Letters reveal a great deal about the sender and recipient—their relationship, their opinions on particular matters—as well as overall historical context. Condolence letters do that and more. George Washington’s death resulted in a deluge of condolences to Martha, from family members, friends, organizations, acquaintances, and even strangers. Sending their regrets, these letters vary from brief notes to lengthy passages. As a research editor, it’s eye-opening to see the spectrum of emotions conveyed.
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.
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.
“Why did the British soldiers wear red? That doesn’t seem very smart.”
It might have been Matt, sitting at the very back of the classroom, who asked the question; or it might have been Caleb, a couple of desks away. But it definitely was Sonia who immediately shot her hand in the air with a ready answer.
“It was so the blood wouldn’t show on their uniforms,” she responded knowingly.
Last week, Research Assistant Kathryn Gehred and I attended the National Humanities Alliance’s Advocacy Day in Washington, DC. The annual two-day event teaches humanities projects across the United States how to advocate among policymakers for equal or increased funding of institutions, such as the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).
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.
Reading Charles Francis Adams diary entry for May 9, 1850 in the editor in chief’s office at the Adams Papers made me smile. With three brief sentences Charles Francis Adams perfectly described what we strive to do as documentary editors.
Having shepherded “George Washington, Day-By-Day, 22 February 1732-14 December 1799” into existence, I very much looked forward to visiting Washington’s childhood home bordering the Rappahannock River directly across from Fredericksburg, Virginia. This visit finally occurred on Monday, November 9.
Early last week, Washington Papers Assistant Editor Lynn Price and Research Editor Alicia Anderson joined Director Edward G. Lengel at a meeting at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC, to discuss the project’s upcoming publication of George Washington’s Barbados diary of 1751–1752.