- Historic Sites
Pater Patriae As Pater Familias
Was George Washington a failure at raising children? If so, earnest efforts
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
Eleanor, the older (called Nelly like her mother), was an adorable young lady. She had all the social graces. She played the harpsichord, sang her grandfather’s favorite songs for him, and entertained his distinguished guests. At the age of nineteen, she became engaged to the son of Washington’s sister, and, as a special compliment to “Grandpapa,” she chose the twenty-second of February, 1799, for her wedding day. It turned out to be his last birthday.
E leanor’s little brother, George Washington Parke Custis, called “Young Custis,” was a chip off the elegant and extravagant Jackie. For Washington this young man must have been a trial to the spirit, but again, for some reason, little or no parental discipline was applied. Perhaps, like his father, Young Custis was so charming and so rich and so much his grandmother’s boy—that Washington couldn’t lay a hand on him.
Young Custis took the same rosy path as his father. Instead of Columbia, however, he tried Princeton, where straightway he got into some “contest with the passions.” Washington did not identify this contest specifically, but he spoke broadly of five areas of concern: ribaldry, rioting, swearing, intoxication, and gambling. In describing him to Professor Stanhope Smith of that college, he used words that might have been used to describe the boy’s father, Jackie. He said Young Custis had an “almost unconquerable disposition to indolence in everything that did not tend to his amusements.”
After this episode Young Custis sent his stcpgrandfather a flowery letter of apology and announced that he was transferring to St. John’s College in Annapolis. He lasted there for a few months and then, during the war-scare year of 1798, he volunteered to defend his country against the foe. He asked Washington’s permission to enlist in the local troop of Light Dragoons with the rank of cornet (the man who carried the colors). Permission was granted after an affair with some sixteen-year-old girl was cleared up.
After Washington’s death, Young Custis married a local belle, Miss Mary Lee Fitzhugh, and built a mansion for her on his estate opposite the capital city. He called it Arlington—and later, he gave it to the man who married his only child, an officer in the U.S. Army by the name of Robert E. Lee. This estate is now covered with a fort, a cemetery, and a big building shaped like a pentagon, as well as Arlington House.
Before he died, Young Custis became venerable and honored. He wrote a play called Pocahonlas, or the Selliers of Virginia which ran twelve nights in Philadelphia “with great success.” He gave a memorable speech on the night of June 5, 1813, when the people of Washington, D.C., celebrated the news of the Russian victory over Napoleon. He was in frequent demand as a patriotic orator. In his addresses, he always paid tribute to his grandmother’s second husband (whom he called “Pater Patriae”), the noblest of models for his boyhood and for all red-blooded American boys. If he had any criticism of Washington, it was simply that he got up too early in the morning and worked too hard during the day. Also, his clothes lacked style.
Since Washington couldn’t do very much with or about the children and grandchildren of his wife, he tried to exercise more parental authority over the children of his younger brother, Samuel: George Steptoe, Lawrence Augustine, and Harriot. He tried to make these three what the Custis children never could be, namely: plain, hard-working, middle-class citizens.
Samuel’s children were born on a comfortable estate in western Virginia near a large tract of land belonging to Uncle George. Samuel had, successively, five wives, and he died soon after he married the last one—in 1781, the same year Jackie Custis died. For some time thereafter his children lived on with their stepmother, and then, after Uncle George went out to inspect his western lands and relatives, they came east to grow up at Mount Vernon. According to Washington’s diary, Samuel’s estate was “wretchedly managed,” and he felt the children would have a better opportunity under his care. George was then fourteen; Lawrence, eleven; and Harriot, nine.
The first thing he did was put the two boys in a boarding school run by a Presbyterian minister in Georgetown. The girl, Harriot, stayed at Mount Vernon for a while, possibly as a playmate for the Custis children. But she was always a “country cousin,” a poor relative from the sticks of western Virginia.
The boys didn’t last long in Georgetown. They ran up such a bill that the General took them out of the school and sent them to a more modest one in nearby Alexandria where he could keep his eye on them. There, as he put it, they would receive the “kind of education which would be the most extensively useful to people of the lower class of citizens, namely, reading, writing, and arithmetic.” He was not enthusiastic about the aristocratic curriculum of Greek and Latin which the Custis children were receiving from private tutors.
In Alexandria, the boys boarded at the home of the Widow Dade but they were often invited to Mount Vernon to spend the night. The General would send his horses over to pick them up before supper. Once they surprised their uncle and aunt by bringing along their dancing master, Mr. John B. O’Kelly.