This Day in History: Martha Washington passes away
On this day in 1802, Martha Washington passes away. Her family mourned her passing, but Martha herself was ready to go. She would finally join her beloved George! His death in December 1799 had been very hard on her.
“The zest of life has departed,” one visitor to Mount Vernon would observe of her afterwards.
Within hours of George’s death, Martha moved out of the bedroom that the two had shared on the second floor of Mount Vernon. George had taken his last breath in that bed. Perhaps she wanted to leave behind the memory of his last day? Or maybe even the good memories were more than she could bear, day in and day out.
Either way, Martha decided to live out her days in a smaller room on the third floor.
The new widow was soon swamped with condolence letters and requests for mementos. In fact, Martha received so much correspondence that she needed help responding to it all. Mailing costs became overwhelming, and a congressman helped ensure that Martha was provided free postage for life.
Another, unexpected issue arose during this period. Washington’s will had provided that his slaves would be freed upon Martha’s death. This was a trickier issue than you might expect. Washington’s decision would separate families, perhaps causing a father to be freed while his wife and children remained slaves. The reason for this? Washington did not have the legal right to free the slaves that were a part of Martha’s estate. Actually, Martha didn’t have a legal right to free those slaves, either. They were a part of her first husband’s estate and would be passed down to her grandchildren upon her death.
The entire situation was pretty emotional, as you might imagine. Martha began to fear for her life as rumors swirled that some of Washington’s slaves were getting restless. She ended up releasing those slaves early, in January 1801.
Life without George took a toll on Martha in other ways. To those who knew her, she seemed to age overnight. She seemed older and more wrinkled. She could generally keep it together in public or around strangers, but sometimes the emotions broke through.
An early condolence letter from John and Abigail Adams brought a “flood of tears,” as her biographer describes. Martha’s reply was “filled with anguished grief.” Later, the wife of a former British ambassador wrote that “Mrs. Washington received us with her usual kindness, and not without tears . . . . I listened with tender interest to a sorrow, which she said was truly breaking her heart; it was really doing so.”
Despite these hardships, Martha was at least surrounded by family. Her granddaughter Nelly was already living at Mount Vernon with her husband and children. The great-grandchildren surely brought smiles to Martha’s face, even in her grief. Moreover, Martha’s grandson lived on the estate, as did Tobias Lear. He’d been Washington’s secretary, but he was also the widower of Martha’s niece.
Martha’s family was with her when she fell ill early in May 1802. It was an illness from which she would never recover, but she used the time to prepare. She had her final communion. She said farewell to her family. She even picked out a white gown to be “the last dress.”
Martha took her final breath on May 22. Her grandson-in-law described the “melancholy scene.” “Fortitude & resignation were display’d throughout,” Thomas Law wrote, “she met death as a relief from the infirmities & melancholy of old age—all she valued in life had been take from her.”
Yes, a sad, melancholy scene, to be sure. But don’t you bet that it was followed by a joyous reunion between General Washington and his bride later that day?
George Washington’s Mount Vernon: The Deaths of George and Martha
Patricia Brady, Martha Washington: An American Life (2005)
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (2010)