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Lawrence Washington: A Neglected Older Brother

Fourteen years older than his half-brother, Lawrence Washington was an active Virginian landowner. J.I. Cooper describes his life, career, and interest in US expansion westwards.

Few roles are more discouraging than that of an older brother (or sister) of a celebrity. The career of Richard, first Marquess Wellesley, is an example familiar to British history. On the other side of the Atlantic, a corresponding figure is that of Lawrence Washington, the older half-brother of George. A man of achievement in his own lifetime, Lawrence Washington has suffered from the pre-eminence of his younger brother.

Lawrence Washington was the oldest surviving child of Augustine and his first wife, Jane Butler. The probable date of his birth was 1718. The family had come far since the first Washington had reached Virginia as the mate on a trading ship. The Washingtons were extensive land-owners on the lower Potomac, the tidewater region. In a modest frontier move, Augustine Washington had acquired land near Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock, and in Prince William county, well upstream on the Potomac. He was, likewise, a pioneer industrialist, a partner in the Principio Iron Works.

At that point, the all-too familiar colonial American tragedy intervened; the young wife died. Augustine made a second marriage with Mary Ball. Possibly the new marriage and a new family (George Washington was born in 1732, the oldest child) caused Lawrence and his brother Augustine, or ‘Austin,’ to be shipped to England for schooling. It is equally possible that they followed their father’s course; he, too, had been schooled at Appleby, Westmorland.

Lawrence Washington came back to Virginia, probably, in 1738. He had the substantial advantage of an English grammar-school training. It was far superior to anything that his stay-at-home neighbours could command, since it was in secondary schooling that eighteenth-century America - to say nothing of contemporary America - was weakest.

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