A Model MarriagePrint
An intimate portrait of a couple who helped forge a nation
By Mary Beth Norton
December 7, 2015
The Washingtons: George and Martha, “Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love” by Flora Fraser; Knopf, 448 pp., $30
In The Washingtons, Flora Fraser, a British author who has previously written four studies of prominent European women in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, has undertaken a daunting task. Producing a full-scale portrait of the marriage of Martha Dandridge Custis and George Washington is indeed so daunting that only one American historian has recently tried to accomplish it. Fraser mentions the reason briefly in the prologue and returns to it later at the appropriate chronological point: Martha burned almost all their correspondence after her husband’s death in 1799.
Just a few letters (or notes on letters written by others) by chance escaped the flames. Fraser tantalizingly reveals that when Elizabeth Willing Powel, a Philadelphia friend of the couple’s, purchased Washington’s writing desk after they left the city at the end of his presidency in early 1797, she found in a drawer an overlooked bundle of letters Martha had sent to him. Ever the gentlewoman, Powel returned the bundle unread to the ex-president, and those letters were thus destroyed with the others about three years later. If only, a historian wishes, Mrs. Powel had been less punctilious and had preserved the correspondence within her own extensive papers.
Martha was not alone among her contemporaries in taking such a drastic step, for Thomas Jefferson burned all the letters he had exchanged with his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, after her death in 1782. But even though scholars have therefore been unable to examine their marital relationship in any depth, the surviving correspondence of their daughters, Maria (Polly) Jefferson Eppes and especially Martha (Patsy) Jefferson Randolph, including letters exchanged with their father during childhood, has filled some of the void about the Jeffersons’ family life and personal relationships. The same is not true for the Washingtons. They had no children of their own, and even though George was a loving and attentive stepfather to Martha’s two children from her first marriage, the tragic early deaths of both—the daughter in youth, the son as a young father—meant that not until the son’s children began to write letters to and about their grandparents does the reader have access to personal insights into George and Martha’s life together.
The hollowness at the core of The Washingtons is therefore evident, particularly when one contrasts Fraser’s book with, for example, the many studies of John and Abigail Adams, whose voluminous letters have survived to illuminate their personal and political relationships.
Nevertheless, Fraser does her best to compensate for the lack of personal correspondence through creative and diligent research. She is greatly assisted by the existence of an excellent modern edition of the letters Martha Washington exchanged with her relatives and others, and of course, by the National Archives’ comprehensive online compilation of George Washington’s letters. Fraser has also examined numerous published volumes of letters, diaries, and memoirs of people who encountered the Washingtons in one way or another over the course of their lives in Virginia, during the Revolutionary War, or while he served the nation as president in New York and Philadelphia from 1789 to 1797 and she was the resident First Lady. The result is that the most complete parts of the book cover precisely those periods when historians know the least about the Adamses, or other couples with surviving letters—that is, when George and Martha were together and so not writing to each other. When the Washingtons lived together, especially when he was supervising Custis children or grandchildren, he kept careful accounts of his guardianship of their estates that provide Fraser with many clues about the operations of the household. Further, when the Washingtons were together, more people tended to visit and describe them than when Martha was alone. The letters of his aides (most notably Tobias Lear) to their own families supply Fraser with another useful source.
What readers learn from such accounts is that, despite the lack of any evidence about their courtship (or even how well they knew each other before they wed), the Washingtons soon became devoted to each other. The wealthy young widow, who ably managed her husband’s estate (and her own) after his death, and the tall, handsome veteran of the Seven Years War married in 1759 and thereafter appear to have supported each other unconditionally. They were also both devoted to the welfare of the generations of Custis descendants for whom they became financially responsible. Martha joined George at winter encampments of the Continental Army during the war as often and for as long as she could, earning universal praise from her husband’s associates for her demeanor and her patriotic commitment. When he was chosen as the first president and their activities would clearly set important precedents, they acted with care and circumspection. When he died in December 1799, she expressed the belief that she would soon follow, and indeed she outlived him by just 29 months. The quotation in the subtitle of the book comes from the inscription on a miniature of herself she had painted for her grandchildren; on the reverse, a lock of her hair was intertwined with some of her husband’s. Clearly, theirs was a model 18th-century marriage.
For all the strengths of Fraser’s fluid writing and insightful characterizations, the almost complete dependence of her narrative on primary source material yields unsatisfactory results with respect to the Washingtons’ roles as slaveholders. Fraser rarely cites secondary sources, and on the subject of enslavement in 18th-century Virginia, the absence of such background produces a flawed, incomplete picture. Throughout the book, the enslaved residents of Mount Vernon make brief, repeated appearances in the narrative, accompanied by little reflection or analysis from the author. Nowhere does Fraser comment explicitly about the couple’s utter dependence on their enslaved laborers for maintaining their plantation and household; instead, she seems to take such work for granted. She never questions or challenges the Washingtons’ description of certain slaves as “indolent” or “slovenly” or suggests that the “servants” might have had reason not to work as hard as their master or mistress preferred.
Fraser’s failures in this regard are especially notable when she considers the president and First Lady’s circumvention of the Pennsylvania law providing freedom for any slaves who resided in the state for more than six months. Their solution was simple, although also illegal: systematically rotating slaves in and out of their household, returning them regularly to Virginia. Tobias Lear, who came from New Hampshire, had enough of a conscience to be troubled by the ploy; Martha did not share his qualms, being (Fraser states) “fiercely possessive of the slaves that were hers by dower right” in her first husband’s estate. And when one of those enslaved people, Oney Judge, famously absconded to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, rather than return to Virginia with the Washingtons after the president’s second term in office had ended, Fraser appears mildly surprised that she should have chosen freedom in the North rather than servitude in Virginia after George refused “as a matter of principle” to promise to free Oney after her mistress’s death. (His “principle” was that running away should not be rewarded.) Finally, Fraser evidently accepts as correct Abigail Adams’s observation that George’s testamentary provision freeing his slaves after Martha’s death actually might have placed his widow in jeopardy by giving them a reason to kill her. So, Fraser reports without comment, Martha freed them, probably following a relative’s advice. What Fraser makes of all this, or whether it alters her positive assessment of her subjects, she never tells the reader.
Fraser’s portrait of the Washingtons is affectionate, like the marriage it records. By the end of the book, a reader comes to appreciate their care for each other and for the Custis children and grandchildren. Americans today will likely also admire their shared dedication to the Revolution and to serving the nation it created. We can know less than we might deem desirable about their personal lives because of Martha’s decision to destroy much of the record of their lives together. But perhaps it is for the best that the private life of the Father of His Country remains just that—forever private.
Mary Beth Norton is the Mary Donlon Alger professor of history at Cornell and the author, most recently, of Separated by Their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World.