Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

A new history book comes out this month chock full of Arlingtoniana.

Cassandra A. Good’s “First Family: George Washington’s Heirs and the Making of America” (Hanover Square Press) is a fresh take on the 18th and 19th century Custis siblings and how these early American “celebrities” used their kinship with our founding father and handled — or mishandled — their ownership of enslaved people.

An associate history professor at Marymount University, Good unearths new details on life at Arlington House and Abingdon Plantation (on the site of today’s Reagan National Airport) and the 18th- and 19th century Custis siblings’ treatment of the enslaved.  She also cites my own biography of George Washington Parke Custis (McFarland Books, 2021), and thanks another in our small club of former Mount Vernon Research Fellows: Matthew Costello, also an Arlingtonian academic working at the White House Historical Association, and who wrote a fine book on the meaning of Washington’s tomb.

Good’s other sources include Steve Hammond, the Syphax family historian who advises Arlington House, and my Arlingtonian wife, Ellen McCallister Clark, retired as library director at the Society of the Cincinnati.

As a journalist-generalist, I tip my hat to Good’s deeper, scholarly approach to penetrating the culture and political behaviors of the early-American period and shaping a narrative anything but worshipful of the four grandchildren of Martha Washington.  Born in the 1770s were Elizabeth “Eliza” Parke Custis (Law), Martha “Patty” Parke Custis (Peter), Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis (Lewis), and born in 1781 was male heir George Washington Parke Custis, known among Mount Vernon family as “Washy.”

With chapter titles such as “The Custis Empire,” and “Washington City’s First Family,” Good—who has specialized in women’s roles in the early United States—provides a modernization to the other work on this clan, the 1997 “Custis Chronicles” by James Lynch. She brings characters to life, as in her account of Custis’s mother Eleanor, after the death of her first husband Jacky Custis, becoming a “player” in Cupid’s market at Alexandria dances before remarrying to doctor-politician David Stuart. (The Custis estate would pay George and Martha Washington to raise Nelly and Washy.)

Good describes how the Custises inherited, bought and showed off GW relics and engaged in political discussions. She displays a keen grasp of clashes between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.

She adds to our knowledge of Eliza Custis, who had a rare early American divorce from real estate investor Thomas Law (that’s her former house in Alexandria now the administration building for Episcopal High School).

The author is frank about the scandals: The women such as Wash’s wife Molly Fitzhugh, his Prince George’s County aunt Rosalie Stier Calvert and his nonresident mother Eleanor “had few options in the face of their husbands’ sexual abuse of the women they enslaved.” Wash and Eliza during their lifetimes freed several of their enslaved, but Nelly and Patty only one each, Good concludes.

Her treatment of my subject reports that many of the first enslaved at Arlington House were likely lent by his mother because they had more farming experience than the Mount Vernon domestic workers. I loved that Wash gave a portrait of George Washington to the Alexandria Academy, how he showed war-hero Andrew Jackson Mount Vernon in 1815, and how upset Wash was that battlefield paintings drew an unkind review in a prominent 1836 newspaper.

Reviews of Good’s book will be superior.


As a sideline, Prof. Good is also pitching in to advise the Arlington Historical Society’s “Enslaved in Arlington” project.

This month its volunteer researchers, aided by public school students, unveiled its first entry: a spreadsheet documenting the lives of more than 1,400 individual African-Americans who toiled under slavery in Arlington from 1669-1865. Actual names have been recorded for 800, along with background on the enslavers and their locations. Posted with the spreadsheet on the society’s website are a timeline and a collection of related personalized stories. An interactive map is in preparation.

Memorializing the Enslaved in Arlington is sponsored by Virginia Humanities and JBG Smith Cares.