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The Washingtons by Flora Fraser
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The Washingtons

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The Washingtons by Flora Fraser
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Oct 18, 2016 | ISBN 9780307474438

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    Oct 18, 2016 | ISBN 9780307474438

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  • Nov 03, 2015 | ISBN 9781101875858

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“Fraser [is] an accomplished biographer who writes with great ease and wit.” —The New York Times Book Review

“An important story delightfully told. . . . Charmingly insightful.” —H. W. Brands, author of Reagan

“Smartly written. . . . A searing look into the private lives of very public men and women.” —The Boston Globe
“An ambitious, well-researched and highly readable dual biography.” —The Wall Street Journal

“A meticulously researched and insightful dual biography. . . . Fraser has successfully depicted a portrait of a long and extremely happy marriage.” —The Daily Beast

“Impressive and highly readable. . . . Flora Fraser has added an absorbing portrayal of George and Martha Washington and their extended family to the catalog of books on early American icons.” —The Missourian

“A balanced and vivid account of a marriage which was both remarkable and strikingly down-to-earth. . . . A thrilling story.” —The Spectator 

“An insightful portrait in elegant prose with a dash of wit. The book is based on a mastery of the original sources and brings to life, with much imagination, a wonderful marriage in a period of revolution and war. It is written with a light touch, but is a serious account in every respect. This is a book worthy of its subject.” —Robert Middlekauff, author The Glorious Cause

“Flora Fraser’s The Washingtons is a vivid and intimate history of America’s first First Family. . . . With her usual flair and grace, Fraser proves the old adage that no man is an island, particularly when it comes to achieving great success.” —Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire

“Fresh and highly informative. . . . Graceful, incisive.” —Booklist (starred review)


George Washington Book Prize WINNER 2016

Author Q&A

Q: Where did you do the majority of your research for The Washingtons?
A: I did a lot of what I call ‘footsteps research’. That is, I went to all the winter headquarters —Valley Forge, Morristown, New Windsor—where Martha joined Washington over the eight years of the war. And then—I couldn’t resist—I followed much of Washington’s itinerary during the war when it was the fighting season and Martha was at Mount Vernon. So I lost New York to the British and crossed the Delaware and fought at Brandywine and was victorious at Yorktown. I crisscrossed Virginia, seeing houses and sites and towns—Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Williamsburg—associated with Washington’s and Martha’s life. And I prowled around New York and Philadelphia, imagining life during the two Presidential terms, 1789-1797. I consulted online The Papers of George Washington, a University of Virginia publishing project. And I reviewed papers of his in the Library of Congress Manuscripts Department and at Washington & Lee University. Martha’s papers were a rich resource as well. While some have been published, the Parke Custis estate papers at the Virginia Historical Society were a goldmine. (Martha inherited, with her children, her first husband Daniel Parke Custis’s fortune).
Q: How did you overcome the challenge that Martha Washington destroyed the majority of the letters between herself and her husband?
A: It is remarkable how full a picture of George and Martha’s relationship can be obtained, thanks, in part, to The Papers of George Washington project and thanks also to her correspondence with family members. Everyone who encountered Washington—from the time of his election as commander-in-chief to his retirement after his second term as President and beyond—commented in copious detail on his daily existence and on his relations with Martha, who was often with him. Thanks to these sources, I think that readers of my book will gain a rich understanding of this fascinating marriage, where each supported the other at different times. I think the tenor of Washington’s letters to Martha and hers to him, had more of them survived, would have been domestic and fond. We know that he wrote to her, in detail, to describe the different actions in which he fought during the war. I would love to have read his account to her of crossing the Delaware.

Q: What was George Washington like as a young man?

A: He was always immensely good-looking, tall and strong. But his father, who died when he was eleven, had left him neither well provided for nor well educated. He was bitterly disappointed not to get a regular commission in the British army, though he was a brave officer in the Virginia Regiment, fighting for the British against the French in the Ohio Country, near present-day Pittsburgh. And indeed disappointment rather marked him during his teens and early twenties. He had a series of unsuccessful romantic attachments to ladies in the neighborhood of Mount Vernon, and his health became troublesome. After marriage to Martha, his health and spirits miraculously revived. Possibly the wealth she brought to the marriage cheered him.
Q: Martha Washington was the first First Lady of the United States, and yet there have been relatively few books, films, or studies written about her life. Why do you think this is?
A: In her own day she was very much a force to be reckoned with and a great personality. Abigail Adams said, during the first Presidency, that she revered Mrs. Washington more than Their Majesties George III and Queen Charlotte, at whose Court John Adams had been the first American Ambassador. But during the nineteenth century in America, with the proliferation of government offices and other workplaces, there was a tendency to write exclusively about the public careers of great men. They forgot that, in the more domestic eighteenth century, the public lives of these great men were often difficult to separate from their private lives. Martha played a far greater role in Washington’s public life than did, for example, the wives of Robert E. Lee or Abraham Lincoln.
After the Civil War, the country looked back to Washington as a national healer. The living man became wreathed in myth. Monuments and paintings—even a fresco in the eye of the Capitol dome entitled The Apotheosis of Washington—portrayed a man of destiny. And a wife is an inconvenience for a man of destiny, who customarily strides the world alone. For this reason, the Papers of George Washington and the other sources I have mentioned above are invaluable as they help rediscover both Washington’s complex character and reveal the redoubtable Martha Washington—a First Lady as capable in her own way as the first President.
Q: How did Martha support her husband, both as a military commander and as President of the United States?
A: As a military commander, with his mind always ‘on the stretch’, Washington above all wanted domestic comfort. He was eight years from home, with one brief return only before Yorktown. Martha was at the ready to go to him when he called, regardless of her own comfort, travelling often in harsh winter conditions. She was a consummate hostess, even in a log cabin dining room at Valley Forge. The General noticeably relaxed and could be silent, while she entertained his aides and visiting officers at headquarters. Martha was also of immense value as a humanizing influence when he initiated official entertaining as President. He had to keep up sufficient pomp in ‘the President’s house’—townhouses variously in New York and Philadelphia—to uphold the office and satisfy foreign ambassadors’ desire for ceremony (although some good republicans viewed the grand receptions that the Washingtons instituted with suspicion). When Mrs. Washington began to hold drawing rooms, these were a great success. Martha, though always dignified, had a remarkably good touch with people, while Washington, complex and reserved, was less approachable.
Q: On what key issues did George and Martha disagree?
A: They disagreed about her son, Jacky Parke Custis’s education. Martha had no interest in her son’s receiving the university education that Washington tried to arrange for him, conscious of his own lack of learning. Martha wanted her son to remain at home, partly because she had lost her two eldest children in childhood and her daughter Patsy when she was only in her teens. Martha was also resistant to the idea that Washington should become President. She felt he had given enough to his country as commander in the war. She followed him reluctantly to New York. Though she was a model partner to the President there and in Philadelphia, her private correspondence tells of her own wish to be released from duty to the state. Thirdly, George and Martha had a difference of opinion about slavery. George grew more receptive to schemes for the abolition of slavery in the States during and after the Revolutionary War. As a farmer at Mount Vernon he would have preferred industrious hirelings in place of unwilling slaves. He willed that the slaves he owned should be freed after Martha’s death. Martha was not concerned with the wider question of slavery in the United States, and had no high opinion of the Parke Custis dower slaves whom she had brought to the estate. She was determined to pass them on to her grandchildren, though she failed in the case of her maid Oney Judge, who ran away when the family was in Philadelphia.
Q: What first made you interested in writing about George and Martha Washington?
A: It was a visit—my first—to Mount Vernon in 2004 that sparked my interest. I had just finished writing a book, Princesses, about the daughters of George III. I was struck by how very English and domestic Mount Vernon appeared. And I thought how much George III, a keen farmer sometimes known as Farmer George, would have liked talking to George Washington, another keen farmer, about agriculture in Virginia. Queen Charlotte, too, would have very much appreciated the good living at Mount Vernon. She and Martha also both loved fashion! These were, of course, frivolous thoughts. A might-have-been in history. George III and Queen Charlotte crossing the Atlantic to visit chief rebels. But of course there was some basis for my thoughts. George and Martha did start off as a (colonial) British couple. I was led to consider writing about the Washingtons by degrees. My American editor, Robert Gottlieb, had proposed my writing a book about the marriage of Victoria and Albert. So I had been thinking a lot about the institution of marriage. I proposed George and Martha instead. Luckily Bob was agreeable, and we made the journey through their marriage together.
Q: Do you feel that being British gave you a unique perspective on their history?
A: I think my familiarity with a slew of British and European historical characters was of value. For the last thirty-five years I have written about women of the eighteenth century, some of them living against a background of the Revolutionary War, some, the Napoleonic Wars. I knew their preoccupations from diaries, letters, newspapers and books. But the story of the American Revolution and of Washington and Martha was quite something to take on! As with any book, I tried to put my preconceived notions about what the Washingtons’ story might be aside, and paid attention to the contemporary record. 
Q: Speaking of preconceived notions, what, in your opinion, are the biggest misconceptions we have about George and about Martha?
A: It would be good to mention Washington’s false, wooden, teeth. He did have dentures like many people—including Martha—as he got older. But the ‘teeth’ were ivory, not wooden, secured with metal. Maybe because the ivory stained, they looked like wood, and this myth arose. The image of Martha that comes to many people’s mind is of a grandmother with double chins under a huge mobcap (pleated bonnet). That was indeed how she looked when she was a grandmother aged 60 in the 1790s. But when this story begins, and for much of her marriage, she was a very pretty and stylish woman. And she adored clothes all her life. Going shopping in Philadelphia while Washington was President was one of the few relaxations she allowed herself. So that mobcap was of the best possible quality.
Q: After the death of Martha’s first husband, she and her children lived on a plantation known at the White House. Was this a coincidence only? Or did it have a role in the ultimate name of the president’s home in Washington, D.C.?
A: It is a coincidence, but a happy one. The White House, New Kent, Virginia belonged to Martha’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, and she lived there with him and left it on marriage to Washington. The Washingtons never occupied the White House in Washington, D C. John and Abigail Adams were its first tenants. But George and Martha took a close interest in the construction of the Federal City, and visited Martha’s granddaughters who had homes there in the late 1790s.
Q: How did George and Martha most influence the formation of the roles of President and First Lady?
A: With no model to follow, in consultation with members of the 1789 cabinet, including John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, George and Martha developed public personae as head of state and consort of which the American public by and large approved—gracious, formal, and scandal-free. The model has sometimes faltered but has never been replaced. It would hold good whether male or female partner were to occupy the role of Presidential spouse.

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