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….”
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.
About the Custis Family
Eleanor and Elizabeth Parke Custis were two of Martha Washington’s four grandchildren. Martha’s son, John Parke Custis, born during her earlier marriage to Daniel Parke Custis, had four children by his wife Eleanor Calvert: Elizabeth (Betsey) Parke (1776-1832), Martha (Patsy) Parke (1777-1854), Eleanor (Nelly) Parke (1779-1852), and George Washington Parke (1781-1857).
John Parke Custis died in 1781, and in 1783 his widow Eleanor married David Stuart, an Alexandria physician. The eldest two daughters (Elizabeth and Martha) lived with their mother and stepfather, while Nelly and her brother lived with their grandparents George and Martha Washington.
Short visits between the two homes were frequent, but in the winter of 1795-96, when the letter from George Washington in Philadelphia to Nelly dated 21 March 1796, was written, Nelly was sent for an extended stay with her mother at the Stuart estate of Hope Park, located ten miles west of Alexandria in Fairfax County. George and Martha spent that winter in Philadelphia so that the President could attend the First Session of the Fourth Congress.
Martha (Patty) Parke Custis (1777-1854), the second daughter of John Parke Custis and Eleanor Calvert, was born in the Blue Room at Mount Vernon. Patty married Thomas Peter (1769-1834) on January 6, 1795 at Hope Park. Before she was married, Patty requested a miniature of himself from her step grandfather, George Washington. Painted in Philadelphia, 1794-1795, by Walter Robertson, the miniature is watercolor on ivory and is set in gold, and depicts the General in his continental army uniform. Martha Peter’s daughter Britannia later recorded: “When Mrs. Peter was about to be married, she wrote to General Washington and asked him to sit for his miniature for her, -telling him, that the wish nearest her heart was, to possess his likeness. He replied by saying, -he would with pleasure comply with her request; but, -he could never believe the wish nearest a young lady’s heart –on the eve of her marriage, was to possess an old man’s picture.”
Patricia Brady, ed., George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly: The Letters of Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, 1794-1851, xix, 1-3, 20-23.
Information on Martha Parke Custis courtesy of Wendy Kail, Archivist, Tudor Place Historic House and Garden. Tudor Place Archives, Britannia’s Gleanings, pp. 96- 97, MS 7, Box 8, F 1. More information on Martha Parke Custis Peter»
- GW to Lund Washington, 20 Sept. 1783
- GW to William Gordon, 20 Dec. 1784
- GW to Burwell Bassett, 23 May 1785
- Martha Washington to Frances “Fanny” Bassett, 29 Aug. 1794
- GW to Elizabeth “Betsey” Parke Custis, 14 Sept. 1794
- GW to Elizabeth “Betsey” Parke Custis, 10 Feb. 1796
- GW to Thomas Law, 10 Feb. 1796
- GW to Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, 21 Mar. 1796
- GW to Sally Ball Haynie, 11 Feb. 1798
- GW to George Washington Parke Custis, 13 June 1798
- George Washington Parke Custis to GW, 17 June 1798