Was it a love match? Or merely a partnership of mutual convenience?
The Wealthy Widow Custis
Martha Dandridge had married an old man. She was seventeen; Daniel Parke Custis was past thirty-five. But it had been a marriage of true inclination. They knew and liked each other and wanted to be married. It turned out to be happy and fruitful, with four children; two dying as babies.
Then, after eight years, Custis died. He had been an extremely wealthy Virginia planter, and he died without a will. By Colonial Virginia law (still British law), Martha and her children, Jackie and Patsy, four and two respectively, were his only heirs, so the estate was split in equal thirds. This huge property included nearly 20,000 acres of rich farmland, more than 200 slaves, household goods of great value, and that rarest of all commodities among Southern planters, an abundance of hard cash.
Now at loose ends, Martha Custis had to chart a new life. Colonial mourning traditions were much different than those of Victoriana, a century later. People who married three, four, or even five times during their lives was not uncommon. Life was hard. Spouses needed spouses. If one was widowed, male or female, one was expected to remarry fairly promptly, especially if there were young children involved.
Martha’s needs and priorities were not limited to 18th century living. They were needs and priorities for all times, including our own. First, she needed a wise and honest manager for her inheritance, and that of her children. She was no fool. She was understandably wary of fortune hunters. Since Mistress Custis was considered one of the wealthiest young widows in Virginia, there were many wooers. Secondly, at twenty-six, with four children already born to her, she had every expectation of having more children – perhaps several more. She needed a kind step-father to her children and their interests.
The Ambitious Colonel Washington
In 1758, George Washington was twenty-six and had spent nearly eight years in the Virginia Militia. He had risen to Colonel, the highest rank the colony had to offer. For years, he had applied and lobbied to become an officer in the British Army, a situation continually thwarted. To make matters worse for the sometimes touchy young man, a colonel in the Virginia Militia was considered several steps below a comparable rank among British regulars. Having concluded that he was getting nowhere, he decided to change his career path. He had inherited Mount Vernon, a substantial and very promising estate along the Potomac River. He also had acquired considerable acreage in the western part of Virginia as payment for his military services. He would become a planter.
But he needed a suitable consort. Someone who could help him turn his vision of Mount Vernon into a showplace as well as a profitable entity.
The Courtship of George and Martha Washington
The Colonel and the Widow were introduced by mutual acquaintances at her home, not far from Williamsburg, Virginia. Both were unquestionably in the market, so to speak, for marriage. Their courtship was brief. They would spend less than 24 waking hours in each other’s company, during which time they were engrossed in deep conversation, sharing their needs, philosophies and dreams for the future. Realizing they were like-minded, they were affianced. Then Colonel Washington left for the next several months to tend to his military responsibilities. The balance of their courtship, some six months, was via correspondence.
Had they fallen in love? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It was hardly a wild passionate romance by today’s standards, but it is fairly certain that by the time their engagement was determined, George and Martha liked each other a great deal, and found much compatibility. In the eighteenth century, marriages were primarily made for ease of living, each partner contributing their share of the man’s-work woman’s-work dynamic.
During the next forty years the Washingtons would grow to love each other with true devotion. They had chosen wisely, perhaps more than they could have realized at the time. Washington was indeed a wise and honest manager of the Custis fortune. He would add to that fortune by his own astute business-sense, and by the time of his death, would be one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. He was also a caring and fond step-parent to Martha’s children, both of whom died young. Then he would be a caring and fond step-grandparent to Martha’s grandchildren.
And Martha would take her place as the quintessential mistress of Mount Vernon – and the executive mansion, when George Washington became the first President of the United States. She would bring a distinctly new and democratic flavor to her First Lady hosting duties: all the dignity, warmth, style, manners and sincerity that is associated with American hospitality.
Randall, Willard Sterne; Washington: A Life, 1997, Edison, NJ, Galahad Books
Bourne, Miriam Anne: First Family: George Washington and his Intimate Relations, 1982, New York, NY, W.W. Norton
National Archives and Record Administration