• January 2015

Dr. Doug Bradburn on George Washington: The Tantalizing Man Behind the Myth

“Washington has been the subject of thousands of books and articles, and yet he still remains a distant figure to many of us,” says Douglas Bradburn, PhD, founding director of Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library.

Located adjacent to Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, the Library fosters new scholarly research about George Washington and the era in which he lived, while safeguarding original Washington books and manuscripts.

Bradburn, who has headed the Library since it opened in the fall of 2013, notes that the library is “more than the books, manuscript collections, and digital archives that we are holding and building.” In fact, Bradburn intends for the Library to become “the leading center for the study of George Washington and the Founding of the United States.”

Prior to his work at the Fred W. Smith National Library, Bradburn (pictured below) was a professor and director of graduate studies in the history department at Binghamton University. His PhD in history is from the University of Chicago, his BA in economics and history are from the University of Virginia. He has taught college-level classes at a variety of institutions, and held two, yearlong fellowships.

He is also the author of the 2009 book “The Citizen Revolution: Politics and the Creation of the American Union, 1774-1804.”

Grateful American™ Series founders David Bruce Smith and Hope Katz Gibbs visited Bradburn at the Library to talk about the man who led the nation in its earliest days, and whose image graces the dollar bill today. Smith is a DC-based author and publisher, and Gibbs is the publisher of Be Inkandescent magazine and executive producer of the Grateful American™ Series.

Scroll down for their Q&A with Doug Bradburn.


David Bruce Smith: George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, had the reputation of being a difficult person. Do we know what their relationship was like?

Doug Bradburn: Today we think of Mary Ball Washington as a sort of driven and controlling woman, but in the 19th century in particular, she was seen as a great mother to Washington. She came to represent the motherhood of the young republic, and she was idealized as a great mother who raised a virtuous, honest man through her pious and moral ways. In fact, the first national monument to a woman in American history is an obelisk dedicated to Mary Ball Washington that stands in Fredericksburg, Va., where she lived and died.

It’s really hard to say what she was really like, although the extant letters we have between her and George Washington don’t always cast her in the most favorable light. The letters convey a relationship that’s strained, but it’s hard to say how much of that perception is informed by modern psychology. It is tantalizing because Washington is so hard to see as a normal person; understanding his mother would be a wonderful way to do it.

David Bruce Smith: What kind of husband was he to Martha, and what kind of father was he to her children, whom he adopted?

Doug Bradburn: Again, understanding that relationship is another window to his humanity, but the letters we have are ambiguous. They were writing to each other in the 18th century after all, and so the real feelings that are expressed are often clouded with metaphors and references.

What isn’t at all ambiguous is that he marries Martha Dandridge Custis, the wealthiest widow in Virginia at the time, and gives up his commission as an officer, leaves the French and Indian War, and starts transforming Mount Vernon into a large-scale, working plantation.

For all intents and purposes, the couple has a very successful life together, and their marriage lasts until his death. They never have children together, though she has two children from her earlier marriage whom Washington refers to as his own. There is an obvious affection between George and Martha. For example, she travels with him throughout the Revolutionary War, even in the wintertime. By visiting him and visiting the troops, she is sustaining him in a crucial way.

Getting at their relationship is much harder than getting at John and Abigail Adams’, because we have such a tremendous correspondence between John and Abigail. George and Martha also have a written correspondence, but Martha destroys it near the end of her life. Because George was such a public figure, she knows that his papers are going to be of interest, and she clearly wants to keep their private thoughts between each other private.

Still, we do have in this library a great letter he wrote to her in which he says, “I retain an affection for you which neither time nor distance can change,” so we get these little snippets of a possible romantic relationship.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Washington was a visionary. He believed in business and commerce and the growth of the nation. Tell us a little about his business side.

Doug Bradburn: When Washington was growing up, North America east of the Mississippi River was controlled by many different nations. There were the French, Spanish, English, and a lot of Native Americans. Washington comes to articulate and really believe in a vision of one united country of independent states.

The ability to imagine that the world you grew up in can be different requires a tremendous kind of vision, and I think Washington developed that capacity in part through the work he did as a surveyor when he was younger. A surveyor takes a piece of wilderness and makes it into a formal piece of property. A vision is all about creating some kind of order, and Washington was obviously obsessed with order throughout his life. And trying to order and improve things leads directly towards his own entrepreneurship.

David Bruce Smith: It seems like Washington’s entrepreneurship was rooted in fact, where Thomas Jefferson’s was more an affair of the mind.

Doug Bradburn: That’s a good description. Jefferson designed a plow that nobody ended up using, but mathematically it is supposed to be the perfect plow. Washington designed a plow that drops seeds while plowing, and farmers come from all around the region to copy and use it. Both men share an interest in improvement, but Washington doesn’t dally with the theoretical; he is interested in what he can do that makes a difference in the here and now.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Tell us about Washington’s fantastic career as a spy, which seems kind of contrary to our image of him as the young man who couldn’t tell a lie.

Doug Bradburn: Washington put together one of the most significant intelligence operations in the 18th century. He is commander in chief for eight years during the Revolutionary War, and in that role, he uses all the means he can to bring in intelligence.

The sexiest aspect of his intelligence gathering is the spies he cultivated. These could range from one-off people who were paid for information to more extensive rings of spies. The British controlled New York throughout the bulk of the American Revolution, and their commander in chief was based in New York City. Washington had spies in the heart of the city, and in Long Island, who could easily get information back to him. They used secret ink, and all kinds of codes. It’s really a dramatic moment in intelligence gathering.

Hope Katz Gibbs: Tell us about his reputation as a slave owner.

Doug Bradburn: Washington grows up in a society where the labor force is an enslaved labor force. It’s a legal system established before he is even born. At 11 years old, Washington inherits slaves from his father. He becomes the owner of 10 or 11 people, but his mother has control over his property until he reaches the age of maturity. Maybe that is where some tension between mother and son comes from — she controls all the property that he inherits, including these people and land.

Washington managed his labor in a way that was consistent with 18th century labor management. As his estate at Mount Vernon expands over time, we see that he experiences a change in understanding. He comes to view his workers as human beings, and he comes to understand the institution of slavery in the abstract, as a system for doing things — whether positive or negative — in the development of America.

We see by the 1780s that Washington is trying to identify ways to get rid of slavery. He says in a letter during this period that slavery is a system that no person more than he wants to see gotten rid of, but that this can only be done by active legislation. In his will, he frees all the slaves that he owns in his own right.

Of all the presidents who owned slaves, Washington is the only one who frees them in his will. It is clear that he is trying to send a message to encourage emulation, but the country, particularly the South, is growing more dependent on slave labor.

David Bruce Smith: Do you think Washington would have expected to be remembered after nearly 250 years, and would he be surprised to have such a revered place in history?

Doug Bradburn: Remember that this is a guy who is very much thinking about Roman heroes and people he is emulating. The Roman generals who leave their farms and come out and fight — Washington is reenacting, at least in his own mind, these historical stories of greatness. And he is celebrated; statues are being made of him that will sit outside the capital in Richmond, and in his lifetime there’s a city named after him, Washington, DC.

I think he expected his name to last beyond his lifetime. He is projecting an image of himself in history; he really projects a statue of virtue for the county to emulate. The motto on his family crest is exitus acta probat, which means, “result is the test of the action.” He writes letters that often say, “I never want to have to be revealed by my expression, but rather by my view,” meaning in essence, “Actions speak louder than words.”

He is not writing an autobiography like Benjamin Franklin, he is not writing a bunch of letters at an old age like John Adams. Washington just lives his life, expecting it to stand for what it stands for, and that is what we are left with: a man whose actions will speak for his design.


About the Grateful American™ Series

The Grateful American™ Series is an interactive, multimedia educational project created by the Grateful American™ Foundation. The brainchild of DC-based author and publisher David Bruce Smith, it is designed to restore enthusiasm in American history for kids and adults.

Its website, which launched on July 4, 2014, is updated each month with articles, radio podcasts, and TV episodes featuring interviews with the directors of popular presidential and historic homes, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon, James Madison’s Montpelier, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

The Grateful American™ TV Show is hosted by Smith and series executive producer Hope Katz Gibbs, president of the Inkandescent Publishing Company and Inkandescent Public Relations.

Click here for more information: GratefulAmericanFoundation.com.

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