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 ..

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.  – L.P. Hartley

First Lady of the United States. As Americans, we hear the wife of every current President announced by this moniker, but what does the title signify? What makes a Lady First?  Since the President of the United States is such an overwhelming powerful figure, where does the First Lady (no First Gentlemen yet) figure in the grand sweeping melodrama that encircles the President, along with the policies and public showmanship that characterizes his reign?

I distinctly remember as a child perusing my maternal grandmother’s World Book Encyclopedias from the ’50s, thumbing through their yellow pages. Mostly, I would look up U.S. Presidents and read about their wives who were delegated to the back page of their husband’s section. There would be a small black and white print  photograph of the First Lady, and under it would be a very short bio. I recall contemplating if the space she was given amounted to the importance she played in her husband’s Presidency, and to a further extent the times in which she lived.

A former potential History major, before I chose English, I love reading about historical personages, especially Americans, whose lives I use as an inspiration to enrich – both good and bad ways – my own existence in this U.S. of A., circa 2012. Discovering the past First Ladies going all the way back to the late 1700’s, I want to discover the ways this role has changed and the performance each Lady gave whilst the man was occupying and wielding tremendous power in the Oval Office. Were these women as ambitious as their husbands in seeking the Presidency of the United States? Supportive? Or were some unhappy and disconcerted at being judged and held up as the President’s wife? Was the “Lady” role suffocating and unbearable?

In seeking the answers to my questions, I will read a biography of each “Lady” that occupied the White House with her “Gentleman.” However, there are about a handful of First Ladies that were not wives and I hope to discover how these ladies were chosen amongst others within the President’s family and social sphere.

My decision to write a blog about the First Ladies Past and Present occurred only after ditching the idea of reading about all former and current U.S. Presidents. At Times Dull sparked my curiosity and I’m indebted to its blogger, Janet Potter. Smart gal. Nevertheless, reading a biography of George Washington I came to the realization that I wanted to read about his wife, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington. Now here I am. First Ladies instead of U.S. President’s.

Alas, I have no time goal for finishing this project. Michelle Obama is our 44th First Lady. That’s 44 books to read! Here I go!

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