George and Martha Washington answer audience-submitted questions about their marriage, their partnership, and the Revolution in this special Presidents Day podcast.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. On this special Presidents Day edition of the podcast we’re joined by first couple George and Martha Washington as they are portrayed at Colonial Williamsburg by Ron Carnegie and Lee Rose. They join us today to answer your audience questions about their marriage, their partnership and the Revolution. Mr. and Mrs. Washington thank you for joining us today.
[Lee Rose as] Martha Washingon: It ‘tis our pleasure.
[Ron Carnegie as] George Washington: Your servant, mum.
Harmony: How did you meet?
Martha: Well I knew of the colonel, well he was a colonel at that time, due to my husband also having a commission in the French and Indian War. My first husband, though, did not see any battles or anything. He was part of what they called the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe. Men that were privileged enough to have all of the accouterments for war but found themselves getting lost instead.
But I guess romantically it was at the Chamberlain’s the two of us met. My husband says he came there quite by accident so but I think Mrs. Chamberlain, by the time he had arrived, thought it was much arranged and was very toward providence that the two of us should meet one another. And that is when I realized a great affection I had for him.
Harmony: Martha, your charms were great and you were pursued by more than one suitor. Audience member David asks, “What tipped the balance for you when you decided to marry George Washington above your other suitors?”
Martha: Well, I wonder if David has ever met my husband. I must say that his physical attributes certainly did catch my eye, as well as I have never felt so comfortable around someone. I found that that day at the Chamberlin party where he said he could only stay for dinner and ended up staying much longer than he expected that we were so comfortable around each other’s presence that I have never felt that comfortable around another man. And my children, I must say, when he was about with my Patsy and my Jacky, that sealed it for me for I realized that God was not only going to give me a good husband, but a good father for my children.
Harmony: You mention your ease and your familiarity with Mr. Washington. Did that extend to his mother? Our audience listener Tizzy asks, “How your relationship was with George Washington’s mother, your mother-in-law?”
Martha: I would like to say that that was as easy, but it was not. Mrs. Washington has always reminded her son that there is a certain obligation to a mother by the eldest boy within the family when the father passes on and pays his debt to nature. That it is the oldest boy’s responsibility to take care of the widowed mother, not the sister, not anyone else, and she has always reminded my husband of his duty which she feels that I have taken away from her.
Harmony: Mr. Washington, audience listener Dennis asks “How your faith in God played a part in your marriage?”
George: The matters of a man’s conscience is about as private a circumstance as can be found. A man’s relationship to his Creator is entirely personal, and therefore it is a matter of only personal interest to himself and to his creator. The providence guides us in all matters. There’s no question upon that, but religion has been used far too oft divisively within our country. I’ve never been a religious bigot. I believe that we will all one day be called responsible for whatever decisions of conscience we have made, but we are never responsible to one another for those decisions and therefore a matter of a man’s personal religious convictions is entirely only for his own interest.
Harmony: Mrs. Washington, how did religion play a role in your life and your family’s life?
Martha: Oh, it started from the very beginning. My mother instilled a great love of God within us and I guess it was due to the fact that her grandfather was first rector of Bruton Parish Church. God has gotten me through a lot of the travesties within my life; the losing of two children which I buried at Bruton Parish Church, my Daniel which I lost at three and my Francis which I have lost at four, and then of course the losing of my Patsy, and my son. If not for the faith my mother gave me and the Lord Almighty I do not think I would have survived any of the losing of all four of my children.
Harmony: Throughout your marriage you have gone through periods where you’ve been separated physically and had a great deal of correspondence between you. Is it your goal to preserve the correspondence between yourself and your husband?
Martha: If my husband would go before me I believe that we have always wanted to be very private people. The two of us have always wanted a private life and have been thrust many times into the public arena. I believe that that will be one thing that I can keep private betwixt the two of us is the communications betwixt my husband and I shall not be seen by the public. And I also think that if I would lose my old man it would be the last death that I could take in my life and out of my misery I shall want to wipe the slate clean.
Harmony: We have a question from Andrea who asks, “How difficult was it to keep your relationship alive when you were so far apart during those periods?” Mr. Washington, was it difficult to maintain your marriage to Mrs. Washington when you were away fighting the Revolution?
George: It has never been difficult to maintain my marriage to my dearest wife. She is my closest of friends and my most worthy partner. I have some reputation for writing a great number of letters every day while I was engaged in the war. I was involved in writing letters and a large number of these were sent to my dear wife. And it was my request that she join me in every winter camp. The reason for winter camps is then the matter was cool. She would be safe. I would not have her in harm’s way, but when we were engaged in winter camps when the fighting was put aside for the winter, then it was my pleasure to have my wife join me and she never refused me in this.
Harmony: Thinking further on the period, the Revolutionary period in your marriage, Lee Ann asks, “How difficult, Mrs. Washington, when you traveled to those winter camps, how difficult was it for you to see the condition of the men and the camps and the condition of their uncertainty as they were in the midst of fighting a war?” When you went to visit those camps and you saw the conditions of war, how did that affect you?
Martha: It was very hard. It was hard to see the suffering. The men in each camp had seemed to have gotten worse. I never forget Morristown, New Jersey, the second time I was there where the snow and the ice was so difficult that the men could not get even the tents put up. So I saw young men laying upon the ground where they had cleared the snow away, they had laid as close as they could to one another without even the proper benefit of blankets.
By the grace of God I had other women to help me like Lucy Knox and Katie Green and Lady Sterling and her daughter Kitty. Due to the help of my husband to see me through all of it I was able to survive all of it. I must say with Esther Reed and Sarah Bates, when we started the Sentiments of an American Woman, and we decided to raise money for the Army and to aid the soldiers ourselves. It was a great boon to me to have all the other women come to the aid of the soldiery. The shirts that we made for them at least gave them some aid.
Harmony: Mr. Washington, Mrs. Washington’s presence at those winter camps must have been a great balm for your soul, but did you notice that it had an effect on the morale of your troops as well?
George: Well certainly. My wife endeavored to aid in increasing the morale of the men. Partially in the means by which she has just mentioned but also by less obvious means, less military guided means. She was responsible for putting on entertainments for the officers as well. We had plays on occasion and horse races and in various activities to take a man’s mind away from the circumstance he was engaged in, and to forget the war for a small time. And she was very successful.
Harmony: Mrs. Washington, Diana asks, “The duties of a general’s wife must have been interesting during your time. The fact that you visited your husband and the troops during difficult times must have been taxing on you. How did you handle the management of a busy estate at home and meet your obligations to your husband?”
Martha: Well by the blessings of heaven my husband put Lund, his cousin, in charge of Mount Vernon. I was only to look over the duties of managing the household while I was there. Lund took most of the management of the household and for the properties of the Custises that I brought into the marriage.
My son was becoming of the age of his majority and he started to take over the Custis properties that was his which was the lion’s share and when that, my brother Bat, Bartholomew, helped with the lion share of the Custis property so Lund was not overburdened. So due to the help of my brother, my son, and Mr. Washington’s cousin, the properties managed themselves. Probably not to the fact that he would have liked, but they were able to manage themselves which alleviated me the burden of managing them and being with my husband, so that when I left for the winter camps my greatest care was how many stockings could I take with me, how many shirts could I take with me, how much food supplies that I could take to my husband. So that my sole worry was to get to him and be with him.
After my son passed at the Battle of Yorktown, Lund and my brother Bartholomew were so kind to me. They kept everything managing itself well so that I did not have to be at Mount Vernon much for the pain of staying there without my son was too hard on me and I stayed with my husband as much as I could.
Harmony: Diana further asks, “When you found yourselves together at home again what your home life was like, what rituals, what routines did you enjoy?”
Martha: My management started as early in the morning going into the kitchens and starting to plan for the dinner meal and then of course to management of the household which was my utmost joy and the management of course by the time he had returned home we had the grandchildren and then Lenore living with us before her marriage to David Stewart. So it was tending to grandchildren, writing correspondences, knitting and sewing when I could and the utmost joy of seeing him sit at my table and of course he often complained we were more like a tavern than we were a home for so much guests.
George: About to mention that. A great number of guests that were cared for as well. Our home was a well-resorted tavern with everyone travelling either south to north or north to south feeling the need to stop whether invited or not to our home. As to my own part, and in no small part because of that crowd, it’s always been my custom to arise before the sun. I’ll have a small breakfast of hoe cakes and tea and then slip out. I have a door just across the passageway from my office, which allows me to slip out of the house and then ride my property. I try to ride the circumference of the home farms. Those are the farms that are there together in Fairfax where our home at Mount Vernon is. I will endeavor to ride the circumference of those properties every day when the weather allows for it, and sometimes when it doesn’t.
Harmony: You have both witnessed a remarkable period in time, the change that you’ve seen as the British colonies have transformed into the independent states, United States of America. Audience member Dustin asks “During this time of change how have social expectations or social behaviors changed as well?”
George: When I first come to this city, when I was young, in those days you could tell something about a man just by looking upon him. You knew by the quality of the cloth that his suit was made of, of the accessories he carried, or even the buttons on his suit. You knew something just by looking upon him where he fit in society.
Now for many years that hadn’t been the case at all. Throughout the end of the halcyon days of old when we were still British colonies, Virginians were ruining themselves economically to appear better than they were; spending money they did not have to look as their betters. I would argue now in our young republic, matters have reversed themselves entirely. Not that we’re all stricken with poverty, but rather the fashion has become far more subdued and now it is far more common for the wealthy to dress as if they were only middling sort; simple black suits is the fashion now. That is a great change.
Martha: Much to the horror to the French.
George: There is an over abundance of overfamiliarity I would argue as well. It has become very common now for men to clasp hands with one another when they meet in the street. That was never done in my youth. In fact I still haven’t grown accustomed to the practice.
Harmony: Mrs. Washington, your role during the Revolution, history might even interpret your role as one of an agent of change. You reinvented the contributions and the actions and the effect that ladies might have during a campaign of war. How do you think that social expectations or social behaviors might have changed through the revolutionary period that you lived through and what your contribution to that might have been?
Martha: Well there was one of the things I was not expecting when my husband became Commander in Chief of the Continental Forces was that how I behaved and how I presented myself would reflect well or poorly not only upon him but upon the cause of America. I learned it very quickly in that when my husband first asked me to come to Cambridge I didn’t go at first. I went to my sister’s home. I don’t travel very well. I did not relish making the travels. Not that I did not want to be with my husband. I just did not relish going to places I did not know. Going upon company I was not familiar with and traversing over great quantities of land.
But it was Burwell Bassett, my sister’s husband, Anna Maria’s husband, my brother-in-law that had the desire to tell me that there was some that considered me a loyalist, that I was not for the cause because I had done nothing openly to support it. And that, my husband and I, they talked about we being estranged from one another for he resides in Cambridge. It was quite common that he has asked for me and I am staying in Virginia.
So I made the decision right then and there that when I went to Cambridge I would make a great showing. I took off my silks and I wore homespun and when I arrived in that carriage I was a portrait of frugality and loyalty and I realized that it was what the women needed. They wanted to look up to someone as much as the men needed to surround themselves as to my husband. The women wanted to surround themselves against someone that they could see to teach them how to get through very difficult times.
I’m not sure I played the part as well as maybe others could have, but it is what was expected of me and though one of the things I’ve always told my granddaughter is that no matter how difficult your life is that the misery or your happiness of your life depends upon your dispositions and how you look at it not upon your circumstances. And that is how I’ve always looked upon my life.
Harmony: Mr. Washington, throughout your life you enjoyed a very affectionate and very strong partnership and marriage with your wife…
George: I did.
Harmony: …would you venture to extend any advice to people in their marriages on how to enjoy the same success and felicity that you have enjoyed with Mrs. Washington?
George: Well it is certainly true that many men have chosen less wisely their spouses than have I. In fact my wife and I have agreed in almost all matters. There’s two that I can think of immediately where the proven exception to that. I am of the opinion, and she won’t appreciate me having shared this with you, but I am of the opinion that she is too lenient with children. She is coddling on occasions with children probably because of some of the difficulties she has had and she would prefer that I never let the dogs in the house.
I could not have done better in a choice of a wife. In fact I recommended unto one of our relations, that she not be too concerned with passion when choosing a spouse. Passion is great when it exists, but it soon decays like a flower; it is gone. And if that is all that has drawn two people together than they will have no relation once that has occurred. There needs to be far more there. A marriage needs to be built on far more than just passion.
Harmony: Mrs. Washington, what advice would you share for a happy married state?
Martha: Divine harmony in all things. That there are times where there are disagreements, like, the one I that I can think of most readily is Vulcan, my husband’s dog given to him by the Marquis de Lafayette who got into my kitchens and decided to put my ham in his mouth instead of upon my table, but one must discuss things rationally.
Though there was great passion in me when the dog ruined my dinner, but to take your passion, think about it, put it down and then speak rationally to one’s husband to end the conflicts betwixt the two of you. To always remember that when it comes to God that you are one flesh and one flesh cannot fight amongst itself.
George: President Washington, Mrs. Washington, it’s been a great honor and privilege to have you here with us today. Thank you for joining us today.
George: Your servant, mum.
Harmony: And if you’ve enjoyed this discussion with the Washingtons today, we hope you’ll tune in for the CSPAN series, First Ladies: Influence and Image. This two-season series begins Monday, February 18, and the second episode airing February 25, focuses entirely on Martha Washington. Watch that episode to hear more about Martha’s life from Colonial Williamsburg’s historians. Learn more at CSPAN.org/FirstLadies.