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Letters from Martha Washington


In 1968, the University of Virginia decided to partner with Mt. Vernon to publish the papers of George Washington. Copies of about 140,000 letters and documents are now in storage at UVA’s main library.

After he died, Washington’s wife burned the letters he had written to her, but a large collection of letters written by Martha remain, and those will also be published.

Looking for George Washington’s papers has been a challenge according to UVA Professor Edward Lengel.  In addition to the Library of Congress and Mount Vernon, his team has searched around the world, touching base with many small museums, reviewing records of auctions and constantly monitoring E-Bay, which is why he was pleased to find many of Martha Washington’s papers in one place.

“I was up at Mt. Vernon, and they pointed out some shelves that had Washington family papers, and they said we don’t know what we’re going to do with these, and I thought, ‘Why don’t we publish them?’”

He’s already read some of the letters and concludes the nation’s first first lady was no pushover.

After her first husband Daniel Parke Custis died in 1757, she had to manage this whole gigantic estate on her own.  She immediately reaches out to her husband’s business contacts and tells them, ‘I’m in charge now, and I’m hoping that we will forge a very fruitful and profitable business relationship.”

And when George met the widow Custis, Lengel says, she was a powerful player in the state:

“She was the wealthiest widow in Virginia.  George had just come back on a trip home from the French and Indian war, convinced he was going to die.  He was sick, and he went to visit a doctor in Richmond, and then he heard about Martha and immediately felt better and rode off to visit her at her estate and started courting her.”

During their marriage, they were often apart – he fighting the revolutionary war or governing the new nation while she managed the plantation.  But Martha seemed genuinely fond of George, addressing him in one little note as “my love,” and she made a great effort to visit him at the presidential  home in New York and at his headquarters near the field of battle.

“During the Revolutionary War, when much of the countryside is in disarray, there are military activities taking place, a lot of uncertainty, and yet she was traveling those roads, driving poor George crazy with worry.”

They never had children, and we don’t know how the couple felt about that, although Professor Lengel has a theory:

“George kind of hints in some of his correspondence that it was her fault.  We think it’s much more likely  when he got small pox as a young man that may have sterilized him.”

Martha had four children by her first husband – two who survived into adulthood.  She wrote to them and to a favorite niece:

“She says, ‘My dear Fanny, I am happy to find by your last letter that your dear little babes are all well.  So young as they are, it is quite as well if they do not take the whooping cough at this time.  I wish you would let me know in your next which you will rather have – chocolate in cakes or the shells.”

But she also wrote about  America’s early history, and that’s what has historians like Lengel so excited.

“She had very strong opinions on people like Thomas Jefferson, rather negative opinions on Jefferson and some others, and she saw what they did and how they acted, so we can kind of see the United States becoming a nation through her eyes.”

In addition to collecting and publishing Martha’s papers, the university hopes to amass copies of letters and documents written by her children and grandchildren along with the papers of George Washington’s father, mother, brothers, sister and nephew – eventually putting the whole collection online.  The work will begin this summer. 

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.