The “First” First Lady
By Anne Adams
If Patsy Washington had had her way she would have preferred to remain out of the public eye, yet she was determined to fill her unique position as best she could. Or as she put it: “I know too much of the vanity of human affairs to expect felicity from the splendid scenes of public life. I am still determined to be cheerful and to be happy in whatever situation I may be…”
Indeed, this was an interesting approach from a woman who occupied the unique position — the first American First Lady. Of course the term did not exist at the time but what Martha “Patsy” Washington wrote to a friend early in her husband’s career was an indication of her dutiful practicality. In fact, when anyone paid her honor or attention she regarded it as a tribute to her husband and after he took office she was genuinely surprised to find she herself was a celebrity.
Washington himself designed Martha’s role as wife of the president since he knew what they did would set precedents for his successors. He was immensely popular so they could have operated the presidential household like the royal courts of Europe. Instead, Martha created an atmosphere of dignity but personal simplicity.
Washington took office in 1789 and a year later the seat of the U.S. government was moved from New York to Philadelphia. There the first presidential household consisted of five secretaries who also served as social aides, as well as twenty other servants. Guests who attended the weekly receptions at the President’s home entered a fashionable and tastefully decorated home to meet the president with a bow and brief conversation. When Martha held regular receptions in the drawing room, men bowed and ladies curtsied as she remained seated on a couch and the President moved among the guests. Official dinners were known for well-prepared food but not much conversation though the Washington listened politely. Guests found Martha courteous but not known for her intellect. She much preferred family visits to the enforced formality of official events.
Though we are all familiar with the portraits of Martha Washington as appearing elderly – a gray haired woman in a frilly cap, by modern standards she was not old – only in her fifties. Born in June, 1731 near Williamsburg, Virginia, daughter of plantation owner Col. John Dandridge and oldest of eight children. As with other girls of her period, she grew up with minimal schooling but enjoyed a free, happy childhood with riding, dancing and a great deal of experience and training in household management. Yet there were exciting moments for an adventuresome young lady. One early account relates how once she rode her horse up onto the porch of her uncle’s home, and then frightened onlookers by announcing she would ride the horse right into the house. Eventually her aunt talked her out of it.
When Martha was old enough to enter society she was very popular at Williamsburg social events. Yet the dances, parties and receptions were all designed to enable Martha to meet a likely husband since society decreed she should marry, have numerous children and manage a household. She would also be a skilled manager since her responsibility as oldest daughter at her family plantation had given her the domestic and managerial experience she would need for her expected career as wife and mother.
She assumed this role when at age eighteen when she married Captain Daniel Parke Custis, a steady member of an unsteady family and nearly twice her age. Custis’ father had long sought to control his son by threatening to disinherit him, however, he finally agreed to young Martha as a bride for his son. Then shortly after their marriage in 1749 the father died and Daniel received his inheritance.
Mr. and Mrs. Custis happily settled down at the Custis plantation known as the White House and over the next few years Martha had four children, but two of them succumbed to the diseases that at the time often took the lives of small children. Tragically, in July, 1757 Daniel suddenly died, leaving a grieving and very wealthy widow. Their plantation consisted of some 17000 acres, much of which were tobacco fields, plus $20,000 in other assets. Daniel’s lack of a will meant she and her children – five year old Jack and three year old Patsy — inherited everything.
Then she met Col. George Washington, who was a courteous gentleman of a good family with a military record against the French. In March of 1758, he began to court the widow Custis.
Family tradition held that they met when Washington stayed briefly at a Williamsburg area plantation where Martha was a houseguest — a story later related by Martha’s grandson. But no matter how they met, their courtship was to lead to a marriage based on mutual convenience since each provided what the other needed. Martha’s children needed a father, Martha needed a husband to manage her estate and Washington needed an income and property if he was to succeed in his career ambitions. Actually, one author has speculated that Washington would not have succeeded as general and later President without the acquisition of Martha’s property that gave him prestige and income. They were officially engaged that summer of 1758, but history has little record of their actual feelings because Washington later destroyed much of their correspondence. At the time Washington himself was also trying to recover from a love affair that was most likely one sided. For several years he had been enamored of a neighbor’s wife and while it is doubtful there was any intimacy and the romance was mostly in his mind, he retained an affection for the lady. After her marriage, Martha came to know the people involved but apparently did not let this interfere with her affection for Washington.
Still, while she was a skilled domestic manager, since her education had been sketchy, she occasionally relied on her husband to write her letters. Yet in 1758, before their marriage, she wrote a letter for herself to London business agents describing the coloring of a particular garment: “I have sent a night gound to be dide of an fashonnob Corler fitt for me to ware and beg you would have it dide better that I sent Las year that was very badly done this gound is of good Lenght for me.”
After Martha and Washington were married in January, 1759, the groom was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and in April, they traveled to Mount Vernon they would spend much of their married life. There she contributed not just her funds but her energy to the plantation operation. Eventually, Washington expanded the property to some 8000 acres where 250 workers labored in the shops, fields, and mills. He also enlarged the house till it resembled the familiar home we know today.
The kitchens, gardens and craft shops were Martha’s realm where each day she set out early to supervise the workers. A plantation at this time was actually a self contained and self-sufficient village/factory and at Mount Vernon, Martha was the manager. Yet she was also expected to be well-groomed, charming and hospitable hostess when the many visitors arrived and stayed many days or even weeks. Some were official guests brought to Mount Vernon because of politics or business, others were there because they greatly admired Washington, and of course there were many family and personal friends. The lengthy stays were necessary because there were so few hotels in the area at that time.
Martha doted on Jack and Patsy, spoiling them outrageously, despite her husband’s desire to raise them otherwise. Jack was handsome and indolent and Patsy while sweet tempered was delicate and displayed epileptic symptoms. When Patsy died at age 17, Martha turned her grief into helping other young girls of a similar age.
In 1774 with Patsy gone and Jack dropped out of college and married, Martha and Washington entered a new phase in their lives. Then Washington was selected as commander of the colonial forces in the upcoming Revolution, and when he assumed command Martha spent her time in visiting family. However, she made it a point to join her husband when the Continental army was in winter camp. Each year the family coach brought Martha, her maid and groceries to the camp to remain until the army returned to action in the spring when she returned home. For eight successive winters Martha was with the army, sometimes staying as many as six months.
Conditions at the camp were far different than Mount Vernon since at Valley Forge Washington, Martha and the military aides lived in a stone and log house, sharing many of the deprivations of the soldiers.. Also, though she preferred dressing in the latest fashions from Europe, she decided to forego such finery during the war, and wore only homemade garments. Some of the troops were so appreciative of her presence and example that they dubbed themselves “Lady Washington’s dragoons.”
Though Martha occasionally returned to Mount Vernon, Washington himself only visited once — in 1781 when the war was almost over. He was accompanied by his military staff as well as the commander of his French allies. These visitors so impressed Jack Custis who decided he wanted to leave his home near Mount Vernon, along with his wife and children and return to the front with Washington. However, once there he later succumbed to typhus. Afterward when Jack’s widow remarried Washington suggested that two of the younger Custis children come to Mount Vernon to live. While Martha welcomed her grandchildren, but did not rear them with as much indulgence as she had her own.
In 1797 as Washington’s second term as president ended Martha was frail and prone to colds, while her husband seemed as robust as ever. They retired to Mount Vernon where one night in 1799 Washington returned after a long ride and sat down to dinner, still wearing his wet clothing. Soon he developed constricted breathing and while the doctors treated the patient in the traditional ways, including bleeding, they could do nothing to open up his afflicted throat. Within a few hours he was gone.
Martha continued to stay at Mount Vernon under the care of Nelly Custis, Jack’s daughter, who had married Washington’s nephew. She had given birth to her first child just days before Washington’s death and she and her husband remained at Mount Vernon to be with Martha.
A minister visiting Mount Vernon in 1802 found her looking older than when he had previously seen her while Washington was in office. However he described her as “very little wrinkled and remarkably fair for a person of her years. She spoke of the General with great affection and observed that, though she had many favors and mercies, for which she desired to bless God, she felt as if she was become a stranger among her friends, and could welcome the time when she should be called to follow her deceased friend.” She did so in May, 1802.
Though perhaps a marriage of convenience and of mutual affection and respect instead of romantic love, the Washingtons were a devoted couple. In fact, according to their adopted son George Washington Parke Custis, for the forty years of their marriage Washington wore “suspended from his neck by a gold chain and resting on his bosom, the miniature portrait of his wife.”
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968). A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”