George Washington and the Storming of the Bastille (Part I)

By Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
July 14, 2017

The Storming of the Bastille. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

On July 14, 1789, French commoners took to the streets of Paris. They had recently raided the Hôtel des Invalides for weapons and were now turning to find ammunition, a large store of which had just been delivered to the Bastille, a prison that housed political dissidents. Quickly, they swarmed it, demanding admittance. By midday, the attackers, who had steadily grown in number, became impatient and stormed the fortress. Gunfire erupted, resulting in the deaths of 98 attackers and one defender. Overwhelmed by the mob, the facility’s military governor, Bernard-René Jordan de Launay, was forced to surrender. The gate was opened, and the few prisoners inside were released. Launay was captured and taken to the Hôtel de Ville to be tried, but was later murdered. In a final effort to seal its newfound power, the mob erected Launay’s head on a stick.

Thousands of miles away sat George Washington, only a month and a half into his presidency. He would not learn of the events in France until September, and he would not acknowledge them until October 13/14.1 When he finally did, Washington only briefly discussed the revolutionary activity. His first responses are limited to five letters, three of which recycle the same uninterested reaction:

The Revolution, announced by the intelligence from France, must be interesting to the Nations of the World in general, and is certainly of the greatest importance to the Country in which it has happened. I am persuaded I express the sentiments of my fellow-citizens, when I offer an earnest prayer that it may terminate in the permanent honor and happiness of your Government and People.2

In the only letter in which he addressed the topic with more than one paragraph, his conclusion remained calm and measured: “I declared to you in the beginning that I had little to say. I have got beyond the second page, and find I have a good deal to add; but that no time or paper may be wasted in a useless preface I will come to the point.”3

So, why did Washington appear unconcerned by the violent outburst that occurred in the capital of America’s greatest ally, France? In order to answer that question, this first part of a two-part series will look at Washington’s knowledge and sense of the French political spirit leading up to the revolutionary outbreak on July 14, 1789.

Nearly a decade before, Washington had predicted that France’s financial involvement in the American Revolution would result in a higher taxes, “which the People in France are not in a condition to endure for any duration.”4 He continued, “When this necessity commences, France makes war on Ruinous terms.”5

Years later, on October 9, 1787, the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington’s good friend and protégé, confirmed Washington’s prediction. Onerous taxes, combined with the republican ideals learned from participation in the American Revolution, had precipitated restlessness in the masses: “The affairs of france are still in an Unsettled Situation—a large deficiency is to be filled up with taxes, and the Nation are tired to pay what they Have not Voted. The ideas of liberty Have Been, since the American Revolution, spreading very fast.”6

“View of the Bastile before its destruction in July 1789.” Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

A year later, Washington reiterated his prediction in a now-famous letter to James Madison. Often quoted for its poetic introduction (“Liberty when it begins to take root is a plant of rapid growth”), the letter includes Washington’s assertion that “[t]he checks [the king] endeavors to give it … will, more than probably, kindle a flame which may not easily be extinguished; tho’ for a while it may be smothered by the Armies at his command.”7

While Washington believed revolution in France was inevitable, he could not anticipate when exactly it would break out. As early as January 1789, Rochambeau wrote Washington with evidence of unrestrained discontent in France. In his letter, he warned Washington that conversations among the three estates of France—the nobles, clergy, and general public—were becoming worrisome, foretelling drama yet to come: “We come out, my Dear General, of an assembly of chief men Where We treated the Wearisome preface of a Drama Which is to become of a great concern and of Which We must Expect a fine unravelling.”8

Gouverneur Morris, who was then in France on business, gave more detailed reports. On April 29, 1789, he sent a lengthy assessment of the French revolutionaries’ supposed predilection toward corruption and immorality:

A hundred Anecdotes and an hundred thousand Examples are required to shew the extreme Rottenness of every Member. … It is however from such crumbling Matter that the great Edifice of Freedom is to be erected here. Perhaps like the Stratum of Rock which is spread under the whole Surface of their Country, it may harden when exposed to the Air; but it seems quite as likely that it will fall and crush the Builders. I own to you that I am not without such Apprehensions, for there is one fatal Principle which pervades all Ranks: It is a perfect Indifference to the Violation of Engagements. Inconstancy is so mingled in the Blood, Marrow, and very Essence of this People, that when a Man of high Rank and Importance laughs to Day at what he seriously asserted Yesterday, it is considered as in the natural order of things. Consistency is the Phenomenon. Judge then what would be the Value of an Association, should such a thing be proposed and even adopted.9

Despite his “apprehensions,” Morris did not repudiate the French revolutionaries. Indeed, before describing these cultural difficulties, he extolled the significance of the French Revolution to American interests and the general cause of liberty:

We have I think every Reason to wish that the Patriots may be successful. The generous Wish which a free People must form to disseminate Freedom, the grateful Emotion which rejoices in the Happiness of a Benefactor, and a strong personal Interest as well in the Liberty as in the Power of this Country, all conspire to make us far from indifferent Spectators. I say that we have an Interest in the Liberty of France. The Leaders here are our Friends, many of them have imbibed their Principles in America, and all have been fired by our Example. Their Opponents are by no Means rejoiced at the Success of our Revolution, and many of them are disposed to form Connections of the strictest Kind with Great Britain.10

Morris wrote his next letter on July 31, two weeks after the storming of the Bastille. Skipping over the event that bore out his earlier assessment of the French revolutionaries’ capriciousness, he discussed its consequences. He reported that the country was so much in the hands of the common masses that the French monarch was considering abdicating his seat and fleeing to Spain.11 Believing the revolutionaries were moving much too quickly, and with little political experience or judgment, he was concerned about the form the new constitution would take: “I tremble for the Constitution. They have all that romantic Spirit, & all those romantic Ideas of Government, which happily for America, we were cured of before it was too late.”12

These are only a few of the many letters circulating within Washington’s social network that reveal the perspectives of the political climate in France. They excite the reader with promise of violence and imminent upheaval. But Washington’s responses to the events unfolding were few in number and unhurried in their reply. So, what could have contributed to such a reaction? We’ll discuss in the next part of this blog series.

 

Notes

  1. Washington’s letters to Armand, D’Estaing, Morris, and Rochambeau are dated October 13; his diary entry for October 14, however, notes that he “[w]rote several Letters to France” that day. “[Diary entry: 14 October 1789],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-05-02-0005-0002-0014. Also available in print: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 5.
  2. “From George Washington to Armand, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0124; “From George Washington to D’Estaing, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0119; “From George Washington to Rochambeau, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0127. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
  3. “From George Washington to Gouverneur Morris, 13 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0125. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4.
  4. “From George Washington to Joseph Jones, 22 July 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-02623. To be published: Papers of George Washington Revolutionary War Series, vol. 27.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “To George Washington from Lafayette, 9 October 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-05-02-0332. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 5.
  7. “From George Washington to James Madison, 2 March 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-06-02-0115 . Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 6.
  8. “To George Washington from Rochambeau, 31 January 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-01-02-0202. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 1.
  9. “To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris, 29 April 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-02-02-0125. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 2.
  10. Ibid.
  11. “To George Washington from Gouverneur Morris, 31 July 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-03-02-0206. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 3.
  12. Ibid.

 

Three Degrees to Washington: How “I Came, I Saw, I Conquered” Working at The Washington Papers

By Kim Curtis, Research Editor
July 7, 2017

Caesar Crossing the Rubicon, an illumination on vellum by Jean Fouquet (c. 15th century).

“Veni, vidi, vici.” Roman emperor Julius Caesar supposedly proclaimed this famous Latin phrase after a military victory. For centuries, young students of Latin have learned this quotation, which translates to “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Their history lessons presented another well-known general who crossed a river (Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, and George Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776).1 But as one of those junior scholars of Latin, I didn’t think  I would explore the connections between these two worlds much further. I had never imagined I would grow up to be a research editor at The Washington Papers and use my background in classics every day on the job. 

I started learning Latin to satisfy my eighth-grade foreign language requirement. At the time, I wanted to be a pediatrician and thought Latin would help me with complicated medical terms. My teacher, a seemingly mild-mannered older woman, gave my class a list of common curse words in Latin, which unsurprisingly helped further stoke my interest. I took to learning the language fairly easily and continued studying it in high school (where I won sixth place on the Virginia Junior Classical League’s mythology test) and in the University of Virginia (UVA)’s Classics Department. At UVA, I also took a required year of ancient Greek (which I didn’t like as well as Latin) and classes in Greek and Roman culture, history, and mythology. I earned my BA in Classics in 2000.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by Emmanuel Leutze (1851). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At The Washington Papers, one of the more obvious benefits of a classics degree is that when I’m conducting research, I understand classical references that I may come across. For example, George Washington’s favorite play was Cato, a Tragedy, written by Joseph Addison in 1712.2 Cato tells the story of Roman senator Marcus Porcius Cato (95­–46 BC), who stood up to the tyranny of a dictator and believed passionately in republican ideals.3 Sound familiar? Inspired by Cato’s stand against Julius Caesar, Washington requested that Cato be performed for American troops at Valley Forge.4  It’s exciting when my worlds connect like that!

I’ve also used my knowledge of Latin to figure out unfamiliar words while proofreading document transcriptions for an upcoming volume of The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series. In one instance, the volume editor had transcribed a word from a Washington letter as “supernumeracy.” I had never heard of that word. As I looked more closely at the word in the original document, I could see that the “c” was actually an “r,” and so the word was “supernumerary.”  I had never heard of this word either, but thanks to Latin, I now had some clues. In Latin, “super” means “above,” and “numerus” means “number” (as you probably guessed). So, put those two parts together, and you have literally “above the number.” I looked up “supernumerary” on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)’s website, and sure enough, “supernumerary” meant “beyond or in excess of a usual, regular, stated, or prescribed number or amount; additional, extra, or left over.” According to the OED, the Latin word origin is “supernumerarius,” a military term, meaning “appointed to a legion after it is complete.” The letter’s context backed up this reading of “supernumerary.” In this case, my Classics degree helped me solve this word puzzle and prevent a mistake in the printed volume.5

This blog post is the first of a three-part series, “Three Degrees to Washington,” about how my humanities majors help me at The Washington Papers. Part two will be about my psychology degree, and part three will explore my educational background in film.

 

Notes

1. Michael Gagarin, ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (New York, 2010), 4:155; “To John Cadwalader from George Washington, Dec. 25, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0343. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 7:439.

2. Henry C. Montgomery. “Addison’s Cato and George Washington.” The Classical Journal 55 (1960), 210.

3. Gagarin, Ancient Greece and Rome, 2:62.

4. Montgomery, “Cato and Washington,” 210.

5. Because of the large number of documents to proofread for this volume, I’m unable to go into too much detail in the blog post about this letter. However, I look forward to readers seeing evidence of my proofreading work on this and other letters in the upcoming volume, Presidential Series volume 20.

Friends in Grief: Martha Washington and Elizabeth Willing Powel

by Alicia K. Anderson, Assistant Editor
July 5, 2017

Mourning embroidery, 1827. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Martha Washington knew loss.

As Martha Dandridge Custis (1731–1802), she lost her first child, a son, in 1754, only four years into her marriage. Daniel Parke Custis, her husband, died in 1757, leaving her a widow with a large estate to settle. That same year, their second child, a daughter, died. Martha married George Washington in 1759, but no new children would be born to them. Her remaining two children by Custis, barely adults, would predecease her in 1773 and 1781. The deaths of her parents and several Dandridge siblings were intermittent.

One of Martha’s longest correspondences was with Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743–1830), the keen Philadelphia intellectual who was well-read, politically engaged, and a conversationalist par excellence. She would not be considered a natural pairing with the more modest, less educated Martha, but the experiences of marriage and motherhood bound them. From their first known surviving letter in 1780 to Elizabeth’s letter of grief on George Washington’s death in 1799, the two women maintained a friendship for at least two decades. They shared in common a sad reality: death had taken, and would continue to take, their closest family members one by one.

Bereavement was nothing new to Elizabeth. Between 1771 and 1775, her only children—two sons, both Samuels in honor of their father—died within a year of birth or less, cutting short the longed-for experience of motherhood. If she could find any comfort at all, it was in the hope of their heavenly reunion and the thought that her sons would never experience the suffering of this world, as she herself had. Elizabeth wrote of her firstborn, whose lock of hair she kept near,

From all the Chequer’d Ills below

Sammy secure shall sleep;

His little Heart no Pain shall know,

His Eyes no more shall weep.1

Nonetheless, the boys’ loss echoes throughout her correspondence, perhaps reflected in the depressions that plagued her over the years. To Ann Randolph Fitzhugh in 1783, she lamented,

Ah my dear Friend there are no Roses without Thorns. You wish me to be again a Mother, you know not what you wish. Indeed I am no longer what you once knew me Those fine Spirits, that I used to flatter myself wou’d never be broken, have at length yeilded to the too severe Trials that have assailed me. My Mind, habituated to Mortification & Disappointment, is become weaker, &, unfortunately, my Sensibilities stronger. A thousand Circumstances that formerly were Sources of Pleasure to me have now lost their Charm. Time does not lessen real Griefs. In some Instances it augments them by removing to a greater distance the Objects on which our Happiness depends. I fear I am doomed never to be happy in this World . . .

Elizabeth begged Mrs. Fitzhugh and her family to come visit her in Philadelphia. The Powel House, though the center of frequent entertaining, still felt empty: “I will most chearfully assign you my Chamber & the adjoining Nursery formerly the Habbitation of my beloved Angels.”2

Not only death occasioned the separation of loved ones, but also distance. Her favorite sister, Mary Willing Byrd, had removed from Philadelphia with her husband, Colonel William Byrd, to a James River plantation in Virginia. The sisters’ reunions were seldom, but when they did see each other, it seemed to elicit more pain than joy. On visiting Mary, now a widow, in Virginia in late 1787, Elizabeth and her husband Samuel took the opportunity to stay with their friends at Mount Vernon. On her return to Philadelphia, Elizabeth had to apologize to Martha for being such poor company:

I should have been happy to have prolonged our Visit had I not been sensible that the Depression of Spirits, under wh[ich] I then was, render’d me a totally unfit Companion for the chearfull & happy. My recent Separation from my favorite Sister, & her Family, with the probability of never seeing her again, & the Reflection of having left her encircled with Difficulties almost too great for a Man to cope with, unconnected & unprotected by any Friend, able or willing, to serve her, almost broke my Heart.3

Family sickness was another emotional battle. George Washington’s nephew, George Augustine Washington (1758–1793), was ill with tuberculosis. Martha was a relation not only through her marriage to George but also through her own niece Frances “Fanny” Bassett (1767–1796), who had married George Augustine in 1785. By 1792, Elizabeth Powel wrote to Martha and George with concern, enclosing an article about a possible medicinal treatment for the invalid nephew. She then went on to reflect on the freedom of Heaven:

But what is this Life that we should be so over studious to prolong the Respiration of that Breath which may with so much Ease be all breathed out at once as by so many successive Millions of Moments? For surely there are more exquisite Pains than Pleasures in Life, and it seems to me that it would be a greater Happiness at once to be freed forever from the former than by such an irksome Composition to protract the Enjoyment of the latter. We must all die, and, I believe there is no Terror in Death but what is created by the Magic of Opinion, nor probably any greater Pain than attended our Birth. As I suppose at our Dissolution every Particle of which we are compounded returns to its proper original Element and that which is divine in us returns to that which is divine in the Universe.4

George Augustine held out for another year, passing away at the beginning of February 1793. On Feb. 21, George and Martha wrote Elizabeth from Philadelphia that they were unable to attend her party that evening because of the “late event which has happened in [our] family.”5 The sadness of that event would only be compounded when, three years later, Martha’s dear niece Fanny died, as well.

Elizabeth’s own life was about to be turned upside-down. As yellow fever snuck into Philadelphia in the summer of 1793, she was resigned to loss though unaware of how personal a toll it would take. “Death has robbed me of many Friends,” she wrote to her confidant, George Washington, at the beginning of September, who on leaving the city had invited her to join him and Martha to Mount Vernon, an escape from the contagion. Samuel Powel did not believe flight necessary, and she would not leave him behind. In only three weeks, however, it was Elizabeth who would be left behind: the epidemic claimed her husband in a bitter blow. Their silver wedding anniversary was less than a year away.6

Perhaps the greatest loss that bound Martha and Elizabeth together was the death of “the General” on Dec. 14, 1799. Ten days after the “late melancholy Event,” Elizabeth assured his grieving widow that “tho’ the Season is far advanced, and the Roads bad, I would most certainly pay a Visit to your House of Mourning, could I afford to you the smallest consolation under this seemingly hard dispensation of Pro[v]idence; but I too well know that no Consolation can be effected by human Agency.” She concluded her letter soberly, “I have lost a much valued Friend.”7 Here the documentary record ends. It is unknown whether the women’s correspondence continued up until Martha’s death in 1802. Elizabeth, in turn, would go on to outlive her by another three decades, dying at the ripe age of eighty-six.

 

Notes

1. Quoted in David W. Maxey, “A Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743–1830),” in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, new ser., 96.4 (2006): 24.

2. Elizabeth Willing Powel to Ann Randolph Fitzhugh, Dec. 24, 1783, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.

3. Elizabeth Willing Powel to Martha Washington, Nov. 30, 1787, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.

4. “To George Washington from Elizabeth Willing Powel, 9 January, 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-09-02-0248. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 9:419–20.

5. “George and Martha Washington to Elizabeth Willing Powel, 21 February 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-12-02-0142. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 12:198.

6. See “To George Washington from Elizabeth Willing Powel, 9 September 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-14-02-0041. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 14:54–55.

7. Elizabeth Willing Powel to Martha Washington, Dec. 24, 1799, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.

History Has Its Eyes on Hamilton

by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor and Elisa Shields, Research Specialist
June 27, 2017

New York City’s Times Square starkly contrasts the small, quiet town of Charlottesville, Va., where The Washington Papers is based. Throngs of tourists pack the streets, performers vie for attention, and video advertisements overwhelm the eyes. In the midst of this sensory overload, an escape to a side street is a relief. Choose the correct street, and the Richard Rodgers Theater, the home of Hamilton the musical, will quickly appear on your left. Before you know it, you may find yourself humming a tune about Thomas Jefferson or quietly reciting George Washington’s Farewell Address in a rhythmic fashion. A far-fetched scenario just a few years ago, Hamilton has catapulted revolutionary history into the stratosphere. In the words of one teenage fan, “This is, like, crazy cool.”1 And after recently attending a performance of the show, these documentary editors wholeheartedly agree.

Is Hamilton an academic, perfectly accurate historical interpretation? Of course not. But what it does do is use catchy tunes—and primary sources—to make history accessible and entertaining to a new generation of Americans. Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address is one such example. In “One Last Time,” Washington informs Hamilton that he will not be running for a third term as president because the nation is ready to move on. The president asks Hamilton to revise a draft of his address to the people in order to “teach them how to say goodbye” and to express his hopes for the new nation. In an impressive display of history reimagined, the resulting lyrics seldom deviate from the actual address. The following lyrics are drawn from the musical, with additional text from the historical address in brackets:

Assistant editor Lynn Price (left) and research specialist Elisa Shields (right) waiting in anticipation for the show.

Consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest . . . I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize [, without alloy,] the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.2

Hamilton ushers spectators through a veritable maze of laughter, sadness, excitement, and political intrigue. Hamilton creator Lin-Manual Miranda originally portrayed the character of Alexander Hamilton in the musical. Before Miranda (who is of Puerto Rican descent) brought Hamilton the historical figure to Broadway, most Americans likely did not know that the first secretary of the treasury was born in the West Indies. He was, in other words, an immigrant. It is doubtful that Americans considered the Federalist Papers, co-written by Hamilton, a captivating read. And in the story of the infamous Burr-Hamilton duel, Aaron Burr was not liable to receive a sympathetic assessment. Today, however, both Hamilton and Burr are starting to receive the attention and recognition they deserve—the former for being the mastermind behind the nation’s financial, legal, and political systems, and the latter for being a more nuanced and multifaceted figure than most history books acknowledge (not to mention an essential player in Hamilton’s short but intense life). While Hamilton is the namesake and star of the show, Burr remains its central figure. Not only does he narrate almost every song (the Hamilton song “Dear Theodosia” best exemplifies the more humanistic view of Burr), but the events often spiral around him.3 Leaving the theater with a new appreciation for the maligned figure known principally for killing Alexander Hamilton was only one of many delightful effects of an exceptional and inimitable Broadway experience.

In the development phase of his hit musical, Miranda extensively researched historical figures for context. This process included visiting the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, a journey that many of the show’s fans now repeat. If you were unaware that it was in the neighborhood, you would never guess that Hamilton’s estate, The Grange (his “sweet project” as he liked to call it), humbly stands a few blocks away from the campus of the City College of New York in Harlem.3 Other than a Hamilton Terrace street sign, there are no indications of the site’s presence as you stroll along West 141st Street. And yet, there it is: a charming yellow house, cozily surrounded by trees and what used to be bare land. Inside, the charm continues as visitors are encouraged to visit the house’s first floor, which consists of four rooms, most of which are incredibly luminous and welcoming. It is intriguing to visualize the house being moved—twice!—in the last 200 years in response to a growing city. Even as Hamilton’s old neighborhood becomes unrecognizable to his era, this piece of history remains.

It is difficult to dispute Hamilton‘s Schuyler sisters when they chant that New York is “the greatest city in the world.”4 One can only imagine how it must have felt for a young Alexander Hamilton, fresh off a ship from Nevis and arriving in a place of such excitement and opportunities. Perhaps some things don’t change over time. We arrived and left New York City with a “head full of fantasies” (and Hamilton songs on repeat).5

All photos courtesy of the authors.

 

Notes

1. Erica Milvy, “Hamilton’s teenage superfans: ‘This is, like, crazy cool’,” The Guardian, June 22, 2016, accessed June 14, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jun/22/hamilton-teenage-superfans-this-is-like-crazy-cool.

2. The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796,” accessed June 14, 2017, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp; Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)—Act II Booklet, 14-15, accessed June 14, 2017, https://warnermusicgroup.app.box.com/s/98o13fgs1vrb2wxqe1zel2ugw7ppryv9/1/4712017338/38329308850/1.

3 Leslie Odom, Jr., and Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Dear Theodosia,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

3. “From Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Hamilton, [19] November 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-22-02-0154. Also available in print: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 22, July 1798 – March 1799.

4. Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, “Schuyler Sisters,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

5. Christopher Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr., “Right Hand Man,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

My Set of John Marshall’s The Life of George Washington: A Research Puzzle

by William M. Ferraro, Research Associate Professor and Acting Editor in Chief
June 16, 2016

An exceptional benefit of editing the Papers of George Washington is exposure to so many sources on early American history. A notable one that I encountered not long after starting with the project in June 2006 was John Marshall’s The Life of George Washington (5 vols.; Philadelphia, 1804-7). I discovered that the American edition’s sixth volume included maps of the Revolutionary War. I decided to visit the University of Virginia’s Harrison-Small Special Collections Library, just steps from my office, in order to examine the maps for my editing of Revolutionary War letters.

The maps proved to be wonderfully detailed and helpful, but the real find came as a complete surprise. The map volume listed all the subscribers who financed publication of Marshall’s multivolume biography.1 The names of individuals and institutions appeared under towns, cities, and counties grouped by state. Groupings also existed for the District of Columbia and foreign countries. Arranged in six columns per page, the subscribers numbered about 9,000. If properly cataloged and researched, this subscribers list could help scholars, and such work is a long-term aspiration of The Washington Papers. Nevertheless, even in its raw state, the list provides a wealth of information and intellectual opportunities.

I used some of that potential in a class I taught during the Fall 2016 semester. For a writing assignment, I asked each student to choose one-to-three subscribers from his or her hometown or the nearest place on the list. The student then prepared a research paper describing that locality and its people, and suggesting why a subscriber might have been interested in George Washington. An unanticipated problem arose for students from Florida, Colorado, and other places outside the settled or jurisdictional boundaries of the United States in the early nineteenth century. Unable to select a subscriber from their hometowns, these students identified listed localities associated with parents or grandparents. A particularly interesting paper emerged when a student from Denver discovered that her research subject, from Newburyport, Mass., was a distant relative!

The success of this assignment increased my desire to own a set of the Marshall biography volumes, a foundational work in both George Washington biography and U. S. historiography. Marshall wrote the books at the behest of Bushrod Washington, George’s nephew and Marshall’s U.S. Supreme Court colleague. Bushrod made available the vast collection of his uncle’s papers in his possession and encouraged Marshall to write on a scale commensurate with the achievements of its towering subject. While Marshall can be chided for borrowing heavily from other sources (in that period’s customary manner), his volumes captured the nationalist spirit that animated contemporary Federalists and unflinchingly positioned George Washington as the crucial figure in the founding of the United States.2

Since the original volumes of the first American edition are both scarce and expensive, you may imagine my delight this past winter when a full set (minus the map volume, which is very rare and expensive) landed on the shelf of Daedalus Used Books—a landmark shop for bibliophiles in Charlottesville—for only $125. According to Sandy McAdams, the sociable proprietor, the books “had walked through the door” only a day or two earlier. He further explained that the modest price was due to the fourth volume missing its end boards, or being “hurt,” in his more colloquial parlance. The other four volumes, however, looked fabulous. I happily carted the set home with thoughts that its subscriber probably had lived in central Virginia, because Daedalus primarily obtains stock from the surrounding area.

Unlike some book collectors, I like old books with the names of previous owners and marginalia that show past intellectual engagement. I eagerly paged through my Marshall volumes looking for clues about their history. A few turned-down page corners indicated prior reading, but pressed leaves and flowers in the first two volumes were the most prevalent evidence of former handling.

No volume contained writing, but the first volume did have a printed label pasted inside the back cover with useful information: “RARE, SCARCE, and OUT OF PRINT BOOKS, DOCUMENTS, Etc. For Sale By WALTER M. MURDIE, 134 Radcliffe Ave, PROVIDENCE, R.I.” Poking around the internet revealed that Walter M. Murdie was active in the Rhode Island capital during the 1920s and 1930s. The address was and is situated in a largely residential neighborhood, so he apparently operated his business out of his home.

Murdie’s pasted label dismissed my initial thoughts that the subscriber had lived in central Virginia and focused my attention on Providence and nearby jurisdictions. Having written my dissertation on town-meeting government in Rhode Island, I was quite familiar with the politics and prominent figures of the state.3 Subscriber listings in the map volume show 67 names under Providence, including Eliza Nightingale (1780–1863), a woman who never married. Another six can be found between nearly adjacent Cumberland and Warwick. The Providence subscribers include many people of note: Samuel G. Arnold, historian; Jabez Bowen, the state’s lieutenant governor during the Revolutionary War who corresponded regularly with Washington; John Brown, businessman and benefactor of Brown University; Theodore Foster, one of the state’s first U. S. senators; and Thomas P. Ives, merchant.

It will take an inordinate amount of research and extreme serendipity to confirm the subscriber who owned my set of Marshall’s books. Until that unlikely conjunction of circumstances, I will take pleasure in using the contents for my study and teaching, all the while thinking about the volumes’ distinguished Rhode Island owner and their largely mute past.

All photos courtesy of author.

 

Endnotes

  1. The Life of George Washington: Maps and Subscriber’s Names (Philadelphia, 1807).
  2. For an overview of Marshall’s authorship of his The Life of George Washington, see the “Editorial Note” in Charles Hobson et al., eds., The Papers of John Marshall: Volume VI, Correspondence, Papers, and Selected Judicial Opinions, November 1800–March 1807 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990), 219–30. For an examination of Marshall’s use of sources that stops just short of calling him a plagiarist, see William A. Foran, “John Marshall as a Historian,” in American Historical Review 43 (1937-38): 51-64.
  3. See William M. Ferraro, “Lives of Quiet Desperation: Community and Polity in New England over Four Centuries: The Cases of Portsmouth and Foster, Rhode Island,” PhD diss., Brown University, 1991.

Book Review: Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

by Jeffrey L. Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
June 8, 2017

Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution recently won the George Washington Prize. The author of numerous and highly readable books about American history, Philbrick contends that Benedict Arnold and George Washington were actually quite similar. Both were up-and-comers who craved fame and fortune.

According to Philbrick, Connecticut’s Arnold and Virginia’s Washington were highly ambitious men whose childhood experiences left them with chips on their shoulders. They coveted not just respect but renown, which they acquired by risking their lives in battle. But Philbrick also claims that Arnold was the superior military commander, contrasting Arnold’s supposedly decisive role in such Patriot successes as Valcour Bay and Saratoga to Washington’s loss of New York City in 1776 and Philadelphia in 1777. And Philbrick even suggests that Washington may well have ended up like Arnold if he had been robbed of credit for his victories as happened to Arnold after Saratoga. While Arnold (being his “usual daredevil self”) was crippled by two shots to his left leg in that 1777 battle, he was eclipsed by Horatio Gates.1 Consequently, Gates replaced Arnold as the favorite of a New England-based Continental Congress faction that distrusted landed Patriot grandees like Philip Schuyler, Henry Laurens, and Washington himself.

Philbrick claims Arnold actually aspired to join the landed gentry but felt—largely without cause—that he had been snubbed by wealthy Patriot landholders who had long since embraced Washington. While at newly liberated Philadelphia in 1778, moreover, Arnold came to be embraced by British-friendly merchant families as the city’s lenient military governor. Young Margaret Shippen, who belonged to one such family, had befriended the British adjutant general John André before the Patriots reclaimed the city. But she married Arnold in 1779, expecting him to meet her considerable expenses. As a result, Arnold’s erstwhile congressional supporters subjected him to a “merciless witch hunt” by accusing him of mostly false corruption charges.2 Washington was forced in 1780 to reprimand Arnold, who had faced a court martial even while British officers were praising him as the most formidable Patriot commander.3 And so Arnold resolved to collude with André in order to betray his new command of West Point to the British, whom he now regarded as his sole hope for wealth and military fame.

Philbrick paints a fascinating and even rather sympathetic portrait of Arnold’s “self-serving derring-do,” which might have enabled Arnold to “become one of the immortal heroes of the Revolution” had he been able to have, like Washington, “applied his talents to a pursuit that while fulfilling his desire to serve his country also lined his pockets . . . .”4 Yet while Philbrick allows that Washington mastered his emotions and developed a sense of grand strategy to a greater degree than Arnold during the war, he goes too far in depicting Arnold as an impressive general.  Philbrick therefore concludes that “Washington was not a good battlefield thinker” and consistently “out-generaled,” intimating that he was not among the “few officers in either the American or British army who possessed [Arnold’s] talent for almost instantly assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy.”5  And Philbrick lauds Arnold’s costly Valcour Bay exploits in October 1776, for “while Washington’s army to the south continued to suffer setback after setback, Arnold had shown that it was possible to stand up and fight.”6

Philbrick, however, ends his comparison of Arnold and Washington right before the former entered British service in October 1780 to fight the Patriots in Virginia. And by February 1781, as General Nathanael Greene learned, Arnold had put himself in a position to be captured because Washington had sent troops under “the Marquis De la Fayette and made a proposal for a cooperation in Chesapeak Bay against Arnold, with the whole of the French fleet and a part of their land force.”7 Lafayette informed Washington on March 25 that he had “Directed that Arnold Be Circumscribed Within His works on Both Sides of the Dismal Swamp.” But he bemoaned a day later that “The Return of the British fleet with vessels that Must Be transports from New York is a Circumstance which destroys Every Prospect of an operation Against Arnold,” who would have been doomed if the French navy had managed to complete Washington’s projected encirclement.8

One can perhaps see, then, why Americans at the time had considerably less respect for Arnold’s character and competence than Philbrick has. As Benjamin Franklin wrote Lafayette from Paris in May 1781:

Your Friends have heard of your being gone against the Traitor Arnold, and are anxious to hear of your Success, and that you have brought him to Justice. Enclos’d is a Copy of a Letter from his Agent in England, by which the Price of his Treason may be nearly guess’d at. Judas sold only one Man, Arnold three Millions; Judas got for his one Man 30 Pieces of Silver, Arnold not a halfpenny a Head. A miserable Bargainer: Especially when one considers the Quantity of Infamy he has acquir’d to himself, & entail’d on his Family.9

 

Notes

1. Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (New York: Viking, 2016), 97.

2. Ibid., 234.

3. See General Orders, 6 April 1780, in the forthcoming twenty-fifth volume of The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series.

4. Philbrick, Valiant Ambition, 52, 216, 68.

5. Ibid., 139.

6. Ibid., 165, 56.

7. “From George Washington to Nathanael Greene, 27 February 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-05023.

8. “To George Washington from Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, 25 March 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-05203; and “To George Washington from Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, 26 March 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-05214.

9. “From Benjamin Franklin to the Marquis de Lafayette, 14 May 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-35-02-0042.

George Washington: Muse, Patron, and Lover of the Arts

by Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
May 31, 2017

That Washington was not a Schollar is certain. That he was too illiterate, unlearned, unread, for his Station and reputation is equally past dispute. He had derived little no Knowledge from Reading; none from Travel, except in the United States, and excepting one Trip in his youth to one of the West India Islands and directly back again. From Conversation in publick and private, he had improved considerably and by Reflection in his Closet, a good deal. He was indeed a thoughtful Man.1

They say you crave what you cannot have. This was true for George Washington when it came to a formal education in the arts and sciences. Though his older half-brothers benefitted from schooling in England as adolescents, George did not. His father, Augustine Washington, died when George was only 11 years old, making it financially difficult for him to attend school. Although he was privately tutored in the following years, George Washington developed an insecurity about his lack of education and writing skills, which in turn motivated his words and actions, both public and private.2

Washington believed that books were useful to soldiers in their development of military acuity and discipline. Once, when his corps misbehaved, he suggested reading as an occupational necessity:

Remember, that it is the actions, and not the commission, that make the Officer—and that there is more expected from him than the Title. Do not forget, that there ought to be a time appropriated to attain this knowledge; as well as to indulge pleasure. And as we now have no opportunities to improve from example; let us read, for this desirable end. There is Blands and other Treatises which will give the wished-for information.3

Washington attended to the education of his adopted children and grandchildren as well, by providing them with books and tutors. Concerned that his stepson John Parke “Jacky” Custis did not appreciate his schooling, Washington advised Jacky’s instructor to more strongly divert the young man’s attentions from frivolities and back to his studies.4 To Washington’s alarm, his exhortations went unheeded. The Reverend Jonathan Boucher, Jacky’s tutor, complained:

In Truth, it is one of the worst Symptoms that I know of in Him, that He does not much like Books: & yet I have been endeavouring to allure Him to it, by every Artifice I cou’d think of. I hop’d that Cargo of Books wou’d have done it.5

When neither Jacky nor Martha acquiesced to Washington’s plea that Jacky complete his college education, Washington gave in, “contrary to [his] judgement.”6 Indeed, for Washington, a well-rounded education was necessary to render Jacky “useful to society.”7

George Washington’s honorary degree from Harvard College. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. See Washington’s other honorary degrees by visiting their online collection of George Washington’s papers.

Such a belief reflected the 18th-century enlightenment idea that reason was the foundation of knowledge. Putting this into practice, then, required a commitment to intellectual self-improvement.

For the adult Washington, that meant reading. Consequently, he sought to amass a large and diverse library. Benefitting from the additions of the Custis estate, the Mount Vernon library boasted more than 1200 books at its largest size.8 Along with such reference tomes as A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, The World displayed; or a Curious Collection of Voyages and Travels and Cadmus: or, a Treatise on the Elements of Written Language, Washington collected works of history like The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and novels including The History and Adventures of Don Quixote.9

In leading a young nation, Washington’s passion for education shines brightest. He frequently advocated for the establishment of a national university for the arts and sciences. The subject was so important to him that he included it in his undelivered first inaugural address (see paragraph 62), his first annual address to Congress, and his Farewell Address. He believed that such an institution was crucial to the cultivation of American values and to an understanding of the principles that governed democratic society.10

Though Washington would not see the establishment of such an institution in his lifetime, he personally invested in its future. In his last will and testament, Washington set aside money for a national university as well as for a school for orphan children.11

Educational institutions and organizations honored Washington by bestowing on him honorary degrees.12 For a man so enamored with the arts and sciences, it is even more fitting that his life would be celebrated in verse. A living muse, Washington was the subject of numerous songs and poems, among them one by renowned poet Phillis Wheatley.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,

Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,

With gold unfading, Washington! be thine.13

 

Notes

  1. “From John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 22 April 1812,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5777. [This is an Early Access document from The Adams Papers. It is not an authoritative final version.]
  2. David Humphreys, The Life of General Washington (Athens, Ga., 2006), 6.
  3. “Address, 8 January 1756,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-02-02-0271. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 2: 256–58.
  4. “From George Washington to Jonathan Boucher, 16 December 1770,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-08-02-0280. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 8: 411–12.
  5. “To George Washington from Jonathan Boucher, 18 December 1770,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-08-02-0282. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 8: 413–17.
  6. “From George Washington to Myles Cooper, 15 December 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0306. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 9: 406–7.
  7. “From George Washington to Benedict Calvert, 3 April 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0158. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 9: 209–11.
  8. Amanda C. Issac, Take Note!: George Washington the Reader (2013).
  9. Ibid. See also Mount Vernon’s catalogue of George Washington’s Library: http://www.librarything.com/catalog/GeorgeWashington.
  10. “From George Washington to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 8 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0361. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 4: 543–49.
  11. “George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, 9 July 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0404-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series 4: 479–511.
  12. “From George Washington to the President and Faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, 20 April 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-02-02-0080. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 2: 86–87.
  13. “Enclosure: Poem by Phillis Wheatley, 26 October 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0222-0002. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2: 242–44.

Washington’s Worst Defeat

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
May 25, 2017

Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

“This is a most unfortunate affair and has given me great Mortification as we have lost not only two thousand Men that were there, but a good deal of Artillery, & some of the best Arms we had.” So wrote General George Washington to his brother John Augustine Washington in November 1776 about the loss of Fort Washington.1 The fall of the bastion, with its garrison of 2,900 officers and men, on Nov. 16, 1776, was Washington’s worst defeat (excluding Charleston, S.C., in 1780, where he was too distant from the scene of action to affect the outcome). Fort Washington was located along the Hudson River on a high bluff in the northern part of Manhattan Island. Along with Fort Lee directly across the river in New Jersey, it formed the chief defense against a British naval advance up the river. Most American officers considered Fort Washington virtually impregnable.

At the time of the fort’s fall, Washington and his main army were in retreat across New Jersey, after having been driven out of lower New York by General Sir William Howe and his British army. But the American general, believing he should throw every possible obstruction in the way of British conquest of New York and New Jersey, decided to retain a garrison in the fort.2

When Washington evacuated the rest of his army from Manhattan Island, he left a garrison of 1,200 men in Fort Washington and gave orders to the garrison’s colonel “to defend the post to the last Extremity.” However, given the fort’s isolation and its vulnerability to an attack by Howe’s whole force, he later modified those orders to give discretion to Major General Nathanael Greene, the area commander, “to retain or evacuate the post as he should think best.”3

The British attacked the post with four corps on Nov. 16. The American troops defending the fort’s outer works were spread too thin, and their lines were quickly penetrated, although they inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers. The British and Hessians pushed the Continentals and militia back into the fort. Surrounded with no hope of relief, they soon had to surrender. Washington nearly became a casualty when he decided to visit Fort Washington during the early part of the engagement. Greene, writing on the 17th, explained to a fellow officer that on

Yesterday morning General Washington, General Putnam, General Mercer, and myself went to the Island to determine what was best to be done, but Just at the instant we stept on board the Boat the Enemy made their appearance on the Hill where the monday action was, and began a severe Cannonade with several field pieces. Our Guards soon fled, the Enemy advanced up to the second lines. This was done while we were crossing the River and geting upon the Hill. The Enemy made several marches to the right and to the left, I suppose to reconnoiter the fortifications and lines. There we all stood in a very awkward situation; as the disposition was made and the Enemy advancing we durst not attempt to make any new disposition—indeed we saw nothing amiss. We all urged his Excellency to come off. I offerd to stay. General Putnam did the same and so did General Mercer, but his Excellency thought it best for us all to come off together, which we did about half an hour before the Enemy surrounded the fort.4

The fall of the fort embarrassed Washington, and many, including at least one of his staff officers, questioned his military judgment.5

In his letter to his brother, Washington cast the blame for the fort’s fall on Greene. Washington had arrived “a day or two before it surrendered,” but had not, he asserted, come in time to take measures to save Fort Washington. “And what adds to my Mortification,” he wrote,

is, that this Post . . . was held contrary to my Wishes & opinion; as I conceived it to be a dangerous one: but being determind on by a full Council of General Officers, & receiving a resolution of Congress strongly expressive of their desires, that the Channel of the River (which we had been labouring to stop a long while at this place) might be obstructed, if possible; & knowing that this could not be done unless there were Batteries to protect the Obstruction I did not care to give an absolute Order for withdrawing the Garrison till I could get round & see the Situation of things & then it became too late as the Fort was Invested. I had given it . . . as my opinion to Genl Greene under whose care it was, that it would be best to evacuate the place—but—as the order was discretionary, & his opinion differed from mine, it unhappily was delayed too long, to my great grief.

By implying that he had no time to decide whether to evacuate or defend the fort, Washington misled his brother. The commander in chief had in fact arrived at Fort Lee on Nov. 13; the enemy did not attack the fort until three days later. He had ample time to make a decision. Despite his own convictions, he failed to reverse Greene’s decision to continue defending the fort.

In his official letter to Congress explaining the defeat, Washington cast himself almost as a bystander to the events. He became involved only after the British had commenced their assault. The blame again appeared to fall on Greene.6 But his own irresolution was the main reason for the defeat. Even in a private letter to his brother, he could not bring himself to mention his indecision and hesitation.

Washington’s failure to take responsibility for the defeat at Fort Washington was not one of his finest moments. I believe it stemmed from his insecure position at that time. For more on this defeat and Washington’s later account of the fort’s fall, which I believe shows his maturation as a general, see my article “Washington’s Belated Admission,” published by the Journal of the American Revolution on April 23, 2014. In my next blog post, I will look at one of the most pivotal moments of the war: Washington’s victory at Trenton, N.J., on Dec. 26, 1776, and his letter to John Hancock of the next day reporting the triumph.
 

Notes

1. “From George Washington to John Augustine Washington, Nov. 6–19, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0070. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 7:102–6.

2. “From George Washington to Joseph Reed, Aug. 22, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-22-02-0175.  Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 22:224–27

3. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Nov. 16, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0118. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 7:162–69.

4. “From Nathanael Greene to Henry Knox, Nov. 17, 1776,” in The Papers of Nathanael Greene, 1:351–52.

5. “From Joseph Reed to Charles Lee, Nov. 21, 1776,” in [Charles Lee] The Lee Papers. 4 vols. (New York, 1872–75; in Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 4–7), 4:376–77.

6. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Nov. 16, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0118. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 7:162–69.

Who’s That Guy?: Identifying an Unnamed Individual from Washington’s Correspondence

by Adrina Garbooshian-Huggins, Assistant Editor
May 17, 2017

An engraving of Ezra Lee (1916), from The Story of the Submarine by Farnham Bishop.

Identifying individuals mentioned in George Washington’s correspondence often poses an exciting challenge for the editors at The Washington Papers. When the only clue you have is a title or occupation (e.g., “quartermaster,” “painter”), it can prove even more challenging. I came across an example of this when coediting the forthcoming volume 26 of The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, with Washington Papers associate editor Benjamin Huggins.

On May 13, 1780, Washington wrote to Jedediah Huntington (1743-1818),1 a Norwich, Conn., merchant who had been serving since May 1777 as a Continental brigadier general. In the letter, Washington advised that Brigadier General William Maxwell’s New Jersey brigade would soon relieve Huntington’s command. In addition, upon Maxwell’s arrival, Huntington was to march his Connecticut brigade, which had been on the army’s outpost lines since February 1780, to the army’s winter encampment at Jockey Hollow, southwest of Morristown, New Jersey. Washington further directed Huntington to “send up” his “Quarter Master” to prepare huts in the encampment for the reception of Huntington’s brigade.

In an effort to fully understand the document, I sought to identify the “Quarter Master” of Huntington’s brigade. I examined the muster rolls for the 1st Connecticut Regiment (which was part of Huntington’s brigade), and discovered that in the summer and fall of 1779, Ezra Lee (1749-1821), a lieutenant in that regiment, was listed on muster rolls as “Q.M.B.” and “B.Q.M.,” common abbreviations for brigade quartermaster.2 Lee’s position as brigade quartermaster also appeared on muster rolls for the entire year of 1780, indicating that he held the position when Washington penned his May 13, 1780, letter to Huntington.

When regimental and brigade quartermasters were on furlough, other officers sometimes would temporarily fulfill their duties. Due to such temporary reassignments, editors sometimes omit from annotation the identification of brigade majors and regimental quartermasters.

Prior to being named brigade quartermaster, Lee had been contributing to the war effort through military service since 1775. A native of Lyme, Conn., Lee served in Lieutenant Lee Lay’s company of Connecticut state troops in 1775 and entered the Continental ranks as a sergeant in January 1776. In the summer of that year, Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons chose Lee to operate David Bushnell’s famous submarine Turtle, aboard which Lee conducted tests and made an attempt against enemy vessels off Governors Island, New York.3 Lee later served as an ensign and then lieutenant in the 1st Connecticut Regiment, and in November 1778 was appointed that regiment’s quartermaster.  He transferred to the 5th Connecticut Regiment in 1781 and served as its paymaster before retiring from the army in June 1782.4

Notes

1. Draft, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, Library of Congress, George Washington’s Papers.

2. National Archives: Record Group 93, Compiled Revolutionary War Military Service Records, 1775–1783.

3. William Bell Clark et al., eds. Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 11 vols. to date (Washington, D.C., 1964–), 6:736, 1499, 1507-11; The New-York Evening Post, Nov. 16, 1821.

4. GW to John Jay, Sept. 19-20, 1779, in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 22:458-59; Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution, April, 1775, to December, 1783, Rev. ed. (Washington, D.C., 1914), 345.

 

 

“My method of behaviour to my domesticks”: Christianity and Slavery in Elizabeth Foote Washington’s Diary

by Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
May 11, 2017

Elizabeth Foote began to keep a diary in 1779, soon after she became engaged to Lund Washingon, George Washington’s cousin. She decided to keep a diary so “that I may remember what was my thoughts at the time of my changing my state.” After her marriage, she used the diary to record a manual of advice on housekeeping, which she intended to leave for her daughters. It survives as a compelling insight into the thoughts and feelings of an 18th-century woman slaveholder.1

Her guidelines for the management of slaves are particularly interesting to a 20th-century reader. Elizabeth Foote Washington and her husband lived together at Mount Vernon for the first four years of their marriage, but in 1784, as they prepared to move into their newly built home,2 she decided to “lay down rules how I would conduct myself in my family—by treating my domesticks with all the friendly kindness that is possible for me to do . . .”

Elizabeth Foote Washington’s diary, as photographed by author. Original manuscript located at the Library of Congress.

Her first rule for managing slaves was to “never find fault of a servant before their master.” She believed if her slaves thought of her as an ally “they may be brought to endeavor to please me—& feel some gratitude towards me for hiding their faults as they will think—I dare say I shall hide many of their faults—”

Next, she determined “If I should have children I will avoid if possible ever finding fault of a servant before them.” This was in order to keep her household “in great peace & quietness” because she was sure that that was “Mr. Washington’s desire,—& that alone would make me endeavour after—if I did not feel a principle of religion in me that causes me to desire it.”

In 1789, nearly five years after writing her guidelines on how to work with slaves, Elizabeth Foote Washington updated her journal with the results of these measures. She determined that “no one could have put the foregoing resolutions more in practice then I have, or taken more pains then I have to perswaid my servants to do their business through a principal of religion—I have frequently told them that it was my most earnest desire that they should do their duty as a servant for their Saviours sake—not for mine.”

This argument did not prove to be the motivating influence that Mrs. Washington hoped it would. While she was proud to report that “our visitors think we have the best of servants, & that I have no trouble,” she confided in her diary, “If our visitors knew how little my servants did they would not think them good—nay there is few would put up with their servants doing so little as mine.” She found it frustrating “to consider how mine has ever been treated they are not such servants as a person would expect—for surely they ought to be the best of servants,—which is not the case.”

Elizabeth Foote Washington imagined that her slaves would be grateful to her for abstaining from “scolding & whipping” and would repay her with obedience. Forced to labor without pay, living under the constant threat of separation from their families, and aware that they were not seen as fully human in the eyes of the law or of white society, the slaves were not grateful for being enslaved.

Three years later, Mrs. Washington wrote in her diary that her slaves “is got so Baptistical in their notions” that they “think they commit a crime to join with me in prayer.” This bothered her, as she considered being a religious guide to her slaves an essential part of her role as housekeeper. Ultimately, she was unable to convince her slaves to return to her church, as they would “go out of the way at the time they are going to be calld to Prayer—it is impossible for them to have it,—& then if they are made to come—they appear quite angry.”

By attempting to coerce her slaves into practicing her faith, Mrs. Washington intruded into one of the few areas of their lives where they had some control: their spirituality.

In January 1796, Elizabeth Foote Washington wrote to “anyone come a cross this Book” that “I strongly suspect my female servants will take every manuscript Book they can lay their hands on, & many of my other religious Books—tho’ it is my intention, if I am in my senses when on my death bed & I should have a friend with me—to warn them of my servants.” She prayed that the Lord “influence the hearts of my servants & cause them to treat me with respect.”

It is rare to find a historic document that gives such an honest and personal description of the relationship between a plantation mistress and the enslaved people under her authority. Mrs. Washington’s paternalistic view of her slaves blinded her to their motivations for rebelling. While severely constrained by their status as possessions, her slaves still managed to maintain control over some aspects of their lives, such as their pace of work and choice of religion. Elizabeth Foote Washington’s diary provides insight into the mindset of a Christian woman slaveowner, and strategies enslaved people used to survive.

Notes

1. Diary of Elizabeth Foote Washington, 1779-1796, Washington Family Collection, Library of Congress.

2. “From George Washington to William Gordon, 20 December 1784,” n.3, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series 2: 196.