Topic: Kathryn Gehred

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.

 

Notes

  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.

“My method of behaviour to my domesticks”: Christianity and Slavery in Elizabeth Foote Washington’s Diary

by Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
May 11, 2017

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.1

Her guidelines for the management of slaves are particularly interesting to a 20th-century reader. Elizabeth Foote Washington and her husband lived together at Mount Vernon for the first four years of their marriage, but in 1784, as they prepared to move into their newly built home,2 she decided to “lay down rules how I would conduct myself in my family—by treating my domesticks with all the friendly kindness that is possible for me to do . . .”

Elizabeth Foote Washington’s diary, as photographed by author. Original manuscript located at the Library of Congress.

Her first rule for managing slaves was to “never find fault of a servant before their master.” She believed if her slaves thought of her as an ally “they may be brought to endeavor to please me—& feel some gratitude towards me for hiding their faults as they will think—I dare say I shall hide many of their faults—”

Next, she determined “If I should have children I will avoid if possible ever finding fault of a servant before them.” This was in order to keep her household “in great peace & quietness” because she was sure that that was “Mr. Washington’s desire,—& that alone would make me endeavour after—if I did not feel a principle of religion in me that causes me to desire it.”

In 1789, nearly five years after writing her guidelines on how to work with slaves, Elizabeth Foote Washington updated her journal with the results of these measures. She determined that “no one could have put the foregoing resolutions more in practice then I have, or taken more pains then I have to perswaid my servants to do their business through a principal of religion—I have frequently told them that it was my most earnest desire that they should do their duty as a servant for their Saviours sake—not for mine.”

This argument did not prove to be the motivating influence that Mrs. Washington hoped it would. While she was proud to report that “our visitors think we have the best of servants, & that I have no trouble,” she confided in her diary, “If our visitors knew how little my servants did they would not think them good—nay there is few would put up with their servants doing so little as mine.” She found it frustrating “to consider how mine has ever been treated they are not such servants as a person would expect—for surely they ought to be the best of servants,—which is not the case.”

Elizabeth Foote Washington imagined that her slaves would be grateful to her for abstaining from “scolding & whipping” and would repay her with obedience. Forced to labor without pay, living under the constant threat of separation from their families, and aware that they were not seen as fully human in the eyes of the law or of white society, the slaves were not grateful for being enslaved.

Three years later, Mrs. Washington wrote in her diary that her slaves “is got so Baptistical in their notions” that they “think they commit a crime to join with me in prayer.” This bothered her, as she considered being a religious guide to her slaves an essential part of her role as housekeeper. Ultimately, she was unable to convince her slaves to return to her church, as they would “go out of the way at the time they are going to be calld to Prayer—it is impossible for them to have it,—& then if they are made to come—they appear quite angry.”

By attempting to coerce her slaves into practicing her faith, Mrs. Washington intruded into one of the few areas of their lives where they had some control: their spirituality.

In January 1796, Elizabeth Foote Washington wrote to “anyone come a cross this Book” that “I strongly suspect my female servants will take every manuscript Book they can lay their hands on, & many of my other religious Books—tho’ it is my intention, if I am in my senses when on my death bed & I should have a friend with me—to warn them of my servants.” She prayed that the Lord “influence the hearts of my servants & cause them to treat me with respect.”

It is rare to find a historic document that gives such an honest and personal description of the relationship between a plantation mistress and the enslaved people under her authority. Mrs. Washington’s paternalistic view of her slaves blinded her to their motivations for rebelling. While severely constrained by their status as possessions, her slaves still managed to maintain control over some aspects of their lives, such as their pace of work and choice of religion. Elizabeth Foote Washington’s diary provides insight into the mindset of a Christian woman slaveowner, and strategies enslaved people used to survive.

Notes

1. Diary of Elizabeth Foote Washington, 1779-1796, Washington Family Collection, Library of Congress.

2. “From George Washington to William Gordon, 20 December 1784,” n.3, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series 2: 196.

What I learned from keeping an eighteenth-century correspondence in the twenty-first century

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
December 22, 2016

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. I also hoped keeping a correspondence would provide me with a glimpse into the culture and practicalities of letter writing in the eighteenth century.

And so, I decided to write a letter every week for about a month to my friend Rachel, hoping this would help me reach a deeper affinity with Martha Washington and her correspondents.

Continue reading

Did George Washington’s false teeth come from his slaves?: A look at the evidence, the responses to that evidence, and the limitations of history

by Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
October 19, 2016

Photo courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Link to original.

Photo courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Link to original.

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.

I get a broad range of reactions to this fact when it comes up in conversation. At one end of the spectrum are those who accept my suggestion: stunned, they imagine George Washington riding around his plantation in search of an unlucky person from the fields, whose teeth he wrenches out. On the other side are those who immediately deny that George Washington would ever have done anything so horrible, and who quickly provide an alternative.

Continue reading

John Custis vs. Martha Dandridge

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
June 16, 2016

I would go to Law the whole Course of my Life; spend the last penny I have in the world rather than I will pay one farthing of your unjust and unreasonable demand; […] you may give me some trouble; and put me to some Charge; but depend on it; where you put me to one penny worth you will put your self to a pound…1

John Custis IV of Williamsburg, the man who wrote that sentence in the mid-1720s, has a reputation among historians of Colonial Virginia for his irascibility, stinginess, and business savvy. (Once, in an attempt to keep his tobacco price up, he argued that the white mold covering it was “a good sign and that Tobacco will keep.”2) 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.

Continue reading

An Enslaved Chef in a “Free” City

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Assistant
April 7, 2016

My last blog post about slavery at Mount Vernon received a boost in readership when it came out around the same time a children’s book about slavery at Mount Vernon was pulled by its publisher. The book was about Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved chef.

With controversy surrounding the book, I thought it would be useful to provide some documentation from the papers of George Washington about Hercules, his life with Washington, and his escape.

Continue reading

“I am determined to lower her Spirit or Skin her Back”

01-15 KG 'I am determined....' - Seamstress [Public Domain - NYPL]

A photograph of a seamstress, circa 1910. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Assistant
January 15, 2016

While transcribing one of Martha Washington’s letters, I was struck by a reference Martha made to an enslaved seamstress named Charlotte.

“she is so indolent that she will doe nothing but what she is told […] if you suffer them to goe on so idele they will in a little time doe nothing but work for them selves[.]”1

Those familiar with the history of slavery will probably know that not working, or working slowly, was a way enslaved people resisted their master’s control. Slaveholders tended to describe that behavior as laziness, and that description has left a stubborn, racist legacy.

Continue reading