When George Washington married Martha Custis, he was a well-known personage in Virginia.
Col. And Mrs. Washington
For fifteen years, George Washington, former Colonel of the Virginia militia, lived in gentrified society, which included a seat in the House of Burgesses. George and Martha Washington hosted graciously at Mount Vernon as well as making regular trips to the Colonial Capital in Williamsburg. They also raised two children from Martha’s first marriage.
Both were the eldest of several siblings, and extended family visits to Mount Vernon were frequent. The Washingtons were also neighborly, and grand parties at their plantation might last a week.
When the political ties with Great Britain, the Mother Country, were straining to a point of rupture, George Washington was appointed to the Virginia delegation at a Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia.
The General and Mrs. Washington
Little did ex-Col. Washington think, as he left for Philadelphia in 1775, that he would not see his beloved Mt. Vernon for nearly eight years.
As tensions became outright hostilities, and angry shots were fired in New England, George Washington was appointed General by Congress, and sent to Boston to take charge of a motley array of undisciplined militiamen, and make an army of them. It was a huge challenge.
In the 18th century, wars were seasonal: spring, summer and fall. Bad weather and worse roads (if there were roads) made battle unfeasible and downright dangerous. Thus the armies went into winter quarters, to train, to re-equip, to repair and to plan.
Each winter, when Washington’s army “wintered,” Martha Washington joined her husband wherever they were. Many officers’ wives did the same – especially if there were no small children to tend to. (By the mid 1770’s, Martha’s daughter had died, and her son Jack was grown and married.)
Generals, even in midst of war, maintained a social presence as well as a military one. In Washington’s case, that social presence was vital to the cause of independence. Wealthy Americans throughout the colonies often needed to be wooed and encouraged to support American independence both orally and financially. Armies needed arms, food, blankets, shoes – and forage for their horses.
Who better than General Washington, one of the wealthiest men in Virginia, to explain and exhort the patricians to the cause?
Mrs. Washington was instrumental in this purpose. By socializing with the Grand Dames, she could gently solicit distaff support.
In winter quarters, Washington’s key aides were housed dormitory-style in a room or two in whatever house Washington had chosen as his headquarters. If the General was not otherwise occupied, he dined with his key officers, with meals prepared under Martha’s total supervision.
Come spring, when the snows had cleared, and the “war” was about to resume, Martha returned to Mount Vernon to supervise the spring cleaning and the resupplying of their larder.
The Mount Vernon Hotel
The American Revolution did not end formally until 1783, and General Washington remained with his Army throughout. But once hostilities ceased and the loose ends were tidied, he returned his commission to Congress and happily became a private citizen at his beloved Mount Vernon.
18th Century transportation was primitive: foot, animal, or animal-and-vehicle. Twenty miles a day was a nice pace. Taverns and inns and hotels were spread at a distance and frequently unsuitable for family travel. It was commonplace for strangers to knock at a private house requesting (and receiving) a nights’ lodging and even a meal.
The road to Mount Vernon became a well traveled route. Nieces and nephews were frequent long-term or even permanent houseguests. Old friends, old soldiers and total strangers found their way to their door. Room was found, horses were stabled and fed, servants were quartered and fed, and an announcement that “dinner was at three” was a tacit invitation. The table was usually set for a dozen if not more.
Even before George Washington was inaugurated, he sent his secretary, Tobias Lear, to New York City to find a suitable residence befitting the President of the United States and his family; large enough to accommodate all the important people he expected to entertain.
A house on Cherry Street was selected; its ballroom could hold a hundred. Samuel Fraunces, was engaged to manage the demands of food service, including its preparation, but Mrs. Washington naturally maintained her authority over household matters.
With few exceptions, George Washington’s presidential dinners were stag affairs, both in New York and in Philadelphia. Women were invited to “Lady Washington’s” weekly levees, and occasionally to some larger receptions. But politics and the running of a government was a man’s job. Martha may have helped plan the dinners, but usually had her own dinner with visiting family members and the young grandchildren they were raising.
By the time Washington’s two terms in office ended, he and his wife were both in their middle sixties, and thoroughly tired of the non-stop merry-go-round and frequent separations.
Dinner for Two
There is nothing particularly interesting or noteworthy about a couple, married nearly forty years, having a quiet dinner together at home. Even a couple so notable and admired as the Washingtons. Unless, of course, it is remarked upon and documented.
We do not know whether they had a large formal meal, with soup and meats and compotes and cakes. We do not know if the large Mount Vernon dining room table was set with fresh flowers and their finest china and silver.
But it was noteworthy. In a letter George Washington wrote to Tobias Lear, he commented that “Unless someone pops in unexpectedly, Mrs. Washington and myself will do what I believe has not been [done] within the last twenty years by us, that is to set down to dinner by ourselves.”
Bourne, Miriam Anne, First Family: George Washington and his Intimate Relations, W.W. Norton & Co., 1982
Chadwick, Bruce – The General and Mrs. Washington – Sourcebooks, 2005
Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington: A Life – Galahad Books, 2006