Nepotism, Slavery And Inheritance: The Tale Of Bushrod Washington

President George Washington’s favorite nephew would go on to make his uncle proud. But at the age of sixteen, rumor had it that Bushrod Washington was bringing shame upon the family.

His mother, Hannah Washington, was the wife of George Washington’s brother — and the gossip had it that her son was attracting unfavorable attention in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Apparently he was getting a reputation.

We don’t know now what she wrote to her son, but on November 23, Swann Auction Galleries will place Bushrod’s response up for sale.1 With a steady quill penning careful script, the future Supreme Court justice steadfastly denied the allegation:

The uneasiness I have suffered since the reception of yours can scarcely be exprest. Is it possible you can believe I could be so lost to every Idea of Gratitude as to forget my duty to the best of parents….? I cannot conjecture by what means you could possibly be informed of a Report which never had any foundation than the busy tongues of those who seem to with for Strife.

Bushrod freely admitted that his extracurricular activities, while chaste, had no doubt led to such speculation. A serious student has limited free time, and he determined it was best spent in the company of women, including the lady in question.

It has always been my choice since I came to Town rather to expend any small portion of an Evening I had to spare from my Studys amongst the Ladies…. The Lady you refer to was often present & had in common with the rest every testimony of friendship of which they all merited a large portion at my hands.

He maintained his conduct was faultless, and went as far as to suggest Hannah, had she been privy to the scene, would readily concur. Despite this unwavering defense, Bushrod was clearly wary of parental ire, specifically from his father and, by extension, his uncle.

[D]o inform Papa (if the report has come to his Ears that I have wrote & shall be miserable ‘till I hear from you again that I may know you are satisfied.

Bushrod redeemed himself as an adult.2 Uncle George sponsored his legal studies with fellow founder James Wilson, and by all accounts, he was successful, or successful enough to leave a positive impression on John James Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice of the United Sates. At Marshall’s suggestion, President John Adams, who had served as the first vice president of the United States, formally nominated Bushrod to Wilson’s vacant seat on the Supreme Court. He was 36.3 Two days later, on December 20, 1798, Bushrod was confirmed by the Senate. He became an associate justice on February 4, 1799, the same year his uncle would die.

The first President of the United States had no children of his own. Washington had contracted smallpox during a 1751 trip to Barbados, and it is believed the disease may have left him sterile. His wife, Martha, had been a wealthy widow of 28 when they met, with four children of her own. He helped raise two of her children, as well as two of her grandchildren.

He bequeathed to Martha and her heirs his “improved lot in the Town of Alexandria.” Bushrod, however, would serve as his executor and heir. It was a big year for him: not only did he join the Supreme Court, but he also received the entirety of President’s private and public papers along with Mount Vernon, Washington’s plantation estate in Virginia.4

At the age of 67, Bushrod was in a state of rapid decline, after a not particularly notable career on the Court. He died on November 26, 1829, while attending court in Philadelphia. His wife, Anne, was said to be so stricken with grief that it killed her just two days later, and they were buried side-by-side at Mount Vernon. They had no children.5 Bushrod divided his uncle’s estate among his own nephews and niece, Mary Lee Washington. While we know much of the history of George Washington’s slaves, of Bushrod Washington’s, who brought dozens to Mount Vernon, less is known.

Swann Galleries estimates the two-and-a-half page letter to be worth $2,000–3,000.

1. It seems likely she addressed the issue directly, and did not first inform her husband or brother-in-law. Women were certainly relegated to the domestic sphere, and children fell under their purview. Men rarely involved themselves in such matters at all, let alone at the prompting of idle gossip. Intervention only occurred when the necessity for it was undeniable.

2. Bushrod had unsuccessfully asked his uncle to secure an appointment in the Federal Court early in his career, only to learn that “nepotism was not one of his uncle’s redeeming vices.”

3. Bushrod was not the president’s first choice, but he seemed resigned to the suggestion.

4. He owned Mount Vernon for 27 years with little alteration, save a porch built on the southwest end.

5. There are rumors that a Washington, either Bushrod or his brothers, impregnated a slave named Venus around 1784, which resulted in the birth of West Ford. A book by Linda Allen Bryant, a descendent of Ford, suggests that George Washington was the father. This claim is complicated by the assumption that Washington was sterile, and the lack of DNA evidence to support it. There is a two-hundred-year-old oral history from Bryant’s family that shows the Washington family did treat Ford particularly well, but there is no explanation as to why.

Alexis Coe is a columnist at The Awl, The Toast, and SF Weekly. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Atlantic, Slate, The Millions, The Hairpin, and other publications. Her first book, on an 1892 murder in Memphis, will be published next year. Mount Vernon photo by Rob Shenk.