Why Did Martha Burn Her Letters?

Before I get started on today’s blog, I wanted to mention that this blog has become something I look forward to each day. Writing it keeps me accountable and gives me an opportunity to research the inn’s namesake. Having named our B&B, George Washington Inn, I feel a sacred trust to our nation’s father and don’t want to drop the torch that has been handed to me. This morning when I woke, I read a note from my oldest daughter asking me for some ideas that she could use at an upcoming ladies retreat. The theme has to do with “words matter”. How timely with today’s topic in mind. So here I go.
Martha Washington

Martha Washington by Michael Deas

Much of the intimate and private conversation between George and Martha Washington was left to the annals of heaven when Martha burned their letters shortly before she died. Why did she destroy this treasure trove of history?

During the months of necessary separation when George Washington was either fighting the war or leading the country, many letters were written between them and carried to each other by pony express. During the Revolutionary War, the British intercepted one of their letters and used it as a kind of blackmail against them. Having felt the sting of this offense, perhaps she wanted to avoid any embarrassment to their memory after she was gone.

Here’s the text of one of those letters:

“June, 24, 1776

My dearest life and love,

You have hurt me, I know not how much, by the insinuation in your last, that my letters to you have lately been less frequent, because I have less concern for you. The suspicion is most unjust, – may I not add, it is most unkind! Have we lived, now almost a score of years, in the closest and dearest conjugal intimacy to so little purpose, that, on appearance only of inattention to you, and which you might have accounted for in a thousand ways more natural and more probable, you should pitch upon that single motive which alone is injurious to me?

I have not, I own, wrote so often to you as I wished, and as I ought. But think of my situation, and then ask your heart, if I be without excuse.

We are not, my dearest, in circumstances the most favourable to our happiness, but let us not, I beseech thee, idly make them worse, by indulging suspicions and apprehensions which minds in distress are too apt to give way to.

I never was, as you have often told me, even in my better and more disengaged days, so attentive to the little punctilios of friendship, as, it maybe, became me, but my heart tells me, there was never a moment in my life, since I first knew you, in which I did not cleave and cling to you with the warmest affections…” (the letter continues)

This letter was recently discovered by James Renwick Manship, Sr. in the Rare Books Room of the Library of Congress. He writes about this letter:

“The circumstances of which Washington writes were while he was in the midst of moving the American Army from Boston to New York to prepare for the assault of 30,000 British troops! Ever the loving husband, might General Washington have had a few things to distract his attentions?

And the British were intercepting, and in this case publishing in the newspaper, Washington’s letters, so even while he was a loving husband writing home, we now know why Martha was not receiving his letters. Could this letter or other like it be why Martha burned near all their letters after he died?”

To Martha’s credit, she took every opportunity that she could to accompany or follow her husband in his necessary pursuits. This was often done is less that desireable circumstances or comfort. She was known to be a supportive help mate to her husband.

“She joined her husband’s Revolutionary army each winter for eight years, becoming famous for her warmth and loyalty. Martha’s loyalty to her husband and the new nation never wavered, even during the hard years of a presidency she felt was an excessive burden on her husband. She weathered attacks on her husband from the press and his former friends, as well as serious curtailment of her own freedom. And while she may not have enjoyed traveling—a rough and complicated proposition in the colonial era—she was constantly moving across the states to fulfill her obligations to family and nation. Yet she bore it gracefully. The formidable first First Lady became known as an able, intelligent hostess.

In later years, the pair that had weathered so much together finally retired to a more domestic life at Mount Vernon. But the usually hale George died unexpectedly in late 1799. Martha continued to look after her clan, but she never recovered from her grief.” (from historian, Patricia Brady, Ph.D. in Martha Washington)

Always seeking to be his intimate companion and help meet, Martha Washington sat at the foot of her dying husband on his deathbed and made this statement after he slipped away, “…All is now over. I shall soon follow him! I have no more trials to pass through!” She never slept in their bedroom after his passing and moved up into a room in the attic there at Mount Vernon. Our country’s premier First Lady died two and a half years after her husband on May 18, 1802 from a “severe fever” surrounded by her beloved family. They were both buried in an unpretentious grave site on the Mount Vernon estate.

Death of George Washington

Death of George Washington

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5 thoughts on “Why Did Martha Burn Her Letters?

  1. Dear Washington Inn Proprietor:

    Thank you ever so much for saying such kind words about my beloved Martha.

    Joining with Martha in a perpetual union was the wisest decision made in my life, that enabled so much of the Good Works with which I was blessed to be created in GW (God’s Will) to do. (Eph. 2:10)

    I do hope to journey across this vast God-given land of liberty yet again so I may see the Washington state, and also to visit with you and your lady.

    Your most humble & obedient servant,

    GW

  2. What a wonderful blog! I’m a writer of historical fiction and George W. ranks right up there with Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark for me. I’m going to be visiting your beautiful inn in future and can’t wait! Bless you! Have you read “George Washington’s Lady” by Nancy Moser?

  3. Laura,

    I just read some reviews about the book (“George Washington’s Lady” by Nancy Moser) that you recommended. I’d like to get a copy for the inn.

  4. George George… the world only knows how much I loved you and was honored to see you grow to be the man that you are. It is good to know under heaven that some love can be more gentle and intimate between friends and I may impart a part of my immortal soul’s desire to have had the place I did in your heart.

  5. I love your blog. I have studied the lives of George and Martha Washington for many years, and have determined that Martha burned their letters for this reason . They had been married for forty years. They were living in a fish bowl. She was not only his love but served as political advisor and confidant. There was one area that was to be protected. Sometime during their later years Martha anD George made a pact with each other that the surviving partner would burn their private letters.
    Keep up you work and continue to encourage our youth to learn more about our great beginning as a nation. Bonnie Atchison

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