4-“R”ing from a Founding Father: George Washington’s “Record” Notebook
When we think of presidents, we do not usually think of them as children. But of course they were, and their childhoods and education reflect their families’ circumstances and the times and places where they resided. George Washington, born in Virginia in 1732, had little formal schooling. In eighteenth-century Virginia, there were no public schools. Families with means hired tutors and organized small, informal schools for their children and those of their neighbors. Poor children attended church schools, or they worked as indentured servants or apprentices and received a basic education from their masters as part of their contracts. There was no compulsory education in colonial America, and none in the United States until the second half of the nineteenth century.
George Washington left us a record of his early learning. His childhood copybooks, beginning at age thirteen, are stored in the Library of Congress. Jared Sparks, author of The Life of George Washington, 1855, wrote this about the notebooks:
…His manuscript and schoolbooks, from the time he was thirteen years old, have been preserved. He had already mastered the difficult parts of arithmetic and these books begin with geometry…The manuscripts fill several quires of paper and are remarkable for the care with which they were kept, the neatness and uniformity of the handwriting, the beauty of the diagrams, and a precise method and arrangement in copying out tables and columns of figures.
This sample is from young Washington’s geometry book was written between 1745 and 1748.
His particular mathematical and surveying interests are reflected in the carefully drawn and written exercises. However, the three copybooks’ general topics of geometry, poetry, weights and measures, and proper gentlemanly behavior provide a fair view of the range of early tutorial education provided in the eighteenth century.