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Encounters 15, the 1st First Lady

March 5, 2017

Martha resisted her husband’s call. She was happy at home, and thought he had done enough to promote the welfare of the country, but she tried to understand the duty he felt obligated to undertake. On April 30, 1789 George Washington was inaugurated in New York City, realizing that every move he made might establish a precedent for successive presidents. He had borrowed 600 pounds from a neighbor to make the trip and to stay at Frauncey’s Tavern. For the first few weeks of his presidency, Martha remained at home.

The Constitution provided a frame of reference, but the details had to be filled in piece by piece. There were many jobs to be filled, and every man and his brother wanted one. George was overwhelmed with supplicants and visitors, and he missed Martha. The family and servants arrived on May 27, finding the house George obtained, a large three story brick house facing St. George’s Square near the East River “quite acceptable, though the neighborhood seemed noisy and busy.”

The public attention to the family seemed overwhelming, and Martha had to make concessions. She spent more time on dressing and hair than she was used to doing, and more time playing hostess to all the guests and visitors expecting to be entertained. Eventually George had to set limits. To avoid favoritism, they would not attend private gatherings, and they would entertain at dinners on Thursdays. On Friday afternoons, Martha would receive guests without invitations as long as they were “properly attired.”

George began to suffer with fever and pain. Doctors removed a carbuncle on his thigh, and he spent six weeks lying on his side as the large incision continued to drain. Martha was fearful he might die. Many feared without his leadership the weak nation might splinter. Martha seemed to enjoy the company of Abigail Adams, wife of the Vice  President, whose position as second lady of the land was less conducive to scrutiny.

The Washingtons had adopted their grandchildren, Nelly and Wash Custis, ten and eight years old. Martha arranged their education and saw history repeat itself. Nelly was a quick learner, but Wash resisted. (ADD, I wonder?) Both children enjoyed the amusements available in the city. The Washingtons and Adamses took many pleasure jaunts together.

George decided he should visit all the states in the union, and in October set off on a tour of the northern states. With George gone, Martha was bored and lonely. She wrote, “I feel more like a state prisoner than anything else. There is certain bounds set for me which I may not depart from — and I cannot ‘doe’ as I like.” She could not feel her husband’s “sense of indispensable duty.”                                                  – to be contd.





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