Why you should care
Because behind the knitting needles, Martha was a fiercely independent woman.
Sitting at her writing desk in Philadelphia, Martha Washington penned a letter to her beloved sister, Nancy. “Last week our boats made another attempt on the ships of the north river,” she wrote in the 1776 letter, discussing nothing of needlework but plenty about military advances along the Hudson River. The correspondence reveals that America’s founding mother was acutely aware of her husband’s work. “I thank God we shant want men,” she confidently writes. “The army at New York is very large.”
“It speaks volumes about their relationship,” says Lynn Price, assistant editor of the Washington Papers project at the University of Virginia, which has published comprehensive editions of the first president’s letters. Far from political, George Washington’s information-sharing was based on an emotional dependence on his wife. There was a tremendous amount of respect between the two, Price explains. “We now know she was acutely aware of all that was going on,” she says.
For years, it was presumed that Martha was a frumpy old lady sitting in the background with a jumble of knitting. But her words, says Price, speak volumes to her strength and usefulness to the nation’s first president. George empowered his wife further by paying for her to travel to see him, recuperating the costs as a work expense, according to documents analyzed by the Washington Papers. “He felt she was essential to his job,” Price says. “He started out saying she’ll miss me, and it turned out he couldn’t live without her.”
She wasn’t a brilliant thinker or leader, but she was the indispensable woman to the man.
The president, a rampant worrier vulnerable to depression, also leaned on his wife for comfort and reassurance. Martha’s strong temperament — she outlived her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, and their four children — would’ve enabled her to thrive for years while her husband was away, but she actually spent many of George’s army years by his side. In doing so, she set the tone as the country’s original “first lady” — a term not coined until the 20th century — welcoming dignitaries, visiting sick soldiers and comforting her husband through tough times. “She was his psychological support,” says historian Patricia Brady, author of Martha Washington, An American Life. “She wasn’t a brilliant thinker or leader, but she was the indispensable woman to the man.”
Although idealists have attempted to paint Martha as a feminist, her family and motherhood were most important to her, as were the conventions of the time. Nor was she socially progressive. Martha “believed in white superiority, and she did not doubt slavery,” says Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a professor of Black American Studies and History at the University of Delaware. A woman of the South, Martha married into wealth so great that on the death of her first husband, she was left with about 17,500 acres of land and 317 slaves, making her among the richest women in Virginia. That inheritance alone allowed George to buy more than triple the size of his plantation at Mount Vernon — from 2,650 acres in 1757 to 8,251 acres in 1787, elevating him in society and allowing him to pursue his political ambitions. Martha coincidentally did emancipate George’s 123 slaves after he died — but wasn’t prompted so much by goodwill or conviction as much as by fear. Her husband’s will stipulated that his slaves would be freed only upon Martha’s death. “You go to bed with your eyes wide open knowing that the only thing standing between the emancipation of 123 slaves is your death,” says Dunbar. “It spooked her — she did it because she was nervous.”
Though aptly described as “a woman of her time,” Martha also proved cunning at maintaining her privacy. She burned all of her correspondence with her husband, preventing “outsiders from getting their nasty fingers on her letters,” Brady says. Though it has caused speculation of infidelity, historians believe Martha was simply protecting her relationship. Much like modern White House couples, she did not want her intimacies in the press.
Yet hints of their tenderness for one another remain. Last year, for example, the Washington Papers discovered a missed note scribbled on the back of a letter from Martha’s son John Parke Custis to George on September 11, 1777, the day of the Battle of Brandywine. Martha had written a brief note to George about a silver cup she wanted him to collect. Despite its brevity, the note reveals an impressive intimacy between the couple after 20 years of marriage: It begins with “My love.”