This Day in History: George Washington writes his “Patcy”

During this week in 1775, George Washington writes his wife, Martha. He called her “my dear Patcy.” Only a handful of letters between George and Martha still survive. This letter is one of them.

The two wrote more often than that, of course. And, if any of those letters could be recovered, they would contain a treasure trove of information for historians! Unfortunately, Martha burned all the correspondence between herself and George after his death. Despite his long life in public service, George was a private man and it seems that she was trying to respect that.

Martha missed two letters, which were later found by her granddaughter in a small writing desk that she’d inherited. How crazy to find your grandparents’ letters like that! Especially if your grandparents are George and Martha Washington. What do you suppose she thought as she unfolded the letters to read them?

The first of these letters was written from George to Martha on June 18, 1775. He’d just been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and he was preparing to rendezvous with the American forces then stationed outside Boston. George wrote: “I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home, than I have the most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay was to be Seven times Seven years.” In the second of these letters, written on June 23, 1775, he wrote Martha quickly: “As I am within a few Minutes of leaving this City, I could not think of departing from it without dropping you a line . . . . I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time or distance can change.”

George signed his letter, “Your entire George Washington.” The words, one Mount Vernon historian notes, “display vulnerability, nuanced with passion.”

Washington seems to have held serious views on the institution of marriage. He was somewhat practical about it, as reflected in a piece of advice that he offered to his step-granddaughter in 1794:

“Love is a mighty pretty thing; but like all other delicious things, it is cloying; and when the first transports of the passion begins to subside, which it assuredly will do, and yield—oftentimes too late—to more sober reflections, it serves to evince, that love is too dainty a food to live upon alone, and ought not to be considered farther, than as a necessary ingredient for that matrimonial happiness which results from a combination of causes; none of which are of greater importance, than that the object on whom it is placed, should possess good sense—good dispositions—and the means of supporting you in the way you have been brought up.”

Remember, at this point, George and Martha would have been married for 35 years—an especially long period of time, given the shorter life expectancies back then. What is really important in marriage? George was speaking from experience. But he wasn’t stuck in pragmatism, either. He seems to have found genuine happiness in his own marriage and was always longing to return home to Mt. Vernon and to Martha. Perhaps a little bit of this attitude is reflected in a letter that he wrote in 1786. “[M]ore permanent & genuine happiness,” Washington wrote, “is to be found in the sequestered walks of connubial life, than in the giddy rounds of promiscuous pleasure, or the more tumultuous and imposing scenes of successful ambition.”

P.S. The attached painting is a 19th-century artist’s depiction of George Washington’s marriage to Martha Custis.