“I have learned from experience that the greater part of
our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not on our circumstances.”
Born: Virginia, 1731
Married: Daniel Custis, 1749
George Washington, 1759
Children: Four (two died in infancy, one at 17 and one at 27)
First Lady: 1789-1797
Died: 1802 at age 70
Martha’s World: First U.S. capital established in New York, first president of the United States, first First Lady, first national bank opened, first mint founded . . .first almost everything.
In 1783, at the age of 51, Martha Washington was overjoyed to return to Mt. Vernon and retire with her husband. It wasn’t a real retirement since she still had to raise two grandchildren, manage a large plantation, entertain hundreds of friends and acquaintances, cook, weave, pay the bills, and care for her husband. But it was a vast improvement over living in huts and temporary houses during the Revolutionary War, where she darned socks, made bandages, cared for wounded soldiers and struggled through the mud and ice of Philadelphia and Valley Forge. Mt. Vernon from 1783 to 1789 was a pleasant time, but it was only a short lull in a hard and oftentimes sorrowful life for Martha.
In 1789, at the age of 57, Martha Washington had to begin a new career as our first “First Lady.” She didn’t want to leave Mt. Vernon, but the young country desperately needed George Washington as its first President, so she bundled up some belongings, her two grandchildren, and a few servants, and moved to New York. The trip was long and the weather did not cooperate. She actually missed the first inauguration and inaugural ball. Upon her arrival, she would have no rest, since her husband had already scheduled a large dinner for the next afternoon. Thus started eight years of receptions, dinners, callings, and entertainment that drained the energy and the resources of our first presidential couple. They lived in small houses in New York and Philadelphia, our first two capitol cities, during Washington’s two terms in office. Washington declined to run a third term, setting a precedent that lasted for 144 years. They never lived in Washington or the White House.
Born in Virginia, Martha received little education beyond the domestic skills expected of a good and dutiful wife-to-be. And following the established protocol of colonial Virginia, she married at age 18 to a wealthy planter almost twenty years her senior. She had four children; two who died in infancy. Her husband died in 1757, leaving her a widow at age 26 with two young children. She met and married George Washington in 1759. The few letters that remain show a very considerate and smitten young George; and the fact that Martha was a very wealthy young widow with 17,000 acres of land probably didn’t hurt her potential as a good candidate for life partner. Her mild and gentle nature aside, Martha followed husband General George into service to their country: onto the battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War... all the way to the White House. Her two children lived with them, but her daughter died of epilepsy in 1773, and her son died of fever in 1781. Her son left a wife and four children, and George and Martha adopted the two youngest and raised them as their own.
Martha entered the “President’s House” not knowing what to do, what to wear, what to serve, when to appear in public, or when to disappear. She had no role model and no instructions. But Martha had successfully managed a large plantation for years and quickly assumed the role of our nation’s first hostess with charm and dignity. She took no personal interest in politics, but devoted her life to her husband and family. She wrote of that time, “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.” Although criticized by some for being too regal and by others for being too common, Lady Washington was loved and admired by most for being a gentle, kind spirit, and always gracious and courteous.
After the presidency, the Washingtons returned to Mt. Vernon for two peaceful years before George, her dear friend and companion of 40 years, passed away. Martha lived another two and a half years before dying in 1802 of fever at the age of 70. Martha was raised in the Church of England and attended St. Peter’s Church as a child. She also brought up her children and grandchildren in the church and regularly read her Bible. One reference indicates that her daughter-in-law, Nellie, used to read the Psalms to her or sing her favorite hymns when Martha retired each evening at 9:00 o’clock.
During the Revolutionary War, Martha traveled north each winter to be with her husband wherever his troops were barracked for the season. One winter they were in Cambridge and she was dismayed to discover that the old Christ Church had been boarded up and abandoned. At Martha’s request, the church was reopened and restored in time for a New Year’s Day church service.
A participant wrote that it was a moving service with the soldiers escorting General Washington into the church with fife and drum and the little church resonating with the strong voices of the men singing hymns. When the chaplain read from Psalms 118 and 119, it brought tears to many eyes. A viola and clarinet provided music, because they could not use the organ. The pipes had long been pulled out and turned into ammunition.
When she was dying with the fever, Martha sent for her clergyman and received last communion. Although we know little of her formal religion, we know her faith from her actions. Despite the loss of a husband and four children, she never gave up hope. Although it would have been easy for her to assume the role of a cultured lady, sipping tea and giving parties, she went to Valley Forge to support her husband, her soldiers, and her new country. She was our first First Lady, and set an example of compassion and caring for all the First Ladies who followed.
I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me and set me in a large place. The Lord is on my side: I will not fear: what can man do unto me? The Lord taketh my part with them that help me: therefore shall I see my desire upon them that hate me. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidences in princes (Psalm 118:5-9).
And I will walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts. I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed (Psalm 119: 45-46).
Of the hundreds of lessons we might learn from Martha, perhaps the most important is the consistency of the Word of God. We read Psalms 118 and 119, and ponder the words just as Martha and George and that small band of revolutionary soldiers did more than 220 years ago. The same words, the same prayers, the same hymns are still being sung today in chapels, and barracks, in churches, and cathedrals the world over.
The choice of Scripture for that cold New Year’s Day in 1776 is certainly prophetic. The new republic needed God’s help. They needed reassurance that the Lord was on their side. They needed to “seek liberty” from kings and princes. The war was not going well; losses were high, and supplies and new recruits were low. Washington lamented that they were in a dire predicament. He thought that if they were somehow to rise above, it would have to be with the help of the “finger of Providence” blinding the eyes of the enemy to the disadvantages of the Revolutionary Army. Perhaps that one New Year’s Day church service, spearheaded by Martha, provided the small spark needed to recharge the army and eventually save the republic. The whole “Hand of Providence” was guiding the republic, as it does today. For each time we open our Bibles, we are being recharged and raised up to “walk in liberty” along God’s path.
Dear God, thank you for being the same today as yesterday, as last year, as 200 and 2000 years ago. May we always find the same comfort and guidance in your Scriptures as our fathers and forefathers before us. Amen.