Washington's Advice On Love & Marriage
George Washington to G.W. Parke Custis,
13 June 1798 and
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Despite Washington's expressed belief in non-interference in the romantic lives of others, he was considerably less restrained in the advice he gave to his seventeen-year-old grandson George Washington Parke Custis in June 1798.
At the time of the following signed letter, located in the Custis Papers at the Virginia Historical Society, Custis was a student at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. He had enrolled there in March after having left the College of New Jersey at Princeton the previous October under less than favorable conditions. Custis's academic career, thus far, was a disappointment to his family and caused his grandfather much concern. Now a possible romantic entanglement threatened the young man's already tenuous pursuit of an education.
It is now near four weeks since any person of this family has heard from you, although you were requested to write to some one in it, once a fortnight, knowing (as you must do) how apt your Grandmama is to suspect that you are sick, or some accident has happened to you, when you omit this?
I have said, that none of us have heard from you, but it behooves me to add, that from persons in Alexandria, lately from Annapolis, we have, with much surprise, been informed of your devoting much time, to paying particular attentions to, a certain young lady of that place! Knowing that conjectures are often substituted for facts, and idle reports are circulated without foundation, we are not disposed to give greater credit to these than what arises from a fear that your application to Books is not such as it ought to be; and that the hours which might be more profitably employed at your studies, are mispent in this manner.
Recollect the saying of the wise man, "That there is a time for all things" and sure I am it is not a time for you to think of forming a serious attachment of this kind, and particular attentions without, this would be [dishonourable]and might involve a <consequence> [consequence] of wch you are not aware. In forming a connection, which is to be binding for life, many considerations, besides the mere gratification of the passions, and of more durability, are essential to happiness. These, in a boy of your age, all yield to the latter; which, when endulged, too often fleets away, and when it is too late, the others occur with sorrow & repentance. Among other considerations nothing is more desirable than to be connected with an irreproachable family--But As I am willing to believe the report is groundless, and that you have not forgotten so soon the admonition I have so often given you; and the exhortation at parting, to forsake all things & cleve to your Books, until a regular & proper system of education is completed; not merely such an one as you may be content with, but such as your Tutors and friends, better judges than yourself shall prescribe.
I will add no more at present, than that the family here are well as usual; and that I wish to remain, so far as your own conduct will let me be, Your sincere friend, and Affectionate Advisor
|The report, as mamma tells me, of my being engaged to the young lady in question, is strictly erroneous. That I gave her reason to believe in my attachment to her, I candidly allow, but that I would enter into engagements inconsistent with my duty or situation, I hope your good opinion of me will make you disbelieve. That I stated to her my prospects, duty, and dependance upon the absolute will of my friends, I solemnly affirm. That I solicited her affection, and hoped, with the approbation of my family, to bring about a union at some future day, I likewise allow. The conditions were not accepted, and my youth being alleged by me as an obstacle to the consummation of my wishes at the present time (which was farthest from my thoughts), I withdrew, and that on fair and honorable terms, to the satisfaction of my friends.|
The original manuscript copy of this letter has not been found, but it is included in Custis's Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington and is printed in the Retirement Series, 2:335-36. The "young lady in question" was probably Elizabeth Jennings, the daughter of Thomas and Juliana Jennings, who lived in the Paca House on Prince George Street in Annapolis. Later that summer Custis would refer to his "happy escape" (David Stuart to George Washington, 22 August 1798, Retirement Series, 2:558). To his grandfather's relief, no doubt, Custis waited until 1804 to marry. His wife was Mary Lee Fitzhugh, the daughter of William Fitzhugh of Chatham and his wife Anne Randolph. Custis's daughter Mary would eventually marry Robert E. Lee, thus joining two prominent Virginia families.