Monday, February 14, 2011

A founding romance

Among the treasures of the National Archives is a little valentine showing the courtship of George Washington and Mistress Martha Custis in 1758. The catalog citation indicates that it was published as a vignette in "A Valentine. Col. Geo. Washington to Mistress Martha Custis. 1758," by Arthur Guiterman, Collier's weekly, 50:14 (Feb. 15, 1913).

In 1758, George Washington was 26 years old. By modern standards, he would be just a young man barely old enough to be trusted with a credit card, and probably still more interested in his X-box than starting a family. In Washington's eyes and for his time, he was already an Army Colonel, a war veteran, state legislative representative, a Virginia land owner, and looking for a wife.

And Mistress Custis was quite a catch. Born Martha Dandridge, she found herself a widow at the age of 26 when her husband Daniel Parke Custis died and left her with two young children, John and Martha. Two children (Daniel and Frances) already in the grave, Martha was no stranger to sorrow.

Martha Dandridge Custis 1757

In the spring of 1758, George met the lovely widow Custis. He was visiting Williamsburg during his first meetings as a member of the Virginia provincial legislature, the House of Burgesses. He heard of her through an acquaintance and decided he had to meet this woman, so he rode the 35 miles to her home on March 16, 1758. For he efforts, he was rewarded with permission to visit again a few days later before he returned to the war. In his French and Indian War uniform, Washington must have been dashing and swept Martha off her feet. Martha's website says:
Their attraction was mutual, powerful, and immediate. Martha was charming, attractive, and, of course, wealthy. George had his own appeal. Over six foot two inches tall (compared with Martha, who was only five feet tall), George was an imposing figure whose reputation as a military leader preceded him...

For her part, Martha must have believed that in George she had found someone she could trust as well as love. Although some widows wrote legally binding premarital contracts that protected the assets they had from their previous marriage, Martha did not. For as long as she lived Washington would have the use of Martha’s “widow’s third,” the land, slaves, and money which would be handed down to the Custis heirs after Martha’s death.

The two must have planned to settle down and raise a family, manage their plantations and live the life of Virginia gentry. They could hardly know that in less than 20 years, George would go from state representative and retired veteran to Commander in Chief of a revolutionary force and member of the Continental Congress. They could never have dreamed that they would become the first president and lady of the United States. It seems fitting that their courtship should grace a Valentine's Day vignette, reminding us of the love behind the hero.

For more about Martha Dandridge Custis Washington and George Washington's romance:

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