In Intertwined Stories, we’re taking a deeper dive into the history behind the podcast Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon by bringing you extended versions of some of the interviews with the series' contributors.
Mount Vernon was as much Martha Washington’s home as it was George Washington’s. It was Martha’s wealth, after all, that helped fund the plantation’s expansion and allowed George to claim his place among the Virginia elite. Like so many Virginia women in the period, Martha was already a widow when she married George in 1759. In fact, she had life rights to one-third of the property of her first husband’s estate, who had been very wealthy.
But she brought much more than money to her new marriage; she brought enslaved people to Mount Vernon as well.
Few people know Martha Washington better than Dr. Lynn Price Robbins. She’s a historian of early America and one of the editors of Martha’s papers and of George’s Barbados diary. We talked to Dr. Price Robbins in the early days of making Intertwined to understand Martha as a plantation manager, and what the Washingtons’ marriage meant for the lives of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community.
Intertwined is narrated by Brenda Parker and is a production of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and CD Squared. Full transcripts, show notes, and bibliographies for Intertwined are available at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com.
"Martha Washington’s Mount Vernon"
Episode Published April 19, 2022
Co-written by Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske
BRENDA PARKER: This podcast is supported by anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
JIM AMBUSKE: Hello, and welcome to Intertwined Stories. I’m your host, Jim Ambuske
In this mini-series, we’re taking a deeper dive into the history behind the podcast Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
To create that show, we interviewed over twenty scholars, some of whom are descendants of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community, for over an hour each. We couldn’t fit everything into the main series, so we’re happy to bring you extended versions of some of those conversations now.
Mount Vernon was as much Martha Washington’s home as it was George Washington’s.
It was Martha’s wealth, after all, that helped fund the plantation’s expansion and allowed George to claim his place among the Virginia elite.
Like so many Virginia women in the period, Martha was already a widow when she married George in 1759. In fact, she had life rights to one-third of the property of her first husband’s estate, who had been very wealthy.
But she brought much more than money to her new marriage; she brought enslaved people to Mount Vernon as well.
Few people know Martha Washington better than Dr. Lynn Price Robbins. She’s a historian of early America and one of the editors of Martha’s papers and of George’s Barbados diary.
Jeanette Patrick and I talked to Dr. Price Robbins in the early days of making Intertwined.
She helped us to understand Martha as a plantation manager, and what the Washingtons’ marriage meant for the lives of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community.
We pick up our conversation here with Price Robbins about Martha’s decision to marry George, before learning more about the power she did and didn’t have over her own life, and the enslaved people under her control
JEANETTE PATRICK: Could you talk then about how Washington's marriage to Martha Custis does impact Washington's status in society?
LYNN PRICE ROBBINS: A lot of people like to say that George Washington chose Martha, but it's really the other way around. Martha had several suitors. One suitor who was significantly older than her and had, I believe at least eight children. And I think Martha wanted children, but that might have been a little much for her. So, she really had her choice in who she could marry or if she didn't wanna get married. She could have remained single, she would have been called a feme soul, which means she would have kept control over property, her assets, and she wouldn't have had to hand that over to a husband. I really think that she wanted someone, however, to help to raise her children. I think she really wanted a good father for her children, and so she chooses George Washington. So she marries him in 1759, and she is of a much higher level of wealth than George Washington is. Essentially, by marrying Martha, George Washington, jumps to the highest level of society as far as being a wealthy Virginia planter. It also meant that he became responsible for the Custis estate.
Under the law at the time, when a woman married, she would fall under the Law of Coverture, which means that her husband would then take control of all of her property and her assets, which came from her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. George Washington had to take a lot of over money, over the estate and also over her children. And so, he also gains a lot of responsibility as well as a lot of money and a lot of land through marrying Martha.
When they were married in 59, Martha was 27 years old. They were eight months apart, so I believe that George Washington was 26. Very young for our modern, many women were widowed by the time they were 25 for the first time in this time period. And as far as remarriage goes, it was very popular to remarry very quickly. And women didn't have the rights and abilities that we have today in modern times, so it made sense for them to remarry to have the some to provide for them. And so, especially if they weren't rich, like Martha. Martha's first husband was very wealthy. And when he passed away, she very easily could have taken care of herself for the rest of her life, and in fact, that's what George Washington's mother, Mary Ball did when her husband passed away, when George's father passed away when he was 11 years old, she didn't remarry. She didn't want to hand off her assets to a new husband, because at that point, you're handing over control. She didn't want a new husband to have control over her children. So why Martha chose a different path, most likely it's because she wanted a father for her children.
When a husband, when they lost their wives, they would usually marry someone much younger than them. In fact, her first husband, Martha's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis was 20 years older than her. So of course, in that instance, you can have more children, you can have more heirs. So, you see a lot of women remarrying and they remarry older men, and you see men remarrying and they marry the younger women.
After Daniel Park Custis dies, Martha essentially picks up where he left off and she starts to manage the estate as he would have. And it's interesting because she starts corresponding with the merchants in London. And she writes to them and says," My husband has passed away, but you will not be writing with me, you'll be corresponding with me, and I expect things to remain the same, keep things as they were but you're corresponding with me." She also orders some items from London, and she writes in one of them, she's ordering a piece of clothing, and she says, "I expect this to be of better quality than it was last time because it was not what was promised." She's confident in what she's doing, she takes over. Now, she tried to get a temporary guardian for her children, because the settlement of the estate is a very long and complicated issue, there's a lawsuit involved with it. It's very sticky, it's very complicated, and she was hoping to have a temporary guardian for her children to perhaps help with that. And she asked John Robinson. He says "No."
And it's not because he doesn't want to help out with the children, he doesn't wanna have to deal with this estate. And that's another reason why Martha Custis at the time would have had a good motivation to remarry. Yes, George Washington received wealth and he became a father to her two children, but he also had to deal with the estate and settling it and debts and all of these issues that arise when a wealthy individual passes away. And it's also important to note that Daniel Parke Custis did not have a will. So, Martha was the executor. Because there wasn't a will, it was very complicated. It was a very complicated issue that involved a lawsuit that was not just in the North American colonies, but down in the Caribbean, it tied to England, and it was something that I think she was certainly hoping to pass along to someone else. But as far as dealing with merchants and dealing with every day, her everyday needs and her every day responsibilities, she seems to pick it up right as Daniel Parke Custis died and had no issues with it whatsoever. She's very confident in her writings. She seems to understand how to deal with these individuals and seems to have no problem whatsoever.
PATRICK: Once Martha Custis and then George Washington take legal possession of the Custis estate, can you talk about what they legally can and cannot do with the property and specifically the enslaved people that also are part of the Custis estate.
ROBBINS: There are two categories of enslaved people at Mount Vernon. There are the ones that George Washington owned before his marriage and ones that he would purchase throughout his lifetime, and then there were the ones that Martha brought into the marriage.
And these were called the dower slaves. With the enslaved people that George Washington owned outright, they were his property, which means he could sell them, he could free them, he could rent them out, he could pretty much do as he wished. As far as the dower slaves go, he was more a guardian. While he could work them however he wished at Mount Vernon, in the end, they weren't really his. If somebody ran away, so for example, later in life Ona Judge, she escapes when she's in Philadelphia, one of his concerns with that is that she was a dower slave. Which means that when he loses her, just using that term that she... you know, he loses that “property” that belonged to the Custis's, he then is financially responsible for paying back the estate. So, he now owns the heirs, the amount of money that she was worth. He has to be very careful about keeping records and keeping these individuals remain on the estate and it's also their heirs, so if the dower slaves have children, if the women have children, those also end up as part of the dowry as well. So, he has to keep records.
One of the things that George Washington talks about is that he doesn't like to break up families. But of course, when you think about what's going on at the estate and you have these enslaved people who are owned by George Washington, and then the enslaved people who are dower slaves, and they're living together and they're working together, certainly they're going to create friendships, they're going to create families. When George Washington passes away, because he doesn't... He only owned some of them, it's going to impact the family units and how they are able to stay together.
PATRICK: We know a lot about George Washington's views on slavery, and we see this progression as he changes, what do we know about Martha's views on slavery? And, you know, do they change over time or kind of what are her thoughts and what sources do we have that help us understand this?
ROBBINS: I think a lot of people today, we want our historical figures to relate to us in some way, and so I think some people will try to push a form of feminism on Martha as well as try to find ways in which she speaks perhaps negatively about slavery so we can then say she did have this issue. Unfortunately, with Martha Washington, it seems that her views did not change or did not evolve regarding slavery. Certainly, with George Washington, we see his view start to evolve over time. With Martha, you really don't see that. It seems she's very entrenched in the view that she is of a different class than enslaved people, and she doesn't just say, enslaved people, she's talking about any individual of a darker skin color. And so, one of the things she writes, and this is in 1795, George Washington is president, and she writes to her niece that "The blacks are so bad in their nature that they have not the least gratitude for the kindness that may be showed to them." And this also ties into the Ona Judge story, because when Owna Judge self-emancipates, she is horrified because she says, "Well, we treated her so well, we treated her as a child." And George Washington says this as well. They feel that they have treated her well. They have treated her as though she's a part of the family. She was a child, they have fed her, they have clothed her, and she sees it as un-gratefulness. There's this disconnect between this idea of freedom as something that is more important than everyday comforts. We haven't found any letters or anything where Martha has any issue with slavery. All we really have are letters of her complaining about individuals either not doing their work properly. She felt that she deserved the enslaved people to be grateful for anything that was given to them. She owned one individual outright, and when George Washington passed away, he freed one of his individuals immediately, outright, and for Martha, she had that one individual, a gentleman who she owned outright, and she could have freed. So, she could not have freed the Custis slaves because they did not belong to her, but this is one individual, she would have legally been able to free and she chose to bequeath him to her grandson instead. So, in that case, where she had the opportunity to free someone, she chooses not to.
AMBUSKE: Lynn, can I ask a quick follow-up? You mentioned several times, letters and account books, and of course, the diary. And given your background, documentary editing, and your experience working with these sources on a regular day-to-day basis in ways that a lot of people just don't, are there any particular things that surprised you or insights that you've gleaned by working so intensely with this material that you did not expect or force you to change your assumptions or the way you understood this history?
ROBBINS: Well, I think I was in the category where I was hoping that we would find something in Martha Washington's letters that mirrored George Washington's change in viewpoint regarding enslaved people, regarding the institution of slavery. I was, I was sort of holding on to hope, which is probably unfair, but because George Washington's views changed, I was hoping that perhaps it was one of those things that they had together, that they discussed together. And unfortunately, we didn't find anything, and in fact, she doesn't really write at all about slavery. And the one quote that I used is one of only a handful that we found. We didn't find any letters where she talks about Ona Judge, which was quite frustrating. But I think the most surprising thing for me, and the thing that I, I guess I would use the word enjoyed is that there were lists of all of the individuals as well as so for, when she passes away, there is a list... A comprehensive list of all the dower slaves. And what was interesting is that it had their ages, it had their worth, and for some it had what they did, and so what I liked is, I was able to learn more about these individuals. It was a way to get a greater insight into her life, because you're seeing the individuals who she's working with in the household domestically, but also to have names and to start to look at them as individuals who resided at Mount Vernon and who made families and who had lives within their world at Mount Vernon. Which then also made it all the more distressing to learn about how they were separated at the end of George Washington's life, when he freed his enslaved people. It's difficult to say I was happy to read about enslaved people. It's more that I was happy to see that we have names and that it's possible to look at them more as individuals. And so any time I see something like that, it's a new glimpse into individuals who are usually just hidden in from the historical record. That's what I was most surprised and pleased about is that there's actually more information about these individuals than I realized, and that I think a lot of people realize is out there.
AMBUSKE: Intertwined Stories is a production of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and CD Squared.
I’m Jim Ambuske, your host and producer for this episode.
Jeanette Patrick and I co-created and co-wrote the main series, Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Brenda Parker brought it to life as our wonderful narrator. Curt Dahl of CD Squared was our lead producer and audio engineer.
Thank you to the anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon whose generous financial support made this show possible.
Please rate and review Intertwined on your favorite podcast app. We’d love to hear what you think, and it will help more people find the series.
And remember to check out our website for full transcripts, teacher resources, and suggested readings. You’ll find us at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com
Thanks for listening.
Dr. Lynn Price Robbins holds a PhD in U.S. History from George Mason University. She co-edited "George Washington’s Barbados Diary, 1751-52" and "The Papers of Martha Washington" and is the author of an essay on Martha Washington in "The Women of George Washington's World" (2022). In addition to her research on the Washingtons and women in early America, Robbins focuses on the creation of Washington, D.C., manumission, and the American Colonization Society. She is also a co-host of the 2 Complicated 4 History podcast.