Martha Dandridge was born at Virginia’s Chestnut Grove Plantation in 1731. She was the eldest of eight children born to John and Frances Dandridge and enjoyed a life of relative wealth throughout her youth. Martha, like other women of her time, received very little formal education but was well trained in the domestic arts and prepared for a life as a wife and mother.
In 1749, when she was 18, Martha Dandridge married Daniel Parke Custis, with whom she had four children. Unfortunately, only two, John (called Jack) and Martha (called Patsy), survived past childhood. When Custis died in 1757, he left a large inheritance to his widow, making Martha both wealthy and independently in control of her assets and her children – something that was less likely to be true a century later.
She met George Washington, a wealthy plantation owner and commander of the Virginia forces during the French and Indian War, at a friend’s house in 1759. They married soon after, and she and her two children moved into Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. Her husband took an active role in the children’s lives, but despite their careful parenting, Patsy died from epilepsy at age 17.
Because her husband often traveled on military and business matters, Martha Washington often was the effective manager of the huge plantation. Although she spent winters at Valley Forge and other uncomfortable sites during the American Revolution – where her presence enormously raised morale among the suffering soldiers -- she returned to Mount Vernon every summer to supervise the variety of work done by slave labor. Her letters to her husband make it clear that she understood the practicalities of both agriculture and management.
Martha Washington lost the last of her children during the Revolution, as Jack died of “camp fever.” His young widow, Nellie Calvert Custis, moved into Mount Vernon with their children – and even after she remarried, the Washingtons served as effective parents to their grandchildren. Martha Washington did not allow her grief at the loss of all of her children to affect her pleasant personality, as she continued to serve a maternal role for both her family and the new nation.
The war formally ended in 1783, and George Washington became the new nation’s first president after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. “Lady Washington” moved with her husband to New York City, which was briefly the capital. She and Abigail Adams, wife of Vice President John Adams, held Friday evening receptions and set the precedents there for the American social scene. Martha Washington said that of this time that she often felt like a “state prisoner” in her own home, but she conscientiously emulated the standards of European capitals. The same was true when the government moved to Philadelphia the next year.
The Washingtons finally returned to Mount Vernon in 1797, after the inauguration of John Adams as president, and while the capital still remained at Philadelphia. George died just two years later, in 1799, and Martha lived her final three years on the mansion’s third floor. She continued her lifelong habits of business practicality and domestic graciousness in her lengthy will, which disposed of land, cash, and treasured items from silver to portraits – but never mentioned slaves. As was typical of the times, she provided for the education of nephews, but not nieces. She thought of her female friends, though, and among the bequests were five guineas to “my neighbor…to get something in remembrance of me” and another a friend “to buy her[self] a ring.” Memorial rings were common at the time, and that may have been the intent.
The immensity of Martha Washington’s social networking for the new nation can be seen in this incident: Soon after their 1797 return to Mount Vernon, George Washington jotted a note to his secretary, Tobias Lear, saying “unless someone pops in unexpectedly, Mrs. Washington and I will do what I believe has not been done within these last twenty years by us – that is, to set down to dinner by ourselves.” For more than two decades, Martha Washington shared her remarkable husband with America, regularly and quietly taking on not only interminable hosting duties, but also most of the couple’s private business management. She inspired great respect from her contemporaries, set the proper precedents for future first ladies, and is especially to be commended for the bravery with which she met the deaths of all of her children. Martha Dandridge Custis Washington not only maintained her own mental health in the face of repeated tragedy, but also served as an example of personal courage in the harsh days of revolution and a fragile new nation.