President George Washington was born on February 22, 1732. President Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. We now celebrate their lives—and those of our other presidents—this Presidents’ Day.
Ask any American to name some of the greatest U.S. presidents, and probably near the top of their list will be both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. So, what made both of these men such great and memorable leaders?
Washington and Lincoln: Similar Education
George Washington was once called the Father of our Country. He served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, president of the Constitutional Convention, and the first president of the United States—all positions he initially turned down. Abraham Lincoln served four terms as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, one term as a U.S. congressman, and one term as president. In that one term as president, Lincoln fought and died to preserve the Union.
Washington and Lincoln shared many characteristics, including their commitment to their country, their humility, and their love of God. But perhaps most notably, both men were educated similarly. They both were taught to read at home, spent less than twelve months in traditional classrooms, and took ownership of their education to become lifelong learners.
What Was George Washington’s Education Like?
Although his two older brothers attended a grammar school in England for a few years, George Washington’s education, in the formal sense, was quite limited. When Washington was just 11 years old, his father passed away. This left the family limited funds for education and ended Washington’s formal education, which included math, reading, and writing. After his father’s death, although Washington busied himself by taking on the responsibility of running the family farm, he continued learning by teaching himself through reading and experimentation.
Three significant influences contributed to Washington’s early social education: an etiquette manual dating to the 16th century called the Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, guidance from his half-brother Lawrence Washington, and the influence of Lawrence’s respected in-laws, the Fairfax family.
Knowledge of surveying or math skills, which Washington gained largely through self-study, would have been meaningless for his social advancement without displaying appropriate manners. From an early age, Washington used the Rules of Civility to master the arts of interpersonal skills and self-control that were crucial to his future leadership.
Under Lawrence’s tutelage, Washington learned to excel in riding, hunting, fencing, and dancing. In addition, Lawrence’s marriage to Anne Fairfax gave Washington a connection to one of Virginia’s most influential and well-respected families.
In the spring of 1748, William Fairfax, Lawrence’s father-in-law and one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, offered the 16-year-old Washington his first job: accompanying Lord Fairfax’s son on a surveying trip to the Fairfax property in the lower end of the Shenandoah Valley and the Northern Neck of Virginia. Between 1749 and 1752, Washington conducted more than 190 surveys, which provided funds for his first land purchase in the lower Shenandoah. Lord Fairfax became Washington’s patron and surrogate father, and the Fairfax family connection gave Washington a livelihood and contributed to the refinement of his social behavior.
At 19, George Washington made his first and only trip away from North America to travel with Lawrence to Barbados. While the trip’s original purpose was to locate medicine to treat Lawrence’s tuberculosis, it afforded Washington a unique opportunity to see a larger world. Washington arrived with anticipation at Bridgetown, Barbados, in November 1751. In the following week, he enjoyed a long series of dinner invitations and social gatherings. Although Washington’s stay in Barbados was shortened because of a bout of smallpox, the trip was socially significant, nonetheless.
By the time George Washington entered adulthood, he had mastered the techniques of self-presentation that would later help him shape and refine his public image. His famed poise and reputation for humble virtue were, in many ways, an outgrowth of the lessons that he first encountered in the Rules of Civility. This social education enabled him to maintain a delicate balance between ambition and modesty throughout his life.
What Was Abraham Lincoln’s Education Like?
Most people know that Abraham Lincoln received minimal formal schooling and instead educated himself by reading books borrowed from neighbors. A tall, strapping young man, Lincoln was needed on the family farm and could only attend formal schooling during the winter months. He attended three or four “ABC schools,” which were often held in log cabins and where teachers were barely more educated than their pupils. Lincoln later estimated that his total formal schooling did not amount to more than one year. He never attended an academy or college.
Lincoln’s family moved frequently, always seeking better land and building farms on the frontier in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. After his mother died, Lincoln’s father Thomas soon sought another wife and mother for his children. Along with his new wife, Thomas brought her children, and several books—the family’s first—into the Lincoln home in Indiana. Other family members moved to Indiana and shared the Lincoln family’s three-sided lean-to until another cabin could be built.
Books were scarce on the Indiana frontier, but besides the family Bible, which Lincoln knew well, he also got his hands on classics like Aesop’s Fables, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Robinson Crusoe. He also devoured William Grimshaw’s History of the United States and Mason Locke Weems’s Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington, both books he borrowed from his neighbors. The biography of Washington, in particular, made a lasting impression on Lincoln, and he quickly adopted the ideals of Washington and the other Founding Fathers as his own.
After turning 21, Lincoln helped his father and stepmother for a year at Macon County, Illinois, before moving on his own to New Salem—his first actual town residence. There, he read more, studied geometry, and learned the skill of surveying. He also studied law in his spare time from age 22 to 28 after being elected to the Illinois Legislature and was encouraged to study law by a lawyer elected the same year. He soon qualified to be a lawyer through the Illinois bar exam.
While living in New Salem and later in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln constantly read newspapers to enhance his knowledge of politics and current events. He also read Shakespeare, the six books of Euclid, and many others during his term in Congress.
After becoming president, Lincoln checked out stacks of books from the Library of Congress and learned the art of warfare and commanding troops in battle mainly through this reading.
Ownership of Education: A Commitment to Lifelong Learning
Both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln share one thing in common when it comes to these men’s schooling—they each took responsibility and ownership for their education. Although they both received little formal education, they were determined to become lifelong learners. Committing to self-education, they read any book they could get their hands on and engaged in conversations with others to learn various subjects and skills. Their humble pursuit of wisdom and love for God and country prepared both Washington and Lincoln to meet some of the most significant challenges any American presidents ever faced. As we go throughout this Presidents’ Day, let’s keep in mind that to become lifelong learners and leaders, we must take ownership of our education.
The ownership these men took of their education is what our middle and high school level Challenge programs strive to instill in students. If you’re not yet a Classical Conversations member and you’re interested in our community-based approach to homeschooling, we’d love to hear from you! To learn more, click here.