Before the American Revolution, Martha Washington enjoyed a comfortable and private life at Mount Vernon, however, she found herself becoming an important public figure during the War. As the wife of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Martha Washington was with her husband in camp for much of the war. Traveling to the different encampments from Mount Vernon, however, was dangerous. Mrs. Washington ran the risk of being kidnapped by British forces or killed by artillery while stationed at the camps. Nevertheless, Mrs. Washington faced the risks and broke barriers by playing an active role during the American Revolution. The clever and gracious Mrs. Washington learned to navigate the complicated political and social realities of her new circumstances. Mrs. Washington not only took charge of the social meetings at the camps, but she also acted as Washington’s secretary and intermediary. Martha’s presence also raised morale among the officers. She even contributed to and had a public role in a fund-raising campaign that benefitted the Continental Army. Although faced with risks and unfamiliar circumstances, Martha Washington broke barriers and established herself as an important leader in her own right.

Leaving the Comforts of Home

Martha Washington and the American Revolution

Martha Washington and the American Revolution

Beginning in 1776, Martha Washington left the comforts of Mount Vernon, braving bad weather and terrible roads to visit her husband during the winter encampments. During the difficult times of the War, Martha provided much needed support to Washington. 

Primary Source: Letter from George Washington to Martha Washington, 1775

After accepting the appointment to lead the Continental Washington wrote this letter to his wife. The letter speaks to their special relationship. Washington expressed his apprehension in taking the post, mainly because it would cause Martha much anxiety. According to Washington, he feared leaving his wife more than feared the dangers of war. Nevertheless, Washington understood the severity of the situation, and he had his will written in case he died during the conflict.

A Patriot's Service

A Patriot's Service

Primary Source: Mrs. Washington's Travel Expenses, 1775-1782

When Washington submitted his expenses to Congress, he also requested that Martha’s travel expenses be compensated. As George Washington saw it, Martha also provided a service to the colonists’ cause.

In February 1778, Mrs. Washington traveled from Mount Vernon to Valley Forge. She was not alone, and despite the harsh conditions they faced, other generals’ wives made the perilous trip to visit their husbands. Prominent women, however, were not the only ones at the different camps. Less affluent women followed the Army to stay close to their husbands or to work as cooks, laundresses, and nurses, for example. Click here to explore a map of the Valley Forge encampment (1777-1778).

Called into Action

Mrs. Washington's Different Roles

Mrs. Washington's Different Roles

Primary Source: Letter from Martha Washington to Mercy Otis Warren, 1776

Mrs. Washington soon became a well-known figure throughout the colonies. While at the different encampments, people always wanted to meet this respectable lady. In this letter, for example, she declined a dinner invitation made by the Warrens. As Mrs. Washington expressed, she was busy helping the General in answering different requests. When Martha was at the camps, she sometimes acted as Washington’s secretary and wrote and copied letters for him. Throughout the War, Mrs. Washington made important connections and established friendships with other prominent women like Mercy Otis Warren who supported the colonists’ cause through her writing.

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A Time of Change

A Time of Change

The American Revolution was certainly a time of incredible change. The social and political implications of the War created the particular circumstances in which many women found themselves taking a more active role in political matters. Esther de Berdt Reed, first lady of Pennsylvania, set out to rally American women to raise funds to provide aid to Washington’s soldiers. Mrs. Washington, who witnessed the soldiers’ conditions firsthand, likely shared with the other ladies accounts of the suffering soldiers endured. The ladies were inspired to act. The money was collected throughout the American colonies and sent to Mrs. Washington in her husband’s military camp. Financial records at Mount Vernon show that she sent 6,000 pounds ($20,000) to the cause, although it is not clear whether all this money came from her or it included money she collected.

Women and Print Media

Primary Source: "Sentiments of an American Woman, 1780" (transcribed & digitized)

This pamphlet, likely authored by Reed, compared American women to historical female patriots who risked everything to protect their country. True patriots, the author argued, must make significant sacrifices (like renouncing tea and other imported goods) for the public good. The pamphlet is an impressive example of how many women were pushing the boundaries and redefining their role in the public sphere. The document also speaks to the social and political significance of early female-led fund-raising campaigns. It is important to note that this drive was likely carried out by white women around the colonies, however, at least one African-American woman is known to have donated to the cause. Free and enslaved people contributed to the War effort in different ways. 

Women after the Revolution

While many women found themselves playing an important role in political affairs during the Revolution, the creation of the new republican government did not guarantee political rights for women, as it did for men. After the War, women had no voting rights and were, as time went on, pushed back into the private sphere. Enslaved continued to be regarded as property and free blacks did not have political rights.

The Case of New Jersey
Starting in 1776, there is an interesting and short period of time where women, who met the property and residency requirements, were able to and did vote in New Jersey. The state constitution also allowed African Americans who met the requirements to vote. In 1807, however, the state legislature restricted voting rights to tax-paying white males.

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Inspiring Others

Fund-raising

Fund-raising

Primary Source: Letter from Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson to Eleanor Conway Madison, 1780

Aside from donating money herself, Martha Washington inspired other women to join the cause and help raise funds for the army. In this letter from Martha Jefferson to Eleanor Conway Madison, Mrs. Jefferson expressed that Mrs. Washington communicated with her about the ladies’ fund-raising and encouraged her to take a leading role in the activities. This letter shines a light on how a lot of prominent women actively communicated with each other about political and social matters, and it highlights the important contributions many women made to the colonists’ cause.

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A Patriot's Legacy

A Patriot's Legacy

Martha Washington’s courage and dedication made her a prominent figure who had a lasting impact on American society. Mrs. Washington was immortalized in ballads, poems, and even in U.S. currency.

Primary Source: “Saw My Hero, George”

Although Mrs. Washington was not present at the Battle of Monmouth, she did inspire this popular ballad which envisions her looking for Washington after the battle.

U.S. currency

Martha Washington's impact on the United States has endured the test of time. Mrs. Washington is the first and only woman to be the central figure featured on U.S. currency. 

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