George Washington became a father to the fatherless, not only to his country but also to his two step-grandchildren, whom he and Martha adopted after the death of their father. In a hand-written letter sent to his 15 year old grandson (George Washington Parke Custis who was known affectionately in his youth as “Washy”) while he was away at Princeton College, George Washington gives some timeless fatherly advice. As a father of four children myself and a grandfather as well, I can mirror his sentiments.
A copy of the original letter can be viewed in the thumbnails below with the transcription to follow. (Provided by the Virginia Historical Society)
Written from Philadelphia by George Washington to George Washington Parke Custis on November 28, 1796.
In a few hasty lines, covering your sister’s letter and a comb, on Saturday last, I promised to write more fully to you by the post of this day. I am now in the act of performing that promise.
The assurances you give me of applying diligently to your studies, and fulfilling those obligations which are enjoined by your Creator and due to his creatures, are highly pleasing and satisfactory to me. I rejoice in it on two accounts; first, as it is the sure means of laying the foundation of your own happiness, and rendering you, if it should please God to spare your life, a useful member of society hereafter; and secondly, that I may, if I live to enjoy the pleasure, reflect that I have been, in some degree, instrumental in effecting these purposes.
You are now extending into that stage of life when good or bad habits are formed. When the mind will be turned to things useful and praiseworthy, or to dissipation and vice. Fix on whichever it may, it will stick by you; for you know it has been said, and truly, “that as the twig is bent so it will grow.” This, in a strong point of view, shows the propriety of letting your inexperience be directed by maturer advice, and in placing guard upon the avenues which lead to idleness and vice. The latter will approach like a thief, working upon your passions; encouraged, perhaps, by bad examples; the propensity to which will increase in proportion to the practice of it and your yielding. This admonition proceeds from the purest affection for you; but I do not mean by it, that you are to become a stoic, or to deprive yourself in the intervals of study of any recreations or manly exercise which reason approves.
‘Tis well to be on good terms with all your fellow-students, and I am pleased to hear you are so, but while a courteous behavior is due to all, select the most deserving only for your friendships, and before this becomes intimate, weigh their dispositions and character well. True friendship is a plant of slow growth; to be sincere, there must be a congeniality of temper and pursuits. Virtue and vice can not be allied; nor can idleness and industry; of course, if you resolve to adhere to the two former of these extremes, an intimacy with those who incline to the latter of them, would be extremely embarrassing to you; it would be a stumbling block in your way; and act like a millstone hung to your neck, for it is the nature of idleness and vice to obtain as many votaries as they can.
I would guard you, too, against imbibing hasty and unfavorable impressions of any one. Let your judgment always balance well before you decide; and even then, where there is no occasion for expressing an opinion, it is best to be silent, for there is nothing more certain than that it is at all times more easy to make enemies than friends. And besides, to speak evil of any one, unless there is unequivocal proofs of their deserving it, is an injury for which there is no adequate reparation. For, as Shakespeare says “He that robs me of my good name enriches not himself, but renders me poor indeed,” or words to that effect.
I have said this much before I mention any thing relative to the unpleasant situation you seem to be placed in with [illegible]. His character as you must believe could only be known to me from Reports – and that Report was received from Doctr. Smith, who could have had no interest in making an erroneous one; – nor is it likely he could have been declined in the literary abilities if he had been so in the moral character of that young man. If however you are more likely to receive any benefit from being in the same Chamber with Mr. [illegible] (which was the great object with me) or feel any particular inconvenience from having two others (instead of one, as is usual) in the same room with you, -and above all, if you perceive anything indecent, or immoral in his conduct, & will repeat to me your wish to be removed, I will write to the President of the College requesting him to do it accordingly; but remember I must give the reasons with which you furnish me, and that these, to avoid the imputation of whim, or caprice, ought to be just.
Keep another thing also in mind that scarcely any change would be agreeable to you at first from the sudden transition, and from never having been accustomed to shift or rough it. And, moreover, that if you meet with collegiate fare, it will be unmanly to complain. My paper reminds me it is time to conclude which I do.
P. S. I presume you received my letter covering a ten-dollar bill to pay for your gown, although it is not mentioned. To acknowledge’ the receipt of letters is always proper, to remove doubts of their miscarriage.