Martha Washington’s World


by Burt Froom*

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In a previous article, we began to listen to the voices of Market Square, the soul of Germantown, Market Square has always been a crossroads, and among its visitors and residents were the First President of the United States, George Washington and his wife Martha. They lived in the Deshler-Morris House, during the summer of 1794, partly to escape the yellow fever epidemic. In historic Germantown, George and Martha Washington’s lifestyle represented a seemingly contradictory mixture of the freedom they helped us achieve in the War of Independence and the plantation culture of Virginia based on slavery. Today, let us meet Martha Washington and seek to understand her and her world.

 

MARTHA WASHINGTON’S EARLY TRAINING

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was the oldest child of Frances Jones and John Dandridge, who were members of the local gentry of New Kent County, Virginia. Her father served as Clerk of Courts. Martha and her seven siblings were educated at home by a tutor. It was quite unusual that Martha was presented to society in Williamsburg, at the young age of fifteen.

 

The female members of such a family were responsible for performing all household tasks, including cleaning house, washing clothes, planting a vegetable garden, preparing meals, and caring for the children. The mistress of the manor had responsibility for clothing the entire family. In Martha’s day, most colonists spun their own thread, wove their own cloth, and sewed their own garments. Only the wealthiest families imported cloth from England. However, Martha’s task was to learn the fine points of etiquette, dancing, the art of horseback riding, and how to conduct herself in public and to deport herself with men.
HER MARRIAGE TO DANIEL PARKE CUSTIS

Tradition says that Martha met her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, at their local Anglican Church. Custis was the son of one the richest men in Virginia, John Custis IV, who owned land, slaves, and sat on the governor’s council. The elder Custis was also known as arbitrary, capricious, and ill-tempered. Martha possessed her own unique combination of talents. She was only five feet tall, strong and had an attractive, lively personality. She was also dutiful, charming yet sincere, warm yet socially adept.

Daniel Parke Custis began courting Martha Dandridge when he was in his late thirties. Her dowry was small compared to those of truly wealthy families. But Martha captured Daniel’s fancy. Though only nineteen, Martha arranged a meeting with John Custis, who had initially opposed the marriage and threatened to disinherit his son Daniel. Martha made her case. Her future father-in-law concluded that Martha was beautiful and sweet tempered, and gave his consent for the marriage.

After their wedding in May, 1750, Martha moved into Daniel’s plantation, in New Kent County, Virginia. His father, the family patriarch, had died, and Daniel was now one of the most affluent men in Virginia. Martha had now ascended to the highest level of Virginia society. Daniel Custis was an exporter of tobacco. His wealth consisted of almost three-hundred slaves and over seventeen-thousand acres of land. Martha was the mistress of her own household. In this world, women were expected to be the purveyor of sociability. Martha presided over formal dinners, entertained guests, and hosted fancy balls. These occasions facilitated the ties between Virginia’s ruling families. Martha also stepped into the role of mistress of the household slaves, including the people who acted as butlers, maids and nannies, those who cooked, cleaned, washed, ironed and sewed.

TRAGEDIES TO ABSORB

Martha’s first son and daughter died in childhood. Martha gave birth to two more children, who became the center of her life: John Parke Custis (called “Jacky”), born in 1754, and Martha Parke Custis (“Patsy”), born in 1756. The children’s great-grandfather had imposed a strict condition on inheritances in the family: only children bearing the name “Parke” as part of their given name would inherit a portion of the family estates. But tragedy struck again. Martha’s husband Daniel Parke Custis suddenly became ill and died in 1757. Now, Martha Dandridge Custis was left alone in the world with two small children to raise.

Their seven-year marriage was happy, by all accounts. Martha’s husband had died intestate, that is, he had not made a will. His widow became the executor of his estate, responsible for paying his debts, and managing all the business affairs of the estate. Ordinarily in that society, a married woman could not own property, sue in court or make contracts. Widows however, were allowed to perform all these functions. Her future was secure because under English common law in Virginia, Martha was guaranteed one-third of her husband’s enormous estate for her use during her lifetime.

Rather than give in to despair, Martha immediately began to take control of her circumstances. She had the tobacco crop harvested, cured, packed and shipped to market on time. And she tended to the needs and education of her children. As a youthful widow from an apparently successful marriage, Martha Custis may have been interested in seeking the companionship of another marriage.
MARTHA’S MARRIAGE TO GEORGE WASHINGTON

George Washington grew up in a modestly prosperous family on a plantation near Frederick, Virginia. Unlike many Virginia gentlemen, Washington was not sent to college. Instead, he was trained to be a surveyor. But he wanted more. He fought alongside British forces in the French and Indian War, gaining a reputation for fairness, bravery and personal courage. During an interlude in the fighting, Washington journeyed to Williamsburg where heard the news about the Custis widow. Washington traveled to her home to meet Martha Dandridge Custis. On March 16, 1758, he left very generous tips for Martha’s household slaves. He made another visit on March 25, before returning to his military post.

Within months of meeting, both George and Martha began to plan a future together. Their attraction was said to be mutual, powerful, and immediate. Martha was eight months older than George, charming, attractive, and prosperous. Washington was an imposing six-feet, two-inches – more than a foot taller than Martha.

On January 6, 1759, less than ten months after their initial meeting, Martha married George Washington. The attraction between George and Martha was said to have deepened over time and developed into an abiding affection, admiration and respect. By all accounts, George was a thoughtful and loyal husband, who enjoyed his wife’s company, respected her opinion and sought to please her. Their household at Mount Vernon included the twelve household slaves that Martha brought from her Custis family. They were considered to be members of the Washingtons’ domestic “family.”

View of Mount Vernon with the Washington Family, watercolor by the Greek Revival architect, Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820). Latrobe was a native of England, who traveled in Europe and immigrated to America in 1795. He was called the “Father of American Architecture” and was hired by President Jefferson as the second Architect of the U.S. Capitol. Notice the Washington family and the artist on the east porch.

View of Mount Vernon with the Washington Family, watercolor by the Greek Revival architect, Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820). Latrobe was a native of England, who traveled in Europe and immigrated to America in 1795. He was called the “Father of American Architecture” and was hired by President Jefferson as the second Architect of the U.S. Capitol. Notice the Washington family and the artist on the east porch.

Martha adored her living children. Neither child lived the long happy life that their parents had hoped for. At age twelve, Patsy had begun to experience violent seizures characteristic of epilepsy, and she died at age seventeen. Jacky was always an indifferent student. He became secretly engaged to Eleanor Calvert, of the Maryland proprietary family. In 1781, at age twenty-six, Jacky contracted a violent illness (“camp fever” or typhoid) and died during the siege of Yorktown. These were further tragedies for Martha.

 

MISTRESS OF MOUNT VERNON

Martha supervised the Mount Vernon household by touring the main house, kitchen, storeroom, poultry yard, smoke house and garden daily. She managed the household slaves from the Custis estate. She assigned chores to slaves and servants, including spinning thread and weaving the coarse fabric used for the clothing the slaves wore. She ensured that tasks were completed on time and chose the daily menu. Her favorite household activity was needlework. Martha was known as an accomplished hostess at Mount Vernon. Very often guests showed up for dinner or an overnight stay unannounced. She was expected to be gracious and charming always.

The Washington Family by Edward Savage (1761-1817), painted 1789-1796 in The National Gallery of Art.  The life size canvass is 7 feet x 9 feet, 4 inches, Savage was a native of Princeton, Mass, a self taught portrait painter and engraver who studied Benjamin West in England.  He visited London and studied under Benjamin West.  The painting is based on life studies done early in the Washington presidency. Notice the enslaved servant in livery on the right, who is thought to be either Christopher Sheels or William Lee,

The Washington Family by Edward Savage (1761-1817), painted 1789-1796 in The National Gallery of Art. The life size canvass is 7 feet x 9 feet, 4 inches, Savage was a native of Princeton, Mass, a self taught portrait painter and engraver who studied Benjamin West in England. He visited London and studied under Benjamin West. The painting is based on life studies done early in the Washington presidency. Notice the enslaved servant in livery on the right, who is thought to be either Christopher Sheels or William Lee.

As conflict between Great Britain and her American colonies approached, George Washington became more involved with military affairs. George asked Martha to join him at the encampment of the Continental Army each year. She assumed a new public role, as a fundraiser for clothing for the army. The death of Jacky left his four young grandchildren at home. After their mother remarried in 1783, the two youngest grandchildren, Eleanor Parke (“Nelly”) Custis, then six, and George Washington Parke (“Wash” or “Tub”) Custis. remained with their grandmother at Mount Vernon, where Martha raised them as her own.

 

A CULTURE OF SLAVE LABOR

Slave labor was extremely important in the Virginia society of Martha Washington. George Washington became a slave owner at age eleven when his father willed to him a 280 acre farm and ten slaves. Later, after their marriage, he took over the task of managing all fifty slaves he brought to his marriage with Martha, and her dower slaves that she inherited from her first husband, and the slaves of the Custis children. Washington was legally not allowed to sell or manumit (free) Martha Custis’ slaves.

 

A dozen or so enslaved African persons worked in Mount Vernon. They performed all the household chores. Slaves were considered by white people as members of the “family,” but they could be sold at any time or exiled to less desirable jobs, or punished at Martha’s command. Both George and Martha believed that slaves should not be punished without sufficient cause, and then only in proportion to the misdeed. However, neither George nor Martha was willing to free their slaves during their lifetime. George Washington’s will provided for the freedom of his 160 slaves, but only after Martha had died. On Martha’s death, the dower slaves (slaves who were owned by the estate of a deceased person, but under the legal control of descendants) were dispersed among her grandchildren

 

Martha’s attitudes toward slavery reflected those of other women of her social class. Her attitudes were ambiguous She had an unquestioned belief in white superiority. She was quite dependent on slave labor for her daily existence but she considered her slaves as a group to be like children, lazy, ungovernable and contemptible persons. Unlike her husband, Martha never came to doubt the morality of the institution that made her position as a plantation mistress possible.

Martha and George Washington had their portraits painted by the celebrated artist Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) when they and he lived in Germantown. This   picture was found in his studio after his death. Here, Martha is a stout sixty-five-year old, with a twinkle in her eyes and a faint grin.  Stuart completed her face, but the rest is barely sketched in -- to be completed for future clients.

Martha and George Washington had their portraits painted by the celebrated artist Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) when they and he lived in Germantown. This
picture was found in his studio after his death. Here, Martha is a stout sixty-five-year old, with a twinkle in her eyes and a faint grin. Stuart completed her face, but the rest is barely sketched in — to be completed for future clients.

In retirement at Mount Vernon, Martha was often sick, but she gave her energy to the constant guests requiring food, entertainment and lodging. She was a devout Anglican and prayed daily. She loved her role as grandmother and hoped to spend many years at Mount Vernon with her husband as a private citizen. But on December 14, 1799, George Washington died quite suddenly after contracting a virulent throat infection. At age sixty-eight, Martha was a grieving widow once again, and the recipient of a nation’s condolences. George’s will declared that one-hundred slaves that he owned outright would gain their freedom after Martha’s death. Hearing the news, these slaves became restive and there were rumors that slaves set a suspicious fire at Mount Vernon. Fearing for her life, Martha decided to set her husband’s slaves free immediately, on January 1, 1801.

Martha Washington died on May 22, 1802. George had left Mount Vernon and much of his land to his nephew, Bushrod Washington. To his mischievous step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857), he gave a 1,200 acre estate in northern Virginia. Here, Wash built his Greek Revival mansion, begun in 1803, which he called Arlington. Later, this was the site of Arlington National Cemetery. In 1831, Wash’s only daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, who was Martha Washington’s great granddaughter, married the future Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and they lived in the Arlington mansion until the Civil War.

I want to thank Jaime Kehler for his generous assistance.  In my next essay, The Washingtons’ Household Servants in Market Square, we will become better acquainted with the Washingtons and their servants, as they were in 1793.

*This essay was mistakenly attributed to Susan Bockius and has been corrected to reflect Burt Froom as the author.

Bibliography

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