on July 18, 2005
The first thing that struck me when I saw this book was the image on the dust jacket. It shows a young, attractive, stately, elegant lady. And when I saw the title was Martha Washington I had to realize that I had always thought of her as old, the First Mother of the country so to speak.
Of course Martha Washington wasn't always old. She married when she was 18 and had two children by her first husband. She was also wealthy, strong-minded, and seems to have had a delightful, intelligent personality.
After she married George Washington, she was for forty one years her husband's beloved partner and the mainstay of his stressful life. She set the standard for how first ladies should act in trying to balance the public and private parts of her life. As George set the image for the Presidency, Martha created the rule of the First Lady.
This is one of the most interesting biographies in recent years. It is extensively researched and well written, but it also covers a subject that has gotten inadequate attention from biographers down through the years.
The picture on the cover -- It is new. The LSU forensics lab took a later portrait, computer age regressed it to 25 years, and gave this image to Michael Deas who then painted the portrait. The painting is now at Mount Vernon.
on February 7, 2006
To me Martha Washington conjures up the vision of a little white-haired, plump elderly lady dressed in modest attire with a "dishtowel" on her head. Ms Brady's biography of the first First Lady, the "mother" of our country as her husband was the "father" of it, dispels this dowdy image.
Most of us with a modest grade school education in American history know of the panoply of male Revolutionary War heroes. Most of us have heard of Martha Washington, some know that George was her second husband, but beyond that she has little individual character and remains for most of us a shadowy figure in the background. As Ms Brady reveals this was not the case during the colonial period when her name was well known and honored, even revered.
Although the author admits that very little primary material is remaining from the period, this due to the fact that the lady destroyed her correspondence with her husband before her death, she mines what there is from secondary sources such as letters and documents in the possession of others describing her, her relationship with her family and her illustrious spouse, and her role in the Revolution itself. The book is a proper history of the period, in that it does not often describe imagined scenes or put words into the mouth of the heroine unless the information is documented. Where nothing is known specifically about a situation, like the marriage ceremonies, the author refers to what was most commonly done at the time, placing the lady in the context of her time. The information fills in what is most frequently neglected in many histories, namely the human detail that brings events of the past so much to life. Most importantly, the author herself points out that so much has changed since the era, that even the sights, sounds, and smells of the period would be different. In fact, there is only so much of Martha's life that we can access.
Martha Washington: An American Life starts with the First Lady's life from her childhood, spent in a comparative wilderness--by our standards--among a large family of siblings. Like many people of the time, Martha's brothers' and sisters' lives were often shortened through stillbirth, post-natal death and childhood diseases. By the end of the book, she is the only child of her generation still living, and she has outlived her own children, two husbands, many of her nieces and nephews, and some of her own grandchildren. It is very evident throughout the biography that life is nothing that can be taken for granted at any age by any level of society; there is never a time when one is "out of danger." This alone must have had a major effect on how people perceived events and on how they chose to lead their lives.
One of the more interesting characteristics of the woman's life was her independence and self-confidence. Left a wealthy widow at the death of her first husband, she might easily have chosen to remain so. In fact few women except those who were widows of independent means had anything like the freedom that modern women enjoy. During the period just after her husband's death, she demonstrated her abundant talent for management by maintaining the commercial relationships with London tobacco dealers, making it understood that she could and would change agents if she was not satisfied. That she chose to marry again and chose George Washingon over a vastly more wealthy competitor for her hand suggests that she was a keen judge of character. That she knew he was emotionally attached to a married woman and still married him, suggests that she also had a keen understanding of her own value as a person and a woman.
While her early marriage to Washington is interesting for its insight into the character of married life, married life with the founder of the nation, and life on a plantation at the time, it is really with the war years and their later life that her value becomes abundantly apparent. Her support and the psychological environment that she created around herself, her husband, and everyone that shared their household contributed immeasurably to the success of the revolutionary campaigns. Washington is known to have said that he could win the war so long as he didn't outright lose it, and in that statement is captured the strategy that ultimately won it for the colonists. So long as there were no disastrous defeats, a war of attrition conducted over such a distance from England was likely to win, but that was a lengthy road, one that was often discouraging. Martha's frequent presence during winter camp, when the depression, defeatism, and want were most likely to set in did much to reverse negative trends, replacing them with an invaluable sense of commitment and comradery. Her presence definitely seems to have been of major importance to her husband, who seems to have born much of the stress of military life in silence. To Martha alone he seems to have been able to verbalize his personal concerns about the war effort.
One of the issues that most intrigues the reader is that Martha Washington, a freedom fighter of sorts herself, still believed in the institution of slavery even though her husband did not (he freed his own slaves at his death). When some of their slaves escaped to northern states where slavery was not legal, she was stunned and hurt that the individuals should prefer their freedom to life in the Washington household where they were very well treated. This suggests a "place for everything, and everything in its place" mentality not uncommon in the south from which both she and her husband came. It also illuminates the issues that the country chose to neglect in its efforts to establish itself on a firm, legal foundation, and foreshadowed the ultimate resolution almost a hundred years later by the Civil War generation, many of whom were descendants of Revolutionary War heroes themselves.
A very interesting book, one that should probably be read along with others like it by those studying American history in high school.
on August 14, 2005
Though an avid reader, I am unlikely to pick up a biography or a bit of history as my first choice when looking for a new book. Recently, I was given a copy of Martha Washington-An American Life as a gift. Of first interest was the beautiful cover, and when I learned the story of the age regression leading to the painting of a portrait used for the cover design I was fascinated.
Once I began reading, I was hooked by the fascinating and well-told tale not only of our first First Lady but of the life style during the birth of our nation. This was the most entertaining and painless history lesson I have ever encountered, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Deciding that the book was interesting enough to share with others, I have purchased several copies to give as gifts next Christmas. This is a book that should be required reading for students of American history and anyone interested in learning more about the beginning of our great nation.
on January 17, 2006
While I've known who George and Martha Washington were since school days, I've never really UNDERSTOOD who they were until I read this wonderful book. The customs, views, and political uncertainties during the time of Martha Washington's life are deftly woven into this story, and you really get a sense of what it was like to be a colonist and a woman living in Virginia in the 1700's.
What I enjoyed most about this book is how I came to know, admire, and love Martha as I read it. This author truly brings her alive. You experience Martha's life as she marries for the first time in her teens and begins her family, only to lose young children and ultimately, her husband, to death. Her tenacity and strong spirit see her through, and she takes over the management of her plantation, something of a rarity for women in her time.
She soon meets and then marries George Washington, who has already distinguished himself as a military officer, and they begin their life at Mount Vernon. What is unusual about their relationship is that George viewed Martha as an equal partner in every sense, during a time when women lost what few rights they had upon marriage. Martha created a warm and happy home life for her family, which George was reluctant to ever leave; however, when the colonies were in danger of losing their independence to England, he felt honor-bound to use his military experience to lead our fight for freedom. Throughout that time and into his two terms as our nation's first President, it was Martha's unconditional love, support, and encouragement that enabled him to fulfill these duties in such a way that would forever distinguish him in our history.
What a fascinating and delightful peek into the lives of Martha and George Washington, and how refreshing to read a historical work that feels more like a story than a textbook or dissertation. This book will uplift your spirit and give you an appreciation for those who lived in earlier times, because without them, we wouldn't enjoy the freedoms and privileges that we do today.
on March 4, 2006
In her biography of Martha Washington, author Patricia Brady displays a thorough knowledge of the available historical material along with a detailed knowledge of life and customs in 18th century Virginia. The latter permits her to make reasonable conjectures in the absence of specific documentary evidence.
My criticism of the book concerns the genealogical charts of the Dandridge and Washington families. First, they contain some errors. For example, Lawrence Washington (George's half-brother) is shown as living from 1718 to 1852, when he in fact died in 1752. Second, the charts are confusing because members of the same generation are not shown on the same horizontal line. Third, the charts are difficult to use in conjunction with the text because so many first names recur and because persons' nicknames, used extensively in the text, are not included in the charts. And fourth, the charts are printed broadside so that it is not user-friendly for the reader to flip back and forth between the charts and the text.
If the book is ever reprinted, the genealogical charts should be redone to address these problems.
on August 20, 2007
Martha was the best partly because she was the first- but she really set the best example of making the best of situations that were at times FAR from ideal.
She loved her husband so much, as was so dedicated to his well-being she sacrificed her own happiness on many occasions to be with her husband- sometimes at the risk to her own health.
This biography shows what Martha's daily life was like, shedding light on her life before she married George Washington, and giving depth into her character and how it determined her decisions regarding how she conducted herself as the very first First Lady. This is SO worth reading-and a great intro into Revolutionary War characters and events that created her motivations while being First Lady and how to conduct herself.
Less than 300 pages, I found it woefully short, but VERY readable! If you are into the Revolution, this is a book to add to your library.
on April 4, 2013
This book was featured on C-Span and I'm very glad I purchased it!
As a Virginia native and long-time resident of Williamsburg, I thought I knew a great deal about "Our first First Lady". Boy, I was wrong! This well-researched book takes you back to Martha Dandridge's birth, as well as information on her ancestry. The years before she met George Washington (when she was Martha Custis) as well as those of the American Revolution (when she went to great length to be with the General) were very interesting.
I recommend this book highly.
on March 13, 2013
This is a nice, old-fashioned kind of book about a spunky little woman who loved her husband and maintained her dignity, privacy and self-respect in difficult times.
We so often forget that George and Martha Washington were once vibrant, handsome, very real young people who remained married for many, many years, lived through the American Revolution and the first presidency, and grew old together. Patricia Brady does a fine job of setting the stage for their actions and thinking.
As a history Instructor, I admired the simple but accurate portrayal of the founding years of our country and I much appreciated seeing the story of George Washington told in the larger context of his family life. Not being a fan of Thomas Jefferson, I laughed out loud at Martha's comments on the election of 1800.
This is a good book, not too difficult for the general public to enjoy yet footnoted enough to satisfy a scholarly audience. Brady's "Martha Washington" would make an excellent choice for a book club or reading group wanting to learn about life during the Revolution and New Republic.
on August 29, 2007
This look at the life of Martha Washington was very interesting. She really seems to be a woman lost to history by her legendary husband's very large shadow but this book gives a look at her strength and intelligence and also at the time in which they lived. A must read for any woman with an interest in American History.
on May 6, 2014
This biography of Martha Washington draws upon as many historical documents as are available, & suffers from the critical lack of correspondence between George & Martha Washington which would have been the ultimate source for a scholarly biography of the first First Lady. Martha Washington destroyed all their personal correspondence which is a great pity from an historical perspective, albeit one that is understandable from the perspective of a woman who wished to keep at least one part of their lives to themselves.
The writing style in this book is geared toward middle school reading levels, with rules of grammar & style disregarded. Sentences begin with And & But, & the author frequently refers to things that might have happened but that have no basis in historical fact. "Martha must often have felt that....." etc. From this perspective, this book is deeply disappointing. Patricia Brady could at least have written the book well, & given young readers a better example of biography.
At the end of the day, I found the book entertaining & it is sending me to better sources for better information. I enjoyed it for what it was.