- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2005

MARTHA WASHINGTON: AN AMERICAN LIFE

By Patricia Brady

Viking, $24.95, 320 pages

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL P. RICCARDS

After George Washington’s sudden death, his wife Martha insisted on burning nearly all their

personal correspondence. It was an unfortunate decision made in the name of privacy, for history lost not only a record of a great public marriage, but the real passion and thoughts of the United States’ first president and first lady. The author, Patricia Brady, currently the director of the New Orleans Collection, has ingeniously taken a portrait of Martha at mid-age, and then using computer technology projected an image back of Martha at age 26. Her biography is somewhat similarly ingenious and is a carefully constructed mosaic of Martha and what historians extrapolate about her through her times and class. She emerges as a more complex and complicated figure than previously imagined.

Despite the intense opposition of her fiance’s irascible father, Martha Dandridge was married to Daniel Custis, a wealthy older Virginian planter. In a bold move, she had appeared before the father, and apparently got him to agree to the love match despite her paltry dowry. But then at age 26, with two children bound to her, she was left a wealthy Virginia widow when Daniel died Later she had other suitors, but immediately fell in love with a tall, dashing military figure, Maj. George Washington. As for Washington, he was still in love with his neighbor’s wife, Sally Fairfax, and letters remain of their connection, some written during his courtship of Martha. But by the mores of the time, Sally was off limits, and Washington married, and settled into a comfortable conventional life.

The marriage of George and Martha did not produce any children, but a host of nieces and nephews along with her children populated Mount Vernon. The story of her unfailing charm during the difficult Revolution and during his presidency is all well known. But she was also a strong willed companion who was fiercely loyal to Washington and the causes he served so well. She intensely favored the Patriot rebellion over the British, and later after the war would ask him to retire in honor.

Against her wishes, he served in the presidency, and then allowed himself to be reelected.

His ambition and sense of duty were stronger at times than even his love for her.

Still she worshipped the aloof Washington, nursed him through two very serious illness in his first term, and vigororly opposed Thomas Jefferson’s partisan duplicity, who while he served in the Administration supported secretly critics of the Washington-Hamilton policies. She never forgave Jefferson, and regarded his election as president in 1800 as a national misfortune.

Ms. Brady insists that like most upper class women of her time and region, Martha spent a great deal of time on hospitality and domestic affairs. Still she was a determined manager and also a fine conversationalist. Nearly all observers comment on her graciousness and personal charm. Her religion was orthodox Anglicanism, her politics republican and her love of Washington total and adoring. Whether dealing with the ragtag soldiers at Valley Forge or pompous senators in New York City, Martha Washington set a friendly and warm tone. She was more than a hostess — she established a high standard for future first ladies and for many public women in 19th-century America.

After Washington’s death, Martha sealed off their bedroom and never slept there again. His will provided for the freeing of his slaves, but not her slaves. She probably did not share his later disdain of slavery and its woeful effects on his beloved republic. He kept his papers meticulously sorted; she burned the evidence of their personal union. In the end, she wanted to keep a piece of him to herself, after all those years in the public eye.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two-volume history of the presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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