Founding Father


His own father died when he was 11, and he had no children himself.
But Washington bound his fate to the destiny of his stepchildren, his soldiers, and unborn millions of Americans.

Mr. Brookhiser is a senior editor of NR.

This article is adapted from
Father of His Country: Rediscovering George Washington, (c)1996 by Richard Brookhiser,
to be published later this month by The Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

WE speak of ``founding fathers,'' in the plural. Yet there has been only one ``father'' of this country. National paternity began gravitating to George Washington six months before the Declaration of Independence, when one Levi Allen addressed him in a letter as ``our political Father.'' The first reference to him as ``Father of His country'' appeared in an almanac in 1778, and since then the title has been fixed.

That title is the greatest barrier to our appreciation of him now, for never was the comparative term of the metaphor so problematic. We are not sure what the fathers of families do, much less fathers of countries. The stereotypical father of the Fifties, who worked till five, then read the paper, has been replaced by a new stereotype of dad as diaper-changer. But the increased role taken by fathers in rearing children (by those who actually take one rather than just talk about it) has been more than offset by the increased number of fathers who have disappeared through the escape hatch of divorce. Other fathers vanish pre-emptively, by not marrying the mothers of their children in the first place, while the men who take their places -- stepfathers, mothers' boyfriends -- are responsible for most of the beating and raping of children that goes on. Our predicaments have a biological basis. Bearing a child takes nine months of a mother's life, and through most of that time, she is in touch with what is going on inside her. She carries the weight, she feels the kicks. Once a child is born, it seems that a mother is, to some degree, wired to attend to it, however badly she may do the job. None of this applies to fathers. Conception is a spasm, an incident. The task can be as easily accomplished by a sperm bank, or a baster. Without a blood test, fathers cannot tell how many of ``their'' children are their own, while mothers who have not been rigidly faithful cannot tell who are the fathers of their children.

Seneca, whose book of moral essays Washington owned, was aware of the wispiness of literal fatherhood. ``My father gave me the benefit of life . . . not knowing to whom . . . It is true, that without a father I could never have had a being . . . but I do not, therefore, owe my virtue . . . to my nativity. . . . The generation of me was the least part of the benefit: for, to live is common with the brutes; but, to live well is the main business.'' If a man does only the biological minimum required for fatherhood, then he has no role in whether his children live well, or even in whether they live at all.

Fatherhood, as any society understands it, is the result of training, and an act of will. A man who would be a father in name as well as in fact must go beyond what is merely natural. A father is a man who follows through. This is why it was particularly appropriate that Washington came to be known as the father of his country, for he was the founder, above all others, who followed through.

The old historian's parlor game, whether events make men or men make events (old because most historians long ago gave the palm to events), seldom considered the option that was always open to historical actors, which is that of doing nothing at all. If the question is, How many of Washington's public deeds were thrust upon him by circumstance?, the simplest and truest answer is that none of them were, for he could always have stayed home. If an entirely private life would have been too eccentric for a man of his station -- even the retiring George Mason held public office -- then he could have spent his career in the planters' club of the Virginia legislature. If he went to the Continental Congress, he need not have taken committee chairmanships, or made himself available for military service. At the end of his tenure as Commander-in-Chief, he could have returned home for good, and spent the remainder of his days farming and fussing with canals. If he went to the Constitutional Convention, he could have sent the document into the world, and not himself. After one term as President, he could have stepped down. But always he did the next thing, and then the next.

The span of his accumulated follow-throughs is remarkable. Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson, Reagan, and (we now realize) Eisenhower were strong Presidents for two terms, with varying degrees of national leadership before their first elections. Franklin Roosevelt was a leader in peace and war for 12 years. Lincoln's national career lasted only 7 years, from the Senate race against Stephen Douglas to his assassination. Washington was the most important man in America, whether he was onstage or off, for 24 years; for 17 of those years, he was front and center. It is a record unmatched in our history, scarcely matched in the histories of modern democracies.

WASHINGTON'S record as a ``political Father'' is all the more striking because his own father, Augustine Washington, seems to have left such a blank in his life. Augustine was 38 years old when George was born, the first child of his second marriage, and he died 11 years later. We know nothing bad about Augustine Washington as a father; we also know nothing good, except for the facts that he sent his two sons by his first marriage to England to be educated, and that he left his family a substantial estate. The many volumes of Washington's collected works yield three brief references to him, all unrevealing.

Scanning Washington's life for possible father figures, one finds a few candidates. His half-brother Lawrence, 14 years older, was a captain in the British army during a forerunner of the French and Indian War. Lawrence went off to war when George was 8; here may have begun the lifelong love of uniforms. Later there was Lawrence's father-in-law, William Fairfax, who employed George as a surveyor, and General Edward Braddock, who commanded him in the French and Indian War. But they do not seem to have been significant father substitutes; they do not bulk as large in Washington's life or his recollections as he himself loomed in the lives of his protégés.

Mary Washington, George's mother, left a more vivid impression, though it is rather grim. In her later years particularly (which lasted into her son's Presidency) she was stingy with praise and lavish with demands. During the Revolution, she encouraged a motion in the Virginia legislature to grant her a pension, which prompted Washington to send the Speaker of the House a mortified letter. ``Before I left Virginia, I answered all her calls for money, and since that period, have directed my steward to do the same. Whence her distresses can arise, therefore, I know not . . . she has not a child that would not divide the last sixpence to relieve her.'' She did give her son her temper. ``Of the mother,'' a childhood friend of George's recalled, ``I was ten times more afraid than of my own parents.'' Mary Washington influenced her son's choice of a wife: Martha Custis, besides being cute, rich, and a shrewd businesswoman, was calm and devoted, and never gave her husband a moment's trouble.

Washington's early life is too misty to understand the family dynamics. All that stands out is the lack of positively engaging parental figures, especially paternal ones.

Washington never became a parent himself. Martha Custis was a 27-year-old widow when he married her in 1759, and she had given birth four times in her first marriage. There is no account of an illegitimate child of Washington's that is more than graffiti on the bathroom wall of history. The conclusion that he was sterile is inescapable.

From time to time he tried to escape the conclusion nevertheless. After he had resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief in 1783, he wrote to Congress asking if he could have the paper back, since it might ``serve my grandchildren some fifty or a hundred years hence for a theme to ruminate upon.'' Both he and Martha were over fifty, and they had been married for almost a quarter of a century. If they were going to have any children, they would have had them by then. Still he ruminated.

Six years later, the subject came up again, though in a very different way. In the discarded draft of his first inaugural, a long and often personal address which Madison persuaded him not to give, Washington was prepared to acknowledge his childlessness publicly. ``. . . it will be recollected,'' he wrote, ``that the 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.'' This lack, he argued, made him more fit to be entrusted with the Presidency. ``Let then the Adversaries to this Constitution . . . point to the sinister object, or to the earthly consideration beyond the hope of rendering some little service to our parent country, that could have persuaded me to accept this appointment.'' Washington's wistful letter to Congress had been written at the beginning of his sixth decade; as he neared the end of it, he accepted his personal loss, and though he never gave the speech, in his own mind he transmuted the loss into a political benefit.

The dynastic temptation was very real. The country was lucky that there was so little material for temptation to work with. Of the first five Presidents, only John Adams had sons who survived to adulthood. Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, whose Administrations covered the first quarter of the nineteenth century, were known as the ``Virginia dynasty,'' but if the seducing channel of immediate (male) offspring had flowed from any of them, the dynasty might have extended into a second generation. How much more likely was it that this would have been the case for literal sons of Washington. None of these men would have tolerated a son becoming President by any means except election. But a gaggle of junior Washingtons, Jeffersons, Madisons, and Monroes could have crowded the political landscape intolerably. As it was, John Adams's eldest son, John Quincy Adams, became the sixth President.

Lacking descendants of his own, Washington turned to three substitutes. The first were his stepchildren and step-grandchildren. Two of Martha's four children survived infancy: a daughter, Patsy, who was sickly and died at 17; and a son, Jack, who married and lived to be 27. Washington worried about Jack's education, writing one tutor that he wanted him ``fit for more useful purposes, than a horse Racer,'' and he worried about his behavior when Jack was elected to the Virginia State Senate during the war: ``I do not suppose that so young a Senator, as you are . . . can yet have much influence in a populous assembly. . . . But it is in your power to be punctual in your attendance.'' He expended the same anxious attention on Jack's son, George Washington Parke Custis. But he never considered the Custis brood his own, and they never considered him theirs. ``. . . his own near relatives feared to speak or laugh before him,'' remembered Nelly Custis, one of Jack's daughters, ``. . . not from his severity,'' but out of ``awe and respect. . . . When he entered a room where we were all mirth and in high conversation, all were instantly mute. He would sit a short time and then retire, quite provoked and disappointed.''

A second group of surrogate children was his staff during the Revolutionary War, which he called his ``family.'' Several of these men had lost their own fathers early in life. Lafayette was 2 when his father was killed in battle. Hamilton was 10 when his father left his children and their mother (whom he had never married). These men met Washington at impressionable ages: Lafayette was 19, Hamilton 22. Washington himself was 45. His relationship with Lafayette was nearly cloudless. Lafayette's long political career in France would be marred by enthusiasm, bad judgment, and what Jefferson (who liked him) cruelly called a ``canine appetite'' for popularity, but when he was in America, these vices had the form of ingenuousness. A week after they met, Washington apologized for the unprofessionalism of his army. ``It is not to teach but to learn that I come hither,'' Lafayette replied. They slept on the ground under one blanket after the battle of Monmouth. Lafayette named his eldest son Georges Washington. Washington's relationship with Hamilton was longer, and hence more complicated. Jefferson, whose father had died when he was 14, never served on Washington's staff, and had important early mentors besides his political colleague. But he too felt the tug of admiration, which envenomed his relations with Hamilton all the more. Saddest of the protégés was Edmund Randolph, who was forced to resign as Secretary of State under suspicion of treason during Washington's second term. He had been taken into Washington's ``family'' at age 22, after his Tory father left for England, only to be disgraced by his political father twenty years later.

But the most important category of substitute descendants was not the children who grew up in Washington's house, or the younger men of his staff or his Cabinet (who sometimes acted childishly enough), but the future generations of Americans. The transposition was quite conscious on Washington's part. In the spring of 1783, as peace was coming and the army was winding up its affairs, he twice used a striking phrase. In a letter to a staff officer, he hoped that the ``Peace and Independency for which we have fought'' would be ``a blessing to Millions yet unborn,'' and in the Circular to the States, his farewell address as Commander-in-Chief, he warned that ``our fate'' was bound up with ``the destiny of unborn Millions.'' This was a more particularized image than ``the destiny of the republican form of government,'' which he would invoke in the version of the first inaugural address that he actually delivered -- more particularized, and more personal, even though the persons were unknown, unknowable. In 1783, as his letter to Congress showed, he still imagined that the unborn millions might include descendants of his own. But even if he had been the most prolific father in the world, most of them would be the posterity of others -- strangers to his blood, as well as strangers to him in time. Mentioning them was an act of adoption.

Six years later, Washington received a printed sermon, which had been delivered in 1759 by a minister in Maine. Washington got sermons all the time; when he acknowledged this one, he added that he ``appro[ved] of the doctrine inculcated.'' The sermon commemorated the death of a Maine hero, Sir William Pepperrell, who fought in two colonial wars and was made a baronet and a general. The text was from Psalm 82, a short psalm addressed to ``the mighty'' of the earth, which ends by reminding them that ``ye shall die like men.'' What, when the mighty die, should they have accomplished? The minister turned for an answer to a funeral oration quoted by Socrates. ``Hereditary Honor is indeed a noble and splendid Patrimony. But to enjoy a fair Estate, either in Fame or Money, and for want of a proper Supply of Wealth and Glory of your own, not to be able to transmit it to your Posterity, is infamous and unmanly.'' The mighty -- the Pepperrells and the Washingtons -- should pass on as much honor and riches as they had inherited. But to whom? Hereditary, Patrimony, and Posterity are terms of blood, of literal fathers and children. General Pepperrell had a son; this part of the sermon had been addressed to him. General Washington had no sons. But he could ensure that his ``Honor,'' the reflection of his life lived well, might be a benefit to the millions unborn, his adopted political heirs. This was a doctrine he could approve of.

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Updated April 1, 1997