The best way to describe the Washington biographies by Elizabeth Eggleston Seelye (December 12, 1858 – November 11, 1923) and Lucy Ellen Guernsey (August 12, 1826 – November 3, 1899) would be as family affairs. The Story of Washington was written by Elizabeth, illustrated by her sister Allegra, and edited by her father, Edward. Meanwhile, Washington and Seventy-Six was written by Lucy and her sister Clara. A distinctly feminine voice permeates the pages of the two books. Both authors focused on Washington’s public life and placed a strong emphasis on the female connections that shaped the man.
George Washington was known to have a temper as a young man, and his ability to master that flaw promoted his rise to leadership positions. That emotion, however, likely lurked beneath his typically composed exterior. Purportedly, it exploded in the sizzling heat of the battlefield at Monmouth, N.J., on June 28, 1778, when Washington saw troops under Maj. Gen. Charles Lee withdrawing contrary to orders. An observer later recalled that Washington’s wrathful bellowing shook the leaves on the trees. Legitimate doubt surrounds that recollection, but unquestionable documentary evidence can be advanced to support Washington’s capacity for anger.
Currently, the editors at the Washington Papers are working on volume 31 of George Washington’s Revolutionary War papers, and we have started work on volume 32. These volumes of The Papers of George Washington cover the period from March 7 to July 4, 1781. Some of the most valuable primary sources for our annotation of Washington’s correspondence written during this period are three diaries.
The editors at the Papers of George Washington have determined that the recipient’s copy and draft of Gen. George Washington’s letter to Samuel Huntington, president of Congress, dated April 10, 1781, must have been written weeks later, in May. Scholars have taken the date of Washington’s letter at face value ever since the prominent popular historian Benson J. Lossing first transcribed it in his Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, which was published in the early 1850s.1 But activities described in documents from May 1781 illuminate what should be the date of this letter to Huntington.
Over the summer I was invited to appear on a Smithsonian Channel television show called America’s Hidden Stories. The subject? Whether or not young George Washington had a romantic affair with Mary Philipse (later Mary Philipse Morris), a New York heiress whose family owned an incredible amount of property on the Hudson river. I happily accepted.
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.