TO RICHARD HENRY LEE
I thank you very much for the pretty picture book you
gave me. Sam asked me to show him the pictures and I
showed him all the pictures in it; and I read to him how
the lame elephant took care of the master’s little son. I
can read three or four pages sometimes without missing
a word. Ma says I may go to see you and stay all day
with you next week if it be not rainy. She says I may
ride my pony Hero if Uncle Sam will go with me and lead
Hero. I have a little piece of poetry about the picture
book you gave me, but I mustn’t tell you who wrote the
G. W.’s compliments to R.H.L.,
And likes his book full well,
Henceforth will count him his friend,
And hopes many happy days he may spend.
Your good friend,
Letter to a very young Richard Henry Lee, from a very young George Washington
It’s one of the earliest samples of George Washington’s writing we have. I don’t have a date for the letter, but it is likely to have been prior to 1743, when his father died. This letter was probably written before George was 11.
Can you imagine George Washington as a giggling little boy? He was. We have the letters to prove it. I like this letter simply because it offers a view of George Washington too rarely thought of or talked about.
Richard Henry Lee remained a friend of Washington’s until Washington died. Lee was the man who made the motion at the 2nd Continental Congress that the colonies declare independence from England. Lee was about a month older than Washington, born January 20, 1732. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and was President of the Continental Congress.
That these two men were childhood friends is a delightful little historical nugget.
Grant Wood, the great American painter, couldn’t imagine Washington as a boy, either. This painting, showing Parson Weems’s version of a story about Washington’s honesty that has not held up to scrutiny as accurate, shows the difficulty Wood expressed: Washington is portrayed as a child with an adult, bewigged head — a homonculus. The painting hangs in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
Maybe some of your troubling students will grow up good and honest, too. Do we know what would push our students to be such model citizens? Do we know what influenced Washington?
Adult influences in Washington’s early life were not so good as some might imagine. His father died when he was 11. At some point he became estranged from his mother, with her repeated accusations that all her children ignored her (to Washington’s great embarrassment). Washington’s other great adult male influence was his half-brother Lawrence. George was sent to live with his Lawrence, but Lawrence died in 1752, when George was turning 20. Also, Washington got little direction from him after he went to sea with the British.
By the time he was 20, Washington was a military commander in the Virginia militia, making adult decisions and living in an adult world. Where did his childhood go? What was it that enabled him to pick himself up and aspire to greatness so often, in so many different ways? What was it bent the twig of the childhood Washington, who grew into the great man the adult Washington became?
You can find this letter in William B. Allen’s George Washington, A Collection, 1998 Liberty Fund. Liberty Fund wishes to spread these works as far as possible, and so has made the book available on-line. It is loaded with materials great for DBQs in AP classes, and other readings that should inspire discussion by students and assignments from teachers that make students think.
He may not have chopped down a cherry tree, but Washington most certainly was a child. What will our students make of this letter?