Martha Washington’s “Disposition”

Martha Washington had very few memorable “quotes” – but one of them bears repeating. Often.

Martha Washington: Correspondent

Martha and George grave

Both George and Martha Washington are buried at their beloved Mount Vernon home.

When George Washington died in 1799, his distraught widow of more than 40 years systematically burned most of their correspondence. George Washington was the most famous man in the country, but Martha wanted to keep their privacy intact. This was not uncommon in those days. Letters between spouses were private, not for public consumption. Thomas Jefferson burned the letters between him and his wife shortly after her death. It is likewise believed that Mary Lincoln, nearly a century later, burned the private letters between herself and Abraham Lincoln shortly before they left Springfield, Illinois.

But if Martha Washington was not a prolific correspondent (a la Abigail Adams), she was nevertheless regularly in touch with her family members, and many of the ladies she came to know during her “travels with George” during the American Revolution. Letters being the only form of communication other than face-to-face conversation, they played more than merely a keep-in-touch role: they were a form of entertainment, meant to be kept; to be read and re-read.

In a surviving letter to her friend Mercy Otis Warren, Martha remarks that she is “still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends more upon our disposition, and not upon our circumstances.”  It is more than likely that the comment itself may not have been not original to Martha, merely that she quoted it. But since she did quote it, and since it suggests so much of the Lady Washington that we know, it bears repeating.


martha young-2

Photographs did not exist in Washington’s time; this likeness is said to be the young Martha Washington.

One can use the word “circumstances” in many ways. Financially, Martha Dandridge was raised in comfortable circumstances. Her father was solidly middle class gentry. When she married Daniel Custis, she would never have to worry about money. Ever. He was one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia, and at his death, she inherited nearly 20,000 acres and a labor force of 300. And a house containing some of the finest household goods in the colony. And ready cash, too.

But sometimes “circumstances” are merely the capriciousness of fate. Martha and Daniel Custis had four children together. Two died before they were five. When Daniel died, she was left with Jacky and Patsy, ages four and two. Then she remarried.  These circumstances were kind.

George Washington would be the only father those little children would remember. They called him “Father,” and he was as affectionate and devoted to their well being as if they were his own blood. The Washingtons had no children together.

young GW

General George Washington – about the time of the Revolutionary War when he was in his forties.

When Patsy was fifteen, she died in an epileptic seizure. She may have had early childhood “fitts”, but they became more problematic and severe as she approached puberty. The Washingtons made every effort and spared no expense to find a cure for her affliction. As might be expected, Martha was devastated by Patsy’s early death.

A decade later, her son Jacky, now around twenty-seven with a young wife and four children, died from a camp-fever in Yorktown, where he was attached to the Colonial Army. General Washington raced home on his only trip to Mount Vernon during the entire Revolutionary War, to be at his stepson’s bedside, and to comfort his wife, who was profoundly grieved.

She had borne four children. She had lost them all.

Nevertheless, despite a perfectly natural depression following her children’s untimely deaths, Martha did not become “a depressive.” While it no doubt left a deep scar on her heart, she survived. When one thinks of the life-altering depressions of Jane Pierce (losing all three of her children), and Mary Lincoln (also losing three children), one cannot help recognizing the truth of Martha Washington’s “disposition-over-circumstances.”

More Circumstances


George and Martha Washington with her two grandchildren, George Washington Parke Custis and Nelly Custis.

Portrait of First Lady Martha Washington

The famous Gilbert Stuart likeness of First Lady Martha Washington.

Lady Washington, as Martha was known following the American Revolution, was by nature a homebody. She was a domestic woman, happiest at their beloved Mount Vernon, surrounded by nieces, nephews, grandchildren and kin-of-kin. She had always disliked traveling, and encamped with General Washington solely to please him.   Traveling was hard, cumbersome and at times, dangerous. Weather itself could be dangerous. It was wartime; her carriage might be intercepted by the enemy. Roads, where there were roads, could be hazardous to her carriage and the wagon of supplies she usually brought with her. Communication was difficult and could take days.

After the Revolution, both she and the General  returned to Mount Vernon and planned to remain there for the rest of their lives.

george and martha

George and Martha, as posterity likes to remember them.

But circumstances led to a divergent path. General Washington was still needed by the infant country he helped found, and in 1789 he took office as the first President of the United States. Like it or not (and she did not especially like it), Martha Washington would be needed in New York, and later in Philadelphia.

That same disposition that saw her through the deaths of a husband and four children, and that kept her cheerful during seven years of long separations from her husband, interspersed with the trepidations of long journeys, was a disposition that would win her many friends and acquaintances. Wherever she went, those she met would remark on her agreeable personality, and surviving letters are filled with kind words about the first First Lady.

Her distaste for her exalted position was well known to her husband, but she managed to hold her tongue and her pen…and remain “cheerful.”

It was her disposition.


Brady, Patricia – Martha Washington: An American Life – Viking, 2005

Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington: A Life – Galahad Books, 1997










About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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2 Responses to Martha Washington’s “Disposition”

  1. energywriter says:

    Wonderful story of a great woman. sd

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