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Martha Washington: First Lady of the United States

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My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over sixty books.

Martha Washington in a painting by Eliphalet F. Andrews in 1878.

Martha Washington in a painting by Eliphalet F. Andrews in 1878.

Early Years

John Dandridge emigrated from Great Britain to the colonies in America and became a successful tobacco plantation owner in Virginia. On June 2, 1731, John’s wife Francis gave birth to a baby girl they named Martha. In addition to running his plantation worked by his slaves, John served as a county clerk. His family was among the wealthiest members of Virginia’s gentry class.

Martha, as the oldest of her parents’ eight children, helped her mother tend to her younger siblings and helped with household duties. Typical of eighteenth-century Virginia colonial families, Martha received little, if any, formal education; rather, she was taught the domestic skills of cooking, sewing, and homemaking. In addition, upper class young ladies were taught the social graces, such as etiquette, music, and dancing. Being from a prominent family, politics was often a topic of conversation among the guests who visited the plantation. Even though Martha was from a wealthy family, she learned to be frugal as a young women, and even when she was a very rich women in her own right, she was known to hand copy musical scores used by her children and grandchildren, rather than buy new ones.

Marriage to Daniel Custis

The handsome young Martha at only 17 married the prosperous plantation owner Colonel Daniel Parke Custis, who was over twice her age. Daniel’s father, John Custis, opposed the wedding in part because he felt that Martha and the Dandridges were not affluent enough for the Custis family. The wedding took place on the vast Custis plantation in the main house called, oddly enough, the “White House.” Shortly after the wedding, Daniel’s father died, leaving his entire fortune to Daniel. The apparently happy marriage produced four children in rapid succession, but Martha’s world turned to tragedy when her first born died in 1754, followed by her father two years later and her husband and second child only a year after that. At age 25, she was a widow with two young children and a large plantation to run.

Martha was of strong character and began to oversee the Custis plantation. Her new estate encompassed around 17,000 choice acres that were worked by over 100 slaves—making her one of the wealthiest women in Virginia. The plantation was situated not far from Williamsburg, the seat of power in colonial Virginia. While running the plantation, Martha developed shrewd management skills, dealing with lawyers, local merchants, servants, and slaves.

Marriage to George Washington

Through an introduction by a mutual friend, Martha met her future husband George Washington. In 1759, Washington was 27 and had just resigned his commission in the Virginia militia. His plan was to settle into the life of a Virginia planter on his own plantation. Politically active and ambitious, young Washington had been elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. After a relatively short courtship, during which they may have only been together three times before the wedding, George and Martha were married at Martha’s White House. Both Martha and George had some trepidation going into the marriage: She faced some backlash from her family, fearing he was not a good husband candidate; however, she needed a father for her children. He entered the marriage with strong feelings for another woman and the fear he was not financially ready for the obligations posed by marriage. The wedding was a grand affair in the gentry class of Tidewater Virginia. George wore a suit of blue and silver cloth with red trimming and gold knee buckles, while Martha wore a wedding dress with purple silk shoes with spangled buckles. The young couple honeymooned at the Custis family’s White House plantation for several weeks before moving to George’s nearby Mount Vernon estate. “I am now, I believe, fixed in this spot with an agreeable partner for life,” George wrote to a relative right after the marriage, “and I hope to find more happiness in retirement than I ever experienced in the wide and bustling world.”

The marriage of the Washingtons turned out to be a lasting one. Though they never were able to have children of their own, they became close partners. They shared many of the same personal habits; both were early risers, went to bed early, and preferred to live their lives according to a schedule. In the morning they ate breakfast together, often the same meal each day, and after dinner in the evenings they would spend their time reading newspapers together. Both valued family life over the extensive social life common with the wealthy aristocratic life. Around the home, Martha called George “the General” or simply “Pappa,” and he called her “Patsy.”

The Mount Vernon estate as it appears today.

The Mount Vernon estate as it appears today.

Martha’s Children

Martha brought her two children to the marriage and George made every effort to become a good stepfather. Her oldest son, John Parke Custis, whom the family called “Jacky,” was a continual source of problems for the Washingtons. He was known to be careless with money and avoided hard work. He briefly attended King’s College in New York City but dropped out after the death of his sister. At age 18, Jacky announced his engagement to Eleanor Calver. The couple was married in 1774 at her family’s home at the Mount Airy estate. The marriage was a fruitful one, with four children that lived past their infancy. Tragedy struck the family when Jacky was a civilian aide-de-camp for General Washington at a military camp near the close of the Revolutionary War and caught “camp fever,” which was possibly typhus or dysentery, from which he died at age 26. After Jacky’s death, Martha insisted on gaining custody of two of the four grandchildren. The two oldest children, Elizabeth “Betsy” Parke and Martha “Patsy” Parke, lived with their mother and their new stepfather, while the two younger children moved in with the Washingtons at Mount Vernon. The two children, “Nelly” and “Little Wash,” became the focus of much of Martha’s time and attention.

Martha Parke Custis, or “Patsy” as the family called her, was Martha’s youngest daughter from her first marriage. The young girl suffered from severe seizures which left her weak and despondent. The Washingtons tried every cure known to medicine, including “Nervous Powders,” bleeding, purging, the purchase of an iron ring for her to wear, and mineral water treatments at Warm Springs, Virginia. The Washingtons consulted with numerous doctors, but to no avail; her seizures, probably epileptic, increased in frequency and severity, causing her death at the tender age of 17. The family members present during the final hours of her life recalled the scene as Martha and the family frantically sought help, while George knelt by her bedside, praying for the recovery of the child he had helped raise since she was a toddler. George Washington later wrote of Martha’s condition after the death of Patsy that the death had “almost reduced my poor wife to the lowest ebb of misery.”

A Revolutionary Fervor Sweeps the Colonies

During the 1770s, as the 13 British colonies in America began to rebel against the harsh treatment and unfair taxes from the British, the colonists began to separate into those who were loyal to the British Crown, or Tories, and those who wanted the colonies to be free from British rule, called Patriots. During that time, Martha faced mean-spirited accusations of being a Tory but denied the charges, being a firm supporter, like her husband, of the call for independence. Mr. Washington, who had been a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, was very politically active in the cause for liberty. He attended the first and second meetings of the Continental Congress held in Philadelphia. There, the delegates charted the course of the colonies as they came to grips with the possibility of an armed conflict with Great Britain. Martha’s fears were realized in the summer of 1775 when George was selected as the commander of the Continental Army by the second Continental Congress. Both George and Martha feared for their future, for his role as commander of the Continental forces put both squarely in the crosshairs of the most powerful army in the world. The day after his appointment, General Washington wrote to his brother Augustine, bemoaning his condition: “[I] bid adieu to you, and to every kind of domestic ease, for a while. I am embarked on a wide ocean, boundless in its prospect and from whence, perhaps, no safe harbor is to be found. I have been called upon by the unanimous voice of the colonies to take the command of the Continental Army. An honor I neither sought after, nor desired, as I am thoroughly convinced that it requires greater abilities, and much more experience, than I am master of.”

While Mr. Washington was away at Philadelphia, a week long journey from Virginia, Martha was home at Mount Vernon. He was unable to consult his wife about his appointment as general, so he wrote to her shortly after his selection, “Believe me my dear Patsy…that I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home, than I have the most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay was to seven times seven years.” Mrs. Washington’s heart must have dropped when she received her husband’s letter announcing his new position as commander of the entire revolutionary army, for both of them sought a peaceful, bucolic life. Instead, they were thrust into the middle of a violent life or death conflict. During the long and bitter war, General Washington would rely on her steadfast strength and support as he led the army.

The American Revolutionary War

Though General Washington’s new position made both him and his wife national celebrities, Martha shunned the limelight and remained true to her reserved character. As was the norm for eighteenth-century warfare, during the winter months both the Continental and British armies went into winter quarters. During these winter encampments, Martha would visit her husband. Upon her first visit in December 1775, she was shocked to see the wretched conditions of the soldiers, for the Continental Army was made up of volunteers, farmers, laborers, shipbuilders, and all sorts, and few had any military experience. The army was poorly funded, providing only the minimal needs of the troops. Many of the troops died each winter during the encampments due to exposure, disease, and lack of food. Martha’s presence at the camps was a calming influence on her husband and the troops. She jumped in to help the threadbare troops by sewing uniforms and socks, nursing the sick and wounded, and hosting the officers and their wives at social dinners. She organized other women to help with care of the troops, encouraging them to sew uniforms and bandages. “Whilst our husbands and brothers are examples of patriotism,” she told the other ladies, “we must be patterns of industry.” While in camp she also performed the clerical duties of her husband, copying correspondence and helping with organization.

Building a New Nation

By late 1781, with the help of the French, the Americans had boxed in the British near Yorktown, Virginia, forcing their surrender, which marked a turning point in the war. However, it would be two years before the war would officially end and allow General Washington to retire from the military and return home to Martha and the two grandchildren they were raising. Retired General Washington arrived home on Christmas Eve 1783 to be greeted by his family. Both the Washingtons were looking forward to “grow[ing] old in solitude and tranquility together.”

This would turn out to be a busy time for the Washingtons as their plantation was only marginally productive and they had accumulated many debts because of the war. Their time as regular citizens of Virginia would be short as Mr. Washington was called back to Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The writing of the Constitution of the new nation by the delegates from each state called for a chief executive or “president,” as the position would later be called. In the first presidential election, the delegated electors chose George Washington unanimously as the first president of the United States.

The Presidency

In late April of 1789, the nation celebrated the inauguration of President Washington and John Adams as his vice president. Missing from the celebrations was Martha, who had chosen to avoid all the fanfare of the inauguration and remain at Mount Vernon. In May, Martha and her family began the long carriage ride from Virginia to New York City, the temporary seat of government for the fledgling republic. Accompanying Mrs. Washington were her two grandchildren, George, or “Little Wash,” who was eight, and Nelly, age ten, along with nephew Robert Lewis and a family friend who provided the horses and the carriage.

The nearly sixty-year-old Martha set out for the roughly 250 mile journey over dirt and mud roads to New York City. She realized the potential hardships she would encounter along the way, knowing paved roads and sturdy bridges across rivers were virtually non-existent. Her party was delayed due to bad weather and high water in crossing the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers. The historic trip was followed closely by the press, as the nation was hungry for news about “Lady Washington.” At many of the towns and cities her carriage traveled through, she was welcomed by political leaders, parades, parties, and cheers of “Long live Lady Washington.” When attempting a shopping trip in Philadelphia, she was hounded by newspaper reporters and the adoring public.

During the final leg of her journey, she was greeted by the governor of New Jersey and a military escort. Decked out in patriotic fashion, a boat took her and her party from New Jersey to New York City where she was received by the governor of New York and yet another parade in her honor. Despite her reserved demeanor, Mrs. Washington gave a short speech, thanking the troops that escorted her and those who had come to wish her well—this would be her only public speech as the president’s wife. Arriving at the home of her friends, Dr. and Mrs. James McHenry, she changed into more formal clothing and attended a reception in her honor. She wasted no time; by the second day in the city she had presided over an official social event. From the beginning of her time as the president’s wife—the term “first lady” did not come into wide usage until the 1880s—it was clear to her that the position carried with it a high public profile and much responsibility.

Defining the Role of the First Lady

Not everyone in the United States and Europe expected the new experiment in democracy to last; the world had little experience with a democratic form of government. Many citizens feared that the government that emerged from the Constitution would be like a monarchy, with President Washington as king and Mrs. Washington the queen. The Washingtons had to find the right mix in simplicity of official ceremony so not to appear monarchical, while balancing state functions with an air of dignity and ceremony to inspire legitimacy. In her new role as the wife of the president, Martha was able to strike a sensitive balance between simplicity and sophistication in her social affairs and official functions.

Martha hosted Friday evening drawing room socials which were open to both men and women. As guests arrived, they were presented to Mrs. Washington then to Abigail Adams, wife of the vice president. The First Lady did not permit guests to talk politics; when a visitor attempted to draw her out on a political issue, she carefully redirected the conversation away from politics. On Tuesday and Friday afternoons, Martha also held receptions for social calls. When Congress was in session, the Washingtons hosted Friday night receptions for the Congressmen and their wives. Each February, a gala birthday party was thrown for the president. One precedent Martha established lasted up until 1933, this being the custom of opening the White House to the public on New Year’s Day. To assist Martha with all the activities on her social calendar she had a small staff consisting of Polly Lear, wife of Tobias Lear, the president’s chief aide and longtime family associate; chefs and stewards to prepare the meals and serve the guests; and a tavern owner, Samuel Lewis, who helped with dinner arrangements.

Figure 9 – A print showing George Washington welcoming Marquis de Lafayette to his home at Mount Vernon. Martha Washington and others are on the right.

George Washington welcoming Marquis de Lafayette to Mount Vernon; Martha Washington, children, and servants are on the right

George Washington welcoming Marquis de Lafayette to Mount Vernon; Martha Washington, children, and servants are on the right

Retirement

After eight long years of serving the nation, the Washingtons were able to retire to Mount Vernon. President Washington had wanted to leave office at the end of his first term but was persuaded to stand for reelection against his better instincts. Martha, though she served her post as first lady with grace and distinction, did not enjoy the time while her husband was president. She wrote disparagingly of her time as first lady to her niece: “I live a very dull life here, and know nothing that passes in town. I never go the public place—indeed I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from—and as I cannot do as I like, I am obstinate and stay home a great deal.”

Martha and her husband were overjoyed to return at last to Mount Vernon in 1797. She wrote to a friend: “I cannot tell you, my dear friend, how much I enjoy home after having been deprived of one so long, for our dwelling in New York and Philadelphia was not home, only a sojourning. The General and I feel like children just released from school or from a hard taskmaster, and we believe that nothing can tempt us to leave the sacred roof-tree again, except on private business or pleasure. We are so penurious with our enjoyment that we are loath to share it with anyone but dear friends, yet almost every day some stranger claims a portion of it, and we cannot refuse.” She added: “I am again fairly settled down to the pleasant duties of an old-fashioned Virginia housekeeper, steady as a clock, busy as a bee, and cheerful as a cricket.”

At Mount Vernon in retirement, however, the private life still eluded them. They had become national idols and received a steady stream of guests, some uninvited. When Martha was not entertaining, she was occupied with her grandchildren. Her granddaughter Nelly married in 1799 and gave birth to a daughter that November. The joy of a new great-granddaughter turned to tragedy as Mr. Washington caught a cold while riding in freezing rain on the plantation. The cold grew much worse; doctors were summoned but could do little, and he died on December 14. Martha was devastated by his death and said when he died, “It’s over. My life is just waiting now.” Not able to remain in the bedroom they had shared for so many years, she moved into a small room upstairs in the mansion. After his death she withdrew into herself emotionally. Her strong faith in God played a more central role in her life as each day she would walk to her husband’s tomb on the property and pray; she was literally counting the days until she could reunite with her beloved husband. Martha survived her husband another two-and-a-half years, dying of a “severe fever” on May 22, 1802, at age 71. A newspaper commented on her passing: “To those amiable and Christian virtues which adorn the female character, she added the dignity of manners, superiority of understanding, a mind intelligent and elevated. The silence of respectful grief is our best eulogy.”

George Washington on his deathbed attended to by his family, friends, and doctors

George Washington on his deathbed attended to by his family, friends, and doctors

Legacy

Martha Washington’s role as the wife of the first president of the United States makes it hard to find an able comparison in history, since her position as the “first” makes her role unique. However, she was foremost her husband’s helpmate. She stood by him through the American Revolution, providing a calming spirit when his world as general was in complete turmoil. During the two terms when her husband was president, she was busy defining the role of the first lady and providing a loving home for George and the children. The remarkable grace, strength, and skill she exhibited during the presidential years has been an inspiration for Americans and a worthy road map for future generations of first ladies.

The United States First Spouse Program gold coin for Martha Washington.

The United States First Spouse Program gold coin for Martha Washington.

References

  • Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History. Second Edition. Oxford University Press. 1998.
  • Swain, Susan and C-SPAN. First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women. New York: PublicAffairs. 2015.
  • Watson, Robert P. First Ladies of the United States. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. 2001.

Comments

Doug West (author) from Missouri on November 08, 2020:

Fran:

Thanks for the comment. Martha Washington was quite an exceptional woman. She set the bar high for future first ladies to hopefully follow.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on November 08, 2020:

A compelling article of our first President, his wife, Martha. Devoted to their country and each other. They both had great character and were able to overcome tragic times in their life together. I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Thanks for your writing.