Thursday, June 01, 2006
Martha Washington Born, June 2, 1731
Today in 1731, Martha Dandridge was born near Williamsburg, Virginia. She would one day become Martha Washington, the wife of George Washington. As such, she was the nation’s first lady where none had existed before. She was at her husband’s side during some of the darkest days of the early nation and suffered those trials with grace and dignity. If George Washington is this nation’s father, then Martha Washington is definitely fit to be called its mother.
Martha married for the first time at the age of 18. Her husband was Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy man who was at least 20 years older than her. The couple had four children, two boys and two girls. Two of them died in childhood; the other two survived only into their young adulthood. Daniel Custis died in 1757, leaving Martha a widow at the age of 26.
Within two years, Martha had met and married Colonel George Washington. Colonel Washington was an officer in the colonial arm of the British Army at that time, but he soon left the service because of his disagreement with the policy that colonials could not hold command positions in the regular army. The couple spent their time at Mount Vernon, raising Martha’s two surviving children.
When George was called to serve as the Commander-in-Chief of the fledgling colonial army, Martha went with him on his deployments. She was at Valley Forge during the terrible winter when the revolution seemed like a lost cause. She worked to maintain morale in the army, a truly daunting task in those early days. Martha’s last surviving child, John, served as an aide to General Washington during the siege of Yorktown in 1781. He died there, leaving two children behind. Both were raised by George and Martha after the war, as the couple never had children of their own.
Martha did not want her husband to serve as the new nation’s first President. She expressed her displeasure at his acceptance of the office by not going to the inauguration in April, 1789. Once in office, however, she fulfilled her duties as the nation’s first lady, a role for which there was no precedent. Some of the traditions she set as the nation’s state hostess survive to this day.
Recently, historians have claimed that Martha actually owned a slave who was her half-sister, the product of an affair between Martha’s father and one of his slaves. While affairs of this type were certainly not unheard of at that time, Ann is not listed in the record of slaves at Mount Vernon. It is possible, of course, that she was intentionally left out to cover up the entire lineage. George Washington was quoted many times in letters expressing his growing concern over the immorality of slavery. In his will, he freed one slave who had served with him during the Revolution and ordered that the rest of them be freed upon his wife’s death. Martha did not want to wait and freed all of the Mount Vernon slaves on January 1, 1801.
After their terms as President and First Lady, the Washingtons returned to Mount Vernon for the rest of their lives. Martha outlived her husband by nearly three years, dying at the age of 70 on May 22, 1802.
Although she had no children with George Washington, Martha’s descendants continued to play important roles in United States history. George Washington Parke Custis, one of the grandchildren raised by George and Martha, built a house in Arlington, Virginia in 1802. He and his wife had four children, although only one daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, survived to adulthood. Mary Anna was herself married in 1831 and lived in the Arlington house with her new husband. Early in the Civil War, part of the estate was seized by the US government and the family had to go all the way to the Supreme Court in order to receive proper payment for their property.
You may wonder why this is relevant. Well, Mary Anna’s husband was Robert E. Lee and the land that the US government seized is today known as Arlington National Cemetery.
It’s a small world.