History classes have provided Americans some familiarity with Washington the Revolutionary War General and Washington the first president of the United States, but most people have little knowledge about the more personal aspects of his life. Washington was a loving husband, a doting father and grandfather to his wife's children and grandchildren, and a patriarchal benefactor to nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends. As the head of a large, extended family Washington often gave advice and direction, both solicited and unsolicited, upon a variety of topics. Perhaps surprisingly one of these subjects was love and marriage.
|In a number of letters to members of his family, Washington cautioned the young adults to make "prudent" choices in marriage. He suggested that before Eleanor Calvert Custis, the widow of Martha's son Jack, remarry, she should consider:|
"the family & connexions of the man...the line of conduct he has observed...what prospect there is of his proving kind & affectionate to you...and, how far his connexions will be agreeable to you...." (see letter)
Similar words were given to Martha's granddaughter Elizabeth, when Washington wrote:
"Love is a mighty pretty thing; but like all other delicious things, it is cloying; and when the first transports of the passion begins to subside, which it assuredly will do, and yield--oftentimes too late--to more sober reflections, it serves to evince, that love is too dainty a food to live upon alone...." (see letter)
While Washington apparently did not hesitate to give cautionary advice to the younger generation on affairs of the heart, he stopped short of interference with anyone's choice of a spouse. "It has ever been a maxim with me, through life, neither to promote, nor to prevent a matrimonial connection, unless there should be something, indispensably requiring interference in the latter." (see letter)
There has been much speculation by historians about his marriage to the widow Martha Dandridge Custis, but about its success Washington had no doubt as his remarks to Charles Armand-Tuffin on 10 August 1786 indicate:
"For in my estimation more permanent & genuine happiness is to be found in the sequestered walks of connubial life, than in the giddy rounds of promiscuous pleasure, or the more tumultuous and imposing scenes of successful ambition." (Confederation Series, 4:203-4)
George and Martha were married for nearly forty years before Washington's death in December 1799. Unfortunately for later historians, Martha, before her death in 1802, destroyed nearly all the correspondence with her husband in an attempt to preserve the privacy of their relationship. But Washington's thoughts on love and marriage in general can be found in the letters he wrote to his grandchildren and other various family members and friends. His words, written over two centuries ago, give a glimpse into the mind of Washington on a subject far removed from war and politics.