``A compleat gentleman'': The making of George Washington, 1732--1775

Date of Completion

January 1998


Biography|American Studies|History, United States




During the last three decades, the new social history and the newer cultural history have greatly expanded our knowledge of the American past, yet only a few scholars have used the new knowledge to reexamine the life of George washington, and those few have studied him within the republican paradigm, the radical ideology developed by opposition writers in Great Britain. Washington's landed wealth and his apparent willingness to subordinate private interest for public good did indeed fit the republican model of an ideal leader, but his appeal in 1775, when chosen to command the Revolutionary army, transcended that ideal. His peers saw him as an embodiment of a more comprehensive ethos. By studying Washington's assimilation of that ethos, we can come to a deeper understanding both of his meaning to contemporaries and of late colonial American culture.^ Throughout the Anglo-Atlantic world of the eighteenth century, the gentry cultivated a distinctive style and set of values, which together formed a class ethos. According to that ethos, the ideal gentleman was well-born, wealthy, generous, modest, honorable, enlightened, courteous to all, virtuous in morality, disinterested in public service, and brave in battle. From youth, Washington strove to personify or appear to personify the whole range of genteel virtues. His efforts assisted him in his rise from minor-gentry origins into the first rank of the American aristocracy, and they forced him to grapple with an inner contradiction in the ethos, which he ultimately resolved. By the time he entered his forties, other members of the American ruling elite were deeply impressed by his gentility. Delegates to the Continental Congress found him to be "a compleat gentleman" and "a pattern" for "Our youth." Washington's mastery of the genteel ethos was integral to his political success and explains in part why other gentlemen were willing to trust him with unprecedented power. Moreover, by advertising him as "a compleat gentleman," the leaders of the American gentry were rebutting the habitual metropolitan contempt for colonial pretensions to gentility. This new cultural confidence boded ill for imperial reformers. ^