The circus is not what usually comes to mind when thinking about George Washington, though it seems Washington was intrigued by it. According to his Presidential Household Financial Accounts, Washington “[paid] for 8 tickets for the Circus” on April 24, 1793. This was the first circus to take place in the United States, and it had debuted only a few weeks prior.
Information on George Washington and slavery rose to a new level with the publication of Mary V. Thompson’s “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, Va., 2019). Unsurprisingly, Thompson frequently refers to William “Billy” Lee, arguably the most famous slave whom Washington owned because of Lee’s service as the general’s valet during the full course of the Revolutionary War. Lee also was the only slave whom Washington freed outright in his will at the time of his death. Research on the discovery and aftermath of Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s treachery for volume 28 in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, revealed an overlooked observation about Billy Lee.
Attached to a page in the first of nearly 300 red-leather-bound, near-atlas-sized folio volumes of the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress (LOC) is a small manuscript that lays bare the foundation of 18th-century power and violence. Unfolded, the manuscript is approximately 7 ¼ by 9 ½ inches, but when folded into thirds, this lightweight rag paper presents as a neat 7- by 3-inch package. The LOC catalog describes the manuscript as a “Genealogy Chart” and dates it to 1753. But this manuscript should actually have three dates, and none of them is 1753. And this manuscript is much more than a “Genealogy Chart.”
One of [Martha’s] responsibilities as manager of the Mount Vernon estate was acting as primary caregiver to family members as well as to enslaved and non-enslaved workers. This emphasis on the physical wellbeing of herself and of those around her influenced Martha’s everyday decisions and interactions.
In my opinion, one of the most interesting stories that began in an earlier volume of the Papers of George Washington is the career of Samuel Birch, a British officer who first appears in volume 20 of the Revolutionary War Series. Birch’s effort to capture Washington was certainly one of the more colorful episodes of the Revolutionary War, but I am also interested in Birch because his career vividly illustrates the many ironies of that complicated conflict.
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.”
When undertaking research, editors of The Papers of George Washington have occasionally discovered intriguing historical connections that are not included in the annotation. In some cases, the information is omitted because connections cannot be definitively tied together and therefore lack sufficient certitude to warrant inclusion.
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.
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.