Martha Washington, wife of George Washington, came from a life of privilege living on plantations in Virginia.
The eldest daughter of John and Frances Dandridge, Martha (called Patsy by friends and family) was born on June 2, 1731. Martha grew up on a sprawling Virginia plantation, Chestnut Grove, located just outside of Williamsburg Like other aristocratic girls of the 18th century, Martha learned how to sew, embroider, garden, and all the other necessities of running a large home. Along with basics of homemaking, Martha was also educated in arithmetic, reading and writing.
Martha married plantation owner, Daniel Parke Custis in 1849, at the age of 18. He was 38. Martha and her husband had four children, two of whom died during infancy. Custis died in 1757, leaving Martha a widow at twenty-six with two young children, a son, Jacky, and a daughter, Patsy. (today part of that plantation is Arlington National Cemetery).
Martha Meets George Washington
Martha was introduced to Colonel George Washington a cotillion (dance) in Williamsburg, Virginia. It is said that Martha immediately fell in love with the tall, strapping young man. While it is often assumed that Martha was a great deal older than George Washington when they married, she only a few months older than him. George Washington had his heart set on a neighbor girl, Miss Sally Fairfax. However, Sally married another man and George decided that the pretty, charming and rich widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, would make a fine wife. They were married on January 6, 1759.
The newlyweds, along with Martha’s two children, moved to George’s home, Mount Vernon, in Virginia. The early years of George and Martha’s marriage were happy. In keeping up with her privilaged upbringing, Martha threw lavish parties, dressed in the finest of clothes and made sure Jacky and Patsy wanted for nothing. However, several seasons of bad crops, combined with lavish spending put the couple in debt. Worse yet, in 1774 Patsy Custis died at the age of 17, from epileptic seizures.
Martha Washington During the American Revolution
There was not much time for Martha to mourn her daughters death. Rumblings of revolution could be heard throughout the 13 colonies. Colonists were tired of the high taxes without representation imposed on them from Great Britain. Following her husbands lead, Martha soon supported the early calls for independence. George Washington recognized that the fledgling independence movement would need strong support and organization. In 1775 he traveled north to Massachusetts, where he helped organize a militia. Martha traveled to spend Christmas with him. Her son Jacky, now a grown man, accompanied his mother, bringing his new wife, Eleanor “Nelly” Calvert with him. Martha remained in Massachusetts through June before returning home to Mount Vernon. But she returned to Massachusetts once again in March,1777, to nurse George through a bought of illness at Morristown.
Jacky Custis joined the militia as an aide to his step-father. However, he died unexpectedly of illness in November, 1781. He left behind his widow and their six children. The two youngest children, little Nelly, and George Washington Parke Custis were sent to stay with Martha at Mount Vernon. Martha, who had lost all four of her own children, delighted in her grandchildren. Even after Nelly Calvert Custis remarried, the children remained at Mount Vernon with their grandmother.
Martha Washington Becomes First Lady
George Washington returned to Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve, 1783, following the end of the Revolutionary War. Following the end of the Revolution, the fledgling republic suffered a major economic depression, leading to a farmer’s rebellion in Massachusetts. The uprising, called Shays Rebellion, spurred revolutionary leaders, like George Washington, to attend the Philadelphia Convention, where a new constitution was drafted, strengthening the power of the central government. And to help lead the government, in April, 1789, George Washington was elected the president of the United States of America, in a unanimous vote. He and Martha, along with the grandchildren moved to New York, the temporary nation’s capital. Even at that point, the couple was still in debt and needed a loan to cover moving expenses.
Martha was a gracious hostess, fulfilling her role as the presidents wife. The term “First Lady” was never used during her tenure and only becoming common after her death. She was simply called “Lady Washington.” Running her own estates in back home in Virginia helped Martha immensely when planning formal dinners, receptions and other social occasions. Though she did her duty as first lady, Martha never truly enjoyed being away from Mount Vernon, and was happy to return in 1797, after George finished his second term.
George Washington died on December 14, 1799. Martha was unable to attend to the funeral; she was so overcome with grief. In his will, George Washington freed half of his slaves. Martha freed children and the elderly in 1800.
Martha died on May 22, 1802. Always craving privacy, she burned all but two letters she and George had written to one another during their lives together.
- Aptheker, Herbert. Early Years of the Republic. New York, International Publishers, 1976.
- Beeman, Richard, Stephen Botein, Edward C Carter III. Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
- Boorstin, Ruth F. A History of the United States. Lexington: Ginn And Company, 1981.
- Faragher, John Mack, Mari Jo Buhle. Out of Many: A History of the American People. Englewood: Prentice Hall, 1995