Alexandria Letter: Washington’s Wider View

Alexandria Letter: Washington’s Wider View

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

Although George Washington traveled widely in what became the United States, he left the mainland only once, when he sailed to Barbados with his older half-brother Lawrence in 1751. The trip had life-changing consequences for him and later benefits for our country.

When Lawrence, suffering from tuberculosis, was advised to spend the winter in the tropics, 19-year-old George accompanied him. Before this, he had never been more than 200 miles from his birthplace to other areas of Virginia and rarely to Maryland. Going to Barbados provided his first glimpse of a wider world. The colony was one of Britain's richest colonial possessions. Bridgetown, where the brothers landed, was one of the most populous cities in British America and much larger than Williamsburg, Virginia’s largest town.

Shortly after arriving, the brothers received a note from Gedney Clarke, an uncle of Lawrence’s wife, inviting them to dinner. They went, despite George’s reluctance, because Mrs. Clarke had smallpox, a dreaded disease. Within two weeks he was stricken with the pox. If he had not suffered through this malady in Barbados — and thus acquired lifetime immunity to further infection — he might have died from the illness during the Revolutionary War. The immobilizing disease, a deadly enemy, swept through his army repeatedly. It is believed that this disease also left the Father of Our Country unable to sire children of his own. Thus, when our new country looked for a President, besides his record of integrity and exemplary leadership, having no sons to promote for a potential dynasty — like John Adams — Washington’s lack was a factor in his favor as the unanimous choice for President.

Other than that illness, the brothers enjoyed their stay. They dined with new friends and enjoyed the company of significant people whose equals George had seen only at the Fairfax's Belvoir estate. He met merchants, planters, and high officials including judges, top military officers and the governor of Tortola. He enjoyed being treated like a gentleman.

Washington’s time in Barbados also provided him an important opportunity to solidify his social aspirations and affirm his status as a proper colonial gentleman. As he discussed the affairs of the British empire with men from another colony with different interests and concerns, his horizons widened from Virginia’s Northern Neck to a worldly scope. He also saw his first forts. After returning home, he dedicated himself vigorously to advancement in the military, and, unlike most contemporary colonial militia officers, sought a commission in the British army.

When Washington returned to Virginia, Governor Robert Dinwiddie welcomed him for dinner at the Governor's Palace as a “person of distinction.” His three months in Barbados had significantly helped to change him from a provincial youth into a young man whose vision, energy and ambition propelled him into the first rank of American and world heroes.

Ellen Latane Tabb