In honor of Martha Washington’s 285th birthday, here are seven fascinating facts about one of America’s Founding Mothers and first First Lady.
When George Met Martha
Following the death of her first husband, Martha Dandridge Custis was one of the most eligible women in Virginia: young, pretty and very wealthy. It was at this moment that she met George Washington. George had a lot going for him — he was an attractive man with a plantation who had done well during his military service — but he hadn’t yet achieved the level of acclaim that would come as a Founding Father.
Yet Martha didn’t care whether or not George’s status matched hers. After their initial meeting in March 1758, she quickly invited him to visit her again. She had another, wealthier suitor, and given her position wouldn’t have had to wait long for more choices, but she liked George. The pair wed on January 6, 1759. It turned out to be a wise decision on both of their parts, as the Washingtons would share a long and happy marriage.
After George became head of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, he had concerns that his position might turn Martha into a kidnapping target: a British ship could sail up the Potomac River at night to grab his wife from Mount Vernon. And he wasn’t alone in these thoughts — George’s cousin wrote him a letter that noted, “’Tis true many people have made a Stir about Mrs Washingtons [sic] Continuing at Mt Vernon.”
However, Martha didn’t fall prey to the fears that were worrying her husband and others. After all, she knew that she could ride away to escape the British should they get close. Though she would leave Mount Vernon at times in order to live with George in military camps, Martha refused to be chased out of her home because she was scared of the enemy.
Esteemed as “Lady Washington”
George leading the Continental Army brought him into a position of prominence; as his wife, Martha also became an admired public figure. After visiting Philadelphia in November 1775 (a stop on her way to reunite with George at a military camp), she wrote, “I left it in as great pomp as if I had been a very great somebody.”
Martha, who was hailed by many as “Lady Washington,” even had a row galley, part of a small Continental fleet, named the Lady Washington in her honor. And when Esther Reed decided to raise money for soldiers, she wanted Martha to be the one to distribute the funds (though George had to step in as his wife was away). Martha would remain in high esteem for the next century, with her image printed on silver dollar certificates in 1886, 1891 and 1896 (making her the last woman to appear on paper currency in the United States — at least until Harriet Tubman shows up on the $20 bill).
In the 18th century, there was a way for people to protect themselves from smallpox: inoculation, which meant getting exposed to the disease in the hopes of contracting a mild case that would provide future immunity. But there was no guarantee the initial illness would be mild; wary of the risks, Martha had made it to her 40s without undergoing the procedure. However, given the danger of smallpox, Martha needed protection if she wanted to stay with George during the Revolutionary War.
George felt Martha’s fears would prevent her from going through with inoculation, but he was wrong: On May 23, 1776, Martha was exposed to smallpox by a doctor in Philadelphia. The treatment went well, leaving her both immune and unscarred. It also helped the American Revolution, as her husband now had access to unimpeded support from Martha. As her son wrote to George, “She can now attend you to any Part of the Continent with pleasure, unsullied by the Apprehensions of that Disorder.…Your happiness when together will be much greater than when you are apart.”
First Lady Problems
After the Revolutionary War, Martha wanted to remain at Mount Vernon, and was disappointed when George became president in 1789. Yet it wasn’t until she arrived in New York City, the nation’s temporary capital, that she discovered how circumscribed her life as the president’s wife was going to be.
As advised by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, George had agreed that the couple would refrain from accepting private invitations. This was done so the president wouldn’t be seen as showing favor to certain citizens over others, but the decision cut Martha off from the escape valve of seeing her friends. In the fall of 1789, when George was away, she wrote, “I lead a very dull life here and know nothing that passes in the town. I never go to any publick [sic] place,—indeed 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.”
When the Washingtons relocated to Philadelphia (the temporary capital from 1790 to 1800), Martha got George to okay private invites, and was able to enjoy herself at teas and dinners once more. This was lucky for presidential successors as well — if the precedent of eschewing a social life had taken hold, many might have balked at stepping into the roles of president and presidential spouse.
The Freedom of Ona Judge
Martha could be a very generous woman — she took excellent care of George and her family, and spent hours during the Revolutionary War knitting socks for troops. But when it came to slavery, she held the horrifying (yet all too common for the time) view that owning people was an acceptable part of life. So when Ona Judge, an enslaved woman who served as Martha’s maid, managed to escape in Philadelphia in 1796, Martha’s first thought was to get her back.
Judge ended up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. When the Washingtons discovered this, George wrote to his Treasury secretary to ask for help with recapturing Judge; his missive mentioned, “Mrs Washington’s desire to recover her.” Judge, who wouldn’t return willingly, was able to stay in New Hampshire, but the Washingtons still didn’t give up — in 1799, George asked a nephew to get Judge in a letter that noted, “it would be a pleasing circumstance to your Aunt.”
Fortunately, Judge learned of the planned kidnapping in time to escape. George died later that year, and Judge was able to live the rest of her life as a free woman (albeit under the specter of the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it legal for her to be captured at any time). When asked later if she had regrets about leaving her relatively comfortable position as Martha’s maid, Judge said, “No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.”
The Two Worst Days of Martha’s Life
After George died on December 14, 1799, Martha was so devastated that she couldn’t bring herself to step outside for the funeral. The day she lost her husband was, understandably, the saddest of her life. However, what she considered the second most painful day she had to endure is a little more surprising: it was Thomas Jefferson‘s visit to Mount Vernon in 1801.
This was a terrible event because Martha disliked and disdained Jefferson, sentiments she harbored due to his involvement with political attacks on her beloved husband. As Martha later revealed to a clergyman, she considered Jefferson “one of the most detestable of mankind” and his election to the presidency “the greatest misfortune our country has ever experienced.” Basically, if you messed with George, Martha didn’t forgive or forget.