George Washington has loomed large in my professional life, even though I only joined The Washington Papers’ full-time staff in 2017. This is because my work as an editorial assistant during graduate school on Presidential Series volumes 13 and 14 led me to my dissertation topic. One of Washington’s last great projects was founding the city named in his honor: the capital of the United States, Washington, D.C.
Established in 2015 and funded by Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the Martha Washington Papers and Washington Family Papers projects present a more inclusive view than what’s often shown in history textbooks. My fellow project editors and I hope we can contribute to the study of women’s history and of 18th- and 19th-century history in general.
In a proposal dated Oct. 18, 1966, Van Shreeven called for the publication of a comprehensive edition of the papers of George Washington. Not only was there a need for this sort of project (previous editions contained only Washington’s outgoing correspondence or selected incoming letters), but the American Revolutionary War Bicentennial promised interest and a favorable funding environment.
In early February 1780, Gen. George Washington’s main army was encamped at Jockey Hollow, New Jersey. But the general maintained his headquarters about three miles away in Morristown, N.J., at the house of the widow Theodosia Ford. That separation from the main army enticed the British high command into undertaking an operation that, if successful, would cripple the Continental army and demoralize the Patriot cause: the capture of Washington.
Abraham Woodhull (alias Samuel Culper), a farmer and Patriot spy on British-controlled Long Island, wrote Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (alias John Bolton) a letter from Setauket, N.Y., on August 16, 1780 that is in the Papers of George Washington at the Library of Congress. Although the editors at The Papers of George Washington do not know precisely when George Washington received that letter, we can make a reasoned guess.
During the tense years leading up to the Civil War, Robert E. Lee found himself under the close scrutiny of a group of abolitionists (who his wife described as “fanatical,” “unprincipled & cruel”). Lee’s marriage to Mary Custis, daughter of Martha Washington’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis, came with public visibility and certain expectations. People who Lee had never met demanded that he live up to the precedent set by George Washington and free his slaves.
Last month, my family and I took a day trip to Virginia Beach. On the way home, we stopped by the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. This visit to the museum (our first) was particularly special: we had the privilege of receiving a tour from Dr. Thomas E. Davidson, a senior curator, who retired from the museum at the end of July.
Martha Washington shared the more personal facets of her life in letters to only a handful of close family members—often in one long run-on sentence. In 1794, Martha had no surviving children and corresponded with her niece Frances “Fanny” Bassett Washington often with news, advice, demands (disguised as advice), and opinions. These letters between Martha and Fanny are a treasure trove of historical tidbits, perfect for additional research.
Massachusetts congressman Fisher Ames performed an important political service for President George Washington on April 28, 1796. On that date, Ames gave a speech that impelled a divided House of Representatives to enact, by a 51–48 vote on April 30, the provisions necessary to implement the contentious Jay Treaty.
I continue my survey of Washington’s relations with the state governors, but in this post, I will focus on his relations with local civil authorities. One of the best examples of Washington’s diplomacy and the positive response of civil authorities is the army’s gathering of provisions in New Jersey during the winter of 1780. In a circular letter to the states, the general set out the nature of the crisis: “The situation of the Army with respect to supplies is beyond description alarming.” He asked for “extraordinary exertions” and requested “vigorous interposition of the State.”