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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
The first and great object with you at present is to acquire, by industry, and application, such knowledge as your situation enables you to obtain, as will be useful to you in life. … I do not mean by a close application to your studies that you should never enter into those amusements which are suited to your age and station: they can be made to go hand in hand with each other, and, used in their proper seasons, will ever be found to be a mutual assistance to one another. … One thing, however, I would strongly impress upon you, vizt. that when you have leisure to go into company that it should always be of the best kind that the place you are in will afford; by this means you will be constantly improving your manners and cultivating your mind while you are relaxing from your books; and good company will always be found much less expensive than bad. … I cannot enjoin too strongly upon you a due observance of oeconomy and frugality, as you well know yourself, the present state of your property and finances will not admit of any unnecessary expense. The article of clothing is now one of the chief expences, you will incur, and in this, I fear, you are not so oeconomical as you should be. Decency and cleanliness will always be the first object in the dress of a judicious and sensible man; a conformity to the prevailing fashion in a certain degree is necessary; but it does not from thence follow that a man should always get a new Coat, or other clothes, upon every trifling change in the mode, when perhaps he has two or three very good ones by him. A person who is anxious to be a leader of the fashion, or one of the first to follow it will certainly appear in the eyes of judicious men, to have nothing better than a frequent change of dress to recommend him to notice. …
Much more might be said to you, as a young man, upon the necessity of paying due attention to the moral virtues; but this may, perhaps, more properly be the subject of a future letter when you may be about to enter into the world. If you comply with the advice herein given to pay a diligent attention to your studies, and employ your time of relaxation in proper company, you will find but few opportunities and little inclination, while you continue at an Acadimy, to enter into those scenes of vice and dissipation which too often present themselves to youth in every place, and particularly in towns. If you are determined to neglect your books, and plunge into extravagance and dissipation, nothing I could say now would prevent it; for you must be employed, and if it is not in pursuit of those things which arc profitable, it must be in pursuit of those which are destructive.
As your time of continuing with Mr. Hanson will expire the last of this month and I understand Dr. Craik has expressed an inclination to take you and Lawrence to board with him, I shall know his determination respecting the matter; and if it is agreeable to him and Mrs. Craik to take you, I shall be pleased with it, for I am certain that nothing will be wanting on their parts to make your situation agreeable and useful to you. …
Should you or Lawrence therefore behave in such a manner as to occasion any complaint being made to me, you may depend upon losing that place which you now have in my affections, and any future hopes you may have from me. But if, on the contrary, your conduct is such as to merit my regard, you may always depend upon the warmest attachment, and sincere affection of Your friend and Uncle.
/s/ G. Washington
Despite the demands of government and busy social life, President Washington kept in close touch with the schooling of George and Lawrence. And, for once, he had no cause for complaints. Under the shrewd eye of Dr. James Craik—Washington’s personal physician—and the warm smile of Mrs. Craik, the boys did very well. At least, that is what the Doctor wrote the General. And the General wrote him back:
New York, September 8, 1789
… . It gives me pleasure to hear, and I wish you to express it to them that my Nephews George and Lawrence Washington are attentive to their studies, and obedient to your orders and admonitions. …
The next year, when the federal government was moved to Philadelphia, the President looked around the city for a college to enroll his nephews. He wanted them both to go on with their education—providing they were serious about it. He made it quite clear that he had no intention of spending any more money on them unless, as he wrote them, they came with “full resolution to pursue your studies closely, to conform to the established rules and customs of the college, and to conduct yourselves on all occasions with decency and propriety.”
The President had no patience with tomfoolery. He wanted his nephews to be sober, industrious, welldressed college gentlemen. He had a horror of supercilious dandies, and he would have cut off their allowance in short order if he had seen them gallivanting around in the rakish and foppish styles of Europe.
During their years at Philadelphia College (now the University of Pennsylvania) the boys stayed out of their uncle’s way. Occasionally they would go over to have a dignified meal with him (and on campus, they certainly boasted of their “connexions”) but their only regular avenue of communication was financial. Uncle continued to pay the bills, and he always seemed to feel they spent too much. Even when they had reached maturity, he said they would not “restrain their indulgences.” In all, he spent $5,000 for their education and living expenses.