Fresh off I-81, I arrived at the University of Virginia in my Virginia Tech sweatshirt. You could say I stood out. But no matter: I was welcomed into the Washington Papers family as if I were one of their own, not just as an undergraduate who would be there for several weeks, but as another historian and aspiring archivist.
After a difficult spring semester, I returned home from the University of Virginia to visit my family, exchanging the stirring smell of coffee from Alderman Library for the welcoming aroma of authentic Vietnamese food. Being home is always a welcome, much-needed break. My productivity level plummets, and my motivation to look presentable disappears. I constantly find myself wearing pajama pants and T-shirts, and I usually think my fashion choices are fine. Being home is a break from the necessity to appear “put-together”…or so I thought.
Sometimes I’ll go stand in front of our shelves of Martha Washington documents and give them a calculating look-over. Each decade has its own shelf, from the 1750s to the 1800s. The 1790s and 1800s bulge with the most envelopes, and get a contented nod. The 1750s get a narrow look because we don’t yet have anything earlier than 1757. That’s 27 years of Martha’s life that have escaped, for the most part, from the documentary record.
For the past few months, I’ve been searching for Martha Washington documents that have been printed or referred to in newspapers. So far as I have seen, only once in the years between her life and the present day has there been a press furor over Martha. The key players included a Civil War brigadier general, finance giant J. P. Morgan, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the state of Virginia, and the United States Supreme Court. The time frame: the Civil War and World War I.
The object of contention? Martha’s will.
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[.]”
Martha Washington’s “Great Cake” recipe is a sweet document, written in a careful hand by her granddaughter on a piece of folded scrap paper. Its instructions are incredible to the 21st century eye. It asks for forty eggs, four pounds each of sugar and butter, five pounds of fruit and flour, a pint of wine, an ounce of nutmeg and mace, and plenty of French brandy.
Near the end of her life, Martha Washington described her most painful experience—aside from the death of her iconic husband—as being the day Thomas Jefferson came calling at Mount Vernon, ostensibly to pay his respects. Martha’s expression of distaste for the newly elected third president was both political and personal, and it hints at posterity’s loss when she burned nearly all of her correspondence with her husband upon his passing. Yet a substantial body of Martha’s general correspondence survives and is soon to be published in two annotated volumes.