TOPICS: Eighteenth-Century Life, Featured Document(s), George Washington, GW’s Views, Washington or Custis Family
by Christine S. Patrick
History classes have given 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. While Washington was not exactly the “cool dude” in the new golden dollar coin ads on television and in the newspapers, neither was he the somewhat grumpy-appearing man on the dollar bill. 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, on a variety of topics. Perhaps surprisingly, one of these subjects was love and marriage. There has been much speculation by historians about his marriage to the widow Martha 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.” Unfortunately for later historians, Martha, shortly before her death, destroyed nearly all her 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 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 politics.
Washington gave cautionary advice on selecting one’s marriage partner to teenage granddaughter Betsey (Elizabeth Parke Custis) in a letter of 14 September 1794:
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. 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, and ought not to be considered farther than as a necessary ingredient for that matrimonial happiness which results from a combination of causes; none of which are of greater importance, than that the object on whom it is placed, should possess good sense—good dispositions—and the means of supporting you in the way you have been brought up. Such qualifications cannot fail to attract (after marriage) your esteem & regard, into wch or into disgust, sooner or later, love naturally resolves itself; and who at the sametime, has a claim to the respect, & esteem of the circle he moves in. Without these, whatever may be your first impressions of the man, they will end in disappointment; for be assured, and experience will convince you, that there is no truth more certain, than that all our enjoyments fall short of our expectations; and to none does it apply with more force, than to the gratification of the passions.
Despite her grandfather’s counsel, Betsey’s subsequent choice of a husband was not sound. She married Thomas Law on 21 March 1796, but the couple separated in 1804 and divorced in 1811.
Washington’s thoughts on marriage, when written to older family members or friends, could be less somber, as in the case of his letter of 20 September 1783 to Lund Washington, the manager of Mount Vernon and a distant cousin:
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.
A lighter and wittier side of Washington is revealed in his reaction to the news that Revolutionary War veteran Joseph Ward would marry at the age of 47. In a letter of 20 December 1784 to the historian William Gordon, he writes:
I am glad to hear that my old acquaintance Colo. Ward is yet under the influence of vigorous passions—I will not ascribe the intrepidity of his late enterprize to a mere flash of desires, because, in his military career he would have learnt how to distinguish between false alarms & a serious movement. Charity therefore induces me to suppose that like a prudent general, he had reviewed his strength, his arms, & ammunition before he got involved in an action—But if these have been neglected, & he has been precipitated into the measure, let me advise him to make the first onset upon his fair del Tobosa, with vigor, that the impression may be deep, if it cannot be lasting, or frequently renewed!
This article originally appeared in the Papers of George Washington Summer 2000 newsletter, which you can read here.