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.
Last month, my husband, our 3-year-old daughter, and I took a road trip through sections of the Washington Heritage Trail, which goes through Berkeley, Jefferson, and Morgan counties in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. This region is steeped in history not only related to the railroad, the Civil War, and John Brown’s raid but also (and more importantly to me) to the Washington family. The Washingtons, especially George and his younger brother Charles, seem to be everywhere, from family homes and gravesites to street names and tourist spots.
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.”
If it were not for Martha’s handwritten statement of medical costs for the summer of 1757, we would know little about the state of her household leading up to and immediately following her first husband’s death. Financial papers—that general term for documents such as bills and pay orders, receipts and receipted bills, invoices and inventories, statements of account, bills of lading and exchange, accounts of sales, memoranda, and estate settlement papers—are rich with detailed information. Almost one-third of the 600 Martha Washington documents that The Washington Family Papers project has assembled since its inception in 2015 are financial in nature, whether authored by, addressed to, or written about her.
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.
The final five-and-a-half months of George Washington’s presidency, which will be chronicled in Presidential Series vol. 21 of the Papers of George Washington, were devoted to domestic and foreign relations issues that involved, among other things, Indian affairs, construction progress on the U.S. Capitol, heightened tensions between France and the United States, and diplomatic relations with the Barbary powers. Nevertheless, private letters to family and friends, containing moral and educational advice as well as words of comfort and empathy, still abounded in Washington’s correspondence as he approached the end of his political career.
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.
These special materials, which we refer to as addendum and omitted materials, total in the hundreds. A large fraction concerns items intentionally omitted by editors, but others—nearly 100—are documents previously believed to be lost. We plan to publish all the addendum and omitted items in a separate volume on our digital edition in order to make the Papers of George Washington as comprehensive as possible.
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.