Everyone knows George Washington as "Father of our Country," a title bestowed upon him by history for, among other distinctions, his roles as General of the Continental Army and first President of the United States of America.
But with Father's Day not long off, the question arises: Was the Father of our Country a father himself? And if so, what kind?
Dean Malissa, historian, scholar and renowned Washington interpreter, relates that Washington was indeed a parent. More accurately, he was a step-parent, owing to his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis. "She brings Jackie and Patsy into the marriage, and Washington becomes their ‘adoptive papa.'" says Malissa. Her son and daughter are her only remaining children, as she tragically lost two in infancy.
"In accordance with the customs of the time, Washington pretty much has the final say on every aspect of life at Mount Vernon, except with the children. Martha has the final say there," Malissa describes. With one exception (a decision to inoculate Jackie and Patsy against smallpox), he defers to her childrearing conventions and preferences. "In all aspects, she's the final arbiter," Malissa says.
The heartache of losing a child would continue to touch the Washingtons. Sadly, neither Jackie nor Patsy reach full adulthood. At 17, Patsy died of epilepsy ("the falling sickness") at Mount Vernon, collapsing after leaving the luncheon table to fetch a letter from her brother. Jackie married quite young, against Washington's counsel, sired four children, and eventually joined the War of Independence as it was nearing its end. He was felled at age 26 by "camp fever" (most likely typhus), shortly after the British surrender at Yorktown.
But Washington's years of rearing youngsters continues, as two of his step-grandchildren come to live with him and Martha: Eleanor Parke Custis ("Nellie") and George Washington Parke Custis ("Washy"). They accompany Washington during his presidency, living in the President's House on Market Street in Philadelphia.
The staid and solemn George Washington pictured on the dollar bill or steadfastly facing the harsh winter at Valley Forge may have cemented itself in the public consciousness, but according to Malissa, Washington was appropriately warm and fatherly with family.
"There's a wonderful image that is written about," relates Malissa, "when the Washingtons become great-grandparents. One of the babes, a toddler, is walking with Washington, holding his little finger on the piazza at Mount Vernon. And Washington is stoop-shouldered because of his age and because even late in life, he remains a tall, tall man.
"But regardless, he's bent down to walk back and forth, back and forth with this little child on the piazza at Mount Vernon."
Washington's paternalism extended beyond his direct familial relations, says Malissa. In recognition of the strong bond that was forged between them, the Marquis de Lafayette presented Washington with a gift of the key to the Bastille. In the letter accompanying that gift, Lafayette encompasses his feelings regarding Washington, incorporating his admiration for his traits as both father-figure and father of our country:
"Please accept this gift as a son to his adoptive father, as an aide-de-camp to his general, as a missionary of liberty to liberty's patriarch."