Art Works Blog

Happy Birthday, Mr. Washington

Washington, DC

George Washington, First President of the United States by Gilbert Stuart, courtesy of the Library of Congress

A hero in his own time, George Washington has become an almost mythical figure in the national imagination. The paradigm of justice, honesty, and bravery, it can be difficult to remember that he was in fact a mere mortal. Leave it to another American hero, Mark Twain, to humanize Washington with his signature wit and wry observations. To mark the first president’s birthday today, here’s an account of his youth by Twain, excerpted from a “Brief Biographical Sketch of George Washington.”

This day, many years ago precisely, George Washington was born. How full of significance the thought! Especially to those among us who have had a similar experience, though subsequently; and still more especially to the young, who should take him for a model, and faithfully try to be like him, undeterred by the frequency with which the same thing has been attempted by American youths before them and not satisfactorily accomplished. George Washington was the youngest of nine children, eight of whom were the offspring of his uncle and his aunt. As a boy, he gave no promise of the greatness he was one day to achieve. He was ignorant of the commonest accomplishments of youth. He could not even lie. But then he never had any of those precious advantages which are within the reach of the humblest of the boys of the present day. Any boy can lie now. I could lie before I could stand---yet this sort of sprightliness was so common in our family that little notice was taken of it. Young George appears to have had no sagacity whatever. It is related of him that he once chopped down his father's favorite cherry-tree, and then didn't know enough to keep dark about it.

Young George Washington was actuated in all things by the highest and purest principles of morality, justice, and right. He was a model in every way worthy of the emulation of youth. Young George was always prompt and faithful in the discharge of every duty. It has been said of him, by the historian, that he was always on hand, like a thousand of brick. And well deserved was this compliment. The aggregate of the building material specified might have been largely increased---might have been doubled, even---without doing full justice to these high qualities in the subject of this sketch. Indeed, it would hardly be possible to express in bricks the exceeding promptness and fidelity of young George Washington. His was a soul whose manifold excellencies were beyond the ken and computation of mathematics, and bricks are, at the least, but an inadequate vehicle for the conveyance of a comprehension of the moral sublimity of a nature so pure as his.

Read the full text of a "Brief Biographical Sketch of George Washington." To learn more about Mark Twain and his work, please visit The Big Read website.

Add new comment