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Encounters 20, A Final Assessment

Her face does not appear on any dollar bill, nor does her name grace any city or town, but no first lady can replace Martha Washington as the 1st First Lady. As reluctant as she was to enter the public domain, she carried the burden as well as anyone possibly could, not on the coat tails of her husband, but as an intelligent caring helpmate. How could any man or president want a better partner?

Was it love at first sight? Probably for her, but too much is made of fancy. (see 10) While still a teen, Patsy Dandridge met and married the older Daniel Custis and bore four children, witnessing the deaths of two  infants. When Daniel died after seven years of a happy marriage, she took the domestic reins in her capable hands, managing the estate she and her remaining children inherited. A wealthy widow, she had many suitors and was expected to choose one

George was infatuated with a lady, Sally Fairfax, married to a neighbor and friend. Sally enjoyed the flirtation and encouraged it, but they both knew the relationship could go nowhere without alienating society. Probably he realized it was time to grow up and give up Sally.

He met and courted the pretty wealthy widow. She had all the characteristics a man needed to be happy in a marriage, and he was smart enough to encourage her as a full partner…none of this 18th century “women are less” garbage. Fully appreciated, she followed him to the ends of the earth; Philadelphia, New York, and New England, keeping him warm, well-fed, and happy.

Circumstances! Like a cheerleader, she appreciated his capabilities. A revolution, a new government and a presidency, her husband was needed in the games. She knew she was essential to his well-being. Her contributions to history are intricately tied to his accomplishments. Yet, she brought her own dignity and charm to her role as wife of the President of the United States.

Martha Washington, the first of 45 first ladies, each woman whether daughter, sister, or wife contributed to the first man. How important these women are!

I am indebted to biographer Paricia Brady, and her book Martha Washington, An American Life and to Wikipedia for the information in these blogs.

I hope what has interested me has interested you.     Please stay tuned for new topics.

Encounters 19, The Widow Washington

In late November, 1799, Nelly gave birth to a daughter, Frances Parke Lewis, at Mount Vernon, all the women gathered around her as was the custom… like cheerleaders at a game. Birthing was no game, but I’m sure the support was welcomed. The birth was difficult, and Nelly was ordered to stay in bed until she was fully recovered. Meanwhile, probably feeling useless, her husband and brother rode off to look after some property they planned to expand.

The winter was exceptionally cold and wet, but George rode around the plantation every day. On December 12 he returned from his ride wet and shivering, but he did not change his damp clothes before dinner. A cold the next day did not deter him from going out again, and in the middle of the night he experienced difficulty breathing. The next morning Martha called for a doctor, soon joined by two others. They fired all their weapons; bleeding, purging, blistering, vomiting, and leeches. To no avail, for the infection gradually closed the windpipe. Martha sat beside him. On December 14th he stopped breathing. Martha was too filled with grief to cry.

Family members gathered at Mount Vernon. Two hundred soldiers from the Virginia militia came from Alexandria, accompanied by a military band. Neighbors and friends arrived in carriages and on horseback. Martha did not take part in the farewell to her husband: she was desolate and inconsolable.

The nation mourned. Church bells tolled. A memorial service was held in Philadelphia, attended by 4,000 people. There “Lighthorse” Harry Lee delivered the eulogy, claiming “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Eventually the guests left, the correspondence was answered and still more arrived. The will was read. George had provided for his widow and bestowed the estate throughout the family. He had freed 123 slaves, and Martha freed those she could. They both had come to realize slavery was a huge problem in the country.

Martha’s light had been extinguished, but she carried on. In May 1802 she became ill with a “stomach upset” called “bilious fever,” and shortly before her 71st birthday, she passed away. “Fortitude and resignation were displayed throughout her illness,” and “she met her death as a relief from the infirmities and melancholy of old age,”said Nelly’s husband, Thomas Law. She was placed in the family tomb at the side of her husband, “a worthy partner to one of the worthiest of men.”

Stay tuned for the conclusion to An Encounter with Martha Washington, the 1sr First Lady.


Encounters 18, Retirement

“Gentlemen may cry ‘peace, peace’– but where is peace when one has a strong sense of duty, and many tasks left undone? George and Martha Washington returned to their home greatly worn by the cares of government and the stress of politics. Martha was doubly worn from the attacks on her “old man,” taking insults internally, doubling them, and not able to forget them. She felt helpless and hopeless. Home promised healing.

Mount Vernon had suffered in their absence. They found the property  “deranged and all the buildings in a decaying state,” wrote Martha. George oversaw construction and repair, planted gardens, and oversaw fields, sometimes complaining but enjoying the activity.

Martha reorganized the housekeeping, hiring an assistant to help. She appointed grand-daughter and adopted daughter Nelly, now 18, as housekeeper and hostess. Nelly enjoyed the work, but spent time with her sisters and friends, leaving the care of feeding and entertaining nieces and friends to Martha.

George subscribed to many newspapers, and his office on the third floor contained shelves of books, even light-hearted poetry and romance novels. Martha made good use of the collection, keeping informed of news and gossip. She read the Bible daily. Reading made her an interesting conversationalist. Her first hand experiences in government added a dimension to her repertoire. Visitors never ceased to comment favorably on her knowledge.

Relatives added zest to their lives. Although they each had large numbers of brothers and sisters, all had died before them, but some left children and grand-children in the family tree. George had been the first of his father’s second wife, Mary Ball Washington, who had given him five younger siblings. We had noticed his older brother Lawrence had died of consumption much earlier, but had been a positive influence on the young George. Martha was the oldest of eight children. In 1785 her remaining brother, Bartholomew, died. So it could not have been unexpected that someone  from her Dandridge line would marry into the Washington side of the union.

The wedding of Martha’s grand-daughter Nelly  Custis, who had been their adopted daughter, to Lawrence Lewis took place at Mount Vernon on Washington’s 67th birthday. Lawrence Lewis, a childless widower twelve years older than Nelly and the son of George’s sister Betty, had been invited to Mount Vernon to serve as deputy host. Love blossomed. In a candlelit ceremony, George gave away Nelly, dressed in his old Revolutionary War uniform. He gave the couple 2,000 acres of farmland nearby where they could construct a home. Perched on a hill, their home would view Mt. Vernon.

The couple did not want to leave Mount Vernon just then. Soon Nelly became pregnant, and she wanted to remain with Martha and George for the next event.            to be contd.






Encounters 17, A Second Term

“Enough! Enough, already,” Martha must have said to George when he was asked to serve a second term. But despite her entreaties, her husband never could resist a duty call

The government bent in two political branches, Federalists and Republicans.The Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 and the Citizen Genet Affair were two of the controversies in which a firm hand was required, but the decisions were bound to alienate some people.

Could government allow whiskey makers to refuse to pay taxes? Could the government wage war on American citizens who defied the authority of government? Washington raised a large army – large enough to frighten the opposition with its numbers. No blood was shed as the opposition retreated n haste. No, Washington did not know he was talking softly, but carrying a big stick. That was another president.

Could the government permit a Frenchman to recruit Americans for the French army? Jefferson argued Americans had made a treaty with France, our ally in the revolution. Hamilton countered that we had the treaty with the king of France, who had been guillotined by radicals, and we could not afford a war. Washington was skeptical about the endurance of the French Republic, but he had no desire to support the British either. Genet’s recall was demanded, but Citizen Genet had no desire to return to France. He stayed in New York and married one of former Governor Clinton’s daughters. Both the French and the British continued to seize American sailors and kidnap able bodied men.

Meanwhile a deadly yellow fever epidemic struck Philadelphia. The death toll mounted, and people who could get away left the city. Congress moved to Germantown, a village nearby. An icy winter froze the Delaware River (“noe vessel could pass,” wrote Mrs. W.) and the freezing temperatures stopped the epidemic.

When George took a quick trip home, his horse stumbled, and he wrenched his back. Back in Germantown, Martha believed it was the presidency that was killing her husband, for he was a capable horseman. The first term had aged them both, and the second nearly finished the job.

Newspapers cropped up to support Jefferson and Madison, anti-federalist and pro-Republican. Innuendo, accusation, and the publication of forged letters sullied the hands of Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, publisher of the Aurora. The Washingtons could not have imagined the lengths that a free press could go. Martha’s anger and pain on her husband’s behalf could not be contained. He was her hero as well as the nation’s.

The weather in Philadelphia the winter of their second term’s last year was ferocious. It was possible to walk across the Delaware River on the ice. They remained in Philadelphia for the inauguration of John Adams on March 4, 1797, and then departed for Mount Vernon as if it were the promised land.

There would be no third term. Period.                                                       to be contd.






Encounters 16, The Reluctant Lady

Washington delivered his first State of the Union address to Congress on January 4, 1790. The problems of government had already begun. A plan to pay the national debt, favored by Washington and Hamilton was defeated by supporters of Madison and Jefferson. By April the debate over where to put the new capitol festered. Would it be New York City or Philadelphia? Washington favored a new city, somewhere in the south, and so did Jefferson. George believed Americans could work together, making compromises and adjustments, and he worked diligently to prove it was so.

Martha feared the price her husband might pay to achieve harmony. In their late fifties, the Washingtons were considered elderly. Their hair was white and thinning, hearing fading, sight dimming, and teeth decaying. On May 15, doctors feared George was dying. He had developed pneumonia, burned with fever, and was delirious. Many thought the future of the nation depended on him, and they despaired. When the fever passed, Jefferson wrote, “From total despair we are now in good hopes of him.”

For several weeks he remained an invalid, but was disturbed by the tensions of governing. He brought Jefferson and Hamilton together and they forged a compromise. Hamilton would pay the national debt, and Jefferson would get the new capitol in an area in the south that Washington would select in Northern Virginia. The government would move south in 1800. Meanwhile the government would move back to Philadelphia, where George and Martha rented a large house before going home to Mount Vernon.

There Martha was surrounded by family and friends, loving every busy minute. A visitor wrote, “Hospitality seems to have spread over the whole place its happiest, kindest influence.”Martha convinced George she should be free to accept invitations and entertain her friends when they returned to Philadelphia. “Forget favoritism,” she must have said.

Their house on the wide Market Street had been enlarged; there was a garden with large trees, a coach house and stables. Philadelphia had become more elegant with some paved streets and oil lamps. St Peter’s Church was nearby, but political sides were growing, alarming the president.

Pennsylvania’s laws required adult slaves to be freed after a residence of six months. If the Custis slaves were freed, the Washingtons would be required to reimburse the estate their value, a huge financial consequence. George sent three adult slaves back to Mount Vernon, and later freed all his slaves, but Martha was not able to do so. When one of her personal slaves ran away, Martha was dismayed, believing she had treated the girl like a daughter. Martha could not believe freedom was more important than family. What could she tell the girl’s distraught mother back at Mt. Vernon? We can’t imagine!

to be contd.

Encounters 15, the 1st First Lady

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.




Encounters 13, Weary Years

Yorktown — the last major battle. The French fleet had arrived, and both American and French troops mounted the attack on Yorktown, where Cornwallis and his 8,000 soldiers were trapped without supplies. They surrendered.

Sometime during the siege Jack Custis contracted a camp fever, probably typhus. Martha and Nelly rushed to be with him, but Jack died three weeks before his 27th birthday. He was a loving son and husband, and a proud father of four children.  Martha had outlived all four of her children, suffering a horrible loss.

Washington returned to Philadelphia to report to Congress, and Martha accompanied him. Congress approved keeping the army together, for the British still occupied New York and Charleston.Washington made headquarters in Newburgh, New York in a comfortable Dutch farmhouse with a beautiful view of the Hudson River. That summer Martha went home to Mount Vernon to assuage her grief by looking after Nelly and the grandchildren.

During 1782 and 1783 negotiations for peace dragged on in Paris. Washington could not abandon his post until a treaty had been signed. The French troops went home, and nearly all the aides resigned to attend to their own affairs, but Martha returned to Newburgh in the frost and snow of winter to accompany her husband in this stressful time of waiting.

In the summer of 1784 Congress moved from Philadelphia to Princeton to avoid the unpaid troops that were marching in the streets. Washington was summoned, but Martha was ill, and he waited until she was well enough to travel. In early October she returned to Mount Vernon to prepare for their homecoming before the weather got too bad.

Congress adjourned in November, but reconvened in Annapolis. At long last the treaty had arrived, and Washington returned to New York City which the British had left a shambles after seven years of occupation. There he dismissed his remaining army, and then traveled to Annapolis to surrender his commission. Anticipating a retirement at Mount Vernon, he wended his way homeward like an ordinary pilgrim.

to be contd.