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 […]
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.
By working on the Martha Washington volume, I’ve stumbled upon the underrepresented voices of some fascinating 18th-century women. So, I’d like to now introduce (or re-introduce) you to Janet Livingston Montgomery.
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.
In 1789, while touring New England, George Washington stopped in Newburyport, Massachusetts. There, he met a bright young law student who would soon play a larger role both in Washington’s life and in the public arena: John Quincy Adams.
In the fall of 1789, George Washington was inundated with information regarding the storming of the Bastille. He received five letters about a revolution occurring in France; most of these letters enclosed articles from international papers. He also received official intelligence through the U.S. minister to France, Thomas Jefferson. And American newspapers began publishing information about the event as early as Sept. 25.1 By early October, Washington likely knew a good deal about the outbreak of the French Revolution.
Thousands of miles away sat George Washington, only a month and a half into his presidency. He would not learn of the storming of the Bastille until September, and he would not acknowledge them until October 13/14. When he finally did, Washington only briefly discussed the revolutionary activity. His first responses are limited to five letters, three of which recycle the same uninterested reaction.
They say you crave what you cannot have. This was true for George Washington when it came to a formal education in the arts and sciences. Though his older half-brothers benefitted from schooling in England as adolescents, George did not. His father, Augustine Washington, died when George was only 11 years old, making it financially difficult for him to attend school. Although he was privately tutored in the following years, George Washington developed an insecurity about his lack of education and writing skills, which in turn motivated his words and actions, both public and private.
After growing up in Forsyth County, Ga., I was intrigued when I found a reference to Robert Forsyth in the Papers of George Washington. I had to dig deeper. And, boy, did the stories surrounding Robert Forsyth make it worth the effort!
No one knew better than Martha that life was fragile. And so, nothing was more important to her than investing in her family and in her religion. In the eighteenth century, Bibles physically united religion and family. Families passed them down for generations, writing births, deaths, and marriages into their pages. Martha, who gave her life to serving God, family, and country, would have cherished her Bible. In fact, nineteenth- and twentieth-century newspaper articles imply that Martha owned more than one.