I hear a lot of myths surrounding the Washingtons since I have the honor of portraying Martha Washington for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the opportunity to bring her story to life every day through first-person interpretation. It’s a job I cherish, partly because it has led me to meet many wonderful people who are dedicated to telling the Washingtons’ story with truth and passion like the good people at The Washington Papers.
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 […]
Martha Washington died on Saturday, May 22, 1802. She outlived two husbands, her four biological children, several siblings, her favorite niece, and many friends. Unsurprisingly, the editors of the forthcoming volume of Martha’s correspondence have discovered one theme that has continually appeared—concern for loved ones’ health and her subsequent advice. Martha was never far-removed from loss.
It’s a rare thing when you meet an extant 18th-century gown and know who wore it. Rarer still, when the wearer was Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. I recently had the honor of examining one of Martha Washington’s three known, intact, surviving gowns, which was generously loaned to George Washington’s Mount Vernon by the New Hampshire Historical Society (NHHS) for viewing and study.
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.”
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.
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.
No one knew better than Martha that life was fragile. And so, nothing was more important to her than investing in her family and in her religion. In the eighteenth century, Bibles physically united religion and family. Families passed them down for generations, writing births, deaths, and marriages into their pages. Martha, who gave her life to serving God, family, and country, would have cherished her Bible. In fact, nineteenth- and twentieth-century newspaper articles imply that Martha owned more than one.
During my search for documents and letters relating to Martha Washington, I’ve stumbled upon numerous interesting articles. One of the most attention-grabbing pieces was a short recipe for “lettis tart.” To begin, I had to wonder – what exactly is “lettis”? I assumed it simply was “lettuce” misspelled, but when I googled “lettis” to confirm my hunch, I found a blog post about a modern attempt at the recipe. It identified “lettis” as iceberg lettuce. Though a little research suggests that iceberg didn’t exist in Martha’s time, the post was all I had to go on, and by this time curiosity had gotten the best of me, so I added the ingredients to my grocery list.