With this letter of August 31, 1776, Washington reported his first defeat to Congress. Four days previously, British forces under General William Howe had defeated the advanced elements of Washington’s Continental Army deployed along the Heights of Guana on Long Island. Now, the weakness of the fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, where Washington had approximately 9,500 troops, and the fear that British warships might enter the East River and cut his communications with the city of New York had compelled him to evacuate the island.2 (Washington’s reference to his “Family” meant his military aides-de-camp and secretaries.) But the defeat was also one of Washington’s greatest moments of the war.
Senior Editor David Hoth’s guiding principle in documentary editing is to display the evidence without influencing a reader’s conclusions. His current focus, George Washington’s Farewell Address, complicates that principle. This document is included in Presidential Series volume 20 and arguably is one of Washington’s most significant contributions to the institution of the U.S. presidency. Hoth’s research into its preparation led him to suggest that we “cannot assume what has always been assumed” of this document.
More than just a man, George Washington is a symbol of our revolutionary spirit and democratic principles. Lydia Brandt, architectural historian and professor at the University of South Carolina, studies Mount Vernon, his home, to explore whether it holds similarly iconic status. In her new book, titled First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination, Brandt surveys Mount Vernon’s memory in the American imagination. Recently, she sat down with us to reflect on the results of her investigation.
Through history, people can share common experiences that connect them beyond the context of their time. First love is one of those experiences. Regardless of whether the memory of our first love remains obstructed by the pain of heartbreak, has left a bitter taste in our mouth, or is forevermore hidden in our secret garden, it has tainted us each in some way. George Washington, too, experienced that unique kind of love with Sarah Cary Fairfax (“Sally”) shortly before his lifelong communion with Martha Dandridge Custis began in 1759.
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.
On board BA 217, London to DC. I’m looking forward to speaking tomorrow night in the Gay Hart Gaines Distinguished Visiting Lecturer of American History programme. It’s wonderful to speak for the first time about my book, The Washingtons, at Mount Vernon, where I first conceived the idea of writing about America’s first couple.