Before starting this biography project, I didn’t realize George Washington never had any children of his own. What he did have were two stepchildren from Martha’s previous marriage. One was a girl named Patsy whom he adored. The other, to put it bluntly, was a bit of a turd.
Actually, that’s not fair since Washington was a huge proponent of manure as fertilizer and at times might have preferred real dookie over his troublesome stepson.
Jacky and the Preacher
Just four-years-old when Washington adopted him, John Parke Custis, or “Jacky,” was already wealthier and higher class than his stepfather. At 14 he was terribly spoiled by his mother and not absorbing much from his tutor, so Washington sent him away to study under a clergyman, Reverend Jonathan Boucher.
This may have been a mistake.
Letters between the stepfather and teacher show, as biographer James Thomas Flexner stated, “the boy proved ineducable.” They also showed how much the preacher enjoyed making young Jacky miserable.
In a letter to Washington, Reverend Boucher didn’t show much compassion after Jacky had an accident:
“He will himself inform you of ye accident he lately met with; and as he seems to be very apprehensive of your displeasure…I would urge you and his mamma to spare him rebukes, as much as he certainly deserves them… He seemed to expect me to employ a doctor, but as he met with ye accident by his own indiscretion and as I saw there was no danger, I thought it not amiss not to indulge him.”
Translation: Jacky thinks he hurt himself. Please don’t beat him although I think you should probably beat him.
Later, Boucher included this bit at the end of a letter to Washington:
“Probably, ere long, you will find that he has lost his watch; and he deserves to be severely reprimanded for his carelessness. I have the watch, but do not care soon to put him out of pain.”
Translation: I stole your son’s watch. Please beat him.
|Jonathan Boucher: clergyman, teacher, watch thief.|
After two years with the preacher, Jacky was making zero gains. It’s as if his spoiled little brain was physically rejecting knowledge. Washington wasn’t happy with the boy’s lack of progress at such great expense.
He wrote to Boucher stating that Jacky’s mind was “more than ever turned to dogs, horses, and guns” instead of school books, and he urged Boucher not to let Jacky spend the night with untrusted friends or “allow him to be rambling about at nights in company with those who do not care how debauched and vicious his conduct may be.” Washington seemed to know the feral creature they called Jacky was incapable of learning – their best hope was to contain him.
The preacher-teacher finally admitted the kid was lazy and stupid, saying, “I never did in my life know a youth so exceedingly indolent, or so surprisingly voluptuous. One would suppose nature had intended him for some Asiatic prince.” Nothing could have been more disappointing for Washington, who never had more than a grade school level formal education but voraciously sought out books and knowledge to make up for it. He wanted his stepson to be “fit for more useful purposes than a horse racer.” But according to his teacher, Jacky just “does not much like books.”
|If only they had shown Jacky this book, he might have loved reading.|
Today the idea of a young boy sent off to live with a preacher might raise red flags. I couldn’t find any evidence of anything nefarious in their relationship, unless you can convict a man for using disturbing metaphors. This is how Boucher described Jacky’s passions:
“I consider his rising passions as some little streamlet, swelling by successive showers into something like a torrent: You will in vain oppose its course by dams, banks, or mounds, and the only certain means to prevent its becoming mischievous is to lead it gently along by a variety of canals, lessening its force by dividing it.”
Translation: You can totally trust me with your hormonal 16-year-old’s geysers.
There’s also the fact that Boucher really wanted to take Jacky to Europe. I’m not sure if he wanted to awaken the boy’s thirst for knowledge, remove him from bad influences in America, bilk his estate for more money, or just try siphoning the boy’s streamlets in the City of Love. Washington was against the trip, unwilling to spend even more of the child’s money on something that wasn’t working.
At 18 years old, Jacky (now Jack) managed to meet a girl under the clergyman’s watchful eye, and surprised everyone by announcing their engagement. That was enough to get him whisked out of Boucher’s care and put into college, which he dropped out of a year later to get married.
The Face of Disappointment
Two portraits of Jacky show very different visions of the stepchild. The first shows a handsome young man with a promising future:
|John Parke Custis’s Glamour Shot|
Look at that well-coiffed lad with his milky white skin and thick flowing hair! The potential for greatness just oozes out of the portrait. His expression may seem cold or aloof, but that’s just his eyes reflecting your own insecurity as they penetrate your very soul.
Is that America’s first mullet? I’m not sure what drugs were around back then, but it looks like Jacky was doing all of them. He looks like a character from a Far Side comic, or like Michael Cera and Danny McBride had a kid.
|Michael Cera + Danny McBride = John “Jacky” Parke Custis|
The whole Revolutionary War thing wasn’t Jacky’s cup of tea, until 1781 when he heard his stepdad was headed to Yorktown to hobnob with some aristocratic French officers. Not one to miss a party, Jacky set himself up as a volunteer aide-de-camp. 26-years-old and never having been exposed to much of anything, he promptly contracted camp fever and died.
With no children of his own, Jacky had been Washington’s closest thing to a progeny. As it turns out, he did have one positive impact on the first president and his legacy, through his children.
Custis left behind four children. The Washingtons raised two of those children themselves, Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, and George Washington “Wash” Parke Custis. Like his dad, young Wash was a terrible student, but he went on to lead a productive life and write a very useful memoir about growing up with George Washington.
|The Washingtons with Jacky Custis’s children Nelly and Wash, who both inherited their father’s mullet. In the background, a slave portraitbombs the painting.|
Like the manure George Washington lauded, the best thing Jacky did was pave the way for better things to come.