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Martha Washington's Letters Reveal A Vital Partner To George


When George Washington died, his wife, Martha, destroyed nearly all the correspondence between the two of them. Decades of intimate letters about married life and politics were lost to history. Now a new trove of letters and documents are being tracked down and published for the first time. They're not letters from the first president, but rather his wife, Martha Washington, the woman at his side through the revolution and the creation of the United States. Edward Lengel is the director of the Washington Papers Project at the University of Virginia. He joins us now from Charlottesville talk more about this. Welcome to the show.

EDWARD LENGEL: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: What do you think is the popular perception of this woman, our first lady - our first first lady, and do these letters that you have found thus far, do they reinforce that perception?

LENGEL: The popular perception really dates back from the 19th century in the images you see of Martha as an older lady in a knitting cap who looks very docile, who sort of sits in the corner and does her knitting while George Washington does all the important stuff. And that's just not an accurate representation of who she was. And I think her correspondence reflects that. She took a leading role in the management of the estate. She forged personal, political, even business connections with other women and men across the country. And she was - instead of being, like, a help-meet of George Washington, she was an active partner with him, even in places like the Revolutionary War. She was at camp with him for much of the war, not just patting him on the back and telling him, George, everything's going to be all right, but actually going out and working with other officers' wives to work for the welfare of the Army and camp. So I see her as a very vigorous, intelligent and active figure, and that really comes out through the letters.

MARTIN: I mean, it's my understanding they were apart for what ended up being, you know, if you count all the days, years and years. Did the letters shine any light on the intimate parts of their relationship, how close they were, the emotional component?

LENGEL: Yes. One of the most interesting discoveries that I made when we were starting to assemble these papers was a letter from her son, John Parke Custis, to George Washington on September 11, 1777, the day of the Battle of Brandywine. And I was looking over the letter, and on the back was a note that nobody had paid any attention to. And it was a note, it turned out, from Martha to George that had been missed. It was a very brief note, but she begins it, my love, I wrote to you by the last post about a silver cup that I bought, and it weighed 113 ounces, something to that effect. And to me, it's fascinating that here they are in their mid-40s, after they've been married almost 20 years. And, in a casual note, she calls him, my love. I think most of us who've been married for that length of time, you kind of dream that you still, if you give your husband or your wife a shopping list, you'll title it my love, I'd like you to pick this up at the grocery.

MARTIN: So why did she destroy all the letters that she exchanged with her husband, George Washington?

LENGEL: Well, she never said. But I like to think she spoke to herself as she was burning them, and she said, I've given George to the American people through most of our lives - as a general, as a president. And this is one part of my husband I'm going to keep for myself. This was something so personal and so intimate; she just didn't want to share it.

MARTIN: Edward Lengel, a professor and director of the Washington Papers Project at the University of Virginia. Thanks so much for talking with us about this.

LENGEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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