This Day In History: May 22

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President George Washington’s devoted widow and the nation’s first lady, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, dies at her Mt. Vernon home on May 22, 1802. She was 70 years old.

Like her husband, Martha Washington was born in the American colonies as a British subject (1731). The petite, dark-haired 19-year-old married her first husband, a prosperous 39-year-old Virginia planter named Daniel Parke Custis in 1750. The couple resided in a mansion called the White House and, after Custis died in 1757, Martha ran the plantation, aided by her innate business sense. Two years later, Martha, then 28 and a wealthy and socially prominent widow with two children, met George Washington. At the time, George was a colonel in the British army, a veteran of the French and Indian War and a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. The two were married in 1759.

George and Martha moved to Mt. Vernon when he inherited the estate in 1761. Although the couple had no children of their own–many scholars suggest Washington may have been sterile–George adopted Martha’s children as his own. Before the American Revolution began in 1776, Martha helped to run two households–Mt. Vernon and the estate she inherited from Custis–with an enormous staff of slaves and servants. During the war, while George led the Continental Army, she frequently followed him to military encampments to take care of him and urge the local women to help feed, clothe and tend to the soldiers.

In 1789, George was elected the first president of the United States and the 57-year-old Martha struggled to fill a role for which she had no model. She shunned the spotlight and resented having her every move restricted by advisors and documented by the press. Forbidden from dining in private homes with friends, the Washingtons held regular formal dinner parties and receptions at the presidential mansions, first in New York and then in Philadelphia. She disliked both cities and looked forward to returning to Mt. Vernon upon George’s retirement. At that time, the term first lady was not popular, and Martha was referred to affectionately as Lady Washington.

Friends and acquaintances observed that George and Martha were very close. She considered her primary job to be taking care of her husband. When he had a cancerous growth removed from his tongue in 1789, she personally nursed him back to health and ordered that the streets around their house be cordoned off so that he could convalesce without being disturbed by the sounds of rattling carriages. Despite her doting, Martha may not have been the great passion of George’s life. Before their marriage, George had fallen in love with Sally Fairfax, the wife of an old friend, and some evidence suggests that his feelings for her remained even after his marriage to Martha. It is not known if Martha knew of George’s love for Sally. After he died in 1799, Martha burned all correspondence with her husband, according to his wishes.

Martha graciously gave up a private burial place for her husband and gave John Adams permission to entomb him in Washington at the U.S. Capitol building. He was never interred there, however, and lies buried at his beloved Mt. Vernon. Martha lived the rest of her days at Mt. Vernon and was also buried there in 1802.

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