Booking It Through History: First Ladies – Martha Washington

As I announced earlier this month, my big reading project for the next several years is Booking It Through History: First Ladies. Each month, I’ll focus on a different first lady to learn about through nonfiction and fiction books, TV shows, podcasts, and any other educational avenues I find. I’m going chronologically, starting with the original first lady, Martha Washington.

Martha Washington is mostly thought of as a white-haired grandmother who wasn’t as sharp-witted as Abigail Adams or as vivacious as Dolley Madison. Even when you hear about her marriage to George Washington, she’s often referred to as an “older widow” who offered wealth and prestige to George rather than a true love match. However when you read about her life, Martha’s intelligence, strength, and devotion to her husband and family come through clearly. 

Each month, I’ll detail the life of the first lady and their legacy. Then I’ll share what I learned while studying them, along with ways you can travel in their footsteps through historical sites and museums. I’ll also share books, podcasts, TV shows, and websites where you can learn even more about that first lady. Read all of the way through the blog post or click on the links below to go straight to those sections.


Life

Martha “Patsy” Dandridge was born in 1731 into a well-to-do-family in New Kent, Virginia (located between Richmond and Williamsburg) and was the oldest of eight children at the family home called Chestnut Grove. She learned to read and write, which was unusual for women of her day, and was a diminutive (barely 5 feet tall!) and pretty young woman when she caught the eye of a nearby wealthy planter, Daniel Parke Custis, who was in his late thirties. Reading about their courtship was especially fascinating since his father was strongly opposed due to her family’s lack of social status and fortune (her family was well-off but not part of the high society in the colonial capital of Williamsburg). Daniel withstood the threats of losing his inheritance, and thanks to Martha’s charm, his father finally relented. They married at Chestnut Grove in 1750, making their home at Daniel’s plantation house, ironically named, White House. 

Martha Washington. , . [No Date Recorded on Shelflist Card] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003666398/.

Martha and Daniel had seven years of marriage, and while they were wealthy and privileged, it didn’t keep them from sadness as they lost their first two children, Daniel and Frances, before the age of five. And Martha’s grief was compounded when her husband succumbed to illness in 1757, leaving her a wealthy widow at the age of twenty-six with two small children, Jacky and Patsy. When her husband died without a will, Martha became mistress of the plantation and its tobacco business, and there are several existing letters from her to the trading houses in the United Kingdom that show her intelligence and business know-how. She was no wilting flower! 

While she may have enjoyed wielding her power, Martha was a traditional woman who missed the true companionship she had found with Daniel. Enter George Washington! Eight months after Daniel’s death, Washington began calling on Martha, and they soon were married at the White House (could this be more serendipitous?). While she was technically “older,” she was only eight months older than George, and they truly seem to have been in love. He, the handsome military hero who literally stood head and shoulders above every other man, and she, the attractive and socially adept young widow. A match made in heaven!

I loved reading about their first years of marriage as they moved to Mount Vernon and made it a family home that was always open to guests. George becoming a loving and concerned father to her two children must have made her motherly heart swell. I can only imagine how terrified Martha must have been to lose another child, and this fear seems to have followed her the rest of her life. Little Patsy’s epilepsy and Jacky’s impulsive behavior must have worried her greatly. Sadly, her fears became true when Patsy died in 1773 at the age of seventeen after suffering for years. Martha, ever stoic, carried on.

As we all know, George became the leader of the Continental Army, and as war drew closer, Martha was emphatic about staying at Mount Vernon even though there was worry the British would try to take her prisoner. She eagerly awaited an invitation to George’s headquarters as she hated being separated from him. Even though she had never been north of Annapolis, Maryland, she gladly joined him at his Cambridge, Massachusetts headquarters in the autumn of 1775. What a different world she must have seen from the windows of her carriage as it churned up the dirt roads between Virginia and Massachusetts! 

Throughout the next six years of war and even afterwards while they awaited a peace treaty, Martha spent almost as much time on the road as the army, always wintering with George and ensuring the men had appropriate winter items like socks. From Cambridge to Morristown (twice!) to the terrible winter at Valley Forge to other sites in New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia, Martha stayed with the army. While she didn’t have to live in a tent, she was often in cold, small homes with barely any privacy. She had to find a way to be hospitable to the visiting dignitaries, social with the other wives who were there, and keep up George’s spirits during some of the darkest days of the American Revolution. From all accounts, she did an amazing job without any complaints. She encouraged the women to knit socks for the soldiers instead of traditional embroidery and became part of the effort by women across the colonies to raise funds for the soldiers. Her importance to George’s well-being can’t be overemphasized – one of the books I read called her the “secret weapon of the Revolution.” When the spring battles commenced, she would travel back to Mount Vernon where she had to oversee the upkeep of the vast estate and provide for much of her extended family. She had a lot of responsibility on her small shoulders.  

Sadly as the war ended, Martha’s worst fears were realized as her son, Jack, died after accompanying George to Yorktown. I can only imagine her pain as she buried the last of her four children. Having two of Jack’s own children, Nelly and Washy, come to live with her at Mount Vernon was her only solace. 

Sartain, William, Engraver, Christian Schussele, and Publisher Bradley & Company. Washington and his family / original painting by C. Schussele, Phila. ; engraved by Wm. Sartain, Phila. , ca. 1864. Philadelphia: Bradley & Co. Publishers, 66 Nth. 4th St., Philada.: Printed by Irwin & Sartain. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2006680107/.

She was never happier than at Mount Vernon with her “little family prattling about” and the few years between the formal end of the Revolution and George’s election to the new role of president must have been enjoyable with the ever-present guests and her ever-expanding family to include numerous nieces and nephews. For a homebody and nurturer like Martha, this must have been heaven to her.

“Martha Washington”. , ca. 1876. [United States: publisher not transcribed] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2018697448/.

However, with George’s election to serve as the new nation’s first president, Martha unwillingly gave up her hopes that they would “grow old in solitude and tranquility together” and moved to the new capital of New York. When you think of the herculean task of establishing the protocols and procedures of a new country, it’s no wonder that both George and Martha were exhausted by the constant strain. Martha knew she was setting the precedent for every first lady to follow her (even though she was called “Lady Washington” and not first lady). Every invitation accepted, every presidential event, every smile or frown, was political fodder – much like today! This kept the first couple from socializing much during the first year of the presidency. Martha was quoted that as first lady during George’s long travels through the new colonies that first year, she was “more like a state prisoner than anything else.”

Once they were allowed to socialize, she began the tradition of Friday receptions where anyone properly attired could attend without an invitation, and she also hosted Thursday dinner parties with carefully balanced guest lists to avoid any appearance of favoring a region, party, or person. Her right-hand woman at these events was Abigail Adams, wife of Vice President John Adams (more about her next month!). She and Martha became great friends, and she thought quite highly of Martha and her intelligence and political acumen.

Martha was not happy when George became president, especially when he almost died twice in the first year! Once from a large and painful carbuncle on his leg and then from the flu (maybe given to him by James Madison!). She also hated the political infighting, always quick to come to her husband’s defense. George’s tumultuous second term must have been especially challenging with Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson duking it out in the press, embarrassing George (Hamilton fans are familiar with this!). Martha did not like Jefferson and the feeling was mutual. 

Martha oversaw the household’s move from New York to Philadelphia when the capital was moved temporarily, and then, finally, back to Mount Vernon in 1797. How relieved she must have been when Washington refused to run for a third term. Now they would have their peaceful time together. 

However, this idyllic time was cut short with George’s death just two short years later in December of 1799. We all know this famous quote spoken at his Philadelphia funeral by Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, but I believe the second part of the quote sums up George’s relationship with Martha best: “First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen…he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life.”

Martha lived for an additional two years at Mount Vernon although after George’s death, she moved to a different bedroom, never to sleep in their marital bed again. She enjoyed having family, including several great-grandchildren, around her and agreed to comply with the wishes of Congress to have George’s body moved to the new Capitol. Thankfully, that move got delayed by disagreement over a proper memorial so he (still) remains at Mount Vernon, alongside Martha who joined him on May 22, 1802, reunited once again. The local Alexandria paper said it best in her obituary – “She was the worthiest partner of the worthiest of men.”

Buttre, John Chester, Engraver, and Gilbert Stuart. M. Washington / G. Stuart ; J.C. Buttre. , 1840. [Between to 1890] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/95503821/.

Quotes taken from Martha Washington: An American Life by Patricia Brady


Legacy

Martha Washington is a woman frozen in time for many Americans as a white-haired grandmother who happened to marry the founder of our country. Not as much is known about their relationship as she burned their letters after his death. Imagine what a treasure trove of history that would be! 

However when you read about her life and learn more about her actual personality, you see that her resiliency, tenacity, and hospitality enabled George to rise up as a founding father. Without her gracious charm and people skills, he might not have been able to withstand the extreme hardships of war and politics. She was his stable rock, the one person he could trust. He was meant for greatness – and so was she.

Of course, history isn’t neat and tidy. Much has been made about George’s lovesick letters to his (married) neighbor, Sally Fairfax, before his marriage to Martha. There’s also been recent questions raised about his supposed love affair with a New York heiress, Mary Philipse, who later was one of only three women convicted of treason against America during the Revolution (and whose house Washington requisitioned as his headquarters in New York City). These romantic entanglements all pre-dated Martha, and it seems that once he married the lovely widow, his heart was captivated. Martha had a first husband whom she loved dearly as well, so to me, this is all just the usual relationship baggage! 

The stain of slavery also affects Martha’s legacy. She grew up in a slaveholding family, and when her first husband died, she became the caretaker of the Custis estate which included hundreds of slaves who toiled at the White House. Many of these slaves were taken to Mount Vernon, which needed great numbers to work the grounds, cook the food, and do the back-breaking labor of life in the 18th century. While George’s views on slavery evolved over the years and he freed his own slaves in his will, it doesn’t seem that Martha’s opinions on the terrible institution changed much. While they lived in Philadelphia, a free state, several of their slaves escaped including her personal maid, Ona Judge, and you can read many recent books about her flight to freedom and the Washingtons’ pursuit. We also have to reckon with the Washingtons’ scheme to send the enslaved members of their household back home to avoid the automatic freedom that came from living in a free state. The President’s House ruins historical site in Philadelphia is dedicated to telling the stories of these enslaved people as well as dedicated tours at Mount Vernon. 

Martha left a legacy of family that carried through the generations. Although she outlived her four children, she had grandchildren and great-grandchildren who were part of her caretaking duties. One of those great-grandchildren, Mary Anna Custis (Washy’s daughter), married a young military man, Robert E. Lee (son of George’s eulogist Lighthorse Harry Lee), who would later fight to separate Virgina from the country Washington helped create. 


My Time with Martha

I enjoyed reading many books about Martha this month and was fascinated by her life. I can’t imagine her struggles as a young mother watching her children and husband die and can empathize with her constant worry about their health for the rest of her life. I find it amazing that she was able to soldier on, finding the internal strength to not only survive but thrive as a vital part of a new country. 

As I traveled in her shoes, both through books and literally as I drove through the countryside in New Kent County where the White House once stood, I got a sense of her as a woman, wife, mother, and historical figure. She was happiest at home with her family all around her but when asked, she rose to the occasion to give her all to her country. How must she have felt as a sheltered young widow, crossing the Pamunkey River to a faraway new home a hundred miles from all she had ever known? Or as a middle-aged grandmother, packing up to travel in a carriage over rough terrain yet again to winter with the army in horrible circumstances? Or finally as an older hostess who had to wine and dine her husband’s political opponents with a smile on her face? She withstood all of these challenges and thrived, creating the mold of a First Lady that we still expect today. Strong, philanthropic, charming. 

She is often overlooked in the huge shadow that George Washington casts but it’s through her quiet devotion, strong faith, and gift of hospitality that George was able to concentrate on creating the foundations of our country. I believe she is the epitome of the old saying, “Behind every great man is a great woman.”


Travels with Martha

Martha didn’t travel extensively until the American Revolution when she joined the Continental Army at their various winter encampments. Whether you are visiting the Historic Triangle of Virginia or the great cities of the northeast, chances are you can tack on a Martha Washington-inspired tour!

Virginia

Image taken from Google Maps

New Kent County, VA: Martha Washington was born here in 1731. Today you can visit the New Kent County Courthouse to see the Virginia historical marker about her birthplace. 

Also take time to read the other important markers here, including one to Martha’s son, Jacky, and James Lafayette. 

Don’t miss the next door quaint Martha’s Kitchen of New Kent restaurant. I had a wonderful lunch in this historic home dating to 1810.

Behind the restaurant is a historic log cabin that gives a great overview of history in the area. It’s a good stop with kids! 

Just ten minutes west, you can drive on the land where the White House, her marital home with Daniel Parke Custis, once stood, and you can visit her home church, St. Peter’s Church, which is known as “The First Church of the First Lady.” It also has a Martha Gift Shoppe. 

Stop at the New Kent Visitor Center right on I-64 for more detailed information. 

About forty miles east of New Kent is Colonial Williamsburg where Martha spent much time at her family houses. Throughout the year, Colonial Williamsburg has special events where you can “meet” Martha, including a ball! Note the upcoming theater event with Martha during Presidents’ Weekend. And you can see Daniel and her first two children’s graves at Bruton Parish in the historical area. 

Once Martha married George Washington, she moved with him to his home along the Potomac River, Mount Vernon. She had barely been across the river near her home so traveling over one hundred miles north must have been terrifying! You can make this trip in two hours now but imagine how long it took in a horse and carriage over rough roads. Mount Vernon is one of my favorite historical sites, full of rich and well-preserved history. You can even have tea with Martha at these upcoming events

You can also visit her home churches while living at Mount Vernon, Pohick Church and Christ Church, Alexandria.

Fun factoid – did you know that Martha Washington once had a college named after her in western Virginia whose building is now home to the Martha Washington Inn in Abingdon?

American Revolution:

Martha traveled to be with George at the army’s winter headquarters every year, staying for months as the unofficial “mother of the army.”

First Lady:

  • The United States’ original capital was New York City. While only there sixteen months, George and Martha lived in two houses, both now destroyed. The first home, the Osgood house, is near the East River on what is now the Brooklyn Bridge ramp. The second home, the Alexander Macomb House, has a plaque at 39 Broadway. You can still visit the Washingtons’ home church, St. Paul’s Chapel.
  • In Philadelphia, Martha and George lived in the President’s House which is now part of the Independence National Historical Park. While just ruins, it tells the difficult story of the enslaved who toiled here. You can visit the Washingtons’ home church at Christ Church in the park.

To Learn More

Books to Read:

All links are Amazon affiliate links. You can also purchase the books through my affiliate link to Bookshop.org which supports independent bookstores.

Nonfiction:

Martha Washington: An American Life by Patricia Brady – an excellent, well-researched, and very readable biography

The Washingtons: George and Martha: Partners in Friendship and Love by Flora Fraser

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (there’s also a young readers version of this book)

Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts 

First Ladies of the Republic: Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and the Creation of an Iconic American Role by Jeanne E. Abrams

Fiction:

Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark – a lovely fictional account of the true love story between Martha and George

Martha by Susan Holloway Scott (to be released in 2023)

Washington’s Lady by Nancy Moser 

Taking Liberty by Ann Rinaldi (YA)

Podcasts:

Presidential

FLOTUS

Here’s Where it Gets Interesting

Portraits by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

TV Shows:

C-SPAN First Ladies: Influence and Image

Washington on the HISTORY Channel

Websites:

Mount Vernon

White House Historical Association

C-SPAN First Ladies: Influence and Image


Martha Washington was the original, the one who set the tone for the First Ladies to follow. She was an intelligent and charming wife who enabled her husband to create a ground-breaking form of government that became the leader of the free world. What a powerful partnership and great role model for the following presidential couples.

Next month, my focus is on the sharp-tongued Abigail Adams. Join me on my journey through the wilds of New England! 

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