The Correspondence of George and Martha Washington

By Wendy Kail


It is believed that after George Washington’s death in 1799, his wife destroyed their personal correspondence possibly according to an understanding between them. In her will of September 22, 1800, Martha Washington bequeathed to her granddaughter, Martha Custis Peter of Tudor Place, a writing table. [1] Peter family legend states that at some unspecified date, in this writing table two letters from George Washington to his wife that had accidentally escaped destruction were found. These letters, and a third discovered later at another location, constitute the bulk of the known correspondence from George to Martha Washington. [2]

One of the letters found in the desk at Tudor Place was written by Washington to his wife announcing that he was to be commander and chief of the army of the United Colonies. In this letter Washington doubts his own abilities to execute such a charge, and displays personal misgivings and signs of affection that are rare in the vast Washington correspondence that has been collected to date.

Washington wrote from Philadelphia to Martha Washington on June 18, 1775. Little is known of his activities that day, for his diary entry is characteristically brief: “Dined at Mullen’s upon Schoolkill. Spent the Evening at my lodgings.” [3] But despite the fact that all his diary entries for that week note only where he dined and spent his evenings, he—and the country—had passed a momentous week.

The second General Congress had assembled in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. The first president of the Congress, Peyton Randolph of Virginia, had to relinquish his office, and John Hancock of Massachusetts replaced him. Although their patience had worn thin, several of the assembled patriots still felt a lingering loyalty to the mother country, and many, including George Washington, hoped that a reconciliation could still be reached. A petition to the king was drafted, but even as it carried Congress began to exercise the powers of a sovereign authority. Each colony ordered the enlistment of troops, the construction of forts, the gathering of arms and ammunition, and authorized money to be printed to the amount of three million dollars carrying the brazen inscription of “The United Colonies.” [4]

The poor state of the army in New England was discussed. Unless this army received assistance from Congress, it would dissolve and there would be no defense against the powerful and well-trained English troops. Each member of Congress knew of Washington’s military talent showcased by his experience in the French and Indian War. He was in fact chairman of all the committees established by Congress for military affairs, and had even devised the rules and regulations for the current existing army. He was the only member of Congress who actually wore his military uniform to meetings, and he wore it as naturally as his air of stoic calm. [5] Besides his military experience, he was known for his solid judgment, a steady temper, a dignified and fine deportment, and an independent fortune. Most importantly, he inspired confidence. [6]

However, sectionalism reared its head. The southern faction resented the idea of a New England army commanded by a New Englander. John Adams of Massachusetts noted in his diary, “the intention was very visible to me that Colonel Washington was their object, and so many of our staunchest men were in the plan that we could carry nothing without conceding to it.” [7] Adams added that animated discussion continued, and saw that this was a point of impasse. Finally Adams rose and boldly suggested that Congress consider, “. . . a gentleman from Virginia who was among us and very well known to all of us.” [8]

According to legend, when Washington heard these words spoken, he modestly left the room. Further discussion ensued regarding the position of commander in chief; delegates from New England pressed for General Artemas Ward, and John Adams observed from the resentful expression on his face that John Hancock himself had had hopes in that direction. But Adams and his friends lobbied hard, and succeeded in quieting the voices of dissent. On June 15 the army in Boston was officially adopted by the Congress, and named the Continental Army to oppose the Ministerial Army under the command of the British General Gage. Thomas Johnson of Maryland nominated George Washington to be commander in chief of the newly adopted army, and the election by ballot was unanimous.

On June 16 the result of the election was officially announced. Washington stood and declared his complete devotion to the cause of independence, but cautioned, “. . . lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room, that I this day declare, with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.” [9] Washington also declined at this moment to accept any payment in his new capacity from the government, other than to cover his expenses as commander in chief, for “. . . no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to accept this arduous employment at the expense of my domestic happiness.” [10] John Adams observed, “There is something charming to me in the conduct of Washington, a gentleman of one of the first fortunes upon the continent, leaving his delicious retirement, his family and friends, sacrificing his ease and hazarding all in the cause of his country. His views are noble and disinterested.”

His domestic ease and happiness centered on his wife, Martha, who resided at their estate Mount Vernon on the Potomac River. According to Martha’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis, the General wore a miniature of his wife around his neck suspended from a gold chain for all the years of his marriage. [11] The letter of June 18, 1775 contains two tightly woven threads of thought. The first is Washington’s anxiety at leaving his wife alone. As in all his correspondence, Washington was fair and direct. He told her that he wrote “on a subject which fills me with inexpressible concern—and this concern is greatly aggravated and Increased when I reflect on the uneasiness I know it will give you .” [12] He assured her that he had not sought the appointment “not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the Family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my Capacity.” He added that he would enjoy more happiness with her at home than he could ever have elsewhere. Washington knew that he would feel “no pain from the Toil, or the danger of the Campaign”—for the legend that he was invincible had its roots as far back as his early days as a leader in the French and Indian War—but his unhappiness grew from the distress Martha would experience by his absence. He instructed her to call on her “whole fortitude & Resolution.” He suggested she might move into Alexandria, or visit friends, and hoped that she would she would obtain “a tolerable degree of Tranquility.” at the appointment he could not avoid.

The second thread of the letter tells Martha exactly what her husband told the Congress, that he was overcome by “a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my Capacity.” But Washington also believed that it had been a “kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this Service, I shall hope that my undertaking of it, is designd to answer some good purpose.” Washington was apprehensive, but it was out of his power to refuse this honor without exposing his character to censor and casting dishonor on him. This, he knew, “could not, & ought not to be pleasing to you, & must have lessend me considerably in my own esteem.” Washington’s concern with his honor has been well documented throughout his long and far-reaching career, and his interest in it exceeds even that of the average eighteenth century gentleman.

After he firmly established that he had to accept the double edged sword of command, Washington returned to the role of husband. He included with the letter a will drafted for him by his friend Col. Edmund Pendleton. [13] Washington noted that he had more letters to write, but he asked specifically to be remembered to Milly, a young neighbor who spent much time at Mount Vernon and had been the playmate of Martha’s daughter, and all friends. [14] He assured his “dear Patcy,” his familiar address to his wife, of his “unfeigned regard.” Then in a postscript he added that he had bought “two suits” of “the prettiest Muslin.—I wish it may please you.” In typical fashion he included the cost of the material: 50 shillings, or 2-1/2 Pounds per suit. A Washington domestic account book in the Library of Congress confirms postage to Mrs. Washington on June 20, 1775, at 2 shillings, 4 pence, [2/4] for a letter, and notes that Washington spent 5 Pounds “By Cash for 2 Suits Muslin.” [15]

On June 19 Washington’s commission was drawn up as General Commander; on June 20 he received it signed by John Hancock. That same day he wrote his brother John Augustine Washington, “I am embarked on a wide ocean, boundless in its prospect, and in which, perhaps, no safe harbor is to be found.” [16] He left Philadelphia on June 23, accompanied by Generals Henry Lee and Philip Schuyler. He stopped briefly in New York, and then rode to Cambridge to the headquarters of the newly formed Continental Army. Legend tells us en route he was informed of the victory of the British at Bunker Hill. He greatly regretted the American loss, but was inspired by the gallant conduct of his men against such overwhelming odds. He knew they would seek revenge, and that the goals of the country were now secure. [17] In the letter of June 18 at Tudor Place, Washington told his wife that he would return safely to her in the fall. He was mistaken. But for one very brief visit, he did not return to her and Mount Vernon for six years.


Notes

1. John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Last Will and Testament of George Washington and Schedule of his Property to which is appended the Last Will and Testament of Martha Washington. Mount Vernon, Virginia: The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, 1992. Revised, 6th ed., 57. [back]

2. Email: Karen Eberhart, Assistant Manuscripts Curator of the Rhode Island Historical Society Library, to Wendy Kail, Archivist, Tudor Place Historic House and Garden, Feb. 11, 2004. [back]

3. John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Diaries of George Washington 1748-1799, Volume II (1771-1785). Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925, 199 and fn. 3. Fitzpatrick identifies “Mullen’s” as Peg Mullen’s Beefsteak House, located at Water Street and Wilcox Alley. [back]

4. Washington Irving, George Washington: A Biography. Abridged and edited by Charles Neider. Da Capo Press, Inc.: Cambridge, Mass., 1994, 165-166. [back]

5. David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2004, 16. [back]

6. John Marshall, The Life of George Washington, Commander in Chief of the American Forces. Volume II. Fredericksburg, Virginia: The Citizen’s Guild of Washington’s Boyhood Home, 1926, 53-54. [back]

7. Irving, 167. [back]

8. Ibid. [back]

9. Irving, 168. [back]

10. Irving, 168-169. [back]

11. G. W. Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington. Washington, D.C.: William H. Moore, 1859, 10. [back]

12. Tudor Place Historic House and Garden, Tudor Place Archives, George Washington to Martha Washington, Philadelphia, June 18, 1775. [back]

13. This will has not been found. Edmund Pendleton (1721-1803) served as Washington’s legal advisor and friend. See Joseph E. Fields, compiler, “Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994, 161, fn. 4. See also Fitzpatrick, The Last Will and Testament, page vii: “There were two Wills existent when Washington was stricken with his fatal illness, and it is possible that one of these was the Will made in Philadelphia in the year 1775, just before the General started for Cambridge to take command of the Continental Army; but we have small grounds of surmise as to the provisions of the destroyed instrument or the date of its making.” Fitzpatrick says that according to Tobias Lear, Washington instructed Mrs. Washington to destroy one of two wills, which she did at his command. [back]

14. Ibid., fn.6. Milly was Amelia Posey, the daughter of John Posey and his wife Martha Price Posey. [back]

15. Thanks to Frank E. Grizzard, Jr., Senior Associate Editor, Papers of George Washington, University of Virginia, for this reference. [back]

16. Irving, 170-171. [back]

17. Charles H. Callahan, Washington: The Man and the Mason. Washington, D.C.: National Capital Press, Inc., 1913, 111. [back]

Bibliography

Callahan, Charles H. Washington: The Man and the Mason. (Washington, D.C., 1913).

Custis, G. W. Parke. Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington. (Washington, D.C., 1859).

Fields, Joseph E., comp. “Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington. (Westport, Connecticut, 1994).

Fischer, David Hackett. Washington’s Crossing. (Oxford and New York, 2004).

Fitzpatrick, John C., ed. The Last Will and Testament of George Washington and Schedule of his Property to which is appended the Last Will and Testament of Martha Washington. (Mount Vernon, Virginia, 1939; 1992, revised 6th ed.).

Fitzpatrick, John C., ed. The Diaries of George Washington 1748-1799. Volume II 1771-1785. (Boston and New York, 1925).

Irving, Washington. George Washington: A Biography. Abridged and edited by Charles Neider. (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1994).

Marshall, John. The Life of George Washington, Commander and Chief of the American Forces. Volume II. (Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1926).

Manuscripts

Tudor Place Historic House and Garden, Archives: George Washington to Martha Washington, June 18, 1777.

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