“The lady,” it was written, “was fair to behold, of fascinating manners, and splendidly endowed with worldly benefits. The hero, fresh from his early fields, redolent of fame, and with a form on which ‘every god did seem to set his seal, to give the world assurance of a man.’”
Despite the curious quotation from Hamlet, the scene smacks more of Regency romance than Shakespeare. But in the 19th century, it’s what passed for a legitimate retelling of how George and Martha (the “charming widow”) and George Washington (“the most punctual of all men”) first met.
All in good fun. In reality, we know little about the circumstances of their first meeting or their courtship. Most of the first First Family’s personal correspondence was destroyed. But perhaps, on this anniversary of their marriage on January 6, 1759, it helps us to remember that they were once just a young couple making their way in the world, uncertain of what lay ahead.
It was George Washington Parke Custis who peddled this imaginative version of events that occurred decades earlier. Custis was the son of Jacky, Martha’s son from her first marriage; he was raised by the Washingtons after his father’s death in 1781, and grew up at Mount Vernon.
But back to the happy couple. It’s possible that they did first meet, as Custis claimed, at the Poplar Grove home of Richard Chamberlayne in March of 1758. Poplar Grove was near Martha’s home, White House, on the Pamunkey River in New Kent County, Virginia, about 35 miles northwest of the capital in Williamsburg.
It’s also possible that their paths first crossed in Williamsburg, where the social scene was buzzing with activity around the sessions of court and the house of burgesses.
Martha Dandridge Custis was a very eligible widow, coming from a good family and holding a rather large fortune after the loss of her first husband Daniel Parke Custis on July 8, 1757. He was 45 years old, twenty years Martha’s senior.
However they were first acquainted, George’s wooing of Martha does appear to have begun in earnest in March 1758, a courtship biographer Ron Chernow humorously described as being conducted “with the crisp efficiency of a military man laying down a well-planned siege.”
In April George ordered “superfine Blue Cotton Velvet” from London for a coat, waistcoat, and breeches, along with a half-dozen pairs each of shoes and gloves. The sort of wardrobe one might want to have handy for a wedding.
In May George paid 16 shillings for a ring from Philadelphia.
George and Martha may have only spent a few brief periods together before the wedding, which took place on Saturday, January 6, 1759, coinciding with the festive occasion of Twelfth Night. Like most 18th-century Virginia weddings, the ceremony took place at home, at White House, surrounded by friends and family, including Martha’s children Jacky and Patsy. It seems that George’s mom, Mary Ball Washington, skipped the festivities.
George may very well have worn that blue velvet suit. The stylish Martha wore a yellow brocade gown and purple satin shoes. Customarily the ensuing celebration would have lasted for days. And while the grandson Custis’s retelling claimed that “Love made the feast and Washington was the guest,” it would have been the enslaved people in the household who cooked the food, cleaned the house, and made preparations for the comfort of the many guests.
As for a honeymoon, the notion of a couple taking a trip together after the nuptials didn’t begin to come into fashion until the 19th century (although it is kind of fun to think about where they might have gone). In this time “honeymoon” was a term that expressed the somewhat cynical idea that the newlywed’s ardor would fade as quickly as a lunar cycle.
For a brief period the family stayed in New Kent. In February George was due in Williamsburg to take his seat in the House of Burgesses as the newly-elected representative from Frederick County. In April they made the move to Mount Vernon.
The marriage offered George the wonderful companionship of a woman of “uncommon sweetness of temper” (the words of a rival suitor), but it also elevated his social standing. Overnight George became one of the wealthiest men in Virginia as he gained control of Martha’s fortune, which included thousands of acres of land and about 300 slaves.
That’s not to lend credence to the unfair claim that he married for money, which is made from time to time. Many tall tales have also been told over the years, from the improbable (Martha refused to marry unless George resigned his military commission) to the bizarre (George refused to marry unless Martha changed her hairstyle).
They were married for 40 years. They had no children together, but George was an active father to Jacky and Patsy and, later, George Parke Custis. And by all accounts theirs was a deeply loving match that ended only with George’s death in December 1799. Martha passed away at Mount Vernon in 1802.
But back in 1759, George was 26 and Martha was 27. They would have been toasting King George II on their wedding day. They had their whole lives ahead of them.