The following relates to a letter written by George Washington to his adopted daughter, Nelly Custis, on the subject of love:
When Nelly was about sixteen years of age she attended her first ball, at Georgetown, and wrote a description of it to her foster-father at the seat of government. His response presents the Father of his Country in the attitude of an essayist on the “Art of Love,” and in delightful epistolary undress – an attitude in which he was rarely seen. After alluding to some remarks of hers about her indifference to young men, and her “determination never to give herself a moment’s uneasiness on the account of any of them,” he warned her not to be too sure of her control of the passions. “In the composition of the human frame,” he wrote, “there is a good deal of inflammable matter, which, when the torch is put to it, may burst into a flame.” He continued:
“Love is said to be an involuntary passion, and it is therefore contended that it cannot be resisted. This is true in part only, for like all things else, when nourished and supplied plentifully with aliment it is rapid in progress; but let these be withdrawn and it may be stifled in its birth or much stunted in its growth. For example: a woman (the same may be said of the other sex) all beautiful and accomplished, will, while her hand and heart are undisposed of, turn the heads and set the circle in which she moves on fire. Let her marry, and what is the consequence? The madness ceases and all is quiet again. Why? Not because there is any diminution in the charm of the lady, but because there (p. 251) is an end of hope. Hence it follows that love may, and therefore ought to be, under the guidance of reason, for although we cannot avoid first impressions, we may assuredly place them under guard; and my motives for treating on this subject are to show you, while you remain Eleanor Parke Custis, spinster, and retain the resolution to love with moderation, the propriety of adhering to the latter resolution, at least until you have secured your game, or the way by which it may be accomplished.
“When the fire is beginning to kindle, and your heart growing warm, propound these questions to it: Who is this invader? Have I a competent knowledge of him? Is he a man of good character; a man of sense? For, be assured, a sensible woman can never be happy with a fool. What has been his walk in life? Is he a gambler, a spendthrift, or drunkard? Is his fortune sufficient to maintain me in the manner I have been accustomed to live, and my sisters do live? and is he one to whom my friends can have no reasonable objection? If these interrogatories can be satisfactorily answered there will remain but one more to be asked; that, however, is an important one: Have I sufficient ground to conclude that his affections are engaged by me? Without this the heart of sensibility will struggle against a passion that is not reciprocated—delicacy, custom, or call it by what epithet you will, having precluded all advances on your part. The declaration, without the most indirect invitation of yours, must proceed from the man, to render it permanent and valuable, and nothing short of good sense, and an easy, unaffected conduct can draw the line between prudery and coquetry. It would be no great departure from truth to say that it rarely happens otherwise than that a thorough-paced coquette dies in celibacy, as a punishment for her attempts to mislead others by encouraging looks, words, or actions, given for no other purpose than to draw men on to make overtures that they may be rejected…. Every blessing, among which a good husband when you want one, is bestowed on you by yours affectionately.”*
*Letter of George Washington, dated “Philadelphia, January 16, 1795.” The letter was in the possession of a great-granddaughter of Mrs. Washington.
SOURCES:Mary and Martha: The Mother and the Wife of George Washington by Benson John Lossing; GREAT MEN AND FAMOUS WOMEN A Series of Pen and Pencil Sketches of THE LIVES OF MORE THAN 200 OF THE MOST PROMINENT PERSONAGES IN HISTORY