Martha Washington’s importance is finally being recognized

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Sitting at her writing desk in Philadelphia, Martha Washington penned a letter to her beloved sister, Nancy. “Last week our boats made another attempt on the ships of the north river,” she wrote in the 1776 letter, discussing nothing of needlework but plenty about military advances along the Hudson River. The correspondence reveals that America’s founding mother was acutely aware of her husband’s work. “I thank God we shant want men,” she confidently writes. “The army at New York is very large.”

“It speaks volumes about their relationship,” says Lynn Price, assistant editor of the Washington Papers project at the University of Virginia, which has published comprehensive editions of the first president’s letters. Far from political, George Washington’s information-sharing was based on an emotional dependence on his wife. There was a tremendous amount of respect between the two, Price explains. “We now know she was acutely aware of all that was going on,” she says.

For years, it was presumed that Martha was a frumpy old lady sitting in the background with a jumble of knitting. But her words, says Price, speak volumes to her strength and usefulness to the nation’s first president. George empowered his wife further by paying for her to travel to see him, recuperating the costs as a work expense, according to documents analyzed by the Washington Papers. “He felt she was essential to his job,” Price says. “He started out saying she’ll miss me, and it turned out he couldn’t live without her.”

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