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Historian focuses on Washington’s early years

k_laneGeorge Washington: Honest. Loyal. Above partisan politics. The true ideal of the American presidency.

And he didn’t fib about any cherry trees, either.

Binghamton graduate student Kenneth Lane will spend the next year at Mount Vernon and the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington to fill in details of Washington’s murky younger years, when he learned to cultivate the relationships, please the patrons, keep his mouth shut and let other people take the blame. Lane is one of 20 scholars chosen this year for a fellowship at the library.

“He learned as a young British subject the value of patronage,” said Lane, a doctoral candidate in history. “He learned by failing over and over again.”

The failures start in 1754 with Washington’s first patronage job — the “simple surveyor” of the Ohio River Valley, hired by his first real patron — his half-brother Lawrence.

“I see an adventurous, driven, egotistical man 100 percent driven by politics,” Lane said. Washington’s job wasn’t simply to map the Ohio River Valley and suggest areas to develop. It was to pick and acquire the best plots of land for his employers — and himself.

On the way, his bumbling started a world war that spanned five continents, 15 nations and required four separate treaties to end.

Alienated his patrons. Damaged his reputation. And to protect his own legacy, immediately altered his own papers to shift blame for the debacle to a friend.

He learned, Lane said. Oh, how he learned. He spent the next three decades rebuilding his image, keeping his mouth shut and currying the favor that all politicians need. “He’s the self-made symbol. It took him his whole life.”

Lane sees Washington as a key player — more or less unwittingly — in a new direction the British Empire used to gather power. Rather than royal colonies, it was switching to private companies and land grants to settle the Ohio Valley. Cheaper for the crown, but riskier — as in an untrained 24-year-old “surveyor” gets the opportunity to start a war.

“They’re pushing west aggressively, but not officially,” said Lane, whose dissertation will focus on the larger picture of the 18th century British empire.

Where Mount Vernon enters the picture is its archive — including the surveying records of Washington’s Ohio Valley trek. Lane is looking to understand not only how Washington saw the valley, but how he planned to divvy it up among his patrons — and himself.

“They’ve been looked at, but nobody placed any importance in it,” said Robert Parkinson, an assistant professor of history and Lane’s adviser. And historians should, because of the Ohio River Valley’s potential to feed an empire: “This region was becoming known as the next paradise in North America,” Parkinson said, one both the British and French wanted to control.

“I need to get access to as much of George Washington’s papers as are left,” Lane said.

It’s also an important part of Washington’s story, said Doug Bradburn, a former Binghamton professor and director of the Smith library.

“The great study of his early rise needs to be retold in the context of the latest research on the character of the British Empire in America,” wrote Bradburn, once Lane’s adviser. “Additionally, I think more could be done to understand Washington’s life as a politician in both a patron/client political world, as well as his involvement in shaping a modern representative democracy. There are opportunities to analyze his efforts at land development, speculation, and entrepreneurship, issues that have only recently begun to garner serious attention.”

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