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In the minds of most people, the figure of Martha Washington is at best a shadowy, albeit pleasant, outline empty of vivid details. Though our image of her often seems no more than a background to the Founding Father she married, many historians over the past 150 years have tried to depict her in a scandalous light, even as a murderess. Sources of Martha’s own voice are few, given that she burned the bulk of her own correspondence. In Martha Washington: An American Life, Patricia Brady scours the historical record and debunks the baseless gossip. From her research, a dignified, nuanced woman emerges from her famous husband’s shadow.
Growing up in colonial New Kent County, Virginia, Martha “Patsy” Dandridge was known as a good-looking, good-natured girl. She didn’t get much formal schooling, though she became a lifelong reader. Instead, she learned the fundamentals of proper housekeeping, complex skills that would serve her in adulthood.
At eighteen Miss Dandridge married the much wealthier Daniel Parke Custis, twenty years her senior and deeply in love with her. But their relationship ended abruptly, seven years and four children into the marriage, when he died. Martha was left in control of substantial plantations and other assets that made her a very desirable widow. It wasn’t long before George Washington, an up-and-coming young military hero, came courting.
Mr. Washington may have been infatuated with another woman at the time, but he was wise enough to realize the widow Custis’s amiable personality and wealth made her an attractive prospect. They married in 1759 and he became a loving stepfather to her two surviving children.
Like later, more famous First Ladies, such as Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison, Martha Washington was crucial to her husband’s well-being“the one person with whom he could let down his guard,” as Brady notes. She joined her husband’s Revolutionary army each winter for eight years, becoming famous for her warmth and loyalty.
Martha’s loyalty to her husband and the new nation never wavered, even during the hard years of a presidency she felt was an excessive burden on her husband. She weathered attacks on her husband from the press and his former friends, as well as serious curtailment of her own freedom. And while she may not have enjoyed travelinga rough and complicated proposition in the colonial erashe was constantly moving across the states to fulfill her obligations to family and nation. Yet she bore it gracefully. The formidable first First Lady became known as an able, intelligent hostess.
In later years, the pair that had weathered so much together finally retired to a more domestic life at Mount Vernon. But the usually hale George died unexpectedly in late 1799. Martha continued to look after her clan, but she never recovered from her grief. She died quietly two and a half years later, aged seventy, with all her affairs in order and her family surrounding her.
Patricia Brady has a Ph.D. in history from Tulane University and served for twenty years as director of publications at the Historic New Orleans Collection. She has written extensively about Martha Washington and her family. Among her works are Nelly Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book and George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly. She is the recipient of a Mellon Fellowship and the president of the board of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.
What led you to Martha Washington as a research subject?
Throughout my career I’ve written about domestic life and southern women, including Nelly Custis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter. At the White House Bicentennial in 2000, it occurred to me that no one knew much about the woman who married George Washington in 1759 though she was a mature woman in her twenties at that time, who had been married and widowed, given birth to four children and buried two of them, and managed a large estate on her own. I wanted to understand Martha Washington so I decided to do the research and write this book.
You portray Martha Washington as a woman of seamless character: loyal, amiable, largely uncontroversial. Yet other historians came up with the scandalous theory that she was a murderess, or that she had a mixed-race half-sister. Why do you think such notions appeared?
Controversy and scandal get press coverage and sell books. There is absolutely not one shred of evidence from the period of Martha Washington’s lifetimenot the slightest breath of scandalfor either of these allegations. Modern writers have combined present-day preoccupations with claims from the late nineteenth century (more than a century after the supposed events) to concoct theories that lack either documentary foundation or logical cohesion.
What happened to the family after Martha and George died?
When Martha Washington died, all four of her grandchildren were with her. The eldest granddaughter, Eliza Custis Law, later left her husband and was divorced. The Custis family stood by her, however, and she maintained her place in society. Martha Custis Peter and her husband built a grand mansion in Georgetown, Tudor Place, which remained in the family until the twentieth century. It is now a museum. Eleanor Custis Lewis and her husband, who had lived at Mount Vernon, moved to their plantation, Woodlawn, their legacy from George Washington. Hard times forced them to sell the property, now a museum, and move to the Shenandoah Valley. The youngest of the grandchildren, George Washington Parke Custis, built Arlington House on inherited land overlooking the new federal capital, now Washington, D.C. His daughter, Mary Custis Lee, the wife of Robert E. Lee, inherited the property shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. The Arlington estate was confiscated by the federal government and became a national military cemetery.
As the Republican party of Thomas Jefferson gained national ascendance, the Custises lost their place close to the center of power. They were socially, but not politically, prominent.
You write that many people claim to be descendants of Martha Washington. How, if at all, have you used them as sources?
There are numerous living descendants of Martha Washington’s four Custis grandchildren. As a group, they are proud of their heritage, and many of them own valuable memorabilia and papers that they have made available to me and other researchers.
It seems as though Martha Washington spent much of her life on the road. How common was this for colonial women of her status and wealth?
In the colonial period, the Virginia gentry traveled often to visit family and friends, to attend social events, and to take part in the political life of Williamsburg, the colonial capital. During the Revolution, Mrs. Washington’s travels were dictated by military necessity, the ebb and flow of victory and defeat. And during Washington’s presidency, she had to go to the nation’s capitals, first New York, then Philadelphia, with vacation trips back to Mount Vernon. She didn’t necessarily travel more than other wealthy Virginia women, but she certainly traveled farther afield.?
Martha in her later years, as you describe, was a woman well able to hold her own conversationally with visiting politicos. What was expected from high-level hostesses back then? Was her skill unusual?
Throughout Washington’s career, Martha’s conversational skills were both useful and enjoyable for him. He liked talking with his wife, and he counted on her to help him entertain visiting dignitaries; in fact, she often conversed with visitors in his place so that he could continue to work without interruption. Both Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison shared this enjoyment of good conversation. It was only later in the nineteenth century that elite women were expected to stay out of the “men’s business” of politics and pretend ignorance.
As a widow, Martha Washington was seen as a national treasure, a source of firsthand information about the Revolution, the founding of the nation, and the greatest of the Founding Fathers. Visitors came from throughout the nation and Europe to call on her and listen to her opinions and accounts of those early days.
Martha’s letters to her family and friends were intimate and to the point, as opposed to the flowery men’s writing of the day. How do Martha’s letters compare to other female writers of the time?
Martha’s letters were not as well-written as those of a few very well-educated northern women, such as Eliza Powel of Pennsylvania or Mercy Otis Warren of Massachusetts. But they were certainly comparable to those of most other elite southern and many northern women. The great majority of American womenand menat the time were illiterate.
You describe Martha as being angry that George took a second term. Was the anger evident from her writings, and what did she say? Is there evidence for any other matrimonial spats?
Martha didn’t want Washington to accept the presidency in the first place; she believed he had already given enough of his life to the nation during the eight years of the American Revolution. She wrote to her nephew about his election in 1789, “I think it was much too late for him to go in to publick life again . . . our family will be deranged.” She wrote of her disappointment at greater length to Mercy Otis Warren, “I little thought when the war was finished, that any circumstances could possibly have happened which would call the General into public life again. I had anticipated that . . . we should have been left to grow old in solitude and tranquility together.”
She was also unhappy with the restricted social role Washington and his male advisors had laid down for the First Lady. She wrote to her niece in October 1789, “I live a very dull life here . . . I never goe to the publick placeindeed I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else . . . as I can not doe as I like I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal.” By 1790, however, when the Washingtons moved to the new capital, Philadelphia, she had overcome those restrictions to design a role more to her own liking, and she became much happier as First Lady.
Martha had assumed from the beginning that her husband would serve only one term as president. When he bowed to the wishes of other leaders and accepted a second term, she was indeed angry. But she didn’t write any extant letters about those feelings; information about her disappointment was gleaned from contemporary observers.
In your account, George Washington was an earnest, artless politician, unaware of and unprepared for the political machinations of Hamilton and Jefferson. What incidents built this picture for you? What sort of interactions were there between Hamilton or Jefferson and Martha Washington?
Washington often seemed to find it hard to believe that his closest associates, such as Hamilton and Jefferson, had hidden motives for their actions or would lie about them. For instance, during the war, Hamilton forced a quarrel with Washington because he wanted to leave headquarters and take a field command. Washington was bewildered and hurt while Hamilton congratulated himself on his actions in letters to others. Nonetheless, Hamilton expected Washington to aid his future career. Martha was very fond of Hamilton’s wife and remained close to her throughout her life.
Jefferson and Madison orchestrated attacks on Washington in Republican newspapers they controlled as a way to damage Hamilton. Jefferson explicitly denied to Washington that he had any part in the attacks. Although Washington at first accepted Jefferson’s assurances, by the end of his life he obviously had learned better. Martha Washington detested Jefferson for his cunning and double-dealing. She enjoyed critical and sarcastic conversations with callers about Jefferson after he became president. Her grandchildren shared her views.
Are there any burning questions about Martha Washington that are left unanswered? What do you wish you could find out about her that never appeared in the documents and paintings?
I would like to know more about the emotional content of her first marriage. Did she love Daniel Custis? I would also give anything to read the courtship letters between Martha Custis and George Washington. When exactly did they become engaged? How romantic were those letters?
Where did you find the cover portrait of the young Martha Custis?
There is only one existing portrait of Martha as a young woman, painted in 1757 by the Englishman John Wollaston. All his portraits of the colonial American elite resemble each other much more than they do their subjects. So I decided to work from a very accurate and attractive miniature of the middle-aged Martha Washington, painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1772.
Mount Vernon, which owns the miniature, provided a computerized image to the Faces Lab at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, directed by Mary H. Manhein, a leading forensic anthropologist. There N. Eileen Barrow, a forensic imaging specialist, performed a computerized age regression, accurately showing Martha as she would have looked at twenty-five.
From that image, New Orleans artist Michael Deas painted a period portrait with appropriate gown and background. Mount Vernon has since acquired the portrait for its new educational complex. The beautiful young Martha Dandridge Custis Washington has come home.
- Martha Washington is a woman who has been largely ignored by history until now. Why do you think that is? Did you find her a compelling character?
- What kinds of emotional adjustment do you think colonial women made to deal with the high infant mortality of those days?
- George Washington provided for his slaves’ freedom in his will; Martha, by all indications, never considered slavery an evil. How does knowing this affect your opinion of her?
- Americans have often installed in the presidency men who, like George Washington, were not professional politicians but military heroes. What advantages or disadvantages are there to choosing such men as the top politicians of the realm?
- Martha Washington traveled to the army’s camps for eight winters during the Revolution, living far more rudimentarily than she was used to. Why do you think she did so? Would you have done the same? What other compromises did Martha and George make in their years together?
- How would you describe colonial women’s daily lives before you read this book? How did the picture change as you read? What skills did colonial women need to get by?
- Describe Martha’s public role as the president’s wife. How does it compare to those of modern First Ladies? How do you think the public would react to Martha Washington in the same role today?
- Martha Washington burned the bulk of her correspondence with her husband. Do you sympathize with her choice of hiding her private life from future historians? When do you saveor tossyour e-mails and letters? What do you want future generations to find?