George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John McDowell, 2 September 1798

To John McDowell

Mount Vernon 2d Sepr 1798


Your favour of the 13th Ulto with the accounts, came duly to hand; and I thank you for the trouble you have had in paying and taking receipts therefor.1 The small balance of £1.3.5½ may, if you please, be given to Mr Custis.

It was my intention to have written fully to you by the return of this young Gentleman to College, but the debilitated state into which I have been thrown by a fever, with which I was siezed on the 18th & could procure no remission of until the 25th past, renders writing equally irksome & improper.

Were the case otherwise, I should, I confess, be at a loss to point out any precise course of study for Mr Custis. My views with respect to him, have already been made known to you, & therefore it is not necessary to repeat them on this occasion; but it is not merely, what the best course is, for him to pursue, that requires consideration; but such an one as he can be induced to pursue; & will contribute to his improvement, and the object in view. In directing the first, to these objects, a Gentleman of your literature, discernment & knowledge of the world, would be at no loss, without any suggestions of mine, if there was as good a disposition to receive, as there are talents to acquire knowledge: but as there seems to be in this youth an unconquerable indolance of temper; a dereliction in fact to all study, it must rest with you to lead him, in the best manner, and by the easiest modes you can devise, to the study of such useful acquirements as may be serviceable to himself, and eventually, beneficial to his Country, hereafter.

French, from having become in a manner the universal language, I wished him to be Master of; but I do not find, from enquiry, that he has made much progress in the study of it. Some of the practical branches of Mathematics, particularly Surveying—he ought, possessing a good deal of landed property, to be well acquainted with, as he may have frequent occasions for the exercise of that Art.

I have already exceeded the limits I had prescribed to myself when I began this letter, but I will trespass yet a little more, while I earnestly entreat that you will examine him, as often as you can make it convenient, yourself; and admonish him seriously of his omissions & defects; and prevent as much as it can be done without too rigid a restraint, a devotion of his time to visitations of the families in Annapolis; which, when carried to excess—or beyond a certain point, can not fail to unhing his mind from study, & turn his thoughts to very different objects. Above all, let me request, if you should perceive any appearance of his attaching himself, by visits or otherwise, to any young lady of that place, that you would admonish him against the measure on account of his youth, and incapability of appreciating all the requisites for a connection, which in the common course of things, can terminate with the death of one of the parties only; and, if it is done without effect, to advise me thereof.

If in his reading he was to make common place notes, as is usual; copy them fair & shew them to you—two good purposes would be answered by it: 1. you would see with what judgment they were done; and 2. it might be a mean to improve his hand writing, which requires nothing but care & attention to render it good. At present, all of his writing that I have seen, is a hurried scribble, as if to get to the end speedily, was the sole object of writing.2 With very great esteem & regard I am Sir Your obedt Hble Servt

Go: Washington

P.S. Knowledge in Book keeping is essential to all who are under the necessity of keeping A/cts.

ALS, MdAN; ALS (letterpress copy), ViHi: Custis Papers.

1See also GW to McDowell, 30 July. For the account enclosed in the letter of 13 Aug., see McDowell to GW, 13 Aug., n.1.

2GW sent this letter of 2 Sept. by George Washington Parke Custis to McDowell, under cover of another letter to McDowell, dated 16 Sept.: “Sir[,] The enclosed was written at the time of its date, ⟨&⟩ with Mr Custis, I expected would have left this the next morning for Saint John’s College; but, although he professed his readiness to do whatever was required of him, his dereliction to return, was too apparent, to afford any hope that good would result from it in the prosecution of his studies—and therefore, as I have now a Gentleman [Tobias Lear] living with me who has abilities adequate thereto—will have sufficient leizure to attend to it—and has promised to do so accordingly I ⟨think⟩ it best, upon the whole, to keep him here.

“He returns to Annapolis for the purpose [of] bringing back with him such articles as he left there—and discharging any A/cts which may have remained unpaid. With great esteem & regard I am Sir Yr Most Obt Servant Go: Washington” (letterpress copy, ViHi: Custis Papers). Upon his return to Mount Vernon, Washington Custis brought with him McDowell’s reply of 17 Sept. to GW’s letter: “Sir, As Mr Custis returns immediately, I avail myself of the oppertunity, to acknowledge your letter, which I had the honour to receive by him. Had he continued here I can truly assure you, I would willingly have contributed every assistance in my power to his improvement. As he does not, I can only add my sincere wish, that the present plan may answer your best expectations. He is more deficient in application than abilities, & therefore I think it probable, that under your own eye, directed and assisted by a Gentleman so competent to the business, his proficiency may be greater, than if he had remained here. I shall be happy to hear that it is the case. As I know of no other accounts, than those which I transmitted to you, I have paid him the ballance of £1.3.5, as you desired. I am sorry to hear of your late severe indisposition; but as you are now happily in a state of convalescence, I most sincerely join in the prayer of every good citizen, for your speedy and perfect recovery” (DLC:GW). McDowell wrote on the cover: “Favoured by Mr G. W. Custis.”

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