Martha Washington

Martha Washington.png

Martha Washington. Devoted wife to George. Gray headed and plump. Sweet and grandmotherly.

That pretty much sums up what many of us think or know about Martha Washington. But this is only a fraction of the reality of Martha's life.

For one thing, she wasn't always a gray haired granny. (Not that there is anything wrong with either of those! says she who happens to fits both categories.)

But there's just so much more.

Martha, known as Patsy to those who loved her, had a privileged background. Born into a middle class Virginia family, she married into greater wealth with her first marriage at the age of 18. But her life was anything but easy.

Martha's life required great strength, and fortunately she knew where to obtain it.

By the time she was 25 she had borne four children and buried two. And then her husband Daniel Custis died suddenly when he was just 45, leaving her a widow with two babies. (He was nearly two decades older than she!)

This is what Martha may have looked like about the time of her marriage to George.

Martha immediately took on the task of managing the five Custis plantations. From remaining letters to the buyers in England, it is clear she handled these new responsibilities quiet capably!

Within a year and a half, Martha, now 27, had married George, also 27, beginning what would become a 41 year love story. Though they may not have had the most passionate start to their marriage, all accounts indicate their love only burned more and more through the years. George also loved her children and reared them as his own.

Patsy, age 16
But all was not unalloyed happiness. One great sadness was that no children were born to George and Martha. And when at the age of 12 her daughter began to have seizures, Martha worried. They sought the help of a number of doctors, and became increasingly concerned as the seizures worsened over time. Then one night at dinner, Patsy, 17, had a seizure which took her life. Her stepfather wrote next day to a friend:
It is an easier to conceive, than to describe, the distress of  this Family, especially that of the unhappy Parent of our Dear Patcy Custis, when I inform you that yesterday removed the Sweet, Innocent Girl into a more happy and peaceful abode than any she has met with, the aflicted path she hitherto has trod. She rose from Dinner about four Oclock, in better health & spirits than she appeared to be in for some time; soon after she was seized with one of her usual fits & expird in it, in less than Two minutes without a word, a groan or scarce a Sigh.

A few years later, George was called upon to serve his country as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. This meant leaving his beloved Mount Vernon for the next six years. But George wasn't about to be separated from Martha for that entire time. No, each winter he requested her presence at his winter quarters, even when that meant she needed to cross enemy lines to get there. All in all, she spent nearly half the war with him. Lafayette commented that Martha was madly in love with her General.

Yet once again grief struck, and just at the time when relief was in sight. Martha's remaining child, Jacky, who had a reputation for being something of a spoiled young man, had been serving his stepfather as an aide at Yorktown. While there he acquired a camp illness, and died a few days after the British surrender. At the age of 50, Martha had outlived all her children.

For a while George and Martha enjoyed relative peace, but then George was called upon to once again to serve his country, this time as the first president. Martha argued vehemently against this, feeling that at 57 George was too old to enter public service again. She even refused to attend the inauguration. But once George had taken on this responsibility, she gave herself to again serving him (and her country) by joining him in this work. She moved first to New York and then to Philadelphia, taking their two adopted grandchildren along, graciously serving as the first first lady, even though she felt as if she were a prisoner of state for these eight years.

George and Martha's bedroom at Mt. Vernon
Finally George and Martha were able to retire to their lovely home on the banks of the Potomac. They enjoyed a few years of ease. But while still a strong, vibrant man at the age of 67, George came down with an infection which took his life within a few days.

Martha's smaller final bedroom
Grief stricken, Martha closed up their bedroom, not uncommon for a widow of the time. But instead of returning after six months of mourning as was usual, she never returned to this room which had seen so many years of love and companionship. Instead she spent the last two years of her life living in a simpler room at the top of their home. (When we visited in December, we were able to see this room which is often not open for display.)

Martha experienced much loss throughout her lifetime. She outlived two husbands and all four of her children. She experienced infertility in her second marriage. Often she carried heavy responsibilities and burdens. And she served as the helpmeet to a man who literally bore the weight of the country on his shoulders, both during the Revolution and later during his two terms as president.

How could Martha endure such hardships, and do it with what many described as great grace? In fact, rather than pull into herself, she continued to think of others around her and serve them selflessly, even at the times of her deepest sorrows.

Martha had a secret. She knew where to find the strength she needed, and it was not in herself.

Every day of her adult life, according to her grandson, right after breakfast Martha would retire to her bedroom for an hour of Bible reading and prayer.

I'm convinced this is where Martha drew her strength to carry on each day. To love her children when her heart was breaking. To start anew with a second husband she hardly knew. To later love and rear her grandchildren. To love faithfully her husband and help give him private strength he needed in order to face the world and make difficult decisions that he was called upon to make.

Martha relied not on herself, but on the Lord and His might.

Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD 
And whose trust is the LORD.
For he will be like a tree planted by the water, 
That extends its roots by a stream 
And will not fear when the heat comes; 
But its leaves will be green, 
And it will not be anxious in a year of drought 
Nor cease to yield fruit. (Jeremiah 17: 7, 8)


Grace said…
Thank you, Anne. This was so helpful.

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