The Papers of George Washington hosted author and historian Flora Fraser to discuss her new book, “The Washingtons: George and Martha, ‘Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love’” Feb. 8. Her book details the 40 year relationship of America’s first president and first lady.
Fraser started her talk by describing George and Martha Washington’s union. Prior to the marriage, George Washington lived in Virginia as a tobacco and wheat farmer before joining the British Colonial Service. He served as an officer and as the Colonel of the Virginia Regiment.
Meanwhile, Martha Washington married Daniel Parke Custis in 1750. Twenty years her senior, Custis was an elite planter from one of Virginia’s most powerful families. Together they had four children before Custis’s death in 1757.
Subsequently, Martha received a large share of Custis’s estate, which she oversaw until her marriage to George in 1759.
Fraser said Martha Custis was a particularly attractive option for young colonial men searching for a wife. By marrying her, Washington inherited a large estate and established himself in the elite planter society.
However, Fraser said the marriage consisted of more than a monetary agreement.
“From the beginning their marriage was more than a marriage of convenience,” Fraser said. “It was a marriage where the couple got on particularly well.”
Fraser told The Cavalier Daily the Washingtons’ relationship was remarkable due to their ability to compromise and treat each other as equals.
“They could give way to each other gracefully, and that helped them through difficulties,” Fraser said. “They also were intimately involved in each other’s lives, in a way that perhaps isn’t very common today.”
A prime example of this trust and equality was how Martha stayed with George throughout the eight years of the Revolutionary War campaign, Fraser said. Although Martha was accustomed to a lavish lifestyle, she went through years of living in a tent in a war camp.
Martha was present in the camp because during the beginning of the campaign the commander-in-chief felt lost without his wife by his side. While she did not give him military advice, he illustrated the campaign to her as if she were a general, Fraser said.
“Martha had always been romantic about George, but during the war George truly came to see the value of his wife,” Fraser said.
Moreover, Martha strengthened her husband’s belief in himself and his role in leading the young nation, Fraser said.
“Washington was undoubtedly, when she met him and really throughout his life, prone to self-doubt. He doubted himself in the war… [and] throughout the presidency,” Fraser said. “Martha was — without being insensitive — a very tough cookie. She was naturally confident and she gave him confidence, and that was a give and take in their relationship.”
Lynn Price, assistant editor for the Washington Papers, said the event was significant for both the Washington Papers and the University community as a whole in highlighting Martha Washington.
“Part of the event is to show the U.Va. community what we are doing at the Washington papers,” Price said. “We’ve been working on George since the 1960s and in July 2015 we started this huge addition of the Martha Washington papers.”
Price also said the organization was excited to host Fraser.
“To have a very respected author come all the way from London to us here at U.Va. is pretty significant, we feel rather honored to have her come and speak to us,” Price said.