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.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury sparked controversy in 2016 when it announced plans to place Harriet Tubman on the front of the twenty-dollar bill in 2020. Earlier this summer, the department postponed the bill’s release to 2028.1 When the redesign finally takes place, Tubman will be the first woman on U.S. paper currency since 1886, when Martha Washington appeared on the one-dollar silver certificate. As an editor of the papers of Martha Washington, I was curious about the history of the Martha Washington dollar. Did her image inspire as much debate as Tubman’s?
When you work at The Washington Papers, you read plenty of fawning 18th-century letters and news articles about George Washington—which is why Rev. Jonathan Boucher’s dismissive description, written in his memoirs in 1786, struck me as something interesting. The description made some waves in the late 1800s when Boucher’s memoirs were finally published, an era in which many U.S. history classes upheld Washington as the definition of greatness. So, who was this man who found Washington so unimpressive?
During the tense years leading up to the Civil War, Robert E. Lee found himself under the close scrutiny of a group of abolitionists (who his wife described as “fanatical,” “unprincipled & cruel”). Lee’s marriage to Mary Custis, daughter of Martha Washington’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis, came with public visibility and certain expectations. People who Lee had never met demanded that he live up to the precedent set by George Washington and free his slaves.
None of Martha Washington’s writings implies that she held any moral opposition to the institution of slavery. As late as 1795 she wrote to her niece, who was upset that a young enslaved child had died, “Black children are liable to so many accidents and complaints—that one is heardly sure of keeping them—I hope you will not find in him much Loss—the Blacks are so bad in thair nature that they have not the least Gratatude for the kindness that may be shewed to them.”
TOPICS: Founding Era Politics, Martha Washington, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Washington or Custis Family, Washington’s Presidency by Kathryn Gehred, Research Editor May 18, 2018 Towards the end of her life, Martha Washington harbored no warm feelings for Thomas Jefferson. A guest at Mount Vernon in 1802 wrote that “she spoke […]
In 1783, Congress passed an arguably frivolous resolution to construct a large copper equestrian statue of George Washington in the as-yet-unplanned federal city. Progress on the resolution was slow; more pressing issues (writing a constitution, for one) faced the young nation. But while a statue of Washington may not have been first priority, Congress largely agreed that symbolism and statuary serve an important role in nation-building. As founders such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton tenaciously fought for their separate visions of the United States to take shape, it became clear that the location, design, and artist designated for the George Washington sculpture required careful thought.
In April 1781, about six months before the American victory at Yorktown, an opportunity for a different kind of liberty arose for Deborah, an enslaved 16-year-old at Mount Vernon. A fleet of British “plundering vessels” had appeared in the Potomac, burning homes and destroying property as they advanced. The Savage, a sloop of war commanded by Captain Thomas Graves, approached within a quarter mile of the home of the Continental Army’s commander in chief. Deborah saw an opportunity to join the British and gain her freedom.
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.”
Elizabeth Foote began to keep a diary in 1779, soon after she became engaged to Lund Washingon, George Washington’s cousin. She decided to keep a diary so “that I may remember what was my thoughts at the time of my changing my state.” After her marriage, she used the diary to record a manual of advice on housekeeping, which she intended to leave for her daughters. It survives as a compelling insight into the thoughts and feelings of an 18th-century woman slaveholder.