An anonymous letter from 1 March 1792, penned by a concerned Citizen from Georgia, described the United States as “disgraced & unnecessarily impoverished.” Albeit brief, the phrase mirrors the foreboding mood of the following spring and summer. As the end of his first presidential term approached, George Washington navigated an increasingly precarious conflict at home with the Native American nations along the western frontier while simultaneously steering the country through a tempestuous international situation precipitated by the French Revolution. In addition to handling complex political circumstances and issuing the first presidential veto in United States history, he managed personal projects, the foremost being assistance with the creation of a family genealogy and supervising the planning of the new federal capital.
One of the most fun projects I have contributed to since coming to work at Mount Vernon as the in-house Washington Papers editor was the creation of The Situation Room Experience, an interactive game that requires users to assume the role of historical actors during George Washington’s presidency. A few presidential library sites have developed Situation Room scenarios as a tool to educate visitors and enliven their learning experiences. Mount Vernon’s version focuses on the neutrality crisis of 1792-93, often called The Citizen Genet Affair, after the French minister, Edmond Charles Genet, who tried to pressure the U.S. into supporting revolutionary France’s wars against Great Britain and the monarchies of Europe.
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.
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.
If it were not for Martha’s handwritten statement of medical costs for the summer of 1757, we would know little about the state of her household leading up to and immediately following her first husband’s death. Financial papers—that general term for documents such as bills and pay orders, receipts and receipted bills, invoices and inventories, statements of account, bills of lading and exchange, accounts of sales, memoranda, and estate settlement papers—are rich with detailed information. Almost one-third of the 600 Martha Washington documents that The Washington Family Papers project has assembled since its inception in 2015 are financial in nature, whether authored by, addressed to, or written about her.
The cry of “fake news” has become ubiquitous in the United States today, particularly with regard to politics. When a news story paints a negative view of a politician, a partisan belief, or a proposed law, the public’s response now often involves attacks on the press. However, the use of the press to spread misleading or outright false information, usually about a political opponent, is nothing new.
The final five-and-a-half months of George Washington’s presidency, which will be chronicled in Presidential Series vol. 21 of the Papers of George Washington, were devoted to domestic and foreign relations issues that involved, among other things, Indian affairs, construction progress on the U.S. Capitol, heightened tensions between France and the United States, and diplomatic relations with the Barbary powers. Nevertheless, private letters to family and friends, containing moral and educational advice as well as words of comfort and empathy, still abounded in Washington’s correspondence as he approached the end of his political career.
The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society began in 1954, and from its inception, the Washingtons have played key roles in the volumes we have published. The very first volume of Adams Family Correspondence includes a letter written by John Adams in 1775 from the Continental Congress to his wife Abigail Adams at home in Braintree, Massachusetts. In the letter, John introduced the new commander in chief.
George Washington has loomed large in my professional life, even though I only joined The Washington Papers’ full-time staff in 2017. This is because my work as an editorial assistant during graduate school on Presidential Series volumes 13 and 14 led me to my dissertation topic. One of Washington’s last great projects was founding the city named in his honor: the capital of the United States, Washington, D.C.