Today in 1731, Martha Dandridge was born on Chestnut Grove plantation in the colony of Virginia. As Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, she would serve as the original First Lady of the United States.
Martha was married at the age of eighteen to Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy plantation owner who was more than twenty years her senior. They lived at his White House Plantation, just a few miles from where Martha was born. The couple had four children, but Frances and Daniel, a daughter and son, each died before their fifth birthday. The two other children, John and Martha, each survived to become young adults.
Daniel Custis died in 1757, leaving Martha a 26-year old widow who was both landed and wealthy. It is believed that George Washington had known Daniel and Martha Custis for some years before Daniel’s death, so no formal introduction was neede before Washington visited Martha at the White House plantation twice in March, 1758. Martha was much sought after by various suitors, but it was the former Virginia militia officer, planter and politician who, in the end, won her approval. The two were married on January 6th, 1759; after several weeks at her plantation, the Washingtons, including Martha’s son and daughter, moved to Mount Vernon.
George and Martha Washington, by all accounts, had a solid, faithful marriage. They had no children together, possibly due to the smallpox George had suffered through in his youth. They raised Martha’s two surviving children together until the daughter, Martha, died during an epileptic seizure at the age of 17. Her son, John, died at the age of 27 while serving as General Washington’s aide during the siege of Yorktown in 1781; it is believed the cause of his death was typhus. George and Martha raised John’s two children, both of whom lived well into the 1850’s.
When the War for Independence began in 1775 and her husband was placed in command of the Continental Army, Martha Washington followed him to war. She was at Valley Forge during the terrible winter of 1777-1778. Letters from that period show that her very presence helped to lift morale during this low point of the war, even though most of the enlisted men and junior officers never saw the future First Lady.
When the war ended in 1783 and the United States gained status as an independent nation, it is possible to imagine that Martha Washington wanted nothing more than to return to her life at Mount Vernon. It was not to be. General Washington resigned his commission and returned to life as a private citizen that December, but his retirement was short-lived. He was persuaded by friends and associates to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787; upon his arrival, he was immediately voted president of the Convention. As the new Constitution took shape, so did the office of the President. There was little doubt among most of the delegates as to who should be the first man to hold the office. To that end, George Washington, even though he did not initially want the job, was elected unanimously by the Electoral College in 1789.
Martha was less than pleased. She opposed her husband’s election to the new office and refused to attend his inauguration on April 30th, 1789 in New York City. But once in office, she assumed the duties required by her new social position. The new nation had no capital city (Washington, DC was not even surveyed until 1791), so the Washingtons lived in New York and later in Philadelphia. Both Martha and George knew that as the first people to hold their respective positions, almost everything they did within public view would become the standard for future First Families. As a result, neither of them accepted some of the more fancy titles some Americans thought fitting for the new national leader. George decided that the title “Mister President” was fitting and Martha was simply known as “Lady Washington”. The term “First Lady” did not come into common use until some years later.
George Washington’s two terms in office were not a happy time for Martha. She once wrote to one of her nieces that she felt imprisoned by the position. It made incredible demands on her time, since she was expected to keep an essentially open house that was constantly full of visiting dignitaries and federal-level office holders. As a result, the very private First Lady found that she had no privacy at all. But she also understood that the duties taken on by her husband brought with them responsibilities for her. Some of the traditions begun by Martha Washington as First Lady continue 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. Except for his short time as the head of the early US Army, neither George nor Martha ever really traveled again. George died on December 14th, 1799. Martha outlived her husband by two 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 a young officer named Robert E. Lee in 1831 and they lived in the Arlington house. 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. Today, that land is known as Arlington National Cemetary.
As early as 1778, some Americans were referring to George Washington as the father of the country. If we accept this, then it is natural to assume Martha Washington was the mother of the country. As an example of duty, honor, loyalty and courage, Martha left an indelible impression on the nation she helped to create.
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