An American Life
by Patricia Brady
Viking, 276 pp., $24.95
FINDING ENOUGH NEW OR INTERESTING material about Martha Washington to fill a whole book promises to be a daunting task. Compared with other first ladies of her time--like the opinionated spitfire Abigail Adams or the renowned political hostess Dolley Madison--Martha Washington doesn't seem to offer much glamour apart from her marriage to George. Even that topic, her relationship with America's most famous Founding Father, proves difficult to investigate. So intent was Martha on keeping her marriage to George private that, at his death, she burned some 41 years' worth of their correspondence. Only five letters survived the flames.
Using those letters, along with a smattering of Martha's correspondence with friends and family, various anecdotal accounts of her contemporaries, and a vast knowledge of 18th-century American life, Patricia Brady has produced a full and dazzling new biography of the first first lady--from her days on the Dandridge family farm to her final years as the widow Washington.
Brady weaves Martha's story--her childhood, two marriages, motherhood, devotion to her husband during the Revolution, and her role as First Lady--together with George Washington's career, while drawing special attention to the qualities in Martha that are often overlooked. She reveals a shrewd businesswoman, a patriot, and a president's lifelong confidante.
Martha Dandridge, nicknamed Patsy, was born a fourth-generation Virginian on her mother's side. The Dandridges were planters, but not wealthy by any stretch, which meant they did much of the work themselves. Young Martha killed and plucked fowls; made dyes, soap, and home remedies; sewed clothes, curtains, and linens; stuffed pillows and mattresses; beat the dust out of rugs; cured meats; and washed the clothes every week in a big boiling kettle.
But she also learned how to be a lady. Martha's family, like most Virginia planters, revered the manners of the British aristocracy, and so they taught her how to sit, bow, dance, manage her skirts, and ride a horse stylishly. At 17, the pretty young Martha had met every nearby bachelor and widower. (The striking illustration of her on the book's front cover will surprise anyone who pictures a plump, frumpy, gray-haired Martha Washington.)
Despite the lack of a substantial dowry, she got engaged to Daniel Parke Custis, the son of one of the wealthiest men in the Virginia colony. When his father, Colonel John Custis, by all accounts a mean and miserable man, found out, he flew into a rage and threatened to throw the family silver into the road rather than let a Dandridge girl use it. In an early testament to her character and gumption, Martha managed to arrange a meeting with the colonel himself. Her charm impressed the old man so much that he consented to the marriage. As amusing evidence of Colonel Custis's crustiness, Brady includes the epitaph he insisted be placed in his will:
Under this Marble Tomb lies the Body
of the Honorable John Custis, Esq.
of the City of Williamsburgh and the Parish of Bruton
Formerly of Hungers Parish on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and
County of Northampton the Place of his Nativity
Aged 71 Years and yet liv'd but Seven Years
Which was the space of time He kept
A Bachelors house at Arlington
This inscription carved at his express orders.
With Daniel's father gone, it was a happy and prosperous household. Martha had been transformed from a simple farm girl to a gentrified member of the plantation elite. The author doesn't gloss over the fact that the Custises, like all planters, owed their prosperity to the 300 slaves who tilled the fields. At that time only a few Americans, mostly Quakers, had begun to speak out against the evils of slavery. The Custises were not among them. Martha treated her slaves kindly, but believed black servitude to be the natural order of things.
Times got tough for the new family after two of their four children died. Then Daniel, too, fell ill in the summer of 1757, and soon followed them to the grave. Martha, as the widow of a property-owning man, found herself in a unique position: She was free to make any decision she liked about her future. It would have been eccentric for her to remain unmarried, and so by the spring of 1758 she had two suitors.
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.