Though the world generally knows the stories of George Washington crossing the Delaware and Martha Washington’s social extravaganzas, many things about the country’s First Couple remain relatively unknown.
In honor of Martha’s birthday, here are eight lesser known facts about America’s first president and First Lady.
1) George and Martha never actually lived in the White House
Although George had his hand in deciding its location and design—and even selected the Irish-born architect, James Hoban, to oversee the project—George and Martha never actually lived in the White House.
George finished his presidency in 1797 and died before construction on the building was complete. John Adams—the second president of the United States—and his wife, Abigail, were the first to actually reside in America’s capital that had been named in Washington’s honor.
At the time the Adamses moved in, their home was called the “President’s House” or the “Executive Mansion.” It wasn’t officially named the “White House” until President Theodore Roosevelt deemed it so in 1901, though some newspapers referred to it by that name more than a century before.
Prophetically, when George first met Martha in 1758 she was living in a mansion on the Pamunkey River called the White House.
2) Martha was 8 months older than George
Martha Dandridge was born on June 2, 1731 in her parents’ bedroom at Chestnut Grove plantation in New Kent County, Virginia. She was the eldest of eight children, three of whom died young.
George was born on February 22, 1732 at his father’s plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia—about 100 miles north of Martha’s birthplace. He was the eldest of six children born to Augustine Washington and Mary Ball, though his father already had three children from his previous marriage.
Being the oldest in the marriage was new for Martha, her first husband had been 20 years her senior.
3) George had to compete for Martha’s hand in marriage
After Martha’s first husband, Daniel Custis, died in July 1757, George had to compete for Martha’s hand against a prosperous tobacco planter named Charles Carter. In Washington: A Life historian Ron Chernow writes that George “courted Martha with the crisp efficiency of a military man laying down a well-planned siege.”
Carter was about twice Martha’s age and had already fathered 12 children from his previous marriage. Though Carter’s wealth and status certainly would have made him a tempting suitor, the prospect of taking on such a large family was no doubt daunting to the 26-year-old Martha.
Chernow notes that, by contrast, “George Washington could only have appeared manly, rock-solid, and utterly fearless” to the young widow. George and Martha began their courtship in March 1758—about 8 months after her husband passed away—and were married the following January.
4) Martha was fabulously wealthy when she met George
To say that Martha had more to offer than good looks and a winning personality would be an understatement. She had numerous properties and more than seventeen-thousand acres of land across six different counties.
She also had hundreds of head of cattle and sheep, and nearly 300 slaves who worked her vast tobacco empire. Indeed, she was the wealthiest woman in the colony of Virginia when George proposed marriage—and her wealth and social status meant a great deal to the young Virginian.
Chernow notes that by marrying Martha, George “swiftly achieved the social advancement” he craved, and “almost overnight he was thrust into top-drawer Virginia society and could dispense with the servility that had sometimes marked his dealings with social superiors.”
5) They couldn’t have children of their own together
Martha had four children with her previous husband but the oldest two died before she married George. George became the legal guardian of her remaining two children: 4-year-old John (known as Jacky) and 2-year-old Martha (known as Patsy.)
Though George raised Jacky and Patsy as his own, George and Martha were never able to have children together. While 18th century machismo made it common practice to blame the woman whenever fertility issues arose, most historians agree that Martha wasn’t the cause of the problem. It’s far more likely that George was infertile—probably the result of contracting tuberculosis in his early years.
If it bothered George that he didn’t have children of his own, he never made it known in any of this roughly eighteen-thousand letters to others. He and Martha not only had their hands full with Jacky and Patsy, they also helped raise four grandchildren and several nieces and nephews together.
6) They weren’t each other’s first love
Though George and Martha enjoyed a 40-year marriage before his death in 1799, they weren’t the first person either one had ever loved. As noted, Martha married Daniel Custis before knowing George, but George also loved another woman before knowing Martha.
George was 16-years-old when he first became smitten with the wife of his close friend, George William Fairfax. George Fairfax’s wife Sally was two years older than Washington and one historian describes her as “a woman of obvious beauty and sensuality” with “bright, sprightly eyes and an alluring personality.”
For over a decade there was an ongoing flirtation between young Washington and Sally and he made many attempts to deepen their intimacy throughout their late teens and early twenties. Though George’s feelings for Sally only grew over the years, he decided to put their pseudo relationship aside once and for all when he began dating Martha in the Spring of 1758.
As Chernow put it: “his lingering infatuation with Sally Fairfax” was George’s “one piece of unfinished business” before marrying Martha. Before the wedding he wrote Sally a letter that “honorably declared an end to their amorous relationship on the eve of his marriage.”
Even after marrying Martha, however, George and Sally maintained an on-again, off-again correspondence throughout their lives, despite the fact that Sally and George Fairfax moved to England at the start of the American Revolution.
Nearly 40 years later when she was almost 70 and after her husband had passed away, George wrote Sally a letter reminiscing about their early years together and said that “the recollection of those happy moments…in which I enjoyed in your company,” were “the happiest of my life.”
7) Martha was in the room when George died
George died of a throat infection on December 14th, 1799 in his bedroom at Mount Vernon. His last words followed instructions he gave his secretary, Tobias Lear, to “have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.”
Fears of being buried alive were common in the 18th century. After Lear confirmed that he understood his mentor’s final wishes, George spoke his final words: “Tis well.” Lear was holding George’s hand when he died and felt “the general’s hand fall from (his) wrist” before the attending physician “put his hands over (Washington’s) eyes.”
Martha sat at the foot of George’s bed throughout her husband’s final hours and quietly queried: “Is he gone?” After Lear confirmed that he was she repeated her companion’s last words: “Tis well.” Adding, “all is over now. I shall soon follow him. I have no more trials to pass through.” Martha died two and a half years later on May 22, 1802.
8) George set his slaves free in his will with one notable condition
Though George and Martha had 317 slaves at the time of his death, more than half of them were considered “dower slaves” and belonged to the Custis estate from Martha’s first marriage.
George owned 123 slaves outright and declared in his will that each of them were to gain their freedom after both he and Martha had died. As it turned out, Martha set them free much sooner.
After a suspicious fire at Mount Vernon followed George’s death, Martha became convinced that his slaves would revolt and kill her in order to gain their freedom. To remove such motive, Martha signed an order freeing all of George’s slaves on January 1, 1801—only a year and two weeks after his death.
The one slave who received both his immediate freedom along with a lifetime annuity under George’s will was his personal valet, Billy Lee. After George died, Lee chose to stay on at Mount Vernon and resided in his own house there until his death in 1810.
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