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.
Janet Livingston Montgomery demonstrated the traditional gender ideals of the early American republic by educating herself and her surrogate sons; embodying a sentimental view of courtship, marriage, and widowhood; and symbolizing republican virtues.1 In addition, she assumed a more progressive stance by surpassing these conventions, and actively engaging with and influencing the political culture around her.
By working on the Martha Washington volume, I’ve stumbled upon the underrepresented voices of some fascinating 18th-century women. So, I’d like to now introduce (or re-introduce) you to Janet Livingston Montgomery.
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.
One of Martha’s longest correspondences was with Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743–1830), the keen Philadelphia intellectual who was well-read, politically engaged, and a conversationalist par excellence. She would not be considered a natural pairing with the more modest, less educated Martha, but the experiences of marriage and motherhood bound them. From their first known surviving letter in 1780 to Elizabeth’s letter of grief on George Washington’s death in 1799, the two women maintained a friendship for at least two decades. They shared in common a sad reality: death had taken, and would continue to take, their closest family members one by one.
Elizabeth Foote began to keep a diary in 1779, soon after she became engaged to Lund Washingon, George Washington’s cousin. She decided to keep a diary so “that I may remember what was my thoughts at the time of my changing my state.” After her marriage, she used the diary to record a manual of advice on housekeeping, which she intended to leave for her daughters. It survives as a compelling insight into the thoughts and feelings of an 18th-century woman slaveholder.
No former editor has eased my research burdens more than Louise Phelps Kellogg, who built a remarkable career as a historian during the first decades of the twentieth century. Her work informs some of the most consistently challenging letters sent to George Washington: those from Colonel Daniel Brodhead, who commanded the western department from Fort Pitt during the Revolutionary War’s middle years.
No one knew better than Martha that life was fragile. And so, nothing was more important to her than investing in her family and in her religion. In the eighteenth century, Bibles physically united religion and family. Families passed them down for generations, writing births, deaths, and marriages into their pages. Martha, who gave her life to serving God, family, and country, would have cherished her Bible. In fact, nineteenth- and twentieth-century newspaper articles imply that Martha owned more than one.
This fall, I returned to UVA, beginning my second year in the College of Arts and Sciences and at the Washington Papers. Usually, my job around the office is determined on a day-to-day basis: some days I’m combing through newspaper databases, other days researching people on Ancestry.com. This year, however, I had a more substantial project awaiting me.
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.