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The First First Lady

Despite maintaining her usual calm, cheerful, and dignified demeanor, Martha often felt “more like a state prisoner than anything else.”

Transitions


George and Martha Washington's presidential house, Philadelphia
(Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

After Jacky’s death, Martha turned her attention to the task of assisting her son’s widow in raising the couple’s four young children. When the children’s mother remarried in 1783, the two youngest grandchildren, Eleanor Parke (Nelly) Custis, then six-years old, and George Washington Parke (“Wash” or “Tub”) Custis, then three-years old, remained at Mt. Vernon, where Martha reared them as her own.

Once George Washington was elected to be the first president under the new U.S. Constitution, however, Martha faced a new set of challenges that disrupted her peaceful domestic existence. If the War for Independence had thrown Martha into an unaccustomed role in the public spotlight, her husband’s assumption of the highest office in the new federal government only increased the unwanted glare.


Moving to the Capital

In mid-May 1789, after the inauguration, Martha, the two grandchildren and seven house slaves, set off for New York City, the temporary national capital for the new government. Almost as soon as she arrived, Martha was swept up in the new duties of her position. She was not only responsible for managing the presidential household but also for supervising the domestic affairs at Mount Vernon from a distance.

In addition, in contrast to the leisurely rhythms of agricultural life to which she was accustomed, Martha faced the unrelenting demands of social life in a big city. Each day, she was expected to dress formally, receive visitors, and make calls on important members of society. This was not how Martha would have preferred to live. Although she maintained her calm, cheerful, and dignified demeanor, she felt she was, as she told her niece, “more like a state prisoner than anything else.”


This 1861 painting by noted American portraitist Daniel Huntington was titled The Republican Court. (When it was published as a mass-marketed engraving, the title was changed to Lady Washingtonn’s Reception.) The painting is an idealized portrayal of the weekly gatherings hosted by Martha Washington during the years of George Washington’s presidency (Brooklyn Museum of Art).

Life as First Lady

Just as her husband realized that his every action might set a precedent for future presidents, so Martha, too, was aware that her behavior as first lady would become the template for the wives of future chief executives. One of her most important steps was to initiate a weekly reception, held on Friday evenings, for anyone who would like to attend. 

At these gatherings, members of Congress, visiting dignitaries, and men and women from the local community were received at the presidential mansion. After being presented to Mrs. Washington, they enjoyed refreshments, talked with each other, and mingled.  Although most guests addressed Martha as “Lady Washington,” some referred to her as “our Lady Presidentess.”*

Martha’s Receptions       

Critics occasionally complained that these weekly gatherings smacked of monarchy or represented a slavish imitation of the rituals and fashions of the discredited British Crown. Yet Martha won over the skeptics. Opening up the president’s house to ordinary citizens was a sign that the need government would be close to the people and responsive to their needs.

Moreover, although George hosted his own gatherings, Martha’s salons were more diverse, bringing together a disparate group of people: political adversaries, individuals from different parts of government, and women as well as men. According to Abigail Adams, wife of the vice-president, Martha’s behavior as first lady made her “the object of Veneration and Respect.”**

Return to Mount Vernon

After the capital moved to Philadelphia in 1791, Martha grew more comfortable in her role. There, among old friends and acquaintances, she became more accustomed to her public duties.

Still, she always longed to return home to Mount Vernon. As the political atmosphere became more noxious and partisan during Washington’s second term, her longing increased. She was undoubtedly relieved when he refused to serve a third term. In March 1797, the Washingtons set off again for Mount Vernon—once and for all.


In the mid-1790s, Dutch merchant Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest designed a Chinese porcelain service specifically to present as a gift to First Lady Martha Washington. This cup and saucer is one of the few remaining pieces of the service. The cup is emblazoned with Martha’s initials, and both pieces display the linked names of the fifteen states of the Union. A Latin inscription under Martha’s initials translates as, “Our Union is our Glory, and our Defense against Him [i.e. England’s King George III].” (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)

*Judith Sargent Murray to her parents, August 14, 1790 in From Gloucester to Philadelphia in 1790: Observations, Anecdotes, and Thoughts from the Eighteenth-Century Letters of Judith Sargent Murray (Cambridge, Mass.: Judith Sargent Murray Society, 1998), 254.

**Abigail Adams to her sister, June 12, 1789 in New Letters of Abigail Adams, 1788-1801, ed. Stewart Mitchell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1947), 15.

This article was created out of the collaborative project of George Washington's Mount Vernon and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, and is made possible through the generous support of Donald and Nancy de Laski.