“Choosing Voices: Challenges of Editing Martha Washington and her Amanuenses”

By Caitlin Conley and Mary Wigge

Martha Washington’s contemporaries admired her as a conversationalist and hostess–not as a correspondent. Nevertheless, her letters center on significant events: the Revolutionary War and the first presidential terms. As documentary editors, we search for her letters, transcribe them, and explain their historical context. Sounds simple, but this is pretty complicated. Like, is it still Martha’s letter if her husband wrote it for her? We have to gather historical clues to navigate the implications of such questions. We know that Martha was a traditional eighteenth-century woman. She always sought supporting, familial roles, even as First Lady.

The letters she writes herself are conversational, domestic, and uniquely punctuated.  Here is a sentence in Martha’s voice: “I am truly sorry to hear that your Brother John has been ill—I hope he will soon be well again—what is the matter with Patty Dandridge her Brother told me soon after I came hear that he heard she was sick—I hope she has got well….”

She relied on men to write letters to people outside of her family.  Here’s a sentence her husband George Washington wrote for her: “It was long before I got rid of my cold, but at present am as well as usual. The General & Nelly Custis enjoy perfect health, and unite with me in wishing you not only the continuance of that blessing but of every other this world affords….” Basically the same subject as the previous example, but written in a very different voice.

Her secretarial needs changed according to her marital status, giving us three periods to study. While all her letters present similar challenges, each section has its own prevalent editorial issue. The first period is after her first husband Daniel Parke Custis’s death and highlights the challenges of identification. The next period stretches from her marriage to George Washington in 1759 to his death in 1799. Here, we grapple with authorial intention. The last period concerns the aftermath of George’s death. In this section, we’ll look at annotation issues.


Before George Washington

We don’t have much information about Martha’s life before marrying George. So, these early documents from 1757 and 1758 are the most difficult to edit.  They’re primarily financial and few of them are in Martha’s handwriting. Plus, there are several versions of each, even receipts and account books. As a result, we have to puzzle out which documents are versions of each other, how the documents fit together as a whole, and who wrote them.

These documents concern the vast business affairs of the Custis estate, which Martha gained total control of after Daniel’s death in 1757. Because he died without leaving a will, Martha became one of Virginia’s wealthiest and most independent women. While she controlled her own business correspondence, Martha apparently delegated much of the Custis estate’s business affairs to others. So, we come now to the challenge of identification. Ideally, we would identify each amanuensis, telling us more about how Martha was running her estate. For instance, we have several letters written by mystery amanuenses between Martha and the London merchants, Robert Cary & Co. and John Hanbury and Co.

We begin with general observations. The letters are not in Martha’s handwriting, nor are they in her voice—though they are in first person, written as if from her point of view. Nowhere on the letters does it say who wrote them. By comparing handwriting, we can tell that there were at least two people acting as Martha’s amanuenses: Writer A and Writer B. For instance, Writer A wrote to each company on August 20, 1757. Writer B wrote to John Hanbury and Co. on December 20, 1757.

 Next, we deduce the version of the letter: is it a draft, is it the copy sent to the recipient? Based on the type of document, we can narrow down the possibilities of the person who wrote it. The 1757 and 1758 letters between Martha and the merchants appear to be drafts. We can tell because many of the lines are crossed out and revised.

We can start with the assumption, then, that men close to Martha and knowledgeable about the Custis estate’s business wrote these drafts. We narrow it down by discovering who was close to her at this time and whose handwriting matches that seen in the letters. It is especially challenging because neither style of handwriting appears in Martha’s body of correspondence again.  The distinctive handwriting demonstrates that the writer was not the lawyer John Mercer, though he was helping Martha with other legal matters.  The spelling shows it wasn’t Joseph Valentine, the Custis estate plantation manager. Possibly James Power was one of the writers; he was close to Daniel and he was Robert Cary’s Virginia attorney. Hopefully we will identify these writers with more research.


Revolutionary, Presidential, and Retirement Era

During her second marriage, Martha had a variety of individuals writing on her behalf, including George. Having identified these writers, this period’s challenge is determining authorial intention. We don’t know how exactly Martha worked with her amanuenses, but she likely wasn’t dictating every word. It seems clear that she was more concerned with a letter’s content than with its style, for these letters are not in her voice.  Indeed, she may have employed amanuenses principally to help with grammar, punctuation, and formal language. Martha nearly always copied drafts verbatim. Thus, as we move along, we need to consider the intentions of those writing the letters for her.

Besides George, Robert Lewis and Tobias Lear were two other amanuenses helping Martha during this period. Robert, George’s nephew, was hired as his secretary in 1789 and stayed on in New York until 1791. Martha also utilized Robert in his secretarial position.

The Robert Lewis letters we’ve found, which are primarily invitations, are in draft form.  In 1789, Lewis began a draft invitation to Abigail Adams; he later crossed it out and used the paper for other purposes – a second note is literally written over it. There are three separate drafts on this one document; it’s strange and needs further review. For now, we can see the draft is in third-person, presenting Martha’s compliments and inviting the Adams family to dinner. Invitations were ornamental and followed a fixed style of writing. Martha delegated these more generic, formulaic letters to her nephew; she relied on George and Tobias for her more personal correspondence.

By the 1790s, George predominantly wrote letters to Martha’s closer circle of friends. Martha relied on him because it was common in eighteenth-century society for husbands to write for their wives. And, after 30 years of marriage, she trusted him.

George was Martha’s most frequent amanuensis at the end of his presidential term in 1797. We have several copies of both George’s drafts and Martha’s sent versions – these letters are fascinating to compare.  Martha’s versions read nearly verbatim to George’s, though she does not always follow his formatting or punctuation. Possibly this was because spelling was open to variation in eighteenth-century private letter-writing: she often resorts to phonetic spelling, such as “satterday” or “agreable” (Scragg, A History of English Spelling, 67-68). These differences could also be due to Martha’s failing eyesight; by 1795, she owned and wore spectacles (Philadelphia Household Account Book, 1793-1797). Her poor sight may explain why she missed George’s punctuation or inserted phrases. We’re still uncertain to what degree either, or both, these conditions affected her copied versions.

In some cases, George and Martha may have shared authorial intention.  Several letters sent to Elizabeth Powel especially demonstrate their mutual friendship and regard. Elizabeth was married to the prominent Samuel Powel of Philadelphia and had corresponded with both George and Martha, individually, for nearly two decades. She was a close friend to the Washingtons outside the family sphere, and very likely, they both wanted to contribute their thoughts to her in one letter. Did Martha delegate these letters entirely to George? Did they converse about the text? As of now, we don’t know.

Let’s look closer at a letter to Elizabeth. Sent on May 20, 1797, it opens with Martha and George’s continued search for a new superintendent of the kitchen and house servants. The phrasing and lack of comments on family suggest that George wrote the text. However, household maintenance fell within Martha’s domain.  The plural “we,” used several times, emphasizes that Martha and George wished to convey both their voices. There are slight differences between the versions.  Whereas George underlines both “always” and “unusual,” Martha only underlines “unusual”; she appears to make a new paragraph where George doesn’t.  In one significant case, George’s abbreviated “commissioners” – written as “Comrs” – transforms to “commissions” in Martha’s version, likely misread due to her poor eyesight.

 Martha’s letter to Sarah Cary Fairfax in 1798 showcases the only time she varies from George’s draft. Near the end, George quickly notes the grandchildren: “[John Parke Custis] left four fine children—three daughters & a son, the two oldest of the former are married and have three children between them all girls. The eldest of the two Elizabeth married Mr Law (a man of fortune from the East Indies) brother to the Bishop of…the other, Martha, married Mr Thos Peter….” Martha follows George’s version verbatim until this section, altering it to: “[John Parke Custis] left four fine children; three daughters and a son, a fine promising youth now. The two eldest of the girls are marred and have children; the second, Patty, marred before her elder sister, she has two fine children boath girls. the eldest, Elizabeth, marred Mr Law a man of fortune from the East Indies and Brother to the Bishop of Carlise. she has a Daugther. Martha marred Mr Thomas Peter….” This short, yet significant, passage depicts Martha’s voice and her desire to discuss her family in greater detail. She addresses Martha Parke Custis Peter by nickname; she points out which granddaughter married first; she mentions which grandchildren already had children. Her version tells us about Martha’s personality and how she cared foremost for her family.


After George Washington

The largest proportion of Martha’s surviving letters comes from the third period. Most are condolence letters for George’s death on December 14, 1799. She received a huge number of these letters, but, in her grief, she could hardly write any responses at all. As a result, family friend and former secretary Tobias Lear wrote them for her. To present their historical context clearly in annotation, we have to examine the relationship between Martha and Tobias, as well as Tobias’s system for handling these letters.

Much of eighteenth-century correspondence was built on templates found in letter-writing manuals. There was a proper way to express sympathy, and a proper way to respond to it. Most people writing to Martha followed these conventions, and Tobias followed them in reply. These conventions would have made it possible for him to write letters on Martha’s behalf without consulting her often; it is our guess that Tobias tried to minimize involving her with correspondence. He handled these letters in four ways. These categories are based on our interpretation of the letters themselves and the few facts that we have–as we continue our research, we hope to refine our understanding.

First, we have letters that Tobias didn’t reply to at all. For instance, state prisoner Stephen Williamson wrote Martha a rambling letter about a dream he had. Tobias noted that the letter was not to be replied to. Though Martha likely never saw letters like this, because she delegated authorial intention to Tobias, we still consider it as part of her correspondence.

Second, we have letters that Tobias did reply to, but likely didn’t show to Martha. These letters are written from Tobias’s perspective and signed with his name. These replies are the most formulaic. He explains that he’s acting on Mrs. Washington’s request; conveys her thanks for the writer’s sympathy; assures them that she is relying on Providence to help her through her grief; and gives his wishes for the writer’s happiness.

Next, there are letters that Tobias apparently did talk about with Martha, although these are also written from Tobias’s perspective and signed by him. Significant variation from his usual formulaic language implies that Martha was involved in the letter. For example, in a March 26, 1800 letter, Peleg Wadsworth requests a lock of George’s hair for his daughter. Lear replies on April 5: “The ardent wish expressed by your daughter—and the earnest desire for its gratification…have induced Mrs. Washington to comply with the request….” It seems likely that Tobias consulted with Martha on this request for two reasons. First, it was an intimate request. Second, Martha’s roles as mother and grandmother were hugely important to her. She would have been powerfully moved by a parent trying to please his daughter.

Lastly, we have the letters that Tobias wrote in first-person as Martha, which Martha copied out and signed. The most important letters she responded to were from Abigail and John Adams. Without overshadowing them, the annotation for these two letters has to reflect the complex entanglement of public and private concerns behind each.

Abigail’s letter is personal–she and Martha had been close since the 1780s.  Martha’s reply to Abigail is less formal than most of the other condolence letters, making it more likely that she was involved with the content. She writes, for instance, “May you long very long enjoy the happiness you now possess, and never know affliction like mine.”  The draft is odd; it’s on a small piece of paper, and the sentences curve at the edge of the page. It isn’t at all Tobias’s usual style, and we’re not convinced it’s in his handwriting. It’s the only condolence reply that Tobias may not have written, and we’ll want to figure out who did. We’ve posited that perhaps Tobias had his own assistants–amanuenses for the amanuensis. Regardless, Martha, as was her custom, copied the draft verbatim.

John’s political letter, on the other hand, traumatized Martha. Acknowledging George’s importance to the mourning nation, he, as the President of the United States, asked that George be buried in the Federal City rather than at Mount Vernon. This request contradicted George’s wishes. Martha agonized over whether to give permission, frightened she wouldn’t be buried next to her husband. She eventually consented, and Tobias drafted her response.  Martha’s letter to John Adams on December 31, 1799 was her most visible political act; newspapers across the country published it. Though it must have been painful, she would have copied out the reply in her own hand because of its personal and political significance.

Occasionally, we publish drafts in the annotation. However, does it serve any purpose to print a draft when the final copy is almost the same? So much of Martha’s correspondence was collaborative that we would not be presenting it authentically if we left out her amanuenses’ work. Likely, we’ll most often acknowledge the existence of a draft and point out significant variation in the annotation, rather than printing the whole thing. Most importantly, though, we must highlight the amanuenses’ significant roles.



After examining the specific challenges of identification, authorial intention, and annotation, we can see that editing amanuenses has some overall themes: determining the level of collaboration that goes into a document; understanding the relationship between the collaborators; and discerning the type of document being created. There’s plenty of room for scholars to explore these issues; there aren’t many sources on editing amanuenses besides introductions to documentary editions. It would be fruitful to start filling in this academic gap.

So, what can we conclude about Martha herself? Looking at how heavily she relied on amanuenses, it’s possible to assume that she wasn’t a confident or intelligent person. However, writing is not the only measure of comprehension or self-determination. For one thing, Martha wasn’t unusual for relying on amanuenses. Dolley Madison, who had severe eye trouble, relied on her niece to write letters by the early 1800s. Abigail Adams also employed an amanuensis, but in a limited sense, using her niece as a secretary to address, docket, endorse letters, and occasionally copy items.

Most significantly, though, Martha spoke more with her actions than with her written words. We’re talking about a woman who spent over half of the Revolutionary War with her husband, braving terrible travel conditions, harsh winters, and diseases. Who supported her husband under public scrutiny through his tumultuous presidency. Who was seen as a pillar of support for the nation throughout her public life and even after her death. As readers and editors, we have to remember that documents only give a glimpse into a person’s life. As we’ve navigated the challenges of editing Martha and her amanuenses, we’ve realized that she showed her true strength and agency by choosing her own voices.



Crane, Elaine Forman. “Gender Consciousness in Editing: The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker.” Text 4 (1988): 375-83. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30234342

“Editorial Note,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0164-0001. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 6, 4 September 1758 – 26 December 1760, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988, pp. 201–209.]

Philadelphia Household Account Book, 1793-1797, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 30, no 1 (1906), pp. 30-56.

Scragg, D.G., A History of English Spelling (Manchester University Press, 1974), 67-68.

“To George Washington from Joseph Valentine, 23 June 1771,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified December 28, 2016, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-08-02-0326. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 8, 24 June 1767 – 25 December 1771, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 480–482.]