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.

“Mrs. Washington ate a whole heap of it.”

I thought I would continue in a lighter vein with some insights into the lives of George and Martha Washington. William Maclay represented Pennsylvania in the United States Senate from 1789 to 1791. The diary he kept during that time is one of the few records of what went on in that body—sessions would not become public until 1795. He was a staunch critic of the Federalist party as is clear from his journal entries. He also commented on his other activities, reporting that on June 11, 1789 he had dinner with Robert Morris and his family—Morris was the other senator from Pennsylvania. He recounted an amusing anecdote related by MARY WHITE MORRIS about an experience she had while dining with the Washingtons.

Dined this day with Mr. Morris. Mr. Fitzsimons and Mr. Clymer, all the company, except Mrs. Morris and three children. Mrs. Morris talked a great deal after dinner. She did it gracefully enough, this being a gayer place, and she being here considered as at least the second female character at court. As to taste, etiquette, etc., she is certainly first. I thought she discovered a predilection for New York, but perhaps she was only doing it justice, while my extreme aversion, like a jealous sentinel, is for giving no quarter. I, however, happened to mention that they were ill supplied with the article of cream. Mrs. Morris had much to say on this subject; declared they had done all they could, and even sent to the country all about, but that they could not be supplied. She told many anecdotes on this subject; particularly how two days ago she dined at the President’s. A large, fine-looking trifle was brought to table, and appeared exceedingly well indeed. She was helped by the President, but on taking some of it she had to pass her handkerchief to her mouth and rid herself of the morsel; on which she whispered the President. The cream of which it is made had been unusually stale and rancid; on which the General changed his plate immediately. “But,” she added with a titter, “Mrs. Washington ate a whole heap of it.”

Maclay’s Journal can be found HERE, pages 73-74. The portrait of Mary White Morris was painted by John Trumbull in 1790 and is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

” to my … man William … I give immediate freedom”

The subject of the Washington slaves still piques me so I decided to look further into the matter. At the time of George Washington’s death in 1799 there were 318 slaves living at Mount Vernon. Of that number 123 belonged to Washington himself. The others were dower slaves from the estate of Martha’s first husband Daniel Parke Custis. Since he died intestate Martha received a life interest in one-third of his estate, including the slaves. Upon her death, the dower slaves and other property were to revert to the Custis estate to be shared by the heirs.

Although recent posts have been concerned with the escape of Oney Judge Staines and Hercules, other slaves had “absconded” from Mount Vernon. In April of 1781 eighteen slaves fled to the British whose warship the HMS Savage was anchored in the Potomac. Washington employed a slave catcher to retrieve seven of them. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote a post in 2012 on another of Washington’s slaves, Harry, who tried to escape but was caught. He succeeded in his second attempt and was one of the many slaves the British evacuated from New York in 1783.

In his will drawn up several months before his death Washington made provision for the eventual emancipation of the 123 slaves he owned. This was to take place after the death of Martha. Here is the section of the will that deals with this subject:

Upon the decease [of] my wife, it is my Will & desire th[at] all the Slaves which I hold in [my] own right, shall receive their free[dom]. To emancipate them during [her] life, would, tho’ earnestly wish[ed by] me, be attended with such insu[pera]ble difficulties on account of thei[r interm]ixture by Marriages with the [dow]er Negroes, as to excite the most pa[in]ful sensations, if not disagreeabl[e c]onsequences from the latter, while [both] descriptions are in the occupancy [of] the same Proprietor; it not being [in] my power, under the tenure by which [th]e Dower Negroes are held, to man[umi]t them. And whereas among [thos]e who will recieve freedom ac[cor]ding to this devise, there may b[e so]me, who from old age or bodily infi[rm]ities, and others who on account of [the]ir infancy, that will be unable to [su]pport themselves; it is m[y Will and de]sire that all who [come under the first] & second descrip[tion shall be comfor]tably cloathed & [fed by my heirs while] they live; and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable, or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court until they shall arrive at the age of twenty five years; and in cases where no record can be produced, whereby their ages can be ascertained, the judgment of the Court, upon its own view of the subject, shall be adequate and final. The Negros thus bound, are (by their Masters or Mistresses) to be taught to read & write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation, agreeably to the Laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, providing for the support of Orphan and other poor Children. and I do hereby expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever. And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors hereafter named, or the Survivors of them, to see that th[is cla]use respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect or delay, after the Crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the aged and infirm; seeing that a regular and permanent fund be established for their support so long as there are subjects requiring it; not trusting to the [u]ncertain provision to be made by individuals. And to my Mulatto man William (calling himself William Lee) I give immediate freedom; or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which ha[v]e befallen him, and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional in him to do so: In either case however, I allow him an annuity of thirty dollars during his natural life, whic[h] shall be independent of the victuals and cloaths he has been accustomed to receive, if he chuses the last alternative; but in full, with his freedom, if he prefers the first; & this I give him as a test[im]ony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.

Several points are worthy of note. Washington thought it would be too difficult to free his slaves upon his death as many had intermarried with the dower slaves so he specified that they should be freed when Martha died. Secondly, as was frequently the case with slaves who were freed by their owners, provision was made for the care of emancipated slaves who were too old or disabled to manage on their own as well as care for those who were too young to do so. Washington specified that the latter should be taught to read and write and be equipped with skills which would allow them to make a living. Finally there is the case of William Lee whom Washington had purchased and who had attended him in various capacities in the course of his life, both during war and peace; Washington freed him outright and bequeathed him an annuity.

Martha Washington decided to free her husband’s slaves before she died and had the legal papers necessary to do so drawn up in December of 1800. On January 1, 1801, the slaves that belonged to George Washington were freed, some two years before Martha’s own death. Writing on the subject to her sister, Abigail Adams suggested that Martha Washington’s action may have been motivated by self-interest. “In the state in which they were left by the General, to be free at her death,” Adams wrote, “she did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their Hands, many of whom would be told that it was [in] their interest to get rid of her.” Did Martha fear for her life? I think not. More likely, as has been suggested, she may not have liked to be reminded of her death in this manner.
George Washington’s will, in its entirety, can be found HERE. See this WEBSITE for information about Washington’s slaves. Read Henry Louis Gates’ article HERE. In John Trumbull’s portrait of Washington painted in 1780 (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) William Lee can be seen on the right.

The Public Universal Friend

I received a most unusual book for Christmas. Titled The Public Universal Friend—Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America by Paul B. Moyer (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), it was given to me by a family member who knows of my interest in American women who lived in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Jemima Wilkinson, the subject of the book, was born in Rhode Island in 1752. She was the first American-born female religious leader. (Mother Anne Lee who founded the Shakers emigrated from England.) Raised as a Quaker, she was attracted to a splinter group called the New Light Baptists whose emphasis was on a more emotional religious experience. As a result she was disowned by her Quaker meeting.
Wilkinson fell ill in 1776 and was near death. She revived and claimed that she had in fact died and been returned to life by God as a genderless prophet to preach about the imminent Final Judgment and the need for repentance. Wilkinson no longer answered to her name but called herself The Public Universal Friend. She wore men’s clothing, her hair hanging long and loose, and she rode a horse. Traveling throughout southern New England and as far south as Philadelphia, the Friend attracted a following. Ruth Pritchard, a convert, had this to say in a reminiscence about the Friend’s early ministry.

The Friend of Sinners began to serve In the year 1777 When this Nation was still in arms and America had embroiled her hands in human blood. There appeared the Messenger of Peace going from City to City and from Village to village proclaiming the News of Salvation to all that would Repent and believe the Gospel. The Friend was not staid by guards of armed men. She went through to visit the poor condemned prisoners in their Chains. Naked swords shook over the Friend’s head, she was not in terror because of the mighty Power of the Lord. No storms or severity of weather could hinder the Friend’s journey to speak unto Souls like the unwearied Sun, Determin’d its faithful race to run, spreading heavenly benediction far abroad that wandering sinners might return to God.

There was a mystical element to the Friend’s teachings—she put great stock in the interpretation of dreams—and she advocated though did not require sexual abstinence. In 1788 her followers purchased land in western New York and established a settlement called Jerusalem (now Penn Yan), where they could be sheltered from the temptations of the “wicked world.” There the Friend exercised considerable control over her followers, including men, requiring obedience and deference as befitted an exalted leader. She lived a comfortable life amid many material possessions in a house constructed for her. The image shows the symbols which adorned her carriage. When the Friend died in 1819, the religious movement without its charismatic leader declined in numbers and eventually disappeared.
Jemima Wilkinson is a strange and fascinating character who went beyond the bounds of social norms in the period in which she lived. She greatly expanded on the Quaker tradition of female leadership, indeed was a gender nonconformist who advocated equality of the sexes. As Moyer puts it: “While not a self-conscious effort to upend the social order, the Universal Friend’s ministry provided a space for the renegotiation of what it meant to be a man and a woman. In particular it created new opportunities for the latter to exercise authority, achieve personal independence, and transcend the traditional roles of wife and mother.”
Quoted passage from Moyer’s book, p 23. The portrait is by J.L.D Mathies, 1816, Wilkinson Collection, Yates County History Center, Penn Yan, NY, also from Moyer’s book p 191.

posted February 1st, 2016 by Janet, comments (1), CATEGORIES: Religion, Wilkinson, Jemima

Bake a cherry pie

Since recent posts have be concerned with the slave Hercules, George Washington’s highly regarded chef who escaped, I thought I would bring to your attention a book describing how the Washingtons’ dinner table might have looked and what the menus were likely to have included. Dining With the Washingtons, Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon edited by Stephen A. McLeod and published by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association contains many beautiful photographs of table settings, prepared foods, and gardens at Mount Vernon as well as informative essays and several recipes. With Valentine’s Day coming up as well as George Washington’s birthday you might want to prepare a cherry pie. (The “I cannot tell a lie” story about George chopping down the cherry tree is a myth invented by Washington’s biographer Mason Weems.) See the recipe here.

posted January 28th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Food, Hercules, Mount Vernon, Washington, George, Washington, Martha

Follow-up on Hercules

Apropos the recent controversy over the depiction of Hercules, the cook in the household of George and Martha Washington, in A Birthday Cake for George Washington (see previous post), here are some additional interesting details about Hercules. The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article on January 23, 2016 describing work on the President’s mansion at Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia that uncovered the kitchen where Hercules worked. Ironically it is located just in front of the new Liberty Bell Center. Also cited is a farm report from Mount Vernon that shows that Hercules “absconded” on Washington’s birthday in 1797.
Louis-Philippe, the future king of France, visiting Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797 recorded in his diary: “The general’s cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, ‘Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.’”* How did Louis-Philippe know that Hercules was in Philadelphia? Perhaps Washington said that he suspected that was the case.
At any rate Washington requested that contacts in Philadelphia be on the lookout for Hercules. His former steward Frederick Kitt replied in a letter dated January 1798: “I have been making distant enquiries about Herculas but did not till about four weeks ago hear anything of him and that was only that [he] was in town neither do I yet know where he is, and that will be very difficult to find out in the secret manner necessary to be observed on the occasion. I shall however use the utmost exertions in my power, and hereafter inform you of my sucess.”
Hercules was never recovered. In his will Washington specified that the slaves he owned be manumitted. After his death in 1799, Martha saw that his wishes were carried out. So Hercules became legally free although he did not know it. In 1801 Martha Washington wrote a letter to Richard Varick in New York indicating that she had learned that Hercules was in New York.** But nothing more was ever heard again of Hercules or his whereabouts.
The portrait shown is by Gilbert Stuart and is thought to be of Hercules. It is in the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid. Who commissioned it is a mystery. Would George Washington have wanted a portrait of his cook who was a slave? Could Hercules himself have commissioned it? It has been suggested by James Wemberley that the portrait ought to be in the White House Collection and that Michelle Obama might undertake to acquire it. I like the idea. See Wemberley’s article on a possible exchange.

* Louis-Philippe, Diary of My Travels in America, translation by Stephen Becker (New York: Delacorte Press, 1977), p. 32.
** Martha Washington to Col. Richard Varick, 15 December 1801. “Worthy Partner:” The Papers of Martha Washington, Joseph E. Fields, ed., (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 398-99.

posted January 25th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Food, Hercules, Mount Vernon, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, George, Washington, Martha

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