Pater Patriae As Pater Familias

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You might, instead of associating with those from whom you can derive nothing that is good, but may have observed every thing that is deceitful, lying, and bad, become the intimate companion of and aid to your Cousin in the domestic concerns of the family. Many Girls before they have arrived at your age have been found so trustworthy as to take the whole trouble of a family from their Mothers; but it is by a steady and rigid attention to the rules of propriety that such confidence is obtained, and nothing would give me more pleasure than to hear you had acquired it. The merits and benefits of it would redound more to your advantage in your progress thro life, and to the person with whom you may in due time form a matrimonial connexion than to any others; but to none would such a circumstance afford more real satisfaction, than to Your affectionate Uncle.

/s/ G. Washington

At the age of seventeen, Harriot went to live with her Aunt Betty Lewis (the President’s sister) in Fredericksburg. This is the city about forty miles south of Mount Vernon where Washington spent the days of his youth. He hoped his niece would prosper in it—and not be too much of a burden on her aunt. In a letter to his sister, he thought it only fair to mention some of Harriot’s bad habits—especially, the way she threw her clothes around her room. He felt her wardrobe was more than adequate: “This much I know, that she costs me enough to place her in it.”

Mrs. Lewis replied in a calm, sisterly letter, assuring the President that everything was all right. Harriot was a good girl, and she would fit into her household very well. So Washington stopped worrying about his niece. He had plenty of other things to worry about: Indians on the warpath, radical Frenchmen on the seacoast, quarrels in the Cabinet, the Whiskey Rebellion, and a troublesome treaty with Great Britain. And from time to time, Harriot would write him a note asking for permission to buy a new corset.

Fredericksburg, April 24, 1795

The President of the United States

How shall I apologize to my dear and Honored for intruding on his goodness so soon again but being sensible of your kindness to me, which I shall ever remember with the most heartfelt gratitude, induces me to make known my want.

I have not had a pair of stays since I first came here. If you could let me have a pair, I should be very much obliged to you—and also a hat and a few other articles. I hope, my dear Uncle, you will not think I am extravagant for really I take as much care of my clothes as I possibly can.

I was very much pleased to hear by Mrs. Madison that you and Aunt Washington were perfectly well. I have been very sick lately with the ague and fever. Cousin Carter has been dangerously ill. She was given out by the Doctors but is much better at present.

Aunt Lewis joins me in love to you and Aunt Washington.

I am, my dear and Honored Uncle Your affectionate Niece, /s/ Harriot Washington

Harriot was nineteen when she fell in love with a local merchant named Andrew Parks. However, she told Andrew she would not marry him until he had secured her uncle’s permission. Andrew had the desperate courage of a man in love, so he wrote a letter to Washington and asked Harriot’s aunt to forward it with some kind words of her own. This she was glad to do. In a brief covering letter, she told her brother that Mr. Parks was “very much respected by all his acquaintances, sober, sedate, and attentive to business.” These were just the kind of adjectives she knew her brother would like to hear.

Andrew’s letter is written on gray bond paper in a neat, though undistinguished hand. He undoubtedly rewrote it several times.

Fredericksburg, Virginia, April 1, 1796

The President of the United States

Although entirely unknown to you, circumstances relative to your Niece, Miss Harriot Washington, and myself, make it necessary for me to trouble you with a letter, and to give you intimation of what has occurred between us. I have made my addresses to her and she has referred me to you, whose consent I am to acquire, or her objections to a Union with me are, I am afraid, insuperable. Having then no hope of possessing her unless I should be so fortunate as to obtain your assent, and as my happiness measurably depends upon your determination, I shall endeavor by stating to you my situation and prospects in life, to merit and induce your approbation. Yet they are such as I fear will not much conduce to your favorable decision.

I have lived in Fredericksburg for more than three years. My connexions generally reside in Baltimore, and are mostly rich. I am engaged here in the Mercantile Business and concerned therein with my Brother-in-Law, Mr. McElderry of Baltimore. My fortune at present does not much exceed three thousand pounds, but with industry and economy, I have every expectation of rapidly improving my condition in that respect.

To enter into a detail of my family, I suppose would be unnecessary, however I shall be in Baltimore a few weeks hence, and if in the interim, you should propose no objection of me, I will take the liberty of writing to you again and give you a more particular account of myself and friends, when it is probable my pecuniary situation may be meliorated.

The enclosed letter from Mrs. Lewis, who I solicited to write and say something to you concerning me.

I am, Sir, with infinite respect, Your most obedient and humble servant, /s/ Andrew Parks