born June 2, 1731, at Chestnut Grove Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia
died on May 22, 1802 at Mount Vernon Plantation on the Potomac, Virginia
first US-American First Lady
220th death anniversary on May 22, 2022
Martha Washington, first First Lady of the United States, the “land of the free and home of the brave,” was born in 1731 on a Virginia plantation farmed by slaves, the eldest of seven children. She maintained her early learned prejudices against blacks throughout her life. While her family was part of Virginia's upper class, they were not particularly wealthy. Martha received the usual education for girls of her class: her mother taught her how to run a large household, and she learned to read and write a little so that she could later keep in touch with her family by letter.
At eighteen, Martha married Custis, a slaveholder and plantation owner twenty years older, and gave birth to four children, of which two died young. Her husband soon died as well - by age 26, Martha Custis was a wealthy widow with two young children, John, called Jackie, and Martha, called Patsy. (Martha was also to outlive these two: Patsy developed epileptic seizures and died in 1773 at age 17; Jackie died in 1781 at age 27).
Soon the kind young woman had a number of suitors, and after a short time she chose George Washington. He was six months younger than Martha and had already made a name for himself militarily and politically.
For the next sixteen years, Martha managed the extensive household of Mount Vernon Plantation on the Potomac - farmed, of course, with the help of slaves. Their second marriage remained childless.
In 1775, George was elected commander-in-chief of the colonial troops, and that was the end of Martha's days of tranquil domesticity. During the Revolutionary Wars, she repeatedly visited her husband at his various headquarters. Her son Jackie, who assisted his stepfather as an adjutant, fell victim to “field fever” (probably typhoid), leaving behind four children. Martha and George took the two youngest and raised them as their own.
The couple remained at Mount Vernon for about five years after the war. But the government of the newly formed United States was not effective; a new constitution was drawn up providing for a president. And he could become none other than George Washington.
As she had done at Mount Vernon, Martha stood by her husband and presided with him at receptions and other official occasions. Thus she established the role that every first lady after her had to play: hostess to the nation.
After Washington completed his second term in 1797, they gladly retreated back to Mount Vernon. But the couple could not enjoy private life for long: George Washington died in 1799; Martha Washington, who had freed all slaves after his death in accordance with his testamentary disposition, died two and a half years later.
[Original of the abridged version from Pusch/Gretter, Famous Women: 300 Portraits, vol. 3. Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version), edited by Almut Nitzsche, May 2022. For additional information please consult the German version.]
Author: Luise F. Pusch
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