Why Not Philly? Dinner Party Negotiations!

Thomas Jefferson played political matchmaker for Federalist Alexander Hamilton and Republican James Madison over dinner at his New York apartment on June 20, 1790 in order to work out a compromise. Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, wanted a national bank to put the country on solid financial ground. House mover and shaker Madison wanted no part of that, but wanted to establish the federal seat of government along the Potomac river in Virginia. Collegial dinner conversation with an ample supply of wine Jefferson carried back from France three months earlier eased the compromise.

Philadelphia–location where the Declaration of Independence first saw the light of day, where the Continental Congress met, and the Constitution was written. (Remember the Liberty
Bell?) Why didn’t Philly become the offical seat of the federal government in 1790?

Would the steretypes of Philly and DC have flipped if Philadelphia received the nod to become the permanent District of Hershey? Would Philly have become the town of button-down, federal bureaucrats (hard to imagine) and DC an even more rabid sports town, chewing opponents instead of high-priced hot dogs and burgers? Like many serious government decisions involving Congress, everything became very complicated, very quickly. But when it came time to inaugurate George Washington as first president in April 1789, New York served as the temporary capital since 1785. Yet Congress did not plan to make the Big Apple a permanent location–even then the fancy clothes and liberal attitudes put off the more conservative Southerners.

How did Congress decide on the Potomac site, when originally New York’s temporary site was planned to serve them until a more permanent location rose up off the Delaware River near Philadelphia?

Sit tight for the twists and turns. More than 30 cities got into the fray (almost like the bidding competition for Amazon’s second headquarters), including Trenton, NJ, a favorite of Alexander Hamilton if he couldn’t have NYC; Baltimore, MD; Norfolk, VA; Lancaser, VA; and two sites on the Potomac River, including one near Georgetown. (1)

Two sites in Pennsylvania received consideration. Philly lost favored status with Congress after a large group of Pennsylvania militia blocked the entrances to the new Congress in 1783, protesting their lack of back pay for the Revolution. Older members of Congress pushed younger veteran Col. Alexander Hamilton out the door to talk with them. He encouraged the vets to leave, so Congress could focus on resources to help them. They did, but it soured Congress on the City of Brotherly Love.

Time didn’t necessarily solve their problems, but to avoid addressing the prickly Residency problem, Madison engineered legislation to postpone the issue until 1790. This is when we take up the story. Thomas Jefferson knew about the Residency issue, even though he’d just return after a five-year tour as minister to France, just four months earlier.

He knew that President Washington preferred the Potomac location, ostensibly because it would be closer to Mount Vernon, but he would be out of office before the new Capital City was built and ready for action. Washington did not directly enter into the discussion, but he did own land within the area under consideration and became the final decider on the exact location, even insuring that Alexandria, where he had extensive holdings, would be included in the District diamond.

So Washington had a vested interest in the final location, like Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and House negotiator supreme James Madison, who also owned land along the Potomac. Their Southern plantation-owning neighbors and legislators also wanted to keep the capital far from the abolitionists in the North, fearing the loss of their key workers–free slave labor.

Dinner at Jefferson’s with Hamilton and Madison

In New York Thomas Jefferson was walking on Broadway near the President’s three-story home on June 19, 1790, when he saw Alexander Hamilton, preparing to visit Washington. Usually polished and confident, the thirty-nine year old Secretary of the Treasury looked “somber, haggard and dejected.” He’d taken a serious hit with the initial defeat of a key provision of the “The Funding Act,” his plan to get the nation back on a level fiscal playing field. (2)

In January 1790 Hamilton delivered the First Report on Public Credit, which supported the temporary capital in New York, his home state. But even more he believed it essential for the federal government to assume the debts of the Northern states in order to move the nation forward and be considered a good risk by European trading partners.

His plan would increase the power of the federal government. This did not go down well with the states rights proponents. Southern states were led by the fiesty 5’4″, 140 pound James Madison, whose mind ran circles around other House members. His home state, Virginia, as well as Maryland and Georgia, vehemently opposed “assuming” the Northern debt, particularly since their own debts were nearly paid off.

Jefferson thought maybe an evening of conversation and a few glasses of the wine he’d brought back from his assignment as minister to France would soften both men to consider a compromise. He invited both Hamilton and Madison to dinner on June 20 at his apartment, 57 Maiden Lane in New York City, just three months after he’d moved to the city.

He knew timing would be essential to the success of the negotiations. Jefferson felt the good company would bring Hamilton back to life, though he and Madison were not known to be close friends. They were polar opposites–Madison, like Jefferson, a Republican for limited government, and Hamilton, a Federalist like Washington his former commander during the Revolution, for expanded federal power to build the new united government.

Madison had flip-flopped from Nationalist to the leading foe of greater power for the national government, which confused some of his constituents, forcing him to campaign for his House seat that he’d taken for granted. He became known as “the Big Knife” for cutting “compromise bargains.” (3) He positioned his opposition to Hamilton’s plan so that Virginia might benefit.

Based on Jefferson’s account, which could be self-serving, after a satisfying meal and a few glasses of excellent French wine, Madison came around and agreed to allow the House to consider a Senate amendment for the federal government to assume the Revolutionary War debts of the Northern states. He would not vote for the “assumption” himself. Passage of his measure would be a bitter pill for the Southern states. But Madison exacted one more appeasement for Virginia from Hamilton, who provided a $1.5 million reduction in Virginia’s tax obligations. The total Northern debt came was estimated between $21 and $25 million dollars. (4)

On July 9, 1790. the House of Representatives voted 32-29 in favor of the Residence Bill, which brought the U.S. Capital to the Potomac River site. This ensured that Jefferson’s successful, hard-fought battle in the Electoral College (with John Adams) would land him in DC for his inauturation on March 4, 1801. Then on July 26, the compromise concluded when the Senate passed the Assumption Bill 34-28, making the federal government responsible for the debts from the Revolutionary War. This became Hamilton’s initial step in the establishment of the Bank of America.

When Jefferson stepped onto the podium becoming the third president of America, the population of Washington, D.C. totaled 5,000. Work concluded on the Senate chamber, but the House of Representatives yet to be finished. After the ceremony, Jefferson walked back to a boarding house across from the incomplete Capitol to eat at a communal table, no doubt wishing for an excellent glass of French wine waiting for him in his room.


(1) Ron Chernow, George Washington, (New York: Penguin Press, 2010), p. 629.

(2) Chernow, p. 634

(3) James Roger Sharp, American Politics in Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis (New York: 1993) p. 36.

(4) Cherniwm p. 637.

Reluctant First, First Lady

Martha Washington, center left, did not actually arrive in New York until a month after George’s inauguration on April 30, 1789, so she would have had no reason to be jealous of the woman in the multi-toned brown gown. Frankly if she’d been the jealous sort, life would have been difficult since women on both sides of the Atlantic had a crush on George, perhaps for his military fame or his height, over 6 foot, head and shoulders above most 18th century men. He’d perfected his dancing ability and rarely sat out in any type of music, leading out each dance, finishing long after Martha had taken a seat. She had one consolation: she knew who’d be next to her on the carriage ride home.

An understatement—to say that Martha Washington did not want to move to New York to assume the role of American Hostess-in-Chief. If people wanted to come to her home, fine, she would serve them dutifly, but to move once again after eight years away from home during the Revolution, no, it wsnt what she wanted to do. She remembered the days when she lied part of the year in military camps during the eight-year American Revolution. While she knew the accommodations might be nicer in New York, the strain on her time and her husband’s time would be even greater. No one had done this job before, so no one could provide a roadmap.

Even George, despire the draw of the position, was not anxious to become America’s first President. He knew the job would be as great a struggle as the battles already fought, being called upon to set legal, political, domestic, and moral precedent for a nation not yet on solid ground–more like a baby reaching out to be held and taught, and even loved. George wasn’t the emotional kinda guy, which might have been why some thought he’d be perfect for the job because he could see situations with clear, fresh eyes.

Because of his success as a military leader, many even today do not consider George’s prior political experience. He started in 1758, prior to his courtship of Martha, by running for the Virginia House of Burgesses when he thought he had a better than average chance. George was at home recovering from a variety of maladies that might have reduced a less ambitious man. By twenty-six George had survived smallpox, pleurisy, malaria, and dysentery. (1)

His main opponent for the House of Burgesses, Thomas Swearingen, found himself diminished in the eyes of the voters because the Frederick (VA) division he led did poorly in battle. Washington lined up his supporters outside Winchester, where voting took place. His former military aide, who talked himself into Virginia’s governor’s mansion after the Revolution, General Lighthorse Harry Lee, joined Washington’s voters. According to historian Chernow, legally landowners could moitor how their tenants voted as they stepped forward to announce their votes, which were recorded by clerks. In 1755 Washington went down to defeat (40 votes) to Thomas Swearingen (270) and Hugo West (271), but came back in 1758 to beat Swearingen, whose Frederick brigade had been defeated in battle. (2) He left for the French and Indian War before taking his seat.

Washington Steps into the Fray

By August 1774 George stepped into the Political Big Leagues when he is elected one of seven Virginia delegates to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, then becomes chairman. He department on the 30th with his manservant, Billy Lee, along with delegates Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendleton. Martha appeared ready for the sacrifices ahead and knew the mind of her husband when she spoke from the door: “I hope you will stand firm–I know George will.” (3)

In Philadelphia Washington sensed the mood that independence from Britain would not be the first order of business, “I am well satisfied that no such thing is desired by any thinking man in North America, on the contrary, that it is the ardent wish of the warmest advocates for liberty that peace and tranquility, upon constitutional grounds, may be restored and the horrors of civil discord prevented.” (4)

In the intervening months and year Parliament and the once-thought-caring-father British King George, showed a more mercenary bent. He through Parliament levied heavy taxes on a variety of essential goods, like tea, ordered American sailors kidnapped off U.S. ships to serve in the British navy, and disrespected Colonists at every turn. Britain wrote the book on what “not” to do to Colonists, then expected undying devotion. A once-docile people turned against King George and his cruelty.

During the Continental Congress George certainly acted like a candidate for President, even if the public hadn’t time to realize it. He attended services at the Presbyterian, Quaker, Roman Catholic, and a pair of Anglican churches. He dined at no less than thirty-one private homes in two months and met nearly every night at a tavern were “select gentlemen” met to “pass a few hours in the pleasures of conversation and a cheerful glass.” (5) Not unlike a Congress that meets mid-week in Washington, their spouses back in their districts tending to home and business, so nothing impedes their discussions or in the case of the Founders forces them to abandon the tavern at an early hour. The workload of Congressional committee members advances as the country matures and expands along with the issues to be addressed.

New York: First President’s Inaugural

Initially the Washingtons lived at 3 Cherry Street, New York, N.Y. in a three-story brick residence in the then fashionable northeast section of the city, a block from the East River at the time. (All that remains is a plaque under the side of the Brooklyn Bridge commenorating the location. The residence came down in 1856.) (6)

The week prior to the inaugural Washington shared a seventy-three page document with James Madison, suggesting it to be his inaugural address, including many “suggestions” for Congress. Madison, then a member of the House, explained these ideas would be better discussed individually or could be interpreted as offering undo influence (to say nothing of the fact that the entire audience would long have retired after a small percent of his address met the audience’s ears. Madison rewrote the three-page address that Washington gave to the joint session of Congress after his swearing in on April 30, 1789.

(The Confederation Congress established March 4 as the date for the President’s Inaugural, but inclement weather along the East Coast prevented the election and delayed Washington’s inauguration. Congress voted to change the date to January 20 after modern transportation made travel easier and quicker. The inauguration in 1937 marked the first to occur on January 20.)

Washington’s inauguration took place on the second floor balcony of Federal Hall, which had served for years as New York’s City Hall at Wall and Nassau streets. Architect Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, who would later lay out the Nation’s Capital in Washington, worked his magic on the building creating separate rooms in which the House and Senate would convene. It was in the latter that Washington spoke. New York’s rumor mill buzzed all week about the two hundred workmen who were frantically rushed to complete the building in time. Just a few days before the event the golden eagle was hoisted into position onto the pediment to complete the building. (7)

An important note setting Americans apart from the British monarchy. Members of Congress rose as Washington entered the Senate chamber, but immediately sat after rising in respect to the office. In Britain Parliament then remained stading throughout the speech.

Washington began with words of humility for his selection, then noted the “shared responsibility” of the president and the Congress to preserve “thesacred fire of liberty” and the “republican form of government.” He expressed his belief (or Madison’s belief?) that the nation’s advances as an independent nation through tranquil measures have been “distinguished by some token of providential agency.” Washington gave credit to the “talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism which adorn the characters selected to devise and adopt” the Great Constitutional Charter under which the group assembled, “efining their powers and the objectives to which your attention is to be given.” (8)

The first president’s message to the patriots of 1789 could encourage the American people to work together to make the “experiment” work:

“Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that regards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained: And since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican nodel of Government, are justly considered as deeply, parhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” (9)

Washington expressed concern that in amending the Constitution future generations consider alterations “which might endanger the benefits of an (sp) United and effective government or , , , await the future lessons of experience: a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen, and a regard for the public harmony…” (10)

(1) Ron Chernow, George Washington, (New York: Penguin Group, 2010) p. 75.

(2) Chernow, p. 67

(3) Patricia Brady, Martha Washington, (New York: The Penguin Group, 2005) p. 92

(4) Writing from Philadelphia during the Continental Congress to his friend Robert McKenzie in Boston, October 9, 1774. John Rhodehamel, ed., George Washington Writings, (New York: 1997, p. 160.

(5) Washington Dairies, 3: 285.

(6) Chernow, p. 564.

(7) Chernow, p. 567.

(8) https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/american_originals/inaugtxt.html

(9) (10) Ibid.

Revolutionary Lady: Martha Washington

Martha Washington painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1776. Mount Vernon Ladies Association

Likenesses painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772 and 1776 portray a handsome woman of substance who in the latter work foregoes her earlier solemn composure for the wisp of an appealing smile. (1) Lace framing her bodice in the 1776 painting softens Martha and her eyes stare out as if to converse with us. By this time George would be heavily involved with the Revolution, but Martha is the picture of calm composure. Maybe this is the device of Peale or the result of her pleasure with her life decisions and confidence in her spouse.

After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress selected her spouse as “General of the American Army” to wrangle the ragtag group of Colonists to stand up to the British’s well-honed fighting machine. While patriot George Washington would have gone to war in any event, the fact that he had access to his wife’s resources made it much easier for him to leave and know he had a wife experienced in overseeing a plantation with the wherewithal to hire an overseer should one be needed. Many other generals and soldiers did not have this financial support and found their homes and acreage useless upon their return. Others had their homes burned by the British.

At first Martha stayed bravely at home despite British governor Lord Dunmore’s threat to kidnp her as he traveled down the Potomac River on a Britishman-of-war not far from Mount Vernon. An expert horsewoman, Martha let it be known she was unafraid of British marines, who she said she could easily out-ride. Besides, she knew the Virginia woods much better than any foreign sailor. For his part George sent out his own response: “Lord Dunmore can’t act so low and so unmanly as to think of seizing Mrs. Washington by way of revenge on me.” (2)

Washington at Valley Forge (1854) artist: Thompkiss Harrison Matteson depicted Martha Washington offering devoted care to soldiers. .

But after the New York press implied she stayed away from George because she was “warm to the Tories” and living a separate life in New York, (3) Martha quickly packed and quelled the rumors after George’s letter of invite in 1775, traveling to winter camp in Cambridge.

The well-trained, well-outfitted, experienced British military seemed to have the upper hand in the beginning and Colonial troops swiftly took the opportunity to leave when their short, initial commissions were over. When the outcome looked bleakest for the Americans in 1778, during the frigid days and nights at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, Martha proved herself. She didn’t hold back at their warm Mount Vernon plantation, but joined George and worked to improve life for the troops.

Mount Vernon researchers have determiend that Martha spent 52-54 of the 103 months of the eight-year war (April 1775-December 1783) with George and his soldiers. She went north again for spring camp in New York in 1776, then attended spring camp at Morristown, New Jersey in 1777 before going to Valley Forge in 1778. (4)

While at Valley Forge Martha Washington organized wealthy Philadelphia women into committees to raise money for troop supplies and to sew needed blankets and garmets for them. (Library of Congress)

Martha and Esther Gather Women to Aid Revolution

But Martha didn’t just “stay” in camp. In June 1780 after noting bloody, bootless feet and seeing shivering men without winter coats, she joined Esther DeBerdt Reed of Philadelphia, wife of Washington’s military secretary, in creating the Ladies Association of Philadelphia.

In 1775 her husband Dennis went to escort Washington from Philadelphia and stayed for the war without bidding her goodbye or organizing his law practice– Washington must have been very persuasive!

Esther, just a month after delivering her last child, George Washington Reed, penned”The Sentiments of a Woman,” encouraging women to sacrifice some luxeries for the “armies which defend our lives, our possessions, our liberty.” Specifically she asked women “to wear more simiple hair dressed less elegant” without expensive combs and and give the money saved to the troops. (5) The idea meshed with Martha’s concerns for the troops’ morale and need for proper clothing.

Martha worked to expand the Ladies Associations throughout the Colonies. Women in each county served as captains collecting donations of money, sewen and knit goods, which were sent on to the state’s First Lady, who forwarded them to Martha Washington. She did more than spur the women into service, she personally gave $20,000 (equivalent to $357,839 in 2017 dollars) and made Mount Vernon a fabric production center for uniforms, coats and socks. In a relative short time the Colonial women donated $300,000, given the rate of inflar tion this would be equivalent to $5,498,689, according to the Consumer Price Index for Inflation. (6)

Financial Plight of Women During Revolution

Eliza Lucas Pinckney, Charleston, South Carolina, born in on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean in 1722. She studied botany in boarding school and managed plantations for her British solder father starting when she was 16 and later after her husband died.The Lucas plantations were destroyed in the Revolutionary War,but not before she changed the course of agriculture by developing a high-quality indigo dye imported in England. Her son Charles signed the Constitution and son Thomas became minister to Spain and later Great Britain.

Now it’s rare to think of the plight of women during the Revolutionary War. Not everyone could support themselves much less contribute cash to the cause. Eliza Pinckney explained to a doctor why she could not pay her bill. “It may seem strange that a single woman, accused of no crime, who had a fortune sufficiency (sp) to live genteelly in any part of the world. . . should in so short a time be so entirely deprived of it as not to be able to pay a debt under sixty pound sterling, but such is my singular case.” Her plantations, which were leaders in the production of high-quality indigo purchased in England, had been plundered, her house in Charleston appropriated by the British,and her wood all cut down to build a garrison, “for which I have not got a penny.” Eliza planned to sell the wood to American shippers (out of Charleston), but now she had nothing. (7)

The Battle of Saratoga in September and October 1777 capitalized on British mistakes, which had not been enough for Colonists to win, but enough to seriously frustrate the English leaders across the pond. These victories severed a dual purpose by showing the American’s determination to the French, who agreed to assist the Colonists with the resourcesthey sorely needed, including their powerful navy, enough to eventually bring a victory by wearing down the British, as the desire to continue a foreign war dwindled at home.

“She reminded me of the Roman matrons of whom I had read so much, and I thought that she well deserved to be the companion and friend of the greatest man of the age.”
Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, remarked after visiting Martha in November 1780

The General had a knawing worry at the back of his mind for Martha’s safety, though at heart he knew her to be a resourceful woman, able to withstand and overcome the challenges of the war. He began his letters to Martha: “My dearest.” While this could be the standard saluation for family members in the 1770s, we could note Abigail and John Adams, known for their strong affection while often separated during his political duties, always started their letters: “My dearest friend.” This could support the strength of the Washington’s devotion.

During the Revolution Martha traveled hundreds of miles, if not thousands, she’d never crossed before, but she left home each of the eight years of war, until George’s first trip home for Christmas in 1783. Just as Martha was dedicated to the country, she devoted herself to her husband and the many roles he played. Initially when George became America’s first President, she stayed at Mount Vernon. She hadn’t bargained for this second job would take him away from her and Mount Vernon once more.

Martha Washington’s biographer, Patricia Brady, did Martha justice on the cover of her book with an artist’s the 20-something woman in a purple and lace bodice and a yellow and blue dress–a simple pearl comb in her wavy brown hair. This the way to remember the spunky Martha–in her prime.

(1) Copies of Charles Wilson Peale’s paintings of Martha Washington appear between pages 184 and 185 of Patricia Brady’s biography, Martha Washington. (New York: Putnam Group, 2005).

(2) Cokie Roberts. Founding Mothers, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2004) p. 86.

(3) Roberts, p. 87


(5) Roberts, p. 124

(6) lhttps://www.womanhistorblog.com/2008/09/eliza-lucas-pinckney.html

(7) John and Abigail Adams. My Dearest Friend. (Jersey City, NJ: Start Publishing Inc.)Actually the Adams’s letters offer more variety than that. Sometimes John starts off with “Miss Adorable” and “Diana,” indicating that his wife-to-be is exactly what he’s looking for and resembles a goddess, which is rather amazing for a 18th century beau.

Copywright 2019 Marmie Tuerff Edwards

Stay Tuned next Friday for Reluctant First, First Lady Washington

Virginia Heiress Seeks Charming (Young) Mate

Martha Custis Washington early in her marriage to Washington with daughter Patsy on her lap, George to her left and son Jacky to her right. The children were from her first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis. Washington adopted the children. Mount Vernon Ladies Association

No doubt that 26-year-old widow Martha Custis need not announce her availability in the Williamsburg press. Most knew of her net worth: 17,500 acres of land, 300 enslaved people, valued then at 40,000 pounds (today’s value approximately $7.7 million). (1)

Much of Virginia knew her husband, wealthy businessman Daniel Parke Custis, had died young and now she managed this massive holding. Many were vying for her hand because she was not only wealthy, but attractive, and had a head for business. In addition after marriage her husband would control two-thirds of her wealth. But one-third would belong to her for the entireity of her life under Virginia law.

George Washington, 6′ 2+” and a popular hero of the French and Indian War, towered over the competition. He’d learned of her husband’s death while in Williamsburg to dine with legislators at the opening of the House of Burgesses. George won a seat there before he left for war, which he would assume in the next session. Wasting no time to meet Martha, he set out the next morning for the 35-mile trek to the Custis’s White House plantation in New Kent County.

Another key suitor, widow Charles Carter, had no financial worries as the son of “King” Carter (Virginia’s official tax collector of the British crown). Carter offered sophistication after studying law in London, was smitten, praising Martha’s beauty, amiable mind, “uncommon sweetness of Temper,” and said he hoped “to raise a Flame in her breast.” (2) Even though he dressed in modern fashion and served in the House of Burgesses as Martha’s grandfather had, his strong deterrents were his age, nearing fifty, and his ten children living at home.

Bachelor Washington had neither the financial nor the social stature of Charles Carter, but his youth and developing chemistry with the young widow could work in his favor. Martha and George came from the same generation–he eight months younger than she. His military leadership added an appeal few others could match. When he arrived for his first meeting with Martha, George’s financial records showed he gave “munificent” tips to the Custis servants and slaves (3) to make a good impression, express his serious intent, and indicate his financial ability.

While he had full intention of managing and safeguarding their joint properties if he were successful in this quest, George must have known that at 26 he could still be called back into military service. Having a winsome woman to think about at home and abroad, who combined humor, intellect, and moxie to oversee a plantation if he were gone, could be a strong asset. After a total of twenty hours together (4) over several visits, their engagement was announced.

Wedding Fashionista

At the not so tender age of 27, Martha ordered bespoke purple slippers from London for her wedding day. Purple–the most expensive because of the delicate mix of red and blue dyes. Slippers in purple satin were unusual enough as to be saved to this day by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Wedding dresses then did not often come in white. Rather the bride selected her favorite dress or had one made in a color and design that favored her. Martha’s dress was made of fitted yellow damask with a flared skirt that featured three creamy white silk bows down the front that accentuated her dainty waistline. (5)

Fine Dresden lace rimmed the square neckline and flowed out of the sleeves. A silk petticoat featured interwomen silver threads, adding glint and rustle. It’s been said that wearing lace of this quality in the Colonies was comparable to carrying a Hermes Epsom Birkin handbag today (2019 value: $15,950). She favored fashionable garnet crystal jewelry and had earrings, a bracelet and several necklaces made from the gem. Money wasn’t a problem for Martha, but she displayed her wealth tastefully.

George sent a request to a tailor in London to make him a blue velvet suit for his marriage to be held during Virginia’s Twelfth Night Festivities on January 6, 1759. (6) The marriage lifted George from the middle of the pack of the planting classes to a standout among the top wealthy plantation owners in Virginia. (7) He’d arrived and he wanted to be recognized not just as a leading military man, but one of stature–subtly, not in an ostentatious manner.

Martha’s two surviving children from her marriage to Daniel Custis, Jacky and Patsy, were also well dressed for the occasion. Likely they wore their best attire that they’d worn for a portrait made of them that same year–Jacky in a shiny blue coat with a light-colored waistcoat; Patsy in a silver-toned gown edged with lace that matched nicely with her mother and step-father’s attire. (8)

The Custis inheritance, according to Virginia law, divided one-third-for Martha, then the children were to divide the income from the Custis assets. Nearly four months after the marriage, George petitioned the General Court in Williamsburg for permission to administer the children’s portions of the estate vested in the children. He reported annually on his actions and claimed the responsibility of a stepparent demanded more attention than a parent, “who could rely solely on his conscience.” (9)

Patsy loved music and her stepfather spoiled her with a spinet (similar to a harpsichord). Appealing to Jacky’s interests became a bit more challenging, which resulted in Washington’s quote: “I can govern men, but not boys.” (10)

Washington and Custis In-Laws

Then the issue of in-laws. Martha’s father died before Daniel, but her mother lived to be 75, residing in nearby Williamsburg and shortly becoming a favorite of the General. Historians for the bride and groom could not find note of George’s mother attending his wedding and it was about a year before Martha met Mary Ball Washington. His father died before George was eleven, which forced him to mature early and it deprived him of the classical education he coveted. Once he’d established Mount Vernon, George emassed a great number of books on a wide variety of topics and spent time reading them when he was at home.

George’s mother did not remarry in a time when many women died young and in childbirth and widows often remarried within two years. His letters to her began “Honored Madam” and concluded in distinct formality, “Your most Dutiful and Obiedient Son, George Washington.” Biographer Ron Chernow used the term “hypocritical” and suggested that his mother’s treatment created a sensitive son with an “overly controlled personality,” someone who equated silence and a stoic personality with strength. George would plan visits to his mother in Fredericksburg on his way to Williamsburg, but they were short. He may have scheduled them, so Mary would not be tempted to visit Mount Vernon, where there are few records of her visits. She had a reputation for being difficult, if not a bit eccentric, but she was his mother and George did his best to serve her needs and fulfill his obligation. (11)

A month after the marriage George assumed his seat in the House of Burgesses, beginning his political career. This entailed travel to the Custis White House in Williamsburg (named long before the President’s House) to attend the legislative sessions. Stay tuned for the Revolutionary political service by George and Martha.

See next: Revolutionary Lady–Martha Washington

(1) The combined annual incomes of 150 craftsmen were in the range of 12,000 pounds sterling. John Ferling. The Ascent of George Washington .(New York: BLoomsbury Press, 2009), 42.

(2) Patricia Brady, Martha Washington. (New York Penguin Group, 2005), 55.

(3) Brady, 58.

(4) Ferling, 42.

(5) Ron Chernow, Washington a Life, (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), 97, 100.

(6) Chernow, 97.

(7) Chernow, 98.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Washington Irving, Life of Washington, (New York: Pitman, 1858), 615.

(10) Chernow, 98

(11) Ibid.

Forgotten History: Spunky Martha Washington

Martha Washington as a younger woman (around 26) originally drawn by John Wallaston
and engraved by J. Buttre. Mount Vernon Ladies” Association.

When we think of Martha Washington, we conjure up a plump, retiring, gray-haired woman in a wimple and a simply laced gown, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story of this feisty Founding Mother who managed a 17,500-acre plantation, which gave her the resources to be a Fashionista.

During the American Revolution, Colonists were anxious that Martha might be kidnapped for ransom by an English governor. Onboard a British man-of-war he threatened her, as he floated on the Potomac River near Mount Vernon. Fearless horsewoman Martha let it be known that at 40 she could outride any British marine and knew the Virginia woods far better. So much for a retiring matron.

George strongly suggested she come to winter camp in 1775, where he and the remaining troops would ensure her safety. Unlike other generals, he knew better than to order her to do something. A following letter took a slightly more romantic turn: “It would greatly contribute to my happiness to have you with me.” (1) Martha arrived that winter to cheer the General and encourage the troops to stay to fight after the thaw. Many men who joined the Revolution on short commissions were leaving, making George worry about how many troops he’d have to hold off the British.

Consider Martha in her Prime

At 17 Martha met the British criteria for a “pocket Venus”– petite at barely five feet with delicate hands and feet, dark brown hair, strongly market eyebrows, and smooth white shoulders sloping down to full breasts. Her bright hazel-brown eyes drew into a ready smile and beautiful white teeth, a rarity in the Colonies then–the ideal of femine beauty for many Virginians. (2)

Martha did not have a life of leasure in her youth at Chestnut Grove, but learned all the useful “making” skills of the 18th century–killing, plucking and drawing hens and turkeys; spinning, weaving, dying wool and linen; making all matter of clothes, bed coverings; beating dust from rugs and turning mattresses; gathering herbs, plants, berries, salting and curing hams, bacon and fish; making vinegar, syrups and jellies; cooking over an open hearth or baking in a brick oven; and perpetually knitting woolen socks. (3)

Martha’s father, a naval officer and member of the governor’s Council, had died four years earlier, which crimped the family’s finances. While she was valuable for her domestic skills and her work ethic, Martha had the disadvantage that her family could not offer a dowery equal that of many other young women. She met Daniel Parke Custis at St. Peter’s Church in Williamsburg when she was 16 and he a vestryman of 37. Prior to their courtship, Daniel’s father had challenged him on every match he’d proposed, thus Daniel remained a bachelor.

Convincing her Beau’s Father, 50 Years her Senior

John Custis, an ill-tempered, 70-year-old tyrant, threatened to disown his son if he married Martha Dandridge, finding her family below him and charged her with gold-digging. Martha had the hutzpah to arrange to speak with the senior Custis, an unlikely and bold turning of tables. Her strength of character, engaging demeanor, and tender explanation of her feelings for Daniel softened his bitter, bad-tempered heart. Not only did he give consent for the wedding, he made a will providing Daniel 17,500 acres of prime farmland, well-appointed houses in the capital, Williamsburg, and Jamestown, nearly 300 slaves, and several thousand pounds in English treasury notes and cash. (4)

She made her case for a man who was nearly twice her age at the time of their marriage. Yet Daniel willingly shared his knowledge of the family’s extensive business dealings and his wealth. His memorandum book of orders sent to England with the annual tobacco ships requested: twelve yards of crimson damask, blue satin for a ball gown, a dozen pair of kid gloves to fit her dainty hands, silk stockings for her slim legs, flowered calico for a summer dress, purple pumps, and the latest ivory fan to match London fashion. (5)

Fragile Financial Freedom

Martha understood financial freedom and set herself apart as a Colonial woman by learning accounting and keeping abreast of the plantation’s production and the prices to be expected for Custis tobacco. When Daniel died at 45, after seven years of marriage, four children, and building a productive plantation together, Martha knew the business.

She protected her right to manage one-third of the Custis lands–automatic under Virginia law–while the courts ruled on the rest, since Daniel died without a will. Virginia approved her right to the Custis lands, indicating she’d presented a persuasive case. Martha became one of the wealthiest women in Virginia and did not backslide in the year and a half before her marriage to George.

By keeping the plantation team in place and not hiring a new male overseer, she avoided having someone else decide her future mate–no doubt a crony aged 40 or above. Martha did not want to contend with someone else’s choice.

She did not waste this time when she was feme sole. Under English common law (followed then in the colonies),during her widowhood as a landed woman before she remarried, Martha was free to make her own decisions. This would be the most free she would ever be as an independent woman. Once she remarried, the decisions would revert to her new husband, so she needed to pick exceedingly well–someone she could trust. After she married again, she would become a feme covert, and her legal status, wealth, children, place and matter of life would be controlled by her husband. (6)

In her businesslike letters to English tobacco middle men in London, Liverpool, and Glasgow markets, Martha explained she would be in charge now and expected their dealings would be “agreeable and lasting to us both.” (7)

Stay tuned for Young Heiress Seeks Charming (Young) Mate or

The 18th Century Wedding Fashionista

1 Patricia Brady, Martha Washington, (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), p. 94

2 Brady, 25.

3 Brady, 22.

4 https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Custis_Daniel_Parke_1711-1757/

5 Brady, 37.

6 Brady, 54.

7 Brady, 35.