Henrietta Liston's journal describing George Washington's resignation and his death

'The World gives General Washington more credit for his retirement from publick life than I am disposed to do'

Quill and handwritten journal page

This text stands apart from Mrs Liston's other American journals: it is not a travel narrative. It is Henrietta's personal account of George Washington — his life, his character, retirement from office, and death.

The journal was revised, rewritten, and circulated among the Listons' friends and family in Scotland — Washington's international fame ensuring Henrietta's first-hand knowledge would have been of great interest. Her writing enables us to stand with her in front of Washington as he tells her 'my countenance never yet betrayed by feelings'.

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The journal records Henrietta and Washington's relationship. It is an expression of friendship, admiration and interest — Henrietta's interest in the public and the private man. Aware of his importance, Henrietta seeks to define the 'peculiar magic' about Washington's name. Her writing has clarity and confidence, and she is careful to define where her opinion diverges from that of others.

Washington's 'peculiar magic'

This journal reads both as an account of Henrietta and Washington's relationship and as a history of Washington. It is an expression of friendship, admiration and interest — interest in both the public and the private man. Aware of his historical importance, it is as if Henrietta is trying to define the 'peculiar magic' about Washington's name. Her writing has clarity, beauty and confidence. And, she is clear about where her opinion diverges from that of others.

Events described in this journal are chronologically condensed. After an account of Washington’s retirement, and a visit to see him at Mount Vernon in 1797, comes an account of his death in 1799, followed by a description of the funeral ceremonies for him in Philadelphia. After this is a description of the Listons' visit to grieving Mrs Washington some months later in 1800.

Henrietta describes the oration given by General Henry Lee at the German Lutheran Church in Philadelphia on 26 December 1799. Congress had chosen Lee to deliver the national eulogy. Henrietta found it 'pleasing rather than brilliant.' The Listons' 'tickets' or invitations to the ceremony are preserved in the archive at the National Library of Scotland. The Listons also attended the fast day held for Washington's birthday on 22 February and heard the oration given by Major William Jackson, also in the German Lutheran Church, which Henrietta described as giving 'more general satisfaction than that of General Lee.'

The Listons and the Washingtons

The genuine and politically significant friendship between the Listons and the Washingtons seems to have grown from mutual interests as well as reciprocal respect and esteem. Devoted to their farms, Mr Liston and Washington shared a deep interest in agriculture, and Mrs Liston's love of horticulture and the outdoors also complimented Washington's. Henrietta would have been interested in Washington’s gardens at Mount Vernon.

On her return to Scotland Henrietta created an American garden at her home Millburn Tower. George Isham Parkyns the artist and landscape gardener, who painted views of Mount Vernon, was employed by the Listons to help Henrietta create the American garden in 1804.

Perhaps the Listons' Scottish roots were also a factor in their fitting so well into Washington's circle. A native of Virginia, Washington had been surrounded by Scots and those of Scottish descent from childhood: his personal physician and friend Dr James Craik was Scottish. The music teacher of Washington's granddaughter, Eleanor Parke Custis, was the composer Alexander Reinagle (1756-1809). Henrietta had known Reinagle, who was of Scottish and Hungarian descent, when he was an organist in Glasgow.

Manuscript page with quill pen and ink pot

States visited in this journal

Pennsylvania; Virginia.

Selected people named in this journal

Names in brackets are how Henrietta Liston refers to that person or spells their name in her journal.

John Adams, 1735-1826 ('the President')

Diplomat, politician, lawyer, revolutionary. Born in Massachusetts, educated at Harvard, John Adams was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. In 1764 he married Abigail Smith. They had five children. He was the first Minister-Plenipotentiary from the United States to Britain: he served in this role from 1785-1788. A Federalist, he became the first Vice-President in 1789 and second President of the United States in 1797, serving one term.

Charles V, 1550-1558 ('Charles the fifth')

Daniel Parke Custis, 1751-1754

John Parke Custis, 1754-1781

William Jackson, 1759-1828 ('Major Jackson')

Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826

Lawyer and political thinker. Born in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and American Ninister to France between 1785-1789. He became the first U.S. Secretary of State in 1790, Vice-President in 1797, and the third President of the United States in 1801. He served two terms.

Georges Washington Motier de Lafayette, 1779-1849 ('Son of Marquis la Fayette')

Henry Lee, 1756-1818 ('General Lee')

Sir Robert Liston, 1742-1836 ('Mr Liston')

Diplomat. Born in Kirkliston, Scotland, Robert Liston became an influential diplomat and was the second person to serve as British Minister to the United States, 1796-1801. Robert's service coincided with a highly significant period in British-American relations. In 1796 he married Henrietta Marchant Liston.

Bushrod Washington, 1762-1829 ('Bulstrode Washington')

George Washington, 1732-1799

Virginia soldier, politician, surveyor, planter. From 1754-1758 he served as a Virginian officer alongside British forces during the French and Indian War. Commander-in-Chief of American Continental Army during War of Independence, 1775-1783. Presided over debates resulting in US Constitution, 1787 and became first President of the United States, 1789-1797. In 1789 he was unanimously elected President by the Electoral College. He was elected for a second term in 1793. After two terms in office, President Washington gave his farewell address 'to the people of the United States' and retired to his beloved Virginia estate, Mount Vernon. He died suddenly in December 1799.

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, 1731-1802 ('Mrs Washington')

Born at Chestnut Grove plantation in New Kent County, Virginia, Martha married Daniel Parke Custis in 1750. She had four children with him, all of whom she outlived. Custis was 20 years older than Martha and died in 1757. Martha married George Washington in 1759.

William White, 1748-1836 ('Bishop White')

Revolutionary, bishop, trustee of the University of Pennsylvania. Born in Philadelphia in April 1748, William White was ordained at St James's Palace, London in 1770. He was assistant rector at Christ Church and St Peter's Church in Philadelphia during the American Revolution. William became Chaplain of the United States Senate and was appointed the first Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopalian Church for the General Convention of 1789.

Related content

Long read

Read Dr Christopher Minty's essay on the decline of Franco-American relations, 1796-1798.


On YouTube: A reading of Henrietta Liston describing George Washington's character from her 1797 journal

On YouTube: A reading of Henrietta's description of the death of George Washington in 1799

[Library reference for this journal: MS.5698]

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