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.”
With the holiday season upon us, it seems appropriate to look back at visitors’ accounts of George and Martha Washington’s Potomac River plantation, Mount Vernon. The Christmas season—stretching from December 24th to January 6th—was widely considered a time to gather with family and friends. As the Washingtons’ estate and reputation grew, visitors came year-round and included not only immediate family and local friends but more distant relatives and strangers with and without letters of introduction.
While the financial records detail Washington’s purchases, and thus his belongings, it is difficult to gain deeper meaning from the records in their raw form. We could look at each document line-by-line—discovering that Washington bought twenty bushels of corn one day in 1790 and then sold four pounds of beef the next—but we do not gain any broad historical insight from such information. In order to see meaningful patterns and trends, we must look at the data as a whole.
More than just a man, George Washington is a symbol of our revolutionary spirit and democratic principles. Lydia Brandt, architectural historian and professor at the University of South Carolina, studies Mount Vernon, his home, to explore whether it holds similarly iconic status. In her new book, titled First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination, Brandt surveys Mount Vernon’s memory in the American imagination. Recently, she sat down with us to reflect on the results of her investigation.
At a time of the year when reflection is unavoidable, I am consistently drawn back to the story of the early years of Mount Vernon’s preservation. To me, this story is a testament to the strength of American determination, and a reminder of the beliefs and qualities that bind us together.
On board BA 217, London to DC. I’m looking forward to speaking tomorrow night in the Gay Hart Gaines Distinguished Visiting Lecturer of American History programme. It’s wonderful to speak for the first time about my book, The Washingtons, at Mount Vernon, where I first conceived the idea of writing about America’s first couple.
Among the special collections owned by the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon are nearly 500 documents written by George Washington. And not surprisingly, there are also some known forgeries, one of which is attributed to Robert Spring, and another of which is likely the work of Joseph Cosey.
Over the centuries, corn has evolved into an important agricultural commodity in the United States. From food production to making ethanol, corn plays a featured role in multiple aspects of today’s world. For Washington, however, corn, specifically Indian corn, became emblematic of the wasteful practices of early American farmers.