In celebration of our 50th anniversary, The Washington Papers is hosting two events on Friday, February 1, with both events scheduled from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM: an open house of our offices and a special exhibition of Washington-related materials.
Wealth bought Patsy many luxuries: fine clothes and jewelry, a harpsicord and dancing lessons, excursions to Williamsburg, a pet parrot, and other pleasant things. It could not buy her good health, however. From a very early age, Patsy was afflicted with epilepsy. As she entered adolescence, the disease began to grow ominously worse, much to the distress of her family.
Established in 2015 and funded by Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the Martha Washington Papers and Washington Family Papers projects present a more inclusive view than what’s often shown in history textbooks. My fellow project editors and I hope we can contribute to the study of women’s history and of 18th- and 19th-century history in general.
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.
Martha Washington shared the more personal facets of her life in letters to only a handful of close family members—often in one long run-on sentence. In 1794, Martha had no surviving children and corresponded with her niece Frances “Fanny” Bassett Washington often with news, advice, demands (disguised as advice), and opinions. These letters between Martha and Fanny are a treasure trove of historical tidbits, perfect for additional research.
In a blog post from February 2016, I reviewed interpretations of George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, and found them to fall into two camps: either simplistically laudatory or bitingly critical. Moreover, neither side found evidence of a close relationship between mother and son. For sure, the documentary record contains few letters between Mary and George, and references to Mary in her famous son’s voluminous surviving correspondence are exceedingly scattered.
On Wednesday, April 24, 1793, George and Martha Washington responded to an invitation from Samuel and Elizabeth Powel. Their letter read, “Mrs Washington is so much indisposed with a cold as to make her fear encreasing it by going to the Circus this afternoon. The President & rest of the family propose to be Spectators at the exhibition of Mr Rickets.” Martha’s indisposition, however, came at an unfortunate time, as it prevented her from attending a key moment in American entertainment history—the introduction of the modern circus.
John Custis IV of Williamsburg has a reputation among historians of Colonial Virginia for his irascibility, stinginess, and business savvy. 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.
It appears that, even at the tender age of 19, George Washington was ready to take on the world. He had been under the wing of his paternalistic brother Lawrence for years, and it was clear (from the latter’s health) that he would not be for much longer. George had journeyed to Barbados that autumn under his brother’s watchful eye and had even finished a course of study of navigation by shadowing the captain and crew of the outbound vessel (which still remains unidentified, despite prior claims). His travel diary offers an impressive glimpse into the voyage through a detailed sea log, complete with latitudes and longitudes determined by observation and dead reckoning. Interestingly, it is George’s very curiosity and insight into the art of navigation that reveal a closer tie between the brothers than previously assumed.
My trip to Fredericksburg, Virginia, in November 2015 to see George Washington’s boyhood home at what is now known as Ferry Farm also allowed me to visit the house in town where George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, lived the final 17 years of her life. Born in 1708, married to the widower Augustine Washington in 1731, and widowed in 1743, Mary Washington never remarried. Until pressured to change by her children, Mary Washington managed Ferry Farm on her own with the help of slaves. Apparently reluctant to move from the farm, she grudgingly agreed only at George’s insistence.