TOPICS: Eighteenth-Century Life, Financial Papers, George Washington, Washington or Custis Family by Adrina Garbooshian-Huggins, Associate Editor September 3, 2021 George Washington was a lifelong supporter of charitable causes, as evidenced by the hundreds of expenditures recorded in his ledgers for “Charity.”1 Even at the outset of the Revolutionary War, when […]
George Washington had a fascination with exotic animals. As a result of a growing number of traveling entertainers and showmen who toured 18th-century America with unusual creatures, Washington, his family, and other members of the American public gained opportunities to experience animals native to other continents, such as elephants and camels. When word circulated about an upcoming event involving the display of an exotic animal, Washington often paid for himself and members of his household to attend the viewing. For instance, as early as January 1761, Washington spent 10 shillings to see a “Lyoness.” And in December 1787, Washington paid 18 shillings to a man who brought a camel from Alexandria, Va., to Mount Vernon “for a show.” Washington’s attendance at such displays, even during periods when he was absorbed in domestic or public business, or in presiding over the burgeoning new nation, demonstrates his keen interest in such animals.
Isaac and Kitty were a married couple who were enslaved at Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, as a result of being enslaved by the Washington and Custis families, there are not many records that document the lives of Isaac and Kitty. In reviewing and visualizing George Washington’s correspondence and financial papers, we can recover some information about them—from the family and community they cultivated to the independent labor they pursued.
According to his presidential household accounts, on April 5th, 1794, George Washington “pd. for 8 tickets to see automatons by order.” These automatons were mechanical creations made of wood or plaster, operated by “hidden springs and gears.” With the ability to perform many different complex actions, such as writing, dancing, and imitating human movements, automatons created a source of lively entertainment for spectators.
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.
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.
The zeroing in on the Washingtons’ lives that the financial papers provides is incredible; small details are captured and preserved, down to the exact day that sundries were purchased or that employees were paid. Even beyond the numbers, the language and phrasing of these documents provide a glimpse into the world of colonial Virginia.
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.
When undertaking research, editors of The Papers of George Washington have occasionally discovered intriguing historical connections that are not included in the annotation. In some cases, the information is omitted because connections cannot be definitively tied together and therefore lack sufficient certitude to warrant inclusion.
Many Colonial Virginians considered unfair British economic practices to be an infringement of their natural rights. The economic grievances of the Virginia planter class eventually became a key motivator for rebellion. As Thomas Jefferson complained in his Summary View of the Rights of British America, Virginians were at the mercy of “the British merchant for whatever he will please to allow us.” Jefferson argued that Virginia tobacco “planters were a species of property annexed to certain mercantile houses in London.”