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The Washingtons George and Martha By Flora Fraser

Review of: The Washingtons
Flora Fraser

Reviewed by:
On October 13, 2015
Last modified:October 13, 2015


Flora Fraser has written a moving account of The Washingtons as they weathered family tragedies, the Revolutionary War, the tumultuous early years of the United States, and tried to come to terms with the issue of slavery within their own household.

The Washingtons by Flora FraserThe Washingtons
George and Martha
“Join’d by Friendship, Crowned by Love”
By Flora Fraser

For most readers of the nation’s formative history, Martha Washington dwells in the shadow cast by her exceptional husband. Flora Fraser corrects that oversight with this book.

It was not an easy task. Much is known about Abigail Adams, wife of the second president (and Washington’s vice president). John and Abigail Adams’ lengthy correspondence was carefully preserved. But when George Washington died, Martha had their letters burned. Fraser had to rely on the words of friends, family, and colleagues, in their diaries and official correspondence.

Abigail Adams wrote: “To be the Successor of Mrs. Washington and to make good her place will be an arduous task.” She paid tribute to Martha’s “experience and knowledge of Persons and Character.”

During her eventful life, Martha acquired large measures of both. She married Daniel Parke Custis, a wealthy man twenty years her senior. Within six years they had four children. In the space of three years, the older two died and Martha gave birth to two more. Within three months of the death of her older daughter, Daniel sickened and abruptly died. After his death…

she had chosen to manage on her own behalf and for her children, an extensive plantation known at the White House on the banks of Pamunkey, thirty miles west of Williamsburg. There were substantial holdings also in other parts of the colony.

In short, Martha Custis was no wilting widow “She was a woman of considerable mettle.”

When George courted the wealthy widow, both were in their twenties. George, over 6 ft tall and well proportioned, was a handsome colonel in the colonial service. Martha, a petite five feet with hazel eyes and brown hair was an attractive woman. The young Martha bears little resembles the portraits of the plump middle age woman most people envision at mention of her name.

Similarly, Fraser reveals a little known side of the austere General Washington of portraiture. He was a loving and caring husband who greatly missed his wife during the eight years of separation imposed by the Revolutionary War. The normally reserved Washington spoke openly of “the happiness it was to be married to his wife and marked, even in a time of privation, their wedding anniversary.”

The almost constant stream of Mount Vernon visitors, when Washington was in residence and when he was not, described her as a warm and gracious hostess. The Washington’s hospitality was lavished on their extended family – widows in need, newly married couples, nieces, nephews, cousins, grandchildren, (and later great grandchildren), either lived at Mount Vernon for prolonged periods, or were installed in one of the houses owned by the Washingtons.

Such largess contributed to the family’s financial worries. Like other plantation owners, the Washingtons liked to live well. Their accounts show a brisk trade with London merchants, much of it on credit. All of it was paid after hostilities ceased, unlike many others, who defaulted on their debts.

The Washingtons’ home life is prominent in Fraser’s book. George Washington was a caring stepfather to Martha’s children: John Parke “Jacky” Custis and Martha Parke “Patsy” Custis. It was a great disappointment that, despite the remedies of the day, their union produced no offspring.

The Custis children were both a joy and a trial for the happy couple. Beginning at age twelve, Patsy suffered from incapacitating “fevers and fits.” Diary notations, doctors’ bills and household accounts detail her worsening condition. Her symptoms indicate she suffered from epilepsy. The doctors who treated her did no good and probably hastened her decline.

Jacky Custis presented a different set of problems. If he suffered from any maladies, they were sloth and fecklessness. No schoolmaster could discourage Jacky’s affinity for bad companions or kindle a desire to learn.

Finally in January of 1773, Washington (again) sought to transfer Jacky to a different college. But that was before Washington discovered that Jacky had, indeed, developed a desire, but not for schoolwork. He was enamored of the sister of a schoolmate, one Eleanor, “Nelly’” Calvert, then fifteen years of age. Or as George Washington wrote to Nelly’s father: “Mr. Custis, has, as I have been informed, paid his Addresses to your Second Daughter, & having made some progress in her Affections, required her marriage.”

For such a practical and orderly pair as George and Martha Washington, the unorthodox circumstances of Jacky’s willful engagement was hard to bear.

But bear it they did since the honor of both Jacky and Nelly was at stake.

However, on June 19, a greater calamity occurred. Patsy suffered a fatal seizure and died in her stepfather’s arms. Martha was inconsolable and Washington was deeply saddened. During the long mourning period Martha had little inclination to force Jacky to abide by his stepfather’s directive that college graduation precede his marriage.

The wedding took place in January of 1774. Jacky was 18 and had nominal control of his fortune. He soon demonstrated as little aptitude for managing his finances as for academics. Nelly produced seven children, four of whom survived to maturity. Jacky died of camp fever shortly before the end of the war in 1781.

To the Washington’s surprise, Nelly announced her plan to marry Dr. Davis Stuart, a business associate of Washington. They married in 1783 and she produced thirteen more children. Though Nelly was certainly fecund, she was not very interested in mothering. Perhaps she was simply overwhelmed. In any case, Martha Washington cared for the two youngest grandchildren, Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis and George Washington (Wash) Parke Custis at Mount Vernon and was a loving and attentive grandmother to the two granddaughters who remained with their mother.

While Jacky was providing no little consternation for his parents, his step-father George was emerging as an important figure in the Virginia resistance movement. He worked for the adoption of the Fairfax County Resolves, forerunner of the plan passed by the First Continental Congress to enforce nonimportation of British goods throughout the colonies. The Congress also decided upon the creation of militia companies outside of the control of British appointed governors. Washington personally financed the immediate purchase of ammunition and oversaw the organization of a company to defend Fairfax County should the need arise. Then came news that the British had marched on Concord and that Patriot and British blood had been shed.

The Second Continental Congress agreed that the militias of the various colonies should unite for the general defense “under the command of the chief officer of the Army.” Washington was unanimously elected. He wrote to Martha from Philadelphia that he “could not avoid the appointment but declined the pay that had been voted him:”

No pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to accept this arduous employment at the expense of my domestic ease and happiness.

Alone at Mount Vernon, Martha Washington would again take charge of plantation affairs. This time with the help of Lund Washington, the General’s cousin.

It required all of Washington’s considerable skills to obtain the necessities of war, secure and retain enlistments, fend off military opportunists and their allies in congress and fight a war. Somehow he managed it all, often crediting “benevolent providence.” for his successes.

At General Washington’s request, Martha joined him every winter at the Continental Army’s encampments. At these camps the Army suffered deplorable shortages, harsh weather and rampant sickness. At one point, Martha insisted on inoculation with the new small pox vaccine, a risky procedure as people sometimes contracted smallpox as a result of the inoculation. But it was the only way she could join the General when the camp was overrun with the disease. Contemporaries commented that Martha’s arrivals much improved the General’s temper and spirits.

After the cessation of hostilities, Washington encouraged a grand convention of all the states to address the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, but had to be persuaded to preside. When he left for Philadelphia, Martha declined to accompany him.

Washington wrote to the Robert Morrisses at whose home they were invited to stay:

‘Mrs. Washington is become too Domestick and too attentive to two little Grand Children to leave home.’ When Jacky had been young, Martha had been too nervous about his health to leave him much, and she fancied him at death’s door when she went visiting. Now she expressed the same agitation about Wash …

Fraser writes that during the months Washington spent in Philadelphia “he was unusually sociable.” Washington retained his trim physique and energy until late in life while Martha, always given to plumpness, became more so and increasingly unwilling to leave Mount Vernon. The record indicates the General loved to dance and once did so for three hours with the attractive wife of Alexander Hamilton. He attended parties hosted by his numerous friends and particularly enjoyed the company of Elizabeth Willing Powell, wife of Samuel Powell. Mrs. Powell was “a spirited woman ten years his junior.”

Such flirtatious friendships between the sexes within the bounds of marriage to others were not uncommon in Philadelphia. Mrs. Powell was on civil terms with Martha.

The author observes that the correspondence between the General and Mrs. Powell “suggests a different order of intimacy.”

When Washington was elected president, Martha made no secret of her unhappiness. In a letter to her nephew, John Dandridge, she wrote:

‘I am truly sorry to tell you that the General is gone to New York.’ That was the– temporary – home of government…’When or whether he will ever come home again God only knows. I think it was much too late for him to go into public life again, but it was not to be avoided.’ She added tersely, ‘Our family will be deranged, as I must follow him soon.’

When she was established in New York she complained:

‘… I never go to any publick place – indeed I think I am more a state prisoner than anything else. There is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from.’ Martha ended defiantly ‘and since I cannot do as I like, I am obstinate and stay home a great deal.

In time she became resigned to her situation. She was, she wrote to a friend, determined to be cheerful and happy, having learned from experience that “the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our disposition.”

Given the paucity of material, the author did as thorough a job as possible of bringing Martha Washington out of the shadows. That she still seems enigmatic is a consequence of the scarcity of material, not the author’s failings. To her credit, Fraser did not resort to the psychobabble of linking her subject’s behavior to past events or traumas. Readers must draw their own conclusions.

What we do know is that the charming hostess and indulgent mother and grandmother had a feisty side. Some may surmise that, as much as the General revered Martha, he was not immune to temptation.

Flora Fraser has written a moving account of The Washingtons as they weathered family tragedies, the Revolutionary War, the tumultuous early years of the United States, and tried to come to terms with the issue of slavery within their own household.


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