Martha Washington: “Lady” Washington


Book cover for Brady’s bio showing a young Martha.

Martha Washington: An American Life by Patricia Brady

As the first “First Lady,” Martha Dandridge Custis Washington set the template for the President’s wife; she was the perfect hostess. One of any future First Lady’s major duties would be welcoming and receiving guests at dinners and balls.

Martha was a reluctant First Lady, however. She only performed her role out of devotion and duty to her beloved husband, George.

From a modest farming family, Martha was married first to Daniel Parke Custis when she was almost 19. A descendent of one the Virginia colony’s most prominent families, Daniel Custis was twenty years Martha’s senior. She went from living in a crowded house full of siblings,  her mother bore seven children, to living in the “White House,” the Dandridge plantation home, and a house in Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia.

After having four children, two would survive, Daniel suddenly passed away leaving Martha dispenser of largesse. Raised to perform household duties required of women in her day, Martha nonetheless was more than capable of assuming responsibility of handling the day-to-day operation of her deceased husband’s estate.

However, it would be odd for her never to marry again, especially in the 1700’s. She was young and wealthy. A catch. In steps George Washington, who made a strategic move in courting Martha, to become her second husband. He knew that love would develop once they were married despite of his then infatuation with the married Sally Fairfax.

There has been speculation George only married Martha because she was rich, but as biographer Patricia Brady points out, “After they married, there is not a sign that  George was a bored or unhappy husband.”

During the Revolutionary War he was bereft without Martha by his side; she was his support. They were soul mates. At least, this is what I gathered from Brady’s biography.

Martha definitely did not want to live a public life after the war, but Washington was selected to be President, and he served two terms, 1789-1797. I won’t discuss his Presidency beyond that building a nation together was no easy task, especially with the bickering of the Federalists and Jeffersonians in those early days.

Martha made do, and was always commented on how kind, self-effacing, gentle and modest she seemed by visitors during and after the Presidential years. Never called the “First Lady,” she was given the moniker “Lady Washington” instead.

One aspect of Martha I admired was her devotion to family. Both George and Martha raised their grandchildren, her surviving children from the Custis marriage died young, and also sheltered and helped  support various nieces, nephews, cousins etc. The Washington’s were very generous and loving towards their family members. They took care of their own.

That’s pretty much all there is to tell; Martha pretty much stayed by George’s side until he died in 1799. No outspokenness from her .. Abigail Adams on the other hand ..


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