Custis was expelled from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in September 1797 for repeated misbehavior and left Saint John's College, in Annapolis, in July 1798 without completing his studies. Commissioned on January 10, 1799, a cornet in the army called up to meet the threat of war with France and promoted to second lieutenant on March 3 of that year, he served with a troop of Alexandria light dragoons and was discharged on June 15, 1800, with the brevet rank of major. In April 1802 Custis stood for election to the House of Delegates from Fairfax County as an old-line Federalist, opposing any further erosion of property qualifications for voting. He outpolled his stepfather but placed third among four candidates vying for the two seats.
Planter, Reformer, and Orator
Custis believed slavery was an economic detriment to southern agriculture and blamed the institution for his financial problems. He supported the efforts of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States (popularly known as the American Colonization Society), but his opposition to the institution in theory did not lead him to manumit more than a handful of his slaves, nor did it prevent him from putting slaves on the auction block as punishment or when he became strapped for money.
Deeply concerned about American dependency on foreign manufactures, Custis promoted commercial independence through agricultural reform and the improvement of domestic varieties of livestock. He described his vision in An Address to the People of the United States, on the Importance of Encouraging Agriculture and Domestic Manufactures(1808). Custis developed two breeds of sheep, the long-wooled Arlington Improved and the fine-wooled Smith's Island, also noted for the flavor of its mutton. Annual sheep shearings he held at Arlington from 1805 through 1812 evolved into full-scale agricultural fairs offering premiums for the best blankets, stockings, and yarn and to the family relying the least on imported material. Held on April 30, the date Washington had taken the oath of office as first president and therefore regularly celebrated by Federalists, the event became highly partisan. Custis closed each fair with an oration advocating the Federalist program, decrying the dangers of universal manhood suffrage, or warning of the threat to American liberty posed by Napoléon I.
He made his own Washington Treasury, as he called his collection of Washington items, available for public viewing and distributed Washington relics in order to inspire public figures to follow in Washington's footsteps. Henry Clay, for example, received a fragment of Washington's coffin, which he brandished on the floor of the U.S. Senate when he introduced his compromise resolutions in 1850. By his own reckoning, Custis averaged one letter a week from people seeking information on Washington or asking for Washington autographs. He usually obliged autograph-seekers, and after he had given the last available signature to Queen Victoria, he began cutting up the account books in which Washington had recorded his management of the Custis estate. By distributing relics of Washington, Custis hoped to preserve the legacy of the Revolution and save the increasingly fragile Union.
For four decades Custis regularly gave speeches, often supporting the national independence movements of Greece, Poland, and South America. The cause of Irish independence he held particularly dear. A favored orator and sometime president of the Friends of Civil and Religious Liberty, Custis counted Saint Patrick's Day with Washington's Birthday and the Fourth of July as the three "holydays" he celebrated. Custis, who enjoyed playing the role of the Child of Mount Vernon and the Last Survivor of the Family of Washington, died of influenza at Arlington on October 10, 1857, and was buried there. His will ordered the emancipation of his 196 slaves within five years of his death.
- An Address to the People of the United States, on the Importance of Encouraging Agriculture and Domestic Manufactures(1808)
- "Conversations of La Fayette" (sixteen-part serial in Phenix Gazette; 1825)
- Indian Prophecy; or Visions of Glory (play; 1827)
- The Rail Road (operetta; 1828)
- The Eighth of January, or, Hurra for the Boys of the West! (operetta; before 1830)
- Pocahontas; or, The Settlers of Virginia (play; 1830)
- Montgomerie, or, The Orphan of a Wreck (play; written 1830 performed 1836)
- The Pawnee Chief; or, Hero of the Prairie (play; written ca. 1830, premiered 1832)
- North Point, or, Baltimore Defended (play; 1833)
- The Launch of the Columbia, or, America's Blue Jackets Forever(musical; 1836)
- Monongahela, or, Washington on the First Great Field of His Fame (play; 1839)
- Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington (poshumous; 1859–1861)
April 30, 1781 - George Washington Parke Custis is born at Mount Airy, in Prince George's County, Maryland.
November 5, 1781 - John Parke Custis dies at Eltham, in New Kent County.
November 20, 1783 - Eleanor Calbert Custis and David Stuart, a physician, marry.
September 1797 - George Washington Parke Custis is expelled from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) for repeated misbehavior.
July 1798 - George Washington Parke Custis leaves Saint John's College, in Annapolis, Maryland, without completing his studies.
January 10, 1799 - George Washington Parke Custis is commissioned a cornet in the army called up to meet the threat of war with France.
March 3, 1799 - George Washington Parke Custis is promoted to second lieutenant in the army called up to meet the threat of war with France.
June 15, 1800 - George Washington Parke Custis is discharged after service with a troop of Alexandria light dragoons.
April 1802 - George Washington Parke Custis stands for election to the House of Delegates from Fairfax County but places third in race for two seats.
1802 - George Washington Parke Custis begins construction of Arlington House on an 1,100-acre property inherited from his father, John Parke Custis. Custis initially calls the estate Mount Washington.
July 7, 1804 - George Washington Parke Custis and Mary Lee Fitzhugh, of Chatham, marry in Alexandria.
September 1, 1812 - George Washington Parke Custis delivers a funeral oration for James M. Lingan, a Revolutionary War veteran murdered by a Jeffersonian mob in Baltimore.
August 24, 1814 - George Washington Parke Custis helps man a battery at the Battle of Bladensburg.
1825 - George Washington Parke Custis publishes the marquis de Lafayette's reminiscences of America in an Alexandria newspaper.
July 4, 1827 - George Washington Parke Custis's play Indian Prophecy premieres in Philadelphia.
April 23, 1853 - Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis dies at Arlington and is buried near the mansion.
October 10, 1857 - George Washington Parke Custis dies of influenza at his Arlington estate and is buried there.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Bearss, S. B., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. George Washington Parke Custis (1781–1857). (2017, February 6). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Custis_George_Washington_Parke_1781-1857.
- MLA Citation:
Bearss, Sara B. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "George Washington Parke Custis (1781–1857)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 6 Feb. 2017. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: December 21, 2016 | Last modified: February 6, 2017