Saturday, June 30, 2007
Did you know that after the original thirteen states of the United States won independence from England, America's founding fathers and founding mothers were unsure just how to run the new government and the new society? After all, no one in modern times had tried a republican experiment on such a large scale.
Should U.S. officials take their cue from the royalty that still ran most European countries? Or, should they dress, behave, entertain, and live in some other manner that befitted the American experiment?
Our forefathers took these questions seriously. They were aware that they were setting precedents and customs for future generations of Americans. Plus, the survival of this new republic was not guaranteed. They wanted to give it the best start that they could, in the hope that it would hold its own among the more established countries of the world.
This meant crafting a government and society that other, older countries would treat with respect. Yet, at the same time, they wanted to clearly be a government and society that was of the people, by the people, and for the people. The founding fathers walked a fine line between being taken seriously by European monarchies and, yet, remaining true to their republican ideals.
Perhaps none were so affected by this dilemma as George and Martha Washington. We can guess from reading biographies of them that after the Revolutionary war, they would have loved to retire in privacy to their beloved Mt. Vernon.
Even during the Revolutionary War, George must have been homesick. He wrote to Martha, "I should enjoy more real happiness in one month with you at home than I have the most distant prospect of finding abroad, if my stay were to be seven times seven years."
But, George was called first to be commander in chief, and, then, to be the nation's first president. Both George and Martha put duty above their personal wishes.
Questions arose about what to call the new president and his wife, as well as the Vice-President and other officials. Several fancy names were put forth, but these were rejected as sounding too much like royalty. Finally, it was decided to call Mr. Washington simply "The President of the United States". Other government titles fell in line with this simple dignity.
Martha, herself, was known as Lady Washington. The term "First Lady" was not created until after her death.
Throughout it all, Martha remained devotedly by Washington's side. Martha had been a young, wealthy, beautiful widow with two living infants and two deceased infants at the time she married George. Apparently, though they both had suffered broken hearts in the past, they always remained quite content with each other.
A White House biography of her reads, "From the day Martha married George Washington in 1759, her great concern was the comfort and happiness of her husband and children. When his career led him to the battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War and finally to the Presidency, she followed him bravely. Her love of private life equaled her husband's; but, as she wrote to her friend Mercy Otis Warren, " I cannot blame him for having acted according to his ideas of duty in obeying the voice of his country." As for herself, 'I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.'
"At the President's House in temporary capitals, New York and Philadelphia, the Washingtons chose to entertain in formal style, deliberately emphasizing the new republic's wish to be accepted as the equal of the established governments of Europe. Still, Martha's warm hospitality made her guests feel welcome and put strangers at ease. She took little satisfaction in ' formal compliments and empty ceremonies' and declared that 'I am fond of only what comes from the heart.' Abigail Adams, who sat at her right during parties and receptions, praised her as "one of those unassuming characters which create Love and Esteem.'"
So, in keeping with Emma's posts last week about personal presentation, we might ask how Martha Washington worked out the issue of dress and personal presentation.
Would Mrs. Washington try to compete with the ornately attired women of European courts? Would she dress even like some of the younger, fashionable women who were connected to America's fledgling government? Or, would she dress more in keeping with what she really was -- the happy, friendly, dignified, modest, middle-aged wife of an American planter?
Abigail Adams answered this question for us in something she wrote after spending time with Mrs. Washington in New York City:
"She (Mrs. Washington) is plain in her dress, but that plainness is the best of every article. Her hair is white, her teeth beautiful, her person rather short than otherways..Her manners are modest and unassuming, dignified and feminine, not a a tincture of hauteur (arrogance) about her."
Above, I've included images of Martha from different stages in her life. We here in the U.S. are accustomed to seeing paintings both of Mrs. Washington and of George Washington from their middle and later years. But, we forget that they were, of course, once young. So, I've included a couple of portraits of Mrs. Washington as a younger woman, as well some that show her as as the plump, grandmotherly lady we all recognize.