Our respect for our Founding Fathers extends to the women who stood with them. Martha Custis Washington was one of those; she quietly carried the United States through its birth years. In her place beside the Father of our Country, she became our founding matriarch.
Standing a foot shorter than George, Martha was “fair to behold, of fascinating manners, and splendidly endowed with worldly benefits.” In an age of long courtships, they decided quickly, and married when George returned from the Fort Duquesne campaign in the French and Indian War. The young widow brought with her into marriage a 4 year old son and 2 year old daughter. She and George would have no children of their own.
Martha lost her only daughter to epilepsy at age 17. Mourning Patsy’s death, Martha wrote to her future daughter-in-law, who would wed their son, “Jackie”: “God took from me a daughter when the June roses were blooming. He has now given me another…when winter winds are blowing.” Others—two grandchildren and a niece—later joined the family to fill the void left by Patsy’s death.
Martha, George, and children made their home at Mount Vernon, with its 9000 acres on the scenic Potomac. George was a contented gentlemen farmer who directed a prosperous estate, and both expected a placid life together on the Potomac’s peaceful shores.
Destiny decided otherwise. When the struggling colonies began their climb to independence, George was called to be the commanding general of the Revolutionary War. It took eight long years to defeat the British Goliath. During that time, the general came home only once, for a few days, as the war brought him near. Martha raised her children alone at Mount Vernon. Her sacrifice was no less than his in the effort for liberty.
During the war, military campaigns were put on hold during winter, which allowed Martha to join her husband briefly at their encampments. A winter journey by horse and carriage was difficult. Martha disliked travel and had never gone far from home, but made the journey each year to be with her husband. She lived first-hand the suffering at Valley Forge the winter of 1777-78, when starvation, freezing temperatures and raging camp illnesses killed one-fourth of the Colonial Army’s 10,000 troops. A recalcitrant Congress, quibbling states, and a derelict supply officer left thousands without clothing, food, and medical supplies.
Martha helped; weather permitting, she went from tent to tent to give comfort. Some men wore only blankets for protection from near zero temperatures, their rotted rags having fallen from emaciated bodies. In bad weather, and if materials were available, she and other women knit and sewed for the destitute soldiers.
After the war, Martha and George had five years together at Mount Vernon. Both hoped it would last the rest of their lives. Again, destiny called. A new Constitution emerged from the Constitutional Convention in 1787. George Washington, by unanimous vote, became the nation’s first president, with Martha at his side. Her years as mistress of a bustling estate gave her the skills needed to carry out the exacting hospitality demanded of a new national executive. Mount Vernon would have to wait.
Finally, after eight difficult years, The Washingtons joyfully returned home. Martha wrote that she and George felt “like children just released from…a hard taskmaster”. The estate had fallen into neglect, finances were strained, and constant visitors, come to meet the nation’s great man, drained their finances and energy. George insisted that former soldiers who visited be fed and given a few dollars, and Martha obliged.
Their time together was short. In the late evening of December 14, 1799, a violent throat infection took Washington’s life. He and Martha had been home for less than three years. “Tis well”, she said. “I shall soon follow him.” Two and a half years later she joined her husband in death. Her steadiness had sustained not only our first president, but the nation, as well.