Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia
December 14, 1799, at Mount Vernon, Virginia
Martha Washington served as first lady throughout George Washington’s presidency in the years 1789-1797. She was 57—a grandmother—when she became first lady.
Martha’s fame may well be distinguished simply for having been America’s very first first lady. As such, many think of her as a founding mother just as Americans today continue to think of Washington himself as “Father of Our Country.”
Even before Washington became president, Martha was well known among our young country’s citizens. As a devoted wife, Martha followed her husband from camp to camp during the American Revolution like many other soldiers’ wives. Her generosity in nursing soldiers, mending uniforms, managing life in the camps, and organizing other relief efforts led many to call her “Lady Washington.”
Though Martha was initially unhappy with the limitations placed upon her personal life as first lady, she is well remembered for overseeing an efficient household and serving as a gracious hostess. Like her husband she recognized the important precedence of their positions and the need to act not as entitled royalty, though some European customs—such as bowing and curtseying—continued. As first lady, Martha interacted formally with the public and hosted an open house in which she greeted citizens each New Year’s Day. She endeavored to meet with callers and guests at least twice a week and was well admired for her efforts in assisting veterans. Her friend Abigail Adams remarked about Martha’s demeanor, “A most becoming pleasantness sits upon her countenance . . . [She is] the object of veneration and respect.”
Washington took the oath of office in New York City, and he and Martha lived and worked there until they moved with the government to the nation’s second temporary capital, Philadelphia. Though Washington helped determine the site of the White House, construction was not completed during his presidency and the Washingtons never lived there. Following Washington’s second term as president, the couple returned permanently to their estate in Virginia located about 16 miles south of Washington, D.C.
In a letter to her niece, Martha bemoaned her early days as a presidential spouse: “I live a very dull life . . . and I know nothing that passes in the town. I never go to any public place . . . indeed, I am more like a state prisoner than anything else.”
Martha later embraced her role as first lady and noted, “I have learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.”