By Bill Harris
By Laura Ross
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The First Ladies Fact Book is a comprehensive, fascinating, and intimate look at the life of each first lady from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. Each profile includes a portrait, key biographical information, and several additional photographs. For each of this historically important women, you’ll learn key facts about their childhood and upbringing, early careers, the path to the White House, their impact on the role and the country, and post-FLOTUS highlights.
Whether you’re browsing, preparing for a tough quiz night or for a classroom report, The First Ladies Fact Book combines the rich facts with fascinating details for history buffs of all ages.
Pick-up the companion title, The President’s Fact Book — Revised and Updated.
1. Martha Washington
2. Abigail Adams
3. Martha Jefferson
4. Dolley Madison
5. Elizabeth Monroe
6. Louisa Adams
7. Rachel Jackson
8. Hannah Van Buren
9. Anna Harrison
10. Letitia Tyler & Julia Tyler
11. Sarah Polk
12. Margaret Taylor
13. Abigail Fillmore
14. Jane Pierce
15. Harriet Lane
16. Mary Todd Lincoln
17. Eliza Johnson
18. Julia Grant
19. Lucy Hayes
20. Lucretia Garfield
21. Ellen Arthur
22. Frances Cleveland
23. Caroline Harrison
24. Ida McKinley
25. Edith Roosevelt
26. Helen Taft
27. Ellen Wilson & Edith Wilson
28. Florence Harding
29. Grace Coolidge
30. Louise Hoover
31. Eleanor Roosevelt
32. Bess Truman
33. Mamie Eisenhower
34. Jacqueline Kennedy
35. Lady Bird Johnson
36. Pat Nixon
37. Betty Ford
38. Rosalynn Carter
39. Nancy Reagan
40. Barbara Bush
41. Hillary Clinton
42. Laura Bush
43. Michelle Obama
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
June 2, 1731, Chestnut Grove, New Kent County, Virginia
John Dandridge and Frances Jones Dandridge
1750 to Daniel Parke Custis
Daniel Custis (1751-56); Frances Custis (1753-57); John (Jacky) Custis (1755-81); Martha (Patsy) Custis (1757-73)
1759 to Colonel George Washington (1732-99)
May 22, 1802, Mount Vernon, Virginia
When sixty-year-old Martha Washington arrived in New York in the spring of 1789 to join her husband, the newly inaugurated president of the United States, she had no notion of what to expect, nor of what was expected of her as the First Lady of the United States.
George Washington himself was facing a similar challenge. The Constitution outlined most of his state duties, but it was quite silent on the ceremonial roles he would have to play. He had recently given eight years of his life to freeing the American people from a monarchy, and they regarded him as one of their own; but, in fact, President Washington was a wealthy Southern planter and by nature a patrician in a society that had, in theory, done away with such social distinctions. With no role model before him, George had to figure out what it meant to be “presidential,” and how to conduct himself as the leader of this fledgling nation of free people. The new office itself was different from any other the world had ever seen. The American president is the head of state with all of the ceremonial obligations that go with it, and he is also the head of the government, directly responsible to the needs of the people he serves. George was also very sensitive to the fact that the ways he handled the office would establish a precedent for all of the American presidents who would follow him.
The members of his official family had debated for weeks over how the citizenry should address him and, by custom, his successors. Vice President John Adams was firmly on the side of the Senate, which had voted that the proper way ought to be “His Highness, the President of the United States and Protector of Liberties.” The House of Representatives, however, in a less formal and more democratic frame of mind, insisted that it should simply be “Mr. President.” Although Mr. Adams said the latter fell on his ear as “the officer of some local insignificant organization,” the egalitarian “Mr. President” won out in the end.
The debate extended to how the First Lady should be addressed as well, and although it, too, came down to a simple “Mrs.,” Martha had come to New York enthusiastically hailed as “Lady Washington,” an honorific given to her by the soldiers under her husband’s command—for it was plain for anyone to see that Martha was every inch a lady. One of the French officers who served in the Revolution once said that she reminded him of a Roman matron, and nothing suited her bearing more aptly.
It was what was expected of the daughter of one of the first families of Virginia. Born Martha Dandridge, the daughter of a wealthy tobacco planter, John, she grew up in a world of private tutors, attentive servants, and spirited horses. And after she was introduced into society at age fifteen, her life was filled with a constant round of balls, parties, and formal dinners. When Martha was seventeen, she married Daniel Parke Custis, a man even wealthier than her father, and she became the mistress of the Custis plantation, called the White House, not far north of the Virginia capital at Williamsburg, which was the epicenter of the colony’s social life.
Martha’s status grew, especially among eligible bachelors, when Daniel died eight years later, leaving an estate that made her the wealthiest widow in Virginia, not to mention the most attractive, at the age of twenty-five.
She chose to shun their advances, concentrating instead on running the Custis plantation and raising the surviving two of her four children: four-year-old John, who was called Jacky; and a girl of two named for her mother but, like her, affectionately known as Patsy. But then a new man caught her eye. His name was George Washington.
Colonel Washington had made a name for himself as a hero of the frontier war against the French and Indians, and Martha had met him several times when he appeared at Williamsburg for consultations with the governor. She had been impressed by his appearance, tall and lithe with cool blue eyes, and she was quite taken by his quiet dignity, formality, remoteness, and even his shyness around women, all qualities that were glaringly in short supply among the swains who were pursuing her. But it was all just a passing fancy—she was certain of that.
Martha met him again at a dinner party in the early spring of 1758, and they lingered in the parlor together after the other guests had left. It was an evening of polite conversation between two plantation owners, and only George had any inkling that it was anything more than that. His intentions finally dawned on Martha when her children were brought in to say goodnight and the soldier enchanted them as well.
Martha and George met again soon afterward when he invited himself to her home on his way back from another trip to Williamsburg. She had talked herself out of any idea of romance by then, but he brought it back to the top of her mind by the way he treated her servants and, more important, in the easy bond he established with her children. There would be two more visits before he asked Martha to marry him, and by then she was joyfully ready to accept his proposal. But first, he went off to take care of some urgent unfinished business with the French, which he promised her would be his last military campaign.
He didn’t come back again until six months later, just in time for Christmas. He had been elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in the meantime, and he had resigned his military commission. (This was a relief to Martha, who was interested in a stable home and family life for herself and her children.) All that remained for George to complete his own new role in life was to take a wife, and he and Martha were married at her plantation house in January 1759. While his own estate, Mount Vernon, was being readied for its new mistress, the newlyweds went to live for the rest of the winter at the Custis townhouse in Williamsburg.
The couple moved into Mount Vernon in April, and they went right to work on the routine running of the plantation and improving it as a home. They had plenty of people to help them. With Martha’s servants joining the new household, there were fourteen people on the house staff and seven more working its grounds, while more than forty ran the adjoining farms that were part of the estate. In addition to supervising the servants, George and Martha were responsible for feeding and clothing all of them, as well as looking after their health.
George’s daily routine invariably started with a twenty-mile horseback tour of his holdings, and Martha began her days with an hour of complete solitude for herself. No one knew how she spent those hours locked away from all, including her children. She may have read from her Bible, written letters to old friends, worked on her needlework, or just meditated. Everyone was well aware that it was strictly forbidden to intrude on her alone time.
Dinner was at three each day, and there were usually guests to share it. George always rode home to change into more formal clothes in time to welcome the old friends and family members, many of whom just showed up without an invitation, and all of whom were assured a warm welcome. It wasn’t uncommon for some of the less affluent among them to ask their host for cash loans, and he rarely disappointed them.
The round of nonstop entertaining came to an abrupt halt the following January when Martha came down with a case of measles. Her recovery was slow, but complete by spring, and nothing more was said of it. But it seems likely that the disease left her unable to have any more children, and George Washington would never have a direct heir.
But he had two stepchildren in Jacky and Patsy, and he doted on them every bit as much as if they were his own. It was obvious that he loved them as much as he loved their mother. They may not have been so easy to love, because Martha seemed to go out of her way to spoil them. They could do nothing wrong as far as she was concerned, and no indulgence was ever out of the question. Her husband was notoriously easygoing and tried not to interfere (possibly because his own mother had been a domineering woman, and during his youth, he never seemed able to find a way to get her approval). But he believed that children were tough little creatures who needed to experience some hard knocks so that they could deal with the problems they would surely face as adults, and he didn’t mind saying so. But Martha would have none of it. These were her children, she informed him, and George had no experience in such matters anyway. He backed down and never mentioned the problem again.
At Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington were surrounded not only by friendly neighbors but by their own families, as well. George had two half brothers, three brothers, and a sister. One of the half brothers, Augustine, married Anne Aylette, and had several daughters and a son, William Augustine. George’s sister, Betty, married Fielding Lewis, and together they had five sons and a daughter. His brother Samuel was married five times, and had three sons and a daughter. Another brother, John Augustine, married Hannah Bushrod, and had two sons and two daughters. His brother Charles married Mildred Thornton, and among their several children, George’s nephew George Augustine served as his aide during the Revolutionary War and as steward at Mount Vernon during his presidency. Another nephew, John Augustine’s son Bushrod, was ultimately named as George Washington’s heir, after Martha, in his will.
Martha Dandridge was one of eight children, and she remained close to all of them after she married George. She was especially close to her brother Bartholomew, whose son Bartholomew II was her husband’s personal secretary during his presidency. She was also close to her sister Anne, known as Nancy, whose children by Burwell Bassett included Fanny Bassett, who married George’s nephew George Augustine. After he died, she married Tobias Lear, the president’s personal secretary.
Martha’s son John (Jacky) Parke Custis had four children by his wife, Eleanor Calvert: Eliza Parke Custis, who married Thomas Law; Martha (Patty) Parke Custis, who married Thomas Peter; Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis, who married George’s nephew Lawrence Lewis, and George (Little Wash) Washington Parke Custis, who married Mary Lee Fitzhugh.
Life at Mount Vernon was close to idyllic. The estate was constantly being improved, and George had switched to growing wheat instead of tobacco because there was a good market for it locally and he was leery of depending on the London market. Transatlantic arguments over prices were only part of it. As a member of the House of Burgesses, he was involved in discussions about an onerous new tax from the Mother Country that required a stamp to be pasted on legal documents and newspapers. Patrick Henry had been accused of treason for his fiery opposition to it at Williamsburg, and there were rumors that passions were running far higher up in Massachusetts.
“If Mrs. Washington should survive me, there is moral certainty of my dying without issue, and should I be the longest liver, the matter in my opinion is almost certain; for whilst I retain the reasonable faculties I shall never marry a girl and it is not probable that I should have children by a woman of an age suitable to my own should I be disposed to enter into a second marriage.”
—George Washington on having his own children
The situation festered when new import taxes were imposed, and Virginians as well as people in the other colonies responded by boycotting British imports. There was a quiet understanding among them that if Great Britain sent more troops to North America, as had happened at Boston, they would fight back. But many people, including Martha, couldn’t help wondering, with what army?
By their tenth wedding anniversary, the Washingtons were beginning to enjoy a new prosperity. After a great deal of agonizing soul-searching, Martha agreed to allow young Jacky to leave home for life at a boarding school in far-off Fredericksburg, Virginia, and they indulged themselves by ordering a gilded four-horse coach with the Washington coat of arms painted on its doors and engraved on the harness. About the only thing that troubled them was young Patsy’s poor health. She had been prone to seizures all her life, but now that she was becoming a teenager, they were coming more frequently and more violently. Beyond endless consultations with doctors, who didn’t seem to have any idea what to do, there was nothing Martha could do but shower her daughter with love and rain gifts on her. Patsy died of her ailment in the late spring of 1773, and the following winter, her eighteen-year-old brother, Jacky, by then a student at Kings College in New York, married fifteen-year-old Nelly Calvert, the daughter of another of the first families of Virginia. Martha and George had only each other now, but their lives would change again, and soon.
The Fight for Independence
The anticipated troubles with the Mother Country had still not materialized, even after British soldiers fired into a crowd on Boston Common, killing three Colonists. But things began to come to a head in the fall, when George went to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress to help decide how the Colonies could accomplish a clean break with Great Britain. He had already told the Virginia assembly that he would “raise one thousand men, subsist them at my own expense, and march myself at their head for the relief of Boston,” and he had ordered a new uniform—blue with buff facings, the colors of the Fairfax County militia.
He spent more and more of his time drilling that militia, and when the call came for him to join the Second Continental Congress, he arrived at Philadelphia in full uniform with a sword on his side. It might have been a subconscious advertisement for his military resume, but if it was, he needn’t have bothered. When Congress authorized the raising of ten companies of riflemen to march on Boston, everyone at the Philadelphia statehouse knew that there was only one man among them with the experience that it would take to lead them.
In a letter he wrote to Martha the day after his appointment, George said that he was leaving immediately to take command of the new Continental Army in far-off Massachusetts. That meant only one thing to Martha. They would be separated from each other over a greater distance than they had ever known, and neither of them had any idea for how long. She supported her husband wholeheartedly, but Martha knew very well that she wasn’t going to be seeing her husband again anytime soon.
Before he left Philadelphia, George had asked Jacky and his wife, Nelly, to move to Mount Vernon to keep Martha company. He also sold a piece of land to pay off their debts, and he passed along the duties of overseer to his cousin Lund, who had been his right-hand man for some time, even though Martha herself had years of experience in the day-to-day running of a plantation. Finally, in one last gesture before leaving for Boston, he ordered two suits of “the prettiest muslin” for his wife. “I wish it may please you,” he wrote.
George and Martha had been separated before, but he had never been so far from her as when he established his headquarters at Cambridge overlooking Boston. Apparently the British didn’t know that George’s army had just about run out of ammunition, because they had not attacked yet, even after their reinforcements had arrived.
Then as summer turned to autumn, a letter from George arrived at Mount Vernon asking Martha to join him, and suggesting that if she left right away, she could be in Cambridge in time for Christmas. Martha had never been any farther north than Alexandria, Virginia, and at best, the trip would take three weeks, even for an experienced traveler, not counting breakdowns and the problems that come with traveling in the winter. It was already the middle of November. There was no time to waste.
Martha and her family arrived in Cambridge a few days before Christmas, always an important holiday in the lives of the Washingtons, and Martha took up residence in the general’s headquarters, a cheerful yellow mansion that had been the home of a Loyalist who abandoned it in the wake of the advancing Minutemen. George and Martha hadn’t seen each other in seven months, but his duties as commander in chief left them little of the quiet time that had been so precious to them back home. She was given a parlor across the entry hall from his office and was largely left to fend for herself among strangers with odd accents. But as she had learned on her journey north, her husband was the most widely respected man in all the Colonies, and that affection had rubbed off on her. She knew that she was among friends, and she made the most of it with all the graciousness she could muster.
She made some confidantes among the officers’ wives, many of whom became her friends for life. Among them was Kitty Greene, the wife of General Nathanael Greene, who showed up for her first visit with her new son, named George Washington Greene. Martha always had a soft spot for babies, but this was the first one she’d met outside their own family who had been named for her husband, and that made him all the more precious. Before the war was over, she would dandle dozens more babies named George Washington on her knee.
After celebrating Christmas, then New Year’s, and then their seventeenth wedding anniversary, George began to realize that all work and no play wasn’t good either for him or for his homesick soldiers, and Martha’s stay made him understand that morale was as important to them as the ability to fire a musket.
But Martha did more than pour glasses of wine, serve cake, and make engaging conversation. Her husband hired her as an assistant to his private secretary, and she spent long hours copying official letters. He left it up to her to negotiate a salary with the Congress, warning that they hadn’t been very forthcoming with his requests for money to buy powder and shot. She must have smiled at that because he himself had agreed to serve without any pay except for his expenses, and Congress hadn’t been forthcoming about that, either. As it turned out, the job was priceless to Martha. Transcribing her husband’s letters gave her a deep insight into his job as a military leader, and it opened the door to conversations with his generals and aides that otherwise might have been vapid and forgettable. Martha also learned the value of military secrets and how to guard them, an insight that she used very well in the political wars that would follow years later.
Martha was in Philadelphia when Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was first read on July fourth, and she knew it meant that the United Colonies were now the United States of America. She also knew that as the wife of the man who was leading troops against the Mother Country, her neck was more firmly in the noose of treason than it had been before. But the British had to catch her first, and she had no intention of allowing that to happen.
Meanwhile, George’s neck was being measured for that same noose, and he was on the run after a serious defeat in Brooklyn with British-led Hessian mercenaries hard on his heels, occupying Manhattan Island along the way. There was no possibility of Martha’s joining him again, and Congress arranged an escort for her as far as Baltimore, where she was met by Jacky and Nelly, along with a new addition to the family, a baby girl named Eliza Parke Custis, Martha’s first grandchild. There would be three more grandchildren later on: two girls, and a boy who would be named George Washington Parke Custis and would be known as “Little Washington” for most of his life.
Once she was back at Mount Vernon, there was nothing for Martha to do but wait, worry, and pray. The war was not going at all well for her husband. But then at the end of December, George wrote to her with details about how he crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Day, surprising the Hessians who were camped at Trenton, New Jersey. It brightened an otherwise bleak holiday for her, and then another letter told her that his army had scored a major victory at Princeton. The situation had turned around in the twinkling of an eye, and he suggested that it would be safe for her to make the trip to his new winter headquarters at Morristown. Worries of an attack on Philadelphia postponed an actual summons, but by early March, Martha was on her way again. This time their absence from one another had lasted ten months.
The staff she had known at Cambridge was changed. Some had been killed, some had been promoted, and new men were assigned to replace them. Among the newcomers was young Alexander Hamilton, a colonel of artillery who was valuable on the general’s secretarial staff, especially because he was fluent in French, a skill that was essential now that Europeans were making their mark in the Continental Army. Martha was no longer needed as an assistant secretary, so her stay at Morristown was devoted to socializing, visiting the wounded, and, as always, knitting. When George’s sock drawer was filled, she turned to making stockings for his men, not to mention mending their shirts and making blankets, which were in short supply.
When the war heated up again in the spring, Martha went home to Mount Vernon again. During that summer of 1777, the British attacked and occupied Philadelphia, and from her vantage point, it looked as though the tide had turned again. Her husband had lost New York to the enemy the previous year, and now he hadn’t been able to save Philadelphia, either. There were calls for him to be replaced, but not everyone took them seriously, least of all Martha, although she may have secretly wished that he would be relieved of his command.
Her worst fears were realized when, as he prepared to make his winter camp at Valley Forge, the expected summons for her to join him there didn’t arrive. The invitation finally came, though, and Martha arrived at Valley Forge in time for her husband’s birthday in February, the coldest month of an unusually cold winter. Martha had plenty of experience with military camps by then; the sound of cannons and mortars didn’t startle her, and she had grown accustomed to the sounds of drumrolls from dawn to sunset. But this camp was primitive compared to the others she had seen, and she must have been longing for the comforts of Mount Vernon. Valley Forge was no place for the fainthearted.
- On Sale
- Feb 1, 2013
- Page Count
- 752 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal