The first First Lady’s first Day

Depiction of Martha Washington proceeding north from Virginia to the capital city of New York in May of 1789.

Depiction of Martha Washington proceeding north from Virginia to the capital city of New York in May of 1789.

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.

Martha Washington.

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.

George Washington leaving Mount Vernon, Martha Washington bidding him farewell as they begin their month-long separation as he assumed the presidency.

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.

George and Martha Washington.

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.

Catherine the Great.

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.

Marie Antoinette.

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.

Queen Charlotte of England, painted in 1789

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.

The Washington Coach.

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.

Nelly Custis. (GW Foundation)

Little Wash or Tubb Custis (VA Hst. Sty)

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.

Bladensburg Maryland circa 1789.

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.

View of Baltimore from Howard’s Park by George Beck, c. 1796

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.

Troops escorted Martha Washington along the way as they had George Washington.

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…”

East View of Gray’s Ferry for reception of Washington where evergreens were hung on wired arches.

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.

The ferry dock at Arch Street in Philadelphia.

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.

Martha Washington attending to soldiers who prompted the title of “Lady Washington” for her.

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.

Before leaving Philadelphia, Lady Washington stood in her coach and made her first and only public speech as First Lady. (composite)

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.

Philadelphia, 1790s.

When she went out to get some “new fashioned” shoes at Mr. Whiteside’s Fancy Dry Goods Store, she was recognized while shopping.

Marcia Morris by Gilbert Stuart.

Marcia Morris by Gilbert Stuart.

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.

Martha Washington crossing into New York. (composite)

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.

Peck’s Slip, in New York.

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.

The first presidential mansion in New York.

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.

It was only one street from Peck’s Slip to the Presidential mansion in New York.

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…

The Washingtons exiting their coach.

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.”

Newspaper notice of Martha Washington’s arrival as the first First Lady.

Lady Washington was so popularly known that a clay pipe was made of her head and sold publicly.

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: had its roots from the very beginning of the American Presidency.

This mass-produced print of Lady Washington is further evidence that the term First Lady was rooted in the beginning of the 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.

Martha Washington’s brown silk dress in the Mount Vernon collection (item number 471)

Categories: Americana, First Ladies, History, The Washingtons, Today in FLOTUS History

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8 replies »

  1. I hope that this is not too silly a question, but I confess to loving lists. Based on your depth of research on all the presidential wives–starting, of course, with Martha W., who would you say, for lack of a better word, was the most “saintly” among them? Was there a First Lady whose courage, caring and decency went beyond the ordinary. I know that is a loaded Catholic word but I can’t think of a better one.

    I would guess that Eleanor Roosevelt would be a likely choice, but she appears to have been a chilly mother and perhaps saved her concern more for the unseen than the seen in her life. Pat Nixon, by all accounts, was a tremendously kind woman to those who worked for her and, certainly, to her family. But she was no crusader. Betty Ford was refreshingly bold in speaking out about addiction, but she was greatly praised for it. Maybe Lucretia Garfield or Grace Coolidge.

    • That’s a word I’d not know how to apply since what we know about any public figures is really the tip of an iceberg. Martha Washington was a good person but refused to acknowledge the inhumanity of slavery at a time when many, many people – including her own husband’s own primary aide – who later married a niece of her’s – said that while the Washingtons treated their slaves with compassion, they were still slaves. I would say that those who saw themselves having a connection with suffering people and felt compelled to use their visibility and power to attempt to change that, people like Eleanor Roosevelt, were remarkable in their degree of goodness. A few did not mean well – but again, from what we know or have managed to learn. That’s the chasm between person and persona, some of which is cultivated by them, their husbands, White House staff or later adoring historians. Like all of us they were flawed but unlike many of us, many of them strove to overcome their deficiencies, and did.

  2. You are absolutley right. Few public or regular people can legitimately be raised to the heights that saintliness implies. That was a poor choice of word on my part. Funny, even most of the canonized saints I recall from my Catholic school days don’t hold up as well upon closer exam. St. (Sir) Thomas More got a bit of beating last year with the publication of the novel “Wolf Hall.” A true man of his times, he showed a willingness to burn heretics when he was Henry VIII’s Chancellor that strikes us today as being decidedly un-saintly.

    i don’t think we have ever had a really bad First Lady–maybe a few money grubbing ones. One of the great qualities of a republic is that no one stays around long enough to do real damage.

    • I would agree with except for one. One glaring not-so-good First Lady. Take a good, close look at Edith Wilson. I’d say she had an all around extremely negative influence on the President, on the League of Nations compromises being met in the Senate, on his staff and Cabinet, on his daughters by his first marriage….she was….mmm…what a piece of work that one was: anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-black. I will leave it at that. There’s one saint I think is tops – the one who looked after all the animals.

      • Yes, I think the second Mrs. Wilson was a piece of work. I also think her uber-racist husband gets way too much praise from historians. Certainly, his first term had good domestic reform measures, but his re-segregation of the federal work place makes him the worst 20th century president on the crucial issue of race relations.

        I don’t know whether it was wise for the US to get into WWI, although the Germans were certainly provocative and self-defeating on that score–their approach to Mexico to recover the US southwest, the sinking of the Luisitania and Edith Cavell’s execution for starters. But, the Treaty of Versaille’s punitive terms ended up being a disaster for the world and, arguably, Wilson didn’t do enough to change it.

        Speaking of saints, Benedict XV (tied IMO with John XXIII as the best 20th century pope) tried mightily to broker a peace in order to stop what he called “the suicide of Europe”. Partly, because of the anti-Catholicism of the Wilson administration, his pleas were ignored.

        I think you were referring to St. Francis of Assisi, who is famously animal-friendly. There is a charming legend that he brokered a peace between a wolf that was eating the local poultry and the frightened villagers. Supposedly, the wolf agreed that if the villagers fed him he would leave their chickens alone.

        St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-97) had a much-photographed spaniel that her famility doted on. In fact, her kindly father broke off a trip to the Holy Land from Constantinople and returned to Normandy when he got letters from home that “poor Tom” was not eating and pining for him. Now, that’s a saint–actually a “Blessed”–Blessed Louis Martin.

        • Wow – you are amazing. You really, really know your presidential history so well. I concur with absolutely every single thing you say about Wilson. It is so interesting to see where the Democratic and Republican Party credos were in the teens and 20s as far as race. Wilson is really the very last of the old-school slave-owning Democratic Party – such a thing of the past. And Eisenhower is really the last of the old-school Lincoln Republicans on civil rights – although I think Ford was technically the last, although Eisenhower was the last one elected on such a platform. And I do not think Ellen Wilson shared his racial or religiously intolerant views – AT ALL. In fact, she was a great political ally of Joe Tumulty, Wilson’s Irish Catholic press secretary. But Edith Wilson really bred the darker side of the President on those matters. it’s even blatant, in her memoirs. Horrid and mortifying and disgraceful for a 20th century world-traveled person in such a position to have never evolved. Even in widowhood, when she was putting the squeeze on Bernard Baruch and shaking his money trees for trips to Europe together to honor “dear Mr. Wilson” and awful bigoted things she wrote about him while on the trip in many private letters which have come to auction now and then through the years. Racism and bigotry was practically an obsession with her. It may have stemmed from her own insecurities about being a so-called “blooded” descendant of old Virginia First Families and yet having been born and lived in a walk-up flat in the southwestern Virginia mountain range rather than some grand estate of her ancestors. She was even mean about Eleanor Roosevelt and uncooperative about her when Mrs. Roosevelt’s civil rights action gained momentum, and further turned on Mamie Eisenhower once she saw the Kennedys as being admirers of “dear Mr. Wilson.” I know zero about Saints – but yes, now I remember it was St. Francis of Assisi – yet I never knew that story about the wolf. And while so much is metaphoric in the Bible, I actually think that story may be very true -that such fearless and trusting people with love and caution but goodness towards animals can do such things, much as lion tamers and that fellow who lived with bears did for so long. I had no idea about St. Therese and her spaniel. Will look it up. Gandhi once said that we shall judge a nation by how well they treat their animals. Thanks for providing such an indepth and welcome context on Wilson too. Appreciate it.


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