First Couple

George and Martha Up Close and Personal

Flora Fraser talks about her joint biography of George and Martha Washington, about their passionate but childless marriage, how they helped each other, and how they inspire us.

Alfred A. Knopf

Flora Fraser has an illustrious pedigree.

She’s the granddaughter of the renowned historian Lady Elizabeth Longford, the daughter of noted biographer Antonia Fraser, and the step-daughter of the late playwright Harold Pinter. So literature and biography are in her DNA.

Fraser’s interest in literature began in her teens while researching for her grandmother and mother and continued through her years at Oxford. In her early twenties she decided to branch out and wrote Beloved Emma, The Life of Lady Hamilton, the first of several well received biographies, including Princesses:The Six Daughters of George III and Pauline Bonaparte:Venus of Empire.

Over Perrier during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., the vivacious British author discussed her latest work, a meticulously researched and insightful dual biography, The Washingtons, George and Martha, “Join’d by Friendship Crown’d by Love.

Based on letters and papers as well as frequent trips to Revolutionary War battlefields, camps, and sites, Fraser has delved into the details of the Washington’s lives and brought Martha out of obscurity, portraying her as an independent woman of wealth and grace who played an invaluable role during the American Revolution, the creation of the United States, and as the initial First Lady.

Fraser’s greatest challenge lay in overcoming the fact that Martha burned most of the couple’s personal correspondence (when separated they corresponded weekly), but through documents and family letters Fraser has successfully depicted a portrait of a long and extremely happy marriage.

In one of his few surviving letters, George pens his devotion, saying that he would find,"more real happiness and felicity in one month with you at home, than I have the most recent prospect of reaping abroad.”

Why did you decide to write about the Washingtons?

Afer a trip to Mount Vernon, I was fascinated by the journey they made together. That’s what appealed to me, the idea that it’s not just George who became radicalized but Martha radicalized with him. I didn’t know she went every winter of the war to be with him. And I had not appreciated how involved she was in the presidential years. She was right there. They trod the untrodden ground together, and it was fascinating seeing how the couple evolved and how their affection and love deepened and changed.

What about George and Martha surprised you?

What really surprised me was how much he leaned on her, how crucial she was to his well being. I had no idea that he had such a nervous temperament. When I say nervous temperament, I mean he was nervy, he was easily cast down by other people’s criticism of him. Martha was absolutely redoubtable, she was tough as old boots. I mean, she was wonderful, she shored him up. He really used to go down into the depths during the war, and when Martha was there she would shore him up with her reassurance. She had utter confidence in him.

You said Martha was a hater.

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Like Washington, she was among the last to embrace rebellion [from Britain], but when Washington was appointed commander, she absolutely got behind him and fiercely opposed the British. She was bloodthirsty in her declarations of enmity towards the British generals. She was a good hater. And she became a real American patriot. While not being a woman of great intellect—she wrote on one occasion, “Oh, I leave politics to the men”—but she was right there. Martha was soft power and didn’t want any more than that. She was completely devoted to her husband’s interests, and she would have followed him anywhere. She was a great humanizing influence. Always dignified, she had a remarkably good touch with people, while Washington was complex, reserved, and less approachable.

Washington had an eye for the ladies. Was he a good catch?

No, you couldn’t say he was a good catch. But I think he was just what she wanted. What Martha (an extremely wealthy widow) wanted was someone to look after her estate and her two children [from her previous marriage]. I think he was very attractive—6 foot, chestnut hair, pink cheeks, great figure, wonderful soldierly bearing. All his life, all the ladies liked General Washington very, very much. “Oh, she’s mad about him, “ someone said, and, “Oh, yes, the Washingtons are excessive fond of each other,” which is like “all over each other.”

You believe it was a passionate romance.

I do.

Although they had no children.

Nobody knows why. She burned the letters. And they might never have referred to it. You can’t know. I mean sometimes things are too awful to mention. He could have been sterile. Many who had smallpox in the 18th century (Washington had the disease) were sterile, but I don’t think it was that. As the biographer I came to the conclusion Washington for some reason or other was not fertile.

There were rumors that Washington and his confidante the aristocratic Marquis de Lafayette were lovers. Is this true?

There were very few people that Washington felt comfortable doing some blue sky thinking with, and Lafayette was one of them. They hit it off right away and shared visions of what America might be like without slavery, and what France might be like in a democracy. They had a very close personal relationship. But men had close personal relationships and they expressed themselves with great affection. I can’t say I think there is more to it than that.

What kind of relationship was there between Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who has lately become a pop icon?

They had a tremendous father and son relationship, and they were such different characters. lt’s fascinating. Because Hamilton was a West Indian illegitimate child without prospects, really, and then just gets himself educated and makes this fantastically good marriage to a New York heiress. And he’s impetuous. He comes to Washington’s headquarters and joins as an aide. He quarrels with Washington because he wants a command—all the young aides wanted a command—but he gets what he wanted, he gets a joint command at Yorktown and he goes on to be a brilliant politician. At headquarters people are fond of him because he is one of those rather exuberant young men who’s a bit rash, a bit impetuous and reckless. Between Hamilton and Washington, there’s great contrast in their personalities, but they take a lot from each other, they learn a lot, it’s a very fruitful relationship.

What happened to Washington’s slaves?

After his death, Martha freed them during her own lifetime rather than waiting until her death, as specified in her husband’s will. There were all these worrying rumors that his slaves were going to kill Martha, because if she is dead then under Washington’s will they are to be freed. But she kept her own slaves, those she inherited from her first marriage. After her death, they [became the property of] her grandchildren and were not freed until emancipation.

How do Martha and George affect us today?

Their lives and the compromises they made together, the way they worked at their marriage—I think this is something we probably recognize today. It’s very hard building a life, but they were always there for each other. They held each other in mind. In a time when everyone’s too busy to think about the people in their lives, the Washingtons are not a bad example to look to. For more than 40 years of marriage, they looked out for each other in the most extraordinary way, whatever the circumstances.

What did you learn from your grandmother and your mother?

I learned from my grandmother to go to original primary sources, because not only is there an excitement about consulting them, but no one’s in your way. Say Martha Washington’s written a letter and I’m reading that letter, it’s like Martha and me, there’s no one between us. And my grandmother in her book about Queen Victoria and Wellington quotes their letters or diaries a great deal, and I like to quote what my subjects have to say, because then the reader hears their voices and they come alive. From my mother I learned the nuts and bolts of research, which I pretty much follow to this day. I learned how important small details in unlikely sources like account books can be, and you can make fantastic use of a shopping list if that shopping list tells you what was being bought for the family you are writing about. It helps with weaving a tapestry in you, in the writer’s mind.

What you are doing is writing a tapestry?

Yes. And the figures in the foreground are the subjects of the biography and the stitches, the background, is the historical times, the times they lived through. In George and Martha’s case, the background is the Revolutionary War, the presidency, and so it’s a way into history. That’s how I think of historical biography, for the writer as well as for the reader.