Martha Washington: The First First Lady
A Useful Philosophy of Life
The first First Lady had a personal philosophy of life that, no doubt, served her well in performing her duties in the political world into which she was thrust after she married the first President, George Washington. That philosophy she summed up as follows:
I am . . . determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.
Such a disposition was surely helpful because she remarked that as First Lady, she felt “like a state prisoner.” She opined to her niece, “many younger and gayer women would be extremely pleased” to perform her presidential duties, but she insisted that she would “much rather be at home.” Despite her preference for a more private life, she performed her duties with great equanimity garnered from the life she had lived in Tidewater Virginia during the preceding fifty-eight years.
On June 2, 1731, Martha Dandridge was born to John and Frances Dandridge on the Chestnut Grove plantation in New Kent County, Virginia. Her education emphasized keeping a home and caring for a family.
At age nineteen, she married Daniel Parke Custis, who was twenty years her senior. He served as a manager of his father’s New Kent County plantation. Interestingly, their mansion was called "White House," and it was located on the Pamunkey River. The Custises had four children; two died in infancy. Then Martha’s husband died in 1757. Martha inherited the huge Custis estate, and she proved to be an able businesswoman in managing the plantation.
Marries George Washington
Martha married George Washington in 1759. They had no children of their own, but they raised Martha’s two surviving children from her first marriage, and they also raised two of their grandchildren. Martha Washington played an enormous role in supervising the operation of the large Custis estate that she inherited, as well as the vast farming enterprise of her husband’s Mount Vernon.
George managed the financial affairs of the plantation, but she directed the large staff of slaves and servants and was responsible for directing the farming operation including the planting, harvesting, and preparation of foods that were produced. During the American Revolution, she became known as “Lady Washington” as she worked to organize women who volunteered to help the army. She bravely supported her husband wherever his career took him.
Duties as First Lady
As First Lady, Martha entertained guests in both presidential residences first in New York and then in Philadelphia. She was considered a warm and sincere hostess. She chose a rather formal style for her dinners, which were held on Thursdays, with public receptions on Fridays. Anti-Federalist newspapers criticized her formal dinners as too British, but she remained beloved by the Revolutionary War veterans.
While Martha did not try to influence presidential policy, she would intercede with financial support for veterans when she heard of one in need. She was much beloved by Europeans as well as revolutionary Americans; she was sent many lavish gifts from Europe, and it is reported that a British engraver created a trinket with her supposed image that did not reflect her actual appearance, yet carried the name “Lady Washington.”
Return to Mount Vernon
After Washington’s second term in ended 1797 George and Martha returned to Mount Vernon, where they lived a relatively quiet life among family and friends, even though they received many guests who arrived to bask in the glow of the couple’s celebrity.
George Washington died December 14, 1799, and Martha died May 22, 1802. Both are entombed at their beloved Mount Vernon.
First Ladies Preview: Martha Washington
© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes