April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
A though he was the Father of our Country, George Washington begat no children of his own. But he knew what children were made of. He came from a large family— his father had ten children by two wives—and he outlived them all. Near the end of his life, his home at Mount Vernon became the center of a great clan including eighteen nephews and nieces in varying degrees of dependency upon him. In this home he reared two generations of Custis children, beginning with a boy and girl by Martha’s first husband, the dashing, erratic multimillionaire Daniel Parke Custis. Three children of his brother Samuel also knew George Washington as their immediate guardian. And in the supervision of his estates, he witnessed the intimate affairs of many other families, white and black.
From all these, he learned a lot about parenthood. Like most men, he probably thought he learned more than he did. He was supremely confident of his ability to advise his young kin on all kinds of personal matters. But in a final rating of his talent as a parent, his biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, concludes he was “a failure.”
Perhaps he was a failure when it came to raising Martha’s children, John (Jackie) Parke Custis and Martha (Patsy) Parke Custis. These two, although they were both under five when he married their mother in 1759 never seemed to come under his full command. For one thing, they were both much richer than he was, so he had to treat them with a certain respect. After all, it’s hard to spank a millionaire, no matter how small he is.
His wife, Martha, wasn’t much better. She was an indulgent, fearful mother—as perhaps young widows tend to be—and she was filled with anxieties over her children’s health. She never liked to leave Jackie alone. She couldn’t bear the worry of having him inoculated for smallpox, so George had to arrange a secret rendezvous with a doctor in Baltimore. She dressed her Jackie in the finest suits from London (with velvet linings), and gave him a liveried body servant to find his hat (laced with silver) and be sure his shoes were buckled properly.
At fourteen—after several years of desultory tutoring in Latin and Greek—Jackie was sent away to boarding school. In a letter to the headmaster, Washington introduced his stepson as “a boy of good genius … untainted in his morals, and of innocent manners.” But he added the hope that the school would be able “to make him fit for more useful purposes than a horse racer.” At that age. Jackie’s only interests were “dogs, horses, and guns.”
Some time later, after the boy’s exploits in and out of school had driven him to despair, the headmaster told Washington exactly what he thought of Master Custis. “I must confess to you I never did in my life know a youth so exceedingly indolent or so surprisingly voluptuous: one would suppose Nature had intended him for some Asiatic Prince!”
What could Washington do? He couldn’t cut off Jackie’s allowance. Martha wouldn’t let him use a horsewhip. The line of command was too vague to permit a direct order. And besides, Washington rather enjoyed his sporty stepson.
When Jackie decided he’d try a little higher education, Washington took him up to New York City to enroll him in King’s College (Columbia)—accompanied by a body servant and two fine horses (a gray and a bay). He was also able to persuade the faculty to grant his stepson the unique privilege of taking meals with them.
This arrangement lasted until Jackie decided to marry Nelly Calvert (of the Baltimore Calverts), who lived across the Potomac from Mount Vernon. Washington tried to postpone this wedding, but, again, he had no means except suasion, and that wasn’t enough. Jackie soon married Nelly and settled down to a gentleman’s life of dogs, horses, and guns.
When Washington became commander in chief of the Continental Army, Jackie developed a polite interest in the military. He accepted a commission in the local militia but didn’t leave home to do any campaigning. At the end of the war, when the front lines were close by at Yorktown, Jackie rode over to his “Pappa’s” headquarters to serve a spell as a temporary aide-de-camp. There he caught some foul camp disease and died.
His younger sister, Patsy, had died some eight years before, at the age of seventeen. She was a delicate child, subject to convulsions. Martha had tried everything to restore her health, including “fit drops” and baths at Berkeley Springs, in what is now West Virginia. Washington did what his wife told him to do but otherwise stood helplessly by as the sad little girl dwindled away.
Jackie was twenty-seven when he died. He left four children: three girls and a boy—and a splendid stallion called Magnolia. The two oldest daughters went with their mother when she remarried. The boy and the other girl stayed with their grandmother at Mount Vernon. Washington took care of the stallion for a while but eventually traded it to Henry Lee for five thousand acres of Kentucky land.
In the eyes of the second brace of Custis. children, Washington was a famous grandfather rather than a parent. He was too old and too busy with the destinies of the republic to spend much time with them. He couldn’t tell bedtime stories or play ball in the front yard. But he enjoyed having “the children” living on his estate. They were an attractive pair—a peacock and a bantam rooster.
Eleanor, the older (called Nelly like her mother), was an adorable young lady. She had all the social graces. She played the harpsichord, sang her grandfather’s favorite songs for him, and entertained his distinguished guests. At the age of nineteen, she became engaged to the son of Washington’s sister, and, as a special compliment to “Grandpapa,” she chose the twenty-second of February, 1799, for her wedding day. It turned out to be his last birthday.
E leanor’s little brother, George Washington Parke Custis, called “Young Custis,” was a chip off the elegant and extravagant Jackie. For Washington this young man must have been a trial to the spirit, but again, for some reason, little or no parental discipline was applied. Perhaps, like his father, Young Custis was so charming and so rich and so much his grandmother’s boy—that Washington couldn’t lay a hand on him.
Young Custis took the same rosy path as his father. Instead of Columbia, however, he tried Princeton, where straightway he got into some “contest with the passions.” Washington did not identify this contest specifically, but he spoke broadly of five areas of concern: ribaldry, rioting, swearing, intoxication, and gambling. In describing him to Professor Stanhope Smith of that college, he used words that might have been used to describe the boy’s father, Jackie. He said Young Custis had an “almost unconquerable disposition to indolence in everything that did not tend to his amusements.”
After this episode Young Custis sent his stcpgrandfather a flowery letter of apology and announced that he was transferring to St. John’s College in Annapolis. He lasted there for a few months and then, during the war-scare year of 1798, he volunteered to defend his country against the foe. He asked Washington’s permission to enlist in the local troop of Light Dragoons with the rank of cornet (the man who carried the colors). Permission was granted after an affair with some sixteen-year-old girl was cleared up.
After Washington’s death, Young Custis married a local belle, Miss Mary Lee Fitzhugh, and built a mansion for her on his estate opposite the capital city. He called it Arlington—and later, he gave it to the man who married his only child, an officer in the U.S. Army by the name of Robert E. Lee. This estate is now covered with a fort, a cemetery, and a big building shaped like a pentagon, as well as Arlington House.
Before he died, Young Custis became venerable and honored. He wrote a play called Pocahonlas, or the Selliers of Virginia which ran twelve nights in Philadelphia “with great success.” He gave a memorable speech on the night of June 5, 1813, when the people of Washington, D.C., celebrated the news of the Russian victory over Napoleon. He was in frequent demand as a patriotic orator. In his addresses, he always paid tribute to his grandmother’s second husband (whom he called “Pater Patriae”), the noblest of models for his boyhood and for all red-blooded American boys. If he had any criticism of Washington, it was simply that he got up too early in the morning and worked too hard during the day. Also, his clothes lacked style.
Since Washington couldn’t do very much with or about the children and grandchildren of his wife, he tried to exercise more parental authority over the children of his younger brother, Samuel: George Steptoe, Lawrence Augustine, and Harriot. He tried to make these three what the Custis children never could be, namely: plain, hard-working, middle-class citizens.
Samuel’s children were born on a comfortable estate in western Virginia near a large tract of land belonging to Uncle George. Samuel had, successively, five wives, and he died soon after he married the last one—in 1781, the same year Jackie Custis died. For some time thereafter his children lived on with their stepmother, and then, after Uncle George went out to inspect his western lands and relatives, they came east to grow up at Mount Vernon. According to Washington’s diary, Samuel’s estate was “wretchedly managed,” and he felt the children would have a better opportunity under his care. George was then fourteen; Lawrence, eleven; and Harriot, nine.
The first thing he did was put the two boys in a boarding school run by a Presbyterian minister in Georgetown. The girl, Harriot, stayed at Mount Vernon for a while, possibly as a playmate for the Custis children. But she was always a “country cousin,” a poor relative from the sticks of western Virginia.
The boys didn’t last long in Georgetown. They ran up such a bill that the General took them out of the school and sent them to a more modest one in nearby Alexandria where he could keep his eye on them. There, as he put it, they would receive the “kind of education which would be the most extensively useful to people of the lower class of citizens, namely, reading, writing, and arithmetic.” He was not enthusiastic about the aristocratic curriculum of Greek and Latin which the Custis children were receiving from private tutors.
In Alexandria, the boys boarded at the home of the Widow Dade but they were often invited to Mount Vernon to spend the night. The General would send his horses over to pick them up before supper. Once they surprised their uncle and aunt by bringing along their dancing master, Mr. John B. O’Kelly.
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
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
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
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. …
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.
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.
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
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.