George Washington’s Losing Battle: Educating Jack Custis

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Portrait of John "Jacky" Parke Custis (1755-1781) by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1774

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

When George Washington met and married the widow Martha Dandridge Custis, he would inherit a large fortune and two small children. By all standards, he was a model stepfather, and took his parental responsibilities very seriously, including their education.

Colonial children usually learned their letters and numbers from their mothers, and Martha obliged. By the time Jacky and his little sister Martha (Patsy) were around six, a tutor was engaged to take their education further. Patsy’s education, in accordance with tradition, would focus less on formal knowledge and heavily on domestic learning. She would learn those essentials from the domestically expert Martha, who had always indicated that she did not especially care for her formal studies. Daniel Parke Custis, Martha’s first husband and the children’s natural father, leaves no record of having been a scholar either.

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

Unfortunately for George (and perhaps fortunately for America), his father died when George was only eleven. His expectations for a good 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 would be for instruction rather than pleasure, but he learned well, and learned to apply his knowledge. He was an intelligent boy, and became an intelligent man. He had achieved prominence in Colonial Virginia by the time he was out of his teens. He was associating with the cream of society as well as the cream of intelligence. One thing he did learn in great abundance: the importance of formal education, and his sorry lack of it.

Jacky’s Academic Expectations

George Washington was no fool. His little stepson showed little interest in book-learning, let alone advanced Latin or Greek. Washington understood. He intended to raise his stepson in expectation of his future inheritance. At his maturity, Jack Custis would become a great landowner. He would be a man of property. He would have 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 his education, sought to provide the very finest possible opportunities for the would-be wealthy gentleman.

At eight or nine years old, Jacky was sent to board with Reverend Jonathan Boucher, a clergyman-educator who lived close enough for fatherly supervision and motherly attention – and far enough away for the boy to feel independent. Washington’s extensive correspondence with the Rev. 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. Jack always promised to try harder, pay attention and apply himself.

To his credit, Jack was an affectionate boy-to-man, and 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.

It was never a secret that when Jack Custis became of age, he would be a very rich gentleman. Thus Jack gravitated to the “gentleman’s” pursuits of riding and hunting, dancing, socializing and sporting fine clothes. Book learning was not on his agenda. By the time he was in his mid-teens, 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 was only too well aware of his own academic deficiencies, and knew better than most what would be – or could be – expected of a gentleman of means and property. 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.

Jack, as expected, 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 off to New York to please his stepfather. His scholastic achievements there were as lackluster as they had ever been. He lasted a semester.

He came back to Mt. Vernon and married his Nelly, and 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. She would remarry and have more. She would also remain extremely close to the Washingtons, who would forever consider her part of their “family.”

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

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

Sources:

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