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George Washington and Medicine

Class 4: Patriarch


Although Washington had no children of his own, following his marriage to the widow Martha Dandridge Custis, he became a loving stepfather to her two children, and in his later years his paternal responsibilities extended to his step-grandchildren and to a number of orphaned nieces and nephews. Although Washington’s wealth and his meticulous care of his dependents ensured the family’s access to the best medical care available, both Washington and his kin suffered frequent illnesses and the early deaths of loved ones, including Washington’s half-brother Lawrence and Martha’s daughter Patsy. The chapter from Lauren Winner’s book on Anglicanism among the colonial Virginian gentry discusses the ways in which households employed religious ritual as a mechanism for coping with the death of loved ones. Daniel Blake Smith’s article examines ideals and realities of the parent-child relationship in 18th-century Virginia. C. Dallett Hemphill’s essay discusses the ways in which genteel early Americans such as the Washingtons were expected to deal with strong emotions, such as grief and loss.

Class Resources
  • Hemphill, C. Dallett. “Class, Gender, and the Regulation of Emotions in Revolutionary-Era Conduct Literature.” In An Emotional History of America. Edited by Peter Stearns and Jan Lewis. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
  • Smith, Daniel Blake. “Autonomy and Affection: Parents and Children in Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake Families.” In Growing Up in America: Children in Historical Perspective. Edited by N. Ray Hiner and Joseph M. Hawes. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1985.
  • Winner, Lauren. “To Comfort the Living: The Household Choreography of Death and Mourning.” In A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia. Edited by L. Winner. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
Discussion Questions
  1. While we often view ritual as rote, sterile, and emotionless, elite 18th-century Virginians such as the Washingtons found that domestic religious rites could bring emotional solace that allowed them to cope with high rates of mortality within their families. How did such actions allow individuals and families to process their grief and commemorate their loved ones?
  2. What types of parent-child relationships were seen as appropriate in 18th-century Virginia? How do they compare with current ideas about family life?
  3. How were colonial Americans expected to cope with their emotions? Did these practices vary based upon an individual's class, gender, and/or race?
Additional Activity

Look through The Holmes Children, Caesar, Wealthy Buck, and John Woodbridge and his wives, online items of the Farber Gravestone Collection ( What can the words and images on the following gravestones tell us about family relationships in colonial America?

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