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Archive for the ‘MV Historian Series’ Category

July 4, 2013

Collections Uncovered


Mount Vernon recently acquired a large collection of family papers from descendants of Martha Washington’s second granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis Peter (1777-1854) and her husband Thomas Peter (1769-1834). As research on the collection continues, Mount Vernon’s Research Historian, Mary V. Thompson, will share the stories emerging from this treasure trove of information including information about the family, as well as topics such as life in the new city of Washington, DC; politics in the early republic; and, as discussed in this post, slavery.

As the owner of Mount Vernon following George Washington’s death, Mrs. Washington had to step into her late husband’s very large shoes in order to keep the plantation operating smoothly. This was not unfamiliar territory for Martha Washington who had taken over the estate of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, following his death in 1757. Management of an estate such as Mount Vernon required oversight of the farms, the enslaved community, the household expenses, and the animals. In 1801, under Martha Washington’s management, a $72.64 bill was paid to the sheriff of Fairfax County for taxes owed on 138 slaves and 97 horses. Her account with a Dr. Hamilton shows that he made at least 15 visits to slaves on the estate between December 6, 1801 and September 6, 1802, during which he provided medicines and powders for those who were ill, bled several individuals, dressed wounds, assisted with one birth, and pulled one tooth.

Following Martha Washington’s death on May 22, 1802, Thomas Peter, her grandson-in-law, helped to manage her estate as one of the executors of her will.

One of the documents found in the Peter Collection that is most revealing about slavery is a receipt dated January 12, 1803. Written at nearby Woodlawn plantation, the home of Martha Washington’s youngest granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis Lewis and her husband Lawrence Lewis, this receipt recorded that the sum of $50 was “received from Mr. Thomas Peter…in full for my Hire as a Smith on Mount Vernon Estate for the year 1802″.

The recipient of the payment was a blacksmith named George who signed his name with a simple cross; an indication that he could not write. Blacksmiths played an important role in plantation life where their skills were needed to shoe horses as well as to make and repair iron tools and equipment. This particular blacksmith, George, is undoubtedly the same blacksmith named George who was a member of the enslaved community at Mount Vernon freed by Martha Washington on January 1, 1801 in accordance with George Washington’s will. He had been hired back as a free person, because he had a skill Mount Vernon needed.

Mary V. Thompson
Research Historian
Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington

Category: Mount Vernon, MV Historian Series, Research/Lectures, Slavery

June 27, 2013

A Dire Situation: Historian Joseph Ellis on the New York Campaign of 1776


Things looked bleak for George Washington and the Continental Army in the summer of 1776. British forces, under General Sir William Howe, landed troops on Staten Island on July 3rd — just one day after the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.

George Washington wrote, in a letter to Major General Artemas Ward dated July 4th,:

The Distress we are in for want of Arms induces me again to urge your sending on all such as can possibly be spared with the greatest expedition, The enemy have landed under cover of their Ships and taken possession of Staten Island–from which in all probability they will soon make a decent upon Us, the Arms would have sent to Norwich and from there by Water to this place provided there is no Risque, otherways by Land…

In his new book, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, historian and author Joseph Ellis takes an in-depth look at the military and political figures who played key roles in the events of the pivotal summer of 1776. Of General Washington, he says, “…this is the weakest moment in his career; this is the one he doesn’t want to remember…” Ellis goes on to argue that the summer of 1776 is when Washington realizes that he doesn’t need to win the war, he needs to not lose it, for American independence to stick.

Stay tuned! Mount Vernon will be posting more videos from our sit down with historian and author Joseph Ellis on our website.

Category: MV Historian Series

June 17, 2011

MV Historian Series: Leeman on West Point


In celebration of the groundbreaking on Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, we’ve asked a few of our favorite historians to weigh in on various aspects of the first president’s leadership style. Historian and professor William P. Leeman writes this week’s installment:

George Washington occupies a prominent place at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. A triumphant equestrian statue of the Continental Army’s commander in chief, located in front of Washington Hall, forms an imposing presence overlooking the Plain, the parade ground that dates back to the Revolutionary War. At West Point, Washington serves as an inspirational figure for the Corps of Cadets – he’s a victorious general, but also a model of the military professionalism that West Point strives to develop in the future leaders of the United States Army.

At first glance, George Washington might seem to be an unlikely champion of military professionalism. Well before earning the acclaim of his fellow Americans during the Revolutionary War, Washington had learned the art of war informally through experience and observation, completing what was essentially a military apprenticeship. Washington began his military career as a major in the Virginia militia in February 1753, just before his 21st birthday. Later that year, Governor Robert Dinwiddie sent the ambitious young officer to the Ohio Valley to inform the French that the Ohio Country was British territory and that the French had to leave the area or face war. Eagerly setting out on this crucial mission, Washington made contact with the French, who promptly refused to leave the Ohio Valley, and Washington returned to Virginia to deliver the unfortunate news to the governor. In response, Dinwiddie promoted Washington, gave him command of 200 militiamen and ordered him to dislodge the French from the Ohio Country.

Leaving Virginia in the spring of 1754, Lieutenant Colonel Washington and his men were little more than untrained amateurs in the profession of arms. Overly enthusiastic for battle, the daring but inexperienced Washington ordered a surprise attack on a small French contingent that was approaching his force. Only after the attack, during which the Virginians soundly defeated the French, did Washington realize that the French party was a diplomatic mission traveling east to stake France’s claim to the Ohio Country. Washington had fired the opening shots of what would become the French and Indian War. With French reinforcements on the way, Washington’s men hastily built a primitive fortification that Washington dubbed “Fort Necessity.” The French and their Indian allies attacked the fort in early July, inflicting heavy casualties and forcing Washington to surrender. Washington had been excessively bold and impulsive his first time out as a commander. Though he showed courage and determination under fire, he also demonstrated his lack of military experience and his lack of knowledge of the art of war. Continue reading MV Historian Series: Leeman on West Point »

Category: MV Historian Series

June 6, 2011

MV Historian Series: Holton on Financial Pretext


In celebration of the groundbreaking on Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, we’ve asked a few of our favorite historians to weigh in on various aspects of the first president’s leadership style. Historian and professor Woody Holton writes this week’s installment:

Historians love to debate the founding fathers’ motivations. Were the major events of the American Revolution, including the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787, motivated primarily by the participants’ love of liberty or by economic considerations?

George Washington proposed a simple but persuasive solution to the problem of the founders’ motives: he and his contemporaries were inspired both by abstract ideas and by practical necessity. He offered this analysis in April 1769, as British colonists in North America confronted crises in two distinct arenas: politics and the economy. Two years earlier, in 1767, Parliament had adopted the Townshend duties: taxes on a variety of goods that Americans imported, including glass, painters’ colors, and — most notoriously — tea.

Several colonies had responded to the Townshend duties by agreeing to boycott high-end British merchandise: not only the dutied articles but other luxury items as well. About one-third of Great Britain’s trade was with its own colonies, and if Americans cancelled the orders they customarily placed with British mercantile firms, they could compel the merchants to lobby Parliament to repeal the new taxes.

In an April 5, 1769 letter to his friend George Mason, Colonel Washington observed that their fellow Virginians had more than one reason to sign on to the boycott. Many of the wealthiest men in the colony, he noted, were experiencing financial trouble. That was clear enough from a quick perusal of the advertisements in the Virginia Gazette, many of which announced entire estates being sold “for the discharge of Debts.” The need for these estate sales would be dramatically reduced if free Virginians agreed to protest the Townshend duties by boycotting British luxuries, Washington told Mason. A boycott would give the conspicuous consumer “the best plea for doing that, which before perhaps he had the most violent struggles to refrain from doing,” namely “retrench his expenses.”

During these years the Virginia gentry was sinking deeper and deeper into debt to British merchants, Washington reminded Mason. The typical Virginian knew he really ought to economize, but, “how can I, says he, who have lived in such & such a manner change my method? I am ashamed to do it.” A person who suddenly adopted a plan of frugality would not only endure humiliation but threaten his credit rating. “Such an alteration in the System of my living,” he reasoned, would “create suspicions of a decay in my fortune.”

But a boycott aimed at securing the repeal of the Townshend duties would give Virginia consumers what Washington called a “pretext to live within bounds” — a patriotic excuse for doing what they had not been able to do on their own.

On May 18, 1769, a rump session of the Virginia House of Burgesses adopted a boycott of British luxuries, including all of the dutied items. The following year, Parliament repealed the Townsend duties (except, ominously, the one on tea). More than 230 years later, at a time when nearly a third of home sales are foreclosures, the idea of a dual-purpose boycott has renewed appeal. Like George Washington and his contemporaries, many of us today could use a “pretext to live within bounds.”

The Library of Congress website provides both a transcript of Washington’s April 5, 1769 letter to George Mason and an image of the letter itself.

Woody Holton is a professor of history at the University of Richmond and the author of Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (2007), Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (2007), Black Americans in the Revolutionary Era (2009) and Abigail Adams (2009).

Category: MV Historian Series

May 16, 2011

MV Historian Series: Leibiger on Presidency


In celebration of the groundbreaking on Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, we’ve asked a few of our favorite historians to weigh in on various aspects of the first president’s leadership style. Historian and professor Stuart Leibiger writes this week’s installment:

George Washington made four critical contributions to the American presidency, as professor and historian Gordon Wood and others have pointed out. First, Washington brought prestige to the presidency. Second, he made a strong president possible in 18th century America. Third, he established precedents that have been followed by his successors. And fourth, he retired. I would like to comment on these areas, and to reinforce their importance.

First, Washington brought prestige to the office — unlike today, when the office confers prestige on the man who holds it. How often do you hear people say something like, “I don’t care for President Obama (or President Bush), but I will listen to him out of respect for the office he holds”? Sociologist Barry Schwartz has shown that when Washington was president, it was just the opposite. Eighteenth century Americans would say, “I don’t give a hoot about the presidency, but I will listen because it’s Washington.” So the man had prestige and brought it to the office, unlike today, when the office has prestige and brings it to the man. An event during Washington’s 1789 tour of New England illustrates the point. Everything went fine until the president reached Massachusetts, where he ran into a little problem: Governor John Hancock thought he was more important than the president, and refused to come and pay his respects. A standoff ensued, as each man thought he held the more important office. Hancock eventually blinked first, gave in, and paid his respects. Hancock lost that confrontation not because he was up against the chief executive, but because he was up against Washington. That prestige then attached itself to the presidency.

Second, Washington made it possible for the 1787 Constitutional Convention to create a strong presidency. It is safe to say that the delegates were willing to create a powerful executive only because they knew Washington would be the first president. After their experience with King George III, Americans were wary of executive power, afraid of tyranny. The convention helped Americans overcome this fear because they knew Washington accepted power reluctantly, used it carefully, never abused it, and gave it up eagerly. The office was literally designed with him in mind. So Washington played a huge role in creating the presidency, and did so without saying a word. Washington really only made two short speeches during the convention. One reason for Washington’s silence is that so much of the time was spent designing the presidency. It was simply not appropriate for him to take the lead in designing the office he would eventually hold.

Continue reading MV Historian Series: Leibiger on Presidency »

Category: MV Historian Series


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Portraits in Schools

Kids holding George Washington Portrait

Mount Vernon recently invited K-12 schools nationwide to request framed portraits of George Washington to display in a respectful, prominent place.

The response was overwhelming: thousands of schools submitted letters! Along with the portrait, schools received curriculum materials to help explore our first president’s contributions.

Where has George Washington gone back to school? Click here to see!

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