J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Eighteenth-Century Developments in the Media

The past week has brought a little flurry of news stories related to eighteenth-century America.

National Public Radio interviewed Ed Lengel, chief editor of the big Washington Papers Project at the University of Virginia, about the recent decision to give the same scholarly treatment to Martha Washington’s surviving letters.

Among the rarest are letters between George and Martha—she burned most of those after his death. Two survived in the back of a desk Martha gave to a relative; George had written those in the summer of 1775, explaining how he’d accepted the post of commander-in-chief and wouldn’t be back home before late fall at the earliest. Martha probably set those letters aside as special, though it’s not clear whether she meant to preserve them from the fire or just forgot about them.

The other correspondence between Martha and George Washington consists, as far as I recall, of notes she wrote on the back of other people’s letters, as Lengel describes:
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.
Back in 1994, Joseph E. Fields compiled “Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington, published by Greenwood Press. Fields worked on his own; he was a document collector and independent researcher, without the institutional resources or assumed authority of a university or institution. The Washington Papers edition will follow the same process and standards as its series about George’s correspondence.

N.P.R. also explored the construction and voyage of the Hermione, a replica of the ship that brought Lafayette back to America in 1780. The ship was reportedly constructed with eighteenth-century techniques, though it also includes twenty-first century plumbing. The Hermione will visit several ports along North America’s east coast this summer, from Yorktown to Halifax; scheduled stops in New England are Newport, Boston, and Castine.

I’m not sure why this project recreated the Hermione, which brought Lafayette from Rochefort to Boston in 1780, rather than the Victoire, which first brought him to America (landing near Georgetown, South Carolina) three years earlier. The Hermione was an official French naval vessel while the Victoire was a merchant ship the marquis bought to get out of France against familial and royal wishes. Maybe the plans for the Hermione are the only ones that survive. Maybe its role in the Yorktown campaign was also crucial to the choice. Anyway, it’s on its way.

The Charlottesville Daily Progress reported that Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate, has opened two log cabins and nine restored rooms in the upper stories of the main mansion for the upcoming season. The cabins are part of a new effort to show the life of people enslaved on that plantation. One is furnished to represent the home of part of the Hemings family, and the other is a workshop. Their structure was informed by archeological work on the sites of the original cabins, plus the large amount of recent documentary research on the lives of Monticello workers.

Those additions to Monticello’s public areas are part of a long-term project to restore the estate more to its appearance in Jefferson’s time. The Guardian says upcoming plans include restoring “a weavers’ cottage once used by enslaved women and Jefferson’s stable where slaves cared for his horses.” A similar project is underway at Montpelier, James Madison’s plantation, also largely underwritten by David M. Rubenstein.

This being the twenty-first century, Monticello also unveiled a smartphone app called “Slavery at Monticello: Life and Work on Mulberry Row.” It “takes users touring the south end of Monticello through the new cabins and offers virtual representations of other workshops, storehouses and dwellings that have been removed from the property in its nearly 250 years of existence.”

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