Life & Contributions
Martha Dandridge Custis may have assumed that her life following her marriage to George Washington in 1759 would go on as it had before. She had been born into a planter family in Tidewater Virginia, raised to manage a household, and married at age 18 to a Virginia planter named Daniel Parke Custis. They had four children. Two died in infancy and two were still little when, in 1757, Daniel Custis died. Two years later, Martha married George Washington, a former colonel of the Virginia regiment who had recently been elected to the House of Burgesses. They moved to his family’s farm on the Potomac River, Mount Vernon. Martha’s role, she thought, would be to create a comfortable home for her husband and children.
George Washington was not yet famous, but the revolutionary era called forth service to country. Commissioned as commanding general of the Continental Army in 1775, Washington left Mount Vernon and would not return for six years. Martha traveled to be with her husband in winter encampments, where she acted as hostess to officers and their wives and attended to sick and wounded soldiers. After the war, she hoped she and her husband could “grow old in solitude and tranquility together,”1Martha Washington to Mercy Otis Warren, December 26, 1789, Martha Washington website, item 25, http://marthawashington.us./items/show/25 (accessed March 22, 2020).[ii] Ibid. but it was not to be. In 1789, when Washington was inaugurated the new nation’s first president, Martha traveled to New York to manage the first President’s House.
As “Lady Washington” (the term “first lady” had not yet been invented) she understood that she would set precedents and influence the way the nation was perceived abroad. She assumed her formal public role with tact and discretion. She held weekly evening receptions, entertained callers at least twice a week, and personally greeted the public at New Year’s Day receptions. Her warm hospitality made guests feel welcome. On matters of politics she was silent, though she attended political debates and read newspapers daily.
Martha Washington is remembered in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms as a gracious hostess who sacrificed private comfort for public duty when, as she confessed to a friend, she would “much rather be at home.”2Ibid.
Portrait of Martha Washington (after Gilbert Stuart, 1796)
Portrait of George Washington (after Gilbert Stuart's Athenaeum portrait)
Chinese Export Porcelain Trembleuse Saucer from Martha Washington's States Service
Portrait of George Washington
East Facade of Mount Vernon
Chinese Export Porcelain Part Tea and Coffee Service Depicting George Washington's Mount Vernon
A West View of Mount Vernon
Chinese Export Porcelain Teabowl and Saucer Depicting George Washington's Mount Vernon
Marble Portrait Bust of George Washington
Seven-Piece Chinese Export Porcelain Part Tea and Coffee Service Depicting George Washington's Mount Vernon