Friday, January 10, 2014

Martha Washington, First Lady

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington First Lady

Martha Dandridge was born on June 2, 1731.  At age 18, she married Daniel Parke Custis, and began bearing his children.  Sadly, only two of their four children survived infancy, and Daniel himself died before their eighth anniversary.  She became one of the wealthiest widows in Virginia, if not the colonies.  In late 1758, a chance meeting with a young soldier named George Washington led to a whirlwind courtship.  On January 6, 1759, they were married, and each remained the other’s most ardent supporter until George’s death in 1799.

young Martha Washington
Mezzotint of Martha Washington made by John Folwell,
drawn by W. Oliver Stone
after the original by John Wollaston, painted in 1757
Public Domain
 If the men who battled for independence are considered America’s “Founding Fathers,” then surely their wives could be called “Founding Mothers.” George Washington himself said, “Nor would I rob the fairer sex of their share in the glory of a revolution so honorable to human nature, for indeed, I think you ladies are in the number of the best patriots America can boast.” 1  No colonial woman exemplified the patriot spirit more than his own beloved wife Martha. 

Currier and Ives George Washington family
By N. Currier (Firm) [Public domain]
When her husband left for the Continental Congress in 1776, she knew he would be gone for an extended period of time.  When the Revolutionary War officially began soon after, and it was clear he would not be coming back to Mount Vernon for a long time, she went to him.  She set aside her silk and satin gowns, and donned homespun dresses set an example for other women to follow. In spring and summer, she would supervise the stockpiling of provisions and organized their transport to the army camps in the fall.  Food stores from Mount Vernon would supplement the meager supplies the army could purchase.  Mrs. Washington led sewing circles where Mount Vernon cloth became uniforms, and was rarely seen without a pair of knitting needles working the wool yarn into desperately needed stockings and blankets.  Touched by her example as a leader to the womenfolk, the 3rd Continental Cavalry renamed themselves “Lady Washington’s Dragoons” in her honor.  When Mrs. Washington was in camp, men would happily volunteer to be her guard.  One soldier wrote to his brother: “I am happy with the importance of my charge, as well as the presence of the most amiable woman upon Earth.”2

Martha Washington china service Smithsonian
Glassware and china used during Washington Presidency, displayed at Smithsonian Institute Museum of American History
(personal photograph)
 After George’s election to the Presidency, she became hostess not just to local Virginia gentry but to the entire world.  As mistress of Mt. Vernon, it was her duty to make certain they were prepared for guests at any moment.  After many years in public service followed by a constant parade of guests to the plantation, George observed one night in 1797 that finally, “Unless someone pops in, unexpectedly, Mrs. Washington and myself will do what I believe has not been [done] within the last twenty years by us, that is to set down to dinner by ourselves.”3

Washington Lafayette Mount Vernon
The reception of Lafayette at Mount Vernon, home of Washington
 Bencke & Scott, c. 1875 [Public domain]

George Washington is considered as “First in War, First in Peace, First in the eyes of his Countrymen.”  After over forty years by George’s side in the war camps, caring daily for their many visitors, and earning the respect of soldiers and citizens alike, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington rightfully earned the title “First Lady” of the United States. 

Luke's American Adventures
 Roberts, Cokie. Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.
1p. 278
2p. 117
Thompson, Mary V. "The Hospitable Mansion: Welcoming Guests at Mount Veron." Association, Mount Vernon Ladies'. Dining with the Washingtons. Mount Vernon: Mouth Vernon Ladies' Association, 2011. 11-36.
3p. 11

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