Agreeable Amusements: Music & Dancing in the Life of George Washington

On September 10, 1748, sixteen-year-old George Washington paid 3 shillings, 9 pence to a “musick master for my entrance.” Young Washington recorded these sparse details in Ledger Book Zero, a personal account ledger listing credits and debits with family, friends, and business associates between 1747 and 1750. This, as far as we can tell, is the first reference to music in the life of George Washington. By no means, would it be the last. Music was an important part of Washington’s life, just as it is with many of us today.

Ledger Book Zero, young George Washington’s personal account book, shows payment to a “musick master for my entrance.”

What was teenage age George paying for when he paid the “musick master for . . . entrance”?  Well, the lack of details makes it impossible to say with certainty.  The most obvious possibility is that he was paying for music lessons.  However, letters written by George himself and a friend indicate that Washington had little to no musical talent. Francis Hopkinson, a colleague during the war, composed a series of songs for harpsichord or piano and dedicated them to Washington. In a letter to George dated December 1, 1788, Hopkins explained his dedication even though George could “neither play Musick nor sing Songs.”  In a reply on February 5, 1789, Washington agreed, writing “I can neither sing one of the songs, nor raise a single note on any instrument.” Despite a professed musical inability, it is still possible young George was paying for music lessons in 1748. Often, you might pursue lessons only to discover that you do not have the aptitude.

Regardless, while apparently not musical himself, music surrounded Washington. As Mount Vernon research historian Mary V. Thompson notes, “Washington was the head of a household where his wife, her two children, and her four grandchildren (two of whom were raised by the Washingtons) all studied music.” In particular, granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis became fairly skilled at the harpsichord, despite an apparent reluctance to learn. In the summer of 1798, a visiting Polish nobleman enthusiastically claimed that Nelly “plays the harpsichord, sings, draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe.”

Another Washington family member with an interest in music was George’s niece Harriot Washington, daughter of Samuel. The first letter in the record between Harriot and her guardian and uncle George was written on April 2, 1790.  Harriot was 14-years-old and living at Mount Vernon while President Washington was in New York. The niece asked her uncle to send her a guitar since she wanted to take lessons for “all the young Ladyes are a learning musick.”  Harriot was confident “that five or six lessons would be sufficient for any body to learn.”  The records consulted reveal no response from Washington. Eventually, Harriot would come to Historic Kenmore to live with her aunt Betty Washington Lewis. She again asked uncle George for a guitar in May of 1792. About a month later, he paid $17 for one. Harriot’s capabilities with the instrument are unknown.

Besides family, another major source of music in Washington’s life was the Continental Army. Music was crucial to 18th century militaries. Fifes and drums issued commands during battle and put a spring in the step during weary marches. Much like the army’s initially amateur soldiers, its fifers and drummers (who were often boys serving with their soldier-fathers) took time to practice and professionalize.

On June 4, 1777, General Washington issued a set of orders. One order dealt with the army’s music, which the General bluntly lamented was “very bad.” He ordered “that the drum and fife Majors exert themselves to improve it, or they will be reduced, and their extraordinary pay taken from them: Stated hours to be assigned, for all the drums and fifes, of each regiment, to attend them, and practice.” Washington concluded, “Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music; every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.”

A notable musical moment in the army’s history was the birthday serenade for General Washington on February 22, 1778 at Valley Forge. The musicians of Proctor’s Artillery played outside the General’s headquarters. Washington’s expense account lists a payment of 1 pound, 5 shillings to Proctor’s band. Joseph Lee Boyle, longtime historian at Valley Forge, explains that “Colonel Proctor commanded an artillery regiment, and this was one of the few, perhaps the only, unit to have musicians besides fifers and drummers. In 1779 ten ‘musicians’ are listed in the band, but not what instruments they played.” Mount Vernon scholars note that this was “the first public recognition of [Washington’s] birthday.”

We’ve seen that music was definitely a part of Washington’s life but it was played by others mostly. George could not play an instrument nor sing. He may have paid for music lessons only to discover his inability. Another reasonable theory, however, is that he paid the “musick master for my entrance” to dancing lessons. Later in life, Washington uses similar phrasing – “Mr McKay entrance to Dancing” – to record a payment of 10 shillings for lessons for stepson John Parke Custis.

Dancing was the leisure time obsession of most Virginians but especially those in the wealthy gentry. For the upper class, explains Amy Stallings, “ being a skilled dancer was an indication of good breeding” and allowed one to “put one’s gentility, accomplishment, beauty, and economic means on display in hopes of impressing—or, in some cases, intimidating—”others. As Philip G. Smucker adds, “Dexterity on the dance floor maintained social status.”

Maintaining social status and the appearance of good breeding skyrocketed in importance to George and the Washington family after the death of father Augustine in 1743. His death created financial hardship and jeopardized the family’s social standing. Without a father, George’s life changed radically. Assisted and supported by both mother Mary and half-brother Lawrence, George was forced to acquire the refined skills and customs of the upper class in Fredericksburg instead of in England while at boarding school.

One of those skills was dancing and the mystery “musick master” perhaps taught teenage George that skill.  Over the course of the 18th century, as Stallings notes, “a market developed for professional instructors, or dance masters, who were expected to know the latest dances from Europe.”  Virginia’s urban centers with their greater populations and high number of visitors “often boasted multiple dancing schools . . . Dancing masters operated in at least Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Hampton by 1739.” Traveling dance instructors served Virginia’s far-flung rural population. These masters usually “taught the sexes separately, at different hours or different days of the week.”

If Washington was schooled in dancing by the “musick master,” he probably learned the era’s popular minuets, allemandes, and hornpipes. These fancy dances typically began any ball and were the best opportunities to show off one’s dancing abilities and good breeding. The minuet was the most important. As Stallings explains, “A man’s prowess at the minuet—an especially complicated dance, requiring excellent balance and coordination with one’s partner—could buoy his social position, whereas a poor minuet might leave him out of favor.”

A fanciful early 20th century painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris titled “The Victory Ball, 1781.” While Washington was a life-long and avid dancer, it is unlikely he attended any such “victory ball” or “peace ball” traditionally said to have taken place in Fredericksburg after the British defeat at Yorktown.

Whether he was paying for dancing lessons in 1748 or not, young Washington learned to dance in some fashion, discovering both an extraordinary natural talent and life-long passion for it.  Numerous contemporaries recorded instances of Washington dancing and praised his abilities.

“His Excellency . . .  and Mrs. Greene . . . danced upwards of three hours without once sitting down.” – General Nathanael Greene to Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth, Middle Brook, New Jersey, March 19, 1779.

“His Excellency General Washington was unusually cheerful. He attended the ball in the evening, and with a dignified and graceful air, having Mrs. Knox for his partner, carried down a dance of twenty couples in the arbor on the green grass.” – General Nathanael Greene to Joseph Reed, Morristown, New Jersey, Tuesday, February 29, 1780.

“The General danced every set, that all the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him, or as it has since been handsomely expressed, get a touch of him.” – James Tilton to Gunning Bedford Jr., Annapolis, Maryland, December 25, 1783.

“He . . . attended the ball of the 22nd of February; opened it by dancing a minuet with some lady, and then danced cotillions and country dances; was very gallant, and always attached himself, by his attentions, to some one or more of the most beautiful and attractive ladies at the balls.” – Judge Francis T. Brooke (1784).

And finally a word on his dancing from George Washington himself, written on November 12, 1799, just a month prior to his death and turning down an invitation from to a grand function in Alexandria. He wrote,

Gentlemen

Mrs Washington and myself have been honoured with your polite invitation to the Assemblies in Alexandria, this Winter; and thank you for this mark of your attention. But alas! our dancing days are no more; we wish, however, all those whose relish for so agreeable, & innocent an amusement [emphasis added], all the pleasure the Season will afford them. and I am Gentlemen Your Most Obedient and Obliged Humble Servant

Go: Washington

George saw music and dancing both as “agreeable.” From the mostly taciturn Washington, this is high praise indeed.

Join us on Saturday, April 10 for The Arts at Kenmore: Music on the Lawn and hear 18th century music group Colonial Faire performs music from all walks of colonial society – the music of the taverns, the manor houses, on the streets and on the battlefields. The evening’s opening act will include a short talk exploring the importance of music to George Washington and a theater scene depicting Washington’s first dancing lesson. For more information and tickets, visit kenmore.org/events.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Five International Influences on George Washington’s Early Life

An Essay of a New and Compact Map, Containing the Known Parts of the Terrestrial Globe by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin was published in 1750 when George Washington was 18-years-old. Credit: Wikipedia.

Ferry Farm was a unique place to live in the mid-1700s. Situated where farm, frontier, city, river, and road converged on the edge of English empire, young George Washington, his family, and the farm’s enslaved community found their daily lives governed by Britain’s global economy and imperial culture.  Ferry Farm, nearby Fredericksburg, and the colonies more broadly were international places made up of a host of different European, African, and Native American ethnicities and nationalities in the 18th century.  Accordingly, we present a list of “Five International Influences on George Washington’s Youth.” This is by no means an exhaustive list but each influence helped shape young Washington into a man capable of commanding the Continental Army and serving as the new nation’s first president.

1) The Rappahannock River

The Rappahannock River as viewed from a window in the Washington house replica at Ferry Farm.
Voyages of British ships in the last half of the 18th century. Created by Geographer James Cheshire, PhD, on his Spatial.ly blog and used with permission.

Young George could look from a window in the family home at Ferry Farm down the bluff to the Rappahannock River. He saw ocean-going, sailing vessels being loaded and unloaded at the wharves and warehouses of Fredericksburg. These vessels were part of a global trade network, which we’ve written about here and here, that stretched to Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, India and China. These vessels were not large but traveled the world nonetheless.  They took the corn, wheat, and timber of places like Ferry Farm to Europe or the Caribbean and returned with Westerwald mugs from Germany, tea from India, porcelain from China, and enslaved laborers from Africa. The sailors on these ships probably represented numerous ethnicities and nations. One easily can imagine young George, so prone to a thirst for adventure, finding any excuse he could to visit the docks and ships down on the river and, by doing so, traveling the world without leaving the Rappahannock.

2) Westerwald stoneware

Those ships carried numerous manufactured goods from all over the world to Ferry Farm. Westerwald ceramics were one such import. Produced in the Westerwald region of what is now Germany beginning in the 1500s, archaeologists have excavated numerous bits of decorated stoneware tankards, jugs, and other drinking vessels used in the 1700s at Ferry Farm.  Several of these excavated vessels sported the initials ‘G.R.’, meaning Georgius Rex, the Latin for King George. The three British kings of the 18th century were all named George and came from the House of Hanover, a German royal family placed on the British throne in 1714. A gentleman sporting a ‘G.R.’ on his Westerwald tankard or jug advertised his loyalty to the Crown with every draught of ale. The presence of these initialed drinking vessels at Ferry Farm show that, until the Revolution, Washington, like most Americans, viewed himself as a loyal subject of the British Crown (ironically worn by a German head).

G.R. medallion on a Westerwald jug fragment.
A nearly complete Westerwald drinking vessel in the collection at Historic Kenmore.

3) Venetian glass

The vast majority of ceramics in the Washington household came from England. The same can be said about the family’s table glass, but the fanciest glassware owned by the Washington family actually came from Venice, Italy.  Found by our archaeologists, this piece of a pincered and buttressed handle is likely part of an elaborate hand-blown Venetian piece, made of finely crafted colorless soda lime glass with a barely visible bead of opaque glass running through the center.  A Venetian glass goblet such as this was a show piece displayed prominently within the house to emphasize that, despite their colonial location, the Washington family strived to maintain a level of European refinement appropriate to their gentry status.

Archaeologists excavated this small fragment of Venetian glass at Ferry Farm.
Wine goblet made in the 16th century in Venice, Italy. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

4) Barbados

In 1751, George Washington made his only trip off the North American continent, traveling with his half-brother Lawrence to Barbados. Visiting the island’s fortifications and meeting members of its military garrison fed George’s growing desire for a military career. As Jack Warren concludes, “After returning to Virginia, he dedicated himself to advancement in the military more completely than any of his Virginia contemporaries. And unlike most of the prominent colonial militia officers of the 1750s, he sought a commission in the regular British military establishment – an ambition that was probably prompted, and undoubtedly stimulated, by his experience in Barbados.”

Needham’s Point, Barbados. Credit: Reinhard Link.

5) The Frontier

Military service eventually took George into the frontier wilderness of the vast Ohio country. Tasked by Governor Dinwiddie with delivering a demand to the French to leave lands claimed by Virginia and the British Crown, young Major George Washington embarked on a thousand-mile, ten-week trek to and from Fort LeBoeuf on Lake Erie. He was accompanied by the Dutchman Jacob Van Braam, who served as his French interpreter, and by Tanacharison, known as Half-King, as well as other men from Native American nations. Along the way, he met several French officers and soldiers. Although confined to North America, this trip in late 1753 and early 1754 was, in reality, a foreign trip that exposed Washington to different peoples and cultures. It provided vital diplomatic, military, and intelligence gathering experience to the future Continental Army commander and first president. Washington, notes Paul Royster, “practiced diplomacy to keep the Native leaders allied to the English cause; he interviewed French deserters and reported on the extent of French military posts between New Orleans and the Great Lakes; he reconnoitered the Forks of the Ohio with an eye to the proper site for building a fort; and he inspected and reported on the construction of the new French forts and made estimates of their strength . . . .”

Portrait of George Washington, 1772 by Charles Willson Peale. Credit: National Portrait Gallery
The Ohio region from Cumberland to Fort LeBoeuf through which Washington journeyed, overlayed onto the famed map in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). Credit: Paul Royster / University of Nebraska.

Conclusion

Although a fourth generation American, George Washington grew up in a time and place – 18th century Ferry Farm and British North America — where international economic and cultural influences on his life were quite numerous. Through the five international influences we’ve briefly examined, we’ve seen how these influences helped Washington maintain his gentry status, which ultimately set him on a path to military and political greatness.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

“Dined at the City Tavern”

Christmas in the 18th century was celebrated quite differently than it is today. Unlike today, one of  the most important (and wildest) celebrations of the season took place on January 6th, or Epiphany. Also known as Twelfth Night, this holiday is more comparable to our present-day New Year’s celebrations in style and entertainment. Our stereotypical views of a supposedly refined time period perhaps conjure up images of classy champagne toasts and highly intellectual conversations. However, much like the Christmas season itself, 18th century parties and dinners any time of the year were actually quite different from that stereotype.

On September 14, 1787 George Washington wrote in his journal:

“Friday 14th.  Attended Convention. Dined at the City Tavern, at an entertainmt. given on my acct. by the City light Horse. Spent the evening at Mr. Meridiths.”

It appears he enjoyed a simple enough dinner at City Tavern in Philadelphia after a day of Constitutional planning, right? Washington was famous; certainly everywhere he went, people provided “an entertainment” in his honor. As you look more into this event, you find that Washington’s simple diary entries may not always reveal the whole story of what happened.

City Tavern as it appeared about 1800 from an engraving by William Birch. This print dates from 1850. Credit: New York Public Library.

In this entry, he notes the City Light Horse honoring him at the tavern. The Light Horse of the City of Philadelphia was founded in 1774. They fought with General Washington throughout the war, including at the battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Brandywine.  They were part of the icy-cold crossing of the Delaware and the snow-covered winter at Valley Forge. In fact, although operating under a new name, the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry remains intact today as a private military organization whose members all must serve in the Pennsylvania National Guard. Due to its close relationship with George Washington, the troop jumped at the chance to show him its appreciation at the tavern as the Constitutional Convention drew to a close. According to Dr. Gordon Lloyd, the Robert and Katheryn Dockson Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, the bar tab sent to the City Light Horse remains in the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry Archives. Here is the transcription of the bill:

Courtesy of Dr. Gordon Lloyd, the Robert and Katheryn Dockson Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.

As you can see, the total comes to 89 pounds, 4 shillings, and 2 pence. According to the Bank of England, given inflation and changes over time, today this would be approximately £14,083 or around $18,471.

While that sticker price is shocking enough, as we inspect the bill a little more, we notice what all was purchased for the gathering. There are four separate categories on the bill. The bottom section is the fee for the musicians to play. The next section up lists 16 bottles of claret, 5 bottles of madeira, and 7 bowls of punch drunk by the 16 servants and musicians.  Next, comes a line for items broken at the gathering.

Finally, the top section of the bill deals with 55 guests, all men, who were the main party at City Tavern. The men ordered dinner and several different beverages. First, fifty-four bottles of madeira, probably Washington’s drink of choice. Throughout his life, Washington was said to favor this type of fortified wine from the Madeira islands, an archipelago off the coast of Portugal and a frequent stop for merchant ships travelling between Europe and America in the 18th century. Many prominent families in America took a liking to the wine, as it was relatively easy to obtain. According to records at Mount Vernon, Washington ordered Madeira by the pipe, a large, elongated barrel that held about 126 gallons of wine. Often, he ordered multiple pipes at a time. Today, you can still purchase Madeira wine, but be cautious as it runs 18-20 percent alcohol by volume. Similar to its brother, Port, Madeira is often used in cooking and is a staple of French cuisine today.

Next, the sixty bottles of Claret were a French-style wine also popular in America in the 18th century. While Madeira came in both sweet and dry varieties, Claret was typically a dry, dark red. Claret is not a fortified wine like Madeira, meaning it is lighter and only around 13-15 percent alcohol by volume.

The list notes that the gentlemen also consumed eight bottles of “Old Stock”, a term used for whiskey at the time. Perhaps throughout his time as General and President, nights like September 14, 1787 convinced Washington to create his own whiskey distillery later in life. By 1799, the distillery at Mount Vernon was one of the most profitable in the country. During the colonial era, it was not customary to age whiskey. The spirits produced at Mount Vernon, as well as, that served at City Tavern were practically straight from the still.

Whiskey mash in the reconstructed distillery at Mount Vernon. Credit: Elizabeth Hosier.

The porter, cider, and beer listed on the bill are all similar to the alcohols we call porter, cider, and beer today. Porter was a very popular style of beer in both England and America. In fact, the style was so popular, Washington had his own recipe for it to be produced at Mount Vernon.

Lastly, the list claims the gentlemen also went through seven large bowls of punch. Punch recipes varied from tavern to tavern and from house to house in colonial days, but they were typically rum or whiskey-based and often contained more than one type of alcohol. You can read much more about punch and how it was served here and about Mary Washington’s punch bowl here.

With all this drink flowing, we might conclude this was quite a raucous party, but these were rather typical evenings for the people of the 18th century. Keep in mind that water was not always drinkable due to bacteria, they didn’t always have access to fruit to make fresh juice, and certainly soda wasn’t around yet! They were left with few options: tea, coffee, or booze.

Washington returned to the Convention and by the end of the day after the party, the delegates had finished. Copies of the document were ordered, and just two days later, they signed the Constitution of the United States on Monday, September 17, 1787. Washington stated in his journal:

“The business being thus closed, the Members adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together and took a cordial leave of each other.”

What happened that night at City Tavern? Unfortunately, no bill from this night survives to give us any clarification, but Washington provides a hint of just how much steam the delegates needed to blow off. The entry in his journal continued that he returned to his lodgings and:

“retired to meditate on the momentous wk. which had been executed, after not less than five, for a large part of the time Six, and sometimes 7 hours sitting every day, sundays & the ten days adjournment to give a Comee. opportunity & time to arrange the business for more than four Months.”

Momentous work, indeed.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

General Likability: Eisenhower and Washington

Left – Dwight D. Eisenhower on horseback in his later years. Credit: Eisenhower National Historic Site | Right – George Washington receiving the salute on the field at Trenton (1899) by John Faed. Credit: Public Domain.

“Who did I think I was, running against George Washington?” – Adlai Stevenson, 1952 [1]

This future president was born into a large family, had a mother who wasn’t a big fan of his military career, first served his country as a general in the military before becoming president, and ended his presidency with a warning against partisanship. No, I am not talking about George Washington. This time, I am talking about Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, born 130 years ago today on October 14, 1890.

With voting underway in the 2020 presidential election, it is impossible not to reflect on some of our past leaders and, of course, here at The George Washington Foundation, we would be remiss if we didn’t look at the leadership qualities of George Washington. As a young boy living at Ferry Farm, no one could have possibly known what would become of George. With our hindsight, we can look to the influence of his mother and older half-brother, who both molded him. Washington’s leadership qualities are difficult to quantify, but we can certainly say that his commanding presence (he was 6’3” and quite athletic from all that horseback riding) was a good first step.

Eisenhower also possessed a commanding presence as a young man. At 5’11” he wasn’t the tallest of his contemporaries nor did he rival Washington’s height, but he was an exceptional athlete, who played football at West Point. His presence was felt in a room. It was a presence certainly felt by his bride, Mamie Doud, daughter of a meatpacking executive, and considered quite out of Ike’s league when they met. Similar to George and Martha, Ike and Mamie were mismatched financially but had a strong marriage despite war, politics, and long periods of separation.

Early in Eisenhower and Washington’s military careers, they both found their roads blocked. Washington, initially hoping to join the Royal Navy, was shot down by his mother. Only later did he join the Virginia militia, experiencing combat for the first time during the French and Indian war. Eisenhower went to work straight out of high school, helping to support his family and allowing his older brother to attend school first. With the financial stability of his family in question, Ike wasn’t sure he’d even get the chance to go to college at all until a friend pointed out that the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis was tuition-free. He decided to request consideration for both the Naval Academy and for the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was too old for Annapolis but got into West Point. His mother, a pacifist, was disappointed, but understood Ike’s decision.  Here we see one differentiation in our parallel men; Eisenhower did not see any combat experience during World War I. Instead, he frustratingly found himself stuck stateside.

Left – General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower (1947) by Thomas Edgar Stevens. Credit: National Portrait Gallery | Right – Commander in Chief of the Continental Army General George Washington (1776) by Charles Willson Peale. Credit: Brooklyn Museum

As to learning military leadership, Washington had first-hand experience while Eisenhower spent several years training others for a war he missed. However, both Washington and Eisenhower served as aides to generals from whom they learned much. Washington, even at the end of his life, credited British General Edward Braddock with giving him his first command opportunity and teaching him the knowledge he needed to succeed in his military career. Similarly, Eisenhower spent four years of the 1930s in the Philippines with General Douglas MacArthur. While theirs wasn’t a mentor/mentee relationship like Washington and Braddock, Eisenhower’s time with MacArthur taught him skills that would prove vital when he encountered difficult personalities throughout the rest of his career.

Indeed, both Eisenhower and Washington had their fair share of thorns in their sides. For Washington, during the American Revolution, people like Charles Lee left him fuming. During the presidency, his constant disagreements with Thomas Jefferson were infuriating. Eisenhower faced similar issues. During World War II, he struggled with generals like George Patton and British Bernard Montgomery who refused to follow orders. Later, in his presidency, Ike faced the likes of Nikita Khrushchev. Ike and George handled these challenges with poise and delicacy.

When given the opportunity to choose their own staff, both men had a knack for picking good ones. Washington’s reliance on Henry Knox, Nathaniel Greene, Daniel Morgan, and others was a big part of what led to our victory in the Revolution. Eisenhower surrounded himself with Walter Bedell Smith, Omar Bradley, and Matthew Ridgway – generals who all helped execute the victory in World War II.

After the Revolution, Washington desired nothing else but retirement at Mount Vernon. At the end of World War II, Ike expressed his desire to do the same, purchasing a farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to serve as his retirement home. All the same, both men found their country was yet not finished with them. Washington and Eisenhower were each approached and convinced by others to stand for president. Having spent his entire adult life in the military, Eisenhower lacked political party affiliation but eventually decided to run as a Republican. Non-partisanship was something Washington officially maintained throughout his presidency. With immense popularity assured by their monumental military victories, the generals won electoral landslides.

Throughout their presidencies, George and Ike struggled with deepening clashes between political parties, an overly powerful military, and a nation recovering from tragedy and loss. Both men focused much of their administration on domestic issues. Washington helped build a victorious but infant nation while Eisenhower helped move forward a victorious but war-weary nation. George created the role of president, setting standards for the future, the most important of which was the two-term limit. He brought together several states that had once viewed themselves as individual nations into one nation of many states. Ike established the Interstate Highway System, used the National Guard and the 101st Airborne Division to enforce desegregation in Arkansas, and admitted Alaska and Hawaii into the Union. However, as leaders of a nation in the world, neither man could ignore foreign affairs either. Washington focused on remaining neutral and chose not to help the French during their own revolution. Eisenhower ended the Korean War and sought to contain Communism without breaking the federal budget through an increased reliance on nuclear deterrence.

Left- President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1967) by James Anthony Wills. Credit: The White House Historical Association. | Right – President George Washington (1803-5) by Gilbert Stuart. Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

At the conclusion of their time in office, both men gave memorable Farewell Addresses. In fact, both speeches are considered two of the greatest given in our nation’s history. As part of his legacy, Washington warned against political parties as paths to division. He expressed worry about creating too close of an alliance with another country, fearing it could drag the nation into conflict. He stated that “overgrown military establishments” were a threat, and stressed the need for “peace and harmony”. For Eisenhower’s part, he warned against a too powerful “military industrial complex”, discussed the need to cultivate positive foreign relations, and said that “America’s prestige” would be defined by “how we use our power in the interests of world peace”. These two great men who gained their fame from war and had seen war’s horrors up close both hoped the country would not have to face another conflict.

While their lives certainly contain many parallels, perhaps the greatest similarity between Washington and Eisenhower was their leadership style. Both men were optimistic in the face of adversity, lead with exemplary character and morality, and were willing to accept the blame for failure entirely on themselves. They both respected and admired the soldiers who fought under them. They were able to control their emotions and exhibit remarkably strong will. But, in the end, perhaps the one quality that allowed both of them such success was their general likability.

Beth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services


[1] Cooke, Alistair, “Adlai Stevenson: The Failed Saint” in Six Men. London: Penguin, 2008.

Washington and the Culper Spy Ring

At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we largely focus on George’s youth but also eagerly research and learn as much as we can about all periods of his life. During our unexpected closure due to COVID-19, some of our interpretive staff had the chance to study a little more about Washington and the Culper Spy Ring for a reading group we created.

Early on during the American Revolution, it was apparent to George Washington that he would need a way to get information about British troop movements and, hopefully, their overall plans. The Siege of Boston was a huge success for Washington and his Continentals, but capturing New York proved to be much tougher. In fact, New York remained occupied by the British for the entire war but Washington continued to hope that he could liberate the city. And in that hope, he knew he needed intelligence from inside the city. Everyone who crossed the border, however, was searched by British soldiers and any direct letters were confiscated and the bearer convicted of treason.

After a failed attempt by a young solider named Nathan Hale, Washington knew the intelligence would be very difficult to gather, and even more difficult to transmit. He called upon another young Yalie named Benjamin Tallmadge to help him with his goal. In November of 1778, Tallmadge began The Culper Spy Ring. He contacted operatives in New York City and they developed a complex system of routes to pass along information. The operatives in Manhattan passed the information to a carrier in Long Island and then eventually a second carrier brought the information to Tallmadge in Connecticut.

Benjamin Tallmadge (1790) by Ralph Earl

Portrait of Benjamin Tallmadge along with his son William painted after the war in 1790 by Ralph Earl. Credit: Wikipedia

The identity of the spies was so restricted that of the five operatives known to have helped, at least one of their identities is still highly debated by historians. Washington himself did not want to know their real names thus the agents were given nicknames. For example, Benjamin Tallmadge was called John Bolton, Abraham Woodhull went by Samuel Culper, and Robert Townsend was referred to as Samuel Culper, Jr.

The spy ring also developed a code that used over 760 combinations of numbers to represent people, places, and things. For example, Washington was 711, New York City was 727, and the lone female spy was referred to as 355. Of course, randomly filling a letter with numbers was a sure way to get caught, so they also used invisible ink and ciphers.

Culper Code

A page from the key to the Culper code. Credit: Library of Congress

Even with all these precautions, the work was dangerous and risky. The news traveled to Washington too slowly to be of much use, and he pressured Tallmadge to speed up the process. The spies were constantly in danger of being found out.

However, the Culper Spy Ring is credited with several key achievements. In 1780, the French Army arrived to reinforce Washington’s men and their ships landed in Rhode Island. The British knew they were coming and the spy ring passed that information along to Washington. He arranged a ruse to distract the British and allow the French to land without conflict. The Culper Spy Ring also unearthed some of the information that would lead to the discovery of Benedict Arnold’s treason as well as the capture of a major British intelligence officer, John André.

So, after reading about the Culper Spy Ring, one historic interpreter who leads tours of the Washington house was happy to share the part of the story that made them most interested in the intricate spy ring that helped win the Revolution.

Thanks to modern depictions, when I think of a spy the image that immediately comes to mind is someone with all the newest technology and an expensive taste in cars and clothes. Those that made up the Culper Spy Ring couldn’t be farther from the glamorized and romanticized depiction of spies that we have come so used to seeing. Though the five that made up the ring were from different walks of life and social statuses, they worked together (not always seamlessly) for a cause they believed to be worth more than their own lives. Through rather mundane means and careful exchanges, they were able to provide the key information for Washington under the nose of the enemy. The daring escapes across water by Caleb Brewster in a rowboat while taunting the most powerful naval force in the world were both hilarious and unbelievable. Brewster’s personality and general lifestyle makes him the odd one out in my mind. However, he also seems to be one of the most willing in many cases and jokes about the British not being able to catch him. Brewster’s personality more closely matches that classic spy image but his means are what really catch your attention. – Hunter Robinson

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

“Your Entire George Washington”: The Affection Between George and Martha

After George Washington died on December 14, 1799, his wife, Martha, burned all of their correspondence. From the perspective of a historian, her decision devastates. However, it was a common 18th century practice for married couples to burn personal correspondence after the death of one spouse. Perhaps it was a way for the surviving spouse to keep a portion of their loved one to themselves, especially in couples where the public might have a keen interest. Nonetheless, the loss of letters that display affection can often lead to speculation. For example, George Washington never seems to escape rumors about his teenage-crush, Sally Fairfax, as well as the fallacy that he only married Martha for her money. These two claims have been debated by historians practically since George’s death.

Despite Martha’s efforts to conceal the private life of her and her husband, whether on purpose or on accident, she missed two letters. These letters, both from George to Martha, were found caught behind a drawer in her desk by her granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis Peter, who received the desk as part of her inheritance. The letters were written within five days of each other.

The Wedding of Washington and Martha Custis (1854) by Junius Brutus Stearns

Painting in the 1850s, artist Junius Brutus Stearns imagined how the wedding of George Washington and Martha Custis on January  might have looked. Credit: Library of Congress

In June of 1775, the marriage between George and Martha Washington entered the biggest challenge it ever faced. A month earlier, George had arrived in Philadelphia, after being persuaded to attend the meeting of the Second Continental Congress. While he contributed to several committees, by June the other members of Congress realized Washington’s true value lay in his previous military service during the French and Indian War. George’s fate to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army was sealed even though the official announcement wouldn’t come until June 19.

The day before, on June 18, 1775, George Washington penned a letter to Martha and informed her that, instead of returning to Mount Vernon, he would leave for Boston to take command of the army very soon. In the letter, he expressed his reservations about taking the position of Commander-in-Chief, but also pointed out that it was his duty. He assured Martha “that I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home, than I have the most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay was to be Seven times Seven years.” The notion of desiring one month of marital bliss over 49 years anywhere else is certainly a window into George’s true feelings regarding his “dear Patsy”.

Over the next few days, as he prepared for his departure, George must have thought about his wife and pondered how long it would be until he saw her again. For that reason, he wrote her again on June 23, 1775, only five days later.  A shorter letter, but one that also expressed his true feelings, George wrote “I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time or distance can change.” It might seem like poetry or a line from the latest RomCom but, as he penned these words, his country, marriage, and life were each in a precarious position. Perhaps all of this was weighing on his shoulders and he felt the need to express his adoration for his wife. He closed the letter “Yr entire Go:Washington”.

Throughout history, George and Martha’s marriage has often been questioned. The lack of letters (due to the burning) left little evidence of any affection. Martha was a very wealthy widow when she agreed to marry the young upstart George. Many believe the marriage was strictly strategic. It was true that many marriages and many aspects of marriages in the 18th century were strategic. It was also true that, as a young man, George had eyes for Sally Fairfax. However, the two letters between George and Martha that survive demonstrate the real warmth and adoration George felt for his wife.

If there is a lack of evidence in letters showing Martha reciprocating George’s affection, there is evidence in other places. Martha is said to have called him “my dearest” or sometimes “old man.” I imagine that during his more stressful moments, like many husbands, George turned to his wife for comfort, advice, and perhaps to just vent. There is evidence that Martha, who was publicly disinterested in politics, made a comment on the final presidential election of her life. Thomas Jefferson, who had been a thorn in George’s side throughout his presidency, stopped at Mount Vernon for the first and only visit he would ever make there. Martha referred to the visit as the “most painful occurrence of her life.” Furthermore, when Jefferson was elected president in 1800, she stated it was the “greatest misfortune our nation has ever experienced.” She despised Jefferson for his years of his opposition to her husband. A wife supposedly indifferent to her husband probably would not feel so strongly about one of his rivals.

The Washington Family (late 1790s) by Edward Savage

The Washington Family (late 1790s) by Edward Savage showing George and Martha, of course. There is also George Washington “Washy” Parke Custis and Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, Martha’s grandchildren and George’s adopted children, as well as an enslaved man, perhaps Billy Lee, George’s manservant or valet. Credit: National Gallery of Art

The couple would be a little less than a month shy of their 41st wedding anniversary when George died on December 14, 1799.  When he died, he famously uttered the words “’Tis well.” After years of being asked to make sacrifices, years of being separated from her husband for long stretches of time, Martha echoed her husband saying “’Tis well, all is now over. I shall soon follow him. I have no other trials to pass through.”

Whether you find the few letters and stories of their affection convincing or not, I think it can be agreed that George and Martha’s marriage was one of strength and balance. They completed each other in several ways even though their personalities were quite different. The 6 foot, 3 inch George was the yin to Martha’s 4 foot, 11 inch yang.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

Family Leaders Guiding a Younger Generation: George and Betty’s Letters

George Washington was the oldest of Augustine and Mary Washington’s five children. The next oldest was daughter Betty, who was born 14 months after George and was his only sister.

George and Betty are immensely important to us at George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore. They spent their formative years at Ferry Farm and Betty called Kenmore home for two decades.  As main characters in our historic sites’ stories, we often ponder what their relationship as siblings was like.

The only way to gauge George and Betty’s relationship is through two dozen letters they wrote to each other between 1779 and 1796.  As we saw in our first post about the two letters Betty wrote to George during the Revolutionary War, theirs was a complex relationship of sibling love and camaraderie strained by intermittent conflict.  The wartime letters revealed a sadness over extended absences and stress from the tensions and difficulties of George’s wartime position as the new nation’s leader.

This second post in our multi-part examination of George and Betty’s sibling relationship deals with their roles as leaders of the Washington and Lewis families.  They were the eldest of the Washington siblings and, after 1781, Betty was the widowed matriarch of the Lewises.  In these roles, Betty and George both cared for and guided a brood of children, grandchildren, step-children, nieces, and nephews.  In fact, of their twenty-four surviving letters, thirteen of them deal substantially with the life of some younger member of the extended Washington-Lewis families.  Most of these 13 letters focused on niece Harriot Washington, whose saga we’ve previously written about here and here.  The others dealt with Robert and Howell Lewis, both sons of Betty and nephews of George, who each became his secretaries for a time.

Robert Lewis was 20-years-old when Uncle Washington was inaugurated president on April 30, 1789.  Robert saw opportunity in George’s position and apparently requested, through Betty, that he might work for the new president.  Uncle Washington replied to Betty with an offer for Robert to be one of his secretaries, writing “I have thought it probable that I may have occasion for a young person in my family of a good disposition, who writes a good hand, and who can confine himself a certain reasonable number of hours in the 24 to the recording of letters in books.”  George warned that Robert’s pay “cannot be great as there are hundreds [of others] who would be glad to come in)” but, if he was okay with a relatively small salary, George would “be very glad to give him the preference.”  In fact, Robert was paid $300 per year, the smallest amount among Washington’s secretaries.  Since Robert was family, however, he could reside with the Washingtons in New York “at no expence (except in the article of clothing) as he will be one of the family and live as we do.”  George desired to know immediately if Robert would accept the offer and, if so, would his nephew accompany Martha “(and at her expence, as she will want somebody to accompany her) when I send my horses back [to Virginia] after I am fixed in New York.”  Robert himself enthusiastically replied to this offer, writing “I shall ever consider myself under a thousand obligations for the proffered post, and think the confinement you speak off rather a pleasure, and hope from my assiduous attention to merit that station.”  Robert Lewis worked as secretary for George until early 1791, when he returned home to get married.

Roughly a year and a half later Robert’s younger brother Howell Lewis, who was at that time also age 20, was offered a secretarial position by President Washington.  George wrote to Betty on April 8, 1792, proposing…

If your Son Howell is living with you, and not usefully employed in your own Affairs; and should incline to spend a few months with me, as a writer in my Office (if he is fit for it) I will allow him at the rate of Three hundred dollars a year, provided he is diligent in discharging the duties of it from breakfast until dinner—Sundays excepted.

This sum will be punctually paid him and I am particular in declaring beforehand what I require, and what he may expect, that there may be no disappointment, or false expectations on either side. He will live in the family in the same manner his brother Robert did. If the offer is acceptable he must hold himself in readiness to come on immediately upon my giving him notice.

I take it for granted that he writes a fair & legible hand, otherwise he would not answer my purpose; as it is for recording letters, and other papers I want him. That I may be enabled to judge of his fitness let him acknowledge the receipt of this letter with his own hand, and say whether he will accept the offer here made him, or not. If he does, & I find him qualified from the specimen he gives in his letter I will immediately desire him to come on which he must do without a moments delay, or I shall be obliged to provide another instead of him.

Betty replied to George, reporting that Howell was away at the time but that she had dispatched George’s offer to him and expected an answer in two weeks’ time.  She worried that Howell’s “very Slender Education” and “his Fathers Death at so Early a Period has been a great disadvantage to him” for he was “left without any Person of Age and Judgement” to guide him.  Howell, Betty said, had to rely on only himself to improve his lot in life and was “not very well informd.”  She closed by praising her son’s “exceeding Good disposition,” felt that “the employment you have design’d for him not difficult,” and he could serve George satisfactorily.

Howell accepted the position, writing to his Uncle Washington that “I consider myself extremely favour’d by your proposal of a birth in your family & shall chearfully accept it provided my probation is deemed satisfactory—I lament that I have not been more attentive to the improvement of my writing tho hope that I shall soon be qualified to do the business for which you mean to enploy me.”

Howell soon set out to join the President in Philadelphia, the national capital since late 1790, carrying another letter from Betty for George with him.  She wrote

You will receive this by Howell, who seems Very happy In the thought of becoming One of your family,1 I sincerely wish he may be Equal to the task you desire for him, he has Promis’d me to Indeaver to Please, and by Close application to improve him self, it is with Infinite Pleasure to my self that he has a Prospect of geting in a Place where he may receive so much advantage to him self, his Fortune being very small there is little Prospect of happiness in this world without thay Can get into Busness of some sort.

In a letter to Charles Carter of Ludlow, Washington revealed that, in actuality, he had “no real want . . . of Howell Lewis” but had offered him the work because “he was spending his time rather idly” and was very slenderly provided for by his father.”  George thought that “by taking him under my care, I might impress him with ideas, and give him a turn to some pursuit or other that might be serviceable to him hereafter.”  Howell worked as secretary until July 1793, when his uncle tapped him to be manager at Mount Vernon.

So, as might be expected between the eldest siblings of a family, much of the correspondence and relationship between Betty and George Washington focused on their respective and extended families’ offspring.  George and Betty were the family leaders and propriety dictated that they work together when necessary to provide for and guide these children, grandchildren, stepchildren, nieces, and nephews to success in life.  As we have seen, earlier with Harriot, and now with Robert and Howell, nearly half of Betty and George’s surviving letters and thus their relationship dealt in some fashion with matters concerning the Washington and Lewis families’ younger generations.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Little George’s Grand Tour of Europe [Photos]

A staff member who works at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore vacationed in England, Austria, and Hungary last September and October.  Little George accompanied her and enjoyed seeing new sites and delving into the history of Europe.  As the real George Washington left the shores of North America only once to accompany his ailing brother Lawrence to Barbados, this was a chance for Little George to experience an abbreviated version of the traditional Grand Tour of Europe popular in the 18th century.

The first stop was London, where George’s Revolutionary War nemesis King George III once lived, and where Little George already spent some time last summer.  On this return trip for Little George, we saw the usual sites, such as the Tower of London, Parliament, and Big Ben (which was covered in scaffolding), but also mixed in a little ancient history, iconic pubbing, and English football.

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Little George outside the Stanhope Arms.

Upon arrival, we immediately had to have the nation’s favorite dish, some traditional Fish and Chips! The Stanhope Arms, a pub built in 1853, used to have a private jazz club upstairs and was visited often by the author during her college junior year abroad (1979-1980).

At Chelsea Football Club’s home field of Stamford Bridge, we watched Liverpool Football Club win the match from the nosebleed section of the stadium. Look closely and you can see Little George participating in the opening ceremonies!

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Stamford Bridge, home field of Chelsea Football Club.

On a river cruise we passed beneath the iconic Tower Bridge over the River Thames. Built between 1886 and 1894 in the Gothic style, the bridge stills opens to river traffic.  Little George is waiting in line to enter the exhibition inside the Tower.

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Tower Bridge over the River Thames.

Mudlarking along the Thames’s foreshore can reveal centuries of history hidden among the cobbles on the riverbank. Fragments of medieval and modern pottery, glass and ceramic bottles, tobacco pipe stems, buckles and buttons are all mixed in with 1st century roman roofing tiles, prehistoric tools, World War II shrapnel and spent shells from the Blitz. Little George was very helpful in spying things as he was so close to the ground! During our search of the shore, we found what may have been a Roman roofing tile (below right) from when the Romans ruled Britain between 43 and 410 AD.

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Chocolate with Mozart’s image is in every confectioner’s window in Salzburg.

After London, we headed for the Continent to begin our Grand Tour-inspired travels.  Our first European stop was Salzburg, Austria, the birth place of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a classical pianist and composer who lived from 1756 to 1791.  Mozart and other contemporaries, such as Haydn, were extremely popular and well-known during their lifetimes, and copies of their compositions were present in Washington’s personal musical collection.  Mozart and Washington would never meet, but one can imagine George and his family enjoying Mozart’s music after hosting a dinner party.

A side trip to Festung Hohenwerfen, a medieval castle where the popular 1968 World War II film “Where Eagles Dare” was filmed, included a fascinating falconry exhibition.  We watched as a falcon was released, flew around in a huge arc over the castle valley, and then swooped back to the handler, just missing our heads. Little George would have been easy prey for these hunters so, although always fascinated by anything to do with hunting, he kept his distance.

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A falconer holds aloft a falcon as he prepares to demonstrate how to hunt small prey using the birds.

08 (Wikipedia)

Castle Hohenwerfen, where the war movie “Where Eagles Dare”, starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton, was filmed in 1968. Credit: Memorator / Wikipedia

After walking the streets and alleys of Salzburg’s old city and crossing the river to stroll through the world famous Mirabell Gardens and Palace, we retired for a late afternoon respite in a local beer hall, the Augustiner Brau. This brewery has been serving beer since 1621 and is Austria’s largest.  We sat in one of several halls inside the brewery and tried our best to have a conversation with a local using high school German and an English-German dictionary.  During the 18th century, whether in the colonies or Europe, beer was drunk daily since water was looked upon as unsafe, which it often was.  As a child, George Washington drank “small beer,” which contained almost no alcohol. In later times, Washington built a whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon. In 1799, his distillery produced almost 11,000 gallons of whiskey.

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Augustiner Brau beer hall in Salzburg.

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Little George enjoying a big mug of beer.

In Halstatt, Austria, we enjoyed walking this picturesque town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and visiting the famous bronze-age salt mine and graveyard in the mountains above the village. The unique preservative qualities of salt and sealed caves allowed the preservation of two thousand-year-old leather goods, such as the sandals pictured below. In contrast, acidic soil conditions at Ferry Farm and Kenmore do not allow the preservation of 200-year-old leather items.

The 19th century excavation of the Halstatt’s bronze-age cemetery and its thousands of funerary goods led to the designation of the epoch from the 8th to the 5th century BC as the “Halstatt Culture.”

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Halstatt, Austria, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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4th Century BC leather shoe found in the salt mines

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Bronze Age Grave goods

 

Of the many sites we visited at our next stop in Vienna, Austria’s capital, our time spent at the world famous Spanish Riding School was perhaps the highlight of Little George’s trip.  Here at the Winter Riding School located in the Hofburg Palace, we watched the famed Lipizzaners and their riders perform their morning exercises to classical Viennese waltzes.  George Washington himself was an excellent horseman and would have appreciated the dedication these riders demonstrated towards learning their lessons.

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Little George enjoying the Lipizzaners at the Hofburg Palace.

On a side trip to Melk Abbey, a Benedictine abbey in the town of Melk overlooking the Danube River, Little George had the pleasure of meeting up with a contemporary of his, Empress Maria Theresa, a member of the Hapsburg dynasty and Queen of Austria and Hungary. Maria Theresa reigned from 1740 to 1780. They had much to talk about, as she was the first and only female Hapsburg ruler, and George was the first American president.

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Little George and Maria Theresa having a private chat at Melk Abbey.

Melk Abbey is noted for its extensive library containing hundreds of medieval manuscripts. George himself did not have the classical education in an English school that his older half-brothers had, but he spent his life reading as much as he could and enjoyed amassing a library of his own at Mount Vernon.

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The library at Melk Abbey.

After a short stay in Sopron, Hungary, our last stop was Budapest, the capital of Hungary.  We spent five days here, exploring and learning about the ancient and modern history of the city, walking around the castle on top of the hill, taking road trips outside the city to visit more castles, and taste testing the new fall Hungarian wines.

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St. Gellert Thermal Bath and Swimming Pools.

One of the last things we did in Budapest was visit the famous St. Gellert Thermal Bath and Swimming Pools.  It is a natural hot spring spa housed in a beautiful building with additional outdoor pools and relaxing spa treatments.  George Washington was certainly no stranger to the healing powers of hot springs, as he visited and enjoyed the warm springs in present-day Berkeley Springs, WV, and eventually purchased property in the town, which in his day was called Bath.

Then it was time to head back home.  Little George had a wonderful time exploring the archaeology and history of our host cities, meeting contemporary persons of fame, relaxing in the spas, cafes, pubs, and restaurants, and trying new foods.

Judy Jobrack
Archaeology Lab Assistant and Co-Field Director

George Washington’s “Last Act of Personal Duty”

The Presidential election of 1789 looked quite different than our current election day. For one, the election had to last almost a month to ensure that each state had time for their voters to choose their candidate. Then, in February, the Electoral College announced that Washington would be the first president with a resounding 69 electoral votes. Along with this victory, George Washington was unanimously chosen by the popular vote to lead our country. No other president has accomplished this feat. To most, Washington was the obvious choice. His status as a war hero, his strong self-will, and his determination to provide our new nation with solid-ground to build upon were just a few of the things that led him to victory.

When George was first notified of his new job title, he was at Mount Vernon and knew he must prepare to travel to New York City, the nation’s first capital city, to be inaugurated. First, he started by preparing Mount Vernon for his departure. He ordered his overseers, farm managers, secretaries, and even nephews keep him up-to-date on all goings-on while he was away. Washington, like most landed-gentry in the new country, was land rich and cash poor. So he also wrote a letter to a friend and merchant, Richard Conway, asking to borrow money. “Five hundred pounds would enable me to discharge what I owe in Alexandria &ca;” he wrote, “and to leave the State (if it shall not be permitted me to remain at home in retirement) without doing this, would be exceedingly disagreeable to me.” From this letter, we can see that Washington apparently was not especially enthusiastic about his new appointment. Nonetheless, he saw undertaking the presidency as his duty as expressed in his first inaugural address.

Among the other plans and arrangements he made, George visited his mother Mary in Fredericksburg. Once Richard Conway had agreed to lend him the needed funds, Washington thanked him and wrote that he would “set of tomorrow for Fredericksburg in order probably to discharge the last Act of personal duty, I may, (from her age) ever have it in my power to pay my Mother it would be very inconvenient for me.” Indeed, by 1789, Mary had fallen quite ill with breast cancer. She had been sick for a while, but only recently had the family realized she was ultimately nearing her end.

Washington's Last Interview with his Mother

“Washington’s Last Interview with his Mother” (1860) by an unknown artists, printed by H.E. Coates. Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

It had all started in April of 1787. George was heading to Philadelphia to join the Constitutional Convention when he received an urgent letter from Fredericksburg. He wrote to Henry Knox to inform him of his delay in reaching the convention, saying “I am summoned by an express who assures me not a moment is to be lost, to see a mother, and only Sister (who are supposed to be in the agonies of death) expire; and I am hastening to obey this melancholy call, after having just bid an eternal farewell to a much loved Brother who was the intimate companion of my youth and the most affectionate friend of my ripened age.” The previous few months had been rough for the entire family, as George’s letter suggests. John Augustine had passed away suddenly and it had taken its toll. George himself was complaining of arthritis, saying that he was “so much afflicted with a rheumatic complaint (of which I have not been entirely free for Six months) as to be under the necessity of carrying my arm in a sling for the last ten days”.

Upon arriving in Fredericksburg, after a hasty pace of a ride, George found Betty to be doing much better. Mary, on the other hand, he said “left little hope of her recovery as she was exceedingly reduced and much debilitated by age and the disorder.” It is not certain that this bout of illness had anything to do with the cancer that would later take Mary’s life, but the illness certainly kept the children, especially Betty, watchful of Mary’s health.

Mary Washington House

The Mary Washington House in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Credit: Beth Hosier/The George Washington Foundation

Mary Washington Monument

Mary Washington Monument in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Credit: Beth Hosier/The George Washington Foundation

So in 1789, when Mary’s health was deteriorating once more, George knew that he had to visit her before he left for New York and the presidency. Later, he wrote Betty, “When I was last at Fredericksburg, I took a final leave of my Mother, never expecting to see her more.” Many say that when George visited Mary in March of 1789, it was to ask for a blessing on his new position as President of the United States. Unfortunately, there is no documentation of what their visit entailed other than Washington spending time with his sick mother. Furthermore, given his personal adversity to taking the position, it seems unlikely that he would have needed or wanted permission to take the job. However, I think it can be said that given Mary’s strong influence as a single parent, George’s sense of duty may have been all the blessing or permission he needed from his mother.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services