Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Martha Washington on Living a Private Life in Public, 1789

Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Isabella reporting:

There has been much written in the media lately about the privacy due to the wives of public men, whether American first ladies or British princesses. While mercenary paparazzi are a modern curse, the problem of wives thrust into the glare of their husbands' spotlight is not a new one.

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (1731-1802) was the first First Lady, and an unwilling one at that. When she wed George Washington (1732-1799) in 1759, she was a twenty-seven-year-old widow with four young children and a considerable fortune. Both were Virginians born into the wealthy colonial elite, and doubtless Martha married George believing they would continue in that pleasant life, running their multiple plantations, enjoying their extended family, and dividing their time among several houses.

But the American revolution took George far from home, and as commander-in-chief of the Continental  forces, he became a larger-than-life symbol of the new country. For the eight long years of the war, Martha dutifully left her home to join George during the army's winter encampments, becoming a symbol in her own right of gracious loyalty to her husband and the cause. When the war was finally done, she longed to retire with him to Mount Vernon. Both were in their fifties (an advanced age in the 18th c.), and the stress of leadership and the hardships of the war had taken their toll on George's health. She was so publicly against him accepting the presidency that she refused to attend his inauguration in 1789.

While Martha did serve as her husband's official hostess (wearing elegant gowns like this, above left), Lady Washington - her official title - was far from happy with her new role. In this letter, right, (click to enlarge) written to her niece Fanny Bassett Washington in 1789, Martha begins with a cheerful discussion of the new fashions being worn in New York, but soon lets her true feelings show:

"I live a very dull life hear [stet] and know nothing that passes in the town - I never goe to the publick places - 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 can not doe as I like I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal."

I wonder how many modern political wives feel the same way today?

Above: Silk taffeta gown, worn by Martha Washington in 1780s. Hand-painted silk with design of flowers, butterflies, & other insects. Reproduction collar & cuffs. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian.
Below: Letter, Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington, October 23, 1789. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Many thanks to Barbara for inspiring this post - click here to visit her blog for portraits of Martha Washington.


Katherine S. Crawford said...

What a delight to find this post about Martha Washington, with whom I'm ashamed to say I'm not so familiar. I can only imagine that American first ladies feel quite the same way: trussed up, but caught, in the glorious cage of the White House.

I never knew, too, that Martha refused to attend his inauguration. How fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

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