George Washington’s Losing Battle: Educating Jack Custis

No matter how hard he tried, George Washington was never going to make a scholar out of his stepson.

 George Washington’s Inherited Family

When George Washington met and married the widow Martha Dandridge Custis in January, 1759, he inherited her large fortune and her two small children. By all standards, he took his parental responsibilities very seriously, including their education.

When George Washington married the widow Martha Custis, her children, Jack and Patsy, were four and two respectively. Washington was an affectionate stepfather

Colonial children usually learned their letters and numbers from their mothers, and Martha obliged. When John (Jacky) and his little sister Martha (Patsy) were around six, a tutor was engaged. Patsy’s education, past her “three-Rs” in accordance with tradition, focused heavily on domestic subjects: embroidery, gardening, basic herbal remedies, and the essentials of home and plantation management. She learned most of this from the domestically expert Martha, who had always preferred the womanly subjects to formal studies.

custis children

George Washington’s step-children: John (Jack) Parke Custis, and Martha (Patsy) Custis.

Jacky, however was another story. Plain and simple, he hated schoolwork, and much preferred to ride his horse and shoot his musket and play with his friends.

George Washington’s Education

George Washington was only eleven when his father died. His expectations for a solid formal education were dashed.   The best he could hope for was absorption by association, which he received in generous supply when his elder half-brother Lawrence took him under his wing, and introduced him to the finest families in Northern Virginia.

George Washington’s education was instructive, rather than pleasurable, but he absorbed well, and learned to apply his knowledge. He was an intelligent boy, and became an intelligent man, and prominent in Colonial Virginia even in his teens.. He associated with the cream of society as well as the cream of intelligence.  Two things he learned in great abundance: the importance of formal education, and his sorry lack of it.

Jack Custis’ Academic Expectations

George Washington was no fool. His little stepson showed no interest in book-learning, let alone Latin or Greek. Washington understood. He intended to raise his stepson in expectation of his future position. At his maturity, Jack Custis would become a great landowner. He would inherit large plantations. He would also be expected to take his place in the House of Burgesses. Classical education was not essential. But fair general knowledge, and some pertinent application was necessary. And Washington, charged with oversight of this education, sought to provide the very finest possible opportunities for the would-be wealthy gentleman.

jack custis

John (Jack) Parke Custis was Martha Washington’s son by her first marriage. He died of a malarial-type fever when he was only twenty-seven.

At eight or nine years old, Jack was sent to board with Reverend Jonathan Boucher, a clergyman-educator who lived close enough for his mother’s attention and his step-father’s supervision – yet far enough away for the boy to feel independent. Washington’s extensive correspondence with Boucher indicates that he kept sharp tabs on the boy’s progress – or, in the case of Jack Custis, the lack thereof. But Washington hoped, and Jack promised to try harder and apply himself.

To his credit, Jack was an affectionate boy-to-man.  He adored his mother, and was sincerely fond of his stepfather. He would always be a good son. His promises were well intentioned – just never executed.

Jack Custis: The Schoolboy

It was an age of “spare the rod, spoil the child,” and the Reverend Boucher may have been limited and uncompromising in his approach as a schoolmaster. Imagination played no role in pedantry.

But it was never a secret that when Jack Custis came of age, he would be a very wealthy gentleman. Thus he naturally gravitated to the “gentleman’s” pursuits of riding and hunting, dancing, socializing and sporting fine clothes. Book learning was not on his agenda. Despite Jack’s many promises to his stepfather (who he truly liked and admired) that he would be more attentive, his tutor threw up his hands and declared Jack Custis to be the most “voluptuary” boy he knew. The meaning, in its archaic sense, meant “pleasure-loving.”

Still, George Washington did not give up on the young man.  He wanted the very best for his stepson.

Jack Custis: The Teenager

Finally, in near-desperation, he decided to send Jack, now about seventeen, to Kings College in New York City (today’s Columbia University). In those days, entrance examinations were not required.   Family funds were the only pre-requisite.

As expected, Jack did not want to go. He had no head for academics. His heart was also elsewhere. He had met and fallen in love with young Eleanor Calvert and wanted to get married. But Jack went to New York to please his stepfather, and, no surprise, where his scholastic achievements were as lackluster as they had ever been. He lasted a semester.

He came back to Mt. Vernon and persuaded his parents that he was responsible enough to marry his Nelly.  He proved to be a far better husband (and sire of children) than he had ever been a student. He would have four children before he died at only twenty-seven.

The Custis Legacy

When Jack Custis died, his twenty-five year old widow was left with four children under ten.   Nelly would later remarry and have more. She would also remain extremely close to the Washingtons, who loved her dearly and forever considered her part of their “family.”

washingtonfamily

George and Martha Washington with their step-grandchildren: George Washington Parke Custis, and Eleanor Parke Custis. The Washingtons raised the two youngest children of Jack Custis as their own.

George and Martha Washington adopted Jack’s two youngest children, Nellie and George Washington Parke Custis. They would be the delight of the Washingtons’ old age. Nellie would inherit her mother’s beauty and her grandmother’s domestic talents.

G.W. Custis however, much to his step-grandfather’s exasperation, would inherit his father’s disinclination for study. He would never be a scholar either.

Sources:

  • Bourne, Miriam Anne, First Family: George Washington and his Intimate Relations, W.W. Norton & Co., 1982
  • Brady, Patricia – Martha Washington: An America Life – Viking Press, 2005
  • Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington – Galahad Books, 2006
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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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