Washington’s Quill Blog

Visitors’ Accounts of George Washington’s Mount Vernon

By Dana Stefanelli, Assistant Editor
December 8, 2017

With the holiday season upon us, it seems appropriate to look back at visitors’ accounts of George and Martha Washington’s Potomac River plantation, Mount Vernon. The Christmas season—stretching from December 24th to January 6th—was widely considered a time to gather with family and friends. As the Washingtons’ estate and reputation grew, visitors came year-round and included not only immediate family and local friends but more distant relatives and strangers with and without letters of introduction.

Continue reading

A Story in Silk: Meeting Martha Washington Through a Surviving Gown

By Cynthia Chin, Georgetown University
December 1, 2017

“I…cannot help reminding you that it is necessary to be carefull of all your cloths – and have them kept together and often look over them -”

– Martha Washington to her granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis, January 14, 17961

It’s a rare thing when you meet an extant 18th-century gown and know who wore it. Rarer still, when the wearer was Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. I recently had the honor of examining one of Martha Washington’s three known, intact, surviving gowns,2 which was generously loaned to George Washington’s Mount Vernon by the New Hampshire Historical Society (NHHS) for viewing and study.3

Continue reading

Rehabilitating Mary Ball Washington’s Importance as George Washington’s Mother

by William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
November 17, 2017

In a blog post from February 2016, I reviewed interpretations of George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, and found them to fall into two camps: either simplistically laudatory or bitingly critical. Moreover, neither side found evidence of a close relationship between mother and son. For sure, the documentary record contains few letters between Mary and George, and references to Mary in her famous son’s voluminous surviving correspondence are exceedingly scattered. There is little basis to claim that she played a central role in George’s accomplishments and fame. The absence of such evidence gives greater salience to Mary’s carping in her old age about lack of money and support from her children.   George’s frustration over these complaints prompted harsh portrayals of his mother in subsequent historical analysis.

Continue reading

Washington and the Governors (Part I)

By Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
November 10, 2017

In this blog post I pause my series on Washington’s letters announcing pivotal moments in the Revolutionary War to look at a key facet of his generalship.

“You will, upon the whole, find many advantages by cultivating a good understanding with the Civil Authority”1

On Feb. 3, 1780, Gen. George Washington sent this advice to Col. Stephen Moylan, commander of a Continental dragoon regiment, after issues had arisen with the Connecticut state government regarding the winter encampments of the cavalry in that state. Two weeks later, as the disputes between Moylan and Gov. Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., continued, Washington told the colonel, “It is always my wish to accommodate, where no great injury can result to the service.”2

These two statements crystallize Washington’s philosophy in dealing with the governors. Such an attitude, which I view as diplomacy, was a vital but often overlooked aspect of his generalship. He needed the states to man and supply his army. The American commander proved very adept at diplomatic relations: Washington usually—but not always—received strong support from the state executives. Yet, for more than a year, he had been deeply concerned about failing leadership in Congress and the states, as well as a decline in zeal for the American cause among the people. This anxiety underlaid his dealings with the states. In a gloomy and angry “picture of the times—& of Men,” as he called it, sent to a Virginia friend in December 1778,3 the general confessed to feeling “more real distress” on account of the “distressed, ruinous,—& deplorable” state of affairs than at any other time since the start of the Revolution. Five months later, his view had not changed. The country’s affairs, he confessed to New York congressman Gouverneur Morris, remained in a “very disagreeable train.”

Continue reading

Making the Case for Drupal

By Erica Cavanaugh, CDE Project Developer
October 27, 2017

Digital publication remains a challenge for many documentary editing projects, especially when dealing with complex documents such as farm reports, financial records, and ship logs. Traditionally, editors have relied upon TEI-based solutions (an XML format for humanities projects), often omitting those more complicated documents and focusing instead on correspondence, speeches, and diary entries. Beyond that, these TEI-encoded documents need additional work. The documents need to be transformed from TEI into another code and then a custom publication environment needs to be developed. As a result, many projects struggle to use that model as a solution without external support. In order to address this issue, the Center for Digital Editing (CDE) has turned toward the open-source content management system Drupal.

Drupal is a freely available, open-source content management system. Its flexibility has allowed for the creation of diverse websites, including weather.com, fema.gov, university websites, and e-commerce sites. While it has a steep learning curve compared to other content management systems, it can be fully customized, giving users complete control over the types of metadata captured, defining relationships between content, displaying content, and developing user interaction. These features make Drupal ideal for digital humanities projects, such as digital documentary editions.

At its core, Drupal is written in PHP (a server-side scripting language) and uses MySQL (an open source relational database) to store its content. Customizations are then introduced with the installation of modules, which extend core functionality, and themes in order to modify site appearance. Conveniently, Drupal’s active user and developer community has contributed code, modules, and themes useful for digital documentary editions and other scholarly projects. These modules thus alleviate the need for projects to create custom code and significantly reduces the amount of “code” maintenance on the site. Module updates are fairly easy to install, too. (Those familiar with WordPress will find these updates to be similar to the process of using and updating plugins.)

For the CDE, these modules have allowed us to capture various types of metadata, develop an editorial interface, manage document workflow, and create a digital edition for both traditional types of documents and the more complex ones. Let’s look at our work in creating a user-friendly editorial apparatus.

So far, we have created fields for capturing metadata and the various elements of a transcribed document including dateline, salutation, body text, closing, and signature. Using these fields has made it easier to digitally transcribe documents as well as standardize their formatting. Moreover, by fielding each aspect, it is easier to export documents in various formats: they can be printed as PDFs, exported as Word documents, CSV files, or even mapped to XML schemas like TEI.

Another feature we have customized is the WYSIWYG or text editor. For many Drupal users, the standard WYSIWYG editor works well enough as is, making it easy to bold, italicize, underline, strikethrough, and superscript text, as well as list items. But documentary editors often need to do more than that. For some, it is important to apply small caps, indent the text, align bits of text left and right, or even replicate marginalia written sideways. While it is possible to enter the HTML and CSS by hand to implement this formatting, editors frequently are not familiar enough with HTML and CSS to do so. Such high-level customizations would also make it difficult for students to significantly contribute to these editions. Minor customizations to the WYSIWYG editor style sheet that are shared between Drupal installations, however, make it easy for editors and students to edit text as needed.

Drupal also simplifies the management of document workflow and the tracking of editorial changes. In order to do this, we have incorporated a couple of modules. One of these includes the Workflow module, an installation that allows for the creation of a customized document workflow. Using this module, we can create stages tailored to individual projects, identify the number of documents in a particular stage, and define which users can move a document from one stage to the next. Additionally, we can see who has done what and when, create a search interface to find documents in a particular stage, establish a student work portfolio, and bulk-publish groups of documents based on their stage.

Another module allows us to see versions and changes made to a document or other record, such as an identification. For ease of document management, each version of a record includes information about the date and user. Additionally, versions can be compared side-by-side, making it possible to tell what was changed. This feature is particularly useful when dealing with difficult-to-read words and transcriptions, as well as when drafting identifications.

For many projects, capturing metadata, completing editorial work, and managing the documents are all performed in an environment separate from the publication platform. With Drupal, however, we are able to digitally publish documents in the same environment in which the materials are prepared. Any number of documents or transcriptions can be published at the click of a button, and information need only be captured one time in order to create multiple, dynamic displays of the content, such as timelines, maps, and other site-generated visualizations. As we continue to advance, we can also look for ways to engage more with the public user.

“The ablest of all our diplomatic Corps”: George Washington and John Quincy Adams

By Katie Blizzard, Communications Specialist
October 20, 2017

In 1789, while touring New England, George Washington stopped in Newburyport, Massachusetts. There, he met a bright young law student who would soon play a larger role both in Washington’s life and in the public arena: John Quincy Adams.

John Quincy Adams, the son of vice president John Adams, had long admired Washington. To the younger Adams’s delight, the citizens of Newburyport asked him to draft an address welcoming Washington to the small town. The result was poetic, expressing “sentiments of joy, resulting from principals perhaps less elevated but equally dear to their hearts; from the gratification of their affection in beholding personally among them, the friend, the benefactor, the father of his Country.” Over the course of Washington’s visit, Adams “had the honour” of interacting with the president several more times. The pair dined together within the same group twice, and Adams happily pointed out in a letter to his mother, Abigail Adams, that Washington had even remembered seeing him in New York.1

Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Their paths crossed again in 1793, when the younger man began publishing political essays. Under the pseudonym “Marcellus,” Adams argued that the nation should remain neutral in the current war between Britain and France. As “Columbus,” Adams warned about the danger of foreign intrigue. And under the name “Barneveldt,” he suggested that some executive powers, though not made explicit in the Constitution, are nevertheless important to the nation’s survival.2

According to historian Samuel Flagg Bemis, these essays not only captured Washington’s attention but also informed his Farewell Address.3 While it is difficult to define conclusively the influences behind the Farewell Address, both men supported neutrality and a strong federal government. So intrigued by an individual who echoed his own beliefs, Washington purportedly sought to uncover the identity of the essays’ author.4 If Washington did connect John Quincy Adams with his essays, that discovery may have played a role in his subsequent interest in the young man as a public servant. On May 29, 1794, a year after the political writings had been published, Washington nominated Adams to be U.S. minister to the Netherlands.5

Though the nomination surprised Adams, he did not think the nomination was a result of preferential treatment: “From the principles of the same nature which my father has always rigidly observed, I knew that no influence, nor even a request of any kind from him could have occasioned this intention of the President.”6 John Adams gleefully confirmed this was the case in his second letter to his son on the subject:

This Nomination, which is the Result of the Presidents own Observations and Reflections, is as politick, as it is unexpected. It will be a Proof that Sound Principles in Morals and Government, are cherished by the Executive of the United States and that Study, Science and Literature are recommendations which will not be overlook’d.7

Though John Quincy Adams had not intended to “solicit for any public office whatever,” he accepted the appointment.8 It should be noted that along with his agreement with the president on diplomatic issues, his fluency in both French and Dutch equipped him well for the position.

When Adams arrived in the Netherlands in December, the scene was not at all what he had expected. The country had been invaded by the French, resulting in the disruption of diplomatic business as well as mail service.9 Cut off from American news and unable to perform his duties beyond maintaining U.S. neutrality, Adams quickly became bored and frustrated. In letters to his father, he described his unhappiness.10 Worried that his son might abandon his post, John Adams wrote to George Washington, who responded with encouragement:

Mr J. Adams, your son, must not think of retiring from the walk he is now in: his prospects, if he continues in it, are fair: and I shall be much mistaken if, in as short a period as can well be expected, he is not found at the head of the Diplomatique Corps; let the government be administered by whomsoever the people may chuse.

The embarrassment into which he was thrown, by the unforeseen events which so soon took place in Holland, after he had received his first instructions, & had arrived in that country, have long since been removed; and he can be at no loss now, as to the course he is to pursue.11

Washington’s advice, to which the vice president would later allude in a letter to his son, presumably worked; John Quincy Adams remained a public servant for the remainder of Washington’s term in office.12 When John Adams was elected president, Washington wrote to him to underscore his continued confidence in John Quincy Adams:

[I]f my wishes would be of any avail, they shd go to you in a strong hope, that you will not withhold merited promotion from Mr Jno. Adams because he is your son. For without intending to compliment the father or the mother, or to censure any others, I give it as my decided opinion, that Mr Adams is the most valuable public character we have abroad; and that there remains no doubt in my mind that he will prove himself to be the ablest, of all our diplomatic Corps.13



  1. “John Quincy Adams to Abigail Adams, 5 December 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-08-02-0244. Also available in print: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 8, pp. 444–447.
  2. For a brief discussion of Adams’s 1793 writings, see Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundation of American Policy (New York: 1949), 36–38.
  3. Ibid.
  4. William H. Seward, Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams, Sixth President of the United States (Auburn: 1849), 53.
  5. “From George Washington to the United States Senate, 29 May 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-16-02-0132. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 16, pp. 156–57.
  6. “[Diary entry: June 3, 1794]” in David Waldstreicher, ed., John Quincy Adams, Diaries 1779-1821 (New York: 2017), 43.
  7. “John Adams to John Quincy Adams, 29 May 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-10-02-0123. Also available in print: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 10, pp. 197–99.
  8. “[Diary entry: June 3, 1794]” in David Waldstreicher, ed., John Quincy Adams, Diaries, 43.
  9. Paul C. Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (New York: 1997), 83–84.
  10. “To John Adams from John Quincy Adams, 4 May 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-1667. Nota Bene: This is an Early Access documentfrom The Adams Papers. It is not an authoritative final version.
  11. “From George Washington to John Adams, 20 August 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-18-02-0369. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 18, pp. 565–66.
  12. “John Adams to John Quincy Adams, 25 August 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-11-02-0009. Also available in print: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, 11, pp. 20–22.]
  13. “From George Washington to John Adams, 20 February 1797,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-00316. Nota Bene: This is an Early Access document from The Papers of George Washington. It is not an authoritative final version.

“To enchain syllables, and to lash the wind”: An Introduction to Style Guides

By Jane Haxby, Copy Editor
October 13, 2017

The first ever Washington Papers style guide. Image provided by author.

When I tell people that I am a copy editor at The Washington Papers, most are horrified: “You edit George Washington?!” When I explain that The Washington Papers is a documentary editing project, they are even more confused: “You make movies?”

Eventually, I get around to describing what I really do. Copyediting is what I imagine most people think of as editing: correcting grammar, syntax, and spelling; clarifying meaning; and checking for consistency of style and formatting. I do not, I promise, change Washington’s words. Our volume editors carefully and accurately transcribe his letters and documents (hence, “documentary editing”) and then annotate them, researching and explaining all references to people, places, and events so that readers can understand what Washington and his correspondents wrote. It is primarily this annotation that I copyedit.

When I arrived at The Washington Papers, my first task was to read through our in-house style guide. Readers may be familiar with the Chicago Manual of Style, or with MLA or AP style. These guides independently address a plethora of questions ranging from how to hyphenate and capitalize, to the correct use of pronouns (yes, Chicago now sanctions the singular “they”1), to how to cite virtually any source imaginable. Many of us were taught that there is only one right way to do these things. I remember learning in grade school that in a list of three or more items, I should not separate the last two with a comma, and that when typing, I should follow every period with two spaces. The latter rule is a relic of the typewriter age and has been superseded, one of many examples of how written (not to mention spoken) language evolves. The former is still followed by some style guides but not by others,2 indicating that language rules are not universal even at any one moment. This is why The Washington Papers has a style guide.

In the few years I have been with The Washington Papers, we have added to our in-house style guide multiple rules that reflect recent discussions specific to our project. One of the challenges and joys of working on a multivolume documentary editing project is that each volume is part of a much larger edition. Once a style decision is made, we include the new rule in our style guide so that volume editors can apply it moving forward. This week, I am fixing what has been a somewhat haphazard approach to historic college names in past volumes—for example, Columbia University was “King’s College” until 1784, when it was renamed “Columbia College.” The fact that we haven’t been consistent in how we refer to this and similar institutions, even on a long-term project with careful scholars, simply shows the slipperiness of language. The question is not merely one of following rules, but of making the rules in order to follow them in the future.

Style guides, as we know them today, began about a century ago. The first Chicago Manual of Style was published in 1906, the same year as Henry Watson Fowler’s The King’s English. Only 20 years later came Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, which, now in its fourth edition, is still a mainstay of writers and publishers.3 These style guides, of course, build on even earlier publications. The author of a 16th-century proto-dictionary introduced his work as an “elementarie which entreateth chefelie of the right writing of our English tung.”4 In 1755, more than a century before the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language. His preface reminds us of the mutability of language even while it introduces his attempt to impose stability on it:

Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify. When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.5

Sadly, neither Johnson’s dictionary nor any style guide can clear the world of folly. But our in-house style guide does serve the larger purpose of documentary editing–conservation–which Johnson is simultaneously celebrating and lamenting the impossibility of here. We publish Washington’s papers to preserve his words and wisdom for any and all to read and use. Our in-house rules, as pedantic as they may sometimes appear, help stabilize our approach, making those words and their annotation as consistent and comprehensible as we “sublunary”6 mortals can make them.



  1. For a discussion of Chicago‘s recommended uses of “they” as a generic singular pronoun, see “CMOS Stop Talk” for April 3, 2017: http://cmosshoptalk.com/2017/04/03/chicago-style-for-the-singular-they/
  2. The absence of this comma can have real-world effects, as a Maine dairy company learned in March 2017. See Daniel Victor, “Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute,” New York Times for March 16, 2017, at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/us/oxford-comma-lawsuit.html?_r=0.
  3. For this edition, see http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199661350.001.0001/acref-9780199661350; for an entertaining review, see Jim Holt, “H. W. Fowler, the King of English,” New York Times Book Review for Dec. 10, 2009, at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/13/books/review/Holt-t.html. For the full 1908 edition, see http://www.bartleby.com/116/101.html.
  4. For the British Library note and images, see http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126632.html.
  5. For the British Library note and images, see http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126707.html. For a transcription of the full preface by Jack Lynch of Rutgers University, see https://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/preface.html.
  6. “Sublunary” literally means “beneath the moon,” or earthly. Johnson used it to connote impermanence, as in the third OED definition, “Characteristic of this world and its concerns; mundane; material; temporal, ephemeral.” The corresponding 1609 example following this OED entry illustrates it even better: “No pompe (how euer glorious) No ioy or pleasure, if sublunarie, But brings sacietie soone with their vse.”


When the Patriots Went to War at Sea

by Dana Stefanelli, Assistant Editor
October 11, 2017

The 18th-century British navy ruled the waves, and George Washington’s Continental forces could not have hoped to win the Revolutionary War against such a power without the help of the French navy. Overshadowed in this narrative are Continental efforts to develop a fleet.

In April 1778, Continental Navy sloop of war Ranger captured British HMS Drake off the coast of Ireland. Image painted by Arthur N. Disney. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command (NH 81541-KN).

A nominal Continental navy was formed in 1775, but privateers sympathetic to the Revolutionary cause proved more effective. Financed by private citizens and authorized by various states, these vessels preyed on vulnerable British ships and distracted imperial officials. The celebrated victory of John Paul Jones in the Bonhomme Richard over the Serapis on Sept. 23, 1779, boosted Continental navy credibility and public morale. Certainly with undue optimism, the Continental government set about building a 74-gun warship, America.  It was not completed, however, until 1782, when the war was winding down.

Early in the war, several states had tried to fill the vacuum by employing their own navies, apart from the privateers they authorized. Advocates for a true Continental navy–among them John Adams of Massachusetts, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, Samuel Chase of Maryland, and William Gadsden of South Carolina–generally represented states with significant sea-trade communities. Delegates from other states saw warship building as a wasteful extravagance, and too risky based on America’s long odds of success at sea.

Adams described a heated congressional debate on Oct. 5, 1775, over whether to send vessels to harass British armed ships. Advocates cited “the great Advantages of distressing the Ennemy, supplying ourselves, and beginning a System of maritime and naval Opperations,” while opponents characterized plans for American warships as “the most wild, visionary mad project that had ever been imagined. . . . an Infant, taking a mad Bull by his horns.”  Ultimately, the delegates set into motion events that would culminate in the establishment of the Continental navy.2

When George Washington had assumed command of Continental forces in July 1775, he stood among those who believed that challenging British maritime supremacy would prove fruitless while draining resources and manpower from the land war. He modified his views after gaining a better sense of the threat the British posed by sea, as well as of the opportunities to disrupt the long British supply lines that ran between Great Britain and the states.  On Oct. 5, 1775, the same day as the congressional debate over sending Continental ships to harass the British, he wrote to John Hancock, then president of Congress, that he had “directed 3 Vessels to be equipped in order to cut off the supplies” and concluded that with “the Number of Vessels hourly arriving it may become an object of some importance” to capture as many British supply ships as possible.3

Just a week later, Washington wrote again to Hancock about his hopes for capturing British ships: “Nothing shall be omitted to secure Success: a fortunate Capture of an Ordnance Ship would give new Life to the Camp, & and an immediate Turn to the Issue of this Campaign.”4 And only 10 days after that optimistic letter, Washington relayed to Hancock the extreme danger of letting British ships go unchallenged, describing British naval actions at Falmouth, Mass., as “an Outrage exceeding in Barbarity & Cruelty every hostile Act practised among civilized Nations.” Washington wrote that this would happen again if not prevented by fortifications and armed vessels: “it appears the same Desolation is meditatd upon all the Towns on the Coast.”5

For these two immediate reasons, then–the promise of captured weapons and other supplies (and the consequent loss of them to the British), and the fears of British attack by sea–Congress and George Washington initiated aggressive naval operations. Challenges to Continental naval efforts remained complex, and I anticipate exploring these complications in later blog posts. Still, it is important to know that even before the French navy’s decisive entry into the war, Continental ships were crucial to the Revolutionary cause.



  1. L. H. Butterfield, et al., eds. The Adams Papers, The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), 3:342–44.
  2. Ibid., 3:343, n. 9. See also note 6 to “From George Washington to Joseph Reed, Jan. 4, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-03-02-0016. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 3:23–27.
  3. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Oct. 5, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0098-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2:98–103.
  4. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Oct. 12, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0140-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2:146–50.
  5. “From George Washington to John Hancock, Oct. 24, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0210-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2:227–28).



Chintz and Revolution

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
October 6, 2017

A chintz appliqued quilt, as made by Mary Malvina Cook Taft (ca. 1835–40). Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Many Colonial Virginians considered unfair British economic practices to be an infringement of their natural rights. The economic grievances of the Virginia planter class eventually became a key motivator for rebellion. As Thomas Jefferson complained in his Summary View of the Rights of British America, Virginians were at the mercy of “the British merchant for whatever he will please to allow us.”1 Jefferson argued that Virginia tobacco “planters were a species of property annexed to certain mercantile houses in London.”2

One might think that Jefferson was exaggerating for the sake of argument, but Martha Washington’s financial papers support his description of Virginia economics. For the brief time (July 1757 to January 1759) that Martha Dandridge Custis managed her deceased first husband’s estate, she conducted business with several British merchants. Her papers illustrate how England profited at the expense of Virginia tobacco planters.

The first thing to understand is that Martha (like most Virginia planters) did not sell tobacco to British merchants, she consigned it. Her London representatives, Robert Cary & Co. and John Hanbury & Co., did not buy her tobacco up front. Instead, they sold it for her at market price, deducted expenses and their own commission, and sent her an account of her profits (if any). Consignment placed more risk on the planter than on the merchant. Apart from deciding which merchant to work with, planters had no control over the price and sale of their tobacco. Martha insisted that her representatives “endeavor to sell them for a good price,” but that was all she could do.3

Understandably, Virginia planters were often worried about what occurred overseas. A frequent complaint was that they would ship a certain weight of tobacco, only for the landwaiters in England to record a dramatically lesser weight. Some loss, from drying, etc., was to be expected, but when one planter’s shipment of tobacco lost 30,893 pounds on the Atlantic crossing, he suspected he was being scammed.4  

Martha, like other tobacco farmers, was responsible for paying the taxes and expenses on her tobacco shipments. In a May 1758 account of sales from John Hanbury & Co., she paid for two Subsidy taxes, Freight, Country Duties, Primage, Entry, Cooperage in and out, Cartage, Brokerage, Shipping Charges, Debenture, Porterage, Wharfage, Lighterage, Postage of Letters, Watching, and, finally, Hanbury’s Commission. After a sale of £386.7.6, Martha earned only £115.3.10 in net proceeds.5 As historian Arthur M. Schlesinger pointed out, the consignment system “resulted in careless and wasteful management on the part of the merchant in England, high commissions and freight rates, and chronic overbuying on the part of the colonist.”6

English merchants also supplied goods to the planters they represented, whom they often referred to as their “Friends.” This was another area in which English profit took precedence over colonial choice. It was illegal for any good to be imported to the colonies “but what shall have been shipped in England, and in English built Shipping, and whereof the Master, and three-fourths of the Mariners are English…”7 In 1758, Martha Custis placed a large order for clothing, sewing supplies, and fabrics, among other items, to Robert Cary & Company. One of her orders, for “Chince” gowns, “Best Indeen [Indian] made,” would actually have been illegal to purchase in England at that time, as Parliament had banned Indian c imports in 1721 in order to protect the English fabric trade.8 Merchants, however, could still sell chintz to the colonies, as long as it shipped from English ports and English merchants received commission.

It is no surprise that an empire would financially exploit its colonies. But for white American colonists used to a degree of privilege as British subjects, their treatment rankled. Virginia tobacco planters lived in apparent luxury, but most were swimming in debt. As one Virginia resident reported to his brother in 1754, “money is so scarce it is a rare thing to see a dollar.”9 If white colonists were truly English, why did they not receive the same financial protections as their countrymen overseas? Many revolutionaries referred to their treatment by Great Britain as “slavery,” which, while a dramatic overstatement, served to rile up revolutionary sentiment in white Virginians determined to keep a distinction between themselves and the 40% of the population that was enslaved. Few historians might turn to the financial documents of Lady Washington to study the causes of the American Revolution, and yet, within her invoices for lace and citron, insights are there to be discovered.



  1. Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1826), 17.
  2. “Additional Queries, with Jefferson’s Answers, [ca. January–February 1786],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-10-02-0001-0003.
  3. Martha Washington to John Hanbury and Co., 20 Dec. 1757, ViHi.
  4. The Report, with the Appendix, from the committee of the House of Commons Appointed to enquire into the Frauds and Abuses in the Customs, to the Prejudice of Trade, and the Diminution of Revenue (London, [1733]), 7.
  5. June 1758 “Accompt of Sales,” John Hanbury to Martha Custis, ViHi.
  6. Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution, 1763-1776 (New York, 1918), 35.
  7. “An Abridgement of Several Acts and Clauses of Acts of Parliament…” (London, [1739]), 28.
  8. Journals of the House of Commons, v. 19 (London, 1803), 493.
  9. George Hume to Jonathan Hume, Aug. 22, 1754, in “Letters of Hume Family,” The William and Mary Quarterly 8 (1899): 89.

Three Degrees to Washington: What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

by Kim Curtis, Research Editor
September 20, 2017

Miniature of Martha Parke Custis, as painted by Charles Willson Peale (1772). Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I flirted with different answers to this ever-present question: teacher, pediatrician, school psychologist, child psychologist. Having earned a BA in psychology (and classics) from the University of Virginia in 2000, I settled on clinical psychologist, with the goal of teaching college students and treating patients. Since this required a PhD, I applied to several highly competitive doctoral programs but was rejected by all of them. What would have happened had I been accepted? For one thing, I would have missed becoming acquainted with George and Martha Washington.

It may seem like a reach for me to say that my psychology background and history, specifically of the founding era, go hand-in-hand. My father paved the way for me. For a graduate seminar in counseling, he wrote a psychoanalytic profile of Thomas Jefferson, in which he suggested that Jefferson’s fraught relationship with his mother led to his architectural fixation with domes! A field of academic scholarship with this approach actually exists: psychobiography analyzes the lives and psyches of historic figures. Psychobiographers Elizabeth Wirth Marvick, Jerome A. Winer, and James William Anderson took a psychoanalytic approach (like my father did) to profile Washington, Jefferson, and James Madison. Marvick, Winer, and Anderson concluded that Madison “most closely follows the model of the angry revolutionary striving to overcome his passivity toward the father and replace him with his own righteous authority.”1

My interest in psychology also stems from my love for biographies. In addition to exploring different kinds of people and the worlds in which they live, biographies bring readers inside the minds of their subjects. When I was about five years old (in the mid-1980s), I checked out my first biography from the local library; it was a children’s biography of Madonna! As an adult, my favorite (auto)biography is Katharine Graham’s Personal History, in which Graham recounts her time as publisher of The Washington Post (unheard of for a woman in the 1960s and 1970s) and the Post‘s game-changing coverage of the Watergate scandal.

My psychology background, along with my interest in people and history, helps me fully engage with The Washington Papers. I connect on a personal level with the individuals who wrote and received the correspondence with which we editors now are entrusted.

For example, a thread that runs throughout Martha Washington’s correspondence is her concern about her family’s well-being, especially the precarious health of her daughter Martha Parke “Patcy” Custis. Martha’s anxiety came to a head in a gut-wrenching letter (written by George on June 20, 1773) that I transcribed for the upcoming Martha Washington Papers project volume. George described Patcy’s death to Martha’s brother-in-law, Burwell Bassett:

It is an easier matter to conceive, than to describe, the distress of this Family; especially that of the unhappy Parent of our Dear Patcy Custis, when I inform you that yesterday removed the Sweet Innocent Girl into a more happy, & peaceful abode than any she has met with, in the afflicted Path she hitherto has trod. She rose from Dinner about four Oclock, in better health and spirits that she appeard to have been in for some time; soon after which she was siezd with one of her usual Fits & expird in it, in less than two Minutes without uttering a Word, a groan, or scarce a Sigh.2

As emotional as this scene is, what really hits home for me is Martha’s reaction, which George recounted in the same letter: “This sudden, and unexpected blow, I scarce need add has almost reduced my poor Wife to the lowest ebb of Misery; which is encreas’d by the absence of her Son…and want of the balmy Consolation of her Relations; which leads me more than ever to wish she could see them.”3

Now that I have a daughter, I can relate even more to Martha as a mother. I can’t begin to imagine what she felt after Patcy’s death. There are some things that even a psychology degree can’t prepare you for.


This blog post is the second of a three-part series, “Three Degrees to Washington,” about how my humanities majors help me at The Washington Papers. Part three will explore my educational background in film. You can read part one, about my classics degree, here.



  1. Elizabeth Wirth Marvick, Jerome A. Winer, and James William Anderson, “Notes Toward a Psychoanalytic Perspective on Three Virginia ‘Founding Fathers,'” Annual of Psychoanalysis 31 (2003): 163.
  2. “To Burwell Bassett from George Washington, June 20, 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-09-02-0185. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series 9: 243-44.
  3. Ibid.