On this day in 1759, George Washington marries Martha Dandridge Custis. They had known each other for less than 10 months, and Martha had been widowed for less than 18 months. They were married at her home. Can you believe her home was called “the White House”?
Martha’s first husband was Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy Virginia planter who was nearly 20 years older than she was. Martha and Daniel were married for about 7 years and had two young children when he died. Daniel left a huge estate to Martha, making her the wealthiest widow in Virginia. Yet Daniel had died without a will. Thus, Martha was the executor of his estate and had many of the same legal rights as men. Her financial status left her free to marry a man of her own choosing.
She chose George.
Although the 18-month turnaround seems fast by modern standards, it was not so fast in the 1750s. Life expectancies were shorter then. Childbearing was more dangerous. In short, it was less unusual for a person to be widowed—and to remarry in relatively short order. Indeed, Martha had other suitors and could have chosen someone else.
Not only did she choose George, but it appears that she trusted him. Mt. Vernon’s website notes: “Martha must have believed that in George she had found someone she could trust as well as love. Although some widows wrote legally binding premarital contracts that protected the assets they had from their previous marriage, Martha did not.”
The feeling was mutual. You are used to seeing pictures of Martha as an older woman. Don’t forget that Washington married a younger woman, in her prime. One of the editors at the Papers of George Washington notes: “We always see Martha with a withered face in her old age. But she was quite a beautiful woman in her younger years, and Washington loved her deeply.”
For their wedding, Martha chose a beautiful pair of purple slippers. The shoes may have been a bit “over the top” for their time, according to the late James Rees, who was Mount Vernon’s executive director. Historian Patricia Brady has described the shoes as the “Manolo Blahniks of her time.”
Some have speculated that the shoes are an indicator that the bride was excited about her wedding day!
Having said all this, at the end of the day, it is impossible to know what either of them REALLY thought about their courtship or their marriage. We have mostly circumstantial evidence because Martha had all their correspondence burned after George’s death, apparently to protect his privacy. But the two clearly had a good and long-lasting partnership. She mourned him when he passed away in 1799, just before their 41st wedding anniversary. And she told people, at the time, that she wished she could join him in death.
“I shall soon follow him,” she reportedly said, “and rejoice when that moment arrives.”
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Brigid Schulte, Fresh Look at Martha Washington: Less First Frump, More Foxy Lady (Washington Post; February 2, 2009)
Early Life: Courtship of Daniel Parke Custis and Martha Dandridge (Martha Washington website, sponsored by Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and Mount Vernon)
George & Martha’s Courtship (Mount Vernon website)
Patricia Brady, Martha Washington: An American Life (2005)
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (2010)
Shoe Shopping with Martha Washington (Mount Vernon website)