Topic: Alicia K. Anderson

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.

The Washingtons at Winterthur

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

George Washington and “Columbia” amidst Azaleas. Postcard. 1960s. Courtesy, the Winterthur Library, Winterthur Archives.

As people flock to the historic Delaware estate to view woodland azaleas at the peak of their bloom and the subtler Virginia bluebells tucked away in carpets of white trillium, a recent visit to the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library gave this Washington editor a chance to ponder the collection’s flamboyant treasures and hidden gems in tribute to America’s original First Family.

Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont (1880–1969) had a passion not only for beautiful gardens but also for American decorative and fine arts that resulted in a world-class collection of 90,000 objects, many of which pay homage to George Washington and the Washington family. The collection offers a remarkable window into the 19th-century American culture of memory that made George Washington a national icon in households across the country.1 It also preserves rare items from the life and times of the man himself—and the woman who promoted his legacy.

Perhaps most notable in the collection are the John Trumbull portrait of Washington at Verplanck’s Point, New York, 1782, painted in 1790, and 60 pieces of the “Cincinnati” china service purchased by the Washingtons in 1786 that dwarf even the collection at Mount Vernon.

Courtesy, Winterthur Museum, Portrait, Washington at Verplanck’s Point by John Trumbull, 1790, New York, NY, Gift of Henry Francis du Pont, 1964.2201.

Washington sat at least 14 times for the Verplanck portrait, which Trumbull “intended to present to Mrs. Washington.”2 Martha would hang the painting—one of her favorite likenesses of her husband—in the New Room at Mount Vernon and bequeath it to her granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis Law, from whom it passed through the generations. Eventually, it was purchased by du Pont, who gave it to the museum in 1964.3

The Chinese export porcelain featuring the arms of the Society of the Cincinnati is displayed in Winterthur’s “China Hall” and was originally used by George and Martha at the presidential seats in New York and Philadelphia as well as at Mount Vernon. Part of a 302-piece dinner, breakfast, and tea set, Winterthur’s collection came to the museum in 1928, when du Pont bought it from Martha’s descendant, Mary Custis Lee.4

From object to provenance, the presence of Martha Washington at Winterthur is not to be overshadowed by that of her husband. “I was also much interested to hear about your Martha Washington sewing table,” H. F. du Pont wrote to his dealer Joe Kindig, Jr.5 Behind the scenes, Winterthur’s state-of-the-art conservation department once had the particular challenge of restoring an important Custis estate document from the ravages of mold (following its burial during the Civil War).6

A mourning brooch containing hair from George and Martha Washington is probably one of the most intriguing pieces in the Winterthur collection. Housing braided locks of blonde and salt-and-pepper hair cut by Martha for Elisabeth Stoughton Wolcott in 1797, the piece of jewelry is a tiny casket displaying, quite literally, the couple’s interwovenness.7

A pair of statues in the garden, however—”stove figures” dating to the mid-19th century, to be exact—leaves this editor questioning. The figure of George Washington is clearly identifiable, but the female form to his right is more mysterious. It has been suggested that she is most likely the symbolic figure of Columbia, but—no doubt from the direct pairing—she also has been attributed to Martha Washington.

The confusion lends its subject a delightful charm. Although the image of Martha Washington is hardly as iconic as her husband’s, it is this project’s hope that, with the forthcoming publication of The Papers of Martha Washington, the nation’s first First Lady will assume her rightful place.

Stereocard. May 1938. Courtesy, the Winterthur Library, Winterthur Archives.

With special thanks to the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in Winterthur, Delaware, and to their Assistant Curator of Education, Garden Programs, Erica K. Anderson, the author’s twin sister.

 

Notes

1. Du Pont and Winterthur are featured in Michael G. Kammen’s Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York, 1991).

2. GW’s diary entry for 8 July 1790.

3. Linda Eaton, “Washington, Warhol, and Winterthur: Unexpected Provenance in the Museum Collection,” Sept. 4, 2013.

4. Hilary Seitz, “Presidential Porcelain from Washington to Winterthur,” Jan. 7, 2015.

5. Jay E. Cantor, Winterthur (New York, 1985; new enl. ed., 1997), 150–51.

6. Lois Olcott Price, “Travels through Conservation,” Nov. 20, 2015.

7. Hilary Seitz, “Unveiling the Secrets and Treasures of the Museum,” May 19, 2014.

Success!: Why the Supposed Ship on Which George Washington Sailed to Barbados Is Probably the Right One After All

By Alicia K. Anderson, Research Editor
December 8, 2016

Paul Sandby, View of Carlisle Bay, Barbados, with Ships and Boat, c.1820. Pen and ink drawing. Yale Center for British Art.

Paul Sandby, View of Carlisle Bay, Barbados, with Ships and Boat, c.1820. Pen and ink drawing. Image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art.

William Fairfax, first cousin of Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax, had a son-in-law in the Barbados trade. John Carlyle, a Scottish-born Alexandria merchant, married his daughter Sarah Fairfax in 1747. George Washington was related. Lawrence Washington, his elder half-brother, married Sarah’s sister Ann in 1743. She and her husband resided at Mount Vernon, where George often stayed.

William Fairfax was the superintendent of Lord Fairfax’s estates in Virginia and a powerful landowner in his own right. He resided at Belvoir, only a few miles from Mount Vernon.1 Teenage George Washington frequented the house and found a patron and mentor in Fairfax. Why the invalid Lawrence decided to sail to Barbados in the fall of 1751, and George decided to accompany him, had much to do with the influence of William Fairfax. Fairfax was related by marriage to the eminent Clarke family on the island, with whom the Washington brothers would spend most of their time. It was Fairfax’s connection with Carlyle, however, that likely prompted when and how the Washingtons got to Barbados. He owned a ship, and she was about to set sail.

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The “Epitome of Navigation”: How Lawrence Washington Steered His Brother George

By Alicia K. Anderson, Research Editor
May 27, 2016

Composite image created with Microsoft PowerPoint templates by Alicia K. Anderson. The original portraits of Lawrence (left) and George Washington (right) are courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.

Composite image created with Microsoft PowerPoint templates by Alicia K. Anderson. The original portraits of Lawrence (left) and George Washington (right) are courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Lawrence, George Washington’s elder half-brother by their father’s first marriage, stayed in Barbados that December of 1751. His condition, presumably tuberculosis, was none improved from their seven-week stay on the island, and he was determined to get better—if not in Barbados, then in Bermuda.1 George, his travel companion, had to get home. A new year’s surveying season was about to begin.2 He also had an important acquaintance to meet: the newly arrived governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, who, within the year (just months following Lawrence’s death in July 1752), would appoint George adjutant for the colony’s southern district with the rank of major.3

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George Washington at the Battle of Princeton

Civil War?: The American Revolution through Multiple Lenses

March 23, 2016

George Washington at the Battle of Princeton

George Washington at the Battle of Princeton New Jersey, 1777.

Over the weekend, several of our editors and staff attended the fifth annual Conference of the American Revolution, hosted by America’s History, LLC in Williamsburg, where Director Edward G. Lengel gave a presentation on the Battle of Germantown.

Other leading historians lectured on topics ranging from Washington to Benedict Arnold, Concord to Pensacola, and local preservation to global context. Interestingly, a number of scholars of the American Civil War, drawn to the colonial conflict and its aftermath, were in attendance.

For another account of how the Civil War inspired perceptions of the American Revolution, see Research Editor Kim Curtis’s recent article on D. W. Griffith’s film America in light of his better-known Birth of a Nation.

“To Set the Captives Free”: Christianity and Slavery in George Washington’s Youth

Alicia K. Anderson, Research Editor
March 11, 2016

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”1

"Sanctuary at Sea's Edge." St. Joseph's Parish Church, Barbados. Photo by Kaspar Coward, used with permission.

“Sanctuary at Sea’s Edge.” St. Joseph’s Parish Church, Barbados. Photo by Kaspar Coward, used with permission. Link to source.

Perhaps the two most controversial aspects of modern Washington scholarship are the question of his Christian faith and the undeniable fact of his ownership of human beings. The first has been the object of heated argument for a century (when it is not overlooked entirely or de-emphasized by modern studies), though historians of the 19th century rarely questioned its centrality in George Washington’s life.2 Slavery, on the other hand, is the skeleton in the closet: a matter of fact that is difficult to accept and understand.3 I would argue that these dilemmas are a double-edged sword, forged by the paradoxical relationship between the two institutions of religion and slavery (and specifically between Christian doctrine and the practice of 18th-century Anglicanism). Moreover, their foundation in the spiritual realm—the salvation and liberty of souls, not just of bodies—further marginalizes their dynamic relationship as a topic of academic scrutiny.

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The Flight of the Navigator: Charting the Course of George Washington’s Voyage to Barbados

By Alicia K. Anderson, Research Editor
December 11, 2015

Weathervane atop the house at Mount Vernon. Photograph by author, November 2015.

Weathervane atop the house at Mount Vernon. Photograph by author, November 2015.

“…hard gales of Wind at SSE and wavering with clear & pleasant Weather….handed the Sprit Sail & flying Jib” 1

Perhaps it’s not too much to say that editors live for those moments when all the pieces come together and the proverbial mental light bulb goes off.

Not long ago when I was examining digital images of the Barbados diary one more time from my laptop at home (this intriguing diary exerts its pull even beyond office hours), I experienced just such an “aha!” moment. A detail long overlooked in the manuscript, so tiny it hardly merited notice, suddenly spoke volumes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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