Commentary

A Review of George Washington Parke Custis, A Rarefied Life in America’s First Family By Charles S. Clark

by J. Roslyn
Special To The News-Press

There are multiple reasons that Charles Clark’s biography of George Washington Parke Custis should be read by historians and anyone with an interest in American history, especially Virginians, including those living in Arlington County. First, as Clark points out, his book is “the first detailed biography of Custis, capturing all phases of his eventful life. Until now he has been sketched as a bit of a cardboard figure, making cameo appearances in dozens of treatments of George Washington and Robert E. Lee.” For whatever reason the recorders of history have “forgotten” or ignored Custis, and Clark makes short shrift of those reasons with this excellent biography.


Moreover, Clark has not presented a dry recitation of facts and dates. Instead, Clark does a yeoman’s job of describing Custis’s life as a young man in a way that depicts an increasingly exasperated Washington as a grandfather trying his best to guide Custis into becoming a decent man. Clark in turn depicts the young Custis as an extraordinary character whose antics reminds one of a modern day Eddy Haskell or Ferris Bueller.


Washington had very high hopes for young Custis. Custis’s father was Martha Washington’s child from her first marriage, and after his father’s death, he and his sister went to live with her, becoming the adopted step-grandchildren of George Washington, with Custis as his only male heir. As he grew into a young man, however, Custis seemed to disappoint everyone, especially Washington. He washed out at the College of New Jersey, later called Princeton, as well as a preparatory school in Philadelphia that later was affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania. At his last school, St. John’s College, in Annapolis, Washington expected a letter every two weeks detailing Custis’s academic progress. Custis wrote that he was “pursuing the study of Natural Philosophy, and hope to distinguish myself in that branch as well as others. Arithmetic I have reviewed, and shall commence French immediately with the professor here.” Washington subsequently wrote to the head of the school, “Mr. Custis possesses competent talents to fit him for any studies, but they are counteracted by an indolence of mind which renders it difficult to draw them into action.”


When Washington was reinstated as Commander in Chief of the military in preparation for a possible war with France, Custis wrote, “Let an admiring world again behold a Cincinnatus springing up from rural retirement to the conquest of nations and the future historian in erasing so great a name insert that of the Father of His Country.” Custis’s attempts to flatter his step-grandfather at best made Washington suspicious of what Custis was not reporting. Washington wrote to Custis’s mother and stepfather, “If you . . . could by indirect means, discover the state of Washington Custis’s mind, it would be to be wished, . . .He appears to me to be moped & stupid, says nothing—and is always in some hole or corner excluded from company.” The detailed descriptions of Custis’s academic failures and his similar failures at keeping to a budget, paint a picture of a weak young man who could not be changed by his grandfather.


Clark also does great service to his “hometown” of Arlington County, where Custis’s luxurious home became “‘Arlington House—The Robert E. Lee Memorial’” which was “closed in 2017 for renovations so the National Park Service could bolster its presentation of slavery.” There are many other Arlington County landmarks described by Clark, including Arlington National Cemetery, that were part of Custis’s extensive land holdings or that touched his life in a meaningful way.


The slavery issue is prominent throughout the book and Clark pulls no punches on this issue. He writes that Custis “had inherited one of the nation’s largest enslaved workforces, and Custis’s handling of the peculiar institution is central to America’s tale.” Later in his life, Custis had at least one child with a slave. Slavery was an abomination that left a stain on America’s history, and its repercussions still exist today. This book is a clear eyed look at the issue of slavery in the lives of Custis and his family, which included Robert E Lee as his son-in-law.


Clark has written a biography of an important figure in the family of one of the most important founders of this country, a figure largely ignored until now. It is also a research and teaching tool that includes a chronology of “Key Dates in the Life of Custis,” and an extensive list with descriptions of mostly Arlington County sites where Custis lived or was affected by or he created. These sites include: Arlington House—The Robert E. Lee Memorial; George Washington’s Mount Vernon; Mount Airy; Abingdon Plantation ruins, and Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, to name a few.
This is not a book that should gather dust in the stacks of a research library, it deserves to be much more than that and hopefully it will be.