says He will be steady and thankfully follow your Advice as his best friend.”
In 1745, Lawrence was involved in one of the first ecclesiastical trials in the thirteen colonies. He accused the local rector of making unwanted advances to Anne Fairfax before their marriage. A sensational trial, he lost his case but his opponent’s case of slander against Lawrence also failed.
In 1746, Lawrence thought that George might find a career in the Royal Navy. His mother, Lawrence’s stepmother Mary Ball Washington, was opposed but might be persuaded. She received a letter from a half-brother in England who learned of Lawrence’s idea to allow George to join the navy. The scathing letter about George’s position turned her adamantly against a naval career: “I think he had better be put apprentice to a tinker; for a common sailor before the mast has by no means the common liberty of the Subject; for they will press him from a ship where he has 50 shillings a month and make him take three and twenty; and cut him and staple him and use him like a Negro, or rather, like a dog.” Referring to the prospects of an American-born man getting promoted in the navy, “as for any considerable preference in the Navy, it is not to be expected, there are always too many graspings for it here, who have interest, and he has none.” Young George did not go to sea.
The oldest surviving letter we have from George Washington is one he wrote to Lawrence in May 1749. It starts out inquiring about the elder brother’s health: “I hope your Cough is much mended since I saw you last, if so likewise hope you have given over the thoughts of leaving Virginia.” (Lawrence would seek medical advice and health remedies in many other locations.) The rest of the letter has to do with commerce, an indication of the importance that business already played in seventeen-year-old George’s life. At about the same time, Lawrence was forced due to his illness to resign from his seat in the House of Burgesses.
George’s next surviving letter is to Lawrence’s wife, Anne, in November of the same year. It begins with a reference to Lawrence: “I heartily Congratulate you on the happy News of my Brothers safe arrival in health in England.” The rest of the letter continues on about Anne and himself. Lawrence was in London on behalf of the Ohio Company, of which he was one of the original members, and also to consult physicians about his physical condition. George’s third extant letter is to Thomas Fairfax concerning surveys the young Washington was involved in.
As Lawrence began to suffer more from what was probably tuberculosis, he sought remedies wherever he could find them. On July 25, 1750, he took young George with him to Berkely Springs in the Shenandoah Valley. The warm waters at the springs supposedly contained medicinal qualities. George would later take his stepdaughter Patsy to the same location in an attempt to help with her epilepsy. In neither case did the waters prove a cure.
Lawrence was forced to resign as adjutant general of Virginia due to his poor health in 1751. Lawrence decided to go to Barbados to try to improve his condition. George was chosen to accompany him on what would be the younger man’s only trip out of North America. During the visit, Lawrence and George enjoyed the theater, visited prominent locals, observed fortifications and military units in drill, and took note of agricultural methods. George returned to Virginia in January 1752, three months before his brother, who went on to Bermuda in a vain attempt for healing.
Lawrence returned to Virginia in June 1752. Realizing death was near, he released three plots of land he had held for George as part of their father’s inheritance “in Consideration of the Natural Love & affection which he hath and Doeth bear unto his Loving Brother.” His condition deteriorated and he finally died on July 26, 1752. George managed Mount Vernon and leased it from Anne after his brother’s death and her leaving. He became owner of the plantation after Anne’s death in 1761.
Lawrence Washington was not able to see the young brother he had helped nurture break out on to the world stage during the French and Indian War, lead the Continental Army in the Revolution, or become president of a new republic. But for George, Mount Vernon, despite many renovations, would forever be a reminder of his older brother, who had been his example and mentor.
Peter R. Henriques, “Major Lawrence Washington versus the Reverend Charles Green: A Case Study of the Squire and the Parson,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 100 No. 2 (April 1992), 233–264.