What Martha Washington Can Teach Us About Politics Today

Portrait of Martha Washington-Hollow-cut silhouette on linen CA 1798. Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

The brouhaha which surrounds the David Barton book, Jefferson Lies, has made me wonder what is it that makes one history book more popular than another? Moreover, why do we persist on wanting to believe that our founding fathers (and their wives) were impervious to self-serving inclinations? Today’s politicians lead us into a grey area of morality yet we persistently raise up our founding fathers as examples of moral and religious superiority. To the historians, who dare to question this premise, we call them leftist revisionists – and in some of the rarer cases of explorations on these founding women, we call these historians:” feminists”. Coincidentally, I have just finished two biographies of Martha Washington; the first book was: Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty by Helen Bryan written in 2002 and the second: Martha Washington: An American Life by Patricia Brady written in 2005. The first 50 pages of both of the books are so similar that I wondered why Brady’s was not considered a copyright infringement on the earlier book. However, Brady’s seemed to be the more popular of the two

Brady’s book made it into paperback, and had a nice blurb from Cokie Roberts, additionally, even NPR picked up an interview over the sexy age regression-ed photo of Martha Washington that adorns the cover. Did Brady have a better editor or publisher? What exactly was cut out of those 100 pages? In  Bryan’s book there are many anecdotes about the gossip, lore and the technicalities of the laws of inheritance and slavery system which contained the essence for the perpetuation of the Washington’s large fortune.

A composite image of portraits of Martha Washington Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis and Michael J Deas

To read Bryan, one might see Martha as a much more calculating being than the love smitten Martha of Brady. It is the missing hundred pages which build a case for a very complicated Martha. In Bryan’s Martha, we see a rich widowed woman who chose George because she knew that her and her two children’s money would be better protected with him than many other suitors. Bryan maintains that it was essential that she remarry to sustain and manage the large plantations that she had just inherited from her first husband. Bryan’s Martha was a “clothes horse” who continued to buy imported English goods well after her patriot sisters turned to home spun in the northern states. Both George and Martha had very friendly relationships with the British appointed Governors during the turbulent late 60s and even attended a ball to honor Governor and Lady Dunmore as late as May 1774. In fact, early in the war, there were rumors that she and George had separated because she was actually a Loyalist (Many of the southern planters were slow to join the liberty movement). Martha made a calculated journey to winter headquarters to improve her image. Bryan refers to her trip in her homespun as an act of “spin doctoring”.

Then there was the slavery. Although Brady gives this incident a mention, she does not give it the treatment that Bryan does. While George and Martha lived in Philadelphia during Washington’s term as president in 1791, a new law was passed in Pennsylvania which allowed slaves to claim their freedom after six months of residency in that state. George and Martha prepared a plan to send their servants back to Mount Vernon on small errands to ensure that those slaves would not be eligible to meet the residency requirements. It is here that Bryan notes: “Although George Washington is often held up as a model of enlightenment who freed his slaves on his death, the truth is more complex and less comfortable. His response to the new Pennsylvania law shows one side of his ambivalent attitude about slavery…while George was happy to go on using slaves, he had to be careful about how he was perceived by the public.” A letter that Bryan cites from George to his secretary Tobias Lear substantiates his awareness of image as he made arrangements for the transportation of Martha’s dower slaves back to Virginia while they were both traveling.

…in case I shall be found that any of my slaves may, or any of them shall attempt their freedom at the expiration of six months, it is my wish and desire that you send the whole, or such part of them as Mrs Washington may not chuse to keep home-for although I do not think they may be benefited by the change, yet the idea of freedom might be too great a temptation for them to resist. At any rate it might, if they conceived a right to it make them more insolent in a State of Slavery. As all except Hercules and Paris are dower Negroes, it behoves me to prevent the emancipation of them, otherwise I shall not only lose them, but may have them to pay for (under the law, George had use of Martha money  and use of dower slaves) If…it is found expedient to take them back to Virginia I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that I may deceive both them and the Public…

Bryan is not a historian; she is a lawyer (a London barrister) who grew up in Virginia. Brady is a “real” historian (well… she has a PhD in History). I was shocked that Brady did not even acknowledge Bryan as a source except to make note in the afterword that Bryan accepted “post-Civil war family mythology… disregarding Martha Washington’s moral and religious character…” Moreover, interestingly many of the reader comments in Amazon regarding the book, refer to Bryan as a “feminist, liberal” suffering from Slave guilt. Read them for your self. Perhaps together we will come up with the conclusion that although the 18th century America was a different time with a different economic system etc., politicians are really not so different in many ways – and we still want to believe that our heroes are perfect.

Previously Publish on Open Salon August 17 2012 under Snarkychaser (What Can Martha Teach Us About Today’s Politicians?)