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Collection Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton Papers

About this Collection

The seven volumes of diaries and notebooks, 1793-1861, of Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton (ca.1775-1865) document her position at the center of a Washington, D.C., social circle that included George and Martha Washington, James and Dolley Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Margaret Bayard Smith, and the cabinet members, congressmen, and diplomats who constituted the city's entwined social and political worlds. Thornton was the daughter of Ann Brodeau, who emigrated from England in 1775 with the help of Benjamin Franklin and established a successful school in Philadelphia. The identity of Anna Maria Thornton's father is unknown, but he may have been English clergyman William Dodd, who was hanged for forgery in 1777.

In 1790, at just fifteen, Anna Maria Brodeau married William Thornton (1759-1828), an architect who was born in Tortola and initially trained as a doctor. He is best known for his design of the United States Capitol. Thornton was one of the commissioners appointed to plan the capital city, and later in his career he became United States Superintendent of Patents. The Thorntons moved to Washington in 1792 and lived there for the rest of their lives.

Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton's papers consist of diaries and commonplace books, 1793-1861, which she began when she was eighteen and ended at eighty-six, a period of sixty-eight years. These volumes document the operation of her household, including the management of slaves; travel, including visits to the Virginia homes of George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James and Dolley Madison; the construction of Washington, D.C., and the United States Capitol; the city under attack during the War of 1812; visits of the Count de Volney, 1796, and Alexander von Humboldt, 1804; an attempt on her life by Arthur, a slave, in 1835; the 1844 shipboard explosion that killed Secretary of State Abel Upshur and Treasury Secretary Thomas Gilmer; the inauguration of president James K. Polk in 1845; and the start of the Civil War.

Thornton's entries show the networks of visiting and social events, including presidential "levees," at which she, along with other wives of Washington's leaders, observed and influenced power in the capital city. Included are household accounts, receipts, a visitors log, 1794-1798, book lists and reading notes, essays in French and English, recipes, a collection of autographs of Washington figures, photographs, and silhouettes. Among the silhouettes are a few done by Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale of Humboldt and his party during their 1804 visit to Washington (volume 6).

Arrangement

Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton's diaries and commonplace books are grouped in seven volumes organized in chronological order, with the exception of volume 2. The digital images were scanned from two reels of microfilm.

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