George Washington to Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, 21 March 1796


Nelly Custis, granddaughter of Martha Washington From G.W.P. Custis’s Recollections

The following letter, which will appear in a future volume of the Presidential Series, was first published in George Washington Parke Custis’s Recollections of Washington (Philadelphia, 1861), pp. 41-44. It was reprinted in John C. Fitzpatrick’s Writings of Washington, vol. 34, pp. 91-93. Both sources date the letter as 16 January 1795, but this date is incorrect. Only fragments of the original manuscript, deposited in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, Great Britain, have been identified. Although the original letterhead no longer exists, the content of the printed letter clearly indicates that Custis made an error in transcribing the date and that Fitzpatrick replicated this mistake in his later publication. A twentieth-century, typed transcript, apparently made by a private owner of the manuscript before it became fragmented, exists in the library of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Dated 21 March 1796, the transcript matches the extant fragments in Oxford, and together they both suggest that Custis silently emended his grandfather’s capitalization, spelling, and punctuation, and eliminated parts of his grandfather’s letter, especially those that did not pertain to the subject of love and marriage. Custis did this despite his claim to “give it entire, precisely as it was written in the original, now before us.”

The mention of the marriage of Nelly’s eldest sister Betsey, near the end of the letter, clearly places the letter in early 1796, for on Saturday 6 February 1796 George Washington had received a letter from Betsey announcing her engagement (this letter of 1 February has not been found). Another letter, written by Washington to Betsey’s fiancé Thomas Law (link to letter) and owned by the Morgan Library in New York, also suggests that Custis’s date of 1795 was an error.

The letter printed below is taken from the typed transcript with the major differences from the Custis version indicated by bold type. Variations between the typed transcript and the Oxford fragments can be noted by examining the images of the fragments.

Philadelphia, 21st Mar. 1796

My dear Nelly,

In one respect, I have complied fully with my promise to you, in another I have deviated from it in a small degree. I have given you letter for letter, but not with the promptitude I intended; your last of the 29th ult. having lain by me several days unacknowledged. This, however might reasonably have been expected from the multiplicity of my business.

Your letter, the receipt of which I am now acknowledging, is written correctly, and in fair characters; which is an evidence that you command, when you please, a fair hand. Possessed of these advantages, it will be your own fault if you do not avail yourself of them: and attention being paid to the choice of your subjects, you can have nothing to fear from the malignancy of criticism, as your ideas are lively, and your descriptions agreeable. Your sentences are pretty well pointed; but you do not as is proper begin a new paragraph when you change your subject. Attend to these hints and you will deserve more credit from a few lines well adjusted and written in a fair hand, then for a whole sheet scribbled over as if to fill or <missing text> the bottom of the paper, was the principal<missing text> or design of the letter.

I make these remarks not from your letter to me, but because many of those to your Grandmama appear to have been written in too much haste; and because this is the time to form your character, improve your diction.

This much by way of advice and admonition. Let me touch a little now, on your George Town Ball; and happy, thrice happy, for the fair who were assembled on the occasion, that there was a man to spare; for had there been seventy nine Ladies & only seventy eight Gentlemen, there might, in the course of the evening, have been some disorder among the caps; notwithstanding the apathy which oneof the company entertains for the “youth of the present day, and her determination never to give herself a moments uneasiness on account of any of them.” A hint here; men & 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 roused than allayed. Do not therefore boast too soon, nor too strongly, of your insensibility to, or resistance of its powers.

In the composition of the human frame there is a good deal of inflaminable matter; however dormant it may be for a while, 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 on the chapter of advices I will read you a lecture drawn from this text.

Love is said to be an involuntary passion and it is therefore contended that it cannot be resisted. This is true, in part only; for like all things else when nourished and supplied plentifully with [aliment,] it is rapid in its progress; but let these be withdrawn and it may be stifled in its birth or much stunted in its growth.

For example–a woman (the same with the other sex) all beautiful & accomplished will, while her hand & heart are undispared of [turn] the heads, and set the Circle in which [s]he moves on him.

Let her marry, and what is the consequence? The madness ceases and all is quiet again: Why? not because there is any diminuation in the charm[s] of the lady but because there is an end of hope. Hence it follows that love may and therefore that it ought to be under the guidance of reason. For although we cannot avoid first impressions, we may assuredly place them under guard; and my motives in treating on this subject are to show you, “whilst you remain Eleanor [Parke] Custis Spinster, and retain the resolution to love with moderation” the propriety of adhering to the latter; at least until you have secured your game, and the way by which it is to be accomplished.

When the fire is beginning to kindle, and your heart growing warm, propound these questions to it. Who is the invader? Have I competent knowledge of him? Is he a man of good character? A man of sense? For be assured a sensible woman can never be happy with a fool. What has been his walk in life? Is he a gambler? a spendthrift, a drunkard? Is his fortune sufficient to maintain me in the manner I have been accustomed to live, and my sisters do live? and is he one to whom my friends can have no reasonable objection? If these interrogations can be satisfactorily answered there will remain but one more to be asked; that however is an important one. Have I sufficient ground to conclude that his affections are enjoyed by me? Without this, the heart of sensibility will struggle against a passion that is not reciprocated; delicacy, custom, or call it by what epithet you will having precluded all advances on your part, the declaration without the most indirect invitation on yours must proceed from the man to render it permanent & valuable. And nothing short of good sense, and an easy unaffected conduct can draw the line between prudery & coquetry; both of which are equally despised by men of understanding; and soon or late, will recoil upon the actor.

Flirting is hardly a degree removed from the latter and both are punished by the counter game of men, who see this the case & act accordingly. In a word it would be no great departure from truth to say that it rarely happens otherwise, than that a thorough[-paced] coquette dies in celibacy, as a punishment for her attempts [to] mislead others; by encouraging looks, words, or actions, given for no other purpose than to draw men on to make overtures that they may be rejected.

This day according to our information gives a husband to your dear sister; and <missing text>, it is presumed her fondest desires.

The dawn (with us) is bright, and propitious I hope, of her future happiness; for a full measure of which she and Mr. Law have my earnest wishes. Compliments & congratulations on this occasion, and best regards are presented to your Mama, Dr. Stuart & family, and every blessing, among which a good husband when you want & deserve one, is bestowed on you by Your affectionate

Go. Washington

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Fragments of Washington’s letter to Eleanor Parke Custis, 21 March 1796
(courtesy of Bodleian Library, Oxford University — click on images for larger view)


Lawrence Lewis. Portrait by John Beale Bordley, 1841 (after John Beale Bordley, 1832). Courtesy of Kenmore Association, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Nelly married George Washington’s nephew Lawrence Lewis (1767-1839), a son of the President’s sister Betty, on 22 February 1799. Nelly found marriage less than envisioned. Their relationship quickly deteriorated and the marriage was not a happy one (Brady, Washington’s Beautiful Nelly, 7-12, 71n).

George Washington to Thomas Law

When Betsey Custis wrote her grandfather to announce her engagement to Thomas Law, an enterprising businessman with two children, Washington gave his “approbation” of the marriage, although the unexpected announcement came as a “Surprize” to him. Betsey’s letter, written on 1 February 1796 and received by Washington on Saturday, 6 February, has not been found. Washington wrote in response to the engagement, one to Betsey (see George Washington to Betsey Parke Custis, 10 Feb. 1796) and another to her fiancé, Thomas Law. Original manuscript images of Washington’s letter to Law are courtesy of The Morgan Library, New York, NY.

Betsey married Thomas Law (1759-1834), a recent arrival in the United States from Great Britain/India and the son of Edmund Law, bishop of Carlisle, on 21 March 1796. Their daughter Eliza, born in 1797, was their only child to survive infancy. By 1804 the couple had separated, and in 1811 they divorced.


Portrait from Greenleaf and Law in the Federal City (Allen C. Clark, 1901).

Philadelphia 10th Feb. 1796.


Yesterday’s Mail brought me your letter of the 4th Instant; and that of Saturday [6 February] announced from Miss Custis herself, the Union which is pending between you. No intimation of this event, from any quarter, having been communicated to us before, it may well be supposed that it was a matter of Surprise.

This being premised, I have only to add, that as the parties most interested are agreed, my approbation, in which Mrs Washington unites, is cordially given; accompanied with best wishes that both of you may be supremely happy in the alliance. I must however, tho’ it is no immediate concern of mine–be permitted to hope, as the young lady is in her non-age, that preliminary measures has been, or will be arranged with her Mother & Guardian, before the Nuptials are solemnized.

We shall hope that your fortunes (if not before) will, by this event, be fixed in America; for it would be a heart rending circumstance, if you should seperate Eliza from her friends in this country. Whether the marriage is to take place soon, or late, we have no data to judge from but be it as it will, if you should bring her to Philadelphia, we invite you both to this house. With very great esteem and regard I am Sir–Your obedt Hble Servant

Go: Washington

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Images of Washington’s letter to Thomas Law, 10 February 1796.
(courtesy of The Morgan Library, New York, N.Y.). Click on images for larger view.

George Washington to Elizabeth “Betsey” Parke Custis, 10 Feb. 1796

When Betsey Parke Custis wrote her grandfather to announce her engagement to Thomas Law, an enterprising businessman with two children, Washington gave his “approbation” of the marriage, although the unexpected announcement came as a “Surprize” to him. Betsey’s letter, written on 1 February 1796 and received by Washington on Saturday, 6 February, has not been found. Washington wrote in response to the engagement, one to Betsey and another to her fiancé, Thomas Law (see George Washington to Thomas Law, 10 Feb. 1796). Original manuscript images of Washington’s letter to Custis are courtesy of The Morgan Library, New York, NY.

Elizabeth “Betsey” Parke Custis.
Portrait from Greenleaf and Law in the Federal City (Allen C. Clark, 1901).

Philadelphia 10th Feby 1796

My dear Betsey

I have obeyed your injunction in not acknowledging the receipt of your letter of the first instant until I should hear from Mr. Law. This happened yesterday–I therefore proceed to assure you–if Mr Law is the man of your choice, of wch there can be no doubt, as he has merits to engage your affections, and you have declared that he has not only done so, but that you find, after a careful examination of your heart, you cannot be happy without him–that your alliance with him meets my approbation. Yes, Betsey, and this approbation is accompanied with my fervent wishes that you may be as happy in this important event as your most sanguine imagination has ever presented to your view. Along with these wishes, I bestow on you my choicest blessings.

Nothing contained in your letter–in Mr Laws–or in any other from our friends intimate when you are to taste the sweets of Matrimony–I therefore call upon you, who have more honesty than disguise, to give me the details. Nay more, that you will relate all your feelings to me on this occasion: or as a Quaker would say “all the workings of the spirit within.”

This, I have a right to expect in return for my blessing, so promptly bestowed, after you had concealed the matter from me so long. Being entitled therefore to this confidence, and to a compliance with my requests, I shall look forward to the fulfillment of it.

If after marriage Mr Laws business should call him to this City, the same room which Mr Peter & your sister occupied will accommodate you two; and it will be equally at your service.

You know how much I love you–how much I have been gratified by your attentions to those things which you had reason to believe were grateful to my feelings. And having no doubt of your continuing the same conduct, as the effect will be pleasing to me, and unattended with any disadvantage to yourself–I shall remain with the sincerest friendship, & the most affectionate regard always yours

Go: Washington

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Images of Washington’s letter to Elizabeth Parke Custis, 10 February 1796
(courtesy of The Morgan Library, New York, N.Y.). Click on images for larger view.

George Washington to Elizabeth “Betsey” Parke Custis, 14 Sept. 1794

Washington gave cautionary advice on selecting one’s marriage partner to teenage granddaughter Betsey in the following letter, saying in part “Do not then in your contemplation of the marriage state, look for perfect felicity before you consent to wed. Nor conceive, from the fine tales the Poets & lovers of old have told us, of the transports of mutual love, that heaven has taken its abode on earth: Nor do not deceive yourself in supposing, that the only mean by which these are to be obtained, is to drink deep of the cup, & revel in an ocean of love.” Original manuscript images of Washington’s letter to Custis are courtesy of The Morgan Library, New York, NY.


Elizabeth Parke Custis. Portrait by James Peale, 1814. Watercolor on ivory miniature. Courtesy The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, Annual Report, 1992, 26.

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Images of Washington’s letter to Elizabeth Parke Custis, 14 September 1794
(courtesy of The Morgan Library, New York, N.Y. Click images for larger view)

George Washington to Burwell Bassett, 23 May 1785

Washington was noncommittal when his nephew George Augustine Washington, eldest son of his brother Charles, decided to marry Frances (“Fanny”) Bassett, daughter of Martha Washington’s sister Anna Maria Dandridge and her husband Burwell Bassett. Washington explained his philosophy to the father of the bride in a letter dated 23 May 1785, a photocopy of which is in the Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.

bassettaFrances “Fanny” Bassett. Portrait by Robert Edge Pine at Mt. Vernon in 1785.
Courtesy Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association.

The amorous couple, who were already living at Mount Vernon at the time of their engagement, were married there on 15 October 1785. (Diaries, vol. 4, p. 206). Later in December of that same year George Augustine Washington became the manager of Mt. Vernon, a position he held until shortly before his death on 5 February 1793.

Original manuscript images of Washington’s letter to Bassett at the Library of Congress: Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

George Washington to Sally Ball Haynie

Washington’s advice to another young relative focused on a different aspect of courtship and marriage. Sally Ball Haynie, described as a “beautiful young girl,” was an impoverished niece of Washington’s mother. Both she and her mother, Elizabeth Haynie, who was probably the daughter of Mary Ball Washington’s half sister Elizabeth Johnson, received financial support from George Washington. Thus, in his letter of 11 February 1798 to Sally, of which a signed letterpress copy is in the Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, Washington emphasized personal attributes, which would attract an appropriate marriage partner, that were slightly different from those he extolled to his granddaughters.

George Washington to Lund Washington, 20 Sept. 1783

In 1783 Eleanor Calvert Custis, the widow of Martha’s son John Parke Custis, contemplated marriage to Alexandria physician David Stuart. Mrs. Custis sought to acquire the thoughts of her former in-laws on the subject but did so indirectly with the assistance of Lund Washington, the manager of Mount Vernon and a distant cousin of the General. Washington responded to the question of Eleanor’s remarriage in his 20 September 1783 letter to Lund, which survives as a letter-book copy in the Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.

Rocky hill [N.J.] 20th Sept: 1783.

Dr Lund,

Mrs Custis has never suggested in any of her Letters to Mrs Washington (unless ardent wishes for her return, that she might then disclose it to her, can be so construed) the most distant attachment to D: S. but if this should be the case, & she wants advice upon it; a Father & other, who are at hand, & competent to give it, are at the same time most proper to be consulted on so interesting an event. For my own part, I never did, nor do I believe, I ever shall give advice to a woman who is setting out on a matrimonial voyage; first, because I never could advise one to marry without her own consent; & secondly, because I know it is to no purpose to advise her to refrain, when she has obtained it. A woman very rarely asks an opinion, or requires advice on such an occasion, ’till her resolution is formed; & then it is with the hope & expectation of obtaining a sanction, not that she means to be governed by your disapprobation, that she applies. In a word, the plain english of the application may be summed up in these words—I wish you to think as I do; but if unhappily you differ from me in opinion, my heart, I must confess is fixed, & I have gone too far now to retract.

If Mrs Custis should ever suggest any thing of this kind to me, I will give her my opinion of the measure, not of the man, with candour, & to the following effect. I never expected you would spend the residue of your days in widowhood; but in a matter so important, & so interesting to yourself, children & connexions; I wish you would make a prudent choice; to do which, many considerations are necessary—such as the family & connexions of the man—his fortune (which is not the most essential in my eye.)—the line of conduct he has observed—& disposition & frame of his mind. You should consider, what prospect there is of his proving kind & affectionate to you— just, generous & attentive to your children—and, how far his connexions will be agreeable to you; for when they are once formed, agreeable or not, the die being cast, your fate is fixed. Thus far, & no farther I shall go in my opinions. I am, D. Lund, &ca

G: W——n

Original manuscript images of Washington’s letter to Lund Washington at the Library of Congress: Page 1 | Page 2

George Washington to Anthony Whitting

One of the most interesting documents in volume 11 of the Presidential Series is “Washington’s Plan for a Barn,” which was enclosed in this 28 October 1792 letter to his farm manager Anthony Whitting. “I have resolved to build a Barn & treading floor at Dogue Run Plantation, & to do it as soon as other more pressing work will permit; at any rate for the Wheat of next harvest,” wrote Washington.


Washington’s sixteen-sided barn (from Some Old Historic Landmarks of Virginia & Maryland by W. H. Snowden, 1901)

This was not to be just an ordinary barn but a sixteen-sided barn with an innovative treading floor on the second level. Washington carefully calculated the supplies required for the construction of the barn, including the 30,820 “hard and good” bricks that would be used in the building. He delineated the specific size and amount of lumber required: 88 fourteen-feet, 9×3-inch boards for the lower floor; 2,000 feet of 1-1/2-inch plank; 16 sills, 16 tops, and “Bars” for the windows; 420 pieces of white oak, in lengths varying from 12 to 20 feet long, for the treading floor; 86 rafters, twenty-feet long; and 7,000 three-feet shingles were among the items listed. Fifty-two feet in diameter, the barn took two years to complete and stood until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. A reconstructed replica of GW’s barn was completed on Mount Vernon’s grounds in September 1996.

Original manuscript images at the Library of Congress: Page 1 | Pages 2 & 3 | Pages 4 & 5 | Pages 6 & 7 | Page 8

Digital version of the enclosure and sketch: Washington’s Plan for a Barn, [28 October 1792] and sketch.


Lease of Mount Vernon

Lease between George Lee, Ann Lee (Lawrence Washington’s Widow), and George Washington.

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