The Reader's Companion to the American Presidency
edited by Alan Brinkley and Davis Dyer
Information about the families of presidents
Statistics from the term of each president
Timeline traces important events through U.S. History
The First Family
Much of Washington's fame depended on inaction rather than action. During the Revolutionary War, his retreats were often more successful than his attacks. After the war, he won the nation's trust by withdrawing to his plantation. He declined a third term as president, and his farewell address preached the wisdom of reluctance. There is something fitting, perhaps, in the fact that the Father of Our Country had no children of his own.
His marriage was otherwise a fortunate one. Martha Dandridge Custis was already a rich widow when Washington wed her in 1759. Her wealth enlarged his estate at Mount Vernon, and her quiet competence supported him and the household amid the extraordinary stresses of war and office.
Martha joined General Washington in his winter encampments, and later adeptly handled her responsibilities as First Lady. In the absence of a traditional residence, she and her husband rented homes in the two capitals, New York City and Philadelphia. At first, the cautious president limited the couple's social life to official functions, leading his wife to remark, "I am more like a state prisoner." In time, she was able to loosen these strictures, and the couple began to accept private invitations.
They retired to Mount Vernon in 1797 but could not escape the crush of visitors. Indeed, they rarely dined alone once the general became a national politician. His death in 1799 was a severe blow to Martha. She closed their bedroom and for the rest of her life slept in a small garret. Nevertheless, she continued to see her many callers until she died in 1802.
Martha Custis brought two children into her marriage with George Washington. Martha ("Patsy") died in 1773 following an epileptic fit. John ("Jacky") succumbed to camp fever after joining his stepfather at Yorktown. The Washingtons raised Jacky's two youngest children without formally adopting them. Critically, the nation's first president was therefore able to preside without any taint of dynastic ambition.