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.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

George Washington: Death of a Child


George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis on January 6, 1759.  He was 26, she was 27.  Washington suddenly found himself responsible for a ready-made family.  Martha Parke “Patsy” Custis aged two, and John Parke “Jackie” Custis aged four.  In addition to the normal duties of a father in terms of providing love, warmth, and sympathy, George Washington was also charged with being the administrator of the children’s business affairs, which were not inconsiderable, considering that their late father, Daniel Parke Custis was perhaps the wealthiest man in Virginia.  Martha Washington, herself, was required to relinquish her rights in the dower share of her late husband’s estate to the management of her new husband (If unmarried, Martha would have received 1/3 of Daniel’s Parke Custis’ estate for her use and maintenance during her lifetime.  As it was the use of this money was left to the decisions of her new husband, George Washington). By all accounts George Washington was not only a loving husband and step father, but a conscientious guardian of the property rights of both his wife and her children. 

The stage was set for familial peace and tranquility, but fate took a hand.  By the time Patsy was eleven, she was plagued with seizures. Patsy was afflicted with epilepsy. The progression of Patsy’s epilepsy can be traced in George Washington’s diaries but only with difficulty.  Washington’s diary entries are sparse, and never betray his inner emotions, which were under tight control.

George and Martha Washington were willing to try almost anything, even improbable folk remedies. The distraught parents relied, mainly, on conventional 18th-century medical treatments for epilepsy.  This was doomed from the start.  In colonial times, most physicians were either self-trained or trained by another physician.  No medical college existed in the colonies before the Revolution.  Lack of knowledge of the causes and cures of most diseases, effective medicines and pain-killers, and instruments such as the thermometer and stethoscope handicapped colonial doctors. The doctor's principal role was to provide comfort and support, set broken bones, and prescribe herbal remedies.  Theories of medicine at the time were based on the notion that disease was caused by an imbalance in bodily "humors," or fluids. The practice of bloodletting for almost any disease was universal.  Doctors also employed emetics, diuretics and leeches.  The cures often killed the patient more quickly than did the disease.

The Washingtons consulted with numerous doctors to no avail.  Patsy's seizures increased. George Washington kept a log of these episodes.  During an eighty-six day period, Patsy had seizures on twenty-six days.

Around four in the afternoon on June 19, 1773, after everyone had finished dinner, Patsy (aged 17) and a girl friend were talking quietly. Patsy went to her room to retrieve a letter. Hearing a strange noise coming from Patsy's room, her friend found Patsy in the throes of a life-threatening seizure.
Martha Washington was frantic.  George Washington knelt beside his beloved step daughter he had raised from infancy with tears running down his cheeks.  She was dead within two minutes.

In a letter to his brother-in-law written the following day, George Washington relayed the news that Patsy, described as his "Sweet Innocent Girl," had been buried earlier in the day and that the situation had “… reduced my poor Wife to the lowest ebb of Misery.”

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 quick look at murder most foul in the Virginia of colonial times and the early Republic. Behind the facade of graceful mansions and quaint cobblestone streets evil lurks.