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Encounters 16, The Reluctant Lady

March 8, 2017

Washington delivered his first State of the Union address to Congress on January 4, 1790. The problems of government had already begun. A plan to pay the national debt, favored by Washington and Hamilton was defeated by supporters of Madison and Jefferson. By April the debate over where to put the new capitol festered. Would it be New York City or Philadelphia? Washington favored a new city, somewhere in the south, and so did Jefferson. George believed Americans could work together, making compromises and adjustments, and he worked diligently to prove it was so.

Martha feared the price her husband might pay to achieve harmony. In their late fifties, the Washingtons were considered elderly. Their hair was white and thinning, hearing fading, sight dimming, and teeth decaying. On May 15, doctors feared George was dying. He had developed pneumonia, burned with fever, and was delirious. Many thought the future of the nation depended on him, and they despaired. When the fever passed, Jefferson wrote, “From total despair we are now in good hopes of him.”

For several weeks he remained an invalid, but was disturbed by the tensions of governing. He brought Jefferson and Hamilton together and they forged a compromise. Hamilton would pay the national debt, and Jefferson would get the new capitol in an area in the south that Washington would select in Northern Virginia. The government would move south in 1800. Meanwhile the government would move back to Philadelphia, where George and Martha rented a large house before going home to Mount Vernon.

There Martha was surrounded by family and friends, loving every busy minute. A visitor wrote, “Hospitality seems to have spread over the whole place its happiest, kindest influence.”Martha convinced George she should be free to accept invitations and entertain her friends when they returned to Philadelphia. “Forget favoritism,” she must have said.

Their house on the wide Market Street had been enlarged; there was a garden with large trees, a coach house and stables. Philadelphia had become more elegant with some paved streets and oil lamps. St Peter’s Church was nearby, but political sides were growing, alarming the president.

Pennsylvania’s laws required adult slaves to be freed after a residence of six months. If the Custis slaves were freed, the Washingtons would be required to reimburse the estate their value, a huge financial consequence. George sent three adult slaves back to Mount Vernon, and later freed all his slaves, but Martha was not able to do so. When one of her personal slaves ran away, Martha was dismayed, believing she had treated the girl like a daughter. Martha could not believe freedom was more important than family. What could she tell the girl’s distraught mother back at Mt. Vernon? We can’t imagine!

to be contd.


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