At home with George and Martha, America’s first First Family.
Shortly before her death, Martha Washington (1731–1802) extinguished any hope of a definitive assessment of her marriage and family life by burning the decades-long correspondence between her and her husband. This historians’ tragedy forces Chadwick (The First American Army, 2005, etc.) to draw mainly from the observations of contemporaries to examine the dynamic between a husband and wife who together dominated the 18th-century American stage. Having already achieved a small measure of military fame, the land-poor Colonel Washington (1732–99) married the wealthy widow Martha Custis in 1759, taking custody of her two surviving children, Patsy and Jack, and eventually her grandchildren, Nelly and Wash. While it briefly charts the troubled lives of the Custis offspring, the story focuses on the principals. George was tall and muscular; Martha was short and plump. He was ferociously ambitious; she was content to be the wife of a Virginia planter. He was a clothes horse; she favored the plain and simple. He was famously aloof; she was delightfully gregarious. He was strict with the kids; she was hopelessly indulgent. Both had a deep appreciation and admiration for the other, an abiding sense of duty and a keen understanding of their official roles, carefully attending to the details of their domestic and public lives. Intended for the general reader, Chadwick’s brisk narrative comes as close as we are likely to get to an understanding of the Washington union, but the book works best when assessing the impressive impact of the First Couple on an ever-widening audience. Washington used the word “family” variously to include his slaves at Mt. Vernon, his staff in the army, his presidential cabinet and, eventually, all his fellow citizens. No special need to recount the legacy of the father of our country, but Martha, too, played an important, underappreciated role in ministering to these extended families, a contribution well recognized here.
A deft portrait of the Washington team, building a life together and, eventually, a new nation.