Several patriots are considered “founding fathers” of the United States. One, however, stands apart as the founding father – George Washington. And while that honor is as particularly fitting given that Washington had no biological children, you might be surprised to learn that America was not Washington’s only child.
Washington played a significant role in raising his wife’s two children, as well as two grandchildren and several other relatives. So as we celebrate Father’s Day, we can look to Washington as a story, and an example, of personal as well as national fatherhood.
When he married the widow Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759, Washington immediately stepped into the role of father and legal guardian of her two young children. And rearing John (Jacky) Parke Custis and Martha (Patsy) Parke Custis proved to be difficult duty, albeit for different reasons.
Washington had an air of formality, even with children, but he was more at ease with girls than boys, and he found it easy to dote on and spoil his adopted daughter. Patsy, however, began to show signs of epilepsy when she was six. The Washingtons consulted several physicians and tried an assortment of medical and non-medical remedies, but none that worked. Patsy died in 1773 at the age of 17.
Washington wrote and spoke lovingly of Patsy and grieved over her death, but he had a more contentious relationship with Jacky. Governing men, Washington often pointed out, was much easier than governing boys, and Jacky was his case in point.
In his epic biography of Washington, Ron Chernow described Jacky as “a foppish boy, lazy, wayward, and indulged by his mother” and noted that he “shared few traits with his energetic stepfather, and their temperamental differences only aggravated matters.”
Jacky, the heir to his biological father’s considerable fortune, gravitated toward hunting, cockfights, horse races, and girls. He spurned Washington advice, as well as all attempts to provide him with the of formal education Washington longed for but never had.
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Washington arranged for Jacky to attend boarding schools and then King’s College (Columbia), but he spent much of his time socializing rather than studying. And in 1774, not long after his sister’s death, the 19-year-old Jacky quit college to marry a 16-year-old Maryland socialite, Eleanor Calvert.
Jacky’s lack of discipline and education made him a poor manager of his family’s wealth, but in time he grew to appreciate his stepfather’s “parental care,” as he put it in a letter in 1776 to Washington that Chernow quotes.
“It pleased the Almighty to deprive me at a very early period of life of my father, but I cannot sufficiently adore His goodness in sending me so good a guardian as you Sir,” Jacky wrote to Washington. “Few have experienc[e]d such care and attention from real parents as I have done. He best deserves the name of father who acts the part of one.”
It was Washington’s actions, even if underappreciated at times, that made him a father. He might not have always done the best thing, but it seems he consistently did his best.
When Jacky died of camp fever in 1781 while serving as a civilian aide to Washington, he and Eleanor already had four children. George and Martha informally adopted the two youngest, both under the age of two, and raised them as their own.
“These two adopted children reciprocated the intense love they received,” Chernow wrote, “and treated George and Martha more as adored parents than as grandparents.”
So, what do we take from Washington’s story?
The main lesson to me is that leaders lead wherever they are called to lead. As a general, as president, and as a father, Washington embraced responsibility, made difficult decisions, persevered through tragedies and frustrations, and gave the best of what he had to the benefit of others. We would expect nothing less from the father of a nation. And while he had no biological children, he deserved the name of father because he acted the part.
Top image: Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The Washington Family by Edward Savage (1789–1796). Wikimedia Commons