The Education of Washington and Lincoln

President George Washington was born on Feb. 22, 1732. President Abraham Lincoln was also a February baby, born Feb. 12, 1809. We now celebrate their lives—and those of our other presidents—on Presidents Day, the third Monday each February.

Ask any American the names of the two greatest U.S. presidents, and more than likely you will receive the same answer: Washington and Lincoln. George Washington was once called the Father of our Country. He served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, president of the Constitutional Convention and the first president of the United States, all positions he initially turned down. Abraham Lincoln served four terms as a member of the Illinois House of Representative, one term as a U.S. congressman and one term as president. In that one term as president, Lincoln fought (and died) to preserve the Union.

Washington and Lincoln shared many characteristics including their commitment to the new country, their humility, and their love of God, but I want to talk about their educations. Both men were educated very similarly: They were taught to read at home, they both spent less than 12 months in traditional classrooms, and they both became lifelong learners, for their own edification and for success in life.

Washington’s two older brothers attended a grammar school in England for a few years, but his formal education was quite limited. When Washington was just 11 years old, his father, Augustine Washington, passed away This left his family limited funds for education, and ended George’s formal education which had included mathematics, reading and writing. George was required to take on the responsibility of running the family farm after his father’s death but would try to find time to teach himself through reading and experimentation.

Three major influences contributed to Washington’s early social education: the Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, an etiquette manual dating to the 16th century, guidance from his half-brother Lawrence Washington, and the influence of Lawrence’s in-laws, the Fairfax family.

Knowledge of skills such as surveying or mathematics, which Washington gained largely through self-study, would have been meaningless for his social advancement without displaying appropriate manners. From an early age, Washington used the Rules of Civility to master the arts of interpersonal skills and self-control that were crucial to his future leadership.

Under Lawrence’s tutelage, George Washington learned to excel in riding, hunting, fencing, and even dancing. In addition, Lawrence’s marriage to Anne Fairfax provided George Washington with access to one of Virginia’s most powerful families.

In the spring of 1748, William Fairfax, Lawrence’s father-in-law and one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, offered the 16-year-old Washington his first job: accompanying George William Fairfax, Lord Fairfax’s son, on a surveying trip to Fairfax’s property in the lower end of the Shenandoah Valley and the Northern Neck of Virginia. Between 1749 and 1752, Washington conducted more than 190 surveys, which provided funds for his first purchase of land in lower Shenandoah. Lord Fairfax became Washington’s patron and surrogate father, and the Fairfax family connection gave Washington a livelihood and contributed to the refinement of his social behavior.

At 19 George Washington made his first and only trip away from North America when he travelled with Lawrence to Barbados. While the trip’s original purpose was to locate medicine to treat Lawrence’s tuberculosis, it afforded Washington a unique opportunity to see a larger world. Washington arrived at Bridgetown, Barbados, in November 1751, full of anticipation. In the following week, he enjoyed a long series of dinner invitations and social gatherings. Although Washington’s stay in Barbados was shortened because of a bout of smallpox, the trip was socially significant, nonetheless.

By the time George Washington entered adulthood, he had mastered the techniques of self-presentation that would later help him to shape and refine his public image. His famed poise and reputation for humble virtue were, in many ways, an outgrowth of the lessons that he first encountered in the Rules of Civility. Washington’s social education enabled him to maintain a delicate balance between ambition and modesty throughout his life.

Everyone knows that Abraham Lincoln received very little formal schooling and educated himself by reading many books borrowed from neighbors. A tall, strapping young man even as a juvenile, Lincoln was needed on the family farm and was only able to attend formal schooling during the winter months. He attended three or four “ABC schools,” and Lincoln estimated that his total schooling did not amount to more than one year. ABC schools were held in log cabins, and often the teachers were barely more educated than their pupils. He never attended an academy or college.

Thomas Lincoln and his family moved frequently, always seeking better land and building farms on the frontier in Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. After Abraham’s mother died, Thomas quickly sought another wife and mother. Along with his new wife, Thomas brought her children, and several books—the family’s first—into the Lincoln home in Indiana. Other family members moved to Indiana and used the three-sided lean-to for some time until another cabin could be built.

Books were scarce on the Indiana frontier, but besides the family Bible, which Lincoln knew well, he was able to read the classical authors Aesop, John Bunyan, and Daniel Defoe, as well as William Grimshaw’s History of the United States (1820) and Mason Locke Weems’s Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington (about 1800) by borrowing books from neighbors. That biography of Washington made a lasting impression on Lincoln, and he made the ideals of Washington and the Founding Fathers his own.

After turning 21, Lincoln helped his father and stepmother for a year at Macon County, Illinois, then moved on his own to New Salem—his first real town residence. There he would read more, learn geometry and the job of surveying. He studied law in his spare time from 22 to 28, after being elected to the Illinois Legislature and encouraged to study law by a lawyer elected the same year. He was able to be qualified as a lawyer through the Illinois bar exam.

While living in New Salem and later Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln constantly read newspapers increasing his knowledge of politics and current events. He also read Shakespeare, the six books of Euclid, and others during his term in Congress.

After becoming president Lincoln would check out stacks of books from the Library of Congress and would learn the art of warfare and commanding troops in battle, mostly by reading.

Both Washington and Lincoln took responsibility for their own education. They applied themselves earnestly to what little formal education they received and determined to become lifelong learners. Their commitment to self-education, the humble pursuit of wisdom, and love of God and country prepared both men to meet the greatest challenges that any president has yet faced.

There are lessons here to be learned for all of us. As we celebrate Presidents Day, let us all seek to better prepare ourselves for the great future challenges that God has in store for us.

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