First First Lady
Martha Dandridge was more than just Mrs. George Washington.
Jan 16, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 17 • By RACHEL DICARLO
George Washington wasn't wealthy or instantly infatuated with Martha, like her first suitor, Charles Carter. But he was tall, handsome, physically powerful, and gaining military and social status in the colonies. He was also always falling in and out of love. Most recently, he had become lovesick over Sally Cary Fairfax, a married woman whose husband's rich and influential family George venerated. Fairfax tormented him with her flirting, but neither wanted to run off and live as outcasts on the edge of society. So George continued pursuing Martha.
Luckily for him, Martha had fallen in love. As she got to know George, Martha, Brady writes, "discovered an honorable gentleman who would never embarrass her, a kind man who would love the children, hers and theirs, a man faithful to his word who would safeguard the Custis inheritance." And what George wanted most was to make a home with a warm and decent woman.
Yet even after he was engaged to Martha, George sent at least two babbling, forlorn letters to Sally Fairfax. Her teasing replies probably highlighted Martha's virtues and exposed Fairfax as silly and disloyal. George remained committed to Martha, and she to him. Any lingering preoccupation with Fairfax soon halted. Brady writes, "Whatever [Martha] may have guessed about his feelings for Sally Fairfax, it took a woman of rare self-confidence not to cross-examine him or create jealous scenes. . . . Martha greeted Sally's overtures with sunny good nature, accepting the Fairfaxes as lifelong friends. George's anguished fascination cooled into a friendship."
The Washingtons never managed to have their own children, but they passed the time at Mount Vernon pleasantly with her children, Jack and Patsy, and a bevy of nieces and nephews. Martha saw these as their golden years.
The years that followed proved more difficult. In 1775 George accepted the position of commander in chief to form a national army to fight the British, although he did so, as he wrote, "at the expence of my domestk ease & happiness." For eight years he remained in the field while Martha stayed at Mount Vernon. They missed each other terribly and corresponded in seemingly urgent tones. The sudden deaths of Jack and Patsy compounded Martha's loneliness. Meanwhile, as the war dragged on, the rumor that British marines could sail up the Potomac and kidnap her from Mount Vernon provided yet more anxiety.
Every winter Martha made the long journey north to Valley Forge and other camps to be with her husband. Her carriage arriving let the men know that the fighting had definitely ended for the year. There, she played the tender matriarch--a kind, older woman comforting sick or wounded soldiers.
At the end of the war, when Washington gave up power to the civilian authorities, Martha anticipated they would live out the rest of their days quietly. She resisted all attempts to be made a queen, just as her husband refused to be king. But when he was elected president she dutifully went with him to the capital for eight exhausting years that saw the rise of partisanship through press attacks on the president by fellow Founders such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. By the end of Washington's second term, Brady writes that Martha and George "left for Mount Vernon as though they were departing for the promised land."
When the president died in 1799, Martha was so prostrate she could barely speak. She closed off their bedroom and never slept there again. She satisfied myriad requests for mementos of her husband's presidency and faithfully executed his estate, most notably by setting his slaves free. When Jefferson came to office in 1801, she openly and viciously criticized him. She never forgave him for what she saw as Jefferson's betrayal of her husband. She died the next year.
As Brady shows, to obscure Martha's life and influence in her husband's life is to obscure his complexities. Washington was surely a great man--but he was also prone to bouts of insecurity, anger, and depression. Martha was the only person in whose presence he felt truly comfortable. He could be himself with her, and she was always there comforting him, talking him through hard times, and helping negotiate America's brand-new political climate. Without her he might have been a different man.
Rachel DiCarlo is a Phillips Foundation fellow.