Historian H.W. Brands once compared writing biography to having a houseguest. They take over your lives for a while. Generations of fiction writers have likewise insisted that their characters “talk” to them. Both analogies are insightful. So what does Lady Washington have to say? Was it a love match? Or was it merely a partnership of mutual convenience?
The Widow Custis
Martha Dandridge had married an old man. She was seventeen; Daniel Parke Custis was already around thirty-five. But it had been a marriage of inclination – they knew and liked each other and wanted to be married. It turned out to be happy and fruitful. She had four children; two dying as infants. Then, after eight years, Custis died. He had been an extremely wealthy Virginia planter, and he died intestate. By Colonial Virginia law, Martha and her children, Jackie and Patsy, four and two respectively, were his only heirs, so the estate was split equally three ways. This estate included nearly 20,000 acres of rich farmland, more than 200 slaves, household goods of great value, and that rarest of all commodities in colonial America, a good supply of hard cash.
By her own admission, Martha was not scholarly. She disliked study, and preferred the domestic arts. As Mistress Custis, she excelled in managing the plantation house and entertaining gentry throughout the county. Now at loose ends, she had to chart a new life, marriage being the best option. The traditions of colonial times were much different than those of Victoriana, a century later. Life was hard. Spouses needed spouses. If one was widowed, male or female, one was expected to remarry fairly promptly, especially if there were young children involved. Martha’s needs and priorities were not limited to 18th century living. They were needs and priorities for all times, including our own. First, she needed a wise and honest manager for her inheritance, and that of her children. She was no fool. She was understandably wary of fortune hunters. Secondly, at twenty-six or –seven, with four children already born to her, she had every expectation of having more children – perhaps several more. She needed a kind step-father to her children.
The Ambitious Colonel Washington
At age twenty-six, George Washington had spent eight years in the Virginia Militia, rising to the rank of Colonel, the highest the state had to offer. For years, he had applied and lobbied to become a British officer, a situation continually thwarted. To make matters even worse for the sometimes touchy young man, a colonel in the Virginia Militia officer was considered several steps below a comparable rank in the regular British army. Having come to the conclusion that he was getting nowhere, he made a conscious decision to change his career path. He had inherited Mount Vernon, a substantial and very promising estate along the Potomac River. He also had acquired considerable acreage in what is now the western part of Virginia, in payment for his military services. He would become a planter. But in order to take what he wanted to be his rightful place in plantation society, he needed a suitable consort. Someone who could help him turn his vision of Mount Vernon into a showplace as well help make it a profitable entity.
George Washington and Martha Custis were introduced by mutual acquaintances. Both were unquestionably in the market, so to speak, for marriage. Their courtship was brief. They would spend less than 24 waking hours in each other’s company, during which time they were engrossed in deep conversation, sharing their needs, philosophies and dreams for the future. She invited him to her home, where she could demonstrate her considerable domestic skills. He met her children. Then they were affianced. For the next several months, Colonel Washington spent clearing up the loose ends of his military responsibilities; the Widow Custis would make preparations to move to Mount Vernon. Letters no doubt were exchanged, but none exit. (Martha Washington destroyed a great deal of Washington’s correspondence when he died.) The one widely quoted comment on their newly married state is a statement by Washington in a letter to an acquaintance where he affirms that he has found “an agreeable Consort for Life.”
It was hardly a wild passionate romance, but it is fairly certain that by the time their engagement was determined, George and Martha liked each other a great deal, and found much compatibility. In the eighteenth century, marriages were primarily made for ease of living, each partner contributing their share of the man’s work-woman’s work dynamic.
Suffice it to say that in the forty years the Washingtons were married, they had grown to love each other with true devotion. They had chosen wisely, perhaps more so than they could have realized at the time. Washington was indeed a wise and honest manager of the Custis fortune. He would add to it by his own astute business-sense, and by the time of his death, would be one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. He was also a caring and fond step-parent to Martha’s children, both of whom died young. He would also be a caring and fond step-grandparent to Martha’s grandchildren.
And Martha would take her place as the quintessential mistress of Mount Vernon – and the executive mansion, when George Washington became the first president of the United States. She would bring a distinctly new and democratic flavor to her hosting duties: all the dignity, warmth, style, manners and sincerity that is associated with American hospitality.
Randall, Willard Sterne; Washington: A Life, 1997, Edison, NJ, Galahad Books
Bourne, Miriam Anne: First Family: George Washington and his Intimate Relations, 1982, New York, NY, W.W. Norton
Chadwick, Bruce: The General and Mrs. Washington: The Untold Story of A Marriage & A Revolution, 2007, Naperville, IL, Sourcebooks, Inc.