Roots of a Founding Father: The Early Life of George Washington

George Washington statue erected outside The National Gallery.
George Washington's early life, shaped by the robust moral upbringing and diverse experiences of his youth on a Virginia plantation, laid the foundation for his exemplary character and leadership. (Image: Anthony Baggett via Dreamstime)

George Washington, renowned as the first President of the United States, had his beginnings in a prosperous plantation family in Virginia in February 1732. His life, characterized by personal loss, enduring resilience, and steadfast moral integrity, offers a timeless narrative that resonates with people of all ages. This journey through the early life of George Washington reveals the foundational experiences that shaped the man who would become a pivotal figure in American history. 

The birth of a future president

Born on February 22, 1732, according to the Washington family’s records, George was the first son from his father Augustine Washington’s second marriage. This date later became recognized as Presidents’ Day in the United States. Augustine had two sons and a daughter from a previous marriage. He was a hardworking man, owning tobacco plantations, a blacksmith shop, and several slaves in Virginia, thus leading a prosperous life.

Engraved lithograph of George Washington's father, Augustine.
George Washington’s father, Augustine, was a hardworking man who owned tobacco plantations, a blacksmith shop, and several slaves in Virginia. (Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia)

Family tragedy and resilience

In keeping with the traditions of affluent North American colonial families, Augustine accompanied his two elder sons to the motherland to ensure they were well-settled for their education. This journey, typical for the era, required a round trip across the Atlantic, taking approximately a year and a half. By the time Augustine returned to Virginia, having successfully arranged his sons’ schooling, he was met with the sorrowful news of his first wife’s passing.

In 1731, Augustine, at 37, remarried 23-year-old Mary Johnson Ball. Mary was an orphan who lost her parents early and was raised by her father’s close friend. She grew up with the help of community charity, developing a strong will and deep religious faith. Mary married the widowed Augustine, 14 years her senior.

Life at Mount Vernon

When George Washington was 3 years old, his father purchased a new 2,500-acre property facing the picturesque Potomac River. The family moved into a larger house on this property, which later became known worldwide as Mount Vernon. 

Illustration of the house at Mount Vernon with the Potomac River in the background.
When George Washington was three years old, his father purchased a new 2500-acre property facing the picturesque Potomac River. (Image: Chonmapoom Phaisri via Dreamstime)

Reunion with the eldest son

In 1738, Lawrence Washington, George’s elder half-brother, returned from his studies. Six-year-old George met his 20-year-old brother for the first time. With the eldest son back, Augustine handed over his house and the surrounding 2,000 acres to Lawrence and moved with Mary and their children to Ferry Farm, symbolizing a division of the family estate. Augustine heavily relied on Lawrence, who, according to British laws, was expected to inherit the most from his father.

The struggles of a complex family

Between 1739 and 1740, George Washington’s younger sister, a newborn baby, tragically passed away. The strenuous move and the demanding household chores might have left Mary exhausted, leading to inadequate care for the child. Navigating such a complex family dynamic was undoubtedly challenging for any woman of the time. 

The role of religion in George Washington’s upbringing

Mary, George’s mother, was a devout Christian. She spent her free time reading the Bible and religious teachings with her children. These books formed the foundation of George’s early education. One such book, Contemplation, Moral and Divine by Matthew Hale, was a daily read for the children. Faith in God was a source of strength for Mary, providing her with the resilience to overcome the hardships of losing her parents in childhood, enduring the loss of her husband and young daughter, and the challenges of raising five children on her own.


George Washington once said: “My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual, and physical education I received from her.” This heartfelt tribute is a testament to the profound influence of his early life experiences and moral upbringing which not only formed his character but also paved the way for his remarkable achievements later in life.

Translated article

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