by Elissa Blattman, Project Assistant
We posted on Facebook last week about Rachel Jackson on the anniversary of her birthday. Some of you commented that the First Lady’s story was interesting and Facebook user, Susan, said she wished history like Jackson’s was more well-known. Inspired in part by Susan and other Facebookers, here is the first of a four part Throwback Thursday miniseries all about our first First Ladies. We all know about their Founding Father husbands from school, but not nearly as much information about the women themselves is common knowledge.
1. Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731-1802), wife of George Washington
Before George Washington, Martha Dandridge was married to her wealthy godfather, Daniel Custis. Daniel’s father was a volatile man who did not approve of his son’s love for the lower-status Martha. He had to be heavily persuaded before finally giving his permission for Martha and Daniel to wed. Though she and George never lived in the White House when he was president, Martha did move to Daniel’s large estate, “White House,” upon their marriage. Martha’s first father-in-law regularly made life difficult for the couple and Martha blamed Daniel’s untimely death in 1757 on the stress put onto him by his father. Daniel died without having made a will, which meant Martha became the executor of his estate and also meant she had more legal rights than women were normally permitted in the eighteenth century. Though she owned 300 slaves and over 17,000 acres of land, and was worth over 40,000 pounds, she lived in a time when women did not manage property or financial matters. Martha began looking for a new man to take over for her and the new widow was an attractive catch.
A year and a half after Daniel died, George and Martha were married. Because George took on and cared for Martha’s family, some believe that he was a true family man who loved his wife. Others believe George’s heart really belonged to a woman named Sally Fairfax and that George married Martha, the wealthiest widow in Virginia, to secure his standing in the colony’s elite community. When George tried to buy land in the new city of Washington before he died, the landowner, who did not want to sell the land to him, quipped, “What would you have been if you hadn’t married the Widow Custis?” It was Martha’s wealth, after all, that provided George, who was well known but did not make much of an income as a militia colonel, with the ability after they were first married to develop and grow Mount Vernon into the profitable estate it would become. George used Mount Vernon, which he inherited, to build up his income and reputation, and some believe he would not have become such an important factor in early America without that property.
If you are looking to find vast written correspondence between George and Martha Washington to get an insight into their marriage, you are pretty much out of luck. There are only two letters from George to Martha and one short postscript Martha added onto the end of a letter to George written by someone else that are known to exist. After George died, Martha destroyed all of the couple’s personal correspondence. Historians are not certain why she did this, but it is believed the reason was most likely due to an agreement they had with each other. The two letters were found in a desk by Martha’s granddaughter after she died and the postscript was later found by an editor of George’s papers. As such little firsthand information exists, it is hard to draw conclusions about what their relationship was truly like.
We do know two things, though: George accepted the position of Commander of the Continental Army without first having a chance to discuss it with Martha and Martha was not a fan of the First Lady role. George writes to Martha in one of the surviving letters (written three days after the fact) to tell her that “It has been determined in Congress that the whole Army raised for the defence of the American Cause shall be put under my care, and that it is necessary for me to proceed immediately to Boston to take upon the command of it.” He claims to have used “every endeavor in my power to avoid it” and hopes she understands because his previous letters “did not even pretend [t]o intimate when I should return.” George confides to Martha that he is worried the job is too big for him to handle, but says he had to take it so as to not bring dishonor upon himself and to not betray his Founding Father friends. He says he knows his absence will cause Martha to be unhappy and worry, and encourages her to “pass your time as agreeably as possible – nothing will give me so much sincere satisfaction as to hear this.” Though he tries to reassure her “that I shall return safe to you in the fall – I shall feel no pain from the Toil, or the danger of the Campaign,” he later in the letter goes on to inform her that he has drafted a will and “The Provision made for you, in cas[e] of my death will, I hope, be agreeable.”
After the Revolutionary War was over, Martha and George believed they would be able to quietly retire home to Mount Vernon. Of course, they were wrong. George was sworn in as our first President in 1789 and Martha reluctantly followed him to New York, the new nation’s capital. Martha did not enjoy the hustle and bustle of the big city and, though noted for always being polite and welcoming, she also did not take pleasure in having to host or attend formal social gatherings on a daily basis. While George had a good idea of his responsibilities upon taking office, there was no such job description for First Lady (in fact, even though she was called “Lady Washington,” “First Lady” was not an actual title until multiple First Ladies later). Martha set the tone for future First Ladies by receiving citizens as visitors in an attempt to show the people that their new government would listen to them and their concerns. However, she was not happy. In a letter written to her niece, Fanny, just months after George took office, Martha lamented, “I live a very dull life hear and know nothing that passes in the town – I never goe to the publick 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 can not doe as I like I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal.” Martha also wrote to Mercy Otis Warren, a writer and historian, later that same year calling her public life as First Lady a “new and unwished for situation,” and saying she “had long since placed all the prospects of my future worldly happyness in the still enjoyments of the fireside at Mount Vernon.” She calls “be[ing] left to grow old in solitude and tranquility” with George “the first and dearest wish of my heart; – but in that I have been disapointed.” Though she was unhappy as First Lady, Martha did not, however, allow it to greatly affect her overall temperament – “I am still determined to be cheerful and to be happy in whatever situation I may be, for I have also learnt from experianence that the greater part of our happiness or misary depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances; we carry the seeds of the one, or the other about with us, in our minds, wherever we go.”
Sources: MarthaWashington.US, George Washington to Martha Washington – Philadelphia, June, 18, 1775, Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington – New York, October 23, 1789, Martha Washington to Mercy Otis Warren – New York, December 26, 1789, WhiteHouse.gov, Secret Lives of the First Ladies by O’Brien and Suteski
Martha Washington portrait credit: Library of Congress