Chapter Seven

Views and Advice

Washington's views can be found in numerous letters and written statements. He wrote on many subjects, including education, love and marriage, and keys to success in life.


Washington was primarily a self-taught man, but he had great respect for formal education. Believing his own education to be "defective," he thought nothing was more important to the nation than educating its youth.
He considered "the best means of forming a manly, virtuous and happy people, will be found in the right education of youth. Without this foundation, every other means, in my opinion, must fail." 
Washington believed that education was essential to the new nation's prosperity. That is why he asked the Senate and the House of Representatives to promote the teaching of science and literature. He wanted the United States to "cultivate literature and useful knowledge, for the purpose of qualifying the rising generations for patrons of good government, virtue and happiness." 
During his presidency he repeatedly asked Congress to establish a national university. In his last address to Congress in December 1796, Washington again asked for a national university to educate youth in the science of government.
As in all things, Washington practiced what he preached. His commitment to education took the practical form of giving money to educational institutions. He also paid to educate relatives and the children of friends. In his will, Washington left $4,000, a large amount of money at that time, to the Alexandria Academy for educating orphans and poor children.
After his brother Samuel died in 1781, Washington took charge of his two young sons' education. Washington took an active interest in every aspect of their education and wrote their tutor "it is my wish that their morals as well as educations may be attended to."  In the eighteenth century, dancing was an important social asset, so Washington sent his nephews to dancing school. Because he regretted not being able to speak a foreign language, he directed them to learn French.
In 1783 he wrote to Bushrod, another nephew and the future owner of Mount Vernon:

it is not the mere study of the law, but to become eminent in the profession of it which is to yield honor and profit; the first was your choice, let the second be your ambition, and that dissipation is incompatible with both.

Love and Marriage

It may surprise some people that George Washington, the father of his country, gave advice on love and marriage. However, the patriarch of the nation was not a busybody matchmaker. Quite the opposite, as he explained in a letter, throughout his life he never tried to promote or prevent a matrimonial bond. Rather, he explained his views on marriage to those he cared about.  In a letter to his good friend Burwell Bassett, he wrote "I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of ones life. The foundation of happiness or misery."
In another letter he wrote, "in my estimation more permanent and genuine happiness is to be found in the sequestered walks of connubial life, than in the giddy rounds of promiscuous pleasure, or the more tumultuous and imposing scenes of successful ambition." 
Most of Washington's advice about love is contained in three letters to young women from his wife's side of the family.  As patriarch of his family, he felt it was his duty to advise younger generations. Above all, in choosing a good husband, Washington strongly advised the use of prudence and reason. He believed only men of good character and good sense would make good husbands for the women in his family.
Washington's first letter focused on the possible remarriage of his stepson's widow, Eleanor. The other two letters were written more than ten years later to two of her daughters (his step-granddaughters).  Eleanor, Jacky Custis's young widow with four small children, was advised "to make a prudent choice." Washington suggested she carefully consider the following in her selection process:

the family and connections of the man, his fortune (which is not the most essential in my eye), the line of conduct he has observed, and disposition and frame of his mind. You should consider, what prospect there is of his proving kind and affectionate to you; just, generous and attentive to your children; and, how far his connections will be agreeable to you. 

Washington was not a misty-eye romantic. As far as love or marriage was concerned, he was very practical. In his 1794 letter to his eldest step-granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis, he wrote:

Love is a mighty pretty thing; but like all other delicious things, it is cloying; and when the first transports of the passion begins to subside, which it assuredly will do, and yield, oftentimes too late, to more sober reflections, it serves to evince, that love is too dainty a food to live upon alone, and ought not to be considered farther than as a necessary ingredient for that matrimonial happiness which results from a combination of causes; none of which are of greater importance, than that the object on whom it is placed, should possess good sense, good dispositions, and the means of supporting you in the way you have been brought up. Such qualifications cannot fail to attract (after marriage) your esteem and regard...Without these, whatever may be your first impressions of the man, they will end in disappointment; for be assured, and experience will convince you, that there is no truth more certain, than that all our enjoyments fall short of our expectations. 

Washington's favorite step-granddaughter was Eleanor Parke Custis, known as "Nelly." She was the youngest of his step-granddaughters, who after her father's death was raised mostly by Martha and George Washington. During a visit to her mother's house, Nelly wrote her step-grandfather that she was not interested in any of the young men around her. George Washington, who was at the time the president of the United States, first responded by teasing Nelly about her confidence in her ability to resist falling in love.

Love is said to be an involuntary passion, and it is, therefore, contended that it cannot be resisted....When the fire is beginning to kindle, and your heart growing warm, propound these questions to it. Who is this invader? Have I a competent knowledge of him? Is he a man of good character; a man of sense? For, be assured, a sensible woman can never be happy with a fool. What has been his walk in life? Is he a gambler, a spendthrift, or drunkard? Is his fortune sufficient to maintain me in the manner I have been accustomed to live, and my sisters do live, and is he one to whom my friends can have no reasonable objection? 

Washington approved of Eleanor Custis's choice for a new husbandDavid Stuart, a doctor who became one of his friends and confidant.  Nelly's choice, Lawrence Lewis, was a happy surprise because he was one of Washington's favorite nephews.  Nelly further pleased her step-grandfather by having her wedding on his 67th birthday.  However Elizabeth Parke Custis's unfortunate marriage to Thomas Law, a man about twice her age, ended in divorce in 1810, long after her step-grandfather's death.  

Advice on Growing Up and Success in Life

Before becoming President of the United States, Washington took time to write his beloved nephews, wanting so much for them to become successful. He gave his sixteen-year-old orphaned nephew George Steptoe Washington practical advice on how to conduct himself.

You have now arrived to that age when you must quit the trifling amusements of a boy, and assume the more dignified manners of a the first impressions are generally the most lasting, your doings now may mark the leading traits of your character through life. It is therefore, absolutely necessary, if you mean to make any figure upon the stage, that you should take the first steps right.

On becoming successful, Washington advised his namesake to gain all the knowledge he could, which will be useful later in life. In addition to studies, he said the person seeking success should learn to be a hard worker and not waste too much time on amusements.
While Washington expected his nephew to have some fun, he wanted him to choose his amusements wisely. He advised that leisure time should always be spent in company "that is the best kind" in the best place he can afford, because "by this means you will be constantly improving your manners and cultivating your mind while you are relaxing from your books."
Washington spoke from experience, having learned manners and cultivated his mind in the company of the Fairfax family. He advised his nephews to find similar good company.
Washington also reminded young George Steptoe to be careful not to waste money. George Washington was a well-dressed man, yet he cautioned his poorer nephews regarding fashion and clothing for young men. "Decency and cleanliness will always be the first objects in the dress of a judicious and sensible man."  He admitted that while some conformity to fashion was necessary, it did not mean that every minor change in fashion must be followed. Washington warned that sensible men will think that a person who is a fashion leader has nothing better than lots of clothes "to recommend him to notice."
To his nephew Bushrod Washington, Washington gave advice about friendships and charity. He challenged Bushrod to be careful about selecting friends because they could either improve him or lead him into disgrace.  His advice gives insight into Washington's own feelings on friendship and compassion:

Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence; true friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity....Let your heart feel for the affliction, and distresses of everyone, and let your hand give in proportion to your purse; remembering always, the estimation of the widow's mite. But that it is not everyone who asketh, that deserveth charity; all however are worthy of the inquiry, or the deserving may suffer.

Sample chapter from the book
George Washington:  A Timeless Hero

George Washington:  A Timeless Hero
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