Martha Washington, or “Lady Washington,” as she was later called, was born Martha Dandridge on June 2, 1731. She is best remembered today for her second marriage and her role as America’s first ‘First Lady.’ Yet, most people don’t know that Martha was a widow when she and George Washington were married in 1759. While she enjoyed great wealth throughout her life, Martha Washington also suffered greatly. Today, she stands as an example to all American First Ladies.
As with many Virginia colonists, Martha was born into a large family. Yet unlike most women, she learned to read and write, and enjoyed doing so. When she turned 18, she married Daniel Parke Custis. Custis was about 20 years older than Martha, and very rich. They had four children together, but within several years, Daniel Custis and two of their children were dead. At the young age of 25, Martha oversaw 17,500 acres of land, 300 slaves, and numerous investments, alone.
In 1759, Martha Custis married a young George Washington. Washington was neither older nor richer than Martha, and most historians think they had a good marriage. The couple lived together in Mount Vernon in Virginia. While they had no children together, they cared for Martha’s two remaining children from her first marriage, Martha (“Patsy”) and John (“Jacky”). Tragically, Patsy died during an epileptic seizure as a teenager.
Shortly after Martha’s second marriage, the French and Indian War broke out. George Washington fought on the British side against the French. During the war, Martha oversaw the family’s estates capably. George Washington returned home to her at the end of the conflict.
In 1775, the Washingtons were brought away from Mount Vernon once more, this time by the American Revolution. When George Washington was named Commander of the Continental Army, he and Martha began their years of service to the United States of America. Martha would leave her home each winter to live in army camps with George. Even though she preferred a quiet life at home, she entertained the officer’s wives and foreign dignitaries at Valley Forge and other encampments. Her son, Jacky, served in the Continental Army and died of camp fever.
At the end of war, the Washingtons retired to Mount Vernon to enjoy some peace. However, not a decade would go by before they were called to duty once again. George Washington was elected President of the United States in 1789, and Martha went with him to New York, the nation’s first capital. There, she mindfully set a precedent for future First Ladies. Despite her private nature, she arranged social events and parties, held public receptions each Friday, and oversaw household affairs.
After George Washington’s second term in office was complete, the Washingtons returned to Mount Vernon. There, they lived a peaceful life until George’s death in 1799. George Washington released his slaves upon his death; Martha did not approve of this. She was heartbroken by his death, shut up their bed chamber, and lived on the third floor of their mansion until her death in 1802. Shortly before she died, she burned almost all of her letters to George.
- Could Martha read and write?
- What was the age difference between Martha and her first husband?
- Did Martha have resources before she married George?
- Where did Martha spend winters during the Revolutionary War?
- Why do you think Martha was an active First Lady, even though she preferred a peaceful life?
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