Thursday, July 27, 2017

Martha Washington's Supervision of the Philly President's House Food & of Her Slave Chef's Ultimate Freedom

1793 John Trumbull (1756-1843). Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731-1802)  (Daniel Parke Custis) (George Washington)


Hercules: Master of Cuisine, Slave of Washington
The Philadelphia Inquier  February 21 & 22, 2010 
by Craig LaBan, Restaurant Critic 

"In kitchen togs or fancy duds, Hercules left his mark in the President’s House & on the town in 1790s Philadelphia. He was one of the first great chefs of Philadelphia - in fact, of the young nation. The chief cook in President George Washington's home here in 1790 had only one name: Hercules.

"In the mansion's open-hearth kitchen, where elaborate banquets were prepared, where spitted meats sizzled & "fricaseys" simmered in cast-iron pans over hickory fires, underlings scurried to execute the orders of Hercules, "the great master-spirit," according to one account, who seemed to be everywhere at once...To Washington, however, Hercules was what he called that "species of property" - a slave. And though his talents would earn Hercules extraordinary privileges, including an income, fine clothes, & freedom to roam the city, Washington also went to great lengths to maintain the bondage of his prized cook ...eventually, an attempt to stash him at Mount Vernon...But contemporary historians such as Mary V. Thompson of Mount Vernon, Anna Coxe Toogood of Independence National Historical Park, David R. Hoth of the Washington Papers at the University of Virginia, & Edward Lawler Jr. of the Independence Hall Association have gone beyond Custis' memories to tease the outlines of Hercules' narrative from household account books, correspondences, & Mount Vernon farm reports...

"George Washington was no gourmet. Unlike his political rival Thomas Jefferson, forever a foodie after his diplomatic years in France, Washington was steeped in the ritual of simple tastes. He ate hoecakes for breakfast at 7, the white corn-mush patties swimming in butter & honey (to soften them for his famously sore teeth), with 3 cups of black tea. For his informal Saturday evenings, the fish-loving Washington regularly ate a humble hash of boiled beets, potatoes, onions, & salt fish (conveniently supplied by New England's congressional delegation) covered with fried pork scraps & buttery egg sauce. But the president could also host in capital style, with regular feasts for 30 or more guests: senators, foreign dignitaries, Indian chiefs. And he needed a kitchen that could carry it off.

"Hercules, the...father of four, was the Washington's choice. Little is known about his early life; Washington is believed to have purchased him in 1767, when Hercules was a 13-year-old ferryman. But Hercules clearly learned his kitchen craft well at Mount Vernon from Martha Washington's longtime slave cook, Old Doll. By the time Hercules was about 36, the president tapped him to come north to Philadelphia...Washington was keenly aware of the political importance of dining room ceremony, & his regular Thursday dinners with members of Congress would set an impressive standard for the nation's first power meals...With Congress drawing to a close & talk of avoiding another war with Britain likely swirling around the table, May 1794 brought forth a presidential gush of banquets. During the week of May 19, for instance, the kitchen prepared 293 pounds of beef, 111 pounds of veal, 54 pounds of mutton, 129 pounds of lamb, 16 pounds of pork, calves' feet (for sweet colonial Jell-O), 44 chickens, 22 pigeons, 2 ducks, 10 lobsters, 98 pounds of butter, 32 dozen eggs, myriad fruits & vegetables, 3 half-barrels of beer, 20 bottles of porter, 9 bottles of "cyder," 2 bottles of Sauternes, 22 bottles of Madeira, 4 bottles of claret, 10 bottles of Champagne, & 1 twenty-eight-pound cheese...

"And contrary to the Washington's grandson) Custis' image of him, he may not have always been in charge, either. The steward oversaw all the marketing, inspected each morning by Martha Washington after breakfast... 

"But while the hired cooks & stewards came & went, Hercules was the mainstay in the kitchen. And the Washingtons rewarded him with tokens of their approval. There were tickets to see a play at the Southwark Theater (The Beaux' Stratagem) & the spectacular riding acrobatics at Ricketts' Circus (America's 1st), according to account books. There were bottles of rum to mourn the death of his wife, Lame Alice, an enslaved Mount Vernon seamstress. A reluctant Washington also granted Hercules the favor of bringing his 13-year-old son, Richmond, to Philadelphia as a kitchen scullion & chimney sweep. Most telling, though, was allowing Hercules the right to sell the kitchen "slops" - the remaining animal skins, used tea leaves, & rendered tallow that would have been compost on the plantation...For Hercules, that meant annual earnings of up to $200, if Custis is accurate, as much as the Washingtons paid hired chefs...

"Pennsylvania had already become the first government in the New World to begin the abolition of slavery with its Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. And with the Quaker-backed Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery & Free African Society working on their behalf, there were 1,805 free blacks in the city in 1790, while only 273 remained enslaved, according to the federal census as noted in (Gary) Nash's book. By 1800, the slave number had dropped to 55 among a black population of 6,436, about 10 percent of the city's population. To circumvent the Gradual Abolition Act, which allowed citizens of other states to hold slaves only 6 months before the slaves could claim their freedom, the Washingtons regularly & illegally shuttled their slaves across state lines before the deadline expired, thus resetting their residency at zero. And Washington wanted to keep it secret at all costs - even if it meant a lie.

"I wish to have it accomplished under the pretext that may deceive both them & the public," he wrote to Lear. "...This advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington." It wasn't long before the slaves figured out why they were being shuffled back & forth between Philadelphia & Virginia by stagecoach & boat, but Hercules, Lear wrote Washington in 1791, was "mortified to the last degree to think that a suspicion could be entertained of his fidelity or attachment to you..." Martha Washington showed her trust by allowing Hercules to stay, at least once, beyond the 6 months. But the president clearly never relaxed.

"Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act that Congress had overwhelmingly approved in 1793, which allowed slave owners to retrieve their runaways anywhere, even if captured in non-slavery states...The once-trusted chef, also noted for the fine silk clothes...suddenly found himself that November in the coarse linens & woolens of a field slave. Hercules was relegated to hard labor alongside others, digging clay for 100,000 bricks, spreading dung, grubbing bushes, & smashing stones into sand to coat the houses on the property, according to farm reports & a November memo from Washington to his farm manager. "That will Keep them," he wrote, "out of idleness & mischief." When Hercules' son (13 year old) Richmond was then caught stealing money from an employee's saddlebags, Washington made his suspicions of a planned father-son escape clear in a letter: "This will make a watch, without its being suspected by, or intimated to them..." 

"By February, after several days of working in the damp chill, Hercules had had enough. Before dawn on Feb. 22, 1797, he launched his quest for freedom. The discovery by Mount Vernon historian Mary V. Thompson of this key detail in the weekly farm report from Feb. 25, 1797 - "Herculus absconded 4 [days ago]" - ...By the time Hercules fled in 1797, the 3 children he'd raised since his wife died 10 years earlier ranged from in age from 11 to 20. A 4th child, a daughter of 6, seemed to have understood her father's need to leave. A Mount Vernon visitor asked whether she was "deeply upset that she would never see her father again." She replied, according to the future French king Louis-Philippe, in his Diary of My Travels in America: "Oh! sir, I am very glad, because he is free now..."

"Hercules resurfaced at least once more in the United States. He was spotted in late 1801, by Col. Richard Varick, Washington's former recording secretary, who was then mayor of New York. In responding to his alert, Martha Washington wrote "to decline taking Hercules back again..." On Jan. 1, 1801, according to biographer Patricia Brady, Martha Washington had decided to free all 123 of her late husband's slaves, despite his wish that they would not be freed until both he & his wife were dead."

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

George & Martha Dandridge Custis Washington's celebrated, enslaved cook, Hercules

Attributed to Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) & Assumed to be a Portrait of Hercules, George Washington's Cook, 1797

Hercules was an enslaved African held at Mount Vernon, George Washington's Virginia plantation on the Potomac River. He was the head cook at the mansion in the 1780s, cooking for the Washington family and their guests. Hercules was one of two cooks listed in the 1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census. He probably was born around 1755, and was either the child of Washington's slaves or was purchased following Washington's 1759 marriage to the widow Martha Custis.
1800 Unidentified Artist, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731-1802)  (Daniel Parke Custis) (George Washington)

After he became President of the United States, Washington was dissatisfied with the cook in the presidential residences in New York City, and brought Hercules to Philadelphia in November 1790.In 1790 President Washington brought him to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (then the national capital) to cook in the kitchen of the President's House. Hercules escaped to freedom from Mount Vernon in 1797, and later was legally manumitted under the terms of Washington's Will.

Hercules took Alice, one of Martha Washington's "dower" slaves, as his wife, and they had 3 children: Richmond (born 1777), Evey (born 1782), and Delia (born 1785). He, his wife, and the three children were listed in the February 1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census, which records him as one of two cooks in the Mansion House. Alice died in 1787.

He was one of nine enslaved Africans brought to Philadelphia in 1790 by Washington to work in the presidential household.In the memoirs of G.W.P. Custis, Martha Washington's grandson, Hercules was recalled as "a celebrated artiste ... as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States." The cook was given the privilege of selling the extra food from the Philadelphia kitchen, which by Custis's estimate earned him nearly $200 a year, the annual salary of a hired cook. According to Custis, Hercules was a dapper dresser and was given freedom to walk about in the city.

Pennsylvania passed a gradual abolition law in 1780, which prohibited non-residents from holding slaves in the state longer than six months. If held beyond that period, the state's Gradual Abolition Act gave slaves the legal power to free themselves. Members of Congress were specifically exempted from the act. Officers of the executive and judicial branches of the federal government were not mentioned since those branches didn't exist until the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788.

When the national capital moved Philadelphia in 1790, there was a question about whether the state law would apply to federal officials. Washington argued that he was a citizen of Virginia, that his presence in Pennsylvania was solely a consequence of Philadelphia's being the temporary national capital, and that the state law should not apply to him. Rather than challenging the state law in court, Washington took the advice of his attorney general, Edmund Randolph, and systematically rotated the President's House slaves in and out of the state to prevent their establishing a six-month continuous residency. This rotation was itself a violation of Pennsylvania law, but no one challenged the President's actions. The U.S. Supreme Court later found Pennsylvania's 1788 amendment to the Gradual Abolition Act to be unconstitutional in Prigg v. Pennsylvania.

In reality, Washington left Hercules behind at Mount Vernon, when he returned to Philadelphia after Christmas 1796. The historian Anna Coxe Toogood found that the Mount Vernon farm records listed Hercules and Richmond at the plantation during the winter of 1796-97, where they were assigned as laborers, along with other domestic servants, to pulverize stone, dig brick clay, and grub out honeysuckle.

Mary V. Thompson, research historian at Mount Vernon, was able to document that Hercules escaped to freedom from Mount Vernon, and that his escape occurred on February 22, 1797 – Washington's 65th birthday – which the president celebrated in Philadelphia. An entry in that week's Mount Vernon farm report noted that Hercules "absconded 4 [days ago]."

Louis-Philippe, the future king of the French, visited Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797. According to his April 5 diary entry: The general's cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, "Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now."

Hercules remained in hiding. In 1798, the former-President's House steward, Frederick Kitt, informed Washington that the fugitive was living in Philadelphia: "Since your departure I have been making distant enquiries about Herculas but did not till about four weeks ago hear anything of him and that was only that [he] was in town neither do I yet know where he is, and that it will be very difficult to find out in the secret manner necessary to be observed on the occasion."

The 1799 Mount Vernon Slave Census listed 124 enslaved Africans owned by Washington and 153 "dower" slaves owned by Martha Washington's family. Washington's 1799 Will instructed that his slaves be freed upon Martha's death. Washington died on December 14, 1799.  At Martha Washington's request, the three executors of Washington's Estate freed her late husband's slaves on January 1, 1801. There is no evidence that Hercules knew he had been manumitted, and legally was no longer a fugitive.  In a December 15, 1801 letter, Martha Washington indicated, that she had learned that Hercules, by then legally free, was living in New York City. Nothing more is known of his whereabouts or life in freedom.

Because Alice had been a "dower" slave – owned by the estate of Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis – the children of Hercules and his wife were legally property of the Custis Estate. The children remained enslaved and were among the "dowers" divided among Martha Washington's 4 grandchildren following her 1802 death.

George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of the Life and Character of Washington. Benson J. Lossing, ed. (New York, 1860), 422-24. "The chief cook would have been termed in modern parlance, a celebrated artiste. He was named Hercules, and familiarly termed Uncle Harkless. Trained in the mysteries of his part from early youth, and in the palmy days of Virginia, when her thousand chimneys smoked to indicate the generous hospitality that reigned throughout the whole length and breadth of her wide domain, Uncle Harkless was, at the period of the first presidency, as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary arts as could be found in the United States. He was a dark-brown man, little, if any above the usual size, yet possessed of such great muscular power as to entitle him to be compared with his namesake of fabulous history.

"The chief cook gloried in the cleanliness and nicety of his kitchen. Under his iron discipline, wo[e] to his underlings if speck or spot could be discovered on the tables or dressers, or if the utensils did not shine like polished silver. With the luckless wights who had offended in these particulars there was no arrest of punishment, for judgment and execution went hand in hand.The steward, and indeed the whole household, treated the chief cook with such respect, as well for his valuable services as for his general good character and pleasing manners.

"It was while preparing the Thursday or Congress dinner that Uncle Harkless shone in all his splendor. During his labors upon this banquet he required some half dozen aprons, and napkins out of number. It was surprising the order and discipline that was observed in so bustling a scene. His underlings flew in all directions to execute his orders, while he, the great master-spirit, seemed to possess the power of ubiquity, and to be everywhere at the same moment.

"When the steward in snow-white apron, silk shorts and stockings, and hair in full powder, placed the first dish on the table, the clock being on the stroke of four, "the labors of Hercules" ceased.

"While the masters of the republic were engaged in discussing the savory viands of the Congress dinner, the chief cook retired to make his toilet for an evening promenade. His prerequisites from the slops of the kitchen were from one to two hundred dollars a year. Though homely in person, he lavished the most of these large avails upon dress. In making his toilet his linen was of unexceptional whiteness and quality, then black silk shorts, ditto waistcoat, ditto stockings, shoes highly polished, with large buckles covering a considerable part of the foot, blue cloth with velvet collar and bright metal buttons, a long watch-chain dangling from his fob, a cocked-hat and gold-headed cane completed the grand costume of the celebrated dandy (for there were dandies in those days) of the president's kitchen.

Thus arrayed, the chief cook invariably passed out at the front door, the porter making a low bow, which was promptly returned. Joining his brother-loungers of the pave, he proceeded up Market street, attracting considerable attention, that street being, in the old times, the resort where fashionables "did most congregate." Many were not a little surprised to behold so extraordinary a personage, while others who knew him would make a formal and respectful bow, that they might receive in return the salute of one of the most polished gentlemen and the veriest dandy of nearly sixty years ago."

Read more about Hercules  at The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington.

Since 1980, Mary V. Thompson has worked as Research Historian at Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens. Her primary focus is on using primary sources to understand & interpret everyday life on the estate, including domestic routines, foodways, religious practices, slavery, and the free hours of the Washington's slave community. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Tobacco, Slaves, & Life on 18C Chesapeake Plantations

1757 Detail John Wollaston (1710-1775) Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731-1802)  (Daniel Parke Custis) (George Washington)

Life for Martha Washington at Mount Vernon Before the Presidency

At Mount Vernon, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington's (1731-1802) responsibility was the household. Although he was often traveling out of Virginia, when he was at home, George would mount his horse each day & make the rounds of his various fields & farms, as Martha would make her daily circuit from the main house to the kitchen, storeroom, poultry yard, wash-house, smokehouse, & garden. 

In 1757, the widow Martha came to Mount Vernon along with 12 household slaves from the Custis estate of her 1st husband. These slaves included 2 men who acted as table servants; a man & a woman who looked after the children; 2 female cooks; 2 female washerwomen; a female spinner & a female seamstress; & 2 women who served as maids for Martha & her daughter. These African American slaves & other white servants actually performed what Martha called the “Drudgery duties,” the actual physical labor necessary to keep the enterprise running.*

Martha managed & supervised the entire operation. Each day she assigned chores to the slaves & servants, inspected the quality of their work, & made sure their tasks were completed in a timely fashion. The Washingtons often entertained guests for dinner or hosted overnight visitors. Both Martha & her staff had to respond to the additional burdens of hospitality, sometimes instantaneously as a traveler would arrive unexpectedly at the door.

Although Martha was responsible for creating the day’s menu, slave cooks actually prepared the various meats, puddings, pickles, cakes, & pastries served at meals. Martha used a handwritten collection of recipes she had inherited from the family of her late 1st husband. She also consulted cookbooks available at the time, including Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery. The vast majority of slaves could not read, so it is likely that Martha read her recipes aloud to them until they had them memorized. Martha also supervised the process of curing meats. She was particularly proud of her prowess at producing high-quality smoked hams. In her garden, she experimented with growing new fruits & vegetables to expand & diversify the plantation diet.

Reportedly, Martha’s favorite household task was needlework. In the 18C, fine needlework was regarded as a sign of feminine accomplishment & gentility. Mount Vernon’s female slaves performed the more mundane tasks, such as spinning thread & weaving cloth. They also made the coarse clothing worn by plantation slaves. Martha, however, spent some time almost every day engaged in fine needlework. Such sewing, mending, knitting, & embroidering involved a high level of attention to detail & high-level of expertise. Martha enjoyed sewing with her daughter, granddaughters, friends, & female slaves. She could, however, be highly critical of those whose precision, with the needle did not meet her exacting standards. Although a warm & loving person, she came to Mount Vernon with strong expectations & standards.

At the time that George & Martha Washington began to farm in earnest eastern Virginia had been settled for 152 years. Yet the population was almost wholly rural. Williamsburg, the Virginia capital, was hardly more than a country village, & Norfolk, the Virginia metropolis, probably did not contain more than 5,000 inhabitants. The population generally was so scattered that, as has been remarked, a man could not see his neighbor without a telescope or be heard by him without firing a gun.

A large part of the settled land was divided up into great estates, though there were many small farms. The Virginia plantation of 1760 was much more sufficient unto itself than similar plantations of the next century. A son of George Mason, Washington's close friend & neighbor, penned the following description of industry at Gunston Hall: "My father had among his slaves carpenters, coopers, sawyers, blacksmiths, tanners, curriers, shoemakers, spinners, weavers, & knitters, & even a distiller. His woods furnished timber & plank for the carpenters & coopers, & charcoal for the blacksmith; his cattle killed for his own consumption & for sale, supplied skins for the tanners, curriers, & shoemakers; & his sheep gave wool & his fields produced cotton & flax for the weavers & spinners, & his own orchards fruit for the distillers. His carpenters & sawyers built & kept in repair all the dwelling-houses, barns, stables, ploughs, harrows, gates, eta, on the plantations, & the outhouses of the house. His coopers made the hogsheads the tobacco was prized in, & the tight casks to hold the cider & other liquors. The tanners & curriers, with the proper vats, etc., tanned & dressed the skins as well for upper as for lower leather to the full amount of the consumption of the estate, & the shoemakers made them into shoes for the negroes. A professed shoemaker was hired for three or four months in the year to come & make up the shoes for the white part of the family. The blacksmiths did all the iron work required by the establishment, as making & repairing ploughs, harrows, teeth, chains, bolts, etc. The spinners, weavers, & knitters made all the coarse cloths & stockings used by the negroes, & some of fine texture worn by the white family, nearly all worn by the children of it. The distiller made every fall a good deal of apple, peach, & persimmon brandy. The art of distilling from grain was not then among us, & but few public distilleries. All these operations were carried on at the home house, & their results distributed as occasion required to the different plantations. Moreover, all the beeves & hogs for consumption or sale were driven up & slaughtered there at the proper seasons, & whatever was to be preserved was salted & packed away for distribution."

Nevertheless the plantation drew upon the outside world for many articles, especially luxuries, & the owner had to find the wherewithal to make payment. The almost universal answer to this problem was tobacco. They had no gold or silver mines from which to draw bullion that could be coined into cash; the fur trade was of little importance compared with that farther north; the Europe of that day raised sufficient meat & grain for its own use, & besides these articles were bulky & costly to transport. But Europe did have a strong craving for the weed &, almost of necessity, Virginians set themselves to satisfying it. It is estimated that prior to the Revolution, Virginia often sent out annually as much as 96,000 hogsheads of tobacco. Tobacco took the place of money, & debts, taxes & even ministers' salaries were paid in it.

The tobacco industry was not only ruinous to the Chesapeake soil, but it was badly organized from a financial standpoint. Three courses were open to the planter who had tobacco. He might sell it to some local mercantile house, but these were not numerous nor as a rule conveniently situated to the general run of planters. He might deposit it in a tobacco warehouse, receiving in return a receipt, which he could sell if he saw fit & could find a purchaser. Or he could send his tobacco direct to an English agent to be sold. 

If a great planter was situated upon navigable water, this last was the course he was apt to follow. He would have his own wharf to which once or twice a year a ship would come bringing the supplies he had ordered months before & taking away the great staple. If brought from a distance, the tobacco was rarely hauled to the wharf in wagons—the roads were too wretched for that—instead it was packed in a great cylindrical hogshead through which an iron or wooden axle was put. Horses or oxen were then hitched to the axle & the hogshead was rolled to its destination. By the ship that took away his tobacco the planter sent to the English factor a list of the goods he would require for the next year. It was an unsatisfactory way of doing business, for time & distance conspired to put the planter at the factor's mercy. The planter was not only unlikely to obtain a fair price for his product, but he had to pay excessive prices for poor goods & besides could never be certain that his order would be properly filled.

Washington's experiences with his English agents were probably fairly typical. Near the close of 1759 he complained that Thomas Knox of Bristol had failed to send him various things ordered, such as half a dozen scythes & stones, curry combs & brushes, weeding & grubbing hoes, & axes, & that now he must buy them in America at exorbitant prices. In September of the same year he ordered, among other things, busts of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charles XII of Sweden, Frederick the Great, Prince Eugene & the Duke of Marlborough; also of two wild beasts. The order was "filled" by sending him a group showing AEneas bearing his father from Troy, two groups with two statues of Bacchus & Flora, two ornamental vases & two "Lyons."

Most Virginia planters got in debt to their agents, & the Washingtons were no exception. When their agents, Robert Cary & Company, called his attention to the fact, George wrote them, that they seemed in a bit of a hurry considering the extent of past dealings with each other. "Mischance rather than Misconduct hath been the cause of it," he asserted, explaining that he had made large purchases of land, that crops had been poor for 3 seasons & prices bad. He preferred to let the debt stand, but if the agents insisted upon payment now he would find means to discharge the obligation.

The 18C Virginia life had its color & charm. It is true that a few planters had their gorgeous coaches, yet Martha Washington remembered when there was only one coach in the whole of Virginia, & throughout her life the roads were so wretched that those who traveled over them in vehicles ran in imminent danger of being overturned, with possible dislocation of limbs & disjointing of necks. Virginians & Marylanders had their liveried servants, mahogany furniture, silver plate, silks & satins; along with their Madeira & port wine. But many plantation account books show that the planter was chronically in debt & that bankruptcy was common, while accounts left by travelers reveal the fact that many of the mansion houses were shabby & run down, with rotting roofs, ramshackle doors, broken windows into which old hats or other garments had been thrust to keep the wind away... 

*Martha Washington to Mrs. Elizabeth Powel, May 20, 1797 in "Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington, ed. Joseph E. Fields (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1994), 302.

See a detailed biography of Martha Washington, where much of this information came from, Here.

Paul Leland Haworth (1876-1936) George Washington: Farmer Ch 3 Virginia Agriculture in Washington's Day.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), Mrs. John Adams - 1st To Occupy The White House

Abigail Smith Adams (Mrs. John Adams), by Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1800-1815. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

First Lady Abigail Adams is remembered as the 1st to live in the White House, as well an early advocate of women’s rights. Born Abigail Smith in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1744, she was homeschooled during her youth. This gave her access to the vast libraries of her father & grandfather. She first met her future husband, then a young attorney, in 1759, & they married five years later. Abigail Adams gave birth to 5 children, including future President John Quincy Adams.

Because her husband traveled often, to defend his clients & serve as a representative during the American Revolution, the Adamses’ corresponded frequently. It’s believed they exchanged over 1,100 letters. As John & his contemporaries began to advocate for declaring independence, Abigail encouraged her husband to consider expanding the role of women in the soon-to-be new nation. John Adams did not agree. While espousing women’s rights, Abigail served as John’s closest confidant.

The Adams family became the 1st residents of the newly-constructed White House in November 1800. Although the unfinished residence matched the new capital’s bare appearance, the new first lady entertained guests at official dinners & receptions regardless.

Abigail, who previously lived in official residences, when her husband served as a diplomat & vice president, saw the White House’s potential as a symbol for the nation. Five days after moving in, she described the Ladies’ Drawing Room as “a very handsome room now, but when completed it will be beautiful.”

Abigail Adams moved out of the White House in March 1801, but her legacy there goes deeper than being the 1st “first lady” to live in the building: through the years, contemporary staff reported smelling the lavender scent of laundry she hung in the East Room.

From The White House Historical Association

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

1784 Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), Mrs. John Adams, - Letter about French Women

Benjamin Blythe 1766 Portrait of Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818) 

39 year-old Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818) to 17 year-old Lucy Cranch
Sunday, 5 September 1784

Written from
Auteuil, Paris, Ville de Paris, Île-de-France, France

"This lady (Mme Helvétius) I dined with at Dr. Franklin's. She entered the room with a careless, jaunty air; upon seeing ladies who were strangers to her, she bawled out: “Ah! mon Dieu, where is Franklin? Why did you not tell me there were ladies here?” You must suppose her speaking all this in French. “How I look!” said she, taking hold of a chemise made of tiffany, which she had on over a blue lute-string, and which looked as much upon the decay as her beauty, for she was once a handsome woman; her hair was frizzled; over it she had a small straw hat, with a dirty gauze half-handkerchief round it, and a bit of dirtier gauze, than ever my maids wore, was bowed on behind. She had a black gauze scarf thrown over her shoulders. She ran out of the room; when she returned, the Doctor entered at one door, she at the other; upon which she ran forward to him, caught him by the hand: “Hélas! Franklin;” then gave him a double kiss, one upon each cheek, and another upon his forehead. When he went into the room to dine, she was placed between the Doctor and Mr. Adams. She carried on the chief of the conversation at dinner, frequently locking her hand into the Doctor's, and sometimes spreading her arms upon the backs of both the gentlemen's chairs, then throwing her arm carelesly upon the Doctor's neck.

"I should have been greatly astonished at this conduct if the good Doctor had not told me that in this lady I should see a genuine Frenchwoman, wholly free from affectation or stiffness of behaviour, and one of the best women in the world. For this I must take the Doctor's word, but I should have set her down for a very bad one, although sixty years of age, and a widow. I own I was highly disgusted, and never wish for an acquaintance with any ladies of this cast. After dinner she threw herself upon a settee, where she showed more than her feet. She had a little lap-dog, who was, next to the Doctor, her favorite. This she kissed, and when he wet the floor she wiped it up with her chemise. This is one of the Doctor's most intimate friends, with whom he dines once every week, and she with him. She is rich, and is my near neighbour, but I have not yet visited her. Thus you see, my dear, that manners differ exceedingly in different countries. I hope, however, to find amongst the French ladies manners more consistent with my ideas of decency, or I shall be a mere recluse."

Lucy Cranch was the daughter of Richard Cranch (1726–1811), a manufacturer, and his wife, Mary née Smith (1741–1811), sister of Abigail Adams. In 1791, she married her cousin John Greenleaf (1763–1848), a blind musician; they had 7 children.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington 1731-1802 (Mrs George Washington) & Slavery

1757 John Wollaston (1710-1775) Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731-1802)  (Daniel Parke Custis) (George Washington)

When George Washington took over Mount Vernon at age 22, there were 18 slaves. When he married Martha Dandridge Custis (1731-1802)  (Daniel Parke Custis), he gained control of 200 more which technically belonged to the estate of his wife’s 1st husband. By 1786, he owned 216 slaves. (Flexner, p 114)

While George Washington was serving as president in Philadelphia, a Pennsylvania law was passed freeing slaves whose owners had been citizens of the state for 6  months. George Washington sent his 2 most valuable slaves home, telling them it was for his wife’s convenience. (Wilkins, p 76)

When George Washington left the presidency, he apparently left some house slaves behind in Philadelphia, knowing that under state law they would be quietly freed by having spent a certain amount of time in Pennsylvania. (Flexner)

When he died in 1799, his will called for his manservant William Lee to be freed immediately, and given a pension. The other slaves were to be freed when his widow died. Martha chose to free them 2 years later. According to Abigail Adams, this was because Martha Washington feared her life might be in danger, since her death meant freedom for the slaves. (Hirschfield p 214)


Neither George Washington nor Martha Washington could legally free the dower slaves which still belonged to the Custis estate of her 1st husband.

1766: George Washington sent a “rogue and runaway” slave to the islands to be sold for rum, molasses, etc. (Flexner, p 114)

1774: George Washington said new British laws would make Americans "as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway." (Flexner, p 114)

1778/9: George Washington was reluctant to buy or sell slaves, although he felt that: “If these poor wretches are to be held in a state of slavery, I do not see that a change of masters will render it more irksome, provided husband and wife, and parents are not separated from each other, which is not my intention to do." (Flexner, p 118)

1786 George Washington complained about a Quaker abolitionist society: “I can only say that no man living wishes more sincerely than I do to see the abolition of (slavery)…But when slaves who are happy & content to remain with their present masters, are tampered with & seduced to leave them… it introduces more evils than it can cure." (Hirschfield, p 187)

Before 1793: "The unfortunate condition of the people whose labors I in part employed has been the only unavoidable subject of regret. To make the adults among them as easy and comfortable as their actual state of ignorance and improvidence would admit; and to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born, afforded some satisfaction to my mind, and could not, I hoped, be displeasing to the justice of the Creator." (Flexner, p 121)

1793: As president George Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act.

1793: George Washington hoped to rent and/or sell parts of his land, freeing the slaves to work as laborers. In a private letter he said his most powerful motive was: "to liberate a certain species of property which I possess very repugnantly to my own feelings, but which imperious necessity compels, and until I can substitute some other expedient by which expenses not in my power to avoid (however well disposed I may be to do it) can be defrayed." He was unable to find suitable renters or buyers and the plan fell through. (Flexner, p 113)

Approx 1794: One of George Washington’s slaves died: “I hope every necessary care and attention was afforded him. I expect little from (Overseer) McKoy, or indeed from most of his class, for they seem to consider a Negro much in the same light as they do the brute beasts on the farms, and often treat them as inhumanely.” (Wilkins, p83)

1796: Oney (or Ona) Judge ran away to New Hampshire. She was one of George Washington’s slaves – Martha’s personal servant. President George Washington asked the Treasury Secretary for help in getting her back: “I am sorry to give you, or any one else trouble on such a trifling occasion, but the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant (and Mrs Washington’s desire to recover her) ought not to escape with impunity if it can be avoided.” (Wilkins,p82)

1796: A federal customs official in New Hampshire located George Washington’s runaway slave Oney Judge.George Washington asked him to “seize her and put her on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place or to Alexandria (Virginia).” The customs official warned that this would spark a riot.(Gerson )

In 1796, Oney (or Ona) Judge ran away to New Hampshire. She was one of the Washington’s slaves - Martha’s personal servant. President George Washington asked the Treasury Secretary and a customs agent for help in getting her back, by force, if necessary - but she never returned. (Wilkins. p 82. also: Gerson)

1796:, The customs official wrote that Oney Judge agreed to return if George Washington promised to free her in his will. George Washington wrote to the customs official: “I regret that the attempt you made to restore the Girl (Oney Judge as she called herself while with us, and who without the least provocation absconded from her Mistress) should have been attended with so little Success. To enter into such a compromise with her as she suggested to you is totally inadmissible, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be political or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving of favor.” Oney Judge remained free. (Wilkins, p82)

1799: George Washington complained that he had too many slaves. “To sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out is almost as bad, because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse the families I have an aversion.What then is to be done? Something must or I shall be ruined…” (Hirschfield,p74)

1799: When George Washington died his will called for his manservant William Lee to be freed immediately, and given a pension. The other slaves were to be freed when his widow died. Martha chose to free them 2 years later. According to Abigail Adams this was because Martha Washington feared her life might be in danger, since her death meant freedom for the slaves. (Hirschfield p 214) Neither George Washington nor Martha Washington could legally free the dower slaves (which Martha brought to the marriage) because they still belonged to the Custis estate.

This research is done by librarian Rob Lopresti and may be found on his website here..

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), Mrs. John Adams, Disagrees with George Washington's Ownership of Slaves

Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), Mrs. John Adams, by Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1800-1815. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth Bissell Miller, “Abigail Adams,” The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington

George Washington owned slaves from an early age, & held conflicting views about the institution of slavery throughout his life. Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), Mrs. John Adams, was impressed with Washington in general, but spoke of her disagreement with his position as a slaveholder. 

Throughout her life, Abigail Adams held steadfast to core principles: she was a humanitarian, activist, & leader with an acute sense of both America's successes & failures. Adams advocated for gender equality in public education & the need to pay attention to the social, political, & educational needs of women. She also firmly believed in the necessity for the emancipation of African Americans from slavery &, like her husband, firmly believed in dissolving the political union with Great Britain. In one final act of rebellion, Adams, a married woman whose property was controlled by her living husband, wrote a will & left the majority of her possessions to her female kin.

Frequently forsaking private joy for the greater public good, Adams voiced her views not only in quasi-political situations—such as during her appointment to the Massachusetts Colony General Court in 1775—but also to her husband during his numerous domestic & overseas diplomatic missions. It was in her role as unofficial advisor that she made her greatest contributions to the early American nation. It is believed that Abigail & John Adams exchanged more than 1,100 letters on topics ranging from government & politics to women's rights. Her firm views on American independence were succinctly expressed in a 1775 letter, explaining: "Let us separate, they are unworthy to be our Brethren. Let us renounce them..."


1792 George Washington before the Battle of Trenton by John Trumbull (1756-1843) 

Abigail Adams first met George Washington shortly after he took command of the Continental Army. Adams had initial hesitations regarding Washington as a slaveholder & member of the Virginia planter elite. However, after meeting, Adams wrote her husband that she was "struck with General Washington," & that his appointment was received with "universal satisfaction." Adams further explained that Washington was marked by "Dignity with ease. . .the Gentleman & Soldier look agreeably blended in him."

An ardent advocate for the cause of American liberty, Adams was uniquely able to express herself with eloquence at a time when women received little formal instruction. In a series of letters written beginning in 1776, Adams boldly argued for women’s rights. After learning that her husband would serve on the committee that would draft the Declaration of Independence, Adams admonished him to: "Remember the Ladies..." Although John Adams did not follow his wife's advice, ultimately his political agenda was shaped as much by his own opinions as by his valuable discourse with Abigail.

Abigail was John's all-encompassing aide-de-camp, chief of staff, & brain trust. However, her influence was not appreciated by all, particularly those who scathingly called her "Mrs. President." Abigail accompanied John to his diplomatic post in Paris in 1784. In 1785, she carefully handled the complex role of wife of the first United States Minister to Great Britain. And later she was wife of the first U.S. Vice President, & wife of the second U.S. President, serving as First Lady from March 4, 1797 to March 4, 1801.

A granddaughter of pre-revolutionary era politician John Quincy, & the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, Abigail married John Adams in October 1764 at the age of nineteen. Abigail's lifelong enjoyment of philosophy, theology, ancient history, government, & law, which was championed by her grandmother & other relatives, helped both Abigail & the young American nation chart a new course. Abigail played a vital role in America until her passing in 1818. She advocated for women's education, women's social & political needs, & the abolition of slavery.