The Washingtons’ long union begins in colonial Virginia in 1759, when George Washington woos and weds Martha Dandridge Parke Custis, a pretty, charming, and very rich young widow. The calm early years of their marriage as plantation owners at Mount Vernon and as parents to Martha’s two children, Jacky and Patsy—both of whom present difficult challenges—yield to harsher times. Washington has been prominent among Virginians in opposing British government measures, and at the outbreak of fighting in 1775 he is elected commander-in-chief of the Continental army. The war sees Martha resolutely supporting her husband, sharing in the hardships at Valley Forge and other wretched winter headquarters. Essential to George’s personal well-being, she is known as “Lady Washington”—a redoubtable and vastly admired figure in her own right.
Flora Fraser provides us with a brilliant account of the public Washington and of the war he waged, and gives us, as well, the domestic Washingtons, whether at Mount Vernon before and during the war or in New York and Philadelphia during his presidency. Even in wartime, Martha manages to scour Philadelphia to find a doll for her newest granddaughter and keeps careful control of her Virginia inheritance. George grapples with a formidable enemy, without proper troops and often without basic supplies—his soldiers frequently lack rations, blankets, even shoes—while always fearful for his wife’s welfare and safety, given the constant worry that the British might descend on Mount Vernon. Even so, a true Virginian, he manages to dance for more than three hours with Alexander Hamilton’s pretty young wife at a makeshift ball.
With victory and the arrival of peace in 1783, the Washingtons hope to remain at home, a hope dashed when, in 1789, George is elected our first president and Martha becomes a faultless first First Lady. During the presidency, they together negotiate the many pitfalls of establishing republican entertainment—the weekly “Congress dinner,” levées, and drawing rooms—before, finally free of official responsibilities after Washington’s second term, they are at last able to retreat to their beloved Mount Vernon.
This is a remarkable story of a remarkable pair as well as a gripping narrative of the birth of a nation—a major, and vastly appealing, contribution to the literature of our founding fathers . . . and founding mother.
From the Hardcover edition.
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From the Hardcover edition.
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“no prospect of preferment”
George Washington, anxious by nature, was fractious in the spring of 1758 at Mount Vernon, his plantation home on the Potomac River in northern Virginia. Six years earlier the young man had seen his older half-brother Lawrence waste away from “decay,” as tuberculosis was then termed, and die at Mount Vernon while still in his early thirties. Now George himself had, as he wrote on March 4, 1758, to Colonel John Stanwix, a British officer serving in America and formerly his commander, “some reason to apprehend an approaching decay.” While serving with his regiment in northwestern Virginia the previous year, he had suffered for months from a “bloody flux,” or dysentery. In November he had retreated to Mount Vernon, a home that he rented from his brother’s widow. Here he dieted on medicinal jellies and brooded on his misfortunes. He wrote to Stanwix in March that his constitution was greatly injured: “nothing can retrieve it but the greatest care, and most circumspect conduct.”
To compound his dejection, as he informed Stanwix, Washington saw “no prospect of preferment”—or promotion—“in a military life.” He had served in the Virginia Regiment since it was raised in 1754, and he was now its colonel. But he had failed, like so many “provincial” or colonial officers, to win a commission in the regular British army. First settled by the Virginia Company in 1607, Virginia had come under the direct rule of James I of England in 1625. Within America the colony was often named the “Old Dominion.” It was the fifth dominion that the Crown claimed, Scotland, Ireland, and France, besides England, being the others. After the 1707 Act of Union united the English and Scottish thrones as the kingdom of Great Britain, Virginia’s seal featured the words “En Dat Virginia Quartam”—Virginia Makes a Fourth. (Ireland was to remain a separate kingdom until 1801, at which time the claim to France was finally dropped.) Twelve other colonies on the American eastern seaboard were established, the last being Georgia in 1733. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island were known as the New England colonies. New York, with Pennsylvania and Delaware, constituted the middle colonies. Virginia and Maryland were known together as the Chesapeake colonies or, with North and South Carolina and Georgia, as the southern colonies. Britain had other colonies, too, on the Atlantic coast of America, both north and south of the thirteen colonies, as the above-named were known. Newfoundland and Nova Scotia were among those to the north; East Florida and West Florida, with other colonies in the British West Indies—notably Jamaica, Barbados, and the Bahamas—lay to the south. Meanwhile, Canada and Louisiana were part of colonial New France.
In principle, there was nothing to prevent colonial subjects from serving in the British army. In practice, the War Office in London advanced the claims of young Englishmen with “interest”—an influential patron—in the metropolis. As a result of his ill health and poor military prospects, as Washington now wrote to inform Stanwix, he meant to quit his command and retire from all public business. It was a dismal outlook for one who had turned twenty-six on February 22 of this year and who had exulted, till his recent illness, in physical strength and stamina. George had been born at Pope’s Creek, Westmoreland County, on land near that originally settled by a Washington ancestor in 1657. His birth date was February 11, 1732, according to the Julian calendar that Britain and its colonies then followed. After the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752, entailing a loss of eleven days in that year, Washington gave the date of his birth as the eleventh, Old Style. But he kept its anniversary on the twenty-second, New Style.
Washington’s physical strength was to become legendary later in his life. At Home House, the small plantation outside Fredericksburg, Virginia, to which his parents moved when he was young, he could pitch a stone across the wide Rappahannock River, according to “Parson” Weems. Mason Locke Weems is also author of the story that, when aged six, George swung at his father’s cherry tree with a hatchet and could not tell a lie. Though Weems published his narrative in 1800, the year after Washington’s death, the infant Hercules of myth was father of the flesh-and-blood man. George Mercer, the colonel’s aide-de-camp in the Virginia Regiment, reportedly wrote in a letter of 1760 that Washington was “straight as an Indian, measuring 6 feet 2 inches in his stockings.” His frame, according to this letter, was “padded with well developed muscles, indicating great strength.” This impression of “great strength” Washington conveyed for most of his life.
When Washington wrote to Stanwix, in the spring of 1758, both health and strength were in abeyance. Upon his arrival at Mount Vernon the previous November, he had outlined to a neighbor, Mrs. George William Fairfax of Belvoir, the regimen that a local reverend, who doubled as physician, had prescribed for him: “He forbids the use of meats, and substitutes jellies and such kind of food . . . I have no person that has been used to making these kind of things, and no directions.” George’s younger brother John Augustine, with his wife, Hannah, looked after Mount Vernon and kept house while its tenant served with his regiment. Now, in his sister-in-law’s absence, George applied to Sally Fairfax: “I find myself under a necessity of applying to you for your receipt [recipe] book for a little while, and indeed for such materials to make jellies as you think I may—not just at this time—have. For I can’t get hartshorn shavings [gelatin] anywhere.” Of hyson, or green, tea, he wrote: “I am quite out, and cannot get a supply anywhere in these parts.” He begged also a bottle or two of “mountain or canary [sweet] wine.” The Reverend Charles Green had ordered him to take a glass or two each day, mixed with “water of gum arabic.”
The bachelor colonel had been confident that Sally Fairfax, whose husband was away on business in England, would provide. Not only did the Mount Vernon lands share a border with those of Belvoir, where her father-in-law, Colonel William, had built a handsome brick mansion in the 1730s. Lawrence Washington had married William Fairfax’s daughter Ann in 1743, when she was fourteen. Furthermore, in that same year Lawrence and George’s father, Augustine Washington, had died unexpectedly at home in Fredericksburg. Over the succeeding years George—aged eleven when his father died—completed a sketchy education in Fredericksburg and spent time increasingly at Mount Vernon. At Belvoir, Colonel William took an interest in the boy, and George Washington responded with enthusiasm.
Fairfax was a man of influence as well as one with close connections to the English nobility, being cousin and land agent to Thomas, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron. He also served on the Governor’s Council in Williamsburg and was at one time its president. As senior colonial official in the county, besides, he commanded, with the rank of colonel, the local militia. This was the home guard composed of able-bodied men in the neighborhood, who were formally under the command of the resident royal governor, or deputizing lieutenant governor. As in other colonies, they turned out, bearing arms, a few times a year for training by an adjutant. About a quarter of them trained more regularly and were known as minutemen, from the requirement that they respond at a minute’s notice to news of public danger or affray.
George Washington benefited greatly from Colonel William’s professional relationship with Lord Fairfax. This peer had inherited a vast tract of Virginia, five million acres in all, land that had originally been granted in 1649 by King Charles II, living in exile in France during the English Civil War, to several supporters. On his restoration as king in 1660, the grant assumed substance. By 1719 the land was vested in Lord Fairfax alone and was known as the Fairfax Proprietary. Eccentric but tenacious, he triumphed, in 1745, in a boundary dispute with the Virginia government in the Privy Council in London. His lands included the entire Northern Neck, as the peninsula between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers that jutted out into Chesapeake Bay was known. The extent of his land to the northwest satisfactorily settled, he made his home in the seclusion of the Shenandoah Valley and left it to his cousin William to administer the proprietary.
It is easy to see why life at Mount Vernon and at Belvoir attracted the young George Washington. His father had been a restless spirit who invested in land and iron mines with no great success. What little income Home House—the family farm in Fredericksburg and his inheritance from his father—yielded was swallowed up by the demands of George’s mother and younger brothers and sister who continued to live there. He was in need of a profession and an income. But his mother, Mary Ball Washington, in 1746 stood out against a plan endorsed by Colonel William that George should join the British navy. A friend wrote to Lawrence, who had himself served as a captain of marines in the Spanish Caribbean five years earlier: “She offers several trifling objections such as fond and unthinking mothers habitually suggest; I find that one word against his going has more weight than ten for it.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Book is super magnicfico
I loved the focus on the homes of the first family and their acqaintences. It turns out most of these places still exist today preserved as either private properties or national landmarks, affording a wonderful opportunity of personal discovery for readers if they so choose to get a further visual sense of our national heritage. Great detail by the author here, maybe influenced by her British background.