WASHINGTON — When her husband died, Martha Washington destroyed almost all the letters the couple had exchanged during decades of married life, an era that included the Revolutionary War, the formation of the country and his presidency. Only a few are known to remain, including two, both tender and fraught, that George Washington wrote just before he left for war. One scholar believes she couldn’t bring herself to destroy them.
Now researchers are launching a major new initiative to track down, transcribe, research and publish all of the Washington family’s papers. It’s an effort to deepen the understanding of George Washington and those close to him as a lens on the cultural life and dramatic change taking place in the nascent country almost two and a half centuries ago.
Those thousands of letters and other documents, most of them never before published, will shed light on aspects long overlooked or underplayed, such as the enslaved people who helped care for Washington’s estate, daily life at the time, and the major impact Martha Washington had on the nation.
The joint effort by the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia and the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon anticipates publication of the first volume this summer, with several more large volumes to follow by 2020.
“It’s very exciting,” said Douglas Bradburn, the founding director of the library at Mount Vernon. Martha Washington “was a crucial actor in the revolution in her own right, in addition to being a supporter of George Washington. Getting to know her better is extremely important to understanding the founding of the country, women’s history.”
The first president remains a little distant, he said.
“He’s the monument, the capitol city, the bust, there he is on the quarter looking very awesome,” Bradburn said. “He’s still abstract. The more we can learn about his family, the intimate relations, the human being can come out.”
“It’s a real treasure for scholars,” said Susan Kern, executive director of the historic campus and an adjunct associate professor of history at the College of William & Mary. “Letters are tremendously important … there may be details in them that we wouldn’t know any other way.”
As a historian, she looks for facts in them, but literary scholars study letters for more subtle cues; the language, turns of phrase, patterns of address. “We all benefit from the building of archives like these,” Kern said.
Martha Washington’s poor grammar and spelling illustrate the lack of formal education for girls and young women at the time, said Edward Lengel, professor and director of the Washington Papers at UVa. But her intelligence and perceptiveness readily come through.
And as they hunt down letters, Bradburn anticipates some real finds. “I think there are Martha Washington letters we don’t know about. It’ll be exciting.”
Lengel found one himself. Several years ago he turned over a letter from Martha Washington’s son to her husband on the day of the Battle of Brandywine and found something that had been overlooked on the back: A note added in her handwriting.
“My love,” it began, an endearment Lengel found illuminating, written as it was after 18 years of marriage. It went on to describe a silver cup, which he now hopes to find.
“Even now, in the 21st century, they’re still out there,” Lengel said. “We have literally uncovered documents in attics, in old trunks, stuffed in the backs of drawers.”
At a tiny historic house museum, employees told him how they had found a letter in an old trunk decades before, but with a note attached saying it was a forgery. “They showed it to me. I was stunned.”
The letter from Washington to the governor of New York was penned by Alexander Hamilton in his role as Washington’s aide-de-camp, Lengel explained. Washington signed it twice, at the end of the letter and on the cover.
“It was completely authentic,” he said. “No one had ever seen this before.”
The letters will explore Martha Washington’s role as a manager and a businesswoman. Lengel explained that in 1757, shortly after her very wealthy first husband died, she took it upon herself to write to his British agent at London mercantile firm:
“I imagine before this you will hear of the great misfortune I have met with in the Colony my late Husband Mr Custis your Correspondent, by which all his Affairs fall under my management … I now having adm[inistration] of his Estate I hope I shall continue the Correspondence and that it will be lasting and agreable to us both.”
“She would entirely manage this vast estate until after her marriage to George in January 1759,” Lengel wrote in an email, “and afterwards, far from sitting in a corner knitting, she would continue to play an active, public, and managerial role at and beyond her estate.”
Letters and other research help make the case that George Washington did not simply choose to marry Martha for her vast wealth. “She was a physically attractive woman,” Lengel said, “an excellent manager, poised and self-posessed. George felt he could rely on her both to be a partner in his business endeavors and,” while he was away at war, “to manage the family, the estate, financial affairs, political affairs, even.”
She also witnessed some of the momentous events of the Revolutionary War. She wrote to a friend at the end of 1775 from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she and her husband were camped outside of British-occupied, partially burned Boston:
“every person seems to be cheerfull and happy hear, — some days we have a number of cannon and shells from Boston and Bunkers Hill, but it does not seem to surprise any one but me; I confess I shudder every time I hear the sound of a gun — I have been to dinner with two Generals, Lee and Putnam and I just took a look at pore Boston & Charlestown — from prospect Hill Charlestown has only a few chimneys standing in it, thare seems to be a number of very fine Buildings in Boston but god knows how long they will stand; they are pulling up all the warfs for firewood — to me that never see any thing of war, the preparations, are very terrible indeed, but I endever to keep my fears to myself as well as I can.”
“She had a very public, activist role,” Kern said. “Appealing to other women to contribute to funds, raising money for soldiers.”
She went with her husband to many military encampments, Lengel said. “Not patting him on the back, but out and about in the camp, talking with generals’ wives about how to provide supplies to the army, oversee communication,” he said. “She also was, even though they didn’t call her a First Lady at that time, a very public figure and visible figure during the presidency. People looked to her as a role model.”
A woman in her position might write four or five letters a day, Lengel said. “There’s got to be a lot of interesting stuff out there, just because no one has ever looked for it before,” he said. “I’m anticipating we’ll find a lot.”
So as they begin their search, he hopes people will think of their own attics, of documents packed away in dusty old trunks. And take a closer look. He thinks there are likely more letters between George and Martha Washington that were overlooked, or forgotten, or, perhaps, hidden away, to save them from the flames.