WELCOME TO THE BLOG IN THE WORDS OF WOMEN

Based largely on the book of the same name, the blog is a kind of trailer for it and the primary source material it contains. An invitation, you might say … to eavesdrop on the lives of women writing 250 years ago … to become acquainted with 144 little-known but amazingly articulate chroniclers … and to discover a valuable new perspective on the Revolutionary Era.

The women featured lived between 1765 and 1799. But once you attune your ears to their way of writing, their voices easily leapfrog across the centuries. Read just a few sentences and you’ll find yourself back in time, entering their concerns, sharing their feelings. And what they have to say is always fascinating, often eye-opening, sometimes heart-rending.

Please bookmark the blog and visit regularly to see which writers and issues are being featured. There are two new posts weekly: on Monday and Thursday. And do explore those related to the many topics listed on the right. In addition to posts based on the book, others introduce the writings of women who didn’t make it into the book or who turn up as a result of ongoing research. To subscribe via email, click here. Leave a comment. Email a question. And enjoy your visits.

“It is the easiest instrument to learn on”

In answer to George Washington’s letter (see previous post) HARRIOT WASHINGTON thanks him for his advice and promises to learn to be a help to her cousin Fanny Bassett Washington, the wife of George Washington’s nephew, George Augustine Washington, in running the household. In a subsequent letter Harriot again requests a “guittar”.

Mt Vernon May 28 1792I now take up my pen to write to my dear Uncle, I hope you arrived safe in Philadelphia, and at the time you exspected, If my dear Uncle finds, it convenient to give me a guittar, I will thank you if you will direct it to be made with key’s and string’s both, as they are easier to lear[n] to play on, and not so easy to be out of order, but if one with key’s, is dearer than without, I shall be much obleiged to you for one with string’s, I should not trouble you for a guttar, if I was not certain that I could learn myself, every person that I have asked say’s that It is the easiest instrument to learn on that is, and any body that can turn a tune, can play on a guittar, but Mrs Bushrod Washington, has been so kind as to offer to teach me if I could not learn myself.

If you please to give my love to Aunt Washington[,] Nelly and Washington. I am My dear Uncle Your affectionate Neice
Harriot Washington

Washington acceded to Harriot’s wishes this time. On June 27 he paid $17 for a guitar for her. (From Decatur, Private Affairs of George Washington, 273, quoted in source cited below.) Bushrod Washington was the son of George Washington’s brother John Augustine. His wife was Julia Ann Blackburn whose portrait (above) by Chester Harding hung in the JFK White House; it was photographed by Robert Knudson. Bushrod inherited Mount Vernon upon the death of Martha Washington.

“To George Washington from Harriot Washington, 28 May 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-10-02-0275. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 10, 1 March 1792 – 15 August 1792, ed. Robert F. Haggard and Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002, pp. 425–426.]

“the folly of misspending time”

HARRIOT WASHINGTON, the orphaned daughter of George Washington’s brother Samuel, lived at Mount Vernon under the care of Frances [Fanny] Bassett Washington from 1785 until 1792 when she was sent to live with George Washington’s sister, Betty Washington Lewis, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Washington was not happy with Harriot’s comportment and feared for her future. He could be quite severe on occasion and was certainly not adverse to giving advice when he felt it was warranted. The President wrote to her from Philadelphia on October 30th, 1791:

…. You are just entering into the state of womanhood without the watchful eye of a Mother to admonish, or the protecting aid of a Father to advise and defend you; you may not be sensible that you are at this moment about to be stamped with that character which will adhere to you through life——the consequence of which you have not perhaps attended to, but be assured it is of the utmost importance that you should.

Your Cousins, with whom you live are well qualified to give you advice, and I am sure they will if you are disposed to receive it——But if you are disobliging——self willed and untowardly it is hardly to be expected that they will engage themselves in unpleasant disputes with you, especially Fanny, whose mild and placid temper will not permit her to exceed the limits of wholesome admonition or gentle rebuke. Think then to what dangers a giddy girl of 15 or 16 must be exposed in circumstances like these——To be under but little or no controul may be pleasing to a mind that does not reflect, but this pleasure cannot be of long duration, and reason, too late perhaps, may convince you of the folly of misspending time. You are not to learn, I am certain, that your fortune is small——supply the want of it then with a well cultivated mind. with dispositions to industry and frugality——with gentleness of manners——obliging temper——and such qualifications as will attract notice, and recommend you to a happy establishment for life.

You might instead of associating with those from whom you can derive nothing that is good, but may have observed every thing that is deceitful, lying, and bad, become the intimate companion of and aid to your Cousin in the domestic concerns of the family.

Many Girls before they have arrived at your age have been found so trustworthy as to take the whole trouble of a family from their Mothers; but it is by a steady and rigid attention to the rules of propriety that such confidence is obtained, and nothing would give me more pleasure than to hear that you had acquired it——The merits and benefits of it would redound more to your own advantage in your progress thro’ life, and to the person with whom you may in due time form a matrimonial connexion than to any others——but to none would such a circumstance afford more real satisfaction than to Your affectionate Uncle
G. Washington

Note that uppermost in Washington’s mind was that Harriot develop “qualifications” that will make her attractive as a potential marriage partner, especially since she did not possess a substantial dowery. An advantageous marriage was the goal of most girls of good family.

“From George Washington to Harriot Washington, 30 October 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-09-02-0074. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 9, 23 September 1791 – 29 February 1792, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000, pp. 130–131.]

“send me a gettar”

George Washington had five full siblings and three half siblings. His father Augustine remarried (Mary Ball) after his first wife died. George was the eldest child of that union. George was close to his half brother Lawrence who, when he died of consumption, willed Mount Vernon to him. Betty, his sister, is said to have strikingly resembled him. She married Fielding Lewis and when he died, much in debt, George undertook to do what he could for her and her children.

George’s brother Samuel, two years his junior, gave him a lot of grief. Married five times he was always in financial difficulty. Exasperated, George wrote in 1781: “In God’s name how did my brother Samuel get himself in so enormously in debt?” Nevertheless George lent him rather large sums of money.

HARRIOT WASHINGTON (1776-1822) was one of Samuel’s children by his fourth wife whom George undertook to care for in 1785 after her father died and her stepmother remarried. Harriet was shuffled between relatives, living at Mount Vernon and with her Aunt Betty Lewis, Washington’s sister, from 1790 to 1795. George Washington was not too happy with Harriot’s behavior, considering her spoiled. She has “sense enough,” he told his sister, “but no disposition to industry nor to be careful of her Cloaths,” which are “(I am told) dabbed about in every hole & corner.” Sounds like a typical teenager to me. Harriot wrote several letters over the years to her uncle usually asking either for money or for specific items as in the following letter. Washington had assumed the office of president and was living in New York City with Martha and her grandchildren when Harriot penned this letter.

Mt Vernon April 2d 1790I now set down to write to my dear Uncle as I have not wrote to him since he left this place I should have done it but I thought you had so much business that I had better write to Aunt Washington yet I am sure you would be very glad to se me improveing myself by writeing letters to my friend’s.

I am a going to ask you My Dear Uncle to do something for me which I hope you will not be against but I am sure if you are it will be for my good, as all the young Ladyes are a learning musick, I will be very much obleiged to you if you will send me a gettar, there is a man here by the name of Tracy that teaches to play on the harpsicord & gettar, a gettar is so simple an instrument that five or six lessons would be sufficient for any body to learn, If you think it proper to send me a gettar I will thank you if you will send it by the first opportunity I was informed the other day that you and Aunt Washington were certainly a comeing home this Summer which gave me a great deal of pleasure for I want to se you very much.1

If you please to give my love to Aunt Washington[,] Nelly & Washington. I am My Dear Uncle your Sincere Neice
Harriot Washington.

Frank E. Grizzard, Jr., “Washington, Samuel, (1734-1781),” George! A Guide to All Things Washington, Charlottesville, VA: Mariner Publishing, 2005, 337-338. “To George Washington from Harriot Washington, 2 April 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-05-02-0199. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 310–311.]

“scarce an Evening . . . but we are entertained . . . “

ANNE BLAIR was born in May 1746, the seventh child of John and Mary Monro Blair. Her father was President of the Virginia Colonial Council. Anne concludes her letter to her sister MARY BLAIR BRAXTON writing about what was going on around her. Her sister had visitors who knew much of what she had planned to tell her. Nevertheless she added some interesting details. I am sure you have noticed that Anne uses apostrophes in plural words not just in possessives. A common practice at the time.

They are Building a steeple to our Church, the Door’s for that reason is open every day; and scarce an Evening . . . but we are entertained with the performances of Felton’s, Handel’s, Vi-vally’s. &c. &c. &c. &c. I could say a great deal about this, and that, & tother, but knowing the company you now have can tell all that I know, with greater ease than I can write it——will refer you to them; do ask a Thousand question’s, there is an abundance of New’s stiring. . . .

Did I tell you Major Watson’s Family was arrived? No, pshaw, yr Guests could have told you that. Oh! but they were not so polite as I was, I went to wait on them; the Eldest is about eighteen, a young Lady of good Sense, with an easy affable behavior, and I think handsome. The other about fourteen, has a Charming complexion, with good nature stamp’t in her Countenance; she wears her Hair down her Forehead & almost to her Eye-Brows, wch gives a just Idea at first sight, of what on a little acquaintance you find in reality——She is a Wild Philly.——Well come! I will rejoice you by telling you I have a pain in my Rist, consequently it obliges me to conclude: tho’ cannot without assuring you I am
yr truly Affec. Sisr.
A Blair

William Felton (1713-1769) was a British composer whose works were quite popular. I love Anne’s reference to Vivaldi; at least I think that’s whom she means.

On February 26, 1779, ANNE BLAIR married Colonel John Banister whose first two wives had died. They had two sons Theodorick Blair and John Monro Banister. The younger son married Mary Burton Bowling. Their son John later migrated to Alabama. Anne’s husband died in 1788; she survived until 1813.

In 1787 she wrote at least two letters to Thomas Jefferson in Paris requesting his assistance for Madame Oster, the wife of the French consul, who had been misrepresented by her husband to the French minister and was “suffering in a strange country.” She mentions Jefferson’s kind letter to her “better half.” (I was surprised to learn that the expression dates to the 16th century.) Jefferson replied to her and said that the matter of Madame Oster had been resolved. He asked: “Do all your desires center in your friends? Is there nothing you wish for yourself? The modes of Paris, it’s manufactures, it’s good things, do they furnish you no temptation to employ me?”

William and Mary Quarterly, Volume XVI, 1908, 179-80. See this SITE for more information about the Banister family history. Consult also the Blair, Banister, Braxton, Horner, Whiting Papers, 1760-1890. See Jefferson’s letter to Anne HERE.

posted June 12th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Banister, John, Blair, Anne, Braxton, Mary Blair, Jefferson, Thomas, Music

“it is time to spruce myself for dinner”

Below, ANNE BLAIR continues her long and frequently interrupted letter to her sister Mary. I love the way she refers to handkerchiefs——spelling it just the way it was/is often pronounced. I had no idea the word “duds” was in use back then. When I did a quick search I found that it had been used to refer to clothes for hundreds of years, since the Middle Ages in fact. Regarding Anne’s remark “it is time to spruce myself for dinner,” I was fascinated to learn that “spruce” originally had been used as an adjective describing items brought from Prussia, as in “spruce leather.” Toward the end of the 16th century it began to be used as a verb “to make trim and neat.”

I am sorry I gave you so much trouble about my long lawn aprons as I have them all; I lost the last of my Cambrick in King William (Hankerchiefs I mean) so that I did not bring one down with me——am much obliged for the care you have taken to get all my dud’s together. I have found one of ye Shifts which I will give Mrs. Starke for you. I cannot find that you have neglected putting up anything for Betsey [Mary’s daughter] [t]hat was necessary——adieu till tomorrow, it is time to spruce myself for dinner——after wch expect Company to Tea.

Good Morrow to you, Sisr. we spent a cheerful afternoon yesterday——Mrs. Dawson’s Family stay’d ye Evening with us, and ye Coach was at ye door to carry them Home, by ten o’clock; but everyone appearing in great spirits, it was proposed to set at ye Step’s and sing a few Song’s wch was no sooner said than done; while thus we were employ’d, a Candle & Lanthorn was observed to be coming up Street . . . no one took any notice of it——till we saw, who ever it was, stopt to listen to our enchanting Notes——each Warbler was immediately silenced; whereupon, the invader to our Melody, call’d out in a most rapturous Voice, Charming! Charming! proceed for God sake, or I go Home directly——no sooner were those words utter’d, than all as with one consent sprung from their Seats, and ye Air echoed with “pray, Walk in my Lord;” No——indeed, he would not, he would set on the Step’s too; so after a few ha, ha’s, and being told what all knew——that it was a delightful Evening, at his desire we strew’d the way over with Flowers &c. &c. till a full half hour was elaps’d, when all retir’d to their respective Homes.

Mrs. Dawson was the widow of the president of William & Mary College. The visitor was Norborne Berkeley, 4th Baron Botecourt, royal governor of Virginia. It sounds as if a good time was had by all.

William and Mary Quarterly, Volume XVI, 1908, 177-78.

posted June 5th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Amusements, Blair, Anne, Braxton, Mary Blair, Clothes

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