Martha Washington (1731-1802) was an American first lady (1789–97) and the wife of George Washington, first president of the United States and commander in chief of the colonial armies during the American Revolution. She set many of the standards and customs for the proper behavior and treatment of a U.S. president’s wife. (The term “first lady,” however, did not come into common use until well into the 19th century.)
Martha Dandridge was the first of eight children born to Frances Jones and John Dandridge, an English native who established a moderately successful plantation outside of Williamsburg, Virginia. Few details of her childhood have been revealed, as no surviving diaries or correspondences exist from the period, but it is known she developed a lifelong love of reading at an early age. She also underwent the training expected of a young woman of her class, receiving lessons in subjects both functional (needlework, household management) and recreational (dancing, horseback riding).
As the wife of the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief, Martha Washington was integral to a fundraising campaign that called upon woman to donate money, clothing and supplies to the Revolutionary cause. Martha also traveled to be at Washington’s side for his winter encampments, weathering the notoriously brutal season at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in early 1778. Her residence during those periods was the social center for visiting military leaders and foreign dignitaries, and she also provided care for injured and exhausted soldiers, who greatly appreciated the efforts of “Lady Washington.”
Washington’s unanimous election to the presidency in 1789 brought Martha and the family to New York City. An experienced hostess from her days of managing their Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, she established the traditions of holding formal dinners on Thursdays and public receptions on Fridays. However, she was unhappy living in New York, and while she drew some comfort when the capital was moved to the more familiar city of Philadelphia in 1790, she still privately chafed at the demands of her public role. It is unclear whether she influenced policy in any way, although it is believed she was a strong supporter of Washington’s Federalist Party.
While Martha was thrilled to return to Mount Vernon in March 1797, her desire to resume a private life was thwarted by the frequency of visitors to their home. After Washington’s death in December 1799, she was granted the free postage privilege known as “franking” to respond to the condolences that came flooding in by mail. The news of her own death, approximately 2 ½ years after her husband’s, was also widely reported, with one obituary remembering her as “the worthy partner of the worthiest of men.” She was later honored as the first woman to have her likeness printed on U.S. currency (1886), as well as the first to appear on a U.S. postage stamp (1902).