The Family Life of George Washington

The Family Life of George Washington


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 Washington had no children of his own to inherit his peculiar abilities and traits of character



The Family Life of George Washington

By Charles Moore

(Houghton Mifflin Company, 1926)


Pages 148 ff.

“At six months of age, my father became the Child of Mount Vernon, the idol of his grandmother and and object on which was lavished the caresses and attention of the many distinguished guests who thronged that hospitable mansion. His beautiful sister Nelly often observed: ‘Grandmamma always spoiled Washington.’ He was the pride of her heart; while the public duties of the Veteran prevented the exercise of his influence in forming the character of the boy, too softly nurtured under his roof, and gifted with talents which, under sterner discipline, might have made him more available for his own and his country’s good.”

So wrote Mrs. Robert E. Lee of her father, George Washington Parke Custis [1781-1857], of Arlington, in 1859, two years after his death. Here is, indeed,  a case in which the sins of the children are visited on the parents–and quite unjustly. If Mr. Custis did not in his own person realize the fond wishes of his progenitors and his descendants, at least he rendered two services which will cause his name to shine in the history of his country. His recollection of Washington, in the form of newspaper articles, written as the spirit moved him during a period of thirty years, give to posterity the most authentic, consistent, and intimate account of the personal, family life of Washington . . .

Therefore we may overlook the disappointment and chagrin of his relatives that as boy and man unconquerable indolence prevented G.W.P. Custis  [1781-1857] from realizing the great expectations centered in him . . . .

In Nov, 1796, Pres Washington wrote from Philadelphia to young Custis, then a student at Princeton College, enclosing a ten-dollar bill ‘to purchase a gown, etc., if proper. At the time Washington was sixty-four years old and Custis was fifteen. . . .

Washington had no children of his own to inherit his peculiar abilities and traits of character, but he strove to impress on his wife’s children and grandchildren those ideas and ideals which the experience of an arduous life had instilled in him. In these endeavours he had to content with the erratic Parke and Custis blood . . . .

This letter gave Washington great satisfaction, but his complacency was rudely shattered a month later by a note from President Smith the contents of which may be inferred by the reply thereto:

Your favor of the 18th instant . . . filled my mind (as you naturally supposed it would) with extreme disquietude. From his (Custis’s) infancy I have discovered an almost unconquerable disposition to indolence in everything that did not tend to his amusements; and have exhorted him in the most tender and parental manner often, to devote his time to more useful pursuits. His pride has been stimulated and his family expectations and wishes have been urged as inducements thereto. In short, I could say nothing more to him now by way of admonition, encouragement or advice that has not been repeated over and over again.

Custis did not return to Princeton. In March Dr. Stuart (his mother’s husband) took him to Annapolis and entered him at Saint John’s College.

In commending Custis to President McDowell, indolence of mind was Washington’s charge against the boy, adding, “I know of no vice to which this inertness can be attributed. From drinking and gaming he is perfectly free, and if he has a propensity to any other impropriety it is hidden from me. He is generous and regardful of truth.” Washington was correct as well as sincere. As Custis was at sixteen, so he remained to the end of his days. . . .

Five weeks having elapsed without a letter from Annapolis, the family heard disquieting rumors in Alexandria that Custis was “devoting much time and paying much attention to a certain young lady.” Washington’s admonition was: “Recollect the saying of the wise man, ‘There is a time for all things,’ and sure I am this is not a time for  a boy of your age to enter into engagements which might end in sorrow and repentance.” . . .

Custis did not return to Annapolis in the September of 17898. he was ready to go because the family wished it; but his reluctance was so great that Washington knew the uselessness of a further stay there. In his hopelessness the perplexed “father of his country” sends to Dr. Stuart this confession of futility in his dealings with his foster son:

What is best to be done with him I know not. My opinion has always been, that the university of Mass. would have been the most eligible seminary to have sent him to; first, because it is on a larger scale than any other; and, secondly, because I believe that the habits of the youth there, whether from the discipline of the school, or the greater attention of the people generally to morals, and a more regular course of life, are less prone to dissipation and excess than they are at the colleges south of it. . . .

What schools could not do for young Custis, Washington hoped the camp accomplish . . . Washington selected Alexander Hamilton and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as major-generals, and the latter took upon his staff young Custis, who had already been commissioned a cornet of horse.

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posted 29 June 2008  




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