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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
Since this letter was unlike most of the run-of-the-mill correspondence he received, Washington did not know exactly what to do with it. He could not refer it to any government department “for appropriate reply.” All he could do was ask his wife Martha for a suggestion. She was glad to help. In fact, the original draft for the following letter is in her hand—with one small “in” added by the President (see paragraph three).
Philadelphia, April 7, 1796
Sir: Your letter of the first instt has been duly received. The subject on which it is written is a serious one, and it shall meet, as it deserves, a serious consideration. My niece Harriot Washington having very little fortune of her own, neither she, nor her friends, have a right to make that (however desirable it might be) a primary consideration in a matrimonial connexion. But there are other requisites which are equally desirable, and which ought to be attended to in a union of so much importance; without therefore expressing at this moment, either assent, or dissent, to the proposal you have made, it is necessary for me to pause.
My wish is to see my niece happy; one step toward which, is for her to be united with a gentleman of respectable connexions; and of good dispositions; with one who is more in the habit (by fair and honorable pursuits) of making than in spending money; and who can support her in the way she has always lived.
As you propose being in Baltimore in the course of a few weeks, I shall not object to the receipt of any further details on this subject, which you may be disposed to give from that place: which when received may enable me to write more decisively from hence, or from Virginia when I get there: which will happen, I expect as soon as Congress shall have closed its session.
I am etc.
/s/ G. Washington
On the same day, Washington wrote his sister saying he would “throw no impediment in the way of their Marriage”—but he wished Harriot would wait. He had hoped she would make “a better connexion.” To accomplish this, he felt she would have plenty of opportunities when he came back home to retire. She could come up to Mount Vernon and meet a host of eligible young men—for example, the son of the Marquis de Lafayette, who was then staying there.
Since there was no F.B.I, or Price Waterhouse in those days to check the credentials of Andrew Parks, Washington asked some friends in Fredericksburg to look into the young man’s background. He particularly wanted to know whether Parks was a “native or a foreigner,” and how substantial his business was. Nothing derogatory was turned up. Andrew came from a respectable middle-class family in Baltimore, and his inventory, though not enormous, was not shoddy.
So the couple announced their plans, and Washington sent Harriot a present of money for her trousseau. The couple were married in July, and Harriot quickly reported to Washington:
Mill Brook July 17-96
Aunt Lewis received a letter from my dear & Honored Uncle a few days ago wherein he was pleased to send me thirty pound also a great deal of good advice which I am extremely obleig d to you for and intend adhering most strictly to it.
Beleive me, my dear Uncle, my heart will ever with the liveliest gratitude most gratefully acknowledge and remember yours and Aunt Washington’s great goodness and attention to me and if my Uncle will only answer my letter and say he is not offended at my Union (which took place yesterday, Aunt Lewis’s going immediately to Berkley to stay untill the fall &: finding it not convenient to carry me with her wished us married before she went), I shall be happy for after my dear Uncle’s protection & kindness towards me I should be a most miserable being to reflect that I had displeas’d my greatest friend.
I shall take the liberty of troubleing my Uncle to return my thanks to Aunt Washington for the earings she sent me from Philadelphia which I received but a week ago from Berkley. Aunt Lewis is much mended 8c intends answering your letter by the next post. Aunt Lewis joins me in love to you and Aunt Washington.
I am my dear and Honor’d Uncle Your affectionate neice Harriot Parks
To their union were added seven children, and they lived happily ever after.