“It has been determined by Congress, that the whole Army raised for the defence of the American Cause shall be put under my care.”
The following letter from George to Martha Washington offers a window into their private relationship. Written after the Second Continental Congress appointed Washington commander in chief of the Continental Army, the missive alludes frequently to Martha’s anticipated trepidations concerning the post. Affectionate and humble, the letter was one of many Washington penned in the days following his appointment. Letters to his stepson and brother follow a similar pattern and use similar language, reflecting epistolary practices of the eighteenth century.
Washington’s role in the American Revolution as commander in chief of the Continental Army would catapult him to national fame. Ever humble, he embodied all the desired qualities needed in a commander—magnetism, intelligence, leadership experience, and undying faith in the colonial cause. A member of the Virginia landholding elite, Washington cultivated ties with New England and southern planters, helping unify Americans throughout the colonies.
Resistance to the British government grew steadily in the 1760s as a result of taxes that Parliament imposed on the colonies. When George III ascended to the British throne in 1760, he sought to improve efficiency in running the empire. More importantly, the Seven Years’ War, or French and Indian War, had cost the empire dearly, forcing Britain to acquire loans from investors to pay for the war. In order to pay for its debts, the king and Parliament levied taxes on its subjects, including American colonists. Though Parliament claimed to represent each member of the empire through virtual representation, colonists called the taxes unjust because they lacked legislative representation. The Sugar Act of 1764, for instance, sought to curb smuggling, which undermined the government’s ability to collect taxes on goods. Drawing on Enlightenment ideologies that proffered individual freedom and participation in the government, colonists refuted Britain’s authority to levy taxes on colonists when they lacked actual representation in British government. In an effort to rally support for their cause, colonial leaders urged their fellow colonists to boycott British manufactured goods, challenging the structure of mercantilism.
Though repealed in 1766, the Stamp Act effectively laid the groundwork necessary to unite colonists against any efforts by the British government to tax the colonists. The Townshend duties of 1767 incited a second round of boycotts, spurring women to don homespun clothing and shun luxury items. The 1773 Tea Act generated additional animosity from the colonists, goading them to destroy tea shipments. The Boston Tea Party, which cost the East India Company an estimated ten thousand pounds, prompted Parliament to pass the Intolerable Acts, which closed the Boston port, placed Boston under martial law, and forbade town meetings and judicial appointments. These restrictions were thought to circumscribe the colonists’ political autonomy. As a result, representatives from twelve colonies gathered in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, to discuss options for resisting the Intolerable Acts. Lasting for seven weeks, the First Continental Congress drafted a letter to King George III to outline their grievances. The group also articulated an agreement that continued a boycott of British goods.
By 1775, conditions between Great Britain and its North American colonies had not improved. Battles at Lexington and Concord between colonial militiamen and British troops incited the Second Continental Congress in May to establish an army. On June 15, 1775, Congress appointed George Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Army.
Born on February 22, 1732, the first child of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington, George Washington would grow up to command the American armies during the Revolutionary War and become the first president of the United States of America. Historians have very little knowledge of Washington’s childhood. He grew up at Ferry Farm in Virginia with his mother and younger siblings, a land he inherited at age eleven after his father’s death. He received a minimal education, becoming familiar with mathematics, science, and reading and writing. As an adult, he surveyed land, purchasing fertile acres with his wages. Washington grieved the death of his older half brother Lawrence in 1752. Lawrence left the family’s estate, Mount Vernon, to his widow, Anne, until her death, when it would pass to Washington.
The Seven Years’ War, or French and Indian War, was Washington’s first foray into armed combat. He served as a lieutenant colonel in a British regiment and was also present when French and Indian troops defeated General Braddock at the Monongahela River. The military experience he received during the war, though not completely marked by success, nevertheless catapulted him into a military career.
Washington eschewed a military life, however, and in 1758, he resigned from his post as commander of the Virginia Regiment. On January 6, 1759, he married Martha Dandridge Custis (1731–1802), a widow of considerable means, and together they settled at Mount Vernon. Martha brought with her two children, John and Martha, from her previous marriage. Though the couple did not produce any children of their own, Washington cultivated loving relationships with his wife and stepchildren. At Mount Vernon, Washington settled into an aristocratic planter life, refashioning Mount Vernon, expanding its acreage, and buying slaves.
Washington opposed the various taxes imposed by the British government during the 1760s and early 1770s. As a representative for Fairfax County in the Virginia House of Burgesses, he led the burgesses’ opposition to the Revenue Act of 1767. He also, like many others, participated in the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century, buying luxury items (tailored clothes included), and accumulated debt as a result. The various boycotts of British goods, he observed, would help sever American reliance on British manufactures. Moreover, he ceased growing tobacco, a product sold to British merchants, in favor of growing, processing, and selling wheat to local markets. In June 1775, Washington took the colonial cause further by becoming the commander in chief of the Continental Army, maintaining the position for nine years. His victory over the British, made possible through the intervention of the French, allowed him to resign from his command and reenter retirement in 1783.
Washington entered politics again in 1787 to serve as president of the Constitutional Convention. Barely two years later, he was elected and sworn in as the first president of the United States of America. By the 1790s and to Washington’s dismay, political factions formed around Federalists, who vied for a strong central government, and Anti-Federalists, who preferred state sovereignty. With the help of a strong cabinet, Washington’s government helped build a strong foundation for the United States, erasing the nation’s debt, avoiding war with France, and ensuring the legal transfer of power from one president to the next. Washington died on December 14, 1799, and was buried shortly thereafter on his property at Mount Vernon.
Epistolary practices, or letter writing, emerged as a necessity in the early modern period and compounded as a result of growing literacy rates and geographical distances between families, friends, and business partners. Letters, like newspapers and other forms of print culture, were food for public consumption. George Washington participated in this literary movement, keeping copies of his letters, business documents, and diaries for later readership. The missive Washington sent to his wife, Martha, dated June 18, 1775, conforms to several themes found in eighteenth-century letter-writing formulas. Moreover, the correspondence sheds light into Washington’s initial response to being named commander in chief to the Continental Army for the impending war against Great Britain. Drawing on themes of humility and destiny, Washington marks himself as unfit for the appointment but honor-bound to comply with the wishes of his peers. In doing so and preserving his papers for subsequent generations, Washington removes himself from public censure in the event that his efforts to evade or defeat the British army failed. The letter also expresses intimate overtones to his wife, demonstrating concern over her safety and happiness. Taken collectively, these themes not only reflect epistolary practices of the eighteenth century, but also give insight into Washington’s views about duty, honor, and marriage.
Letter writing in the eighteenth century remained a privilege of the literate and those of moderate or extended means. Historians have examined letters from a variety of angles to establish social practices, trace political affinities, establish relationships, chart racial ideologies, and a slew of other themes. However, epistolary practices also involved a level of performance done on the part of the author; individuals self-filtered their actions, sentiments, and ideas to present a favorable image of themselves to their correspondent. This practice became ever more important as spaces widened between families, political colleagues, and business partners. Travel remained a difficult endeavor, as roads were rudimentary and not conducive to long-distance trade. Authors wrote missives often with the intention for public consumption, namely by other relatives or neighbors. Newspaper editors sometimes published letters or portions of them in their publications. Nevertheless, letters had private meanings to the recipient as well. Between June 18, 1775, and June 20, 1775, Washington authored five letters informing family, business partners, and acquaintances of his appointment by the Second Continental Congress. When presenting the news to each recipient, he followed a similar formula, describing the occasion in nearly identical terms in each case. In doing so, he proffered a consistent, humbled image of himself.
In writing to Martha and four other correspondents, Washington projects himself as the humble recipient of a critical task. He carefully articulates that far from his wishes, the congress named him commander in chief of the American troops. The appointment, however, should not have warranted much surprise from the general. He appeared before Congress in full military regalia, signaling his readiness for war with Great Britain. The letters to officers of the Virginia Independent Companies, his brother John Augustine Washington, and his stepson employ similar themes of humility at the appointment, but also underscore his popularity as a military leader. Congress, he writes, appointed him unanimously, reflecting the approval of all colonies. Though it caused him “inexpressable concern” to accept the position, Washington assures Martha that he would “feel no pain from the Toil, or the danger of the Campaign.” Moreover, he declined a salary of five hundred dollars per month, offering to lead the armies for no pay, except that which would cover his expenses. The combination of humility and sacrifice establishes Washington as an ideal leader.
In framing his explanation to Martha about his decision to comply with the wishes of Congress, Washington indicates that destiny forbade him to reject the position. Like a minister’s calling, Washington’s appointment came as a sign from “Providence.” His faith in God, he explains to Martha, had guarded him in previous combat engagements. Indeed, Washington had survived several precarious circumstances. During Braddock’s campaign to take over the French fort Duquesne, an estimated 66 percent of Braddock’s troops either died or were wounded. Braddock himself did not survive long after the Battle of Monongahela, having been critically wounded. At the outset of the Revolutionary War, Americans were significantly weaker than Great Britain. At the time, Britain had the world’s strongest army and navy and a larger population. Moreover, Loyalist sentiment remained strong in New York and areas of the south. The British could also appeal to slave populations in the south to disrupt the colonists’ social and economic structures. John Murray, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation in November 1775 that guaranteed freedom to slaves who absconded from Patriots to serve with the British army in the war. In contrast with the British, Americans had little money, a nominal navy, few cannons, no written constitution, few supplies, a poorly trained military, and questionable unity. For these reasons, Washington had to rely on his faith in Providence as well as the “destiny” that catapulted him into “Service.”
In addition to destiny, Washington notes that honor required him to accept the position. Anticipating Martha’s concern or possible disapproval at his decision, Washington reminds her of his previous correspondence, which hinted at possible impending military involvement. Refusal, he explains, would have “expos[ed] my Character to such censures as would have reflected dishonour upon myself, and given pains to my friends.” In the eighteenth century, honor and masculinity remained inextricably linked. Historians explain that honor codes systematized male exchanges, articulating carefully the criteria of manliness. The concept of honor evolved out of societies that accumulated land and wealth through battle. This criteria, accruing honor via battle or displays of strength and bravery, continued into the nineteenth century in America. Duels, for instance, helped men regain lost honor. The duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, a result of political rivalry, remains perhaps the most notable example of a nineteenth-century public display to demonstrate masculinity and honor. Had Washington declined his appointment, his honor would have been in question. Dishonor, historian Robert Nye explains, amounted to “social death” (10). A man’s virility likewise had an impact on his masculinity, and honor by extension. Though married to Martha for approximately sixteen years by 1775, Washington had fathered no children with her. This outcome proved highly atypical for the period, even for elite couples. Historians note that women typically gave birth every two years. Whether Washington was sterile, perhaps a result of his bout with smallpox in his youth, remains unknown. Nevertheless, the number of progeny one produced remained a measurement of one’s masculinity in the mid-eighteenth century. With these factors in mind, scholars can better understand Washington’s concern about preserving his honor. Doubts about his honor, he explains to his wife, would not only have “lessend me considerably in my own esteem,” but also result in damaging her reputation and her impression of him.
By capitulating to public pressure, the unanimous voice of those who elected him, and situating himself in a humble and deferential position, Washington tried to preserve his image as an honorable man intent on serving his country to the extent of his abilities. In letters to his acquaintances, he consistently underplays his aptitude for leadership, remarking that others would do better than he as general. He also very adroitly acknowledges and laments to his correspondents that if the war failed, his reputation would suffer as a result. That Washington claims inexperience, as he did in his letter to his stepson, John Parke Custis, on June 19, reflects his concern about the momentous task and his apprehension about the possibility of defeat. His letter to Martha illustrates less of the uneasiness present in the note to John, whom he implores to look after Martha in his absence. Rather, he frames his letter in patriotic terms, calling it necessary for the “American Cause” and his own participation “designd to answer some good purpose.”
The appointment afforded Washington no time to return to his family at Mount Vernon in Virginia. From Philadelphia, Congress ordered him to leave immediately to Boston, where fighting between the British and American colonists had begun as early as April. The rebel capture of Fort Ticonderoga in May gave the army much needed access to cannon and artillery. In 1775, the colonies still wavered over the question of independence. This problem likely fanned Washington’s trepidations in commanding an army that could be perceived as treasonous, should he fail. By 1776, however, the colonies moved increasingly toward independence. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776), a diatribe against monarchical governments, became an important ideologically driving factor behind colonial support for the war.
Apart from his personal concerns about the appointment, Washington’s letter indicates elements of their personal relationship, expresses worry over Martha’s reception of the news, and proffers suggestions to ensure her well-being. The June 18 letter offers a brief glimpse into their epistolary exchanges; for unknown reasons, Martha did not preserve their correspondence after Washington’s death. Perhaps she sought to guard the privacy of her marriage. Nevertheless, the missive, though brief, provides a window into their relationship just as it approached a crucial juncture. The opening sentiment, “My Dearest,” denotes an affectionate relationship. The letter underscores his devotion to her with references to “my dear” and use of a nickname, “Patcy.” The letter gives the impression that his marital home is a type of utopia where he could “enjoy more happiness and felicity in one month with [her] at home, than [he had] the most distant prospect of reaping abroad.”
The letter also illustrates a broader theme—that of women’s unquestioned support for the war. The separation of man and wife, he explains, caused great waves of “unhappiness [to] flow” but was nevertheless necessary as a result of the conflict. Washington asks her blessing for his appointment, writing that “nothing will give me so much sincere satisfaction” than to know she would acquiesce to his absence. The war, he realized, required not only his commitment and labor, but his wife’s as well. Asking her to gather strength, he suggests that she surround herself with favorable acquaintances to minimize any risk to herself and to quell her loneliness. These diversions, among others, could help minimize feelings of loss and maintain patriotism. In order to engage in a successful war, Washington realized the importance of women’s support. Women would play crucial roles in maintaining the farms or family businesses and tending the wounded. Conversely, women could just as easily write to their husbands, fathers, or brothers and demand that they abandon the cause and return home to take care of their families. By surrounding themselves with family and friends, women created support networks that would aid them, should anything happen to their male protectors. Washington, for instance, recommends that Martha “remove into Alexandria” to be near his cousin Lund Washington. Following this, Washington makes reference to a will drawn up for him by Colonel Pendleton. Death, an ever-present feature of colonial life, became compounded in times of war. Therefore, Washington’s decision to draft a will reflected prudence, practicality, and a concern for his wife’s well-being if he predeceased her. To help ease the reception, Washington ends his missive by informing Martha that he purchased “two suits of . . . the prettiest Muslin” for her.
Eighteenth-century epistolary practices performed a variety of purposes, both in public and private spaces. The letter from George to Martha Washington conforms to various societal expectations, including demonstrating humility and adhering to codes of honor and masculinity. The missive includes notes of intimacy and endearments, revealing the affectionate relationship of the married couple. A focused reading of the letter, more importantly, grants historians a close-up look at his initial responses to having been appointed commander in chief. That parts of his letter to Martha appear to be in similar form to those he sent to his other correspondents indicates that he followed certain letter-writing practices and that the letter embodies a layer of performance. Nevertheless, Washington’s hesitation and initial trepidations were not without cause. That he maintained his position throughout the war’s nine-year duration and obtained victory over the British reflect his adroit abilities as a military commander.
George Washington’s participation in the American Revolution catapulted him to political prominence after the war. The very themes reflected in his letter to Martha, humility and honor, made Washington an ideal leader for the nascent nation. At the outset of the war, Washington presented himself as a civil servant, unwilling to profit from the duty he owed to his country. In doing so, he declined to accept any payment, even though the war would require him to leave a comfortable life at Mount Vernon. As commander of the troops, Washington knew that he had to outlast the British resolve. He inspired his men and boosted morale by sharing with them Paine’s The American Crisis. In late 1776 and early 1777, he led surprise attacks on Hessian mercenaries hired by George III but carefully eluded defeat by avoiding direct conflicts with the British. In addition to earning the loyalty of his troops, Washington also enjoyed an amicable relationship with American allies, the French. These ties would prove valuable in the first few years of his presidency.
When Washington defeated General Cornwallis on October 19, 1781, he had no illusions of maintaining control over the American troops for longer than was necessary. After the Treaty of Paris established peace between America and Great Britain, Washington stepped down, resigning officially from his post on December 23, 1783. His resolve and apparent immunity from the seductions of power earned him the respect of not only his own countrymen but also that of his former foes.
The nation that first emerged from the revolution lacked any tangible unity. The Articles of Confederation placed sovereignty in the hands of individual states, avoided an executive power, and could not issue taxes. Problems over the articles came to a head in 1787 when fifty-five delegates met in Philadelphia to revise the troubled constitution. The delegates elected George Washington as president of the convention, having earlier persuaded him to leave retirement for a second time. As a result of the convention, the delegates drafted the Constitution of the United States, which was later ratified in 1788. Washington’s prestige, primarily due to his command during the war, and reputation as a man who did not abuse power, made him an iconic figure and natural choice as the first president of the United States. The Electoral College, like the Second Continental Congress, elected him unanimously. During his tenure in office, Washington stressed unity over political factionalism. He surrounded himself with the great intellectuals of his day, including Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams, though he could not prevent a rift from forming among them. Despite this failing, Washington handled economic and foreign matters skillfully, helping the United States get out of debt and keeping the new nation neutral in the war between France and Britain.
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