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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Thursday, August 2, 1787

August 02, 2020 - 4 minute read

Sulgrave Manor

During the Convention’s recess, George Washington toured the fields of Valley Forge where his troops had encamped during the winter of 1777-1778, a scene embedded in the lore of America’s founding. George Washington himself has earned a unique place in history, based not on myths or exaggerations of events long past, but on the observations of his contemporaries who know him best. Moses Hazen, a general in the Continental Army, wrote in 1780 that Washington “is the very idol of his country, and who I love, regard, and esteem, as one of the best men since the creation of Adam.”

Robert Morris said “the brilliancy” of Washington’s character “attracts the attention of the world,” and called him “the first man of his age,” while earlier this year Henry Knox sincerely predicted that Washington will be, “in the judgment of the present and future ages,” entitled to “the glorious epithet – THE FATHER OF YOUR COUNTRY.”

History will later record that upon Washington’s death in 1799, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee will be commissioned by Congress to write his eulogy. Of him, Lee will write that he was “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen…Correct throughout, vice stuttered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand.”  John Adams will say, “His example is now complete, and it will teach wisdom and virtue to magistrates, citizens and men, not only in the present age, but in future generations, as long as our history shall be read.”

Washington’s leadership and reputation through the Revolutionary War and the rest of his life are well known, but less known are the origins of the Washington family and how it came to America. The earliest knowledge of the Washington family is from the 12th century and derived from Wessington in northern England. The family has a coat of arms dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, indicating that some were engaged in military service. By the time of the reign of Henry VIII (1509 -1547) the Washingtons were making their living as caretakers and managers of estates belonging to others. Among them was Laurence Washington, employed by William Parr, one of the wealthiest noblemen in England whose sister would later become the sixth and last wife of Henry VIII.

In 1529, Parr sent Laurence south to manage his properties in Northampton, a vibrant market town. A year later, Laurence left a comfortable, secure position to make his own way, setting himself up as a wool merchant and marrying a widow whose husband had left her with property and a thriving business. In short order, Laurence prospered and was elected mayor of Northampton in 1533.

Sometime after Laurence’s wife, Elizabeth Gough, died in childbirth, Laurence married again.  Anne Aimee Pargiter was also a wealthy widow and their marriage added to Laurence’s business and landholdings, gradually moving them up in society. Their fortunes increased significantly after Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic monasteries in 1536. Until then, the Catholic Church owned approximately one third of all the land in England. Henry’s struggle with the Pope, separation from the Catholic Church, and establishment of the Anglican Church opened former Church lands for sale. Laurence bought, and his holdings increased to more then 3500 acres and two villages. Their place in the landed gentry was secured and Sulgrave Manor, the family home, was constructed and remains open today.

Laurence and Amy had eleven children, all of whom survived at a time when between one third and half of all children died before the age of five. Laurence lived eighty-four years, watching his daughters marry well, several sons knighted, and the oldest, Robert, taking over the family wool business and inheriting Sulgrave. Robert’s grandson, another Laurence and great, great grandfather of George, was educated at Oxford, served as rector in the Anglican Church at Purleigh, and married Amphilis Twigden who bore him a son, John, five months later. During the decades of conflict between Parliament and King James and his son, Charles I, the Washingtons were strong supporters of the monarchy. Laurence was no different, and when the Puritans and Cromwell gained power, Laurence was among Anglican clerics who lost their positions. He was able to find work as a preacher in the poor parish of Braxted while his family was taken in by the Sandys family in London. Just as the English Civil War was ending, Laurence died in 1653, impoverished and a broken man. 

By now, John was nineteen and needed to find his own way in the world. With help from Sir Edwin Sandys, treasurer of the Virginia Company, John learned the tobacco trade. In 1656, he received an offer to be the second master of the Sea Horse, a ship engaged in trading tobacco with the southern American colonies. Enterprising and clever, using a small inheritance from his mother, he was able to partner with the ships’ owner, Edmund Prescott. 

They set sail in 1656, completing the perilous Atlantic crossing by late autumn and going up the Virginia coast, stopping at each plantation to trade European goods for tobacco. Preparing to return to England before the winter, the Sea Horse, overloaded with tobacco, went aground at Pope’s Creek. The tobacco was ruined, and John was faced with a decision: go back to England with few prospects or stay in America and try to make a go of it.  Fate intervened, for Prescott blamed John and sued him for the losses. The case was heard in the local court where the judge was none other than Nathanial Pope, owner of the land at Pope’s Creek. John must have heartily impressed the judge because Pope paid John’s debt out of his own pocket and within the year permitted him to marry his daughter, Anne, giving them 700 acres at Mattis Creek as a wedding gift. Ten years later, Pope and John’s lands increased to 5,000 acres and John was elected to the House of Burgesses.

John’s son, another Laurence, inherited his father’s land, including what became Mt. Vernon. Born at Pope’s Creek, George Washington was once asked about his ancestry and replied simply, it is a “subject  to which I confess I have paid very little attention.”

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