The True George Washington: Family Relations: His Wife's Family

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

His Wife's Family

Of his wife's kith and kin Washington was equally fond. Both alone and with Mrs. Washington he often visited her mother, Mrs. Dandridge, and in 1773 he wrote to a brother-in-law that he wished "I was master of Arguments powerful enough to prevail upon Mrs. Dandridge to make this place her entire and absolute home. I should think as she lives a lonesome life (Betsey being married) it might suit her well, & be agreeable, both to herself & my Wife, to me most assuredly it would." Washington was also a frequent visitor at "Eltham," the home of Colonel Bassett, who had married his wife's sister, and constantly corresponded with these relatives. He asked this whole family to be his guests at the Warm Springs, and, as this meant camping out in tents, he wrote, "You will have occasion to provide nothing, if I can be advised of your intentions, so that I may provide accordingly." To another brother-in-law, Bartholomew Dandridge, he lent money, and forgave the debt to the widow in his will, also giving her the use during her life of the thirty-three negroes he had bid in at the bankruptcy sale of her husband's property.

The pleasantest glimpses of family feeling are gained, however, in his relations with his wife's children and grandchildren. John Parke and Martha Parke Custis?or "Jack" and "Patsey," as he called them?were at the date of his marriage respectively six and four years of age, and in the first invoice of goods to be shipped to him from London after he had become their step-father, Washington ordered "10 shillings worth of Toys," "6 little books for children beginning to read," and "1 fashionable-dressed baby to cost 10 shillings." When this latter shared the usual fate, he further wrote for "1 fashionable dress Doll to cost a guinea," and for "A box of Gingerbread Toys & Sugar Images or Comfits." A little later he ordered a Bible and Prayer-Book for each, "neatly bound in Turkey," with names "in gilt letters on the inside of the cover," followed ere long by an order for "1 very good Spinet" As Patsy grew to girlhood she developed fits, and "solely on her account to try (by the advice of her Physician) the effect of the waters on her Complaint," Washington took the family over the mountains and camped at the "Warm Springs" in 1769, with "little benefit," for, after ailing four years longer, "she was seized with one of her usual Fits & expired in it, in less than two minutes, without uttering a word, or groan, or scarce a sigh." "The Sweet Innocent Girl," Washington wrote, "entered into a more happy & peaceful abode than she has met with in the afflicted Path she has hitherto trod," but none the less "it is an easier matter to conceive than to describe the distress of this family" at the loss of "dear Patsy Custis."

The care of Jack Custis was a worry to Washington in quite another way. As a lad, Custis signed his letters to him as "your most affectionate and dutiful son," "yet I conceive," Washington wrote, "there is much greater circumspection to be observed by a guardian than a natural parent." Soon after assuming charge of the boy, a tutor was secured, who lived at Mount Vernon, but the boy showed little inclination to study, and when fourteen, Washington wrote that "his mind [is] ... more turned ... to Dogs, Horses and Guns, indeed upon Dress and equipage." "Having his well being much at heart," Washington wished to make him "fit for more useful purposes than [a] horse racer," and so Jack was placed with a clergyman, who agreed to instruct him, and with him he lived, except for some home visits, for three years. Unfortunately, the lad, like the true Virginian planter of his day, had no taste for study, and had "a propensity for the [fair] sex." After two or three flirtations, he engaged himself, without the knowledge of his mother or guardian, to Nellie Calvert, a match to which no objection could be made, except that, owing to his "youth and fickleness," "he may either change and therefore injure the young lady; or that it may precipitate him into a marriage before, I am certain, he has ever bestowed a serious thought of the consequences; by which means his education is interrupted." To avoid this danger, Washington took his ward to New York and entered him in King's College, but the death of Patsy Custis put a termination to study, for Mrs. Washington could not bear to have the lad at such a distance, and Washington "did not care, as he is the last of the family, to push my opposition too far." Accordingly, Jack returned to Virginia and promptly married.

The young couple were much at Mount Vernon from this time on, and Washington wrote to "Dear Jack," "I am always pleased with yours and Nelly's abidance at Mount Vernon." When the winter snows made the siege of Boston purely passive, the couple journeyed with Mrs. Washington to Cambridge, and visited at head-quarters for some months. The arrival of children prevented the repetition of such visits, but frequent letters, which rarely failed to send love to "Nelly and the little girls," were exchanged. The acceptance of command compelled Washington to resign the care of Custis's estate, for which service "I have never charged him or his sister, from the day of my connexion with them to this hour, one farthing for all the trouble I have had in managing their estates, nor for any expense they have been to me, notwithstanding some hundreds of pounds would not reimburse the moneys I have actually paid in attending the public meetings in Williamsburg to collect their debts, and transact these several matters appertaining to the respective estates." Washington, however, continued his advice as to its management, and in other letters advised him concerning his conduct when Custis was elected a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. In the siege of Yorktown Jack served as an officer of militia, and the exposure proved too much for him. Immediately after the surrender, news reached Washington of his serious illness, and by riding thirty miles in one day he succeeded in reaching Eltham in "time enough to see poor Mr. Custis breath his last," leaving behind him "four lovely children, three girls and a boy."

Owing to his public employment, Washington refused to be guardian for these "little ones," writing "that it would be injurious to the children and madness in me, to undertake, as a principle, a trust which I could not discharge. Such aid, however, as it ever may be with me to give to the children especially the boy, I will afford with all my heart, and on this assurance you may rely." Yet "from their earliest infancy" two of Jack's children, George Washington Parke and Eleanor Parke Custis, lived at Mount Vernon, for, as Washington wrote in his will, "it has always been my intention, since my expectation of having issue has ceased, to consider the grandchildren of my wife in the same light as my own relations, and to act a friendly part by them." Though the cares of war prevented his watching their property interests, his eight years' absence could not make him forget them, and on his way to Annapolis, in 1783, to tender Congress his resignation, he spent sundry hours of his time in the purchase of gifts obviously intended to increase the joy of his homecoming to the family circle at Mount Vernon; set forth in his note-book as follows:

Table1.By Sundries bo't. in Phil'a.

A Locket5 5
3 Small Pockt. Books1 10
3 Sashes1 5 0
Dress Cap2 8
Hatt3 10
Childrens Books4 6
Whirligig1 6
Fiddle2 6
Quadrille Boxes1 17 6

Indeed, in every way Washington showed how entirely he considered himself as a father, not merely speaking of them frequently as "the children," but even alluding to himself in a letter to the boy as "your papa." Both were much his companions during the Presidency. A frequent sight in New York and Philadelphia was Washington taking "exercise in the coach with Mrs. Washington and the two children," and several times they were taken to the theatre and on picnics.

For Eleanor, or "Nelly," who grew into a great beauty, Washington showed the utmost tenderness, and on occasion interfered to save her from her grandmother, who at moments was inclined to be severe, in one case to bring the storm upon himself. For her was bought a "Forte piano," and later, at the cost of a thousand dollars, a very fine imported harpsichord, and one of Washington's great pleasures was to have her play and sing to him. His ledger constantly shows gifts to her ranging from "The Wayworn traveller, a song for Miss Custis," to "a pr. of gold eardrops" and a watch. The two corresponded. One letter from Washington merits quotation:

"Let me touch a little now on your Georgetown ball, and happy, thrice happy, for the fair who assembled on the occasion, that there was a man to spare; for had there been 79 ladies and only 78 gentlemen, there might, in the course of the evening have been some disorder among the caps; notwithstanding the apathy which one of the company entertains for the 'youth' of the present day, and her determination 'Never to give herself a moment's uneasiness on account of any of them.' A hint here; men and women feel the same inclinations towards each other now that they always have done, and which they will continue to do until there is a new order of things, and you, as others have done, may find, perhaps, that the passions of your sex are easier raised than allayed. Do not therefore boast too soon or too strongly of your insensibility to, or resistance of, its powers. In the composition of the human frame there is a good deal of inflammable matter, however dormant it may lie for a time, and like an intimate acquaintance of yours, when the torch is put to it, that which is within you may burst into a blaze; for which reason and especially too, as I have entered upon the chapter of advices, I will read you a lecture from this text."

Not long after this was written, Nelly, as already mentioned, was married at Mount Vernon to Washington's nephew, Lawrence Lewis, and in time became joint-owner with her husband of part of that place.

As early as 1785 a tutor was wanted for "little Washington," as the lad was called, and Washington wrote to England to ask if some "worthy man of the cloth could not be obtained," "for the boy is a remarkably fine one, and my intention is to give him a liberal education." His training became part of the private secretary's duty, both at Mount Vernon and New York and Philadelphia, but the lad inherited his father's traits, and "from his infancy ... discovered an almost unconquerable disposition to indolence." This led to failures which gave Washington "extreme disquietude," and in vain he "exhorted him in the most parental and friendly manner." Custis would express "sorrow and repentance" and do no better. Successively he was sent to the College of Philadelphia, the College of New Jersey, and that at Annapolis, but from each he was expelled, or had to be withdrawn. Irritating as it must have been, his guardian never in his letters expressed anything but affection, shielded the lad from the anger of his step-father, and saw that he was properly supplied with money, of which he asked him to keep a careful account,?though this, as Washington wrote, was "not because I want to know how you spend your money." After the last college failure a private tutor was once more engaged, but a very few weeks served to give Washington "a thorough conviction that it was in vain to keep Washington Custis to any literary pursuits, either in a public Seminary or at home," and, as the next best thing, he procured him a cornetcy in the provisional army. Even here, balance was shown; for, out of compliment and friendship to Washington, "the Major Generals were desirous of placing him as lieutenant in the first instance; but his age considered, I thought it more eligible that he should enter into the lowest grade."

In this connection one side of Washington's course with his relations deserves especial notice. As early as 1756 he applied for a commission in the Virginia forces for his brother, and, as already shown, he placed several of his nephews and other connections in the Revolutionary or provisional armies. But he made clear distinction between military and civil appointments, and was very scrupulous about the latter. When his favorite nephew asked for a Federal appointment, Washington answered,?

"You cannot doubt my wishes to see you appointed to any office of honor or emolument in the new government, to the duties of which you are competent; but however deserving you may be of the one you have suggested, your standing at the bar would not justify my nomination of you as attorney to the Federal District Court in preference to some of the oldest and most esteemed general court lawyers in your State, who are desirous of this appointment. My political conduct in nominations, even if I were uninfluenced by principle, must be exceedingly circumspect and proof against just criticism; for the eyes of Argus are upon me, and no slip will pass unnoticed, that can be improved into a supposed partiality for friends or relations."

And that in this policy he was consistent is shown by a letter of Jefferson, who wrote to an office-seeking relative, "The public will never be made to believe that an appointment of a relative is made on the ground of merit alone, uninfluenced by family views; nor can they ever see with approbation offices, the disposal of which they entrust to their Presidents for public purposes, divided out as family property. Mr. Adams degraded himself infinitely by his conduct on this subject, as Genl. Washington had done himself the greatest honor. With two such examples to proceed by, I should be doubly inexcusable to err."

There were many other more distant relatives with whom pleasant relations were maintained, but enough has been said to indicate the intercourse. Frequent were the house-parties at Mount Vernon, and how unstinted hospitality was to kith and kin is shown by many entries in Washington's diary, a single one of which will indicate the rest: "I set out for my return home?at which I arrived a little after noon?And found my Brother Jon Augustine his Wife; Daughter Milly, & Sons Bushrod & Corbin, & the Wife of the first. Mr. Willm Washington & his Wife and 4 Children."

His will left bequests to forty-one of his own and his wife's relations. "God left him childless that he might be the father of his country."