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George Washington's letter about Martha Washington's son, John Parke Custis (known as Jacky when younger, and Jack as he got older), reveals that being a parent was no easier in the 18th century than it is today.

Written on January 26, 1769, a rather short note from George Washington to his stepson's schoolmaster, the Reverend Jonathan Boucher, explains why the young man was late getting back to school after the Christmas holidays and expresses the hope that "Jacky will apply close to his Studies and retrieve the hours he has lost...he promises to do so, I hope he will."

While, in this instance, John Parke Custis' tardiness was not due to any memorable cause, it does fit into a pattern in which his schoolwork took second place in the teenager's priorities, a fact that caused his stepfather considerable grief.

A portrait of John Parke Custis by Charles Wilson Peale (MVLA)Jacky's education probably began at Mount Vernon under the eye of his mother, but became more serious in the fall of 1761, with the arrival of a Scottish tutor named Walter Magowan. After Mr. Magowan left for England in the fall of 1767, in order to be ordained, George Washington wrote to the Reverend Jonathan Boucher (1738-1804), an Anglican minister who ran a school for boys in Caroline County, Virginia, to see if he would be willing to "add [his stepson] to the number of your Pupils."

At that time, Washington noted that Jacky had been introduced to both Greek and Latin by his tutor and described his stepson as "a boy of good genius, about 14 yrs. of age, untainted in his morals, and of innocent manners." He considered Jacky “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."

Jacky would attend Boucher's school, staying with his teacher through the institution's move to Annapolis, for five years, from 1768 to 1773. These were very frustrating years for both George Washington and Reverend Boucher.

Washington, whose own education had been curtailed by the death of his father, read widely to make up for his deficiencies. He very much wanted the young people in his care to be given the educational opportunities he himself had missed. Washington could not understand why the young man he helped to raise could not or would not see the need to apply himself at school.

In a particularly telling exchange, written when the boy was sixteen, George Washington noted that Jacky's mind seemed to be centered on “Dogs Horses & Guns," as well as "Dress & equipage."

Boucher responded that Jack was the laziest boy he had ever known and also “so surprisingly voluptuous: one wd suppose Nature had intended Him for some Asiatic Prince."

Almost as damning, from his stepfather's perspective, was Boucher's opinion that "one of the worst Symptoms" about Jack was the fact that "He does not much like Books," even though his schoolmaster had been “endeavouring to allure Him to it, by every Artifice I cou'd think of."

Distracted By Love

Miniature painting of Eleanor Calvert, c1780, by an unknown artist (Wikimedia)

Miniature painting of Eleanor Calvert, c1780, by an unknown artist (Wikimedia)

One reason why Jack was so distracted from his schoolwork became obvious in the spring of 1773, when the 19-year-old announced his engagement to Eleanor Calvert, the 15-year-old daughter of a prominent Maryland family.

George Washington was 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 & useful to Society”. Jack was sent off to King s College (now Columbia University) in New York City in May of 1773, but in less than a year, on February 3, 1774, he and Nelly were married.

"A New Scene of Life"

In the intervening months, Martha Washington's remaining daughter, Patsy had died at Mount Vernon and the grieving mother wanted her son nearby to comfort her. In another letter to a schoolmaster, this time the college president, Washington explained in December of 1773 that his stepson was leaving college for good:

The favourable account you was pleas'd to transmit me of Mr Custis's conduct at College, gave me very great satisfaction...but these hopes are at an end; & at length, I have yielded, contrary to my judgment, & much against my wishes, to his quitting College; in order that he may enter soon into a new scene of Life, which I think he would be much fitter for some years hence, than now; but having his own inclination-the desires of his mother---& the acquiescence of almost all his relatives, to encounter, I did not care, as he is the last of the family, to push my opposition too far; &. therefore have submitted to a Kind of necessity.

Jack and Nelly would make their home at Abingdon Plantation and would give the Washingtons seven grandchildren, four of whom would survive, over the next seven years.


Artist's depiction of Washington's camp at Yorktown (Art Resources)

Artist's depiction of Washington's camp at Yorktown (Art Resources)

It did not take long for George Washington to get over his disappointment in his stepson's lack of enthusiasm for his studies. He must have been terribly moved, in fact, when he received a letter from Jack at his military headquarters in the spring of 1776.

In looking back on their relationship, the young man noted that, "...It pleased the Almighty to deprive me at a very early Period of Life of my Father, but I can not sufficiently adore His Goodness in sending Me so good a Guardian as you Sir." He went on to assure his stepfather that, "He best deserves the Name of Father who acts the Part of one...."

As the Revolutionary War came to a close, Jack decided to join his stepfather at Yorktown, General Washington's most celebrated victory. Sadly, young Jack was one of the hundreds of men who died of camp fever as contagions spread through the crowded camps of both American and British troops. He was buried at a Custis family cemetery about three miles from Williamsburg.

Selected Bibliography

Abbot, W. W., and Dorothy Twohig, editors. The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 10 volumes. Charlottesville, Virginia, and London: University Press of Virginia, 1983-1995. Britt, Judith S. Nothing More Agreeable: Music in George Washington's Family. Mount Vernon, Virginia: The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, 1984. Fields, Joseph E., compiler. "Worthy Partner": The Papers of Martha Washington. Westport, Connecticut, and London: Greenwood Press, 1994. Fitzpatrick, John C., editor. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, 39 volumes. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1931-1944. Jackson, Donald, and Dorothy Twohig, editors. The Diaries of George Washington, 6 vols. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1976-1979.

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