RCC Honors History Project

Martha Washington

Posted by wrmahugu on October 26, 2009

 
Martha Washington. After a painting byGilbert Stuart.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-3833 DLC).
 

Washington, Martha Dandridge Custis (2 June 1731-22 May 1802), first lady, was born in New Kent County, Virginia, the daughter of John Dandridge and Frances Jones, farmers. She grew up in what has been described as the “second tier” of planters in colonial Virginia, farm owners with respectable holdings but not wealth. Little is known of her childhood and early years. When she married Daniel Parke Custis in 1749, she moved into a much more elevated position in society. Twenty years older than his bride, Custis was one of the wealthiest men in the colony. Martha Dandridge Custis moved to her husband’s estate, called “White House,” on the Pamunkey River. The couple eventually had four children, two of whom died in early childhood.

The family enjoyed a normal life until Daniel Parke Custis died, probably of a heart attack, in 1757. At the age of twenty-six, Martha Dandridge Custis became probably the wealthiest widow in all of Virginia. The Custis estate, which included nearly 17,500 acres of land, was divided between Martha and her two young children.

By her mid-twenties, Martha Custis had attained the physical state that she would long be remembered for. Only five feet tall, she had large eyes, an acquiline nose, and plump face. Physically, she was quite unremarkable, but people continually commented on her easy, yet dignified, manner. It was probably these qualities, in addition to her great wealth, that attracted the attention of the young George Washington. He courted her during the spring of 1758, and, following the successful Anglo-American campaign against French Fort Duquesne in the autumn of 1758, the couple was married at White House on 6 January 1759. Washington warmly accepted her two children, and the new family arrived at his Mount Vernon plantation in April 1759, starting what would be a thirty-year marriage and partnership.

Fifteen prosperous and peaceful years followed. Martha Washington relished her role as the mistress of the household and was always known as a cheerful and gracious hostess. She and George Washington did not have any children of their own. Martha Washington worried greatly over the health and well-being of her two children from her first marriage, with some reason. Her daughter Patsy suffered from epilepsy and was treated by many doctors to no avail. In 1773 Patsy died following an epilectic seizure, and Martha Washington was inconsolable. Her son Jacky was at that time studying at King’s College in New York, but he soon returned to Mount Vernon as a comfort to his mother. Jacky married in 1774 and moved to “Abingdon,” his estate, upriver from Mount Vernon.

George Washington thought his stepson’s marriage was hasty, but he was soon taken up by intercolonial, imperial, and eventually national matters. He served in the second Continental Congress in Philadelphia and on 18 June 1775 was named as commander in chief of the new Continental army. All but three of George Washington’s letters to his wife were destroyed by Martha Washington in 1802. One of them was written just after the appointment: “You may believe me my dear Patcy [sic], when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment I have used every endeavour in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part from you and the Family, but from a consciousness of it being a trust too great for my Capacity” (Fields, p. 159). Despite this sentiment, Washington would be away from Mount Vernon for all but four days from that point until Christmas Eve 1783.

In November 1775 Martha Washington left Mount Vernon and traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to join her husband in winter camp. There she became friendly with the wives of other leaders of the Continental forces, among them Kitty Greene, Lucy Knox, Elizabeth Gates, and Abigail Adams. This winter of 1775-1776 set a precedent; each winter that came while the Revolution was being fought, Martha Washington joined her husband in camp. The most notable time was probably during the Valley Forge winter of 1777-1778, when many observers noticed what a difference her presence made to her husband’s spirits and overall health. Throughout trials such as the Valley Forge winter and the military setbacks that ensued for the Americans, Martha Washington continued to make a favorable impression on nearly all those who met her.

The American victory at Yorktown in 1781 was not quite the end of the Revolution for the Washingtons. It was in fact a year of tragedy for the family. Jacky Custis had gone with George Washington to Yorktown and died of camp fever. The loss of her son left Martha Washington with no children of her own still living. She and George Washington took the two youngest of Jacky’s children (George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis) into their home and raised them. It was not until Christmas Eve 1783 that George Washington returned to Mount Vernon and that Martha Washington was able to resume what she always maintained was her true delight: comfortable domestic life. The mid-1780s provided a delicious respite for the Washingtons, one that was, however, ended by the call to George Washington to become the first president of the United States in 1789.

Martha Washington did not attend the inaugural in New York. She arrived a few weeks later, and the couple lived first in New York and then from 1790 to 1797 in Philadelphia. Just as George Washington set numerous precedents as the first president, so did Martha Washington establish customs as the first wife of a president (the term “first lady” had not yet emerged). She hosted Friday night receptions and generally presented a courteous and dignified demeanor in her role. In private letters to her family, she revealed that she felt more like a prisoner than anything else, but her public behavior was always in good taste.

Martha Washington was delighted when her husband’s second term ended in 1797. The couple returned to Mount Vernon and for two and a half years were able to resume the peaceful domesticity that they had enjoyed between 1760 and 1775 and then from 1783 to 1788. Following the death of George Washington in December 1799, Martha Washington closed off the bedroom they had shared and moved to a small chamber. She continued to receive many visitors during the last period of her life. Following the dictates of her husband’s will, she freed his slaves one year after his death. She kept her own slaves and bequeathed them to relatives. She died at Mount Vernon.

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington led a remarkable life. A number of circumstances propelled her far above the station that she might have envisaged for herself in her youth. From a middling station in Virginia society to the height of wealth and prominence in that colony, she rose with her husband to become one of the best-known American women of her time. Certainly not a forward or radical thinker like Abigail Adams orMercy Otis Warren (both of whom she knew and liked), Martha Washington epitomized the careful cultivation of manners and domesticity that served her so well in her roles as wife of first the Continental commander in chief and then president. Because she burned the great majority of the correspondence between herself and her husband, it will never be known to what extent she may have influenced his decisions in those roles. Indeed, historians may never know whether the Washingtons enjoyed a life of great affection for each other or whether theirs was a careful and considered relationship. The latter seems unlikely, but speculation has been fostered by the discovery of George Washington’s passion for Sally Fairfax in his youth. Lacking a view into the interior life of the couple, one can safely state that theirs was a remarkably successful partnership and that the dignified manner of both husband and wife did much to set a precedent for subsequent first families.

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