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  • Writer's pictureLiz Bowers

The Worthiest Companion: Martha Washington

"I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time nor distance can change." - George Washington (to his wife, 1775)

Martha Custis Washington (June 2, 1731 - May 22, 1802) was America's first First Lady. Our society doesn't look as kindly upon the Washington family these days as they once did, focusing much of the narrative surrounding our nation's first family on the fact that they owned slaves. They especially take issue with Martha who did not seem to share her husband's same doubts about the moral practice of slavery. Martha was a private person who burned the letters passed between her husband and herself after his death, so we don't know what conversations may have taken place in their correspondence regarding this and other issues. Given these unknowns, I want to focus today on the Washingtons as a couple and a family.

Born Martha Dandridge in 1731, Martha grew up on her family's modest tobacco plantation in Virginia. She was the first of eight total siblings. Her father was very well respected, so she would have been expected to make a very good match with someone of her own class when she came of age. Instead, she caught the eye of one of the most eligible bachelor's in Virginia, Daniel Parke Custis. They, by all reports, were happily married for seven years. Martha would have spent her days managing her household, supervising household slaves, and hosting parties for local and visiting gentry. Together they had four children, two of which did not live past childhood. One thing that struck me as I studied Martha's life was the incredible amount of loss she endured. Losing two children in their toddlerhood then being widowed. Her other two children would only live into young adulthood, her daughter dying at the young age of 17 and her son dying of camp fever at Yorktown. The one bright spot seems to be the strength of her relationship with her second husband, George Washington who took in and raised her children as his own.

Her dedication to her family is certainly undeniable as she spent every winter of the war with her husband in whatever camp he might be. She entertained Officers, allies, foreign dignitaries; made hospital visits; gave great encouragement to her husband; and generally lifted the spirits of the whole camp. Meanwhile, she and George had taken in two of their grandchildren to raise at Mount Vernon like they were their own. Later they would also take in two of George's nephews and Martha's niece. When their family suffered loss, they pulled together and looked to God for comfort.

Famously, Martha insisted on having her daily devotions from 9 am to 10 am and was not to be disturbed by anyone during that time. In the evenings before bed, she would read the Bible, pray, and sing hymns with her granddaughter.

As a hostess, she set the example for all First Lady's to follow. Holding 'levees' each week where the public was welcome to come and make their needs and grievances known. Critics would say that these functions were too much like the European practice of holding court, but because the Washingtons didn't bar regular citizens from participating it quickly became clear that they wished the new government to be close and responsive to the voice of the people.

Throughout her life, Martha would also lose several grandchildren and great-grandchildren to various illnesses in their childhood, finally, she outlived George too. When he died she proclaimed that she had nothing left to fear and longed to follow her husband in death. She moved from the room they shared together, burned the letters they had passed back and forth throughout their forty-year marriage, and never again entered their bedroom or his office. Though she was struggling in her own grief, she patiently accepted the many condolence callers who felt that they had lost this great man as well.

Martha died a little over two years later and the papers eulogized her as a Worthy Companion for the Worthiest of Men. Their family certainly did not fit the ideal cookie cutter that we would consider the traditional family unit. Yet the nation's first First Lady and Family have a lot to teach us about faith, loyalty, hospitality, and duty to our own loved ones across generations.

What can we learn from the Washington Family about family as a principle of freedom? What would the nation look like if they followed your family as their role models? Do you think that the White House could host 'levees' similar to the ones hosted by Martha Washington today?

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