Martha Dandridge Custis Washington set the bar high for other American First Ladies to follow. She was an educated woman, skilled business manager, a clever hostess, and the only woman to grace the primary portrait spot on U.S. paper currency. To say George Washington met his match would be an understatement of historic proportion.
Martha was born June 2, 1731, in New Kent County, Virginia, to a wealthy and prominent family – members of the planter class. Raised to be a complimentary marriage partner, Martha was taught to read, write, and keep up on customs of the times and etiquette required to be comfortable in colonial society. Unbeknownst to Martha at the time, she would become the most famous woman in a new nation and serve as the role model for all who followed.
Diminutive in stature, her contemporaries had described Martha as engaging and physically attractive. She caught the eye of a neighboring planter, Daniel Parke Custis, and on May 15, 1750, they married and had four children together. Sadly, Martha would outlive all of her children and her two beloved husbands.
Custis died after seven years of marriage. Custis passed away at the age of 45, leaving Martha the wealthiest woman in Virginia, owning the 17,500-acre plantation called The White House – long before the presidential residence came into being. As Virginia was still under English rule, widow status was in her favor and allowed her actually to own property. But she wasn’t just the legal owner; she was also a masterful manager of the entire enterprise. Martha Custis managed the estate and business interests, regularly communicating with England about the plantation’s business matters. And from all accounts, she took no guff from the men with whom she did business.
Martha Dandridge Custis would not be single for long. In the spring of 1758, several men tried to court the young widow – including George Washington. In March of 1758, George visited Martha twice. They shared several acquaintances and, more likely than not, knew each other while Martha was married to Custis. George and Martha married at her estate on January 6, 1759, and then moved to Mount Vernon.
When the Revolutionary War called for her husband to lead the rebellion, Martha was known to travel long distances – when travel was not only difficult but increasingly dangerous. Martha visited her husband’s encampments in Cambridge, Valley Forge, Philadelphia, and Morristown to support her husband and the soldiers. Her bravery, compassion, and personality were often noted in memoirs of soldiers she met near the front line. Of course, Martha followed her husband as he ascended to the presidency and set the tone for American diplomacy, hosting weekly receptions for male and female guests on Friday evenings. Her warm reception became the precedent for today’s state dinners hosted for heads of state, Congress members, visiting dignitaries, and men and women from the local community.
As the first First Lady, few have paved the way for others as Martha Washington. Respected by men and women, her image graced the $1 silver certificate. Her name was emblazoned upon a U.S. military vessel, the U.S.S. Lady Washington, and a United States postage stamp. Perhaps her own words allow us a peek into her successful American life as no other could describe as well: “I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends more upon our disposition, and not upon our circumstances.”
Martha Washington created a legacy as the first First Lady – a role that many have undertaken, but few have accomplished as well as the gentle, educated, and accomplished Virginian.