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.
Not much is known for sure about George Washington’s education. He may have been taught by private tutors, or he may have gone to small local private schools, or both. His older half brothers attended school in England, but he did not, possibly because his father died in 1743 when he was eleven. He was an apprentice surveyor for a short time as a teenager, and his early training in measuring and assessing the landscape probably aided him in his later work as a soldier serving in unfamiliar terrain, as a farmer whose livelihood depended on smart land use, and as the president of a new and expanding country. Washington’s education appears to have ended when he was about fifteen. He did not attend college like his immediate successors as president: John Adams, who graduated from Harvard, and Thomas Jefferson, a graduate of William and Mary College.
It is possible to know something about Washington’s education, however, by looking at his two school copy books, ca. 1745-1747, in the George Washington Papers in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. These show the young Washington studying a mixture of practical and academic subjects, including geometry, decimals, trigonometry, “mensuration” (measuring), calculation of the leap year, geography, calculation of interest, and land surveying. A page titled “Geographical Definitions” shows the world as it looked to Washington when he studied geography in the mid-eighteenth century.
You can page through both journals online by going to the George Washington Papers, clicking on “Browse the Collection,” then “Series I, Exercise Books, Diaries, and Surveys, 1741-1799,” and then on the School Copy Books, or follow these direct links: