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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
After completing college both the boys married; and this was a comfort to their uncle. In Washington’s opinion marriage was much more than romance. It was a holy covenant, a social step, and a business deal. He was pleased, therefore, when young George married Lucy Payne, sister of Mrs. James (Dolley) Madison, later a high-spirited hostess of the White House. He also approved the marriage of Lawrence to Mary Dorcas Wood, granddaughter of an old friend of his. He felt Mary’s prospects were “fair and pleasing.” But he decided not to attend the wedding because such “assemblies are better calculated for those who are coming in to , than those who are going out of life.”
Nephew George returned to the family estates in western Virginia and there raised three sons—and for a time sheltered the exiled Duc d’Orléans, Louis Philippe, who became King of France in 1830.
Lawrence, the younger brother, stayed in Philadelphia to study law under the former Attorney General, Edmund Randolph. He and Mary had four children.
If his nephews sometimes presented problems to Washington, they were nothing compared to the agonies caused by their young sister, his niece Harriot. The General had some understanding of the mental workings of boys and men, but he was baffled by the logic of a teen-age girl.
While her brothers were students in Alexandria, Harriot stayed at Mount Vernon. There she apparently came under the care of her older cousin, Fanny Washington, though her ultimate superior was, of course, Aunt Martha, or rather “Aunt Washington,” as she was called in the manner of those days.
Aunt Washington must have been a formidable woman, but Fanny, according to the General, was “mild and placid”—and much too easy on Harriot. She could not give her the discipline she needed. The situation finally got so desperate—at least in her uncle’s eyes—that plans were made to ship her off to school. This was soon after her fifteenth birthday, and a year after Washington was inaugurated President.
To handle a private matter of this kind, it was natural for the President to turn to his personal secretary, Tobias Lear. He asked Lear to find a “ proper School” for Harriot in Philadelphia, a school “with genteel girls” from the right families, where she could receive some instruction, but more important, some good work habits. She was “prone to idleness”; she was also a big girl: “My Niece … is grown almost, is not quite a Woman; and what to do with her at the advanced Size she is arrived at, I am really at a loss.”
Harriot received some formal education but not much. For some reason, she never went to school in Philadelphia. The President left her behind when he went up north with the rest of his family to become Chief Executive of the new government, but he did not forget her. He kept in touch with her progress through cousins—and through bills receivable from various milliners and dressmakers in Virginia. Occasionally, she would send him a quick, girlish note—usually asking for one thing or another—and these forced him to send her the following piece of avuncular advice:
Philadelphia, October 30, 1791
I have received your letter of the a ist. instant, and shall always be glad to hear from you. When my business will permit inclination will not be wanting in me to acknowledge the receipt of your letters, and this I shall do more cheerfully as it will afford me opportunities at those times of giving you such occasional advice, as your situation may require.
At present I could plead a better excuse for curtailing my letter to you than you had for shortening of yours to me, having a multitude of business before me while you have nothing to do, consequently you might, with equal convenience to yourself, have sat down to write your letter an hour or two, or even a day sooner, as to have delayed it until your Cousin was on the point of sending to the Post-Office. I make this remark for no other reason than to shew you it is better to offer no excuse than a bad one, if at any time you should happen to fall into an error.
Occupied as my time now is, and must be during the sitting of Congress, I nevertheless will endeavor to inculcate upon your mind the delicacy and danger of that period, to which you are now arrived under peculiar circumstances …
Your cousins, with whom you live are well qualified to give you advice, and I am sure they will if you are disposed to receive it. But if you are disobliging, self-willed, and untowardly it is hardly to be expected that they will engage themselves in unpleasant disputes with you, especially Fanny, whose mild and placid temper will not permit her to exceed the limits of wholesome admonition or gentle rebuke. Think then to what dangers a giddy girl of 15 or 16 must be exposed in circumstances like these. To be under but little or no controul may be pleasing to a mind that does not reflect, but this pleasure cannot be of long duration, and reason, too late perhaps, may convince you of the folly of mis-spending time. You are not to learn, I am certain, that your fortune is small; supply the want of it then with a well cultivated mind; with dispositions to industry and frugality; with gentleness of manners, obliging temper, and such qualifications as will attract notice, and recommend you to a happy establishment for life.