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.
None of Martha Washington’s writings implies that she held any moral opposition to the institution of slavery. As late as 1795 she wrote to her niece, who was upset that a young enslaved child had died, “Black children are liable to so many accidents and complaints—that one is heardly sure of keeping them—I hope you will not find in him much Loss—the Blacks are so bad in thair nature that they have not the least Gratatude for the kindness that may be shewed to them.”
By Kathryn Gehred, Research Editor May 18, 2018 Towards the end of her life, Martha Washington harbored no warm feelings for Thomas Jefferson. A guest at Mount Vernon in 1802 wrote that “she spoke of the election of Mr. Jefferson, whom she considered as one of the most detestable of […]
In 1783, Congress passed an arguably frivolous resolution to construct a large copper equestrian statue of George Washington in the as-yet-unplanned federal city. Progress on the resolution was slow; more pressing issues (writing a constitution, for one) faced the young nation. But while a statue of Washington may not have been first priority, Congress largely agreed that symbolism and statuary serve an important role in nation-building. As founders such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton tenaciously fought for their separate visions of the United States to take shape, it became clear that the location, design, and artist designated for the George Washington sculpture required careful thought.
In April 1781, about six months before the American victory at Yorktown, an opportunity for a different kind of liberty arose for Deborah, an enslaved 16-year-old at Mount Vernon. A fleet of British “plundering vessels” had appeared in the Potomac, burning homes and destroying property as they advanced. The Savage, a sloop of war commanded by Captain Thomas Graves, approached within a quarter mile of the home of the Continental Army’s commander in chief. Deborah saw an opportunity to join the British and gain her freedom.
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.” Jefferson argued that Virginia tobacco “planters were a species of property annexed to certain mercantile houses in London.”
Elizabeth Foote began to keep a diary in 1779, soon after she became engaged to Lund Washingon, George Washington’s cousin. She decided to keep a diary so “that I may remember what was my thoughts at the time of my changing my state.” After her marriage, she used the diary to record a manual of advice on housekeeping, which she intended to leave for her daughters. It survives as a compelling insight into the thoughts and feelings of an 18th-century woman slaveholder.
I understand that to many of our readers, the idea of writing handwritten letters to a friend is not so much a fun challenge as it is a (very recently) outmoded form of communication. But as someone who grew up in the computer age and spends most of her work hours reading and transcribing Martha Washington’s letters, I was inspired to write some of my own.
George Washington’s false teeth were not wooden, as you may have heard. They were actually made from a variety of materials, including human teeth. According to the accounting record in Mount Vernon’s Ledger Book B, the teeth may have been pulled from Washington’s slaves.
John Custis IV of Williamsburg has a reputation among historians of Colonial Virginia for his irascibility, stinginess, and business savvy. So, it was only natural that Custis viewed anyone who wanted to marry into his family as a potential “gold-digger.” The fact that Martha Dandridge (later Martha Custis, finally Martha Washington) was able to talk her way into the Custis family is something of a miracle.