Declaration of Independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Martha Custis Washington

                    Martha Custis Washington was the kind of wife that a great man like George Washington needed and deserved.  Martha was the very first woman to serve as First Lady.  She was so well loved and respected that many people called her Lady Washington, but George used her childhood name of Patsy.

                    Lady Washington was born Martha Dandridge on June 2, 1731, on her parents' plantation, Chestnut Grove, near Williamsburg, Virginia.  Her parents were John Dandridge (1700-1756) and Frances Jones (1710-1785).  Her father emigrated from England and became a wealthy land owner and planter.  Her mother was of English and Welsh descent.  Martha was the oldest of eight children and had three brothers and four sisters. 

                    Martha married Daniel Parke Custis on May 15, 1750, when she was 18 years old.  Daniel was a rich planter who was much older than Martha - somewhere between 13 and 20 years.  They lived at the White House Plantation located a few miles up the Pamunkey River from her parents' plantation.  Martha and Daniel had four children:  Daniel (1751-1754), Frances (1753-1757), John (Jacky) Parke Custis (1754-1781), and Martha ("Patsy") Parke Custis (1756-1773).  Daniel and Frances died in childhood while Jacky and Patsy survived to young adulthood.  Martha was left a rich, young widow when her husband passed away in 1757; he left her with independent control over a dower inheritance for her lifetime and trustee control over the inheritance of her minor children.

                    There is apparently no record as to when Martha met George Washington.  They might have known each other while Martha was married to Daniel, and they might have met at a neighbor's house in Williamsburg in early 1758.  George was a colonel in the militia at the time and must have been very dashing.  He visited Martha at the White House Plantation twice in March 1758 and came away from the second visit with either an engagement to marry or a promise that she would think about it.  She apparently was also being courted by another wealthy planter named Charles Carter.

                    The wedding of George and Martha took place on January 6, 1759, and was apparently a "grand affair" as she wore "purple silk shoes with spangled buckles" and he was attired in "a suit of blue and silver with red trimming and gold knee buckles".  They honeymooned at the White House Plantation before beginning their life together at the Mount Vernon estate of Washington.  From all reports, their marriage was a solid match with no sign of problems or infidelity.

                    Martha and George had no children together, but they reared Martha's two surviving children.  Patsy died as a teenager from an epileptic seizure, and Jacky came home from college to comfort his mother.  Jacky was an aide to Washington during the 1781 siege of Yorktown and died during his military service - probably from typhus.  After Jacky's death, Martha and George took two of his children - Eleanor Parke Custis (March 31, 1779 - July 15, 1852) and George Washington Parke Custis (April 30, 1781 - October 10, 1857) into their home to rear.  George and Martha apparently provided personal and financial support to other family members in both the Dandridge and Washington families.

                    George and Martha enjoyed being home and living a private life at either Mount Vernon or one of the homes of the Custis estate.  It was at great sacrifice of personal feelings that George was gone from home so long to fight the Revolutionary War.  Each winter when the army went to its winter encampment, George sent for Martha, and she came in spite of the fact that she really enjoyed being around her large and extended family.  Martha was about five feet tall and had never been away from Virginia until her husband became the commander-in-chief of the army.  She traveled thousands of miles to be with him each winter, traveling to military encampments in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York.

                    After the Continental Army marched into Valley Forge for their third winter encampment on December 19, 1777, Martha left Mount Vernon on January 26, 1778, and spent ten days traveling hundreds of miles in order to be with her husband in Pennsylvania.  While she was at Valley Forge, she helped to maintain a higher level of morale among the officers and enlisted troops.

                    Martha's main role in the encampment was to care for her husband and give him her "soothing gentle hand."  She served as hostess at the camp and socialized with the wives of other senior officers.  The officers and their ladies would gather at each other's quarters in the evening for conversation and singing as General Washington prohibited dancing and card-playing at Valley Forge.  Martha organized a women's sewing circle and mended clothing for the troops.

                    Martha was still at Valley Forge on May 6, 1778, to celebrate the formal announcement of an American alliance with France.  The General and his lady began the day at Sunday services with the New Jersey brigade.  After the sermon there was a thunderous feu de joie when thousands of soldiers fired their muskets consecutively to show their joy.

                    On May 11, Martha and George attended a camp production of Cato, one of the General's favorite theatricals.  Staff officers performed the Joseph Addison tragedy for a "splendid audience" of officers and their wives. 

                    Martha celebrated her forty-seventh birthday on June 2, and then six days later she packed up her carriage and returned to Mount Vernon, hoping that this was the last time that she would spend a winter in an army encampment.  It was not to be, and she made five more winter trips to join her husband.

                    Martha was so opposed to George being elected President of the newly-formed United States that she refused to attend his inauguration on April 30, 1789.  She did however act as First Lady and hosted many affairs of state in New York and then in Philadelphia when the capital moved.  (Washington, D.C. did not become the capital until 1800 during the John Adams Administration.)  Martha did not enjoy being the First Lady and felt like a "state prisoner."  She was called Lady Washington, but she dressed so plainly that people often thought she was the maid.

                    After President Washington passed away in 1799, Martha continued to live at Mount Vernon.  A short time before her death on May 22, 1802, she burned all of Washington's letters to her.  She was buried by the side of her husband at Mount Vernon.  All of the Washington slaves were freed between the time that George passed away and the day of Martha's death.

                    Facts for this article are from Wikipedia and Kathryn Kish Sklar in World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 21, p 109.

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