An advertisement on Mount Vernon’s website states that “No method of transportation to Mount Vernon was more popular during the 19th century than riverboat cruises.” Even today, Spirit of Mount Vernon excursion vessels transport thousands of visitors to George Washington’s home each year. There was a time, however, when visiting Mount Vernon by water was not so welcome.
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.
This summer, the University of Virginia Press published George Washington’s Barbados Diary, an edition of the journal and ship log kept by Washington during his only trip abroad. Publication of the diary concludes more than two years of work conducted by assistant editors Lynn A. Price and Alicia K. Anderson. It is also the first complete edition of the obscure text in 126 years.
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.
As people flock to the historic Delaware estate to view woodland azaleas at the peak of their bloom and the subtler Virginia bluebells tucked away in carpets of white trillium, a recent visit to the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library gave this Washington editor a chance to ponder the collection’s flamboyant treasures and hidden gems in tribute to America’s original First Family.
William Fairfax was the superintendent of Lord Fairfax’s estates in Virginia and a powerful landowner in his own right. He resided at Belvoir, only a few miles from Mount Vernon. Teenage George Washington frequented the house and found a patron and mentor in Fairfax. Why the invalid Lawrence decided to sail to Barbados in the fall of 1751, and George decided to accompany him, had much to do with the influence of William Fairfax. Fairfax was related by marriage to the eminent Clarke family on the island, with whom the Washington brothers would spend most of their time. It was Fairfax’s connection with Carlyle, however, that likely prompted when and how the Washingtons got to Barbados. He owned a ship, and she was about to set sail.
The First American primarily focused on Washington’s role in the Revolutionary War, encouraging reflection on Washington’s extraordinary persistence in fighting and leading despite hardships and failures. But it was one specific instance that provoked my deeper appreciation for Washington as a leader who could balance noble ideals and everyday practicality.
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.
Last month, my colleagues Lynn Price and Edward G. Lengel and I had the amazing opportunity to visit Barbados, where George Washington traveled—and had the foresight to write about—more than two-and-half centuries ago.
Perhaps the two most controversial aspects of modern Washington scholarship are the question of his Christian faith and the undeniable fact of his ownership of human beings. I would argue that these dilemmas are a double-edged sword, forged by the paradoxical relationship between the two institutions of religion and slavery (and specifically between Christian doctrine and the practice of 18th-century Anglicanism).