First Ladies

Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women


By Susan Swain


Foreword by Richard Norton Smith

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A look inside the personal life of every first lady in American history, based on original interviews with major historians

C-SPAN’s yearlong history series, First Ladies: Influence and Image, featured interviews with more than fifty preeminent historians and biographers. In this informative book, these experts paint intimate portraits of all forty-five first ladies — their lives, ambitions, and unique partnerships with their presidential spouses. Susan Swain and the C-SPAN team elicit the details that made these women who they were: how Martha Washington intentionally set the standards followed by first ladies for the next century; how Edith Wilson was complicit in the cover-up when President Wilson became incapacitated after a stroke; and how Mamie Eisenhower used the new medium of television to reinforce her, and her husband’s, positive public images.

This book provides an up-close historical look at these fascinating women who survived the scrutiny of the White House, sometimes at great personal cost, while supporting their families and famous husbands — and sometimes changing history. Complete with illustrations and essential biographical details, it is an illuminating, entertaining, and ultimately inspiring read.


The Washington Administration, 1789–1797

Martha Dandridge Washington

Martha Washington, c1876

          “I never goe to the publick 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—and as I can not doe as I like I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal.”

       Born: June 2, 1731, Chestnut Grove, Virginia

       Married: 1750–57, to Daniel Parke Custis (widowed); 1759, to George Washington (1732–99)

       Children: Daniel Custis (1751–56); Frances Custis (1753–57); John (Jacky) Custis (1755–81); Martha (Patsy) Custis (1757–73)

       Died: May 22, 1802, Mount Vernon, Virginia


PATRICIA BRADY, social and cultural historian specializing in first ladies and, in particular, the Washington family; author of several books, including Martha Washington: An American Life

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, presidential historian, executive director at five presidential libraries, author of several books, including Patriarch; history consultant for C-SPAN; academic advisor for C-SPAN’s First Ladies series

PATRICIA BRADY: The opinion the public had of [the Washingtons] had begun with the Revolution. At that point, when Martha Washington would join her husband, as she did every year, at the Army’s winter camps, people would just line up, be on every tree, on every fence post to look at her. She said, “I felt as though I were a very great somebody.” And she was somebody, for the first time, as his wife. The newspapers reported on how important it was for Washington to have her. So, when they came back as president and his lady, the public already had an opinion of them. They were singular characters. Other politicians were not in the same ballpark at all.

Martha went every winter to join him in the camps and to make a home, not just for him but for all the young officers who were on his staff, to encourage other officers to bring their wives and daughters to come and visit and make it a social time. Out of the actual eight years of the Revolution, she spent, overall, five years at the front.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Indeed, one of the things that fostered an emotional bond between Mrs. Washington and what would be the American people was the perception that she had sacrificed every bit as much as her husband during the war. This is another chapter in her training, in a sense, for being first lady. He was, in effect, for eight years, the closest thing to an executive the country had, and she was a first lady, of sorts. One touching story: they had one room on the second floor of the Potts House at Valley Forge, and they had an hour every morning that was sacred, one hour when they were absolutely not to be disturbed. Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall for those conversations, because undoubtedly, Washington unloaded a lot.

BRADY: Martha Washington wasn’t just entertaining the Americans, she was entertaining officers from France, from Germany, and she was able to charm them. One particular French officer said it was so wonderful to be there drinking tea, singing, and just chatting. At the end of the evening, one would go home feeling better. Can you imagine feeling better at Valley Forge? She had charm beyond belief.

One thing that is really important from that time, and I know it sounds weird, is the change in her sewing habits. All American women sewed. Well-to-do women sewed embroidery, tapestry, and fancy work. When she was there and the local ladies came to call, she was not doing fancy work. She had the knitting needles out, and she was knitting socks for the soldiers. These were infantrymen and they marched on those feet, and they got holes in their socks. She must have knitted thousands of socks, and encouraged others to knit them, as well as raising the money to make linen shirts, which served as uniform shirts for them. She really, physically, in terms of her work, and emotionally, in terms of her leadership, helped support the troops themselves.

SMITH: There’s a wonderful story where a group of women knew they were going to be calling upon the general’s lady, expected this very grand figure, and to their astonishment, they found her knitting and wearing a speckled apron. So she clearly was not someone to stand on her position or on her title.

The decisions about what a republic was, what a president was, were inseparable from many of those that we would perhaps almost condescendingly today attribute to the East Wing of the White House. For instance, would the president and first lady accept private dinner invitations? Would the president and first lady go to private funerals? What do you call the president? What do you call his consort? The reason why these questions, which seem trivial to us today, matter is because each one of them in their own way defines the nature of this new government, which was a spinoff from its royal antecedents. Yet the country was split right down the middle, certainly between those who feared that it was in any way aping the British king, George III. Then, and two hundred years later, we have this dichotomy about what a president is. How close do a president and his wife get to us? The fact that Mrs. Washington had, every week, a Friday night reception that anyone could walk into as long as they were decently dressed, you certainly wouldn’t find that in London. It helped to define not only her role, but in a larger sense, the access the Americans would have to their presidents.

BRADY: [The Washingtons made their decisions about how to comport themselves by] talking it out. People today see Washington always as this strong leader, cast in marble; but he was more than a statue. He always liked to talk to his associates. That’s one reason he was criticized as a general, because he liked to talk to his staff before making a decision. In government, he thought that all the best minds of the country would get together, talk things through, and make the right decision, because we were the first modern republic. So, whatever they did mattered. It was important.

SMITH: One of the things that Martha Washington, frankly, found not altogether to her liking was the fact that she was uprooted from the agricultural, rural life at Mount Vernon that she’d been born into, that she had mastered and relished. And this is only the latest chapter of her sacrifice, which, in its own way, you could argue, matches anything that her husband sacrificed.

BRADY: That’s true. She did not want to go to a city. She did not want to live in the North. She wanted to be home at Mount Vernon, but she had to be there with her husband to do what her husband wanted to do, so she gave it up. But the thing that made her so very unhappy was to discover, once she got [to the capital city], that Washington had consulted with John Jay, James Madison, and John Adams, and they had all decided that presidents could have no personal lives; that any entertainment, any going to visit people, any having people in, was, in fact, a public act.…That was just for one year, but that first year was terrible for her. At the same time, it was pretty good for him, because Jefferson hadn’t come back from Paris yet. That was probably Washington’s honeymoon with the presidency.

SMITH: Offsetting that, there’s a line that someone should carve over the entrance to the White House, because it goes to the heart of who this woman was, and why she was the ideal first first lady.… She talked about how the experience of her life had taught her that “our happiness or misery depends upon our disposition and not our circumstances.” That is a remarkably wise observation, but it’s an observation distilled from a life full of tragedy. She’d lost a husband, she lost all four of her children, she lost countless nieces and nephews, and then she found herself repeatedly uprooted from the life she expected, to follow George either on the battlefield, or on a different kind of battlefield.

BRADY: When they married, the Washingtons both felt the same way [about slavery]. They had grown up in Virginia. A good part of the wealth of Virginia was built on the labor… of enslaved black people, and so they agreed with it. At that time, Washington was rather strict with his slaves, but as time went on, his views started to change. He was the only one of the Founding Fathers who freed his slaves; the rest kept them until they died. Martha Washington’s opinions didn’t change. It was very unfortunate. I wanted it to be different, and so I looked for and read every word I could find, and the one slave she actually owned personally, she did not free. She left [the slave] to her grandson.

The truth is, Martha felt that [slave-holding] was the way society was supposed to be, and that [an escaped slave named] Oney Judge had let her down, because she’d always been kind to her. Martha didn’t understand that Oney wanted to be free, that she wanted to learn to read and write, and that she wanted to find Christ in her own way.

Martha had three granddaughters, and the eldest one, Eliza, was fairly bad-tempered and was capricious, and nobody would have wanted to work for her, much less belong to her. When Oney Judge was told that…she would be going to be sent to live with Eliza when she got married, she decided enough was enough and took off.

SMITH: To round out the Oney Judge story, friends of hers smuggled her to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and then there was this conundrum because Mrs. Washington wanted her back, and wanted the president to advertise for her return. It put Washington in a very awkward situation. [Intermediaries for the Washingtons urged Oney Judge to return, but she refused and lived out her life as a fugitive slave in New Hampshire.]

In a lot of ways, it can be said of Washington, as later on of Lincoln, that he outgrew the racist culture that produced him. One major reason was because during the Revolution, after having initially turned thumbs down to the idea of recruiting free blacks, the fact of the matter is that African Americans played a vital role in the winning of the Revolution. Washington saw firsthand what these people were capable of doing. He saw the courage. He saw the sacrifice. They were humanized in a way that, quite frankly, on the plantation was not possible. Life taught him a lesson, in some ways, very different from Martha.

BRADY: [George Washington’s second term was a torment.] Yellow fever was killing people [in Philadelphia], right and left. Alexander Hamilton had a very bad case, but survived. But the real torment for Washington was to see that his friends and the men he respected, instead of all coming together to make a new form of government, were falling apart into two parties. He would never have believed that Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton would become enemies of one another, and that they would be doing everything that they could to keep each other out of office instead of working together.

[Abigail Adams was an important help to Martha Washington through all this.] They really had a lot in common. They were both wives who were partners; they were not wives who were stuck to the side and left out of everything, and both were deeply committed to the idea of this new republic. They were very political in that way. They also helped each other socially. Abigail was extremely tickled by the fact that her place [at the Friday levees] was to the right of Martha Washington, and if another lady came up and took her place before she arrived, the president himself would ask her to leave so that Abigail could sit there. She almost had a crush on Martha Washington. She said she was a wonderful person, which she was.

SMITH: Abigail, being an Adams, has left us some delightfully waspish accounts of life in Philadelphia, including the Washingtons’ Friday night receptions. But the one person who escapes her occasionally harsh tongue invariably is Martha. She said of Martha Washington, there was “not the tincture of hauteur about her,” which is a wonderful phrase. Even now, it does evoke the sense of this woman who could have been queen and George Washington, who could have been king, and not the least of their accomplishments is that each refused the crown.

BRADY: Martha Washington loved to read [the newspapers]. She read a lot, and when she didn’t actually read the papers herself, Washington would frequently spend an evening reading aloud to her and whoever else was there. He would read a story and they would all talk about it.

SMITH: That doesn’t mean she liked what she read. She came in for some criticism, but not personal criticism. Certainly one of the fissures from a very early day, even in New York, was this democratic with a small “d,” Jeffersonian element, who were always on the lookout for anything that seemed monarchical. There were those who thought the president’s weekly levee on Tuesday afternoon, and Martha’s dinner every Thursday, and her Friday night receptions, and the fact that he rode in a carriage to Federal Hall…[indicated] aristocratic, if not royalist, inclinations, and [they] were always on the lookout for that. [So, the criticism] was not so much directed at the first lady, per se, as at the administration that she represented.

…Martha was a teenager when she became the fiancée of Daniel Parke Custis. He was twenty years older and was a bachelor because his dad never let him marry—nobody was good enough. Not only did she overcome this elite prejudice on the part of his father, but she helped bring Daniel into a real life in his late thirties with the children and everything else. But he was so much richer than the other people around them. She came from a lower-gentry family. She learned how to manage property and to manage money, things that would serve her really well for the rest of her life. She was smart as far as money went.

BRADY: [At age twenty-five, Martha became a very wealthy widow, perhaps the wealthiest in the Virginia colony, so she was quite a catch when she met Colonel George Washington.] He was such a hunk. He was six-foot-two in a time when most men were five-foot-eight, or five-foot-nine, a wonderful horseman, a wonderful athlete, fabulous dancer, very charming. He loved to talk to women his whole life long. He had begun to show the kind of leadership that he would later show more of. But in the estimation of those days, he was the lucky one: she was the catch, rather than he.

SMITH: But he would also be a real catch. Remember that she had four children by Daniel Custis, two of whom died quite young, and two of whom survived for now, and she had all that property, so George Washington would also fulfill vital roles as a partner.

BRADY: She could trust him because he was so clearly, from the time he was really young, a person of such integrity. As a widow, she was in fine shape because her husband did not leave any kind of trustee. She could do what she wanted to. It was much more common to leave your estate to male trustees; Custis just didn’t get around to writing his will in time. But once women married, then they became feme covert, which meant that they were covered women and that all of their financial and any other kind of dealings were covered by their husbands.

SMITH: Martha had a dower portion of the Custis estate, which was a third that she had a lifetime interest in, and that included, in her case, about eighty-five slaves. The rest had to be managed for her children.

Washington said later on, famously, that in effect, he had adopted all her children. Washington loved children. Washington was rather sensitive to the fact that he had no children of his own.… He treated her children very much as if they were his own. It’s interesting, by one estimate, she brought twenty thousand pounds to their marriage, and he spent a good deal of that immediately, sending away orders for toys, for wax dolls for Patsy, the daughter, and he spent quality time with them. And they lost both of them. It was a shattering experience. Patsy, who died, it’s believed, of epilepsy one day at dinner in the Verdigris dining room at Mount Vernon, and then Jacky [died]. He had not participated in the Revolution until the very end, and joined his stepfather’s staff, then came down with some kind of camp fever and died a few days later.

BRADY: From the time Martha first gave birth at eighteen or nineteen, she was a really wonderful mother. She doted on her children, her grandchildren, her nieces, her nephews. During the war with the young officers, young aides-de-camp, she was more or less like a housemother at a fraternity; she looked after these young men.… Forever afterward, the young men of those days remembered her as their foster mother.

The Marquis de Lafayette was another of the young men whom she became a mother to. When he came here, although he was the richest man in France, he was one of the most unhappy. He was escaping from persecution by his in-laws and by the court..… He was eighteen years old when she finally met him, and she saw him as another son. Lafayette saw part of that as what America was like, a place where people could be made over, and he could be made over.

SMITH: Lafayette is also one of the better observers who give us a window on the relationship between the Washingtons. He writes in a letter, “People ask, why did Martha spend every winter of the Revolution with Washington?” Lafayette said it was simple: “She loved her husband madly.”

Mount Vernon was their North Star, the place they always wanted to return to, the place they were happiest. You know, it’s remarkable… that after the president died, maybe the greatest sacrifice of all that Martha was asked to make, and yet the last ultimate [one], she was willing to have his remains removed from Mount Vernon and moved to the new Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, that never happened. Bureaucracy took over.

The Marquis de Lafayette had a special relationship with the Washingtons, as depicted in this c1859 painting of Lafayette’s 1784 visit to Mount Vernon.

Running Mount Vernon offered Martha an apprenticeship. If there was an ad for first lady in 1789, Martha Washington’s prior experience really qualified her uniquely. If you go to Mount Vernon today, you notice there are two wings that were added during the Revolution, for which she oversaw the construction. There’s the dining room, which is a very public space, and then there is a very private wing, which contains their bedroom and his study. They had six hundred different people a year, strangers, who showed up just because they wanted to see the most famous man on earth. They were all welcomed. They were all greeted. Most of them were fed. They were given a bed overnight. But even Washington got sick of the demands, so he would disappear in the evening. He’d go to his study and work, leaving Martha to converse with the visitors.

The fact that she burned all their correspondence is in some ways a metaphor. That’s where they could be themselves. That’s where they could say to each other what they didn’t say anywhere else. One reason why she burned those letters is because that was the unvarnished George Washington. It wasn’t simply the uniquely intimate relationship that existed between them. She was the only person on earth who could hear his doubts, his fears, and his opinions of his colleagues.

BRADY: Martha Washington was very careful with his papers, as was he. They were always kept in a big trunk. When they seemed they might be in danger, the trunk was removed. That building of his image, but a truthful image, having the letters showing him as a military man and as a political man, was important, but as far as she was concerned, their private life was just that…and she had not enough privacy in her life.

[Two Washington letters were found hidden in her desk after she died.] They were fabulous. They were both from him to her and they were written in 1775, in Philadelphia, when he has just accepted command of the Continental Army, which doesn’t exist yet, of a nation which doesn’t exist yet—without asking her. He’s writing and saying, “My Dearest, I had to accept this. My honor required it. But please, my dear Patsy, don’t be angry with me.” He goes on and on about why it’s important, and why she needs to support him. And before he goes off to become the leader of the war, he makes time to go out and buy some of the nicest new muslin in town so that she can make some nice dresses out of it. Now, that’s a husband worth having.

SMITH: I don’t think anyone reading those letters would subscribe to the still widely held view that their relationship was in some ways a businesslike one. This was a love match.

[George Washington was reputed to have had a special relationship with Sally Fairfax.] Here’s a classic example of where Martha Washington did her cause no good by burning all of those letters. In the late 1950s, two letters were discovered, which the then-reigning biographer, James Thomas Flexner, made a great deal out of.

Sally Fairfax was the wife of George William Fairfax, who was a neighbor and close friend; some would describe him as Washington’s best friend. They lived at Belvoir, just down the river. Clearly, there was an infatuation. Sally was slightly older and very sophisticated to someone like George, who wanted as a young man very much to be part of the colonial aristocracy and to advance in the British military. And so someone like Sally, who was even then unattainable, nevertheless held a special allure. Exactly what was the nature of that relationship is still being debated. We talked earlier about George Washington’s integrity. It was something even then, so I don’t think the relationship went beyond a lovesick young man.

BRADY: We don’t disagree. There’s no doubt when those two letters surfaced, you can’t read them any other way but that he was a lovesick puppy.… I, too, don’t think it went further than infatuation because he did care too much about his friend.… Those couples visited all the time. Sally Fairfax and her husband were there when Patsy Custis dropped dead after getting up from the dining room table, and were at her funeral. Then, in 1773, as it’s becoming clear that a revolution is coming about, the Fairfaxes go back to England, never to return, so there’s no continuing relationship beyond friendship.

SMITH: [Once the presidency ended], they were just glad to be home. Washington had very much wanted to leave after his first term, but allowed himself to be persuaded against his instincts that it was his patriotic duty [to stand for reelection]. It’s safe to say Martha was not happy. Martha wasn’t particularly happy that he took the first term. She recognized that it was unavoidable, and her life, too, had been caught up in that of her country. I’m not sure she would have divorced him if there had been a third term, but a third term was not in the cards from either one of those standpoints.

BRADY: George Washington twice had ailments that almost killed him during the time that he was president, and she was terrified that the presidency would literally kill him. When you think about every president we know, and you look at the pictures of when they start and eight years later, they [look] more than eight years older, for sure. It’s a very aging job.

SMITH: Remember, Washington’s success as president depended on his persuading everyone that he was not a political partisan. He didn’t call it a federalist government; he called it a national government. He went out of his way to include all the sections of the country. Of course, Hamilton and Jefferson had their cockfight in the cabinet, much to his displeasure. He kept those people around him long after they wanted to leave. He made that sacrifice. He was willing to see himself pilloried in the press as a dupe of King George and someone who’d betrayed the Revolution, and Martha had to suffer all of this, in effect, vicariously. It’s always been harder, in some ways, for a first lady or a presidential child to put up with the criticism than for the president, who accepts it as part of the job.

BRADY: She was involved [emotionally in the in-fighting], and she took Madison and Jefferson into hatred. She hated Thomas Jefferson once he started his newspaper campaigns against Washington. The reason Jefferson brought Washington into it, of course, was to defeat Hamilton. He said, “Oh, it’s a shame how much the president suffers from these sorts of attacks, but it’s necessary to build our party so, oh well.” She never forgave him, never. Jefferson never realized that she was smart enough to see what he was doing, but she thought Jefferson was horrible, and the fact that he was elected president was shocking to her.

SMITH: Jefferson made the mistake of underestimating Martha Washington. The flip side of that is that Martha grew even closer personally, and finally politically, to the Adamses. And she was certainly glad that it was John Adams and not Thomas Jefferson who won the presidency to succeed her husband.

BRADY: Washington lived two years [after the presidency] and Martha lived two and a half beyond that. They had a great time. The house again had broken down, and things in the fields weren’t being done the way he wanted them to be. He was experimenting with a million crops, and dealing with the grist mill, and the distillery, and all of the things he pioneered. She had to reorganize the housekeeping. But what’s so interesting is that Mount Vernon became the symbol of the nation after they retired. There is no White House; that’s not built yet. Washington, D.C., is building up, but it doesn’t really exist as a large place. When foreigners and [other] important visitors come, what do they want to see? There’s no building worth seeing in D.C. They want to see Mount Vernon, and they want to see Washington, and after Washington dies, they want to see Martha Washington and talk to her about what it was like. They see her as the living remnant of that history. So, they continue to have their posts until they die, both of them.


  • "A wonderful read for anyone who loves American history, and especially the genuinely 'inside story' of the various presidencies."–Hugh Hewitt

    “This chronological account engages pairs of historians--including the exceptional Carl Sferrazza Anthony--in discussing the personality, marriage, passions, and legacy of each first lady, resulting in a fluid, conversational style...This accessible account replaces stodgy depictions of stuffy, untouchable first ladies with the relatable, often tragic stories of the determined women who made it up as they went along, to the benefit of their husbands and country.”–Publishers Weekly

    "An appropriate and valuable examination of the lives and roles played by the 45 women most closely identified with the U.S. presidency…In this time when the role of all women in our society is undergoing a long-overdue sea change, the collection is especially valuable as an illustration of how these women adapted to, and contributed to, the presidents whose lives they shared."–The Washington Times

    “The book is a budding history buff's dream (and will likely make its readers the star of good party conversation at Mother's Day brunch).”–The Hill

On Sale
Apr 14, 2015
Page Count
496 pages

Susan Swain

About the Author

Susan Swain is C-SPAN’s co-CEO and, in addition to her senior management role at the network, has been an on-camera host for C-SPAN for more than thirty years, interviewing public officials, historians, and journalists for the public affairs network. She lives in the Washington, DC, suburbs.

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About the Author

Brian Lamb is C-SPAN’s founding CEO and chairman and longtime on-camera interviewer. Lamb lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Susan Swain is President & co-Chief Operating Officer of C-SPAN. For more than twenty-five years, she has been an on-air interviewer for the program. A regular moderator of Washington Journal, she’s interviewed hundreds of members of Congress, policy experts, journalists and several presidents. She lives in Northern Virginia.

Mark Farkas has been involved in C-SPAN feature productions for a quarter-century. In addition to his projects on the U.S. Capitol and the White House, Farkas was executive producer for C-SPAN’s 1999-2000 Peabody Award-winning series “American Presidents: Life Portraits;” the 1998 “Alexis deTocqueville Tour,” and 1994’s “Lincoln-Douglas Debates.”

Learn more about this author