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.
These special materials, which we refer to as addendum and omitted materials, total in the hundreds. A large fraction concerns items intentionally omitted by editors, but others—nearly 100—are documents previously believed to be lost. We plan to publish all the addendum and omitted items in a separate volume on our digital edition in order to make the Papers of George Washington as comprehensive as possible.
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.
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.
One of Martha’s longest correspondences was with Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743–1830), the keen Philadelphia intellectual who was well-read, politically engaged, and a conversationalist par excellence. She would not be considered a natural pairing with the more modest, less educated Martha, but the experiences of marriage and motherhood bound them. From their first known surviving letter in 1780 to Elizabeth’s letter of grief on George Washington’s death in 1799, the two women maintained a friendship for at least two decades. They shared in common a sad reality: death had taken, and would continue to take, their closest family members one by one.
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.
This fall, I returned to UVA, beginning my second year in the College of Arts and Sciences and at the Washington Papers. Usually, my job around the office is determined on a day-to-day basis: some days I’m combing through newspaper databases, other days researching people on Ancestry.com. This year, however, I had a more substantial project awaiting me.
The digital edition of The Papers of George Washington not only provides wider public access to our research, but also gives the editors the opportunity to revise and extend our work as more or better information becomes available. A smaller effort of that ability recently unveiled a human interest story that reminds us again that George Washington encountered many interesting characters besides the powerful and famous men celebrated as the founders of our country and that The Papers are a resource for cultural and social as well as political and military history.