One of the most revealing spaces at Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington’s home in Virginia, is a bare attic bedroom. Martha retreated here after George’s death in 1799. Without him, she would not occupy the elegant bedchamber they had so long shared. Grief made this tough, capable woman give up her will to live. She died, still in that attic retreat, a few years later.
Standing at the threshold of that little room, 10 years ago, I wondered at the strength of Martha’s feeling. I had given little prior thought to Mrs. Washington—her big white mobcaps, her rosy face. I never conceived of her as having a romantic soul. Furthermore, I had supposed George—first commander-in-chief, then president—had little inclination or time to play the private man and husband. But as Martha’s suffering in this attic room suggested, the couple’s bond was unusually strong.
That day at Mount Vernon, I resolved to learn more about the Washingtons’ marriage. The further I got in my research, the richer I found the couple’s story, in which private life intertwines with public duty. The Washingtons’ devotion to each other sustained them through times of crisis for the army and the fledgling republic. Together, in a series of rented residences, with imagination and verve, they created the presidency as an office, and helped to establish the dignity and stability of the new country. When John Adams succeeded as president in 1797, his wife Abigail paid tribute to Martha’s faultless performance as presidential partner. In a sense, all presidents and spouses ever since have been measured against the first president and his wife.
When young George Washington married Martha Parke Custis in 1759, they were still loyal British subjects. George had recently resigned his commission as colonel of a colonial regiment fighting for the Crown against the French in Canada. Martha, though only in her mid-20s, was a wealthy widow. With her riches, the newlyweds could embellish Mount Vernon, a family home that George rented from an elder half-brother’s widow (he inherited the estate after her death). The Washingtons sent to London, with hogsheads of tobacco for sale, invoices for English bedsteads and carriages and china. The Washingtons’ home still seems eminently English, despite very American views of the Potomac from its famous piazza. The layout of the rooms, the wallpapers and the furnishings, the gardens and shrubberies—all resemble those of an 18th-century manor house in the U.K. This is only logical: London, not New York or Philadelphia, remained the “metropolis” for this Virginian couple until war broke out 15 years later.
By that time, Washington was already a vocal opponent of British taxation. “The Crisis is arrivd,” he wrote, “when we must assert our Rights, or Submit to every Imposition that can be heap’d upon us.” Martha was just as patriotic as her husband. She had a very good head for business and resented, like George, the taxes London imposed on Virginians. It gave her, she wrote during the war, “unspeakable pleasure” to hear that Gen¬eral Burgoyne and his troops were prisoners of war. And when shirts were desperately needed for Continental soldiers, she promoted among American ladies a scheme to raise the necessary funds. In a paradigm of the patriot experience, the Washingtons went from British subjects to radicalized American rebels, enduring the privations of eight years of war, to emerge into the freedom and uncertainty of a young republic. Portraits, prints and paintings scattered throughout the house attest to George’s years as commander-in-chief and president. A wealth of material, including The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, detail how the Washingtons’ union sustained them in those years when America’s union with England was dissolving.
When George was about to take command of the Continental Army in the summer of 1775, for example, he worried that Martha would be lonely without him. “I shall feel no pain from the Toil, or the danger of the Campaign,” he wrote to her. “My unhappiness will flow, from the uneasiness I know you will feel at being left alone.” But in fact, it was George, besieging the British in Boston, who missed Martha. That winter he called her to come to him at his headquarters in Cambridge. It became an established pattern. At the close of the campaigning season, every winter of the war, Martha braved bad roads and icy weather to join her husband.
The general’s aides-de-camp marked the improvement in their chief’s mood following her arrival. General Nathanael Greene wrote that George and Martha were “excessive fond.” The Marquis de Lafayette, a French volunteer, heard that Mrs. Washington was madly in love with her husband. And the commander himself, four years into the war at Epiphany 1779, told Ben Franklin’s daughter with satisfaction that he had been married to Mrs. Washington 20 years that day.
Both Washingtons hoped for more private time together after the war. That was not to be. When Washington was elected first president of the United States in 1789, he wrote to an army colleague that “my move¬ments to the chair of Government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” Martha, still at Mount Vernon, wrote to a nephew, “I think it was much too late for him to go into public life again, but it was not to be avoided.” Together, they inhabited rented presidential residences in New York and in Philadelphia. In so doing, they sacrificed all private social life, following the express orders of the Cabinet that the president must not be seen as partisan. Washington, dismayed, inquired if he might attend—“rarely”—tea parties. Martha complained privately to a niece at Mount Vernon: “I never go to any publick place,—indeed I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else.” But at the receptions she and the president hosted, she was a charming and benevolent presence.
Every Tuesday, Washington held a levee for gentlemen, where he was a majestic figure in black velvet, with dress sword and coat. Martha hosted Friday drawing rooms, where ladies as well as gentlemen were welcome, and lemonade and ice creams were served. Additionally, every Thursday the Washingtons hosted a “Congress dinner,” to which individual members of both Houses and their wives were invited. The guests at all these events went away impressed by the benevolence of their host and hostess and the munificence of the food and wine on offer. They knew nothing of the Washingtons’ reluctance to take on the roles of president and presidential partner.
Anti-Federalists criticized the courtly levees, the “queenly” drawing rooms, and especially the keeping of Washington’s birthday in February as “monarchical prettinesses.” But Washington was resolute. Envoys and other officials from European courts must not find the new republic lacking in dignity. Letters home from English diplomats in Philadelphia show that he secured his objective.
When at last George and Martha could retire to Mount Vernon, Martha wrote to a friend, “The curtain is fall¬ing” and she looked forward to a “more tranquil theater.” Of course, when they returned, they found “everything in a deranged [condition] and all the buildings in a decaying state.” But their happiness to be home again and with each other shines out from their correspondence.
No one could have known, when this couple married in 1759, that they would pass through the crucible of war together, let alone endure the rigors of the presidency ahead. Their loyalty to each other, and their commitment to the American cause, put their marriage at the heart of the young country and established a model for future first couples: In a 1935 radio interview, Eleanor Roosevelt paid tribute to Martha as “a pioneer and maker of precedents.” “We can be grateful,” Roosevelt added, “that she took an interest in public affairs and did her duty.” For this, we can still be grateful to both Washingtons today.
Primary editor: Siobhan Phillips. Secondary editor: Jia-Rui Cook.
*Photo courtesy of National Gallery of Art and Bridgeman Images.