It only takes 45 minutes to take the shuttle to New York from Washington’s Reagan National Airport, located in Virginia on the Potomac River, but it took eleven days for Martha Washington to make the same distance of a trip in 1789.
Perhaps it was just as well. What she later called a “pleasant journey” also allowed the public to respond to her and help define not only what her role would be in national life but set in motion the basic premise of a First Lady’s position for over two centuries worth of successors.
Along the path of her stagecoach from her home at Mount Vernon, Virginia in what is now suburban Washington, D.C. to the then-capital city of New York, where she arrived on May 27, two-hundred thirteen years ago today, she underwent a metamorphosis.
She went from being the beloved wife of the beloved General Washington into some new sort of new, symbolic, larger-than-life persona about which the young American nation – or the world for that matter - had no point of reference.
For herself, Martha Washington was rightfully clueless about what she could expect others would expect of her. Her primary identity, and certainly the one with which she proceeded to New York was rather simply as the wife of George Washington, and manager of his estate. The public role she had played during the American Revolution, she perceived to be entirely derivative of the fact that she was married to the General of the Continental Army.
She was not the Queen of America, because the new nation was firmly a democratic republic and not a monarchical form of government. Yet wanting the United States to be treated with the same level of respect as all the older, established national governments in Europe and Asia, and having only Kings and Queens as the concept of rulers, a certain degree of honor and dignity would have to devolve around the real human people who were and would later become a President, was necessary. Traditionally, in those older nations, the spouse (be it male or female) was equated with a similar status as the leader to whom they were married.
At the time of George Washington’s inauguration as the first American President, on April 30, 1789, three women reigning all held and exercised their status and power in difference ways: Russia’s Catherine the Great had inherited the throne and ruler autonomously.
France’s Marie Antoinette, resented for her stylish lifestyle by an impoverished peasantry, had her status symbols turned against her, if even unfairly, to serve as a political symbol.
Charlotte, the wife of England’s King George III, had little interest in the pomp of the royal court and was devoting herself to protecting her increasingly enfeebled husband.
For the American President’s wife, the dignity and status and, to a certain degree, touches of regalia marking her as an American symbol equal to those in Europe, had to nevertheless be balanced with an open accessibility, at least a effort at social equality, and a willingness to welcome “the people” as sort of a national mother.
George Washington has used his own coach to travel to New York and that’s where it was. Rather than borrow the offered coach of the President’s mother, two coaches, horses, a coachman, and drivers were leased from one Gabriel Van Horne, through travel agent William Heth, who wrote the President assuring him that Martha would have no “female apprehensions” about his care.
Traveling with Martha were three family members: her grandson and , who she raised as her own children, George Washington Parke Custis, eight years old and known as “Little Wash,” or “Tubb,” for his fatness; granddaughter Nellie Custis, ten years old; and their escort, her nephew-by-marriage, Bob Lewis, who was the son of the President’s sister Betty. It was from the diary of Bob Lewis that a first-hand account of the journey was left.
The first stop wasn’t far at all – just in the nearby town of Alexandria, Virginia. There, Martha made last minute purchases and other arrangements and by the morning of the 18th they were up and out early. Four hours later, they were crossing the Potomac by ferry in a strong current, landed in Georgetown, momentarily delayed to replace a horse rein that had broken when one horse had spooked while crossing the river. By one that afternoon, they made it to Bladensburg, Maryland and stopped for a “cold cut and some wine.” They traveled for three more hours, then rested and spent the night at the country place of a Major Snowden.
Up early the next morning, they were eventually met by a welcoming committee of “Gentleman from Baltimore who had come out for the purpose of escorting Mrs,. Washington into town.” With the enlarged entourage they stopped at a Mrs. Carroll’s place to consume “a large bowl of salubrious ice punch” for fifteen minutes.
By the time they continued and made their way into Baltimore town, pulling up to the home of friends, Dr. and Mrs. James McHenry, the little escort had been joined by stragglers and grown into a full crowd surrounding the coach. News that Martha Washington was coming was now spreading up the Eastern seaboard. In Baltimore, a “tea reception” was organized to honor her, and Martha changed from her traveling duds into some special dress, then descended the stairs like some “truly respectable personage,” and began greeting the crowd “assembled to pay their respects to Mrs. Washington.” Then, an early evening fireworks display was put on for her, organizer by Dr. McHenry’s brother. The festivities made the Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser, soon picked by the Gazette of the United States. Bob noted in his diary that though “serenaded by an exceppent band of music…to sleep was impossible…we were serenaded until two o’clock int he morning…”
Although Martha Washington, who would turn sixty years old in some two weeks, only had three hours of sleep, it was a push on at five a.m. towards Philadelphia, a city she knew well and where many old friends from the American Revolutionary days still lived. By afternoon, as they neared the city, this time it was the Governor and two military troop regiments and coaches filled with society women from Philadelphia which came out to greet her, the journey now taking on the formality of a public event with Martha Washington as the star of it all. By the time this parade reached Gray’s Ferry, there was a “collation” organized for her and attended by about one hundred of Philadelphia’s leading citizens, at a local inn. She was following the same path now that her husband had taken on his journey a month earlier, on his way to be inaugurated as the first President.
As her coach entered Philadelphia, crowds now ran alongside it, and Martha was waving to and acknowledging the public – a first for her. Bells pealed in town and, giving her the equal status of the President, she was treated to the same honor he had received – a thirteen-gun salute booming rapid-fire.
Then the cheers went up and what had been an informal title of affection for her by Revolutionary War troops for her benevolence towards her, took on the feeling of an official title: “Long live Lady Washington!” the crowds roared, as reported in the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper.
In an instant, Martha Washington realized she was no longer just Martha Washington but, as she put it in a letter, “A very great some body.”
It prompted her to do something she had never done before and would never do again – she gave a public speech.
One account recalled of it: “She arose and standing in the carriage, thanked the troops who had escorted her, and the citizens too.” Life was definitely changing for her.
When she went out to get some “new fashioned” shoes at Mr. Whiteside’s Fancy Dry Goods Store, she was recognized while shopping.
Leaving her Philadelphia home with her two daughters to join Martha Washington for the triumphant entrance into New York was her old friend Marcia Morris, wife of Robert Morris, and long-term friends of the Washingtons.
Escorted out of Philadelphia by the Troops of the Light Horse, she was now being followed by two reporters from the Daily Advertiser and Gazette.
Two days alter they arrived at Elizabeth(town), New Jersey and proceeded to the wharf where a festooned forty-seven-foot barge, the same one that has conveyed her husband across the river to New York a month earlier, was waiting for her, along with her husband, President George Washington, and Governor of New Jersey as her official escort into the vessel. The barge was marked by two snapping flags and moved by thirteen liveried oarsman, as she waved and acknowledged onlookers in nearby boats and ships, as she rounded the lower tip of Manhattan’s Battery.
There another thirteen-cannon salute boomed and cutting through the drifting smoke, the barge docked at Peck’s Slip. There, the ruddy-cheeked Governor Clinton of New York was waiting with a handshake and help up, along with a formal committee.
All through lower Manhattan came the cheers of “God Bless Lady Washington!” as they rode the one block north through the crowded street as if it were a second Inauguration Day, this time for the President’s Lady, although there would be no formal induction ceremony.
From their coach, the Washingtons alighted to the first of two New York mansions they would occupy, and which would serve as the New York “White Houses.”
Both have long been decimated, but the first was located where one of the present-day Brooklyn Bridge stanchions was built 92 years later, in 1881.
In her own brief recollections about the eleven days, in a June 8 letter to her niece Fanny, Martha wrote:
I have the pleasure to tell you, that we had a very agreable journey, – I arrived in philadelphia on fryday after I left you without the least accident to distress us, were met by the President of the state with the city troop of Horse and conducted safe to Grays ferry, where a number of Ladies and Gentlemen came to meet me, – and after a cold colation we proceed to town, – I went to Mr. Morrises – the children was very well and chearfull all the way, Nelly complained a very little of being sick – as soon as I could I sent for the stay maker and gave him your measure and directed him to send the stays to Colo Biddle, when done to be sent to you, – also two pair of shoes of a new fashioned kind those with Low Heels are for you, those with the high heels is for Mrs. Stuart, with a pr apiece for the two dear little girls – all which I hope has come to your hands before this…
I set out on Monday with Mrs Morris and her two Daughters and was met on Wednesday morning by the President Mr. Morris and Colo H at Elizabethtown point with the fine Barge you have seen so much said of in the papers with the same oars men that carried the P. to New York – dear little Washington seemed to be lost in a maze at the great parade that was made for us all the way we come – The Governor of the state meet me as soon as we landed, and led me up to the House, the paper will tell you how I was complimented on my landing.”
Certainly while she had been mentioned in the public press during the American Revolution, her regular notices in all the national newspapers had made Martha into something still somewhat rare in the United States – a public woman.
Certainly the words of a Worcester, Massachusetts newspaper describing her as “Her Ladyship,” provide evidence that the eventual evolution of the first printed use of the term “First Lady” (see article: http://carlanthonyonline.com/2011/03/31/the-first-first-lady-never-married-the-president-recently-discovered-1850-magazine-first-to-use-the-title-first-lady/) had its roots from the very beginning of the American Presidency.
Perhaps Martha Washington’s truly official induction into this whole new world of First Ladydom took place when the Gazette reporters felt compelled to finally report that, on this very first day of the first First Lady, “she was clothed in the manufacture of our Country, in which her native goodness and patriotism appeared to the greatest advantage.”
While the role of a presidential spouse, though changed and evolving ever since May 27, 1789 has remained, so too have those who remained obsessed more with what they wear than who they are.
- Songs & Music About First Ladies: Vote for the Best One (carlanthonyonline.com)
- I know I don’t have time to write you now. A Sonnet. (artsattheaviary.com)
- Martha Washington’s Famous Face Mask (missamandie.wordpress.com)
- 1789 Acts of Congress to be auctioned in NYC (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Christmas at the White House: The President’s Presents, Shopping, Giving & Getting Gifts, Part 1 of 4 (carlanthonyonline.com)
- George Washington’s Runaway Slave, Harry (theroot.com)
- What is Happiness? (coca-cola.com)
- Martha Washington (worldofblackheroes.com)
- Christmas at the White House: Trees, Gingerbread Houses, Mennorahs, Celebrity Santas & Other Innovations, Part 2 (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The Very First Inaugural Ball: Hot for Her, Not for Him (carlanthonyonline.com)