George Washington: A Biography - Vol. 1

By Douglas Southall Freeman | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

No SOONER was this work taken in hand than the dimness of the background of George Washington's life became apparent. It was manifest that the establishment of powerful families, the eager provision of new plantations for younger sons, and the steady advance of settlement up the Valley of the Potomac River were related to the ease with which favored individuals could procure patents of land under the Fairfax proprietary. For a full history of the grant and lease of that domain between the Potomac and the Rappahannock, one looked in vain. It consequently became necessary to study the events that made the region of Washington's birth an imperium in imperio. That inquiry was all the more essential because one agent of the proprietary, Col. William Fairfax, had as much personal influence on the life of young George Washington as the land system itself had on the society in which the boy lived. When the story of the proprietorship was written, it was so formidable in bulk that it could not be permitted to burden the opening chapters of this biography, but it had to be summarized there and it seemed to be entitled to publication as an appendix. There can be no understanding of young Washington without some knowledge of the Fairfaxes and their landholdings.

At the next stage of this study, it was obvious that the nearer background had likewise to be set in sharper detail. Young George was touching daily a colonial life that had its classes, its institutions, its usages, and its distinctive government. He was riding, surveying, visiting and talking with men whose conversation was of vestries and County Courts, of Governor and Burgesses, of Council and General Court, of tobacco inspection and London exchange, of indentured servants and new cargoes of slaves. One could find in the pages of Bruce and of Wertenbaker an account of Virginia life in the seventeenth century, but from the removal of Alexander Spotswood as Lieutenant Governor in 1722 to the outbreak of the French and Indian War, there were shadows and silence. Traditionally it was a period during which "nothing happened." The uncomfortable feeling developed that one was on unfamiliar ground, and that one did not know how Washington

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