This is part one of my ten article series on America’s First Ladies. I’ll be including women who were married to presidents but died before they entered the White House as well as informal hostesses. I’ll not be including divorced wives or those who married the presidents after their administration.
We cover the women of early independent America in this piece.
Martha Washington (née Dandridge, formerly Custis) – The First
- June 2, 1731-May 22, 1802
- Tenure: 1789-1787
- Children: Daniel, Frances, John, Martha
- Relation to President: Wife
Early Life: Martha Dandridge was born to John and Frances at the Chestnut Grove Plantation in Virginia. The Dandridges were known as one of the First Families of Virginia which made them one of the most prominent clans in pre-Revolutionary America. Little is known about Martha’s early life but one would assume it would have been typical at the era. She would have grown up around slavery. Her education would likely be more focused on home making than academia, though she was a capable businesswoman later in life. Martha had several siblings, most of whom lived past childhood.
Marriages: Martha’s first marriage was to a plantation owner named Daniel Custis. He was twenty years older than the nineteen year-old but this was extremely common back then. Little is known of their marriage but they produced four children. Their two eldest children died in childhood. Custis died on July 8, 1757.
Martha was forced to handle the family plantations and business as a widow. She proved to be very capable at the task. Letters exist that show her forceful nature when she bartered with English traders.
In 1758, Martha received a proposal from soldier George Washington. They married a year later in an elaborate ceremony. Martha was extremely wealthy and socially prominent, two factors that undoubtedly made her of interest to Washington. Whilst the two were not a love match, the two got along and Washington found Martha to be a capable companion.
Pre-Presidency: Before the Revolution, Martha took on the role of plantation wife. She was responsible for the day-to-day running of the household, such as preparing food. When the Revolution came, Martha took on the role of military wife. She encouraged women to help with sewing and other tasks, all while joining her husband off the battlefield. During the infamous winter at Valley Forge, Martha stayed with the soldiers. They loved her for her charity, kindness and willingness to nurse them in sickness. One person who praised her was Elizabeth Hamilton, wife of Alexander, who said that she was her ideal of a ‘true woman.’ Martha looked forward to retirement after the war.
Presidency: Martha was not thrilled about her husband assuming the Presidency. She privately complained about the restrictions put upon her and found New York not to her liking, though Philadelphia was an improvement. Martha continued to fight for war veterans, advocated for her husband and provided a welcoming social advocate. As she was the first First Lady, Martha had no one to guide her.
Post-Tenure: Martha was glad to retire but soon discovered it wasn’t going to be as peaceful as she imagined. Guests of all types descended upon Mount Vernon to meet the legendary couple. Social standards at the time meant that they could not refuse guests, a task that was both time consuming and a huge drain on their shaky finances. Martha continued to raise her grandchildren, as her son had died young. In 1799, Washington died.
His will stated that his remaining slaves would be freed at Martha’s death as they technically belonged to her. Martha felt uncomfortable at being tended to by people who were basically waiting for her death. She continued to receive guests, including Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison.
In 1802, Martha died. She’d expressed her loneliness and longing for her husband since his death. She was interred beside Washington at Mount Vernon. The remaining slaves were either freed after her death or given to her grandchildren.
Advocacy: War veterans
Appearance and Character: Martha was a short, plump and pleasant looking woman who cleared no more than five feet. She was a dignified, caring woman who was capable of great loyalty and trust. Both men and women regarded her well.
Abigail Adams (née Smith) – The Advisor
- November 22, 1744-October 28, 1818
- Tenure: 1787-1801
- Children: Abigail, John, Grace, Charles, Thomas, Elizabeth
- Relation to President: Wife
Early Life: Abigail Smith was born to William and Elizabeth in Weymouth, Massachusetts. She did not receive a formal education due to her poor health though Abigail later said it was because of her gender. Abigail was instead given access to her grandfather’s vast library and became enraptured with academia.
Marriage: Abigail met John Adams when he visited her family home in 1759. He was accompanying a friend who was engaged to Abigail’s sister. The pair married five years later to the displeasure of Abigail’s mother. Theirs was a very happy, affectionate marriage with no adultery or major friction. John liked Abigail’s intellect and the two could match wits. They had six children, four of whom lived past childhood.
Pre-Presidency: Abigail raised her children in a time of turmoil. She and her husband were often apart but remained in contact via letters. They split their time between their rural farm and Boston, moving to the former when the latter became too dangerous. Soon, Adams was sent to Europe as a diplomat. They spent years apart before finally reuniting when Abigail headed to France to meet with him.
Presidency: Abigail was conscious of her newfound role as First Lady. She remained an ardent activist and feminist, continually advocating for women even when her husband asked her not to. Her detractors called her ‘Mrs. President.’ Abigail constantly advised her husband and supported him in the press.
Post-Tenure: Abigail was angered by Thomas Jefferson’s election due to his politics and the bad blood between the families. She was less politically active than before and instead focused on her family. Abigail eventually reconciled with Jefferson after the death of his daughter Maria ‘Polly,’ whom she’d helped raise in Europe. She had a somewhat strained relationship with her daughter-in-law Louisa, though they eventually became cordial. Abigail wrote up a will in her older years despite her not legally owning property or being able to give it out. She hoped to pass on her assets to female members of her family. Abigail died in 1818 and her last words were to her beloved husband.
Advocacy: Womens’ and civil rights
Appearance and Character: Abigail was a short brunette with brown eyes. She was a strong-minded and erudite woman who never hid her opinions and had entrenched beliefs about equality. Abigail was also completely loyal to her husband.
Martha Jefferson (née Wayles, formerly Skelton) – The Deceased Wife
- October 30, 1748-September 6, 1782
- Tenure: N/A
- Children: John, Martha, Jane, Son, Mary, Lucy, Lucy
- Relation to President: Wife
Early Life: Martha Wayles was born to John and Martha in Charles City County, Virginia. Her mother died only weeks after her birth. Her father had more children with two more wives and with a slave named Betty Hemings (mother of Sally). He also married a fourth time but had no children with that lady. Martha had a difficult relationship with her stepmothers. She assisted her father in some plantation duties.
Marriages: Martha firstly married a plantation owner named Bathurst Skelton. He died roughly two years into their marriage and they had a son named John who died young. She married her second cousin Thomas Jefferson in 1772 and had six children with him.
Married Life: Little is known of Martha beyond her life as a plantation wife. The death of her father burdened them with severe debts that led to financial ruin for her and Mr. Jefferson. She was First Lady of Virginia for a few years and encouraged collections for the Patriots. Martha also seemed to run the plantation alongside her husband and like Martha Washington, seemed capable.
Death: Martha’s last child, Lucy, was a particularly large baby. All of her pregnancies had been burdensome and her health was never solid. She died four months after Lucy’s birth and on her deathbed made her husband promise never to remarry. If one ignores his “relationship” with Sally Hemings, he followed her directive. Jefferson was heartbroken by his wife’s death and upon his own passing, it was discovered that he kept his wife’s hair in a locket.
Appearance and Character: There are no surviving, authenticated images of Martha. She was said to be a tall woman with auburn hair. People who knew her described her as a sweet, kind and intelligent lady with a talent for music.
Martha Randolph (née Jefferson) – The Unifier*
- September 27, 1772–October 10, 1836
- Tenure: 1801–1809
- Children: Anne, Thomas, Ellen, Ellen, Cornelia, Virginia, Mary, James, Benjamin, Meriwether, Septimia, George
- Relation to President: Daughter
Early Life and Marriage : Martha Jefferson was the eldest child born to Thomas and Martha and the only one to live past twenty-five. Commonly known as Patsy, she received an extensive education in both the US and France. Martha thrived in her convent school but was removed from it after expressing an interest in converting to Catholicism and becoming a nun.
She married her third cousin Thomas Randolph upon her return to America. They had twelve children. She would separate from her alcoholic husband in later years.
Hostess and After: Martha was never officially a First Lady, only hosting on visits. Her sister also hosted at times but died in childbirth at only 25. The vast bulk of the hostess duties went to family friend Dolley Madison. When she did host, Martha was praised for her intelligence and social graces.
Martha continued to live with her father after his presidency. The two were very close due to their shared losses. She cared for him as he died. Martha herself would die ten years after him, heavily in debt and forced to sell Monticello and rely on charity.
Appearance and Character: Martha was a slim woman with dark hair. She was extremely intelligent and well-educated with a talent for foreign languages. Martha was devoted to her father and was his companion following her mother’s death. She had a dislike for slavery and encouraged gradual emancipation, but also owned slaves and punished them severely when they defied her.
Dolley Madison (née Payne, formerly Todd)- The Social Butterfly
- May 20, 1768-July 12, 1849
- Tenure: 1809-1817 (also sometimes 1801-1809)
- Children: John, William
- Relation to President: Wife (Friend)
Early Life: Dolley was born to John and Mary in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her parents were from prominent Virginia families and they moved back to the state when she was an infant. Dolley was close to her family but her parents were strict Quakers who raised her as such. Her education was likely sufficient but not strong.
Marriages: Dolley’s father had arranged that she marry a lawyer named John Todd. She initially refused but married him after her father died. The marriage was reportedly happy and the pair had two sons named John and William. Unfortunately, both John Sr. and William died on the same day in the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic. Dolley’s brother-in-law refused to pay her the inheritance she was owed, but she was assisted by lawyer Aaron Burr.
Burr introduced Dolley to James Madison, a politician friend of his. Madison was 17 years older than her, but Dolley needed financial security for her and her surviving son. Whilst her marriage was for that reason, the two had a loving relationship and Dolley genuinely cared for her husband. They married a year after Dolley was widowed but she was expelled from the Quakers for marrying outside of her faith.
Pre-Tenure: Dolley lived in Philadelphia and Virginia until Madison became Jefferson’s Secretary of State. Her sister Anna also lived with them, as did Dolley’s son John. She was a popular socialite who often stepped into the role of White House hostess when friend Jefferson asked her. This social role helped her husband when it came to election time, as she’d befriended many a Congressman whose electoral votes Madison needed.
Presidency: Dolley’s skills as a social hostess cannot be overstated. She created the first inaugural ball and made Madison’s inauguration a huge event. Dolley is believed to have worn a yellow velvet gown matched by an elaborate turban to that event. She immediately set the scene for DC’s social season. Rivals were seated together at dinners in order to get along. The events were excessive but Dolley always dressed simply. She was known as an extremely charming woman who got everybody to like her despite their political views. Dolley used the wives of DC to get to their husbands and used her influence to get supporters in key political positions.
The most notable Dolley story comes from the 1814 Burning of the White House. The President had gone ahead and Dolley was hurriedly packing as the British approached. She apparently took the famous George Washington painting from the wall in order to protect it from the British. It is more likely that she asked slave Paul Jennings to do it or that he had the presence of mind to do it himself. Still, the legend remains and Dolley likely at least deserves a little credit, as does Jennings and the staff who helped.
Post-Presidency: Dolley hated leaving DC as she thrived in its atmosphere. Her son John ‘Payne’ continued to cause problems after they went back to Montpelier. He was a wayward alcoholic who’d lost the job his stepfather had gotten for him. Payne went to debtors’ prison and his debts caused Madison to mortgage some of Montpelier. After Madison died in 1836, Dolley sold some of her husband’s papers and headed back to her beloved DC. She became a society matron and common White House guest. Dolley introduced her distant cousin Angelica Singleton to President Van Buren’s bachelor son. She was also present at the USS Princeton tragedy that killed several key politicians. Dolley died in 1849 and was later interred beside her second husband in Montpelier.
Advocacy: Orphanages and Catholic associations
Appearance and Character: Dolley was of medium height, though taller than her infamously small husband. She had black hair that was often in a turban and blue eyes. Photographs of an older Dolley exist. Dolley was personally charming and witty, able to disarm her opponents with a smile. Her role as hostess was widely lauded and she used it to create a harmonious Washington.
Elizabeth Monroe (née Kortright) – The Protector
- June 30, 1768-September 23, 1830
- Tenure: 1817-1825
- Children: Elizabeth, James, Maria
- Relation to President: Wife
Early Life: Elizabeth Kortright was born to Lawrence and Hannah in New York City, cosmopolitan compared to her rural predecessors. Her mother died when Elizabeth was nine and when she was ten, her family home nearly burned down. Elizabeth’s family were social elites but her father was a Loyalist during the American Revolution. Elizabeth and her sisters were praised as beautiful.
Marriage: Elizabeth caught the eye of James Monroe, a member of the Continental Congress almost a decade senior. She married him aged 17 and their first child was born nine months later.
Pre-Tenure: Madison was made Minister for France. It was a tumultuous time in France as the Revolution was raging. Elizabeth was immediately popular in Paris and made a good impression among its people. This helped her later. Adrienne, Madam de Lafayette and wife of the famous French revolutionary, had been imprisoned. Elizabeth helped organise her release. She also kept Thomas Paine safe after he escaped execution whilst her husband got him American citizenship. When they returned to America after their time in London, the pair had two more children and she mainly lived in Virginia.
Presidency: Elizabeth was a good hostess but her attempts to model the White House social scene after the exclusive French way was unpopular. She also has the ill fortune of following the immensely popular Dolley Madison. Elizabeth was ill so her daughter replaced her as hostess often.
Post-Tenure: Elizabeth’s poor health forced the Monroes to stay in the White House for three weeks after Adams’ inauguration. The couple were in severe debt and had to sell lots of property. They stayed near DC though Elizabeth would often go to New York City to visit family. Elizabeth died after years of poor health in 1830. Her husband followed nine months later.
Appearance and Character: A young Elizabeth was described as a great beauty. She had dark hair and blue eyes. As a person, Elizabeth was clearly brave and canny as we saw with her exploits in France. She was unfortunately swayed by French practices, offending DC society.
Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ Hay (née Monroe) – The Snob*
December 1768-January 27, 1840
Relation to President: Daughter
Early Life and Marriage: Elizabeth “Eliza” Monroe was born to James and Elizabeth in Virginia. Eliza was eight when her father was made Minister to France so spent most of her childhood there. She was educated alongside the stepdaughter of Napoleon, Hortensia de Beauharnais. Elizabeth returned to America as a teenager and married an attorney named George five years later.
Hostess and After: Eliza served as a hostess in the White House when her mother was too ill. She helped institute the exclusive French model and refused to call upon political wives as was custom. This caused a furor in DC and Eliza was derided as a snob. She did, however, compassionately care for fever victims during an epidemic and did not sleep for several nights. Eliza’s husband, mother and father all died within a year of one another five years after they left the White House. Eliza returned to her beloved France and converted to Catholicism. She died and is buried in Paris.