George Washington: Family Life

George Washington: Family Life

Life in the President’s House in Philadelphia was chaotic. Around thirty people lived in the building: George and Martha; their grandchildren, Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis and George Washington “Wash” Parke Custis; Tobias Lear, who served as Washington’s unofficial chief of staff; Washington’s private secretaries; and at least ten free and enslaved servants who cleaned, cooked, cared for the linens, tended the horses, and ran errands.

The Washingtons also regularly welcomed guests. On Tuesdays, George hosted levees in the state dining room, which were formal gatherings open to any white man with a good suit. On Thursdays, George and Martha hosted state dinners for Supreme Court justices, foreign dignitaries, congressmen, and elite local families. On Fridays, Martha hosted drawing rooms, where men and women socialized and drank lemonade. On New Year’s Day and July 4, they opened their doors, and thousands of citizens crammed in the hallways, drank punch, and enjoyed the music played by the bands marching by outside. Although leisure time was in relatively short supply, the family attended the theater, visited the circus, explored Revolutionary War ruins, and enjoyed carriage rides.

Martha was an essential partner in all private and public endeavors. As hostess, she prepared the menus and oversaw the preparation of the meals by Hercules, the enslaved chef. She cultivated a welcoming environment and fostered lively conversation. Martha also conscientiously presented herself as the ideal mother and grandmother: modest, generous, hospitable, and dedicated to raising virtuous republican citizens for the future of the nation. While modern first ladies often embrace their own social and education causes, Martha Washington’s model as an official hostess has had a lasting effect on the role of first lady to this day.

Every single event required extensive cleaning, preparation, and service by the white and Black staff. Washington received a $25,000 annual salary, an enormous sum for the time, but the salary was expected to cover housing, food, entertaining, travel, fuel, and labor costs. The Washingtons were able to host lavishly because they benefited from the unpaid labor of enslaved workers—which proved to be more complicated to retain than anticipated. Shortly after the federal government moved to Philadelphia, Attorney General Edmund Randolph warned the president that Pennsylvania law would automatically free any enslaved individuals after six months of continuous residence. George and Martha conspired to rotate all enslaved individuals from Philadelphia to Virginia and back again to reset the clock and prevent their manumission.

Two of the enslaved workers took their fate into their own hands. In May 1796, while the Washingtons were enjoying supper, Ona Judge, Martha’s lady’s maid, slipped out of the house and boarded a ship in the bustling Philadelphia port. She escaped to New Hampshire, where she married, had children, and died a free woman in 1848. The following February, on Washington’s birthday, Hercules disappeared into the darkness and made his way to New York City, where he changed his name and eluded recapture. Martha was particularly insistent that George pursue and recapture Ona and Hercules. These efforts failed, and neither returned to bondage.