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Pater Patriae As Pater Familias
Was George Washington a failure at raising children? If so, earnest efforts
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
A though he was the Father of our Country, George Washington begat no children of his own. But he knew what children were made of. He came from a large family— his father had ten children by two wives—and he outlived them all. Near the end of his life, his home at Mount Vernon became the center of a great clan including eighteen nephews and nieces in varying degrees of dependency upon him. In this home he reared two generations of Custis children, beginning with a boy and girl by Martha’s first husband, the dashing, erratic multimillionaire Daniel Parke Custis. Three children of his brother Samuel also knew George Washington as their immediate guardian. And in the supervision of his estates, he witnessed the intimate affairs of many other families, white and black.
From all these, he learned a lot about parenthood. Like most men, he probably thought he learned more than he did. He was supremely confident of his ability to advise his young kin on all kinds of personal matters. But in a final rating of his talent as a parent, his biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, concludes he was “a failure.”
Perhaps he was a failure when it came to raising Martha’s children, John (Jackie) Parke Custis and Martha (Patsy) Parke Custis. These two, although they were both under five when he married their mother in 1759 never seemed to come under his full command. For one thing, they were both much richer than he was, so he had to treat them with a certain respect. After all, it’s hard to spank a millionaire, no matter how small he is.
His wife, Martha, wasn’t much better. She was an indulgent, fearful mother—as perhaps young widows tend to be—and she was filled with anxieties over her children’s health. She never liked to leave Jackie alone. She couldn’t bear the worry of having him inoculated for smallpox, so George had to arrange a secret rendezvous with a doctor in Baltimore. She dressed her Jackie in the finest suits from London (with velvet linings), and gave him a liveried body servant to find his hat (laced with silver) and be sure his shoes were buckled properly.
At fourteen—after several years of desultory tutoring in Latin and Greek—Jackie was sent away to boarding school. In a letter to the headmaster, Washington introduced his stepson as “a boy of good genius … untainted in his morals, and of innocent manners.” But he added the hope that the school would be able “to make him fit for more useful purposes than a horse racer.” At that age. Jackie’s only interests were “dogs, horses, and guns.”
Some time later, after the boy’s exploits in and out of school had driven him to despair, the headmaster told Washington exactly what he thought of Master Custis. “I must confess to you I never did in my life know a youth so exceedingly indolent or so surprisingly voluptuous: one would suppose Nature had intended him for some Asiatic Prince!”
What could Washington do? He couldn’t cut off Jackie’s allowance. Martha wouldn’t let him use a horsewhip. The line of command was too vague to permit a direct order. And besides, Washington rather enjoyed his sporty stepson.
When Jackie decided he’d try a little higher education, Washington took him up to New York City to enroll him in King’s College (Columbia)—accompanied by a body servant and two fine horses (a gray and a bay). He was also able to persuade the faculty to grant his stepson the unique privilege of taking meals with them.
This arrangement lasted until Jackie decided to marry Nelly Calvert (of the Baltimore Calverts), who lived across the Potomac from Mount Vernon. Washington tried to postpone this wedding, but, again, he had no means except suasion, and that wasn’t enough. Jackie soon married Nelly and settled down to a gentleman’s life of dogs, horses, and guns.
When Washington became commander in chief of the Continental Army, Jackie developed a polite interest in the military. He accepted a commission in the local militia but didn’t leave home to do any campaigning. At the end of the war, when the front lines were close by at Yorktown, Jackie rode over to his “Pappa’s” headquarters to serve a spell as a temporary aide-de-camp. There he caught some foul camp disease and died.
His younger sister, Patsy, had died some eight years before, at the age of seventeen. She was a delicate child, subject to convulsions. Martha had tried everything to restore her health, including “fit drops” and baths at Berkeley Springs, in what is now West Virginia. Washington did what his wife told him to do but otherwise stood helplessly by as the sad little girl dwindled away.
Jackie was twenty-seven when he died. He left four children: three girls and a boy—and a splendid stallion called Magnolia. The two oldest daughters went with their mother when she remarried. The boy and the other girl stayed with their grandmother at Mount Vernon. Washington took care of the stallion for a while but eventually traded it to Henry Lee for five thousand acres of Kentucky land.
In the eyes of the second brace of Custis. children, Washington was a famous grandfather rather than a parent. He was too old and too busy with the destinies of the republic to spend much time with them. He couldn’t tell bedtime stories or play ball in the front yard. But he enjoyed having “the children” living on his estate. They were an attractive pair—a peacock and a bantam rooster.