First Ladies: Martha Washington

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Martha Dandridge was born on June 2, 1731 to John and Frances Jones Dandridge.

A young Martha Dandridge Custis Washington

At the age of eighteen, she married Daniel Parke Custis, on May 15, 1750.  He was a rich planter, two decades older than his young bride.  The couple had four children together, but two {Daniel and Frances} died in childhood.

In 1757, Custis died leaving his twenty-five year old widow in control of a vast estate.  According to her biographist, “she capably ran the five plantations left to her when her first husband died, bargaining with London merchants for the best tobacco prices.

Two years later, she married George Washington.  The two had been neighbors for years.  Their wedding has been described as grand.

The couple had no children together, but raised Martha’s children, John and Patsy.  Patsy died as a teenager from an epileptic seizure.  John died of Camp Fever during the American Revolution, and the Washington’s raised his children, Nelly and George Washington Parke Custis.

Martha Washington followed her husband to his winter encampments each of the eight winters during the American Revolution and was essential in keeping morale among the officers.

She opposed George Washington’s agreement to become President of the United States and did not attend his inauguration.  She did serve as hostess for many state affairs in New York City and Philadelphia.

She struggled with her role as First Lady and being unable to dine with friends privately in their homes to the press recording her mundane movements. She did hold public receptions on Friday’s and had the responsibility of arranging major social events.  She viewed her new role as her duty to

Martha Washington

her husband and country.

There is evidence of great mutual care and affection between the first president and his wife. She was conscientious about ensuring in every way she could the dignity of him as a symbol and that his reputation was never compromised. She also recognized the differentiation necessary between her own personal life and the way she was perceived by the public.

Upon the death of her husband, who willed that their slaves be freed upon her death, Martha Washington freed their slaves in December 1800.  The general belief is she did this for fear of her own life.

Two and a half years after the death of her husband, Martha Washington died on May 22, 1802.  She had outlived both husbands and all of her children.

She was buried beside her husband at Mount Vernon.

George Washington’s wife was the first to be given the title “lady” by the press, as in “Lady Washington,” and the first wife of a president to appear on U.S. postage stamp.



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