“The Washingtons: George and Martha, ‘Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love’”
By Flora Fraser
490 pp., Anchor
Reviewed by Dr. Cassandra Good
Associate Editor, The Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington
Author, “Founding Friendships”
British biographer Flora Fraser has taken on a daunting task: telling the story of a relationship between a famous couple who left only three surviving letters to one another. After George Washington’s death, Martha burned her correspondence with her beloved husband. However, Fraser carefully mines George and Martha’s letters to other family and friends, correspondence and memoirs by people who observed the pair, and even financial records to offer a narrative of their marriage.
While George Washington’s military and political career — and increasingly his personal life and character — have been the subjects of many books, his relationship with Martha is a newer topic of interest. Fraser argues that it is a vital one: “Washington’s marriage was,” she writes, “the making of him.” This was most clearly the case in financial terms — Martha was a wealthy widow when she married George — but also in emboldening her husband to take on a prominent role in the founding of the country.
The subtitle of Fraser’s dual biography nicely encapsulates the Washingtons’ union: they married based on compatibility and friendship, but their relationship blossomed into deep love. When George and Martha met in 1758, he was a young planter with middling prospects, while she was a recent widow whose first husband had a wealth of cash, land, and slaves. Martha was not being taken advantage of, however; she chose George over other suitors, likely out of love.
Martha also made George Washington a father, via her children from her first marriage and later her grandchildren. While George and Martha never had children of their own, George became a loving stepfather to Martha’s children, Jacky and Patsy Custis. The Washingtons also took in, employed, or otherwise supported a bevy of nieces and nephews on both sides of their families. These young people were of great importance in the couple’s lives, especially Martha’s. After losing several children in infancy and Patsy as a teenager, Martha clung to her son and later her grandchildren. Still, it was George who remained central to all Martha’s actions over the four decades of their marriage.
Martha endured considerable discomfort — and even some danger — to follow George to his encampments during the Revolution and later to New York and Philadelphia for his political career. But her travels to be with him were not merely the acts of a devoted wife; Martha also took an interest in the great events unfolding in the newly independent country. She was, as Fraser writes, “a dauntless adventurer.” As wife of the commander-in-chief and later president, she took on a prominent role in setting social precedents, hosting officers and politicians, and serving as a national symbol. She did all this with great success: Martha was uniformly described as pleasant, dignified, agreeable, and devoted to her husband and her country.
Indeed, they were mutually devoted and loving. One of the surviving letters from George to Martha opens “My Dearest” and testifies to his “unalterable affection … which neither time or distance can change.” In anticipation of Martha’s arrival in Cambridge in 1776 to join him, George took time away from a military command to purchase tropical fruits and her favorite food — oysters. Family legend says that George carried Martha’s miniature throughout the war, keeping her image with him when she could not be present.
Much of Fraser’s story is concentrated on the volatile years of the Revolution, detailing not merely the Washingtons’ relationship but military developments. When Martha and George were separated each spring and summer during periods of military engagements, their paths diverged. George faced considerable challenges as commander-in-chief, while Martha helped run the plantation, hosted important guests, and served as head of the family.
But all of their life at Mount Vernon — and George’s very ability to leave his farm for public service — was dependent on the hundreds of slaves laboring for them. Martha showed little leniency and no willingness to free her slaves, and the few words quoted from her on this subject illuminate another side of her character. While George Washington freed his slaves, Martha retained the servants brought into their marriage and passed them on to her grandchildren. As the financial records Fraser often cites show, the couple was unwilling to give up their chattel at the expense of domestic luxuries.
The sacrifices the couple made for the public good wore thin for both, especially Martha. When George reluctantly left Mount Vernon and accepted the presidency, Martha was not particularly pleased. “Our family will be deranged, as I must soon follow him,” she wrote her nephew. She now had the care of two grandchildren, whom she brought with her to New York and later Philadelphia, once again leaving the pleasures of home. While Martha performed her role as first lady admirably, it was not an easy life. Carefully guarding her reputation and public role, in New York she did not go to public events and felt “more like a state prisoner than anything else.”
Martha’s final sacrifice was perhaps the most magnanimous, although it never came to fruition. After George’s death in 1799, which left her bereft but stoic, Congress requested that George’s tomb be moved eventually to the new Capitol building. For all the times she had been separated from her husband in life, she now faced an eternal separation. She agreed to the plan, she wrote, with a great “sacrifice of individual feeling” in order to serve the “public duty.” Ultimately, George and Martha were buried together at Mount Vernon and their tombs remain there. Each had repeatedly shown the willingness to give up personal happiness and comfort for the good of their country — and for one another.
Dr. Cassandra A. Good serves as the associate editor of The Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington. She received her PhD in history from the University of Pennsylvania and her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in American Studies from George Washington University. Her area of expertise is late 18th through 19th century America with particular focus on politics, gender, and cultural history. She also has experience in museums, new media, and public history through her work at the Smithsonian Institution. Her first book, “Founding Friendships”, is available from Oxford University Press.