I found myself pondering the upcoming inauguration which sent me back to when I was researching and writing Becoming Lady Washington and how Martha felt about her husband being president. I realize the times then and now are very different, but there were people then who didn’t want George to be president while many more did. But how did his wife feel about it?
She was proud of the fact that he’d been chosen, don’t misunderstand that point. And she was very aware he felt it his duty to accept for the sake of unifying the country. But as I wrote in Becoming Lady Washington, she watched her husband ride north to New York to assume his new role and:
I was only a little ashamed to admit that everybody could tell I reluctantly had agreed to the idea of my aging husband taking on such a major role. Despite my efforts to keep my worries to myself. His eyesight was failing, his teeth needed to be replaced again, he fatigued easily which left him prone to illness. Yet he prepared to abandon the luxury of home for the good of his country. Doing his duty as I performed mine by beginning the tasks necessary to go with him, back to a situation I supposed would be much like winter camp.
Only she discovered very quickly she hadn’t walked into an army camp situation at all:
Before long I became abruptly aware that being the president’s wife was far different from being the general’s. My hope for a camp-like situation crashed against the reality of the limits proscribed by my husband and his blasted advisors. That coupled with the endless stream of callers made this experience much different from the encampments. I’ve always ensured my attire and hair suited the occasion. Yet I found myself reluctantly submitting to having my hair set and dressed by a hairdresser who came to the house each day for the specific purpose. Apparently Sally’s attentions no longer met the demand.
George informed me upon my arrival that my first reception would be in two days, on Friday beginning at eight o’clock in the evening. Men and women dressed formally would be permitted to attend in the upstairs drawing room. I chose to sit on the sofa, while Tobias or David escorted the guests to me. Around me blazed dozens of candles in the chandelier, while spermaceti-oil lamps rested on tables scattered about the room. George greeted each person after they’d curtsied to me. Light refreshments waited on the tables as the guests mingled and enjoyed chatting with each other. Bob escorted the guests to their carriages when it was time for them to leave. The stiffly formal affair each week lasted too long for my taste, but I had no choice. The president’s wife, unlike the general’s, was a public figure like no other.
I’d also be hosting formal dinner parties on Thursdays at four. I balked at the formality, preferring a more relaxed and inviting attitude. However, I soon learned how little my opinion mattered. Guests were invited by hand-printed invitation and expected to arrive punctually as George signaled the start of dinner on time each week. Government officials, members of Congress, and foreign dignitaries attended. Most didn’t know each other and many had no desire to. I understood, believe me.
She balked at the restrictions and the requirements, but she did carve out the role of First Lady (though she wasn’t called that) and did so with grace and aplomb. However, when he was re-elected she made bones about how she felt in her letters. As I describe in the book, this is how she felt on his second inauguration day:
My prison sentence began again in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall on March 4, 1793. Four more years loomed before me as I watched George, in his black velvet suit with diamond knee buckles and dress sword with its ornamented hilt, be sworn in by the Honorable William Cushing. I wore a simple yet elegant gown and tried to think positive thoughts, to keep my countenance pleasant. If it weren’t for love of my old man and desire to do my duty to honor our love, I’d have insisted on staying at Mount Vernon among my family. Knowing I couldn’t change the situation, I reminded myself of the positive aspects of our public life.
Despite her dismay, she put on a smile and continued to be the gracious wife of the President of the United States for four more years. She supported him every way she could because she loved and honored him.
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Martha “Patsy” Custis manages an immense eighteenth-century plantation in the Virginia colony. But as a young widow she’s hard pressed to balance her business and to care for her two young children. They need a father and protector. She needs a husband and business partner…one she can trust, especially now as tensions rise between the motherland and the American colonies. Her experience and education have sustained her thus far but when her life veers in an unexpected direction, she realizes she has so much more to learn.
Colonel George Washington takes an interest in her and she’s surprised to find him so sociable and appealing. They form an instant bond and she is certain he’ll be a likeable and loving husband and father figure for her children. She envisions a quiet life at Mount Vernon, working together to provide for their extended family.
But when trouble in the form of British oppression, taxes, and royal arrogance leads to revolt and revolution, George must choose between duty to country and Martha. Compelled to take matters into her own hands, Martha must decide whether to remain where she belongs or go with her husband…no matter what the dangerous future may hold.