We’re all familiar with names like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. These men, along with others, were our forefathers and the founders of our nation. They signed the Declaration of Independence and wrote the Constitution. They won the Revolutionary War.
Not only that, but their incredible accomplishments weren’t limited to their adult lives. John Hancock entered Harvard University when he was 13 years old. Samuel Adams completed his master’s degree before he turned 21. Thomas Jefferson frequently studied 15 hours a day during his time at the College of William and Mary.
Of course, at this point it’s easy for all of us normal people to place these guys in the “superhuman” or “so-smart-it’s-disgusting” category and move on. However, there’s a danger in thinking that God simply blessed America with a generation chock-full of patriotic super-nerds just in time to write the Constitution.
You see, once we label people as a “geniuses” we usually cease to feel the need to learn from them or to be challenged by their example. The truth is that our forefathers weren’t nerds and their early college entrances were not unusual for their time.
Rather, what stood these young men apart from their peers was (1) a seemingly corporate sense that age could not keep them from accomplishing great things, and (2) an extraordinary drive that we like to call the “do hard things” mentality.
As we explore the different ways these traits played out in the early years of some of our most famous forefathers, our hope is that we will all gain a greater vision of our own God-given potential and calling.
George Washington: “He Didn’t Mark Time”
We all know George Washington as the first President of the United States, the Commander of the Revolutionary Army and the Father of our Country. These are impressive titles and the jobs that went with them couldn’t be more difficult.
But a quick glance at Washington’s teenage and young adult years indicates that these weren’t his first big titles or even his first weighty responsibilities. Rather, what comes through is a man who, from his childhood, chose to do hard things, and then did those things to the best of his ability.
According to the George Washington Bicentennial Committee (WBC), Washington was born into a “middling rank” family, lost his father when he was 11, and was never considered particularly bright or educated by his peers. Nevertheless, he developed a “passion for education [that] caused him to concentrate on hard study” and he mastered geometry, trigonometry, and surveying by the time he was 16 years old.
At the age of 17, Washington received his first big job when Lord Thomas Fairfax, one of the largest landowners in Virginia (we’re talking 5.3 million acres here), named him official surveyor for Culpepper County, Virginia.
At the time surveyors were some of the highest paid workers in the country, second only to trial lawyers. This means that Washington, at age 17, was earning today’s equivalent of over $100,000 a year.
Don’t get this wrong. Washington wasn’t an ornament who sat in an office while adult men did the real work. His journals reflect the rigor of frontier life and the WBC describes the appointment as “the fitting of a man’s tasks to the square young shoulder of a boy without cutting those tasks to a boy’s measure.”
Washington was a man at 17 years old.
Three years later Washington received his next big responsibility when the governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, appointed him district adjutant of the militia, with the rank of major.
Then, when word came that the French were encroaching on Ohio territory, Governor Dinwiddie chose young Major Washington to lead a mid-winter expedition to assess French military strength and intentions, and to warn the French to leave.
We don’t know about you, but to us traveling hundreds of miles in the middle of winter to tell a large garrison of French soldiers to pack up and leave doesn’t sound very easy or appealing. That’s because it wasn’t.
Nevertheless, 21-year-old Washington not only successfully carried out this mission, but also continued to serve as a primary negotiator and principle actor throughout the French and Indian War.
By age 22 he had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and by age 23 he was Commander in Chief of the entire Virginia Militia. He’d been shaving for less than a decade, but no one seemed to notice, and we’re sure he never mentioned it.
Perhaps the WBC put it best when they wrote, “[Washington] did not mark time in any of the important positions of his life…. Just as [he] stepped into a man-sized job as a surveyor, so when he accepted Governor Dinwiddie’s mission to Ohio he stepped not only into a man-sized task but into a path which led, as we now are able to trace it, directly to the American independence, of which he was the chosen instrument.”
As The Twig Is Bent, So Grows The Tree
Even if we’d never read a history book and were forced to go solely off of what we now know about the first 23 years of his life, we’d be fools not to predict that George Washington would grow up to be somebody. In fact, we might even insist that he’d become President someday — even bet on it.
That’s because, inside, we all know that young adulthood is not some mystical time period that has no effect on the rest of our lives. These years are the profound shapers of our lives. Here we set our direction, develop habits, and build momentum. As an old saying goes, “As a twig is bent, so grows the tree.”
This understanding is what our founding fathers had in common. It was the secret to their greatness. They put into practice the principle of Lamentations 3:27, “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.”
As young adults they adopted the determination and high ideals that went on to characterize their entire lives. Their history-making adult years were directly connected to their focused years as young adults.
It is no coincidence that the same Samuel Adams who organized the Boston Tea Party at age 51 wrote his master’s thesis in defense of the people’s liberties at age 21.
It is no coincidence that David Farragut, who became the U.S. Navy’s first Admiral at age 65, was given command of his first ship at age 12.
It is no coincidence that Alexander Hamilton, who became our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury at age 34, was a clerk in a counting house at age 13.
Likewise, it is no coincidence that, as the primary author of the Federalist Papers at age 32, Hamilton had already been publishing political pamphlets since he was 19.
And, of course, it is no surprise that the same George Washington who became the Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Army at age 43, was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Virginia Militia 20 years earlier.
A Revolution Worth Fighting
Of course, it’s one thing to understand this. It’s a whole different thing to apply it to our own lives. But if our desire is to impact this world for Christ, we have to.
We can learn a lot from our forefathers. They lived in a time very different from our own, but their example couldn’t be more relevant. In a world that is looking to our generation for direction and leadership and finding a bunch of kidults, the commitment to do hard things as young adults is a much-needed revolution.
Don’t get us wrong. Our generation won’t be shooting guns or throwing tea in the ocean. Our enemy today is not King George. Rather we do battle with a culture that looks down on true adulthood and celebrates immaturity and irresponsibility.
In 1 Timothy 4:12, Paul writes, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” As followers of Christ, we are called to a higher standard.
We need to be honest with ourselves. Is how we’re spending our time now preparing us for what we want to become? Are we doing hard things now that will equip us for greater things God may have for us in the future? These are the fundamental questions for this season of our lives.
Historian Peter Henriques, author of Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington, put it this way: “Washington became the man he strove to be.”
Henriques’ statement is not only true of Washington and the rest our forefathers, but it’s also true about us. We will become the men and women we strive to be.
Like our forefathers, this generation faces a crisis and an opportunity. A crisis, in the sense that we can no longer afford to avoid responsibility, and an opportunity, in the sense that we can choose today to buckle down and “do hard things” for the glory of God. The future of our nation and our world depends on it.