Custis was born on April 30, 1781, at Mount Airy, his maternal grandfather’s estate in Prince George’s County, Maryland. His elder sisters included Elizabeth Parke Custis Law and Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis Lewis, both of whom shared his devotion to preserving the legacy of George Washington. Their father, John Parke Custis, a planter and member of the House of Delegates, died on November 5, 1781, and on November 20, 1783, their mother, Eleanor Calvert Custis, married David Stuart, a physician and later a member of the Convention of 1788, and began a second family. Custis and his sister Nelly Custis grew up in the household of their paternal grandmother, Martha Custis Washington, and her second husband, George Washington, but Stuart, as Custis’s stepfather, remained his official guardian.
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
Less than a month after the election Martha Washington died. After an unsuccessful attempt to purchase Mount Vernon from George Washington’s nephew and heir, Custis moved to an 1,100-acre Alexandria County estate inherited from his father that he first called Mount Washington but soon renamed Arlington, for an ancestral property on the Eastern Shore. The estate lay in the area that Virginia had ceded to the federal government to become part of the District of Columbia and that Congress retroceded after a referendum in 1846. Custis owned two other large plantations totaling approximately 9,000 acres of land, Romancock in King William County and White House in New Kent County, which provided the foodstuffs and revenues to support him on his park estate at Arlington. He also inherited property in Northampton County, including Smith Island, and through marriage acquired land in Richmond, Stafford, and Westmoreland counties.
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.
Syphax Family at Arlington House
On July 7, 1804, in the city of Alexandria, Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh, daughter of William Fitzhugh, a member of the Convention of 1776 and of the Continental Congress, and sister of William Henry Fitzhugh, a member of the Convention of 1829–1830. A prominent Episcopal lay leader and supporter of manumission and colonization, she died on April 23, 1853. Of their four daughters, only Mary Randolph Custis, who married Robert E. Lee, survived infancy. With a Custis family slave, Airy Carter, Custis had a daughter, Maria Carter, whom he educated and informally freed and to whom he gave about seventeen acres of the Arlington estate. She married and became the matriarch of a distinguished family that included her sons John B. Syphax, a member of the House of Delegates, and William Syphax, a prominent educator in Washington, D.C.
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.
During the War of 1812 Custis, an animated, gifted orator, became a speaker much in demand. On September 1, 1812, he delivered the funeral oration for James M. Lingan, a Revolutionary War veteran murdered by a Jeffersonian mob in Baltimore after helping to reopen and defend a Federalist newspaper office. Custis’s stirring address, a tribute to the freedom of the press, was printed in Federalist pamphlets under various titles and circulated throughout the country. The following June 5 he addressed a Georgetown audience celebrating the failure of Napoléon’s campaign in Russia. Custis helped man a battery at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, and after the rout of the American army stopped at the White House to make sure that Dolley Madison moved Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington to safety.
During the marquis de Lafayette‘s triumphal tour of the United States in 1825, Custis began recording Lafayette’s reminiscences of Washington, the Revolutionary War, and his own life and published them in sixteen parts in Alexandria’s Phenix Gazette as “Conversations of La Fayette.” The enthusiastic public response led Custis to begin setting down his own recollections of growing up at Mount Vernon. For the next three decades he wrote occasional essays on various aspects of Washington’s life and the Revolution. These recollections often ran in the Alexandria or Washington newspapers on such anniversaries as Washington’s Birthday or the Fourth of July or at times of national crisis, such as the sectional clash preceding the ‘Compromise of 1850, in order to rekindle the fires of reconciliation and patriotism by reminding Americans of the achievements and sacrifices of Washington. Important for the details they contain about Washington in private life, Custis’s recollections are also significant because in many cases they were the first appearance in print of certain stories. An 1826 essay on Mary Ball Washington, for example, was the first detailed piece ever printed about Washington’s mother, and it remained the chief source for all nineteenth‑century historians examining Washington’s childhood. In “His Portrait,” another 1826 essay, Custis wrote that Washington had once thrown a piece of slate the size and shape of a dollar coin across the Rappahannock River. Custis never consummated plans to publish his essays in a single volume, but his daughter and the editor and illustrator Benson John Lossing collected many of the newspaper articles and family letters after his death and published them as Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington in several editions in 1859, 1860, and 1861.
At about the same time he embarked on the recollections, Custis began writing historical plays. Texts of only three of his ten plays survive. The lyrics of four songs from another appeared in contemporary newspapers. The plots of the others must be reconstructed from advertisements, playbills, reviews, and enigmatic comments in correspondence. All but one of his ten plays revolve around episodes in America’s past and fit securely in the National Drama genre. Indian Prophecy; or Visions of Glory, premiered in Philadelphia on July 4, 1827, and was published with a variant subtitle the next year. A prosy, static drama with little action, the story of a meeting in 1770 between George Washington and an Indian chief who recounts an incident from the Seven Years’ War and predicts military glory for Washington during the American Revolution nevertheless attracted such nationally prominent actors as Edwin Forrest and Joseph Jefferson Jr. and was revived at theaters across the country for the next dozen years. The Rail Road (1828), an operetta set in Baltimore and billed in the District of Columbia in 1829 as The Rail Road and Canal, had received at least 100 performances by December 1833. The operetta The Eighth of January, or, Hurra for the Boys of the West! celebrated Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans and premiered in New York City sometime before 1830. Custis wrote The Pawnee Chief; or, Hero of the Prairie about 1830, but it was not performed until 1832.
Pocahontas; or, The Settlers of Virginia (1830), dedicated to John Marshall, was Custis’s most popular and durable work. Modern drama anthologies occasionally reprint it as the best surviving example of the historical genre. North Point, or, Baltimore Defended (1833) included a spectacular reenactment of the British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and featured as a major character an African American veteran of the Revolutionary War. Custis planned a three-act Tecumseh, or The Last of the Braves (1833) for production in New York with Edwin Forrest in the title role but may never have completed it. The Launch of the Columbia, or, America’s Blue Jackets Forever (1836) was a musical farce celebrating a frigate’s launch in Washington. Custis wrote Montgomerie, or, The Orphan of a Wreck in 1830, but this unsuccessful melodramatic pastiche of Hamlet and Sir Walter Scott received its only recorded performances in1836. In the latter year he completed Monongahela, or, Washington on the First Great Field of His Fame, which he sent to Edward Everett in 1839 in a failed effort to have the work mounted in Boston.
Custis used both his plays and his recollections of Washington to arouse patriotic feelings. As sectional tensions intensified, he sought to remind northerners and southerners of their common heritage by calling to mind the days of the Revolution when the separate colonies had come together and thrown off the British yoke. Only by recovering the legacy of Washington and the Revolution could the declension be halted. As part of his memorializing and preservation efforts, Custis placed a marker at Washington’s birthplace in 1815 and enthusiastically supported an abortive congressional resolution in 1832 to disinter the president and his wife from Mount Vernon and to rebury them under the dome of the U.S. Capitol.
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.
Custis also contributed to the visual record of Washington. A number of artists went to Arlington to copy or engrave the Custis and Washington family portraits. Other painters, including Emmanuel Leutze, corresponded with Custis about which life portrait best represented the first president. In his last years, Custis devoted increasing attention to painting charmingly naive scenes from the American Revolution as described to him by Washington. He occasionally exhibited his monumental canvases at the U.S. Capitol, and several were reproduced in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1853. The days of the Revolution became his life. In 1848 he wrote, “The old Orator you know boasts of having two Religions, (most people have but one & many none) while I have the Religion of Christianity & the Religion of the Revolution.”
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 (posthumous; 1859–1861)