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.

“clanse the House from the garret to the sellers”

MARTHA WASHINGTON certainly knew exactly what she wanted to have done at Mount Vernon before she and the President arrived in the summer of 1792. The following letter to FANNY BASSETT WASHINGTON is full of instructions. The “Major” is George Augustine Washington, Fanny’s husband and the President’s nephew. He is obviously ill and, in fact, dies the next year, from tuberculosis it is thought. The couple have two children: Maria and Fayette. Martha’s spelling leaves a great deal to be desired but I expect readers will be able to grasp her meaning.

Philadelphia July the 1st 1792My Dear Fanny –

I am happy to hear of your letter of June the 25th that you and the children are well – and truly sorry you had not better accounts from the Major when you last heard from him – I hope in god that you have since had more favorable accounts from him – The President has fixed on the 12th to leave this place for Mount Vernon if nothing happens to prevent us – wish my dear Fanny that you would make Frank clanse the House from the garret to the sellers – have all the Beds aird and mended and the Bed cloths of every kind made very clean the Bed steads also well scalded – and the low bed steads put up to be ready to carry out of one room into another as you know they are often wanted. I have not a doubt but we shall have company all the time we are at home – I wish you to have all the chinia looked over, the closet clened and the glasses all washed and every thing in the closet as clean as can be than they will be ready when wanted with much less troable than to have them to look for when ever in hurry they may be wanted.

I do not wish to have the clouded cotten made into chear covers – nor the chares stuffed, or done anything to, till I come home as it is probable that the old covers will last as long as I shall stay home by a vessel that will live this in a day or two – I shall send several articles – that could not be had when we sent the last things round – I hope the major will not hurry him self back if he finds benefit from the mountain air it is of the greatest concequince that his health should be established and I hope he will be very careful in doing as the Doctors directs him – I shall be sorry not to see dear Little Maria if the jaunt is for her good – I must be content. I am glad that Fayette is recovered and hope I shall find you and the children quite well – impress it on the gardener to have every thing in his garden that will be nessary in the House keeping way as vegetable is the best part of our living in the country – I dare say you have made the table cloths as well as they can be done – as to the window curtain and bed curtain they may as well be put up – I shall send a carpit for our parlor so that it will be ready by the time I get there if the vessel lives this on tuesday as we expect

The President has given miss Harriot a guitarr – I have inclosed the key it is sent in the vessel with several other things – I shall be glad to have the little caps made and sent before I live this as I wish to give them to the ladie as soon as done we are all well – Mr & Mrs Lear intend a trip to the eastward when we set out for the southward – the weather is extremely warm hear and has been so for some days past – all hear join me in love to you and children – and believe me my dear

Fanny your most
affectionately
M Washington

Note the reference to the “guitarr” that the President gave to his niece Harriot. See POST.

Citation: Martha Washington, “Letter, to Fanny Bassett Washington, July 1, 1792,” online HERE, Item #462 (accessed July 19, 2017).

“let me know if you are in a certain way”

Martha Washington’s surviving correspondence includes more letters to her niece FANNY BASSETT WASHINGTON than anyone else. At this point Fanny had married George Washington’s nephew, George Augustine. They were in residence at Mount Vernon, she managing the household, he the estate. They had a daughter Maria. Martha wrote this letter from Philadelphia, the capital of the United States at that time, on April 19, 1791.

Mr dear Fanny

By Austen who is come home to se his friends I have the pleasure to tell you we are all tolerable well—I have never heard from the president since he left Mount Vernon—nor from you. Some day last week i wrote to you and inclosed some muslin borders for —?— to hem—When they are done be so good as to send them back to me by Austin when he comes as his stay will be short indeed[;] I could but illy spare him at this time but to full fill my promise to his wife[.] The children join me in love to you the major and children—you must let me know if you are in a certain way and when the event will happen, as it must be very inconvenient to you for us to come home about the time—our stay will be short and I wish to have all well if possible at this time[.] I expect to be coming home some time about the first of August—how are your brothers, is B Lewes married—
Adieu my dear Fanny & believe
me your most affectionate
M Washington

Austen was a slave. it was the practice of George and Martha to send the slaves they had in Philadelphia back to Mount Vernon regularly to avoid a Pennsylvania law which allowed slaves to gain their freedom after a six-month residency. Martha asks if Fanny is pregnant.

The letter can be found HERE.

“I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else”

It was not only George Washington who gave money, advice and assistance to various members of his extended family—see previous posts about Harriot Washington—but also his wife MARTHA WASHINGTON who did the same for her needy relatives.

FRANCES “FANNY” BASSETT was Martha’s niece, the daughter of her sister Anna Maria Dandridge and Burwell Bassett. When Anna Maria died in 1777 Martha offered to take Fanny in as her sister had requested if she died before Fanny grew up. Martha wrote to Burwell “If you will lett her come to live with me, I will with the greatest pleasure take her and be a parent and mother to her as long as I live.”

It was not until the mid 1780s that Fanny would come to live at Mount Vernon. Indeed she was like a daughter to Martha, especially since her own Patsy had died at the age of seventeen in 1773. Martha wrote to her friend Elizabeth Willing Powel of Philadelphia, Fanny “is a child to me, and I am very lonesome when she is absent.”

George Augustine Washington, the nephew of George Washington who was at that time living at Mount Vernon, soon became smitten with Fanny and the two married in 1785. They were invited, with their children, to make Mount Vernon their home; George Augustine managed the estate and Fanny took care of the household. Martha wrote to Fanny from the then capital of the United States, New York City, in 1789.

I have by Mrs Sims sent you a watch it is one of the cargoe that I have so long mentioned to you, that was expected, I hope is such a one as will please you it is of the newest fashon, if that has any influence on your tast—The chain is of Mr [Tobias] Lears* choosing and such as Mrs Adams the vice Presidents Lady and those in the polite circle wares. It will last as long as the fashon—and by that time you can get another of a fashonable kind—I send to dear Maria a piece of Chino to make her a frock—the piece of muslin I hope is long enough for an apron for you, and in exchange for it, 1 beg you will give me the worked muslin apron you have like my gown that I made just before I left home of worked muslin as I wish to make a petticoat of the two aprons—for my gown—Mrs Sims will give you a better account of the fashons than I can—I live a very dull life hear and know nothing that passes in the town—I never goe to the publick place—indeed I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from – and as I can not doe as I like I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal—

The President set out this day week on a tour to the eastward . . . my dear children** has had very bad colds but thank god they are getting better My love and good wishes attend you and all with you . . . kiss Maria I send her two little handkerchiefs to wipe her nose

Adieu
I am my dear Fanny yours
most affectionately
M Washington

* Tobias Lear was Washington’s friend and secretary.
** Grandchildren Eleanor Parke Custis (Nelly) and George Washington Parke Custis, called “Wash.”

Martha sounds as if she would have preferred to be at Mount Vernon rather than New York. She is clearly uncomfortable as first lady. Indeed she did not journey northward for her husband’s inauguration but arrived later. Washington was finding his way in a new role and so was she. It took her some time to figure out how she should behave and what was expected of her.

Sources: See Mount Vernon HERE and HERE. The portrait of Fanny was painted in 1785 by Robert Edge Pine and is at Mount Vernon. The miniature, watercolor on ivory, of Martha Washington is by Charles Willson Peale, 1772, and is held by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

” to be united with a gentleman of respectable connexions”

In 1796, when HARRIOT WASHINGTON was twenty years old, she caught the eye of Andrew Parks, a young merchant. He wrote to George Washington on April 1 seeking his consent to marry Harriot and asked Harriot’s Aunt Betty, with whom she was still living, to do the same.

I have made my addresses to her and she has refered me to you, whose consent I am to acquire, or her objections to a Union with me are I am assur’d insuperable, having therefore no hope of possessing her, unless I should be so fortunate as to obtain your assent, and as my happiness measurably depends upon your determination, I shall endeavour by stating to you my situation and prospects in Life, to merit and induce your approbation. . . . ”

Washington replied to Parks on the 7th that he would give the matter serious consideration warning the young man that

My neice Harriot Washington having very little fortune of her own, neither she, nor her friends, have a right to make that (however desirable it might be) a primary consideration in a matrimonial connexion. . . . My wish is to see my niece happy; one step towards which is, for her to be united with a gentleman of respectable connexions, and of good dispositions; with one who is more in the habit (by fair and honorable pursuits) of making, than in spending money—and who can support her in the way she has always lived.

Washington also wrote to his sister regarding the proposal; he was nothing if not thorough and told her that he would look into the young man’s background and asked her to do the same.

Altho’ she has no right to expect a man of fortune, she certainly has just pretensions to expect one whose connexions are respectable, & whose relations she could have no objection to associate with. How far this is, or is not the case with Mr Parks, I know not for neither his own letter, or yours give any acct of his family nor whether he is a native or a foreigner—& we have his own word only for his possessing any property at all altho’ he estimates his fortune at £3000. A precarious dependance this when applied to a man in Trade.

Interestingly, Washington said he wished that Harriot could have remained single and settled at Mount Vernon to which he expected to return after the end of his presidency “because then she would have been in the way of seeing much company, and would have had a much fairer prospect of matching respectably than with one who is little known—and of whose circumstances few or none can know much about.”

Parks wrote back to Washington at the end of April giving him the name of a reference (his brother-in-law and business partner), describing his financial situation and what he had to offer Harriot.

I hope I possess most of the requisites, necessary to make your Niece happy[,] I have been for several Years, accustom’ed to Business, which has, I am persuaded, kept me clear of a temper, for vicious dispositions; my connexions, are respectable generally, inasmuch as they are people of Business, and mostly in good circumstances. I have described to your Niece, as nearly as I could, what my Situation would afford, in the style of living; which wd not be more than genteel, and comfortable, this she sais, will perfectly satisfy her, and render her happy, provided you can think it sufficient.

After further assessments of Parks’ suitability and his sister’s remark that Harriot was “Old Enougf now to make choice for her self, and if they are not happy I believe it will be her one falt, he bars the Best caracter of any young Person that I know.” Washington gave his consent to the marriage which occurred on July 16, 1796. Washington footed the bill and invited the young couple to Mount Vernon when business would allow. They did pay a visit in September of 1798.

Information on this segment of Harriot Washington’s life can be found HERE, April 5, 2017. Sources for quoted passages of letters: “To George Washington from Andrew Parks, 1 April 1796,” http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-00396. “From George Washington to Andrew Parks, 7 April 1796,” http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-00413. “From George Washington to Betty Washington Lewis, 7 April 1796,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-00411. “To George Washington from Betty Washington Lewis, 5 July 1796,” http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-00691. All are from Founders Online National Archives and were last modified on June 29, 2017. They are Early Access documents from The Papers of George Washington and are not the authoritative final versions.

“the thing’s that were sent are very pretty”

The year 1794 found HARRIOT WASHINGTON writing once more to her uncle, George Washington, who had promised his deceased brother Samuel to look after her, asking for money to buy a few articles of clothing. Harriet had been living with George Washington’s sister Betty Washington Lewis at her home Kenmore in Fredericksburg, Virginia, when she received an invitation in November of 1793 from Betty’s married daughter, Betty Lewis Carter, to visit with her in Culpeper, Virginia. Preparing to return to Fredericksburg Harriot wanted something new to wear for the celebration of Washington’s birthday.

Culpeper [Va.] January [7, 1794]I hope My dear Uncle will excuse my troubling him so soon again, but as he is the only Freind, on earth that I can apply to, for any thing I am induced to think that my necesity will apologize for me. I have spent the winter in Culpeper with Cousin Carter, in a very retired manner, we have scarcely seen a person since we came up, and as I am just a going to return to Fredericksburg, I shall be thousand time’s oblieged to My dear Uncle, if he will give me as much money as will get me a silk jacket and a pair of shoes to wear to the birth night as that will be the first Ball I shall have been to this winter.

Cousin Carter join’s me in love to you and Aunt Washington. I am My dear Uncle Your affectionate Neice
Harriot Washington

Harriot thanked her uncle in a letter of February 9 for “the bundle” she received, noting that “the thing’s that were sent are very pretty,” and “there could not be any procured here as handsome.” According to two entries dated 11 March 1794 in George Washington’s Household Accounts, he paid $19.19 for “sundry articles” sent to Harriot and 25 cents for the freight to Fredericksburg of the box containing these articles. It is interesting that Harriot received clothing rather than money.

Citation: “To George Washington from Harriot Washington, 7 January 1794,” and “To George Washington from Harriot Washington, 9 February 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-15-02-0038. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 15, 1 January–30 April 1794, ed. Christine Sternberg Patrick. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009, pp. 49–50, p. 206.]


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