Martha Washington became a recognized and beloved patriot for her service during the American Revolution. After the War both Martha and George expected to return to their private lives at Mount Vernon. Things changed, however, when George Washington was elected to lead the new American government. During Washington’s presidency, Martha also broke barriers when she became the recognized and admired first First Lady of the United States. Although she was unhappy and depressed at first, Mrs. Washington learned to navigate the complicated political world of the newly formed American republic. She proved to be a warm and gracious hostess who made people feel welcome at social gatherings where President Washington and other important political players met. The gatherings proved to be an important part of shaping the presidency, since they allowed Washington to make important political connections and also gave people the idea that their president was accessible to them. By drawing from the republican ideals of the time, the First Lady’s set social and political precedents for both for people and for future first ladies. Mrs. Washington understood the importance of the image she and President Washington portrayed to the nation and to foreign powers. Martha Washington broke barriers as she remained an active First Lady who had an enduring impact on American society.

The first First Lady

A Gracious Hostess

A Dignified Appearance

Important Symbolism

Important Symbolism

Martha Washington achieved a delicate balance in her personal appearance, and she was careful not to appear overly pretentious or monarchical. The republican ideals of the time favored simple American made goods as a symbol of American democracy. Extravagant luxuries, however, were considered symbolic of European governments. Mrs. Washington embraced a more modest style, but she did own expensive jewelry, clothing, and shoes.

Primary Source: Letter from George Washington to Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, 1790

At the end of this letter, President Washington discussed his and Mrs. Washington’s desire for simplicity and respectability. However, Washington did not mean that they were ever going to appear less than dignified before the world. Citizens of the new republic were too familiar with the misconceptions foreigners had about them. People who were not familiar with the former North American colonies, believed that its inhabitants were uneducated savage-like creatures who were unaccustomed to finer things. Personal style meant different things to different people during the early republic.

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A Lasting Impact

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