I want to talk today about the three letters known to exist that were written between George and Martha Washington.
That number may surprise you, as back in their time letters were the only means of conveying information and news. No telegrams, or faxes, or cell phones, that’s for sure! So why only three? When I first started researching Martha Washington’s life and times, I was dismayed to learn that there are only three because she burned all the rest shortly before she died. Here’s why, taken from the opening scene in Becoming Lady Washington:
Our love nestled in my hands. Pen and ink applied to linen pages were the only tangible evidence remaining of the love I shared with my husband. He called to me, softly, urgently. I sensed him more than heard his voice, but he summoned me nonetheless. Alone in my chamber, I knew the time drew near for me to answer his command, but delayed doing so until I’d done what I’d come upstairs to my bedchamber to do. I owed him that and so much more.
Voices along with the parakeets’ incessant chatter floated up from the portico below, the reassuring sounds drifting up and into my room. Another more subtle voice in my mind urged me to follow George’s private secretary’s circumspect example for far different reasons than to protect that awful Jefferson. I’d left everyone below to escape to my private space, using my ailment as an excuse to rest. I didn’t tell any one my true intention because I’m sure they’d try to stop me.
I gripped one of the many packets of letters stacked on my bedside table, each tied with a red satin ribbon faded to dusty rose. The papers were creased and stained from their travels from one state to another, from the multitude of hands which passed on the letters, and from the repeated reading of their contents. Words of love. Of private jokes between a man and his wife. Words of anger and dismay, of fear and courage, all kept mostly secure from the eyes of strangers. Safe from being abused and published in the paper, their meaning twisted and contorted to suit nefarious aims by my husband’s enemies. Men like that blasted betrayer, Thomas Jefferson. I shall never forgive him for intentionally working to defame my precious life mate. The wounds from Jefferson’s actions never healed. How could Tobias Lear have wanted to protect that man’s reputation? Nonetheless, I’d defend George’s reputation until the day I died. Maybe longer.
I looked around my bedchamber. Not the one I had shared for so many years with my love. No, that one I’d closed up tight upon his death three long years ago before moving into this third floor chamber. I smiled at the sight of the four-post bed with its pink roses dominating against a cheery yellow backing. They brought a bit of my garden inside to keep me company, now that I no longer had the interest or strength to work among the flowers. My gaze rested on the dark wood dresser, a looking glass framed above it. The fire snapped and crackled, its flames dancing merrily along the logs. The sound of the greedy flames reminded me of my mission.
Pulling a chair away from the writing desk, I positioned it close to the fire with one hand, clutching the treasured missives against my chest. Sitting, I tugged on the ribbon, freeing the folded pages to tumble into my lap. I leaned forward, and began feeding the letters into the fire. Watched the ancient pages burn and curl as they blackened into ash. As each letter shriveled and disappeared, my mind drifted back over my life. A life of love, grief, and peril. Starting with the precocious decision that set the rest into motion.
Now, although she burned all of the private correspondence in her possession, others retained their letters so we do have a collection of letters written to and from Martha. Joseph E. Fields gathered them into a book, “Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington which is invaluable as a source for understanding what her concerns and worries and joys consisted of.
I am going to share the three letters, or parts of them, to give you a glimpse into their relationship and what I tried to convey in my depiction of their love for each other. The spelling and punctuation used within “Worthy Partner” are retained as I have to believe that is how it was in the actual letters.
The only letter written by Martha to George, however, is short and sweet. It’s dated March 30, 1767. George had gone to Williamsburg to attend the House of Burgesses and then on to the Dismal Swamp area before returning to Mount Vernon:
It as with very great pleasure I see in your letter that you got safely down. We are all very well at this time but it still is rainney and wett. I am sorry you will not be at home soon as I expected you. I had reather my sister woud not come up so soon as May woud be much plasenter time than April. We wrote you last post as I have nothing new to tell you I must conclude myself
Your most Affectionate
I wonder if George may have been a bit disappointed in this short note while he was away. Talking about the weather and to request that her sister hold off visiting for another month. In contrast, Martha’s other letters included in the book were sometimes long indeed.
No letters from George to Martha exist until one dated June 18, 1775 from Philadelphia. George is explaining why he will not be coming home to Mount Vernon for the foreseeable future:
I am now set down to write you on a subject which fills me with inexpressible concern – and this concern is greatly aggravated and increased, when I reflect upon the uneasiness I know it will give you – It has been determined in Congress that the whole Army raised for the defence of the American Cause shall be put under my care, and that it is necessary for me to proceed immediately to Boston to take upon me the command of it. You may believe me my dear Patcy, when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the Family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my Capacity and that I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home, than I have the most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay were to be Seven times Seven years. But, as it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this Service, I shall hope that my undertaking of it, is designed to answer some good purpose – You might, and I suppose did perceive, from the Tenor of my letters, that I was apprehensive I could not avoid this appointment, as I did not even pretend to intimate when I should return – that was the case – it was utterly out of my power to refuse this appointment without exposing my Character to such censures as would have reflected dishonor upon myself, and given pain to my friends – this, I am sure could not, and ought not be pleasing to you, & must have lessend me considerably in my own esteem. I shall rely therefore, confidently, on that Providence which has heretofore preservd, & been bountiful to me, not doubting but that I shall return safe to you in the fall – I shall feel no pain from the Toil, or the danger of the Campaign – My unhappiness will flow, from the uneasiness I know you will feel at being left alone – I beg of you to summon your whole fortitude Resolution, and pass your time as agreeably as possible – nothing will give me so much sincere satisfaction as to hear this, and to hear it from your own pen. …
I shall add nothing more at present as I have several Letters to write, but to desire you will remember me to Milly & all Friends, and to assure you that I am with the most unfeigned regard,
Patcy Yr Affecte
I left out two paragraphs in George’s letter. His is a much longer one than hers because he had important news to share and he wanted to console her as much as possible over the upcoming separation.
Enclosed in this letter was his will because as he says, “As Life is always uncertain, and common prudence dictates” he wanted to ease her mind and any future aggravation of not stated his wishes should the worst happen. I can only image the mixture of relief and terror that swept through upon receiving a will from her beloved husband. Relief because she’d seen the outcome of having a husband who possessed a fortune die without a will, and probably hoped to never have to go through such an overwhelming situation again. Terror stemming from the fear she’d need to use the will, that her husband wouldn’t come home alive but in a box. If he came home at all.
Five days after that letter, George wrote again to Martha from Philadelphia…
As I am within a few minutes of leaving this City, I could not think of departing from it without dropping you a line, especially as I do not know whether it may be in my power to write you again till I get to the Camp at Boston – I go fully trusting in that Providence, which has been more bountiful to me than I deserve, & in full confidence of a happy Meeting with you sometime in the Fall – I have no time to add more, as I am surrounded with Company to take leave of me – I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time or distance can change. My best love to Jack & Nelly and regard for the rest of the Family concludes me with the utmost truth & sincerity,
In fact, he didn’t step foot on Mount Vernon until late in 1781 before the battle at Yorktown.
I so wish I had had more of their correspondence to refer to in order to better understand their relationship, their feelings for each other and the separation they endured. On the other hand, I can totally understand her need to protect her beloved husband’s reputation in a time when personal letters were being printed in the newspapers, or quote out of context. Even from these few samples, though, it’s obvious that they loved each other very, very much.
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Martha “Patsy” Custis manages an immense eighteenth-century plantation in the Virginia colony. But as a young widow she’s hard pressed to balance her business and to care for her two young children. They need a father and protector. She needs a husband and business partner…one she can trust, especially now as tensions rise between the motherland and the American colonies. Her experience and education have sustained her thus far but when her life veers in an unexpected direction, she realizes she has so much more to learn.
Colonel George Washington takes an interest in her and she’s surprised to find him so sociable and appealing. They form an instant bond and she is certain he’ll be a likeable and loving husband and father figure for her children. She envisions a quiet life at Mount Vernon, working together to provide for their extended family.
But when trouble in the form of British oppression, taxes, and royal arrogance leads to revolt and revolution, George must choose between duty to country and Martha. Compelled to take matters into her own hands, Martha must decide whether to remain where she belongs or go with her husband…no matter what the dangerous future may hold.