American Women: The Wife of Washington


A woman’s noblest station is retreat:
Her fairest virtues fly from public sight
Domestic worth – that shuns too strong a light.
                                                            Lord Lyttleton

The drying up a single tear has more
Of honest fame than shedding seas of gore.

Woman may possess an equal share of the elements of greatness with man, but she has not an equal opportunity to display them in such a manner as to call forth the admiration and applause of the world. She was not made to pour the tide of eloquence in the Senate chamber, or lead on to victory the brave and heroic spirits of the land. Her course leads mainly through the quiet valley of domestic retirement, where the stream can rarely leap from dizzy heights with a thundering plunge, whose echoes shall go booming on to fill the ear of coming generations: her movements and influence are more like those of springs, which, flowing noiselessly and unseen, are widely scattered, and every where diffuse incalculable blessings.

The wife of Washington could not be the hero of a seven-years’ war, or the chief magistrate of a republic; but, as the companion of such a man, she could shine, in her own proper sphere, with a lustre as mild, as steady, as serene, as his. And thus she did. Prompt to obey the calls of duty, when the voice of humanity beckoned her to the camp, she hastened away, at the sacrifice of ease and comfort, to relieve the wants of the suffering; and when forced to leave her “paradise” at Mount Vernon, to preside, as the matron of the nation, at the President’s house, she did it with a dignity and propriety perhaps never equalled, certainly never excelled. But let us not anticipate.

Martha Dandridge was born in New Kent county, Virginia, in May, 1732. She was endowed with good sense, a strong mind, sound ideas of feminine proprieties, and correct views of woman’s practical duties: and these had to answer measurably as a substitute for the discipline of female seminaries, which were rare in the ” Old Dominion,” and in the Colonies generally, in her younger days. The advantages to be derived from domestic instruction, she enjoyed, and those only. They, however, were cut off at the age of seventeen, by her union in marriage with Colonel Daniel P. Custis, a gentleman of many excellent parts. They settled on his plantation in her native county. Beautiful, lovely in disposition, and fascinating in manners, the young wife was warmly admired by her neighbors and all with whom she came in contact; and her residence, known as the “White house,” was the centre of strong attractions, and the scene of much genuine or – which is the same thing – Virginian, hospitality. Colonel Custis became the father of three children, and then died. Previous to this solemn event, however, the White House had been veiled in weeds for the loss of his oldest child.

With two small children, a son and daughter, Mrs. Custis early found herself a widow, with the disposition and management of all pecuniary interests left by her confiding husband, at her control. As sole executrix, it is said that she “managed the extensive landed and pecuniary concerns of the estate with surprising ability, making loans on mortgages, of money, and through her stewards and agents, conducting the sales or exportation of the crops, to the best possible advantage.”

But from the cares of an extensive estate she was shortly relieved. On the sixth of January, 1759, she gave her hand, with upwards of a hundred thousand dollars, to Colonel George Washington, another planter of her native Colony. At the same time, she relinquished into his hands the guardianship of her children -the son six, and the daughter four years old – together with the care of their property. From the White House, Mrs. Washington now removed to Mount Vernon, which remained her home till her death, and became the final resting place of her remains.

In her new home, as in the White House, she superintended the affairs of the household, exercising continual control over all culinary matters; carefully educating her offspring, and aiming to rear them up for usefulness. These duties she discharged with the utmost assiduity and faithfulness, in spite of the many social obligations which a woman in her position must necessarily encounter.* Nor did the demands of courtesy and of her family debar her from habitual and systematic charities, dispensed in her neighborhood, or from those most important of all daily duties, the calls of the “closet.” In the language of Miss Conkling, in her Memoir: “It is recorded of this devout Christian, that never during her life, whether in prosperity or in adversity, did she omit that daily self-communion and self-examination, and those private devotional exercises, which would best prepare her for the self-control and self-denial by which she was, for more than half a century, so eminently distinguished. It was her habit to retire to her own apartment every morning after breakfast, there to devote an hour to solitary prayer and meditation.”

In 1770, she lost a child of many prayers, of bright hopes, and of much promise, her blooming daughter. She looked upon this affliction as a visitation from Him who doeth all things well, and bore it with becoming resignation, which the Christian only is prepared to do.

During the Revolution, Mrs. Washington was accustomed to pass the winters with her husband at the head quarters of the army and the summers at Mount Vernon; and it was in the camp that she shone with the lustre of the true woman. “She was at Valley Forge in that dreadful winter of 1777-8, her presence and submission to privation strengthening the fortitude of those who might have complained, and giving hope and confidence to the desponding. She soothed the distresses of many sufferers, seeking out the poor and afflicted with benevolent kindness, extending relief wherever it was in her power, and with graceful deportment presiding in the Chief’s humble dwelling.”**

In 1781, she lost her last surviving child, John Custis, aged twenty seven. Her widowed daughter-in-law and the four children, she took to her own home, and thenceforward they were the objects of her untiring solicitude.

The life of Mrs. Washington, after her husband took the Presidential chair, was marked by no striking incidents, and affords scanty material of the nature marked out for this work. During the eight years that he was Chief Magistrate, she presided in his mansion with the same unaffected ease, equanimity and dignified simplicity that had marked her previous course in more retired circles. Visitors were received on all days except the Sabbath, and, irrespective of rank, shared in her courtesies and hospitalities. A portion of each summer, at that period, was passed in the quiet and seclusion of Mount Vernon, she rarely, if ever, accompanying her husband on his tours through the land. She expressed regret when he was chosen President, because she preferred “to grow old” with him “in solitude and tranquillity;” hence it is not surprising that she found a luxury in retiring for a season from the scenes of public life, and in attending to the education of her grand-children and to other self-imposed tasks and important duties, in the performance of which she could bless her friends and honor God.

After the death of her illustrious companion, which occurred in December, 1799, she remained at Mount Vernon; where she spent seventeen months mourning her loss; receiving the visits of the great from all parts of our land, and from various parts of the earth; attending, as heretofore, to her domestic concerns; perfecting in the Christian graces, and ripening for the joys of a holier state of being. On the twenty-second of May, 1801, she who, while on earth, could be placed in no station which she did not dignify and honor, was welcomed to the glories of another world.

* We have the authority of Mr. Sparks for asserting that while Washington’s pursuits were those of a retired planter, he seldom passed a day when at home without the company of friends or strangers, frequently persons of great celebrity, and demanding much attention from the lady of the house.

** Mrs. Washington, in writing to Mrs. Warren, says, “The General’s apartment is very small; he has had a log cabin built to dine in, which has made our quarters more tolerable than at first.”


Excerpted from Noble Deeds of American Women
(Patriotic Series for Boys and Girls)
Edited by J. Clement
With an Introduction by Mrs. L. H. Sigourney
BOSTON: Lee and Shepard, Publishers
Entered by Act of Congress, in the year of 1851,
by E. H. Derby and Co., in the Clerk’s Office of the Northern District of New York

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