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The Courtship Of George Washington Post by :tronic Category :Essays Author :Myrtle Reed Date :November 2011 Read :2531

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The Courtship Of George Washington

The quaint old steel engraving which shows George and Martha Washington sitting by a table, while the Custis children stand dutifully by, is a familiar picture in many households, yet few of us remember that the first Lady of the White House was not always first in the heart of her husband.

The years have brought us, as a people, a growing reverence for him who was in truth the "Father of His Country." Time has invested him with godlike attributes, yet, none the less, he was a man among men, and the hot blood of youth ran tumultuously in his veins.

At the age of fifteen, like many another schoolboy, Washington fell in love. The man who was destined to be the Commander of the Revolutionary Army, wandered through the shady groves of Mount Vernon composing verses which, from a critical standpoint, were very bad. Scraps of verse were later mingled with notes of surveys, and interspersed with the accounts which that methodical statesman kept from his school-days until the year of his death.

In the archives of the Capitol on a yellowed page, in Washington's own handwriting, these lines are still to be read:


"Oh, Ye Gods, why should my Poor Resistless Heart
Stand to oppose thy might and Power,
At last surrender to Cupid's feather'd Dart,
And now lays bleeding every Hour
For her that's Pityless of my grief and Woes,
And will not on me, pity take.
I'll sleep amongst my most inveterate Foes,
And with gladness never wish to wake.
In deluding sleepings let my Eyelids close,
That in an enraptured Dream I may
In a soft lulling sleep and gentle repose
Possess those joys denied by Day."


Among these boyish fragments there is also an incomplete acrostic, evidently intended for Miss Frances Alexander, which reads as follows:


"From your bright sparkling Eyes I was undone;
Rays, you have, rays more transparent than the Sun
Amidst its glory in the rising Day;
None can you equal in your bright array;
Constant in your calm, unspotted Mind;
Equal to all, but will to none Prove kind,
So knowing, seldom one so young you'll Find.

"Ah, woe's me that I should Love and conceal--
Long have I wished, but never dare reveal,
Even though severely Love's Pains I feel;
Xerxes that great wast not free from Cupid's Dart,
And all the greatest Heroes felt the smart."


He wrote at length to several of his friends concerning his youthful passions. In the tell-tale pages of the diary, for 1748, there is this draft of a letter:


"DEAR FRIEND ROBIN: My place of Residence is at present at
His Lordship's where I might, was my heart disengag'd, pass
my time very pleasantly, as there's a very agreeable Young
Lady Lives in the same house (Col. George Fairfax's Wife's
Sister); but as that's only adding fuel to fire, it makes me
the more uneasy, for by often and unavoidably being, in
Company with her revives my former Passion for your Lowland
Beauty; whereas was I to live more retired from young Women
I might in some measure aliviate my sorrows by burying that
chaste and troublesome Passion in the grave of oblivion or
eternal forgetfulness, for as I am very well assured, that's
the only antidote or remedy, that I shall be relieved by, as
I am well convinced, was I ever to ask any question, I
should only get a denial which would be adding grief to
uneasiness."


The "Lowland Beauty" was Miss Mary Bland. Tradition does not say whether or not she ever knew of Washington's admiration, but she married Henry Lee.

"Light Horse Harry," that daring master of cavalry of Revolutionary fame, was the son of the "Lowland Beauty," and some tender memories of the mother may have been mingled with Washington's fondness for the young soldier. It was "Light Horse Harry" also, who said of the Commander-in-Chief that he was "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen!"

By another trick of fate the grandson of the "Lowland Beauty" was Gen. Robert E. Lee. Who can say what momentous changes might have been wrought in history had Washington married his first love?

Miss Gary, the sister of Mrs. Fairfax, was the "agreeable young lady" of whom he speaks. After a time her charm seems to have partially mitigated the pain he felt over the loss of her predecessor in his affections. Later he writes of a Miss Betsey Fauntleroy, saying that he is soon to see her, and that he "hopes for a revocation of her former cruel sentence."

When Braddock's defeat brought the soldier again to Mount Vernon, to rest from the fatigues of the campaign, there is abundant evidence to prove that he had become a personage in the eyes of women. For instance, Lord Fairfax writes to him, saying:


"If a Satterday Night's Rest cannot be sufficient to enable
your coming hither to-morrow the Lady's will try to get
Horses to equip our Chair or attempt their strength on Foot
to Salute you, so desirious are they with loving Speed
to have an occular Demonstration of your being the same
identical Gent--that lately departed to defend his Country's
Cause."

A very feminine postscript was attached to this which read as follows:


"DEAR SIR

"After thanking Heaven for your safe return, I must accuse
you of great unkindness in refusing us the pleasure of
seeing you this night. I do assure you nothing but our being
satisfied that our company would be disagreeable, should
prevent us from trying if our Legs would not carry us to
Mount Vernon this night, but if you will not come to us,
to-morrow morning very early we shall be at Mount Vernon.

"SALLY FAIRFAX
ANN SPEARING
ELIZ'TH DENT"

Yet, in spite of the attractions of Virginia we find him journeying to Boston, on military business, by way of New York.

The hero of Braddock's stricken field found every door open before him. He was fêted in Philadelphia, and the aristocrats of Manhattan gave dinners in honour of the strapping young soldier from the wilds of Virginia.

At the house of his friend, Beverly Robinson, he met Miss Mary Philipse, and speedily surrendered. She was a beautiful, cultured woman, twenty-five years old, who had travelled widely and had seen much of the world. He promptly proposed to her, and was refused, but with exquisite grace and tact.

Graver affairs however soon claimed his attention, and he did not go back, though a friend wrote to him that Lieutenant-Colonel Morris was besieging the citadel. She married Morris, and their house in Morristown became Washington's headquarters, in 1776--again, how history might have been changed had Mary Philipse married her Virginia lover!

In the spring of 1758, Washington met his fate. He was riding on horseback from Mount Vernon to Williamsburg with important despatches. In crossing a ford of the Pamunkey he fell in with a Mr. Chamberlayne, who lived in the neighbourhood. With true Virginian hospitality he prevailed upon Washington to take dinner at his house, making the arrangement with much difficulty, however, since the soldier was impatient to get to Williamsburg.

Once inside the colonial house, whose hospitable halls breathed welcome, his impatience, and the errand itself, were almost forgotten. A negro servant led his horse up and down the gravelled walk in front of the house; the servant grew tired, the horse pawed and sniffed with impatience, but Washington lingered.

A petite hazel-eyed woman--she who was once Patsy Dandridge, but then the widow of Daniel Parke Custis--was delaying important affairs. At night-fall the distracted warrior remembered his mission, and made a hasty adieu. Mr. Chamberlayne, meeting him at the door, laid a restraining hand upon his arm. "No guest ever leaves my house after sunset," he said.

The horse was put up, the servant released from duty, and Washington remained until the next morning, when, with new happiness in his heart, he dashed on to Williamsburg.

We may well fancy that her image was before him all the way. She had worn a gown of white dimity, with a cluster of Mayblossoms at her belt, and a little white widow's cap half covered her soft brown hair.

She was twenty-six, some three months younger than Washington; she had wealth, and two children. Mr. Custis had been older than his Patsy, for she was married when she was but seventeen. He had been a faithful and affectionate husband, but he had not appealed to her imagination, and it was doubtless through her imagination, that the big Virginia Colonel won her heart.

She left Mr. Chamberlayne's and went to her home--the "White House"--near William's Ferry. The story is that when Washington came from Williamsburg, he was met at the ferry by one of Mrs. Custis's slaves. "Is your mistress at home?" he inquired of the negro who was rowing him across the river.

"Yes, sah," replied the darkey, then added slyly, "I recon you am de man what am expected."

It was late in the afternoon of the next day when Washington took his departure, but he had her promise and was happy. A ring was ordered from Philadelphia, and is duly set down in his accounts: "One engagement ring, two pounds, sixteen shillings."

Then came weary months of service in the field, and they saw each other only four times before they were married. There were doubtless frequent letters, but only one of them remains. It is the letter of a soldier:


"We have begun our march for the Ohio, (he wrote). A courier
is starting for Williamsburg, and I embrace the opportunity
to send a few words to one whose life is now inseparable
from mine.

"Since that happy hour, when we made our pledges to each
other, my thoughts have been continually going to you as to
another self. That an All-powerful Providence may keep us
both in safety is the prayer of your ever faithful and
affectionate Friend,

"G. WASHINGTON

"20th of July
Mrs. Martha Custis."

On the sixth of the following January they were married in the little church of St. Peter. Once again Dr. Mossum, in full canonicals, married "Patsy" Dandridge to the man of her choice. The bridegroom wore a blue cloth coat lined with red silk and ornamented with silver trimmings. His vest was embroidered white satin, his shoe- and knee-buckles were of solid gold, his hair was powdered, and a dress sword hung at his side.

The bride was attired in heavy brocaded white silk inwoven with a silver thread. She wore a white satin quilted petticoat with heavy corded white silk over-skirt, and high-heeled shoes of white satin with buckles of brilliants. She had ruffles of rich point lace, pearl necklace, ear-rings, and bracelets, and was attended by three bridesmaids.

The aristocracy of Virginia was out in full force. One of the most imposing figures was Bishop, the negro servant, who had led Washington's horse up and down the gravelled path in front of Mr. Chamberlayne's door while the master lingered within. He was in the scarlet uniform of King George's army, booted and spurred, and he held the bridle rein of the chestnut charger that was forced to wait while his rider made love.

On leaving the church, the bride and her maids rode back to the "White House" in a coach drawn by six horses, and guided by black post-boys in livery, while Colonel Washington, on his magnificent horse, and attended by a brilliant company, rode by her side.

There was no seer to predict that some time the little lady in white satin, brocade silk, and rich laces, would spend long hours knitting stockings for her husband's army, and that night after night would find her, in a long grey cloak, at the side of the wounded, hearing from stiffening lips the husky whisper, "God bless you, Lady Washington!"

All through the troublous times that followed, Washington was the lover as well as the husband. He took a father's place with the little children, treating them with affection, but never swerving from the path of justice. With the fondness of a lover, he ordered fine clothes for his wife from London.

After his death, Mrs. Washington destroyed all of his letters. There is only one of them to be found which was written after their marriage. It is in an old book, printed in New York in 1796, when the narrow streets around the tall spire of Trinity were the centre of social life, and the busy hum of Wall Street was not to be heard for fifty years!

One may fancy a stately Knickerbocker stopping at a little bookstall where the dizzy heights of the Empire Building now rise, or down near the Battery, untroubled by the white cliff called "The Bowling Green," and asking pompously enough, for the Epistles; Domestic, Confidential, and Official, from General Washington.

The pages are yellowed with age, and the "f" used in the place of the "s", as well as the queer orthography and capitalisation, look strange to twentieth-century eyes, but on page 56 the lover-husband pleads with his lady in a way that we can well understand.

The letter is dated "June 24, 1776," and in part is as follows:


"MY DEAREST LIFE AND LOVE:--

"You have hurt me, I know not how much, by the insinuation
in your last, that my letters to you have been less frequent
because I have felt less concern for you.

"The suspicion is most unjust; may I not add, is most
unkind. Have we lived, now almost a score of years, in the
closest and dearest conjugal intimacy to so little purpose,
that on the appearance only, of inattention to you, and
which you might have accounted for in a thousand ways more
natural and more probable, you should pitch upon that single
motive which is alone injurious to me?

"I have not, I own, wrote so often to you as I wished and as
I ought.

"But think of my situation, and then ask your heart if I be
without excuse?

"We are not, my dearest, in circumstances the most favorable
to our happiness; but let us not, I beseech of you, make
them worse by indulging suspicions and apprehensions which
minds in distress are apt to give way to.

"I never was, as you have often told me, even in my better
and more disengaged days, so attentive to the little
punctillios of friendship, as it may be, became me; but my
heart tells me, there never was a moment in my life, since I
first knew you, in which it did not cleave and cling to you
with the warmest affection; and it must cease to beat ere it
can cease to wish for your happiness, above anything on
earth.

"Your faithful and tender husband, G. W."

"'Seventy-six!" The words bring a thrill even now, yet, in the midst of those stirring times, not a fortnight before the Declaration was signed, and after twenty years of marriage, he could write her like this. Even his reproaches are gentle, and filled with great tenderness.

And so it went on, through the Revolution and through the stormy days in which the Republic was born. There were long and inevitable separations, yet a part of the time she was with him, doing her duty as a soldier's wife, and sternly refusing to wear garments which were not woven in American looms.

During the many years they lived at Mount Vernon, they attended divine service at Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia, one of the quaint little landmarks of the town which is still standing. For a number of years he was a vestryman of the church, and the pew occupied by him is visited yearly by thousands of tourists while sight-seeing in the national Capitol. Indeed all the churches, so far as known, in which he once worshipped, have preserved his pew intact, while there are hundreds of tablets, statues, and monuments throughout the country.

In the magnificent monument at Washington, rising to a height of more than 555 feet, the various States of the Union have placed stone replicas of their State seals, and these, with other symbolic devices, constitute the inscriptions upon one hundred and seventy-nine of these memorial stones. Not only this, but Europe and Asia, China and Japan have honoured themselves by erecting memorials to the great American.

When at last his long years of service for his country were ended, he and his beloved wife returned again to their beautiful home at Mount Vernon, to wait for the night together. The whole world knows how the end came, with her loving ministrations to the very last of the three restful years which they at this time spent together at the old home, and how he looked Death bravely in the face, as became a soldier and a Christian.


(The end)
Myrtle Reed's Essay: Courtship Of George Washington

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