G.W.P. Custis Promotes Patriotism

GWP Custis and GW
George Washington Parke Custis with George Washington.

National Art Gallery

“The men and women who were contemporary with Washington have nearly all passed away, and in a few years every tongue that might now speak of personal recollections of the Father of his Country will be silent, and that forever.

As we recede from the age of Washington, and history takes the place of verbal traditions in giving a narrative of the events of those days, we become more and more anxious to garner, in memory and in books, the precious seeds of information concerning the men whose names stand prominently on the records of those events. Especially do we desire to know all about Washington, the great central figure of the group of patriots whom we have been taught to revere as the founders of the republic.”
- Publishers’ note for Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, 1860

Throughout his life, George Washington Parke Custis used his position and influence as Martha Washington’s grandson, unofficially the adopted son of George Washington, to establish a reverential narrative of the Founding Fathers. As the self-described “Child of Mount Vernon” and last living link to George Washington, Custis appointed himself the keeper of Washington’s legacy, using a variety of methods record and interpret the young nation’s story. He relied especially on the arts and his legendary hospitality to promote a sense of patriotism and national unity among the country’s citizens. Even as sectional divisions increased in the early years of the nineteenth century, Custis promoted himself as a living reminder of the nation’s shared history.

GWP Custis as a child.
A copy of a painting that once hung at Mount Vernon of G.W.P. Custis.

Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

Born near the end of the American Revolution, George Washington Parke Custis and his older sister Nelly, were raised from infancy by their grandmother Martha Washington and step-grandfather George Washington. Custis grew up at Mount Vernon but lived in New York and Philadelphia during George Washington’s presidency. Custis was present for the visits of politicians and notable figures, including the Marquis de Lafayette, who came to pay respects to George Washington. Growing up alongside the new country under Washington’s influence had a profound and lifelong impact on Custis.

Upon his grandmother’s death, when Custis was 21, he inherited a number of items from Mount Vernon and purchased even more at auction. Custis’ “Washington Treasury,” as he called it, included portraits, silver, china, farm equipment, and furniture, including the bed in which Washington died. War relics, such as Washington’s war tents, camp chests, swords, and flags captured on the battlefield were also priceless additions to Custis’ collection.

Custis commissioned the construction of Arlington House to serve as a showcase for his Washington Treasury, so that he could share Washington’s legacy. Situated prominently atop Arlington Heights, the estate was easily visible from three directions, and faced the growing nation’s capital across the Potomac River. Custis cheerfully welcomed guests into his home, delighted at the opportunity to share memories of George Washington and growing up at Mount Vernon. He proudly displayed items from the Washington Treasury, showing off his paintings of Revolutionary War battle scenes, and, for lucky visitors, he would cut out Washington’s signature from letters and give them as souvenirs.

GWP Custis in 1856.
George Washington Parke Custis in 1856.

National Portrait Gallery

Custis’ hospitality towards his guests to Arlington extended beyond the house to the rest of the estate. Arlington Spring, located near the shore of the Potomac River, was a popular spot for locals to gather and socialize. The ferry boat G.W.P. Custis transported visitors to the spring, where they could enjoy the water, go fishing, purchase refreshments, and dance at the open-air dance pavilion. Custis frequently entertained guests at Arlington Spring by playing his violin or telling stories about George Washington and the Revolutionary War.

Custis, like his step-grandfather, wanted the United States to gain more economic independence. Rather than relying on European wool, he believed that careful breeding of livestock would improve quality and thus bolster American agriculture and the economy by encouraging domestic purchasing. For over a decade, beginning in 1805, Custis hosted a sheep-shearing competition at Arlington Spring. The event, timed to coincide with his birthday, took on the atmosphere of a county fair. Custis erected George Washington’s Revolutionary War campaign tents and decorated them with images of George Washington. Speeches, toasts, music, stories of the war, and the general promotion of American agriculture were major parts of the event, which ended with a feast underneath Washington’s campaign tents.

Custis spoke publicly on his favorite topics, George Washington and the American Revolution, whenever the opportunity arose. His speeches reminded his fellow citizens that George Washington was a model United States citizen, whom all should keep close in their hearts and minds. Washington’s birthday, St. Patrick’s Day, and July 4th celebrations were all oratory opportunities for Custis, and he was a regular contributor of poems and speeches to local organizations such as the Washington Society of Alexandria and the U.S. Agricultural Society. He also gave speeches supporting revolutions and the quest for independence in European and South American countries. His best-known speech was his eulogy for Revolutionary War General James Lingan, who was killed during a Baltimore riot during the destruction of a Federalist newspaper’s printing press in 1812. Custis delivered a fiery speech celebrating Lingan’s Revolutionary War service, praising the role of Federalism in the development of the United States, and decrying an attack on the freedom of the press. In 1853 the Alexandria Gazette described Custis’ speech at the celebration of George Washington’s birthday as “full of the fire of ’76,” a description which no doubt would have pleased him.

The Battle of Trenton by GWP Custis
The Battle of Trenton by GWP Custis.

NPS Image

As with so much else in his public life, George Washington Parke Custis’ pursuit of artistic endeavors relied heavily on promoting American nationalism via George Washington and the American Revolution. Custis wrote numerous plays, a few of which found moderate success with audiences in the nation’s capital and the northeast. His plays focused on uniquely American subjects including George Washington, Native Americans, westward expansion, and other events from the country’s short history. His most popular plays were The Indian Prophecy (1827), The Rail Road (1828), and Pocahontas, or The Settlers of Virginia (1830). He intended the monologues and songs included in these plays to stir nationalist sentiments, such as these verses from The Rail Road, sung to the familiar tune of “Yankee Doodle:”

“Yankee doodle, lake and sea,
Now join so snug and handy;
And lasting may their union be
As Yankee Doodle dandy.

Let starry banner be unfurl’d
In triumph o’er our land’y
United we’ll defy the world,
And sing Yankee doodle dandy.”

A self-taught painter, Custis’ artist bent often lent itself to heroic scenes of George Washington on the battlefield. What Custis lacked in artistic ability, he more than made up for in enthusiasm for his subject. Custis delivered civics and history lessons to fellow citizens through his depictions of George Washington’s bravery on the battlefield. He hung his paintings of the battles at Trenton, Princeton, and Yorktown in Arlington House, where they can still be seen today. His massive painting depicting the Battle of Monmouth briefly hung in the U.S. Capitol before being returned to Custis and is currently on display at Arlington House.

For nearly sixty years, Arlington House was George Washington Parke Custis’ ideal setting to honor the memory of George Washington. Today, visitors to Arlington House can learn about Custis’ efforts to promote George Washington’s legacy, see his paintings of Washington on the battlefield, and view many items from his Washington Treasury on display throughout the house.

Last updated: October 30, 2020

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