Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
Biography: "I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is
certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from..." So in one of
her surviving letters, Martha Washington confided to a niece that she did
not entirely enjoy her role as first of First Ladies. She once conceded
that "many younger and gayer women would be extremely pleased" in her
place; she would "much rather be at home".
But when George Washington took his oath of office in New York City on
April 30, 1789, and assumed the new duties of President of the United
States, his wife brought to their position a tact and discretion developed
over 58 years of life in Tidewater Virginia society.
Oldest daughter of John and Frances Dandridge, she was born June 2, 1731,
on a plantation near Williamsburg. Typical for a girl in an 18th-century
family, her education was almost negligible except in domestic and
social skills, but she learned all the arts of a well-ordered household
and how to keep a family contented.
As a girl of 18--about five feet tall, dark-haired, gentle of manner--she
married the wealthy Daniel Park Custis. Two babies died; two were hardly
past infancy when her husband died in 1757.
From the day Martha married George Washington in 1759, her great concern
was the comfort and happiness of her husband and children. When his
career led him to the battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War and finally
to the Presidency, she followed him bravely. Her love of private life
equaled her husband's; but, as she wrote to her friend Mercy Otis Warren,
" I cannot blame him for having acted according to his ideas of duty in
obeying the voice of his country." As for herself, "I am still 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."
At the President's House in temporary capitals, New York and Philadelphia,
the Washingtons chose to entertain in formal style, deliberately
emphasizing the new republic's wish to be accepted as the equal of the
established governments of Europe. Still, Martha's warm hospitality made
her guests feel welcome and put strangers at ease. She took little
satisfaction in " formal compliments and empty ceremonies" and declared
that "I am fond of only what comes from the heart." Abigail Adams, who
sat at her right during parties and receptions, praised her as "one of
those unassuming characters which create Love and Esteem."
In 1797 the Washingtons said farewell to public life and returned to
their beloved Mount Vernon, to live surrounded by kinfolk, friends, and a
constant stream of guests eager to pay their respects to the celebrated
couple. Martha's daughter Patsy had died, her son Jack at 26, but Jack's
children figured in the household. After George Washington died in 1799,
Martha assured a final privacy by burning their letters; she died of
"severe fever" on May 22, 1802. Both lie buried at Mount Vernon, where
Washington himself had planned an unpretentious tomb for them.