The Washington Family, by Edward Savage, part of the Mellon Collection at the National Gallery of Art, shows the first president with wife Martha, her granddaughter Eleanor, and grandson George Washington Parke Custis, then 10 years old.
Princetonâs connections to U.S. presidents run deep. There are the obvious ones: James Madison 1771 and Woodrow Wilson 1879 were alumni of the University. A handful of others were awarded honorary degrees â including Abraham Lincoln (1864), William Howard Taft (1912), and Bill Clinton (1996). And of course, the White Houseâs current occupant, Barack Obama, is âsâ85â (spouse, Class of 1985, in Class Notes-speak).
History buffs may know about future President George Washingtonâs role at the Battle of Princeton (described in detail in this excellent piece from MountVernon.org and depicted in the famous painting in Nassau Hallâs Faculty Room). PAW readers also may recall that Washington visited the College of New Jerseyâs 1783 Commencement exercises.
But less prominent in the Washington mythology is his role as a Princeton parent (or step-grandparent, to be precise). In the following story from PAWâs archives, Virginia Kays Cressy recounts how George Washington Parke Custis 1799 gave his stepgrandfather fits during an abbreviated stay at Old Nassau.
George Washington as a Princeton Parent
By Virginia Kays Cressy
Published in the July 4, 1976, issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly
Although George Washington had no sons of his own to send to Princeton, he took a paternal interest in the education of Martha Washingtonâs boy, John Parke âJackieâ Custis. After marrying his mother in 1759, Washington reared Jackie at Mount Vernon, supervising the details of his education in so far as he was able. He hired the boyâs tutor when he was eight, selected a boarding school for him when he was 14, enrolled him in dancing school, introduced him as a teenager to polite society in Williamsburg and, when Jackie was old enough, proposed sending him to Princeton.
Immediately Jackieâs schoolmaster objected to his choice. Much disturbed at the idea of his pupil attending a Presbyterian school, the Rev. Jonathan Boucher urged Washington to consider instead a good Anglican college such as William and Mary or, better yet, Kingâs College (Columbia), which had recently awarded the clergyman an honorary degree. As he had little confidence in the faculty of William and Mary, Washington was left to weigh the relative merits of Kingâs College and the College of New Jersey. The president of the former was a Tory, whereas John Witherspoon of Princeton was well-known in Virginia as a friend of liberty; but Washington was not to make his decision on the basis of politics. After all, if politics had been his first consideration, he would not have left Jackie under Boucherâs care, for Boucher was loyal to the king. What concerned Washington most was simply the facultyâs ability to curb Jackieâs youthful impulses and guide him in serious and worthy pursuits. Once reassured that the president of Kingâs College was up to this task, Washington allowed himself to be persuaded and in the spring of 1773 he personally escorted Jackie to New York.
In this case Kingâs Collegeâs gain was by no means the College of New Jerseyâs loss. Jackie Custis was a charming and headstrong young man who had never been forced to submit to any effective discipline. There was no harm in the boy, but he had been so spoiled by his indulgent mother and so cushioned by the Custis fortune which he would inherit that he had not a spark of ambition. His passions were reserved for dogs, horses and guns, modish dress, pretty girls and parties. In fact, Boucher had once written to Washington, âI must confess to you I never did in my life know a youth so exceedingly indolent or so surprisingly voluptuous; one would suppose Nature had intended him for some Asiatic prince.â Given this character endorsement, it is difficult to imagine how he could have adjusted successfully to the Calvinistic atmosphere of Nassau Hall. Even in New York, which offered more of his favorite amusements than the quiet village of Princeton, Custis lasted only a few months.
By October 1773 Jackie was home again at Mount Vernon, eager to marry Nelly Calvert and take up the life of a gentleman planter. Washington was disappointed, but there was little he could do since Martha and the Custis relatives supported the boyâs plans. So Jackie married and lived out the rest of his brief life on his estates. The Revolutionary War raged up North, but it left him unaffected. Only at the very end, when Cornwallis got caught in a trap at Yorktown, was Jackie tempted to try the military life. He improvised a uniform and rode over to headquarters to serve as an aide to his âPappa.â There he caught some kind of camp fever and died, leaving behind three small daughters and an infant son, named George Washington Parke Custis.
Aware now that he would never have any children, George Washington brought little Washington Custis and the youngest girl, Nellie, into his household to raise as his own children. Fat and saucy, little Washington was the pet of the family. He ran happily around Mount Vernon or bounced on his pony, saved from any rigorous tutoring by Washingtonâs belief that young children should not be âconfined closely.â His grandmother adored him, and the proud General discerned in him a quick intelligence and the makings of a fine character.
By his midteens, however, it was obvious that in temperament young Custis was very much like his father: generous, loving, truthfulâand completely spoiled. Despite the sums paid to private tutors and schoolmasters, Custis was interested only in fox-hunting, riding, and other âinnocent but unprofitableâ amusements of the Virginia countryside. Reluctant to see young Custis grow into merely another idle young gentleman, Washington determined to remove him from the easy-going environment of his home. Custis was only 15, but it was plainly time to send him to college.
One college which Washington would not consider was the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). When the seat of government moved to Philadelphia, the President had enrolled his adopted son in its preparatory academy and, as far as he could see, the boy had not derived any benefit at all from his attendance there. Harvard, however, was a very real possibility, since Washington admired the character of its graduates. He may have been influenced in this opinion by close association with his excellent secretary Tobias Lear, Harvard 1783, who stood as a surrogate son to Washington much as Lafayette and Hamilton had done before him. On further thought, however, Washington realized that young Custis might be unbearably homesick in Boston, and so he reverted to the college he had suggested nearly 25 years earlier for the boyâs father. On November 8, 1796, Custis was enrolled as a member of the sophomore class at the College of New Jersey, and George Washingtonâat lastâbecame a Princeton parent.
During the intervening years, under Witherspoonâs leadership, the College of New Jersey had lost some of the earnest religiosity that characterized it in its earliest decades. Fewer of its undergraduates were pious youths destined for the ministry; more of them were from well-to-do families and would take up careers in law or public life. The students were less sober, somewhat more resentful of the collegeâs Spartan regime, and perhaps less inclined to discipline themselves. This change in the student body was not pleasing to most of the trustees and faculty, but the more secular atmosphere was in accord with the national spirit, and Nassau Hallâwith its reputation for excellent teaching and for turning out distinguished graduatesâcontinued to attract students from well beyond New Jerseyâs borders.
Although his old colleague in the Continental Congress had died in 1794, Washington was acquainted with Witherspoonâs son-in-law and successor, Samuel Stanhope Smith, whom he described as âboth learned and good.â âNo college has turned out better scholars or more estimable characters than Nassau,â he wrote. âNor is there any one whose president is thought more capable to direct a proper system of education than Dr. Smith.â It was on Smithâs character that Washington placed his reliance for the correction of Custisâs faults, and he urged the boy to show every respect and reverence for âthe president of the seminary.â
This was not the only admonition young Custis was to receive from his famous stepgrandfather, for Washington was frankly worried about the boy. Just eight days after his matriculation, the President confided in Lear, Custis âhas got settled at Princeton College, and I think under favorable auspices, but the change from his former habits is so great and sudden; and his hours so much increased beyond what he has been accustomed that though he promises to be attentive, it is easy to be perceived he is not at all reconciled to it yet.â Washington surmised that getting up an hour before dawn would prove ânot the least irksomeâ aspect of Custisâs new situation.
Concerned about Custisâs welfare, Washington flooded him with advice during his first month at college. Among other things, the youth was urged to study hard, cautioned to be obedient to his tutors, and warned against the dangers of cheating (âlet your promotion result from your own applicationâ). When Custis failed to acknowledge a gift of $10 for clothing, he was firmly reminded that âto acknowledge the receipt of letters is always proper, to remove doubts of their miscarriage.â
In addition to advice about studies, Washington devoted much space in these early letters to Custisâs general deportment, perhaps because he realized that the ward of the President of the United States might face some special problems in dealing with his fellow students. He told Custis to avoid joining any particular clique but to stay on good terms with all; to beware of first impressions and to select his intimates with care; to be charitable to the indigent and eschew snobbishness; to speak evil of no one without unequivocal proof; and never to volunteer an opinion unless he absolutely had to, âfor there is nothing more certain than that it is at all times more easy to make enemies then friends.â If these pieces of advice read today like copybook maxims, they take on a certain poignancy when one considers the poisonous factionalism and bitter personal attacks Washington was then suffering in his last year in office.
As the President became increasingly occupied with the details of winding up his term of office, his correspondence with Custis began to wane. The young student apparently settled into the routines of life at Nassau Hall. He began a course of reading under Smithâs supervision, and by spring he could report that he was doing well in Roman history, French, and geography. He was not making much progress in arithmetic, for which he blamed his poor preparation, but he had read many good authors, particularly Hume. âIn justice to myself,â Custis wrote a shade defensively that spring, âI think I have spent my time in a manner not to be complained of.â Washington was not complaining; he even acknowledged that he could detect a noticeable improvement in his wardâs writing.
Custis was not applying himself exclusively to his books, however. Sometime around February 1797 he joined the Whig Society, which with Clio provided the only extracurricular or social life available on campus. Also a member of Whig was Custisâs âchambermateâ John Forsyth, an intelligent young man of whom Washington thoroughly approved. Forsyth, who was raised in Georgia, was the son of Major Robert Forsyth, one of Washingtonâs former aides-de-camp, and a brother of a member of the Class of 1796. As an undergraduate, he was said to be one who completed his lessons quickly but thought deeply about what he had read. He particularly excelled in extemporaneous debate, a skill which was to serve him well later, for he had exactly the kind of career in public life which Washington hoped his own ward would pursue, becoming in turn a representative, senator, and secretary of state.
The Whig Society to which Custis and Forsyth belonged was rift by controversy in 1796-97. According to James Carnahan 1800, two parties arose in the society that year. âOn the one side were the studious and orderly. . . . The leaders of the other party were two or three young men, not destitute of talent, of wealthy and respectable family connexions.â At issue was the societyâs role in setting standards for its members, who were expected to attend to their studies, stay away from taverns and other haunts of vice, and behave in a manner becoming a gentleman. The well-born faction found Whigâs rules too strict and confining, and their efforts to alter the rules provoked a storm of impassioned and acrimonious debate. In late May, realizing that they could not sway the majority, this group resigned from Whig and promptly were welcomed into Clio. Forsyth stayed with the ranks of the âstudious and orderlyâ in Whig. What Custis did is not a matter of record.
It is a matter of record, however, that around the end of May, Custis and his exemplary roommate parted ways and that Custisâs new roommate was one of those who bolted from the Whig Society. This was Cassius Lee, son of Richard Henry Lee; Custis thought him very amiable and engaging. It is also documented that earlier in the month Smith wrote to George Washington to complain of Custisâs behavior. What provoked this letter is not known, but in his reply Washington spoke of his wardâs âalmost unconquerable disposition to indolence in everything that did not tend to his amusementsâ and of his fears that he might be easily led astray by bad companions. To Custis himself he wrote in disappointment, warning him of the dangers of ribaldry, rioting, swearing, intoxication, and gambling.
Custis was extremely penitent. Indeed, like so many adolescents, his moods ran to extremes, and he wrote Washington in the humblest of terms: âThat I have abused such goodness is shocking, that I shall ever do so well again I will risk my life.â In this mood of self-flagellation, he even proposed denying himself the pleasure of attending Princetonâs 4th of July celebration, the undergraduatesâ one real holiday. Ever patient where âthe childrenâ were concerned, Washington replied that there was no need for that: âno innocent amusement or reasonable expenditure will ever be withheld from you.â Washington not only had forgiven the boy as soon as he received his apology, he was also willing to forget the entire episode.
Unfortunately, young Custis found it difficult to translate his gratitude for Washingtonâs forbearance into an enthusiasm for his books. As the New Jersey temperatures climbed, his spirits flagged. He faithfully detailed the course of his private studies with Smith: Smithâs Constitution, Priestleyâs Elements of Natural History , geography, English grammar. But he confessed that he found his work and confinement âvery disagreeable.â Washington, now retired to Mount Vernon, began to worry that when Custis came home at the end of the term he would be unwilling to return to college.
Washington had reason to worry. Custis fell into trouble again and was sent home in disgrace, having been suspended by the faculty on September 7, 1797, for âvarious acts of meaness [sic] and irregularityâ and for âhaving endeavoured in various ways to lessen the authority and influence of the faculty.â Although he was merely suspended, not expelled, it was evident that he would not go back to Nassau Hall. Washington sent Smith a short note, expressing his satisfaction with the college and his belief that Custis âwill have only himself to upbraid.â He also cleared up his wardâs debts with $100âcarried to Princeton by Lafayetteâs sonâand Washingtonâs brief experience as a Princeton parent was ended.
For the rest of the fall and winter, Custis hung around Mount Vernon, driving his eminent grandparent to distraction. Washington could and did keep him in his room, but he could not make him study. By March he was ready to try another college, and Custis rode off to St. Johnâs in Annapolis. But St. Johnâs did not succeed where Princeton had failed. Four months later he was involved in another scrape, and Washington was beginning to lose his temper. âIt would seem,â he wrote, âas if nothing I could say to you made more than a momentary impression.â Then came an appointment as a cornet in the U.S. Army, and in 1799 a final return to Mount Vernon upon George Washingtonâs death.
Washington Custis stayed at Mount Vernon and cared for his grandmother until her death in 1802. Then he began building a mansion of his own on the Potomac, to which he brought his bride, Mary Lee Fitzhugh, in 1806. He called it Arlington, and it was here in 1831, somewhat unhappily, that he witnessed the marriage of his only child to an impoverished army officer named Robert E. Lee.
Custis lived out his life at Arlington, giving little attention to his estates but rarely at a loss for some amusement. He wrote a number of plays produced in American theaters, including The Indian Prophecy , Pocahontas , and The Railroad . He was in much demand as a patriotic orator and always took advantage of these occasions to pay tribute to his boyhood mentor. In his later years he turned to painting scenes of Washingtonâs battles. When he died at a venerable age in 1857, the last living link with the Washington tradition was broken.
The Custis family traits, however, did not die with Washington Custis, for they were as pronounced in Mary Custis Lee as in her father and grandfather. Careless of detail and devoid of ambition, she was as poor a student of domestic management, the chief subject of a womanâs education, as her immediate ancestors had been of Greek and Latin. Her husband once wrote apologetically, âMrs. L. is somewhat addicted to laziness and forgetfulness in her Housekeeping.â On the other hand, Mary Custis Lee was fully as charming as her father and grandfather, and like them she made friends easily. In 1860, she arranged for the publication of her fatherâs reminiscences of Washington, a volume that gave prominent place to the gently chiding, worried letters that Washington had sent to Custis during his year at Princeton. Although they had had little influence on Custis himself, they were carefully set forth as models of sagacious advice that other young men might benefit where Custis had not.