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George Washington
Marriage. The Life of a Planter
by Thayer, William Roscoe

War is like the wind, nobody can tell into whose garden it may blow desolation. The French and Indian War, generally called now the Seven Years' War, beginning as a mere border altercation between the British and French backwoodsmen on the banks of the upper Ohio River, grew into a struggle which, by the year 1758, when Washington retired from his command of the Virginia Forces, spread over the world. A new statesman, one of the ablest ever born in England, came to control the English Government. William Pitt, soon created Earl of Chatham, saw that the British Empire had reached a crisis in its development. Incompetence, inertia, had blurred its prestige, and the little victories which France, its chief enemy, had been winning against it piecemeal, were coming to be regarded as signs that the grandeur of Britain was passing. Pitt saw the gloomy situation, and the still gloomier future which it seemed to prophesy, but he saw also the remedy. Within a few months, under his direction, English troops were in every part of the world, and English ships of war were sailing every ocean, to recover the slipping elements and to solidify the British Empire. Just as Pitt was taking up his residence at Downing Street, Robert Clive was winning the Battle of Plassey in India, which brought to England territory of untold wealth. Two years later James Wolfe, defeating the French commander, Montcalm, on the Plains of Abraham, added not only Quebec, but all Canada, to the British Crown, and ended French rivalry north of the Great Lakes. Victories like these, seemingly so casual, really as final and as unrevisable as Fate, might well cause Englishmen to suspect that Destiny itself worked with them, and that an Englishman could be trusted to endure through any difficulties to a triumphant conclusion.

Beaten at every point where they met the British, the French, even after they had secured an alliance with Spain, which proved of little worth, were glad to make peace. On February 10, 1763, they signed the Treaty of Paris, which confirmed to the British nearly all their victories and left England the dominant Power in both hemispheres. The result of the war produced a marked effect on the people of the British Colonies in North America. "At no period of time," says Chief Justice Marshall, in his "Life of Washington," "was the attachment of the colonists to the mother country more strong, or more general, than in 1763, when the definitive articles of the treaty which restored peace to Great Britain, France, and Spain, were signed."[Footnote: Marshall: The Life of George Washington (Philadelphia, 1805, 5 vols.), II, 68.] But we who know the sequel perceive that the Seven Years' War not only strengthened the attachment between the Colonies and the Mother Country, but that it also made the Colonies aware of their common interests, and awakened among them mutual friendship, and in a very brief time their sense of unity prevailed over their temporary enthusiasm for England. George III, a monarch as headstrong as he was narrow, with insanity lurking in his mind, succeeded to the throne in 1760, and he seized the first opportunity to get rid of his masterful Minister, William Pitt. He replaced him with the Earl of Bute, a Scotchman, and a man of ingenious parts, but with the incurable Tory habit of insisting that it was still midnight long after the sun was shining in the forenoon of another day.

Before the Treaty was signed and the world had begun to spin in a new groove, which optimists thought would stretch on forever, an equally serious change had come to the private life of George Washington. To the surprise of his friends, who had begun to doubt whether he would ever get married, he found his life's companion and married her without delay. The notion seems to have been popular during his lifetime, and it certainly has continued to later days, that he was too bashful to feel easy in ladies' society. I find no evidence for this mistaken idea. Although little has been recorded of the intimacies of Washington's youth, there are indications of more than one "flame" and that he was not dull and stockish with the young women. As early as 1748, we hear of the Low-Land Beauty who had captivated him, and who is still to be identified. Even earlier, in his school days, he indulged in writing love verses. But we need not infer that they were inspired by living damsels or by the Muses.
  "Oh ye Gods why should my poor resistless Heart
  Stand to oppose thy might and power--
         *       *       *       *       *
  "In deluding sleepings let my eyelids close
  That in an enraptured dream I may
  In a rapt lulling sleep and gentle repose
  Possess those joys denied by day."
[Footnote: Quoted by Wister, 39.]
Cavour said that it was easier for him to make Italy than to write a poem: Washington, who was also an honest man, and fully aware of his limitations, would probably have admitted that he could make the American Republic more easily than a love song. But he was susceptible to feminine charms, and we hear of Betsy Fauntleroy, and of a "Mrs. Meil," and on his return to Mount Vernon, after Braddock's defeat, he received the following round robin from some of the young ladies at Belvoir:
Dear Sir,--After thanking Heaven for your safe return I must accuse you of great unkindness in refusing us the pleasure of seeing you this night. I do assure you nothing but our being satisfied that our company would be disagreeable should prevent us from trying if our legs would not carry us to Mount Vernon this night, but if you will not come to us tomorrow morning very early we shall be at Mount Vernon.

Apparently Washington's love affairs were known and talked about among his group. What promised to be the most serious of his experiences was with Mary Philipse, of New York, daughter of Frederick Philipse, one of the richest landowners in that Colony, and sister-in-law of Beverly Robinson, one of Washington's Virginian friends. Washington was going to Boston on a characteristic errand. One of the minor officers in the Regular British Army, which had accompanied Braddock to Virginia, refused to take orders from Washington, and officers of higher grade in Virginia Troops, declaring that their commissions were assigned only by Colonial officials, whereas he had his own from King George. This led, of course, to insubordination and frequent quarrels. To put a stop to the wrangling, Washington journeyed to Boston, to have Governor Shirley, the Commander-in-Chief of the King's Forces in the Colonies, give a decision upon it. The Governor ruled in favor of Washington, who then rode back to Virginia. But he spent a week in New York City in order to see his enchantress, Mary Philipse, and it is even whispered that he proposed to her and that she refused him. Two years afterwards she married Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Morris, and during the Revolution the Morris house was Washington's headquarters; the Morrises, who were Tories, having fled.

Persons have speculated why it was that so many of the young women whom Washington took a fancy to, chilled and drew back when it came to the question of marriage. One very clever writer thinks that perhaps his nose was inordinately large in his youth, and that that repelled them. I do not pretend to say. So far as I know, psychologists have not yet made a sufficiently exact study of the nose as a determining factor in matrimony, to warrant an opinion from persons who have made no special study of the subject. The plain fact was that by his twenty-fifth year, Washington was an unusually presentable young man, more than six feet tall, broad-shouldered, very strong, slender and athletic, carefully polite in his manners, a boon companion, though he talked little, a sound and deliberate thinker; moreover, the part he had taken in the war with the Indians and the French made him almost a popular hero, and gave him a preŽminent place among the Virginians, both the young and the old, of that time. The possession of the estate of Mount Vernon, which he had inherited from his half-brother, Lawrence, assured to him more than a comfortable fortune, and yet gossip wondered why he was not married. Thackeray intimates that Washington was too evidently on the lookout for a rich wife, which, if true, may account for some of the alleged rebuffs. I do not believe this assertion, nor do I find evidence for it. Washington was always a very careful, farseeing person, and no doubt had a clear idea of what constitutes desirable qualifications in marriage, but I believe he would have married a poor girl out of the workhouse if he had really loved her. However, he was not put to that test.

One May day Washington rode off from Mount Vernon to carry despatches to Williamsburg. He stopped at William's Ferry for dinner with his friend Major Chamberlayne. At the table was Mrs. Daniel Parke Custis, who, under her maiden name of Martha Dandridge, was well known throughout that region for her beauty and sweet disposition. She was now a widow of twenty-six, with two small children. Her late husband, Colonel Custis, her elder by fifteen years, had left her a large estate called White House, and a fortune which made her one of the richest women in Virginia. From their first introduction, Washington and she seemed to be mutually attracted. He lingered throughout the afternoon and evening with her and went on to Williamsburg with his despatches the next morning. Having finished his business at the Capitol, he returned to William's Ferry, where he again saw Mrs. Custis, pressed his suit upon her and was accepted. Characteristic was it that he should conclude the matter so suddenly; but he had had marriage in his intentions for many years.

During the summer Washington returned to his military duties and led a troop to Fort Duquesne. He found the fort partly demolished, and abandoned by the French; he marched in and took it, and gave it the name of Fort Pitt, in recognition of the great statesman who had directed the revival of British prestige. The fort, thus recovered to English possession, stood on the present site of Pittsburgh. I quote the following brief letter from Washington to Mrs. Custis, as it is almost the only note of his to her during their engagement that has been preserved:
We have begun our March for the Ohio. A courier is starting for Williamsburg, and I embrace the opportunity to send a few words to one whose life is now inseparable from mine. Since that happy hour when we made our pledges to each other, my thoughts have been continually going to you as another Self. That an all powerful Providence may keep us both in safety is the prayer of your ever faithful and affectionate friend.[Footnote: P.L. Ford, The True George Washington, 93.]
Late in that autumn Washington returned for good from his Western fighting. On January 6, 1759 (Old Style), his marriage to Mrs. Custis took place in St. Peter's Church, near her home at the White House. Judging from the fine writing which old historians and new have devoted to describing it, Virginia had seen few such elegant pageants as upon that occasion. The grandees in official station and in social life were all there. Francis Fauquier was, of course, gorgeous in his Governor's robes but he could not outshine the bridegroom, in blue and silver with scarlet trimmings, and gold buckles at his knees, with his imperial physique and carriage. The Reverend Peter Mossum conducted the Episcopal service, after which the bride drove back with a coach and six to the White House, while Washington, with other gentlemen, rode on horseback beside her acting as escort.

The bridal couple spent two or three months at the White House. The Custis estates were large and in so much need of oversight that if Washington had not appeared at this time, a bailiff, or manager, would have had to be hired for them. Henceforth Washington seems to have added the care of the White House to that of Mount Vernon, and the two involved a burden which occupied most of his time, for he had retired from the army. His fellow citizens, however, had elected him a member of the House of Burgesses, a position he held for many years; going to Williamsburg every season to attend the sessions of the Assembly. On his first entrance to take his seat, Mr. Robinson, the Speaker, welcomed him in Virginia's name, and praised him for his high achievements. This so embarrassed the modest young member that he was unable to reply, upon which Speaker Robinson said, "Sit down, Mr. Washington, your modesty is equal to your valor, and that surpasses the power of any language that I possess." In all his life, probably, Washington never heard praise more genuine or more deserved. He had just passed his twenty-seventh year. In the House of Burgesses he had the reputation of being the silent member. He never acquired the art of a debater. He was neither quick at rebuttal nor at repartee, but so surely did his character impress itself on every one that when he spoke the Assembly almost took it for granted that he had said the final word on the subject under discussion. How careful he was to observe the scope and effects of parliamentary speaking appears from a letter which he wrote many years later.

Agriculture has always been a particularly fine training-ground for statesmen. To persons who do not watch it closely, it may seem monotonous. In reality, while the sum of the conditions of one year tally closely with those of another, the daily changes and variations create a variety which must be constantly watched and provided for. A sudden freshet and unseasonable access of heat or cold, a scourge of hail, a drought, a murrain among the cattle, call for ingenuity and for resourcefulness; and for courage, a higher moral quality. Constant comradeship with Nature seems to beget placidity and quiet assurance. From using the great natural forces which bring to pass crops and the seasons, they seem to work in and through him also. The banker, the broker, even the merchant, lives in a series of whirlwinds, or seems to be pursuing a mirage or groping his way through a fog. The farmer, although he be not beyond the range of accident, deals more continually with causes which regularly produce certain effects. He knows a rainbow by sight and does not waste his time and money in chasing it.

No better idea of Washington's activity as a planter can be had than from his brief and terse journals as an agriculturist. He sets down day by day what he did and what his slaves and the free employees did on all parts of his estate. We see him as a regular and punctual man. He had a moral repugnance to idleness. He himself worked steadily and he chided the incompetent, the shirkers, and the lazy.

A short experience as landowner convinced him that slave labor was the least efficient of all. This conviction led him very early to believe in the emancipation of the slaves. I do not find that sentiment or abstract ideals moved him to favor emancipation, but his sense of fitness, his aversion to wastefulness and inefficiency made him disapprove of a system which rendered industry on a high plane impossible. Experience only confirmed these convictions of his, and in his will he ordered that many slaves should be freed after the death of Mrs. Washington. He was careful to apportion to his slaves the amount of food they needed in order to keep in health and to work the required stint. He employed a doctor to look after them in sickness. He provided clothing for them which he deemed sufficient. I do not gather that he ever regarded the black man as being essentially made of the same clay as the white man, the chief difference being the color of their skin. To Washington, the Slave System seemed bad, not so much because it represented a debased moral standard, but because it was economically and socially inadequate. His true character appears in his making the best of a system which he recognized as most faulty. Under his management, in a few years, his estate at Mount Vernon became the model of that kind of plantation in the South.

Whoever desires to understand Washington's life as a planter should read his diaries with their brief, and one might almost say brusque, entries from day to day.[Footnote: See for instance in W.C. Ford's edition of The Writings of George Washington, II, 140-69. Diary for 1760, 230-56. Diary for 1768.] Washington's care involved not only bringing the Mount Vernon estate to the highest point of prosperity by improving the productiveness of its various sections, but also by buying and annexing new pieces of land. To such a planter as he was, the ideal was to raise enough food to supply all the persons who lived or worked on the place, and this he succeeded in doing. His chief source of income, which provided him with ready money, was the tobacco crop, which proved to be of uncertain value. By Washington's time the Virginians had much diminished the amount and delicacy of the tobacco they raised by the careless methods they employed. They paid little attention to the rotation of crops, or to manuring, with the result that the soil was never properly replenished. In his earlier days Washington shipped his year's product to an agent in Glasgow or in London, who sold it at the market price and sent him the proceeds. The process of transportation was sometimes precarious; a leaky ship might let in enough sea water to damage the tobacco, and there was always the risk of loss by shipwreck or other accident. Washington sent out to his brokers a list of things which he desired to pay for out of the proceeds of the sale, to be sent to him. These lists are most interesting, as they show us the sort of household utensils and furniture, the necessaries and the luxuries, and the apparel used in a mansion like Mount Vernon. We find that he even took care to order a fashionably dressed doll for little Martha Custis to play with.

The care and education of little Martha and her brother, John Parke Custis, Washington undertook with characteristic thoroughness and solicitude. He had an instinct for training growing creatures. He liked to experiment in breeding horses and cattle and the farmyard animals. He watched the growth of his plantations of trees, and he was all the more interested in studying the development of mental and moral capacities in the little children.

In due time a tutor was engaged, and besides the lessons they learned in their schoolbooks, they were taught both music and dancing. Little Patsy suffered from epilepsy, and after the prescriptions of the regular doctors had done no good, her parents turned to a quack named Evans, who placed on the child's finger an iron ring supposed to have miraculous virtues, but it brought her no relief, and very suddenly little Martha Custis died. Washington himself felt the loss of his unfortunate step-daughter, but he was unflagging in trying to console the mother, heartbroken at the death of the child.

Jack Custis was given in charge of the Reverend Jonathan Boucher, an Anglican clergyman, apparently well-meaning, who agreed with Washington's general view that the boy's training "should make him fit for more useful purposes than horse-racing." In spite of Washington's carefully reasoned plans, the youth of the young man prevailed over the reason of his stepfather. Jack found dogs, horses, and guns, and consideration of dress more interesting and more important than his stepfather's theories of education. Washington wrote to Parson Boucher, the teacher:
Had he begun, or rather pursued his study of the Greek language, I should have thought it no bad acquisition; ... To be acquainted with the French Tongue is become a part of polite education; and to a man who has the prospect of mixing in a large circle, absolutely necessary. Without arithmetic, the common affairs of life are not to be managed with success. The study of Geometry, and the mathematics (with due regard to the limits of it) is equally advantageous. The principles of Philosophy, Moral, Natural, etc. I should think a very desirable knowledge for a gentleman.[Footnote: W.C. Ford, George Washington (1900), I, 136-37.]
There was nothing abstract in young Jack Custis's practical response to his stepfather's reasoning; he fell in love with Miss Nelly Calvert and asked her to marry him. Washington was forced to plead with the young lady that the youth was too young for marriage by several years, and that he must finish his education. Apparently she acquiesced without making a scene. She accepted a postponement of the engagement, and Custis was enrolled among the students of King's College (subsequently Columbia) in New York City. Even then, his passion for an education did not develop as his parents hoped. He left the college in the course of a few months. Throughout John Custis's perversities, and as long as he lived, Washington's kindness and real affection never wavered. Although he had now taught himself to practice complete self-control, he could treat with consideration the young who had it not.

By nature Washington was a man of business. He wished to see things grow, not so much for the actual increase in value which that indicated, as because increase seemed to be a proof of proper methods. Not content, therefore, with rounding out his holdings at Mount Vernon and Mrs. Washington's estate at the White House, he sought investment in the unsettled lands on the Ohio and in Florida, and on the Mississippi. It proved to be a long time before the advance of settlement in the latter regions made his investments worth much, and during the decade after his marriage in 1759, we must think of him as a man of great energy and calm judgment who was bent not only on making Mount Vernon a model country place on the outside, but a civilized home within. In its furnishings and appointments it did not fall behind the manors of the Virginia men of fashion and of wealth in that part of the country. Before Washington left the army, he recognized that his education had been irregular and inadequate, and he set himself to make good his defects by studying and reading for himself. There were no public libraries, but some of the gentlemen made collections of books. They learned of new publications in England from journals which were few in number and incomplete. Doubtless advertising went by word of mouth. The lists of things desired which Washington sent out to his agents, Robert Cary and Company, once a year or oftener, usually contained the titles of many books, chiefly on architecture, and he was especially intent on keeping up with new methods and experiments in farming. Thus, among the orders in May, 1759, among a request for "Desert Glasses and Stand for Sweetmeats Jellies, etc.; 50 lbs. Spirma Citi Candles; stockings etc.," he asks for "the newest and most approved Treatise of Agriculture--besides this, send me a Small piece in Octavo--called a New System of Agriculture, or a Speedy Way to Grow Rich; Longley's Book of Gardening; Gibson upon Horses, the latest Edition in Quarto." This same invoice contains directions for "the Busts--one of Alexander the Great, another of Charles XII, of Sweden, and a fourth of the King of Prussia (Frederick the Great); also of Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough, but somewhat smaller." Do these celebrities represent Washington's heroes in 1759?

As time went on, his commissions for books were less restricted to agriculture, and comprised also works on history, biography, and government.

But although incessant activity devoted to various kinds of work was a characteristic of Washington's life at Mount Vernon, his attention to social duties and pleasures was hardly less important. He aimed to be a country gentleman of influence, and he knew that he could achieve this only by doing his share of the bountiful hospitality which was expected of such a personage. Virginia at that time possessed no large cities or towns with hotels. When the gentry travelled, they put up overnight at the houses of other gentry, and thus, in spite of very restricted means of transportation, the inhabitants of one part of the country exchanged ideas with those of another. In this way also the members of the upper class circulated among themselves and acquired a solidarity which otherwise would hardly have been possible. We are told that Mount Vernon was always full of guests; some of these being casual strangers travelling through, and others being invited friends and acquaintances on a visit. There were frequent balls and parties when neighbors from far and near joined in some entertainment at the great mansion. There were the hunt balls which Washington himself particularly enjoyed, hunting being his favorite sport. Fairfax County, where Mount Vernon lay, and its neighboring counties, Fauquier and Prince William, abounded in foxes, and the land was not too difficult for the hunters, who copied as far as possible the dress and customs of the foxhunters in England. Possibly there might be a meeting at Mount Vernon of the local politicians. At least once a year Washington and his wife--"Lady," as the somewhat florid Virginians called her--went off to Williamsburg to attend the session of the House of Burgesses. Washington seldom missed going to the horse-races, one of the chief functions of the year, not only for jockeys and sporting men, but for the fashionable world of the aristocracy. Thanks to his carefulness and honesty in keeping his accounts, we have his own record of the amounts he spent at cards--never large amounts, nor indicative of the gamester's passion.

Thus Washington passed the first ten years of his married life. A stranger meeting him at that time might have little suspected that here was the future founder of a nation, one who would prove himself the greatest of Americans, if not the greatest of men. But if you had spent a day with Washington, and watched him at work, or listened to his few but decisive words, or seen his benign but forcible smile, you would have said to yourself--"This man is equal to any fate that destiny may allot to him."


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