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Martha Washington Defined the Role of First Lady of the United States

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My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over sixty books.

Martha Washington

Martha Washington

George and Martha Washington

For an American, the name George Washington is associated with the founding of the country. Mr. Washington’s string of accomplishment is impressive: almost single-handedly ignited the French and Indian War, led the Continental Army to victory in the American Revolutionary War, helped draft the Constitution, and was the first president of the United States. His was a resume few will every match. But what about his loving wife Martha; doesn’t she deserve some credit too? Working behind the scenes at the winter camps during the Revolutionary War, Martha organized social functions for the officer’s wives, helped feed and clothe the soldiers, and most importantly she was the “glue” that held General Washington together. At his side for over half of the eight years of the war, her comforting touch and steady character helped him lead the rag-tag Continental Army to victory against the greatest army in the world.

After the colonies had won their independence from Great Britain, Mr. Washington was elected to be the first president of the United States of America. In 1789, George and Martha moved to New York City, then the temporary seat of the new government, to begin the journey of governing the new nation. This is the story of how Martha Washington, with elegance and foresight, established the Office of the First Lady of the United States

Map of the United States in 1789.

Map of the United States in 1789.

Building a New Nation

By late 1781, with the help of the French, the Continental Army had boxed in the British near Yorktown, Virginia, forcing their surrender. This marked a turning point in the Revolutionary War. However, it would be two years before the war would officially end and allow General Washington to retire from the military and return home to Martha and the two grandchildren they were raising. Retired General Washington arrived home on Christmas Eve 1783 to be greeted by his family. Both Washingtons were looking forward to “grow old in solitude and tranquility together.”

This would turn out to be a busy time for the Washingtons as their Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, had become only marginally productive and they had accumulated many debts due to the war. Their time as regular citizens of Virginia would be short, since Mr. Washington was called to Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The writing of the new nation’s Constitution by delegates from each state called for a chief executive or “president,” as the position would later be called. In the first presidential election, the delegated electors chose George Washington unanimously as the first president of the United States and John Adams as the vice president.

The First Lady of the United States

In late April of 1789, the nation celebrated the inauguration of President Washington and John Adams as the vice president. Missing from the celebrations was Martha, who had chosen to avoid all the fanfare of the inauguration and remain at Mount Vernon. In May, Martha and her family began the long carriage ride from Virginia to New York City, the temporary seat of government for the fledgling republic. Accompanying Mrs. Washington were her two grandchildren, George or “Little Wash,” who was eight, and Nelly, age ten; nephew Robert Lewis; and a family friend who provided the horses and the carriage.

The nearly sixty-year-old Martha set out for the roughly 250-mile journey over dirt and mud roads to New York City. She realized the potential hardships she would encounter along the way, knowing paved roads and sturdy bridges across rivers were virtually non-existent. Her party was delayed due to bad weather and high water in crossing the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers. The historic trip was followed closely by the press as the nation was hungry for news about “Lady Washington.” In many of the towns and cities her carriage traveled through, she was welcomed by political leaders, parades, parties, and cheers of “Long live Lady Washington.” When attempting a shopping trip in Philadelphia, she was hounded by newspaper reporters and the adoring public.

During the final leg of her journey, she was greeted by the governor of New Jersey and a military escort. Decked out in patriotic fashion, a boat took her and her party from New Jersey to New York City where she was received by the governor of New York and yet another parade in her honor. Despite her reserved demeanor, Mrs. Washington gave a short speech, thanking the troops that escorted her and those who had come to wish her well. This would be her only public speech as the president’s wife. Arriving at her friend’s house, she changed into more formal clothing and attended a reception in her honor. She wasted no time. By the second day in the city she had presided over an official social event. From the beginning of her time as the president’s wife, it was clear to her that the position carried with it a high public profile and much responsibility. Though we call the president’s wife the “First Lady” today, the term did not come into wide usage until the 1880s.

First “President’s House” on Cherry Street in Manhattan, New York City.

First “President’s House” on Cherry Street in Manhattan, New York City.

Defining the Role of the First Lady

Not everyone in the United States and Europe expected the new experiment in democracy to last; the world had little experience with a democratic form of government. Many citizens feared that the government that emerged from the Constitution would be like a monarchy, with President Washington as king and Mrs. Washington the queen. The Washingtons had to find the right mix in simplicity of official ceremony so as not to appear monarchical, while balancing state functions with an air of dignity and ceremony to inspire legitimacy. In her new role as the wife of the president, Martha was able to strike a sensitive balance between simplicity and sophistication in her social affairs and official functions.

Martha hosted Friday evening drawing room socials which were open to both men and women. As guests arrived, they were presented to Mrs. Washington then to Abigail Adams, wife of the vice president. The First Lady avoided talking politics; when a visitor attempted to draw her out on a political issue, she carefully redirected the conversation away from politics. On Tuesday and Friday afternoons, Martha also held receptions for social calls. When Congress was in session, the Washingtons hosted Friday night receptions for the Congressmen and their wives. One precedent Martha established lasted up until 1933, when Eleanor Roosevelt was the first lady, this being the custom of opening the White House to the public on New Year’s Day. To assist Martha with all the activities on her social calendar she had a small staff consisting of Polly Lear, wife of Tobias Lear, the president’s chief aide and longtime family associate; chefs and stewards to prepare the meals and serve the guests; and a tavern owner, Samuel Lewis, who helped with dinner arrangements.

An 18th century painting of George and Martha Washington with their adoptive children, George Washington Parke Custis and Nelly Custis, as well as one of their slaves.

An 18th century painting of George and Martha Washington with their adoptive children, George Washington Parke Custis and Nelly Custis, as well as one of their slaves.

Retirement

After eight long years of serving the nation the Washingtons were able to retire to Mount Vernon. President Washington had wanted to leave office at the end of his first term but was persuaded to stand for reelection against his better instincts. Martha, though she served her post as First Lady with grace and distinction, did not enjoy her time while her husband was president. She wrote disparagingly of her time as First Lady to her niece: “I live a very dull life here, and know nothing that passes in town. I never go to the public places—indeed 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—and as I cannot do as I like. I am obstinate and stay home a great deal.” Martha and her husband were overjoyed to return at last to Mount Vernon in 1797. She wrote to a friend: “I cannot tell you, my dear friend, how much I enjoy home after having been deprived of one so long, for our dwelling in New York and Philadelphia was not home, only a sojourning. The General and I feel like children just released from school or from a hard taskmaster, and we believe that nothing can tempt us to leave the sacred roof-tree again, except on private business or pleasure. We are so penurious with our enjoyment that we are loath to share it with anyone but dear friends, yet almost every day some stranger claims a portion of it, and we cannot refuse.” She added: “I am again fairly settled down to the pleasant duties of an old-fashioned Virginia housekeeper, steady as a clock, busy as a bee, and cheerful as a cricket.”

At Mount Vernon in retirement, however, the private life still eluded them. The had become national idols and received a steady stream of guests, many uninvited. When Martha was not entertaining, she was occupied with her grandchildren. Her granddaughter Nelly married in 1799 and gave birth to a daughter that November. This joyful time with a new great-granddaughter soon turned to tragedy, however, as Mr. Washington caught a cold while riding in freezing rain on the plantation. The cold grew much worse, doctors were summoned but could do little, and he died on December 14. Martha was devastated by his death and said when he died, “It’s over. My life is just waiting now.” Unable to remain in the bedroom they had shared for so many years, she moved into a small room upstairs in the mansion. After his death she withdrew into herself emotionally. Her strong faith in God played a more central role in her life as each day she would walk to her husband’s tomb there on the property and pray. She was literally counting the days until she could reunite with her beloved husband.

Now in her late sixties, Lady Washington took the advice of her family and scaled back the operations of the Mount Vernon plantation. Per her husband’s wishes in his will, she freed all his slaves, several of whom stayed on at Mount Vernon with their families. With the help of her granddaughter, she still entertained guests that showed up at the plantation to visit with her and reminisce about the revolution and President Washington. Still possessing a keen mind, she was able to discuss the politics of the day with her guests.

Martha survived her husband another two-and-a-half years, dying of a “severe fever” on May 22, 1802, at age 71. A newspaper commented on her passing: “To those amiable and Christian virtues which adorn the female character, she added the dignity of manners, superiority of understanding, a mind intelligent and elevated. The silence of respectful grief is our best eulogy

George Washington on his deathbed attended to by his family, friends, and doctors.

George Washington on his deathbed attended to by his family, friends, and doctors.

Legacy

Martha Washington’s role as the wife of the first president of the United States makes it hard to find an able comparison in history, since her position as the “first” makes her role unique. She put her stamp on the office of First Lady, inventing the role while she dealt with the many complexities of the office and the trials that life threw at her along the way. However, she was foremost her husband’s helpmate, standing by him through the American Revolutionary War and the presidency, providing a calming spirit when his world was in complete turmoil. Her constant presence at the winter camps allowed him to stay in the field without interruption, providing an unwavering source of guidance and stability for the farmers and tradesmen who made up the Colonial Army. During the two terms when her husband was president, she was busy defining the role of the First Lady and providing a loving home for George and the children. The many social functions she hosted at the President’s House allowed the members of Congress and visiting diplomats to work out some of their political differences in a more relaxed atmosphere. She refused all attempts to turn herself into the first queen of the United States; instead, she worked to use her position as the president’s wife to see that the wheels of government turned as smoothly as possible. The remarkable grace, strength, and skill she exhibited during the presidential years has been an inspiration for Americans and a worthy roadmap for future generations of first ladies.

2007-W First Spouse Program coin for Martha Washington.

2007-W First Spouse Program coin for Martha Washington.

References

  • Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History. Second Edition. Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Swain, Susan and C-SPAN. First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women. New York: PublicAffairs, 2015.
  • Watson, Robert P. First Ladies of the United States. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2001.
  • West, Doug. Martha Washington: First Lady of the United States, A Short Biography. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2021.

Comments

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on May 24, 2021:

Doug, great historical article of a very special First Lady.

Doug West (author) from Missouri on May 23, 2021:

emge:

Thanks for the comment. I didn't realize how accomplished a woman Martha Washington was until I started researching her for this article and my book on her life.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on May 22, 2021:

Dougwest, this is a great article that was very interesting to read. Thank you, take care and have a great weekend.

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