Pater Patriae As Pater Familias

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As the boys grew older they got to be too much for the Widow Dade, and arrangements were made for them to live with Colonel Samuel Hanson, an old army man. But even the Colonel had difficulties with them. In the spring of ’88, he complained that young George (age sixteen) had been AWOL for three nights. When Washington heard about this, he wrote his nephew an angry letter beginning:

Mount Vernon, May 5, 1788

Dear George:

I yesterday received a letter from Mr. Hanson, informing me that you slept from home three nights successively, and one contrary to his express prohibition. Complaints of this nature are extremely painful to me, as it discovers a degree of impropriety in your conduct, which, at your time of life your good sense and discretion ought to point out to you and lead you to avoid. Although there is nothing criminal in your having slept with a companion of good manners and reputation as you say you have, yet your absenting yourself from your own lodgings under that pretence may be productive of irregularities and disagreeable consequences; and I now insist upon it, in the most pointed terms, that you do not repeat it without the consent and approbation of Mr. Hanson. …

The General went on to advise his nephew to avoid “those customs which may tend to corrupt your manners or vitiate your heart.” If young George persisted in going down the road to ruin, his uncle threatened to use “means to regulate your behaviour, which will be disagreeable to us both.” (He could never threaten the Custis children like this.)

Not long afterward, when Lawrence (at fourteen) got into a scrape, Colonel Hanson confined him to quarters. This was a routine punishment, and news of it would not have reached Mount Vernon if young George had not unlocked the door and let his brother out. So the Colonel informed their uncle, who immediately sent another blistering note to his nephew:

Mount Vernon, August 6, 1788

Dear George:

It was with equal pain and surprise that I was informed by Colo. Hanson on Monday last, of your unjustifiable behaviour in rescuing your brother from that chastisement, which was due to his improper conduct; and which you know, because you have been told it in explicit language, he was authorized to administer whensoever he should deserve it. Such refractory behaviour on your part, I consider as an insult equally offered to myself after the above communications and I shall continue to view it in that light, till you have made satisfactory acknowledgments to CoIo. Hanson for the offence given him. …

The second paragraph of this letter softened the tone of the first somewhat. Apparently, the boys had tried to explain their side of the story. Their uncle assured them that he too wanted to see justice done but only after a “fair and candid representation of facts.” He would not be moved by their “vague complaints.” However, he also wrote the Colonel a firm letter mentioning some bruises Lawrence said he had received, and reminding him that the young brothers were supposed to be “treated on the footing of Friendship,” not as “mere School boys.”

When Washington was elected President, he was careful to leave everything in order at Mount Vernon, including his two nephews. In a long memorandum to his farm manager (another nephew), he directed him to continue their support and to see that they were “decently and properly provided with Clothes from Mr. Porter’s Store.”

He also left a final letter of “advisory hints” for the boys. This was addressed to George, as the elder:

Mount Vernon, March 23, 1789

Dear George:

As it is probable I shall soon be under the necessity of quitting this place, and entering once more into the bustle of public life, in conformity to the voice of my Country, and the earnest entreaties of my friends, however contrary it is to my own desires or inclinations, I think it incumbent on me as your uncle and friend, to give you some advisory hints, which, if properly attended to, will, I conceive, be found very useful to you in regulating your conduct and giving you respectability, not only at present, but thro every period of life. …