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As the wife of George Washington, the first President of the United States, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington is considered to be the first First Lady, but the title was not coined until after her death.
“I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from…” So in one of her surviving letters, Martha Washington confided to a niece that she did not entirely enjoy her role as first of First Ladies. She once conceded that “many younger and gayer women would be extremely pleased” in her place; she would “much rather be at home.”
But when George Washington took his oath of office in New York City on April 30, 1789, and assumed the new duties of President of the United States, his wife brought to their position a tact and discretion developed over 58 years of life in Tidewater Virginia society.
Oldest daughter of John and Frances Dandridge, she was born June 2, 1731, on a plantation near Williamsburg. Typical for a girl in an 18th-century family, her education was almost negligible except in domestic and social skills, but she learned all the arts of a well-ordered household and how to keep a family contented.
As a girl of 18–about five feet tall, dark-haired, gentle of manner–she married the wealthy Daniel Parke Custis. Two babies died; two were hardly past infancy when her husband died in 1757.
From the day Martha married George Washington in 1759, her great concern was the comfort and happiness of her husband and children. When his career led him to the battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War and finally to the Presidency, she followed him bravely. Her love of private life equaled her husband’s; but, as she wrote to her friend Mercy Otis Warren, “I cannot blame him for having acted according to his ideas of duty in obeying the voice of his country.” As for herself, “I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.”
At the President’s House in temporary capitals, New York and Philadelphia, the Washingtons chose to entertain in formal style, deliberately emphasizing the new republic’s wish to be accepted as the equal of the established governments of Europe. Still, Martha’s warm hospitality made her guests feel welcome and put strangers at ease. She took little satisfaction in “formal compliments and empty ceremonies” and declared that “I am fond of only what comes from the heart.” Abigail Adams, who sat at her right during parties and receptions, praised her as “one of those unassuming characters which create Love and Esteem.”
In 1797 the Washingtons said farewell to public life and returned to their beloved Mount Vernon, to live surrounded by kinfolk, friends, and a constant stream of guests eager to pay their respects to the celebrated couple. Martha’s daughter Patsy had died, her son Jack at 26, but Jack’s children figured in the household. After George Washington died in 1799, Martha assured a final privacy by burning their letters; she died of “severe fever” on May 22, 1802. Both lie buried at Mount Vernon, where Washington himself had planned an unpretentious tomb for them.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Martha Dandridge Custis Washington’s spouse, George Washington.