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.
From early in the Revolutionary War, George Washington argued that soldiers enlisted for the duration of the conflict were better for the army than those who joined for annual or shorter terms. Reforming and retraining regiments and companies each year consumed scarce resources of all sorts and prevented the army from reaching a high degree of effectiveness, and even from being ready to fight when necessary. Amid the challenges and frustrations of a war that had gone on for more than five years, it came as an encouraging sign that Congress reorganized the Continental army in fall 1780 in a manner that emphasized the recruitment of soldiers for the war.
In July 1779, Gen. George Washington ordered Maj. Gen. Anthony Wayne to attack the British outpost at Stony Point, New York on the Hudson River with his light infantry corps. Wayne’s surprise attack succeeded brilliantly. Washington followed the attack on Stony Point with a strike on the British outpost at Paulus Hook, New Jersey. This offensive, though smaller than the thrust against Stony Point, was particularly bold because Paulus Hook lies directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan Island, where the British maintained more than half a dozen regiments in garrison.
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.
George Washington’s understanding of what we now often call “gun rights” would not seem to readily square with the views of today’s contending factions, each of whom commonly invoke Washington for support. He does not appear to have thought that every citizen possessed an unlimited individual right to bear arms, for criminals and traitors were to be forcibly disarmed. Washington, however, believed that all citizens faithfully engaged in state militia or federal army service ought to be granted combat-worthy firearms from the proper governmental authority. He also believed that citizens should be skilled with hunting rifles at least before commencing militia or army service.
Since George Washington made lists of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon for his own benefit (and not for the benefit of future historians), he only recorded the information he needed to know. Still, historians can glean valuable information from these materials. With some effort, researchers can use a detached and dehumanizing resource such as a slave list to tell a human story. I recently learned this lesson while annotating a legal document (likely created in 1802) that divided Martha Washington’s slaves amongst her four heirs. I wanted to identify the people named in that list by more than just a first name and price, so I read through George Washington’s slave lists to learn as much as I could.
Unlike George Washington, Francis Hopkinson seems to have craved attention, enjoying both the public eye—and ear. From his days as a student at the College of Philadelphia through an impressive career as lawyer, statesman, judge, scientist, and inventor, Hopkinson often spoke publicly and wrote extensively. What few realize about him, though, is that he was intimately involved in shaping Americans’ opinions before, during and after the Revolutionary War—through song lyrics.
One of the most significant periods of George Washington’s public career was his service as president of the Constitutional Convention. It is also one of the least well-known. This is probably because Washington said little during the convention debates—records indicate that he only spoke twice—and he did not publicly participate in the ratification process. Nevertheless, he did preside over the convention, and impeachment was a topic the delegates debated.
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.
Last month, my husband, our 3-year-old daughter, and I took a road trip through sections of the Washington Heritage Trail, which goes through Berkeley, Jefferson, and Morgan counties in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. This region is steeped in history not only related to the railroad, the Civil War, and John Brown’s raid but also (and more importantly to me) to the Washington family. The Washingtons, especially George and his younger brother Charles, seem to be everywhere, from family homes and gravesites to street names and tourist spots.