Thursday, March 14, 2019

George Washington and the Problem Child

John Parke "Jacky" Custis

Washington’s step son, John Parke “Jacky” Custis was destined to inherit his late father’s huge fortune.  George Washington wanted to make sure the boy was prepared for the responsibilities that so much wealth entailed.

Jacky’s early education was initially handled by his mother, Martha.  But in 1761, when the boy was about seven, a Scottish tutor named Walter Magowan was brought to live at Mount Vernon to begin Jacky’s formal education.  Unfortunately the boy was lazy, head strong, and had no interest in his studies.

In 1768 Jacky was sent away to a boarding school in order to prepare him for college.  George Washington wrote to the Reverend Jonathan Boucher, an Anglican minister who ran the school for boys noting that Jacky had been introduced to both Greek and Latin by his tutor and described his stepson as a boy “…about 14 yrs. of age, untainted in his morals, and of innocent manners.” He considered him “a promising boy” and expressed “anxiety” that as “the last of his Family,” who would be coming into “a very large Fortune,” he wanted to see the boy made “fit for more useful purposes, than a horse Racer.”

The next five years were frustrating for both George Washington and Reverend Boucher. When Jacky Custis was sixteen, Washington wrote to Boucher that his stepson's mind was wholly centered on “Dogs, Horses, and Guns,” as well as Dress and equipage.”  Boucher was unable to give Washington any reassurances noting that young Jack “…does not much like books”.  Warming to his subject, Boucher reported that Jack was the laziest boy he had ever known and also “so surprisingly voluptuous: one would suppose Nature had intended Him for some Asiatic Prince.”

Jacky was always full of surprises.  In 1773, he announced his engagement to fifteen your old Eleanor Calvert, who came from a prominent Maryland family. Washington was outraged; Martha was delighted. Washington was initially able to convince the young couple to postpone the marriage until after Jack had finished college and could “thereby render himself more deserving of the Lady and useful to Society.”  Jack lasted a few months at King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City before bolting for home.  On February 3, 1774, Jack, now nineteen years old and Eleanor, sixteen, were wed.

Prospects for the young couple were bright.  After all, Jack had inherited an enormous fortune.  But what the father had made, the son could not keep.  Jack bought a plantation called Abingdon in Fairfax County, Virginia.  The seller, one Robert Alexander, took every advantage of the inexperienced and impetuous Jack.  When he learned of the terms of the purchase, George Washington informed Custis that “No Virginia Estate (except a few under the best management) can stand simple Interest how then can they bear compound Interest?”

George Washington wrote in 1778: “I am afraid Jack Custis, in spite of all of the admonition and advice I gave him about selling faster than he bought, is making a ruinous hand of his Estate.” By 1781, the financial strains of the Abingdon purchase had almost bankrupted Jack Custis.

No hand at business, Jack Custis proved himself equally poor at politics.  In 1778 he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses as a delegate from Fairfax County.  Taking time out from his duties as a general in the field, commanding the Continental Army, engaged in a desperate war, Washington wrote to the young politician, “I do not suppose that so young a senator as you are, so little versed in political disquisition, can yet have much influence in a popular assembly, composed of various talents and different views, but it is in your power to be punctual in attendance.”  Custis won reelection but missed assignments to important committees because of his habitual late arrival, usually the result of personal matters.

Despite Washington's frequent criticism of Jack, the young man described their relationship fondly. Custis wrote Washington that, “It pleased the Almighty to deprive me at a very early Period of Life of my Father, but I cannot sufficiently adore His Goodness in sending Me so good a Guardian as you Sir.” He went on to assure Washington that, “He best deserves the Name of Father who acts the Part of one. . . .”

As the Revolutionary War came to a close, Custis persuaded Washington to allow him to join the general’s suite at Yorktown as a “civilian aide-de-camp.”  This turned out to be another unfortunate choice.  Soon after the British surrender, Jack was stricken with the contagious fever spreading throughout the crowded army camps. On November 5, 1781, shortly before his twenty seventh birthday, John Parke Custis died.

Neither Martha Washington nor the women of the South’s leading families were marble statues, they had the same strengths and weaknesses, passions and problems, joys and sorrows, as the women of any age.  So just how did they live?

A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in colonial America and the early republic.

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