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.
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.
I hear a lot of myths surrounding the Washingtons since I have the honor of portraying Martha Washington for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the opportunity to bring her story to life every day through first-person interpretation. It’s a job I cherish, partly because it has led me to meet many wonderful people who are dedicated to telling the Washingtons’ story with truth and passion like the good people at The Washington Papers.
Martha Washington shared the more personal facets of her life in letters to only a handful of close family members—often in one long run-on sentence. In 1794, Martha had no surviving children and corresponded with her niece Frances “Fanny” Bassett Washington often with news, advice, demands (disguised as advice), and opinions. These letters between Martha and Fanny are a treasure trove of historical tidbits, perfect for additional research.
Parades, feasts, and festivals were, in the words of historian Simon Newman, “essential components of early national popular political culture.” In the late eighteenth century, these activities allowed regular Americans to participate in politics to a greater extent than ever before. 1 In the nineteenth century, the public pageantry of parades became a more official and hierarchical (and more white and male) component of political party organization. However, in the 1780s and 1790s, participation in public political celebrations usually included a broad and diverse collection of citizens.
Janet Livingston Montgomery demonstrated the traditional gender ideals of the early American republic by educating herself and her surrogate sons; embodying a sentimental view of courtship, marriage, and widowhood; and symbolizing republican virtues.1 In addition, she assumed a more progressive stance by surpassing these conventions, and actively engaging with and influencing the political culture around her.
Christmas celebrations have changed radically since George Washington’s presidency. The new republic that Washington had guided into being was only beginning to create itself as a nation and had little unifying cultural identity. The 13 states differed significantly among themselves, including in how their new citizens observed—or ignored—Christmas.
With the holiday season upon us, it seems appropriate to look back at visitors’ accounts of George and Martha Washington’s Potomac River plantation, Mount Vernon. The Christmas season—stretching from December 24th to January 6th—was widely considered a time to gather with family and friends. As the Washingtons’ estate and reputation grew, visitors came year-round and included not only immediate family and local friends but more distant relatives and strangers with and without letters of introduction.
It’s a rare thing when you meet an extant 18th-century gown and know who wore it. Rarer still, when the wearer was Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. I recently had the honor of examining one of Martha Washington’s three known, intact, surviving gowns, which was generously loaned to George Washington’s Mount Vernon by the New Hampshire Historical Society (NHHS) for viewing and study.
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.”