Martha Washington, America's First First Lady

08 August, 2015

Martha Washington did not want to be the first lady of the United States. In fact, Martha Washington was very opposed to her husband, George Washington, accepting the presidency.

When he was sworn in on April 30, 1789 in New York City, Martha Washington was not at his side. She was at the Washingtons' home in Virginia. They lived on a large estate called Mount Vernon. Mrs. Washington was not in a hurry to go to New York City, the nation's first capital. She said she was too busy packing to come to the inauguration.

After he was sworn in, George Washington called the presidency "an experiment." The same can be said for the position of first lady. One question was what to call Martha Washington. Many people called her "Lady Washington." Others used the name "Presidentess."

Courtesy of George Washington's Mount Vernon
Courtesy of George Washington's Mount Vernon

When Mrs. Washington finally arrived in New York City, she discovered that the president's aides had made all kinds of rules about what she would do – rules she did not like, that took away her private life.

Patricia Brady is a historian who wrote the book "Martha Washington: An American Life."

"For the first year, she pretty much did what they, Washington and Adams and Madison, had kind of worked out what the first – though they didn't call it the first lady then – of what the president's lady's role should be. And she pretty much did what she was asked to do, although she made things much less formal, much less like the, like royalty."

One day a week, Mrs. Washington and Abigail Adams, wife of Vice President John Adams, sat next to each other and received guests. Compared to the fancy European courts, these events were more plain.

Mrs. Washington always dressed beautifully, but not fussily, says Patricia Brady. She wore very little jewelry and simple clothes, but everything was good quality. She liked to wear items made in America.

Ms. Brady says Martha Washington greeted people warmly, using both hands to say hello.

"She had that gift of making people feel warm and involved and part of things. I think she humanized her husband to a great extent."

Ms. Brady says Martha Washington was the right woman for the first president.

"She was self-confident, she knew her position and she knew how to fill it."

Martha Washington before the presidency

Most Americans imagine Martha Washington as a 65-year-old grandmother, overweight and with a very sweet face. That image comes from a famous picture painted of her at that age.

However, Ms. Brady says Mrs. Washington was a beautiful, dark-haired young woman. And unlike many women of her time, Martha Washington learned to read and write, and did so at an early age.

Her literacy helped her when she was widowed at only 26 years old. Her first husband left with her with two surviving children, a large plantation and 300 slaves. She understood business, and she managed the 17,500 acres of land her husband had owned. She also had a high place in Virginia society.

Two years after her first husband's death she married George Washington. Together, they were a wealthy couple with one of the largest houses in America. Historians say they had an equal relationship, and that Mr. Washington valued his wife's opinion.

"Her role was to be with him and talk with him about everything, and I think really where her advice came in was in her judgment of people."

Even though she was only about a meter and a half tall, Martha Washington was said to pull her husband's shirt so she could speak to him eye to eye.

Creating the position of first lady

Journalist Cokie Roberts also wrote about Martha Washington in her book "Ladies of Liberty."

Ms. Roberts says as first lady, Martha Washington was in the spotlight. Especially as a woman, she had to "look good all the time."

"She had to have her hair done. She had to have clothes that were both fittingly regal but also appropriately republican. She had to be very, very careful in everything she did."

Mrs. Washington wrote to her niece that people thought she was the finest lady in the land. But instead, Ms. Roberts says, Martha Washington felt like the chief state prisoner.

"And that is something that I think many first ladies have felt ever since then."

Martha Washington was not involved in making military or political decisions, but she did go to the first Congress and ask for veterans' benefits. She had spent a lot of time with soldiers during the American war for independence from the British. For eight years, Mrs. Washington stayed with her husband and the soldiers in the winter camps. She sewed them socks, nursed them and arranged for them to get food and blankets. The troops said Martha Washington helped raise their morale.

Mrs. Washington's support for her husband and his public service is one of her lasting legacies. She gave up the idea of staying home and being a private person. Instead, she raised her two adopted grandchildren while serving as first lady, a job she understood as her duty to the nation.

Martha Washington and slavery

After George Washington's second term as president, he and Martha returned to Mount Vernon. They continued to host important visitors and remained a topic of great interest to the American people.

In the winter of 1799 George Washington was outside doing some work on the estate and fell ill. He died two days later, on December 14.

In his last hours he approved a will that freed his 123 slaves. But he did not want them to abandon his wife, so he delayed their freedom until after her death. But soon, there were rumors the slaves might kill Mrs. Washington to gain their freedom. Afraid, she freed them herself, a little over a year after he died.

However, she did not free her own slaves upon her death. Historians say Martha Washington was a product of her time. Slavery was common and legal, and not much discussed, says Cokie Roberts.

"I think the one thing you have to keep in mind about women of that era is that there were no rights for them. They, of course, had no political rights, they could not vote. But they also had no legal rights. And so, a married woman was the property of her husband. And many of them actually wrote that they didn't see slavery being all that different from marriage."

In the end, Martha Washington got a piece of the privacy she had wanted. After George Washington died, she burned all the letters they had written to each other. Some of her letters to friends and relatives survive.

Martha Washington died just two and a half years after her husband, on May 22, 1802. She is buried next to George Washington at their Mount Vernon estate. Only four grandchildren survived her. All four of her children from her first marriage had already died. She and George Washington did not have any children together.

Ms. Roberts says Martha Washington was a very brave woman who did her duty to her country until the end of her life.

"Politicians would come to Mount Vernon to be blessed by her so that they could then campaign saying that they had met with Martha Washington."

As the first first lady, Martha Washington led the way for all the ones to come. She helped her husband, and dedicated many years to her country, all while taking care of her family.

I'm Anne Ball.

Anne Ball reported and wrote this story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.


Words in This Story

estate – n. a large piece of land with a large house on it

formal – adj. requiring serious and proper clothes and manner

fancy – adj. not plain or ordinary

fussily – adverb. too fancy and complicated

spotlight –n. to be under public attention or notice

morale –n. the feelings of enthusiasm and loyalty that a group or person has about a job

legacies – n. (plural) something that comes from someone in the past

will –n. a legal document in which a person says who should receive his or her possessions after they die