“The Strong Desire of Distinction”
The Vagaries Of Youth
On a soft rainy morning in February 1760 George Washington set out to superintend the work of his slaves and artisans at Mount Vernon. He discovered that his carpenters, who had been told to saw and hew poplar trees, had made little progress. “Sat down therefore and observed, ” he noted in his diary later that day, knowing that his presence would make them work more diligently. 1
A week or so later John Adams, a young attorney in Boston, sat at his desk before the fireplace in his simple, cold New England home. He wrote a friend that he feared he would be “totally forgotten within 70 Years from the present Hour.” Driven by a rapturous dream of being famous throughout the ages, he told his friend that he was studying the lives of the great lawyers of antiquity for clues to their immortality. He was certain that he possessed the tools and character for greatness, he added, but wondered whether “Heaven … [would] furnish the proper Means and Opportunities” for him to exhibit his talents. 2
On almost that same morning, a clear winter day when the temperature never rose above freezing, Thomas Jefferson, a student in a preparatory school in Virginia, wrote to his guardian requesting that he be permitted to begin college. Not only was it an important step in his education, he said, but there was a practical factor to consider as well. He would make acquaintances who might be useful later in life. 3
Early in 1760 Washington, Adams, and Jefferson were yet young men.