Opening a Window on Washington: Virginia
Magazine Pays Tribute at Anniversary of His Death
Richmond Times-Dispatch, 14 December 1999«back | home
By Gary Robertson
Two hundred years ago today George Washington died.
He was the father of our country.
And like a lot of fathers, he had his crotchets.
He obsessed about his public image, his place in history, the preservation
of his papers.
He even changed his handwriting and revised earlier, youthful letters,
deleting less graceful wording so future generations wouldn't think him
And he opposed slavery but didn't free any slaves during his lifetime.
Instead, he terrified his
wife by inserting a clause in his will requiring that only her death
would trigger his slaves' freedom.
Sweeping the corners of history, Virginia Cavalcade, the quarterly magazine
of Virginia history and culture, has devoted its autumn issue to Washington
scholarship, with titillating tidbits about George on nearly every page.
The timing is good.
This year is the 200th anniversary of Washington's death. He died at
Mount Vernon, his Northern Virginia estate, on Dec. 14, 1799, where a
re-enactment of his funeral is planned for Saturday.
One of the most insightful documents left was his last will and testament.
"The will is a hopeful document that opens a window on Washington's life
wrote John P. Riley, director of education for the White House Historical
Association who also was Mount Vernon's chief historian for a decade.
"His final wishes are charged with public comment, not just family legacies.
Slavery and education -- issues of great weight during Washington's life
-- are central to the content of his last great composition."
In his will, Washington granted freedom to his slaves --then numbering
124 -- upon the death of his wife, Martha.
"We can only imagine what the anguish and tensions were like around Mount
Vernon," Riley said, speculating on Mrs. Washington's feelings. "How she
felt about the emancipation clause, and how could Washington put her in that position?"
Mrs. Washington released all of her husband's slaves within a year of
his death. Whether she feared for her safety is unclear, Riley said, but
it's certain that she was uncomfortable.
During his lifetime, Washington never made the emancipation of slaves
an issue, because his principal aim was to unite the fledgling United
Riley pointed out that Washington was an unbending nationalist, and the
opening of his will dramatically points out his claim to a nation:
"I George Washington of Mount Vernon -- a citizen of the United States
-- and lately President of the same."
For nearly 30 years, Dorothy Twohig has lived with George Washington.
She has searched for his papers over a landscape covering two centuries,
written about him and edited the writing of others.
The editor in chief emeritus of the Papers of George Washington project
at the University of Virginia still is hot on the trail.
In her Cavalcade article, Twohig noted that it was Washington's scrupulous,
lifelong attention to the care and retention of his professional and personal
papers that enabled so many of them to survive into the present.
"Washington also kept careful diaries for much of his life, and his meticulous
chronicles of, as he often wrote in his diary, 'how & where my time
spent,' most complete for his Virginia years, give a revealing picture
of how life progressed on an eighteenth-century Virginia plantation,"
Twohig noted that although Washington went to extremes to ensure that
posterity would have his papers, many were lost, damaged or destroyed
because of the carelessness or disregard of those who had them after his
Even the venerable John Marshall, a chief justice of the United States,
was at fault.
Between 1804 and 1807, Marshall published five volumes of his monumental
biography, "The Life of George Washington." Yet when Marshall returned
the papers, the founding father's nephew, Bushrod Washington, observed
that they "have been extensively mutilated by rats and otherwise injured
Although Washington's slaves largely had a regimented existence, Mount
Vernon researcher Mary V. Thompson said they also had opportunities to
pursue some of their own interests.
Most of these opportunities focused on finding ways to earn spending
money, through the sale of crafts, fish, game or garden vegetables.
"They also could earn rewards for having done something to please Washington,"
In her Cavalcade article, she wrote: "In 1785, Washington gave several
slaves six shillings in gratitude for their assistance in getting his
valet, William Lee, to the home of a friend, Dr. David Stuart, after Lee
broke his kneecap while surveying with Washington."
Washington also is known to have purchased teeth from slaves that then
would be "transplanted" into his mouth.
Mount Vernon owns a set of Washington's teeth that Thompson described
as "sort of a framework with cow teeth and ivory carved down to look like
teeth. There also were some human teeth fitted in."
Contrary to popular belief, Washington never had wooden teeth, Thompson
The fact that ivory teeth become discolored may have led some people
to begin circulating the rumor that Washington's teeth were wooden, Thompson
Another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, has drawn a lot of attention
because of his apparent liaisons with his slaves.
But Thompson said she hasn't been able to find any evidence that Washington
was involved in such frolicking.
"Of course," she said, "that's not the kind of thing people tended to
© 1999 The Richmond-Times Dispatch
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