You can sense the damp hand-wringing as Hanson complains again and again in letters to Washington at Mount Vernon. “The fact is, except beating Mrs H., and striking myself, there is no outrage or indecorum they have not committed,” he wrote at one point. “Neither my Servants nor my children have escaped their fury and violence.”
Hanson asked for permission to whip them — and Washington granted it.
George Washington was a stern father figure in almost every aspect of his life. He never had children of his own, but constantly played the role of the beleaguered patriarch — whether it was for a house full of step-grandchildren or a ragged army of barefoot soldiers.
Of course, Washington’s greatest role was as the Pater Patriae, the Father of His Country — a title admirers began bestowing on him even before the country technically existed. Graceful, strong, reserved and pathologically responsible, Washington was the reassuring Great Protector of the breakaway colonists, and he seemed to welcome that burden.
The aggrandizing began at least as far back as 1775. With hostilities underway and the army camped for the winter in Cambridge, Mass., Washington was tickled to find himself lauded in a poem sent by a young woman in Boston.
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.
The author was Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman who was the first black poet to publish a book in the United States.
“I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed,” Washington wrote back to her, “and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents.” He invited her to visit him in Cambridge.
In 1777, as the war dragged on and Washington wrestled with dark prospects, his friend Brig. Gen. Henry Knox wrote to lift his spirits: “The people of America look up to you as their Father and into your hands they intrust their all full confident of every exertion on your part for their security and happiness.”
A year after that, a German-language almanac in Pennsylvania printed the first image of Washington as “Der Landes Vater,” or Father of the Land. By the time he had conquered Cornwallis and become the first president in 1789, Washington was routinely lauded as the nation’s patriarch.
That he had no biological children actually fueled the impulse to crown him father of the nation. Author Ron Chernow, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “Washington: A Life,” wrote that Washington’s lack of offspring “made it seem that he had been divinely preserved in an immaculate state to become the Father of his Country.”
This was something Washington alluded to in an early draft of his First Inaugural Address: “Divine Providence hath not seen fit that my blood should be transmitted or my name perpetuated by the endearing, though sometimes seducing, channel of immediate offspring. I have no child for whom I could wish to make a provision — no family to build in greatness upon my country’s ruins.”
In other words, there would be no American royal dynasty.
Instead, as New York’s Gouverneur Morris said in eulogizing Washington: “Americans! He had no child BUT YOU and HE WAS ALL YOUR OWN.”
For all that Divine Providence stuff, there’s a fascinating flip side to the man’s status as super-patriarch. Washington had a distant, unsatisfying relationship with his own father, and struggled well into adulthood for approval from authority figures.
Augustine Washington already had two sons from a previous marriage when George came along. A hard-driving businessman who traveled often, Augustine died when George was only 11, having not provided the same education he had arranged for the older boys.
George grew to idolize his oldest half brother, Lawrence, a dashing military man who fought for the British in the West Indies. Lawrence died at 34, which was equivalent to a second father dying for the 20-year-old Washington, Chernow wrote.
On through his 20s, George emulated Lawrence by becoming a colonial military officer. But never able to obtain a commission in the British regular army, Washington nursed an adolescent-style grudge that blossomed into rebellion in the 1770s.
Washington became an adoptive father at 26, when he married the widow Martha Custis and adopted her two young children, Patsy and Jacky. Why the couple never had children together is unclear; Martha might have been unable after a difficult delivery with Patsy, or possibly George was infertile.
Although he had no real role model for how to behave, Washington enjoyed the children. He doted especially on Patsy, and was devastated when she died young of epilepsy. Over time, Mount Vernon came to be packed with young people — Jacky’s offspring, as well as collections of stepgrandchildren, nieces and nephews.
Washington approached parenting the same way he approached almost everything: methodically and somewhat sternly. Just months before he died in 1799 at age 67, Washington learned of the death of his sole remaining sibling, his younger brother Charles.
The former president wrote to Charles’s son, Samuel, and noted that the young man now assumed new obligations. “You have become the Guardian of your mother; and as it were, the father, of your fathers family; and by care, industry & sobriety will merit the appellation of one,” Washington wrote.
“Care, industry & sobriety” seems like a dry formula for being a father, but it would be wrong to think that Washington lacked heart. With those troublesome nephews, for instance, he wasn’t quite as tough as he sounded.
One day, young Lawrence showed up at Mount Vernon with bruises from being punished by that overmatched boardinghouse owner, Hanson. Washington’s first impulse was to “correct” Lawrence further, because of the boy’s poor reputation.
“But he begged so earnestly,” Washington wrote to Hanson, “and promised so faithfully that there should be no cause of complaint against him for the future that I have suspended the Punishment.”
Instead, Washington wrote to Lawrence’s older brother, George Steptoe, to chastise him for having intervened when Hanson was trying to punish the boy. George Steptoe wrote a lengthy reply, explaining that Lawrence’s sin had been to miss a church service and that Hanson’s punishment had been excessive.
“I found [Lawrence] on the floor with Col. Hanson on the top of him and a cowhide laying on the table,” he wrote. “[A]larmed at this unexpected sight, I . . . hindered my brother from being beat with an instrument which I deemed improper to inflict a punishment for so [small] a crime.”
He had done so, he said, out of “brotherly affection.” At the end of the letter he added a postscript: “Both of us are in want of coats and a pair of breeche’s.”
Washington doesn’t seem to have replied to his nephew, but two weeks later his ledger showed payment for new clothes for both boys.