The True George Washington: Relations with the Fair Sex: Marriage

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


The love-affair thus alluded to had begun in March, 1758, when ill health had taken Washington to Williamsburg to consult physicians, thinking, indeed, of himself as a doomed man. In this trip he met Mrs. Martha (Dandridge) Custis, widow of Daniel Parke Custis, one of the wealthiest planters of the colony. She was at this time twenty-six years of age, or Washington's senior by nine months, and had been a widow but seven, yet in spite of this fact, and of his own expected "decay," he pressed his love-making with an impetuosity akin to that with which he had urged his suit of Miss Philipse, and (widows being proverbial) with better success. The invalid had left Mount Vernon on March 5, and by April 1 he was back at Fort Loudon, an engaged man, having as well so far recovered his health as to be able to join his command. Early in May he ordered a ring from Philadelphia, at a cost of 2.16.0; soon after receiving it he found that army affairs once more called him down to Williamsburg, and, as love-making is generally considered a military duty, the excuse was sufficient. But sterner duties on the frontier were awaiting him, and very quickly he was back there and writing to his fiance,?

"We have begun our march for the Ohio. A courier is starting for Williamsburg, and I embrace the opportunity to send a few words to one whose life is now inseparable from mine. Since that happy hour when we made our pledges to each other, my thoughts have been continually going to you as another Self. That an all-powerful Providence may keep us both in safety is the prayer of your ever faithful and affectionate friend."

Five months after this letter was written, Washington was able to date another from Fort Duquesne, and, the fall of that post putting an end to his military service, only four weeks later he was back in Williamsburg, and on January 6, 1759, he was married.

Very little is really known of his wife, beyond the facts that she was petite, over-fond, hot-tempered, obstinate, and a poor speller. In 1778 she was described as "a sociable, pretty kind of woman," and she seems to have been but little more. One who knew her well described her as "not possessing much sense, though a perfect lady and remarkably well calculated for her position," and confirmatory of this is the opinion of an English traveller that "there was nothing remarkable in the person of the lady of the President; she was matronly and kind, with perfect good breeding." None the less she satisfied Washington; even after the proverbial six months were over he refused to wander from Mount Vernon, writing that "I am now, I believe, fixed at this seat with an agreeable Consort for life," and in 1783 he spoke of her as the "partner of all my Domestic enjoyments."

John Adams, in one of his recurrent moods of bitterness and jealousy towards Washington, demanded, "Would Washington have ever been commander of the revolutionary army or president of the United States if he had not married the rich widow of Mr. Custis?" To ask such a question is to overlook the fact that Washington's colonial military fame was entirely achieved before his marriage. It is not to be denied that the match was a good one from a worldly point of view, Mrs. Washington's third of the Custis property equalling "fifteen thousand acres of land, a good part of it adjoining the city of Williamsburg; several lots in the said city; between two and three hundred negroes; and about eight or ten thousand pounds upon bond," estimated at the time as about twenty thousand pounds in all, which was further increased on the death of Patsy Custis in 1773 by a half of her fortune, which added ten thousand pounds to the sum. Nevertheless the advantage was fairly equal, for Mrs. Custis's lawyer had written before her marriage of the impossibility of her managing the property, advising that she "employ a trusty steward, and as the estate is large and very extensive, it is Mr. Wallers and my own opinion, that you had better not engage any but a very able man, though he should require large wages." Of the management of this property, to which, indeed, she was unequal, Washington entirely relieved her, taking charge also of her children's share and acting for their interests with the same care with which he managed the part he was more directly concerned in.

He further saved her much of the detail of ordering her own clothing, and we find him sending for "A Salmon-colored Tabby of the enclosed pattern, with satin flowers, to be made in a sack," "1 Cap, Handkerchief, Tucker and Ruffles, to be made of Brussels lace or point, proper to wear with the above negligee, to cost 20," "1 pair black, and 1 pair white Satin Shoes, of the smallest," and "1 black mask." Again he writes his London agent, "Mrs. Washington sends home a green sack to get cleaned, or fresh dyed of the same color; made up into a handsome sack again, would be her choice; but if the cloth won't afford that, then to be thrown into a genteel Night Gown." At another time he wants a pair of clogs, and when the wrong kind are sent he writes that "she intended to have leathern Gloshoes." When she was asked to present a pair of colors to a company, he attended to every detail of obtaining the flag, and when "Mrs. Washington ... perceived the Tomb of her Father ... to be much out of Sorts" he wrote to get a workman to repair it. The care of the Mount Vernon household proving beyond his wife's ability, a housekeeper was very quickly engaged, and when one who filled this position was on the point of leaving, Washington wrote his agent to find another without the least delay, for the vacancy would "throw a great additional weight on Mrs. Washington;" again, writing in another domestic difficulty, "Your aunt's distresses for want of a good housekeeper are such as to render the wages demanded by Mrs. Forbes (though unusually high) of no consideration." Her letters of form, which required better orthography than she was mistress of, he draughted for her, pen-weary though he was.

It has already been shown how he fathered her "little progeny," as he once called them. Mrs. Washington was a worrying mother, as is shown by a letter to her sister, speaking of a visit in which "I carried my little patt with me and left Jacky at home for a trial to see how well I could stay without him though we were gon but wone fortnight I was quite impatient to get home. If I at aney time heard the doggs barke or a noise out, I thought thair was a person sent for me. I often fancied he was sick or some accident had happened to him so that I think it is impossible for me to leave him as long as Mr. Washington must stay when he comes down." To spare her anxiety, therefore, when the time came for "Jacky" to be inoculated, Washington "withheld from her the information ... & purpose, if possible, to keep her in total ignorance ... till I hear of his return, or perfect recovery;... she having often wished that Jack wou'd take & go through the disorder without her knowing of it, that she might escape those Tortures which suspense wd throw her into." And on the death of Patsy he wrote, "This sudden and unexpected blow, I scarce need add has almost reduced my poor Wife to the lowest ebb of Misery; which is encreas'd by the absence of her son."

When Washington left Mount Vernon, in May, 1775, to attend the Continental Congress, he did not foresee his appointment as commander-in-chief, and as soon as it occurred he wrote his wife,?

"I am now set down to write to you on a subject, which fills me with inexpressible concern, and this concern is greatly aggravated and increased, when I reflect upon the uneasiness I know it will give you. It has been determined in Congress, that the whole army raised for the defence of the American cause shall be put under my care, and that it is necessary for me to proceed immediately to Boston to take upon me the command of it.

"You may believe me, my dear Patsey, when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity, and that I should enjoy more real happiness in one month with you at home, than I have the most distant prospect of finding abroad, if my stay were to be seven times seven years.... I shall feel no pain from the toil or danger of the campaign; my unhappiness will flow from the uneasiness I know you will feel from being left alone."

To prevent this loneliness as far as possible, he wrote at the same time to different members of the two families as follows:

"My great concern upon this occasion is, the thought of leaving your mother under the uneasiness which I fear this affair will throw her into; I therefore hope, expect, and indeed have no doubt, of your using every means in your power to keep up her spirits, by doing everything in your power to promote her quiet. I have, I must confess, very uneasy feelings on her account, but as it has been a kind of unavoidable necessity which has led me into this appointment, I shall more readily hope that success will attend it and crown our meetings with happiness."

"I entreat you and Mrs. Bassett if possible to visit at Mt. Vernon, as also my wife's other friends. I could wish you to take her down, as I have no expectation of returning till winter & feel great uneasiness at her lonesome situation."

"I shall hope that my friends will visit and endeavor to keep up the spirits of my wife, as much as they can, as my departure will, I know, be a cutting stroke upon her; and on this account alone I have many very disagreeable sensations. I hope you and my sister, (although the distance is great), will find as much leisure this summer as to spend a little time at Mount Vernon."

When, six months later, the war at Boston settled into a mere siege, Washington wrote that "seeing no prospect of returning to my family and friends this winter, I have sent an invitation to Mrs. Washington to come to me," adding, "I have laid a state of difficulties, however, which must attend the journey before her, and left it to her own choice." His wife replied in the affirmative, and one of Washington's aides presently wrote concerning some prize goods to the effect that "There are limes, lemons and oranges on board, which, being perishable, you must sell immediately. The General will want some of each, as well of the sweetmeats and pickles that are on board, as his lady will be here to-day or to-morrow. You will please to pick up such things on board as you think will be acceptable to her, and send them as soon as possible; he does not mean to receive anything without payment."

Lodged at head-quarters, then the Craigie house in Cambridge, the discomforts of war were reduced to a minimum, but none the less it was a trying time to Mrs. Washington, who complained that she could not get used to the distant cannonading, and she marvelled that those about her paid so little heed to it. With the opening of the campaign in the following summer she returned to Mount Vernon, but when the army was safely in winter quarters at Valley Forge she once more journeyed northward, a trip alluded to by Washington in a letter to Jack, as follows: "Your Mamma is not yet arrived, but ... expected every hour. [My aide] Meade set off yesterday (as soon as I got notice of her intention) to meet her. We are in a dreary kind of place, and uncomfortably provided." And of this reunion Mrs. Washington wrote, "I came to this place, some time about the first of February where I found the General very well,... in camp in what is called the great valley on the Banks of the Schuylkill. Officers and men are chiefly in Hutts, which they say is tolerably comfortable; the army are as healthy as can be well expected in general. The General's apartment is very small; he has had a log cabin built to dine in, which has made our quarters much more tolerable than they were at first"

Such "winterings" became the regular custom, and brief references in various letters serve to illustrate them. Thus, in 1779, Washington informed a friend that "Mrs. Washington, according to custom marched home when the campaign was about to open;" in July, 1782, he noted that his wife "sets out this day for Mount Vernon," and later in the same year he wrote, "as I despair of seeing my home this Winter, I have sent for Mrs. Washington;" and finally, in a letter he draughted for his wife, he made her describe herself as "a kind of perambulator, during eight or nine years of the war."

Another pleasant glimpse during these stormy years is the couple, during a brief stay in Philadelphia, being entertained almost to death, described as follows by Franklin's daughter in a letter to her father: "I have lately been several times abroad with the General and Mrs. Washington. He always inquires after you in the most affectionate manner, and speaks of you highly. We danced at Mrs. Powell's your birthday, or night I should say, in company together, and he told me it was the anniversary of his marriage; it was just twenty years that night" Again there was junketing in Philadelphia after the surrender at Yorktown, and one bit of this is shadowed in a line from Washington to Robert Morris, telling the latter that "Mrs. Washington, myself and family, will have the honor of dining with you in the way proposed, to-morrow, being Christmas day."

With the retirement to Mount Vernon at the close of the war, little more companionship was obtained, for, as already stated, Washington could only describe his home henceforth as a "well resorted tavern," and two years after his return he entered in his diary, "Dined with only Mrs. Washington which I believe is the first instance of it since my retirement from public life."

Even this was only a furlough, for in six years they were both in public life again. Mrs. Washington was inclined to sulk over the necessary restraints of official life, writing to a friend, "Mrs. Sins will give you a better account of the fashions than I can?I live a very dull life hear and know nothing that passes in the town?I never goe to any public place?indeed I think I am more like a State prisoner than anything else; there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from?and as I cannot doe as I like, I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal."

None the less she did her duties well, and in these "Lady Washington" was more at home, for, according to Thacher, she combined "in an uncommon degree, great dignity of manner with most pleasing affability," though possessing "no striking marks of beauty," and there is no doubt that she lightened Washington's shoulders of social demands materially. At the receptions of Mrs. Washington, which were held every Friday evening, so a contemporary states, "the President did not consider himself as visited. On these occasions he appeared as a private gentleman, with neither hat nor sword, conversing without restraint."

From other formal society Mrs. Washington also saved her husband, for a visitor on New Year's tells of her setting "'the General' (by which title she always designated her husband)" at liberty: "Mrs. Washington had stood by his side as the visitors arrived and were presented, and when the clock in the hall was heard striking nine, she advanced and with a complacent smile said, 'The General always retires at nine, and I usually precede him,' upon which all arose, made their parting salutations, and withdrew." Nor was it only from the fatigues of formal entertaining that the wife saved her husband, Washington writing in 1793, "We remain in Philadelphia until the 10th instant. It was my wish to have continued there longer; but as Mrs. Washington was unwilling to leave me surrounded by the malignant fever which prevailed, I could not think of hazarding her, and the Children any longer by my continuance in the City, the house in which we live being in a manner blockaded by the disorder, and was becoming every day more and more fatal; I therefore came off with them."

Finally from these "scenes more busy, tho' not more happy, than the tranquil enjoyment of rural life," they returned to Mount Vernon, hoping that in the latter their "days will close." Not quite three years of this life brought an end to their forty years of married life. On the night that Washington's illness first became serious his secretary narrates that "Between 2 and 3 o'clk on Saturday morning he [Washington] awoke Mrs. Washington & told her he was very unwell, and had had an ague. She ... would have got up to call a servant; but he would not permit her lest she should take cold." As a consequence of this care for her, her husband lay for nearly four hours in a chill in a cold bedroom before receiving any attention, or before even a fire was lighted. When death came, she said, "Tis well?All is now over?I have no more trials to pass through?I shall soon follow him." In his will he left "to my dearly beloved wife" the use of his whole property, and named her an executrix.

As a man's views of matrimony are more or less colored by his personal experience, what Washington had to say on the institution is of interest. As concerned himself he wrote to his nephew, "If Mrs. Washington should survive me, there is a moral certainty of my dying without issue: and should I be the longest liver, the matter in my opinion, is hardly less certain; for while I retain the faculty of reasoning, I shall never marry a girl; and it is not probable that I should have children by a woman of an age suitable to my own, should I be disposed to enter into a second marriage." And in a less personal sense he wrote to Chastellux,?

"In reading your very friendly and acceptable letter,... I was, as you may well suppose, not less delighted than surprised to meet the plain American words, 'my wife.' A wife! Well, my dear Marquis, I can hardly refrain from smiling to find you are caught at last. I saw, by the eulogium you often made on the happiness of domestic life in America, that you had swallowed the bait, and that you would as surely be taken, one day or another, as that you were a philosopher and a soldier. So your day has at length come. I am glad of it, with all my heart and soul. It is quite good enough for you. Now you are well served for coming to fight in favor of the American rebels, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, by catching that terrible contagion?domestic felicity?which same, like the small pox or the plague, a man can have only once in his life; because it commonly lasts him (at least with us in America?I don't know how you manage these matters in France) for his whole life time. And yet after all the maledictions you so richly merit on the subject, the worst wish which I can find in my heart to make against Madame de Chastellux and yourself is, that you may neither of you ever get the better of this same domestic felicity during the entire course of your mortal existence."

Furthermore, he wrote to an old friend, whose wife stubbornly refused to sign a deed, "I think, any Gentleman, possessed of but a very moderate degree of influence with his wife, might, in the course of five or six years (for I think it is at least that time) have prevailed upon her to do an act of justice, in fulfiling his Bargains and complying with his wishes, if he had been really in earnest in requesting the matter of her; especially, as the inducement which you thought would have a powerful operation on Mrs. Alexander, namely the birth of a child, has been doubled, and tripled."

However well Washington thought of "the honorable state," he was no match-maker, and when asked to give advice to the widow of Jack Custis, replied, "I never did, nor do I believe I ever shall, give advice to a woman, who is setting out on a matrimonial voyage; first, because I never could advise one to marry without her own consent; and, secondly because I know it is to no purpose to advise her to refrain, when she has obtained it. A woman very rarely asks an opinion or requires advice on such an occasion, till her resolution is formed; and then it is with the hope and expectation of obtaining a sanction, not that she means to be governed by your disapprobation, that she applies. In a word the plain English of the application may be summed up in these words: 'I wish you to think as I do; but, if unhappily you differ from me in opinion, my heart, I must confess, is fixed, and I have gone too far now to retract.'" Again he wrote:

"It has ever been a maxim with me through life, neither to promote nor to prevent a matrimonial connection, unless there should be something indispensably requiring interference in the latter. I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one's life, the foundation of happiness or misery. To be instrumental therefore in bringing two people together, who are indifferent to each other, and may soon become objects of disgust; or to prevent a union, which is prompted by the affections of the mind, is what I never could reconcile with reason, and therefore neither directly nor indirectly have I ever said a word to Fanny or George, upon the subject of their intended connection."

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