The Example of Martha Washington

This morning a good friend posted a quote from the first of First Ladies, Martha Washington, which I wanted to share with you, gentle reader. We perhaps don’t think of Martha much as an influential figure these days, though she was certainly well-thought of not only in her own day, but as a model both for American First Ladies and indeed for American women who came after her, for many years. Of course, now that even the Daughters of the American Revolution are facing internal controversy over whether they should mention Jesus or not, it is not surprising that we find Martha is not as highly esteemed as she once was, and this is indeed a great shame.

Martha spent most of her life living in the countryside among the Virginia gentry, but she was a woman who rose to the occasion whenever the moment commanded it.  She was both emotionally and physically there, at some of this country’s darkest moments, during the War of Independence.  Yet whatever difficulty beset her, she continued to trust in Divine Providence that God would provide what was needed, and that it was her task to simply pick up and carry on.  In writing to her good friend, the writer and Revolutionary propagandist (and mother of five) Mercy Otis Warren, Martha observed:

I am still determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may be. For I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions and not upon our circumstances.

Perhaps because she comes off as somewhat grandmotherly, seemingly less dynamic than Abigail Adams or Dolley Madison, Martha Washington does not attract the attention she once did. In an age when women who embrace traditional roles are openly mocked in certain quarters, Martha may seem too much a relic of the past, when women tended the home fires. And as it happens, one of the reasons we know less about her is because after her husband’s death, she burned as many of their letters to each other as she could lay her hands on, as they had agreed. When you consider how long they were married – 40 years – and how often he was away from home, you can imagine the voluminous correspondence that has been lost, which would have given us an even greater insight into her character.

Yet as is so often the case, actions speak louder than words.  For Martha was there at Valley Forge during the famous winter encampment, just when all seemed lost – something which might surprise those who simply think of her as this tiny, country lady who happened to be George Washington’s wife, and who assume (wrongly) that she did little but live in his shadow. She tried to rally and encourage the officers and men, and those of their wives who came to join them, through prayer, song, putting on plays and organizing dinners, visiting the sick, and trying to help the men find relief and the strength to go on despite severe poverty, cold, and deprivation. It is said that at one point she herself ran out of pins, and rather than complain or ask to send for them to Philadelphia, she began to use thorns from brambles around the camp to hold together her clothing.

Whatever contemporary society may tell you about the role of women, remember this great lady, who clearly had the courage to come through unbelievably difficult circumstances to help bring about the birth of this nation. She was a wife, mother, patriot and Christian who was too concerned with doing her duty by God and her neighbor to stay focused on negatives. And for that reason she is an inspiration for all of us, regardless of our sex.


Detail of “Washington at Valley Forge” by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1854)
Private Collection

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