In this impressive and highly readable dual biography, historian Flora Fraser has added an absorbing portrayal of George and Martha Washington and their extended family to the catalog of books on early American icons. Despite the limited documentation still in existence about their private lives, through extensive research, Fraser has garnered enough information to compose a consequential story of their relationship.
Citing a letter from Martha to George, Fraser discloses that it is “one of only two missives extant from Martha Washington to her husband” but reports that the brief correspondence is representative of many hundreds of letters that we know, from references in other letters, that she wrote him. George’s many letters to Martha are equally scarce; Martha herself destroyed all but three of them.
From this paucity of recorded personal exchanges and the amassing of information from other reliable historical documents, Fraser especially brings to life the elusive Martha. She provides an insightful portrait of George’s helpmate and indispensable wartime collaborator. Martha’s responsibility of maintaining their extensive estate, home to many family members, employees and slaves, is depicted in detail, indicating that she was a woman with considerable business acumen.
There is an old adage “If you want to become rich, marry rich.” Personal advancement and friendship seem to be the bases of George’s tie to the wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Parke Custis. When Martha’s husband, Daniel Custis died, in 1757, he left Martha with two children, Jacky and Patsy, a plantation and many slaves. Fraser notes the class distinctions between the two from Martha’s perspective. Washington “belonged to the second tier of planters” in a social hierarchy where Martha’s family ranked higher. The difference in social status often created tension in their relationship. However, after a quiet courtship, Martha and George were married in 1759.
Washington described his bride as an “agreeable partner,” a suitable “consort for life.” Fraser summarizes the description of their marriage by writing: “this was no relationship with love or lust at the root.”
Emotionally detached, George eventually warmed up to Martha, although near the end of his life he wrote their marriage was “too dainty a food to live upon,” recommending to a young writer that she look for “a combination” of “good sense,” a “good disposition” and “the means of supporting you in the way you have been brought up.”
Regardless, the Washingtons are depicted as a devoted couple. The sub-title of the book, “Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love” is taken from an inscription on the back of a miniature portrait of Martha; Fraser asserts this phrase is an accurate description of their life together.
Martha accompanied the General on many Revolutionary War maneuvers and George provided her with regular correspondence reporting his well being and answering questions about running Mount Vernon. Just as George set multiple precedents as the first President of the United States, Martha deliberately set many precedents as First Lady. Both were earnest about the roles the young nation had called them to play.
The issue of slavery, addressed near the end of the book, adds a dark cloud over the record of these characteristically admired people. There is a stunning description of the couple’s persistent and unrelenting attempt to recapture Oney Judge and Hercules, two of their slaves who sought freedom. The Washingtons were never without the services of slaves, although they granted them freedom after Martha’s death.
Fraser writes this personal, serious account with a graceful touch. She is British, and her nationality renders her an objectivity about this revered American couple rarely found in biographies written by American authors. The book has 24 pages of full color pictures, mostly familiar portraits, of the General and First Family.