A Reference Resource
Even before her husband became the first President of the United States, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was well known to many Americans. Throughout the Revolutionary War, Martha Washington had abandoned the comforts of home to oversee winter camp life for her husband, his officers, and his soldiers. Her visibility and graciousness throughout the conflict led soldiers and citizens alike to refer to her as Lady Washington.
Anxious to enjoy a quiet, private life with her husband at the war's end, Lady Washington was reluctant to take on the public responsibilities demanded of the President's wife. Indeed, when George Washington became President, Martha was particularly frustrated with the protocol and limits her new role demanded. To her great dismay, she had to be coiffed daily and pay greater attention to the dictates of fashion. She was also disturbed that she had to refuse invitations to private gatherings. Martha was not thrilled with her life 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. There is [sic] certain boundaries set for me which I must not depart from . . . and as I cannot do as I like, I am obstinate, and stay at home a great deal.
Despite the limitations of her new role and her dissatisfaction with it, Martha was "determined to be cheerful and happy" in whatever situation she found herself. As she put it, "the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions and not upon our circumstances." With that spirit in mind, Lady Washington attended honorary birthday balls feting her husband and would stand in for the ill President at public memorial services. When the capital moved from New York to Philadelphia, Martha frequented the theater, concerts, and private parties, having persuaded her husband to reconsider his earlier position on private gatherings.
Although Lady Washington was an honored guest at numerous functions, she recognized the greater importance of her role as hostess. The manner in which she assumed the duties of that role would affect not only how America was perceived abroad but also the ways in which future First Ladies performed their tasks. Martha personally greeted the public in an open-house reception on New Year's Day and entertained special callers and guests at least twice a week. She made her weekly evening reception, or levee, a formal affair and merely nodded to the announced guests -- both men and women -- who curtsied on their way to a sumptuous buffet supper. By imitating the customs of European royal courts, she hoped to confer legitimacy on the young democracy in the eyes of world leaders. Although Martha seemed to achieve her goal abroad, she was criticized at home by those who disdained royal trappings, and some of this criticism appeared in the press.
Nevertheless, many observers applauded Martha's compassion. Her financial support of the needy earned her the respect and admiration of thousands. She took a particular interest in veterans, often giving them money, interceding on their behalf for pardons, and welcoming them at special receptions. She was less sympathetic to the plight of slaves, however, and her views on slavery remained those of a plantation owner, believing "Blacks" as a race were subordinate, inferior, and ungracious.
Martha Washington was publicly silent on matters of politics. Although she did give one speech during her eight-year tenure, it had no political overtones; she merely thanked the troops who had escorted her to the capital and the crowd that had turned out to welcome her. Nevertheless, she did have an interest in the affairs of the new country. She read the newspaper daily, attended political debates, supported education for girls, and believed that women should retain a degree of independence. She wrote to one young niece that "dependance" was a "wretched state." President Washington's letters to his "amiable consort" contained information on public affairs, suggesting that they might well have discussed political issues when they were together.
While the term "First Lady" had yet to appear, its trappings took shape during that first presidential administration. Martha Washington set the precedents her successors would follow. From her receptions at home to her attendance at civic functions to her public speaking -- however limited -- even to her interest in at least one specific cause, the movements and activities of Martha Washington came to define the responsibilities associated with the role of First Lady. In addition, with her quiet acceptance of a second term, especially when she yearned to return to private life, Martha's sense of self-sacrifice became a model for many presidential wives faced with similar situations. Above all, the lack of privacy, independence, and freedom of speech, as well as the many demands placed upon her as a public figure, would characterize the challenges facing future First Ladies in the years to come.