The Founding First Ladies of The United States
This article is the beginning of a series of articles about the First Ladies of The United States. Not only did these great women stand beside their men, they actually helped them to achieve their goals and supported them in their commitment to the new country. In addition to doing these things, these First Ladies of The United States also took responsibility for their homes and their family’s well being while their husbands labored at setting up a government. This required that they oversee the management of large farms or plantations, sell what they produced, and store away foods and goods to provide for everyone in their family or in their care.
These brave, strong willed, and patriotic First Ladies of The United States set the standards by which future First Ladies of The United States would be compared.
Now, I’d like to share with you some unique aspects about the lives of the First Ladies of The United States.
A Chronological List of the First Ladies of The United States
1st of the First Ladies of The United States
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, spouse of George Washington
Born in Virginia on June 2, 1731, Martha was the oldest of eight children. In 1750, at 19, Martha married Daniel Parke Custis and moved to White House Plantation, on the Pamunkey River. They had four children, but only two survived past childhood - John (Jacky) Parke Custis and Martha (Patsy) Parke Custis. Daniel Parke Custis was twenty years Martha’s senior and died in 1757. Upon his death, Martha became a wealthy widow.
A couple years later, Martha met Colonel George Washington and knew soon after their meeting that they would make a good match. They were married on January 6, 1759, at White House Plantation, where they honeymooned before moving to Mount Vernon, Washington’s estate. The couple didn’t have any children together, but Washington helped raise the two children from her previous marriage. And when her son, Jacky, died at the siege of Yorktown, they raised his two children.
During the Revolutionary War, Mrs. Washington spent the winters with her husband, the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, at different encampments. While there, she tried to make everyday life better for him and his troops. Because of this, she was often referred to as “Lady Washington” and was held in high regard by the veterans. Even after the war, she continued to help the veterans whenever she could.
When George Washington was elected to lead the new government, she couldn’t make it to his Inaugural Ceremony, held in New York City. When she did arrive, she was greeted as ‘Lady Washington’ and was recognized for her achievements. Martha Washington served as First Lady from April 30, 1789 – March 4, l797. As she did during the Revolutionary War, she supported her husband, and performed the duties expected of the spouse of the President. She packed up and moved to New York where the first capital was located, and when the capital was moved to Philadelphia, she packed and moved again. Mrs. Washington entertained with dinners, receptions, and other events. Ever mindful of taking care of the President, she ended the festivities at 9 p.m., so her husband could get the rest that he needed.
She was pleased when his term was over, and they returned to Mount Vernon. His retirement was short, since he died two years later, on December 14, 1799, at the age of 67. Martha Washington died at the age of 70, on May 22, 1802. They are both buried at Mount Vernon.
2nd of the First Ladies of The United States
Abigail Smith Adams, spouse of John Adams
Abigail was born in Massachusetts on November 11, 1744, and during her childhood, she was not healthy. Since girls were not offered the same educational opportunities as boys, she and her sisters were taught by their mother to read, to write, to do math, and play music. Abigail had an inquiring mind, and spent many hours in the family’s extensive libraries teaching herself - even teaching herself French.
Even though Abigail and John had known each other since childhood (they were third cousins), when they met again in 1762, they were delighted to find they were equally fond of literature and had similar political ideas. On October 25, 1764, Abigail Smith married John Adams at her parents’ home. Within ten years, she had six children; the last child was stillborn. Abigail Adams is the first of two ‘First Ladies of the United States’ to raise a son to become a US President. John Quincy Adams, their son, served as the sixth President.
While John Adams was helping with the formation of the new country, at the Continental Congresses, she wrote, urging him to press for equal legal status for women. Mrs. Adams strongly supported equal rights and was against slavery. During his extended stays away from home, she raised and educated their children; she took over the management of the farm, with all the responsibilities that entailed. And she was successful in her management.
When George Washington was elected President, in 1789, John Adams was elected Vice President. Therefore, Abigail Adams became the first spouse to serve as Second Lady of the United States, and then she later served as one of the First Ladies of the United States. When John Adams became President, she served as First Lady from March 4, 1797 – March 4, 1801, and was the first to live in the President’s House, which was later renamed the White House. She was active in Washington society, the political scene, and entertained extensively. Continuing poor health prevented Mrs. Adams from doing all that she wanted to do, so she would return home to Quincy, Massachusetts frequently to regain her strength.
John Adams was not elected to serve a second term as President, so they retired to their home in Quincy, Massachusetts. They enjoyed their retirement and their time together. Abigail Adams died at the age of 73, on October 28, 1818.
3rd of the First Ladies of The United States
Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, spouse of Thomas Jefferson
Martha was born in Virginia on October 19, 1748. She never knew her mother since she died less than three weeks after Martha was born. Like many young women of the time, she was taught at home. At the age of 18, on November 20, 1766, she married Bathurst Skelton, and they had one child, a son. Less than two years after their marriage, Bathurst Skelton passed away. After her husband’s death, Martha and her son moved back to her family home. Death was to strike her heart once again when her son, John, died on June 10, 1771.
At 23, Martha married Thomas Jefferson at her father’s plantation, The Forest, on January 1, 1772. After a honeymoon, they traveled by carriage to Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello. They lived in a one-room building while their house was being built. Over the next ten years, they had six children, but only two lived to adulthood.
A couple months after the birth of their last child, Martha Jefferson died on September 6, 1782, at the age of 33.
Heartbroken over the loss of his wife, Thomas Jefferson never remarried. So, when he served as President, from March 4, 1801 through March 4, 1809, he asked Dolley Madison, wife of his Secretary of State, James Madison, to act as his hostess. Whenever his daughter(s) were in Washington, then they would serve as his hostess(es).
First Ladies of The United States: Part 1 - In Closing
What an exciting life these First Ladies of The United States lived. Imagine being a part of these exciting days and being in the presence of these great leaders - the Founding Fathers of our country.
If you could choose to have lunch with one of the above First Ladies of The United States, which one would you choose? In the comment section below, please leave the name of the one you would choose, and why you chose her.
Out of the listing of these First Ladies of The United States, I choose Martha Washington. My reasons for choosing Mrs. Washington are:
1) To sit at a table with Mrs. Washington, and hear about the birth of our country – that would be awesome!
2) I admire her devotion to her husband and her efforts to help him make a better country for us all.
3) I am in awe of her work habits and would like to learn from her.
4) We both grew up as Southern girls, and in the same area of Virginia, so that would give us something fun to talk about - the then and the now.
If you enjoyed ‘The First Ladies of The United States: Part 1,’ then I hope you will join me on my journey to learn more about American history, and look for ‘The First Ladies of The United States: Part 2,’ to be published soon. In the meantime, you might also find the following articles interesting.
The National First Ladies' Library
Photos Courtesy of:
The First Ladies of The United States - Martha Washington
The First Ladies of The United States - Abigail Adams