Congratulations to author Flora Fraser, winner of the 2016 George Washington Prize. Fraser was awarded the $50,000 prize for her book, “The Washingtons: George and Martha, ‘Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love.’”
A noted biographer whose work has focused on the women behind great men of history, Fraser says: “I feel greatly the honor that has been accorded ‘The Washingtons,’ as George and Martha’s marriage was an inspiring partnership to chart. This is an accolade I shall long treasure.”
Conferred by Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the award was presented to Fraser on May 25 at a black-tie gala at the Mount Vernon estate.
Since 2005 the prize has been one of the largest literary awards, which honors the best new works about the nation’s founding, especially those that engage a broad public audience.
“The Washingtons” has drawn widespread praise from scholars and critics. While many books have chronicled George Washington’s life and public service, no other has so thoroughly examined the marriage bonds between him and his wife.
Few primary sources exist on the life of Martha Washington, who destroyed all but one of the couple’s personal letters. But Fraser’s diligent research has resulted in a more comprehensive understanding of the nation’s first first lady — and through her important story, a fuller sense of the nation’s first president. Fraser portrays a couple devoted to each other and steadfast in their loyalty: from their short courtship, through raising a family at Mount Vernon, to the long years of the Revolutionary War, to the first US presidency, and to retirement at their beloved Virginia plantation.
Scroll down for our Q&A with Fraser. — David Bruce Smith, founder, and Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer, Grateful American™ Foundation
Grateful American™ Foundation: What inspired you to write this book?
Flora Fraser: Ten years ago I visited Mount Vernon and was struck by how English it seemed. The furniture in the mansion and the paintings, the layout of the rooms, even the size of the house reminded me of small manor houses in the English countryside. The many groups of American schoolchildren touring the mansion and grounds reminded me — if I needed reminding — that the Washingtons’ home is something approaching a national shrine. But there was this justification for my first impressions. George and Martha Washington were loyal British Colonial subjects when they married in 1759. They sent to London for fashionable goods with which they equipped their home.
I was intrigued by the journey into radicalism on which this loyal British couple subsequently embarked. A journey in the course of which George became, in 1775, commander-in-chief of the American patriot army in the Revolutionary War, and, in 1789, first president of the new nation. Martha was at his side every step of the way. She joined him in makeshift winter headquarters during the war, and she later became America’s first presidential spouse, before the couple withdrew to Mount Vernon in 1797 at the close of George’s second term.
I wanted to read about this marriage, about George and Martha’s relationship, about their journey into radicalism. When I found there was no book on the subject — well, there was nothing for it — I had to write it myself! “The Washingtons: George and Martha: ‘Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love'” is the result. And I have to say, I enjoyed every moment I spent researching and writing it.
Grateful American™ Foundation: What are the three big lessons you hope readers will take away from it?
Flora Fraser: First, I often thought of the saying “Love conquers all” while writing my book. George and Martha’s love for each other helped them surmount so many difficulties during their long marriage. And their love for their home, Mount Vernon, a love that later extended to embrace their fellow patriots and later their new nation, the United States, was as important.
Second, I would like readers to come away knowing that George Washington’s marriage to Martha was a key element in his life. They will be perhaps surprised to learn that Martha Washington was a considerable force in her husband’s political career, encompassing the years when he was commander-in-chief as well as president.
Third, I would like readers to see, through the prism of the Washingtons’ marriage, how the early days of the United States were very much a matter of experiment. I found it fascinating that the Washingtons, as first president and first presidential spouse, looked to the manners and customs of European Courts in fashioning the receptions and dinners where they entertained members of Congress and envoys from abroad. George and Martha in effect headed a republican Court! But they had to strike a balance between being democratic and republican enough to satisfy critics at home while heading an office of the president sumptuous enough to impress ambassadors from the Courts of Europe. They did a great job!
Grateful American™ Foundation: Tell us about the second lesson of the book.
Flora Fraser: George and Martha began as a young and attractive couple forging a life in Colonial Virginia together. Into that life she brought wealth — and two children — from an earlier marriage to a fellow Virginian, Daniel Parke Custis, who died in 1757. That wealth was important for Washington, who had little of his own. But as important was Martha’s robust and capable character. She was a tough cookie, as they say. George was a much more nervous character. She shored up his resolve at Mount Vernon before the war, later during the conflict when he was — with reason — despondent, and later still smarting from political attacks during the presidency. Only after George’s death, two years after his second presidential term ended, did Martha crumble. This redoubtable woman, who had survived the deaths of her first husband, of all four children with that husband and many other lesser griefs, no longer wanted to live without George.
Grateful American™ Foundation: When was the moment in your childhood / life when you developed a passion for American history? And what do you think can be done to inspire more kids to get excited about learning about the past?
Flora Fraser: As a historical biographer specializing in lives of 18th century women — with lots of men thrown in! — I have always worked in British and European archives, reading my subjects’ correspondence and journals, for instance. When I married an American citizen in 1997 and began to know the Eastern seaboard of the United States, I was immediately excited by the wealth of 18th century material in different American archives and state historical societies.
The extraordinary richness of Colonial and revolutionary history in such places as Alexandria, Boston, and Philadelphia was exciting to absorb. And the National Park Service Revolutionary War battlefield sites thrilled me. I think there’s nothing that beats going to the places and walking the same ground that people of the past walked. But virtual tours on the web nowadays are also excellent, especially where travel is expensive or difficult with young children. Films and books — and TV and radio interviews available on sites such as yours — are terrific to enthuse young historians.
Finally, I would recommend that parents and educators take a look at historical sites on Twitter, many of which I follow and which have much entertaining information and good images.
Grateful American™ Foundation: What will you do with the prize money — and what will be your goal to accomplish during your year of being the reigning award winner?
Flora Fraser: I will be too excited for some time to even think of spending the prize money! But I would certainly aim to take my three children, who are in their teens and 20s, on a tour of some evocative National Park Service Revolutionary War locations. Valley Forge, PA, and Morriston, NJ, spring to mind. And of course we’d visit Mount Vernon! I would like them to understand that sometimes hope is evanescent, but determination helps the courageous win through. At both of these places, George and Martha endured months of hardship together, when victory against the British seemed a far-distant hope.
I also want to engage an ever wider — and younger — American audience. I would like to bring alive for them the personalities of George and Martha Washington and their contemporaries so that these Founding Fathers — and Mothers — become more human, less statuesque and irreproachable, and more approachable. That way, we can understand better how lofty were their aims and ambitions, and how very human were their faults and failings.
Grateful American™ Foundation: While you were born and grew up in England, can you share some of your thoughts for our upcoming eBook on “How are you a Grateful American?”
Flora Fraser: I actually married into an American family 20 years ago, and ever since have felt more than half American, though I remain a British national. I am delighted that my sons have dual American and British nationality. My American parents-in-law, to whom my book, “The Washingtons,” is dedicated, both came to the States from Europe in the 1940s. So I was conscious, from the beginnings of my American life, of the welcome America has shown over the centuries to so many refugees and immigrants.
I am also hugely grateful to the American college system, under whose aegis my — British — daughter flourished as an international student. Professionally, as I have noted earlier, I find exploring the American 18th century absorbing. And finally, I must pay tribute to my longstanding American editor, Robert Gottlieb, and to my publisher, also of long standing, Alfred A. Knopf in New York. Each of my books is edited and produced to the highest possible standards. As a writer, there is nothing more one could possibly ask for. For this, above all, I am a grateful American author.
Photo Caption: Flora Fraser accepts the 2016 George Washington Prize at Mount Vernon on May 25. Photo credit Matt Spangler/Washington College