Peggy Keener: The very first and possibly the very best

Published 5:47 pm Friday, February 9, 2024

Martha Dandridge was a teenager when she accepted a marriage proposal from Daniel Parke Curtis. He was twenty years older than Martha and a life-long bachelor. Why? Because his father had not allowed George to marry. Nobody was good enough for his son! Martha changed all that when she endeared herself to her future father-in-law while sweeping Daniel off his feet. She was worthy!

Where her new husband came from great wealth, Martha came from a lower-gentry family. In no time, however, she learned to manage both property and money, all the while bearing him four children.

Then Daniel died. At age twenty-five, Martha suddenly became a very wealthy widow, quite possibly the wealthiest in the Virginia colony. Not only did she come with land, but also with eighty-five slaves. Combining this with her many charms made her quite a catch on the day that she first met Colonel George Washington. To be sure he was quite something himself standing six-foot-two at a time when most men were lucky to reach five-foot-eight. George was also a wonderful horseman, a super athlete, a debonair charmer and a fabulous dancer. (Who knew?) He also loved women and was a natural born leader. But, then, Martha was nothing to sneeze at herself. Indeed, many would have agreed that George was the lucky one. She was the catch, not he.

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Martha was certainly everything George was looking for. Not only did she have all that property, but she came with children. Two had died young, but two were still with her when they married. To her good fortune, George saw this as a plus because as luck would have it, he loved children. Having no offspring of his own, he treated the two children as if they were his own, immediately sending away for toys and wax dolls, as well as spending truly meaningful time with them.

From the very beginning, at age eighteen, Martha had proven to be a superb mother. Now she shared the remaining two children—Jacky and Patsy—with George. Oh, how they doted on those children! As fate would have it, this did not last. As young adults, Patsy died of a possible epileptic seizure and Jacky died of a mysterious camp fever when he was a Revolutionary soldier on his stepfather’s staff.

In her despair, after their deaths, Martha’s compassion turned to others. During the war, she became like a fraternity housemother to the young officers and aides-de-camp. Long after, those men would remember with the utmost of gratitude, her being their foster mother.

Under Martha’s supervision, two wings were added to Mount Vernon. One was a dining room which was used as a public space. Each year Martha entertained approximately six hundred people there, all strangers, who showed up because they wanted to see the most famous man on earth. They were all welcomed, greeted, fed and even given a room for the night. When George tired of hosting them, he’d go to his private study leaving Martha to do it all. And she did do it all with grace and altruism.

George and Martha kept up a loving correspondence whenever he was away. With written words, the paper and pen freed them up to say things they couldn’t voice out loud. It was there that George revealed not only his affection for Martha, but also his doubts, his fears and his opinions of his colleagues. These private letters were undeniable proof of the uniquely intimate relationship that existed between them.

Two of Washington’s letters were found hidden in Martha’s desk after she died. They were fabulous. Written in 1775, they were blaring evidence that George was a lovesick puppy; his affection for Martha clearly visible. They also spent their evenings together by the fire with George reading the newspapers to Martha after which they would have a detailed discussion. There is no question that they were truly a love match.

To be sure, George felt badly about leaving Martha so often. After all, he was the leader of the free world and had many demands on his time. But before he would depart, he would make time for her. On one such occasion he bought the nicest muslin in town so she could have some new dresses.

Washington wanted very much to leave the presidency once his first term ended, but he weakened when he was persuaded to run again. It was his patriotic duty, his supporters said. Martha was not happy about this decision, but recognized that it was unavoidable. Both of their lives had become inextricably entwined with the American people.

During his presidencies, there were two occasions in which George had ailments that nearly killed him. Martha was terrified that it was the office itself which she saw as a genuine death threat. There is no question that this was true. Study pictures from the beginning of his eight-year term up to pictures at the end. You will easily see how the job aged him.

A retired Washington lived two years after his presidency and Martha lived another two and a half years beyond that. Life, albeit, during that short time was wonderful. Mount Vernon (there was no White House yet), needed a lot of work not only on the building, but also in the fields. George experimented with an abundance of crops, the grist mill, the distillery and all the many things he pioneered.

When George died, Martha moved out of their bedroom into a small garret. “It’s over.” she said. “My life is just waiting now.” She truly could not stay in the room where they had been so happy. Day by day she became more secluded both physically and emotionally. Daily devotions became central in her life. Every day she would also walk to George’s tomb and pray. Basically she was just counting the days until she could be reunited with the love of her life.

It’s very important to recognize how smart Martha was; how dependent Washington was on her. His achievements were certainly his, but having her with him made them all possible. She was able to help George through the American Revolution, and then through two awful terms as president. She was his helpmate … always. The bottom line is that Martha Dandridge Washington was the most influential person on the face of the earth to the even more most influential person on the face of the earth.