Summary

Birth:
02 Jun 1731 1
Chestnut Grove, New Kent County, Colony of Virginia 1
Death:
22 May 1802 1
Mount Vernon, Virginia 1
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Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
Washington Family
Washington Family
"Washington's Family" by Edward Savage, painted between 1789 and 1796, shows (from left to right): George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington, Eleanor Parke Custis, Martha, and an enslaved servant: probably William Lee or Christopher Sheels.
Martha Washington On Currency
Martha Washington On Currency
Martha Washington On Currency
Martha Washington On Currency
Martha Washington On Stamp
Martha Washington On Stamp
Martha Washington On Stamp
Martha Washington On Stamp

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Personal Details

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Full Name:
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington 1
Also known as:
Lady Washington. Martha Washington 1
Birth:
02 Jun 1731 1
Chestnut Grove, New Kent County, Colony of Virginia 1
Female 1
Death:
22 May 1802 1
Mount Vernon, Virginia 1
Cause: Natural Causes 1
Burial:
Burial Place: Mount Vernon Estate, Fairfax County, Virginia 1
Residence:
Place: Mount Vernon Estate 1
From: 1759 1
To: 1802 1
Residence:
Place: White House Plantation, New Kent County, VA 1
From: 1750 1
To: 1759 1
Residence:
Place: Chestnut Grove, Virginia 1
From: 1731 1
To: 1750 1
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Birth:
Mother: Frances Jones 1
Father: John Dandridge 1
Marriage:
George Washington 1
January 6, 1759, at the White House plantation 1
White House plantation, Virginia 1
Spouse Death Date: 14 Dec 1799 1
Marriage:
Daniel Parke Custis 1
17 May 1750 1
Spouse Death Date: 08 Jul 1757 1
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Quote:
I've learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not on our 1
Quote:
I live a very dull life here... indeed I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else. 1
Occupation:
Wife Of George Washington 1
Religion:
Episcopalian 1
Race or Ethnicity:
English Welsh 1
Employment:
Employer: United States 1
Position: Lady Washington 1
Place: New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. 1
Start Date: 1789 1
End Date: 1797 1

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Stories

Bio

Even before her husband became the first President of the United States, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was well known to many Americans. Throughout the Revolutionary War, Martha Washington had abandoned the comforts of home to oversee winter camp life for her husband, his officers, and his soldiers. Her visibility and graciousness throughout the conflict led soldiers and citizens alike to refer to her as Lady Washington.

Anxious to enjoy a quiet, private life with her husband at the war's end, Lady Washington was reluctant to take on the public responsibilities demanded of the President's wife. Indeed, when George Washington became President, Martha was particularly frustrated with the protocol and limits her new role demanded. To her great dismay, she had to be coiffed daily and pay greater attention to the dictates of fashion. She was also disturbed that she had to refuse invitations to private gatherings. Martha was not thrilled with her life as a presidential spouse:

I live a very dull life . . . and I know nothing that passes in the town. I never go to any public place . . . indeed, I am more like a state prisoner than anything else. There is [sic] certain boundaries set for me which I must not depart from . . . and as I cannot do as I like, I am obstinate, and stay at home a great deal.

Despite the limitations of her new role and her dissatisfaction with it, Martha was "determined to be cheerful and happy" in whatever situation she found herself. As she put it, "the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions and not upon our circumstances." With that spirit in mind, Lady Washington attended honorary birthday balls feting her husband and would stand in for the ill President at public memorial services. When the capital moved from New York to Philadelphia, Martha frequented the theater, concerts, and private parties, having persuaded her husband to reconsider his earlier position on private gatherings.

Although Lady Washington was an honored guest at numerous functions, she recognized the greater importance of her role as hostess. The manner in which she assumed the duties of that role would affect not only how America was perceived abroad but also the ways in which future First Ladies performed their tasks. Martha personally greeted the public in an open-house reception on New Year's Day and entertained special callers and guests at least twice a week. She made her weekly evening reception, or levee, a formal affair and merely nodded to the announced guests -- both men and women -- who curtsied on their way to a sumptuous buffet supper. By imitating the customs of European royal courts, she hoped to confer legitimacy on the young democracy in the eyes of world leaders. Although Martha seemed to achieve her goal abroad, she was criticized at home by those who disdained royal trappings, and some of this criticism appeared in the press.

Nevertheless, many observers applauded Martha's compassion. Her financial support of the needy earned her the respect and admiration of thousands. She took a particular interest in veterans, often giving them money, interceding on their behalf for pardons, and welcoming them at special receptions. She was less sympathetic to the plight of slaves, however, and her views on slavery remained those of a plantation owner, believing "Blacks" as a race were subordinate, inferior, and ungracious.

Martha Washington was publicly silent on matters of politics. Although she did give one speech during her eight-year tenure, it had no political overtones; she merely thanked the troops who had escorted her to the capital and the crowd that had turned out to welcome her. Nevertheless, she did have an interest in the affairs of the new country. She read the newspaper daily, attended political debates, supported education for girls, and believed that women should retain a degree of independence. She wrote to one young niece that "dependance" was a "wretched state." President Washington's letters to his "amiable consort" contained information on public affairs, suggesting that they might well have discussed political issues when they were together.

While the term "First Lady" had yet to appear, its trappings took shape during that first presidential administration. Martha Washington set the precedents her successors would follow. From her receptions at home to her attendance at civic functions to her public speaking -- however limited -- even to her interest in at least one specific cause, the movements and activities of Martha Washington came to define the responsibilities associated with the role of First Lady. In addition, with her quiet acceptance of a second term, especially when she yearned to return to private life, Martha's sense of self-sacrifice became a model for many presidential wives faced with similar situations. Above all, the lack of privacy, independence, and freedom of speech, as well as the many demands placed upon her as a public figure, would characterize the challenges facing future First Ladies in the years to come.

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington

"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..." So in one of her surviving letters, Martha Washington confided to a niece that she did not entirely enjoy her role as first of First Ladies. She once conceded that "many younger and gayer women would be extremely pleased" in her place; she would "much rather be at home."

But when George Washington took his oath of office in New York City on April 30, 1789, and assumed the new duties of President of the United States, his wife brought to their position a tact and discretion developed over 58 years of life in Tidewater Virginia society.

Oldest daughter of John and Frances Dandridge, she was born June 2, 1731, on a plantation near Williamsburg. Typical for a girl in an 18th-century family, her education was almost negligible except in domestic and social skills, but she learned all the arts of a well-ordered household and how to keep a family contented.

As a girl of 18--about five feet tall, dark-haired, gentle of manner--she married the wealthy Daniel Parke Custis. Two babies died; two were hardly past infancy when her husband died in 1757.

From the day Martha married George Washington in 1759, her great concern was the comfort and happiness of her husband and children. When his career led him to the battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War and finally to the Presidency, she followed him bravely. Her love of private life equaled her husband's; but, as she wrote to her friend Mercy Otis Warren, "I cannot blame him for having acted according to his ideas of duty in obeying the voice of his country." As for herself, "I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances."

At the President's House in temporary capitals, New York and Philadelphia, the Washingtons chose to entertain in formal style, deliberately emphasizing the new republic's wish to be accepted as the equal of the established governments of Europe. Still, Martha's warm hospitality made her guests feel welcome and put strangers at ease. She took little satisfaction in " formal compliments and empty ceremonies" and declared that "I am fond of only what comes from the heart." Abigail Adams, who sat at her right during parties and receptions, praised her as "one of those unassuming characters which create Love and Esteem."

In 1797 the Washingtons said farewell to public life and returned to their beloved Mount Vernon, to live surrounded by kinfolk, friends, and a constant stream of guests eager to pay their respects to the celebrated couple. Martha's daughter Patsy had died, her son Jack at 26, but Jack's children figured in the household. After George Washington died in 1799, Martha assured a final privacy by burning their letters; she died of "severe fever" on May 22, 1802. Both lie buried at Mount Vernon, where Washington himself had planned an unpretentious tomb for them.

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