January 6, 2010

Three Washingtons and a Longfellow

George Washington, future first President of the United States, married Martha Dandridge Custis on January 6, 1759. It was his first marriage, her second (after the death of her first husband Daniel Parke Custis, with whom she had four children).

The year of their marriage was also the year of construction of what would become Washington's first official headquarters as Commander of the Continental Army. The house in Cambridge, Massachusetts was built in 1759 for John Vassall, a Loyalist and Tory, who left his home amidst the Seige of Boston. During the Seige, the Washingtons celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary in Vassall's former home with a Twelfth Night party in January 1776.

The 18th century saw Founding Fathers like Washington as epic heroes who were put on pedestals. Such was the case with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who later became the owner of the Vassall house which Washington used as his headquarters. His family later re-created the Washingtons' wedding anniversary party. Longfellow himself wrote a poem, "To a Child," which alludes to the first President and his occupancy of the home in the sixth stanza.

Several authors from the 19th century found ways to pay homage to now-legendary figures from the previous century. Perhaps none was more important than one of the first American men of letters, Washington Irving — who even owed George Washington as his namesake when he was born in 1783. Legend has it that a 6-year old Irving met Washington in New York, shortly after the latter's Presidential Inauguration.

In 1855, Irving began publishing volumes of what he considered his master work: a full-length biography of George Washington. Its five volumes were published in four years; Irving died eight months after the final installment was published. In the book, Irving alludes to the Washington anniversary party held at what became the Longfellow House. After assuring the reader of Washington's modesty and religious piety, he notes that it was Mrs. Washington who insisted on a Twelfth Night party "in due style." The general, as Irving writes, attempted to refuse but "his objections were overcome and Twelfth-night and the wedding anniversary were duly celebrated."


  1. This is my favorite post so far. I love how it weaves people together.

  2. As a child coming up through elementary school in the sixties, I remember with fondness the paintings of Lincoln and Washington that were standard issue for our classrooms - along with American flags. My birthday is Feb. 24, 2 days after Washington's, so my birthday dessert inevitably had a cherry theme - cherry tarts, cherry cheesecake, cherry pie. I love George Washington - and cherries.