Who Was America's First First Lady: Martha Washington's Biography, Childhood and Post-Presidential Life
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington served as the nation's first first lady, helped manage and run her husbands' estates, raised her children and grandchildren, and was George Washington's "worthy partner" for almost 40 years.
Who was Martha Washington?
Martha Washington married a wealthy plantation owner before becoming a widow and inheriting his estate. She wed Colonel George Washington in 1759 and became the first U.S. first lady upon his eventual ascendancy to the presidency. Martha was known for her aplomb and large social events, though she actually preferred privacy. She died in Mount Vernon, Virginia, on May 22, 1802.
How was her early life?
Martha Washington was born Martha Dandridge on June 2, 1731, in New Kent County, Virginia, on the Chestnut Grove plantation. She was raised and educated with an emphasis on skills seen as integral to running a household, though also taught reading, writing and mathematics.
The woman who would later be known as Martha Washington was born Martha Dandridge on June 2, 1731, at Chestnut Grove Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia. She was the eldest of eight children born to John Dandridge (1700-1756), the son of an English merchant, and Frances Jones (1710-1785), whose father was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.
Her education was probably typical for a girl of her class at the time and would have stressed housekeeping, religion, reading, writing, music, and dancing, skills which would be useful in her expected role as the wife of a Virginia plantation owner.
Marriage and Estate
At 18 years old, Martha wed Daniel Parke Custis, a rich plantation owner, in 1749. The couple would have four children, though only two, Jack and Patsy, lived past childhood. Custis himself died in the summer of 1757, and Martha inherited his 15,000-acre estate.
Daniel’s father, John Custis IV, initially opposed the marriage, because the prospective bride’s family was not as wealthy as he would have liked. He finally gave his consent after meeting Martha Dandridge, telling friends that he was “as much enamored with her character as [his son was] with her person.”
She and Daniel were married in May of 1750. In their seven years together, the couple had four children, two of whom died as toddlers. Their children were: Daniel Custis (1751–1754), Frances Custis (1753–1757), John "Jacky" Parke Custis (1754–1781), and Martha "Patsy" Parke Custis (1756–1773).
|Daniel’s sudden death in 1757 left Martha, at the age of 26, a very wealthy widow. Leaving Martha with two young children, a 17,500-acre plantation to manage, and responsible for almost 300 enslaved people. Under English property laws, women could only own property if they were single or widowed. While a widow, Martha Custis managed the Custis estate and business interests. She communicated with agents in England about business matters and to order supplies. When the goods arrived in the colonies if they were not of high quality she complained to the English agents.|
When did she meet George Washington?
|Photo Historic America|
She later met Colonel George Washington at a Williamsburg, Virginia cotillion, and the two wed in 1759. Martha and her two children moved to Washington's Mount Vernon, Virginia plantation, where the family became known for their social events and upscale lifestyle, though they suffered financial setbacks as well.
By first marriage:
Daniel Parke Custis (1751–1754), Frances Parke Custis (1753–1757), John Parke "Jacky" Custis (1754–1781), Martha Parke "Patsy" Custis (1756–1773)
By second marriage:
Grandchildren George Washington "Wash" or "Tub" Parke Custis (1781-1857), Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis (1779-1852)
Life as First Lady
The 1861 painting by noted American portraitist Daniel Huntington was titled The Republican Court. (When it was published as a mass-marketed engraving, the title was changed to Lady Washingtonn’s Reception.) The painting is an idealized portrayal of the weekly gatherings hosted by Martha Washington during the years of George Washington’s presidency (Brooklyn Museum of Art).
Just as her husband realized that his every action might set a precedent for future presidents, so was Mrs. Washington aware that her behavior as first lady would become the template for the wives of future chief executives. One of her most important steps was to initiate a weekly reception held on Friday evenings for anyone who would like to attend.
|Photo American Battlefield Trust|
At these gatherings, members of Congress, visiting dignitaries, and men and women from the local community were received at the presidential mansion. After being presented to Mrs. Washington, they enjoyed refreshments, talked with each other, and mingled. Although most guests addressed Martha as “Lady Washington,” some referred to her as “our Lady Presidentess.” 1
By 1775, Washington had become the leader of U.S. forces in the Revolutionary War, and Martha later took up residence with him at his encampments for extended periods of time.
She experienced tremendous loss with the deaths of her two surviving children: Patsy died from epilepsy during her teens and Jack succumbed to "camp fever" while enlisted as a soldier.
|First Lady's Reception |
Critics occasionally complained that these weekly gatherings smacked of monarchy or represented a slavish imitation of the rituals and fashions of the discredited British Crown. Yet Martha won over the skeptics. Opening up the president’s house to ordinary citizens was a sign that the new government would be close to the people and responsive to their needs.
Moreover, although George Washington hosted his own gatherings, Martha Washington’s salons were more diverse, bringing together a disparate group of people: political adversaries, individuals from different parts of government, and women as well as men. According to Abigail Adams, wife of the vice-president, Mrs. Washington’s behavior as lady made her “the object of Veneration and Respect.” 2
Martha Washington was relieved when her husband's Administration ended and they retired to Mount Vernon. Nevertheless, her life after the presidency was not the idyllic private existence she had anticipated. Rather, hundreds of American citizens as well as visiting foreign dignitaries, such as France’s Marquis de Lafayette, came to visit the former President at Mount Vernon. All expected to be entertained, some even expected to be put up as overnight guests. The former First Lady was not known to have accompanied the former President across the Potomac River to the new federal city being built, even after it began functioning as the official U.S. capital city in 1800. The extent of her travel from Mount Vernon was only to the local city of Alexandria,Virginia.
Martha Washington with Nelly Custis were pictured in this imagined version of Lafayette's visit to the former President at Mount Vernon.
Upon his death on December 14, 1799, the slaves owned by the Washingtons were promised their freedom upon Martha Washington's death. Making clear the tremendous personal sacrifice that the federal government asked of her in requesting that she permit the remains of the first president to be eventually interned at the U.S. Capitol Building, she wrote to President John Adams that she would acquiesce with her sense of public duty.
As a widow, she welcomed visits from President John Adams and her old friend Abigail Adams, whom she befriended when the latter was serving as the Vice President’s wife. She also courteously welcomed the formal calls from future Presidents and their wives, John Quincy Adams and Louisa Adams, and James Madison and Dolley Madison. One account does quote her as making a disparaging remark about Anti-Federalists, particularly aimed at Thomas Jefferson, whom many Federalists considered to have betrayed the friendship of George Washington.
Although she curtailed her life to Mount Vernon, once the new capital city was established in what was first called, "The Federal City," and then named for her late husband, Martha Washington welcomed political figures who came to pay their respects to her and visit what was then thought to be the temporary burial place of the late president. She expressed her loneliness for her late husband frequently and her desire to soon join him in death. Despite her own self-identity as an entirely private person, her death was considered a matter of national interest and her obituary was widely printed in regional newspapers.
|The death of the first First Lady was widely reported, as seen in this regional Georgia newspaper. |
Her home, Mount Vernon, Virginia
1802, May 22
70 years old
Burial vault, Mt. Vernon, Virginia
*Martha Washington was the first presidential widow to receive the free postage "franking" privilege from Congress when she was overwhelmed with the cost of responding to the large number of condolence letters she received upon the death of her husband.
|As the first First Lady, Martha Washington was forever iconized in all forms of commemoration alongside the image of her husband. For many generations, framed pictures of both George and Martha Washington were hung in American classrooms, Martha Washington’s patience, steadiness, optimism and loyalty held up as ideal virtues. Among the numerous engravings and illustrations made to commemorate the life of George Washington, his wife was also almost always depicted alongside him. She was also the first historical woman figure to be depicted by the federal government on postage stamps and currency.|
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