Although Grorge Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States of America on April 30, 1789; it wasn't until 1790, that arrangements were being finalized for a residence for the First Family (certainly not called the "first family" in those days, sorry) in Philadelphia. In 1790, Washington finally was able to begin making plans to move Martha and her 2 nearly teenage grandchildren up from Virginia to live in the house of Robert Morris in Philadelphia.
Her grandchildren's father was Martha's deceased son John Parke Custis (1755-1781). Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis (1779-1852) was about 12, when she arrived in Philadelphia; and her little brother George Washington "Washy, Wash, or Tub" Parke Custis (1781-1856) was 2 years younger. Both children remained at Mount Vernon, after their widowed mother remarried. Their grandmother Martha Dandridge Custis Washington also had been widowed by the death of her 1st husband Daniel Parke Custis only 7 years after their 1750 marriage. She married George Washington 2 years later.
Washington's Philadelphia Residence on High Street.
Washington wrote to his secretary Tobias Lear (1760-1816) describing the house in which they would all live on September 5, 1790. Tobias Lear & his new bride would also live in the house. Lear had just married Mary (Polly) Long (1766-1793), his childhood sweetheart. While living in the President's house, they would have a baby boy; but Polly would die in 1793, during the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic that claimed nearly 5,000 people
"The house of Mr R. Morris had, previous to my arrival, been taken by the Corporation [the city of Philadelphia] for my Residence. — It is the best they could get. — It is, I believe, the best Single house accommodation of my family. — These, I believe will be made. The first floor contains only two public Rooms (except one for theupper Servants). — The second floor will have two public (drawing) Rooms & with the aid of one Room with a partition in it, in the back building, will be sufficient for the accommodation of Mrs Washington & the children & their maids — besides affording me a small place for a private study & dressing Room. — The third story will furnish you & Mrs Lear with a good lodging Room — a public Office (for there is no place below for one) and two Rooms for the Gentlemen of the family [Washington's office staff]. — The Garret has four good Rooms which must serve Mr and Mrs Hyde [the steward and his wife] (unless they should prefer the Room over the wash House), — William [Osborne, Washington's valet] — and such Servants as it may not be better to place in the addition (as proposed) to the Back building. — There is a room over the Stable (without a fireplace, but by means of a Stove) may serve the Coachman & Postillions; — and there is a smoke House, which possibly may be more useful to me for the accommodation of Servants, than for the Smoking of Meat. — The intention of the addition to the Back building is to provide a Servants Hall, and one or two (as it will afford) lodging Rooms for the Servants, especially those who are coupled. — There is a very good Wash House adjoining the Kitchen (under one of the Rooms already mentioned). — There are good Stables, but for 12 Horses only, and a Coach House which will hold all of my Carriages..."In a fortnight or 20 days from this time, it is expected Mr Morris will have removed out of the House. — It is proposed to add Bow Windows to the two public Rooms in the South front of the House, — But as all the other apartments will be close & secure the sooner after that time you can be in the House, with the furniture, the better, that you may be well fixed and see how matters go during my absence."
Detail with Slave 1789-96 Edward Savage (1761-1817). The Washington Family.
It was apparent that Washington felt he needed his personal, house slaves from Mount Vernon to meet the needs of his family and entourage in Philadelphia, at a time when slavery was under grave scrutiny in that Northern city.
Tobias Lear, Washington's protective secretary, wrote to George Long trying to fend off any anticipated criticism, "[Washington's] negroes are not treated as blacks in general are in this Country, they are clothed and fed as well as any labouring people whatever and they are not subject to the lash of a domineering Overseer — but still they are slaves."
Foreign visitors from privileged backgrounds, such as Viscount de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), were surprised at the lack of security and informality at the President's house in Philadelphia. "September 14, 1791 — A small house built in the English style, and resembling the other houses in its neighborhood, was the palace of the President of the United States; no guards, not even footmen. I knocked, a young servant girl opened the door. I asked her if the general was at home; she said that he was. I told her I had a letter to hand him. The girl asked my name, difficult to pronounce in English, and which she did not succeed in retaining. She then told me gently, 'Walk in, sir,' and she led the way through one of those narrow corridors which serve as vestibules in English houses, introduced me into the parlor and begged me to wait the general's coming."
The first floor of the President's Philadelphia house was constantly a buzz with drop-in & invited visitors, both foreign and native, sometimes very native. In his diary, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) reported on July 11, 1794, "By the invitation of the President, I attended the reception he gave to Piomingo and a number of other Chickasaw Indians. Five Chiefs, seven Warriors, four boys and an interpreter constituted the Company. As soon as the whole were seated the ceremony of smoking began. A large East Indian pipe was placed in the middle of the Hall. The tube which appeared to be of leather, was twelve to fifteen feet in length. The President began and after two or three whiffs, passed the tube to Piomingo; he to the next chief, and so all around ..."
Supreme Court Justice John B. Wallace described a more sedate, traditional audience with the President, "Washington received his guests, standing between the windows in his back drawing-room. The company, entering a front room and passing through an unfolding door, made their salutations to the President, and turning off, stood on one side."
George Washington did not particularly like surprises and was most comfortable with a set routine which he had practiced and memorized. William Sullivan wrote of the regular formal levee. President Washington, "devoted one hour every Tuesday, from three to four, to these visits...The place of reception was the dining room in the rear, twenty-five of thirty feet in length, including the bow projecting into the garden. At three o'clock, or at any time within a quarter of an hour afterwards, the visiter was conducted to this dining room, from which all seats had been removed for the time. On entering he saw the manly figure of Washington clad in black velvet; . . . holding a cocked hat with a cockade in it, and the edges adorned with a black feather about an inch deep. He wore knee and shoe buckles; and a long sword, with a finely wrought and polished steel blade, and appearing from under the folds behind. The scabbard was white polished leather. The visiter was conducted to him, and he required to have the name so distinctly pronounced, that he could hear it. He received the visiter with a dignified bow, while his hands were so disposed of as to indicate that the salutation was not to be accompanied with shaking hands.
As visiters came in, they formed a circle around the room. At a quarter past three, the door was closed, and the circle was formed for the day. He then began on the right, and spoke to each visiter, calling him by name, and exchanging a few words with him.
When he had completed his circuit, he resumed his first position, and the visiters approached him in succession, bowed and retired. By four o'clock this ceremony was over."
1790 Edward Savage (1761-1817). Martha Washington (1731-1802).
During Washington's presidency, family affairs remained important to Martha Washington. In 1786, the president's nephew George Augustine Washington (1758-1793), who was acting as Washington's estate manager & living at Mount Vernon, had married Martha Washington's favorite niece Frances Bassett (1767-1796) of Eltham, who also was living at Mount Vernon.
George Augustine Washington died in 1793, & his widow Fanny Bassett Washington subsequently married Washington's secretary Tobias Lear, a widower with a young son. Before she accepted Lear's proposal, Fanny sought the advice of George & Martha Washington. Martha wrote her on 29 August 1794,
"My dear Fanny, I wish I could give you unerring advise in regard to the request contained in your last letter; I really dont know what to say to you on the subject; you must be governed by your own judgement, and I trust providence will derect you for the best; it is a matter more interesting to yourself than any other.
The person contemplated is a worthy man, esteemed by every one that is aquainted with him; he has, it is concieved, fair prospects before him;--is, I belive, very industri[ous] and will, I have not a doubt, make sumthing handsome for himself.-- As to the President, he never has, nor never will, as you have often heard him say, intermeddle in matrimonial concerns. he joins with me however in wishing you every happyness this world can give.--you have had a long acquaintance with Mr Lear, and must know him as well as I do.--he always appeared very attentive to his wife and child, as farr as ever I have seen; he is I believe, a man of strict honor and probity; and one with whom you would have as good a prospect of happyness as with any one I know; but beg you will not let anything I say influence you either way. The President has a very high opinion of and friendship for Mr. Lear; and has not the least objection to your forming the connection but, no more than myself, would wish to influence your judgement, either way--yours and the childrens good being among the first wishes of my heart. "
Fanny married Lear in the summer of 1795, but died in March of 1796. After her death, Tobias Lear moved to Washington's River Farm on the Potomac with his own young son & with the 2 children of George Augustine & Fanny Washington, George (1792-1867) & Anna (1788-1816) . Lear married again, this time to the young Frances Dandridge Henley (1779-1856). His new wife was also nicknamed Fanny and was also a niece of Martha Washington.
Martha Washington met and entertained visitors as well. Henry Wansey (1752-1827) wrote in his journal."Friday, June 6 . Had the honor of an interview with the President of the United States, to whom I was introduced by Mr. Dandridge, his secretary. He received me very politely, and after reading my letters, I was asked to breakfast...Mrs. Washington herself made the tea and coffee for us. On the table were two small plates of sliced tongue, dry toast, bread and butter, etc., but no broiled fish, as is the general custom. Miss Custis, her grand-daughter, a very pleasing young lady, of about sixteen, sat next to her, and her brother, George Washington Custis, about two years younger than herself.
There was little appearance of form: one servant only attended, who had no livery; a silver urn for hot water, was the only article of expense on the table."
1791-2 Archibald Robertson (1765-1835). Martha Washington (1731-1802).
Charlotte Chambers (1768-1821) daughter of General James Chambers (1743-1805) wrote to her mother Katherine Hamilton Chambers (1737-1820) on February 25, 1795, describing the February 22 birthday celebration for President George Washington where she met the President and his wife.
The morning of the 'twenty-second' was ushered in by the discharge of heavy artillery. The whole city was in commotion, making arrangements to demonstrate their attachment to our beloved President. The Masonic, Cincinnati, and military orders united in doing him honor. Happy republic! great and glorious! . . . Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, with Dr. Spring, called for me in their coach. Dr. Rodman, master of ceremonies, met us at the door, and conducted us to Mrs. Washington. She half arose as we made our passing compliments. She was dressed in a rich silk, but entirely without ornament, except the animation her amiable heart gives to her countenance. Next her were seated the wives of the foreign ambassadors, glittering from the floor to the summit of their head-dress. One of the ladies wore three large ostrich-feathers. Her brow was encircled by a sparkling fillet of diamonds; her neck and arms were almost covered with jewels, and two watches were suspended from her girdle, and all reflecting the light from a hundred directions. Such superabundance of ornament struck me as injudicious; we look too much at the gold and pearls to do justice to the lady. However, it may not be in conformity to their individual taste thus decorating themselves, but to honor the country they represent...
The seats were arranged like those of an amphitheatre, and cords were stretched on each side of the room, about three feet from the floor, to. preserve sufficient space for the dancers. We were not long seated when General Washington entered, and bowed to the ladies as he passed round the room. 'He comes, he comes, the hero comes!' I involuntarily but softly exclaimed. When he bowed to me, I could scarcely resist the impulse of my heart, that almost burst through my bosom, to meet him. The dancing soon after commenced... Next morning I received an invitation by my father from Mrs. Washington to visit her, and Col. Hartley politely offered to accompany me to the next drawing-room levee...On this evening...The hall, stairs, and drawing-room of the President’s house were well lighted by lamps and chandeliers. Mrs. Washington, with Mrs. Knox, sat near the fire-place. Other ladies were seated on sofas, and gentlemen stood in the centre of the room conversing. On our approach, Mrs. Washington arose and made a courtesy—the gentlemen bowed most profoundly—and I calculated my declension to her own with critical exactness.
Less than a month later, Charlotte wrote to her mother again on March 11, 1795. In a previous letter, I wrote of being at the President’s, and my admiration of Mrs. Washington. Yesterday, Col. Proctor informed me that her carriage was at the door, and a servant inquiring for me. After the usual compliments and some conversation, she gave me a pressing invitation to spend the day with her; and so perfectly friendly were her manners, I found myself irresistibly attached to her. On taking leave, she observed a portrait of the President hanging over the fire-place, and said 'She had never seen a correct likeness of General Washington. The only merit the numerous portraits of him possessed was their resemblance to each other.'
Martha Washington often attended state dinners as the only female in the company. Massachusettes Congressman Theophilus Bradbury (1739-1803) wrote to his daughter Harriet of Christmas Dinner at the Philadelphia President's House in 1795, "In the middle of the table was placed a piece of table furniture of wood gilded, or polished metal, raised only about an inch, with a silver rim round it like that round a tea board; in the centre was a pedestal of plaster of Paris with images upon it, and on each end figures, male and female, of the same. It was very elegant and used for ornament only. The dishes were placed all around, and there was an elegant variety of roast beef, veal, turkeys, ducks, fowls, hams &c.; puddings, jellies, oranges, apples, nuts, almonds, figs, raisins, and a variety of wines and punch. We took our leave at six, more than an hour after the candles were introduced. No lady but Mrs. Washington dined with us. We were waited on by four or five men servants dressed in livery."
Isaac Weld, Jr. (1774-1856) reported that on the President's birthday in February of 1796, the President received company in the 2 first floor parlors, while Martha Washington received the female guests in the second floor drawing room, On General Washington's birthday, which was a few days ago, this city was unusually gay; every person of consequence in it, Quakers alone excepted, made it a point to visit the General on this day. As early as eleven o'clock in the morning he was prepared to receive them, and the audience lasted until three in the afternoon. The society of the Cincinnati, the clergy, the officers of the militia, and several others, who formed a distinct body of citizens, came by themselves separately. The foreign ministers attended in their richest dresses and most splendid equipages. Two large parlours were open for the reception of gentlemen, the windows of one of which towards the street were crowded with spectators on the outside. The sideboard was furnished with cake and wines, whereof the visitors partook. I never observed so much cheerfulness before in the countenance of General Washington; but it was impossible for him to remain insensible to the attention and compliments paid to him on this occasion. The ladies of the city, equally attentive paid their respects to Mrs. Washington, who received them in the drawing-room up stairs. After having visited the General, most of the gentlemen also waited upon her.
A public ball and supper terminated the rejoicings of the day.
Robert E. Gray, who had grown up in Philadelphia, remembered that after such state entertaining, the President "always smiled on children! He was particularly popular with small boys...After his great dinners he used to tell the steward to let in the little fellows, and we, the boys of the immediate neighborhood, who were never far off on such occasions, crowded about the table and made quick work of the remaining cakes, nuts and raisins."
Visiting Englishman Thomas Twining (1735-1804), who was accustomed to traveling from one country to the next, was also surprised at the lack of security and the spartan decoration on the interior public rooms at the President's Philadelphia house. "May 13, 1796: [I] was shown into a middling-sized, well-furnished drawing room on the left of the passage. Nearly opposite the door was the fireplace, with a wood-fire in it. The floor was carpeted. On the left of the fireplace was a sofa, which sloped across the room. There were no pictures on the walls, no ornaments on the chimneypiece. Two windows on the right of the entrance looked into the street."
1795 Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Martha Washington (1731-1802).
Elizabeth Bordley Gibson (1777-1863) was more impressed by Martha Washington's attention to her grandchildren in the midst of her state entertaining obligations, "Mrs. Washington was in the habit of retiring at an early hour to her own room, unless detained by company, and there, no matter what the hour, Nellie attended her. One evening, my father's carriage being late in coming for me, my dear friend invited me to accompany her to grandmama's room. There, after some little chat, Mrs. Washington apologized to me for pursuing her usual preparations for the night, and Nellie entered upon her accustomed duty by reading a chapter and a psalm from the old family Bible, after which all present knelt in evening prayer; Mrs. Washington's faithful maid then assisted her to disrobe and lay her head upon the pillow; Nellie then sang a verse of some sweetly soothing hymn, and then, leaning down, received her parting blessing for the night, with some emphatic remark on her duties, improvements, etc. The effect of these judicious habits and teachings appeared in the granddaughter's character through life."
One of those grandchildren, George Washington Parke Custis remembered the formal levees and processessions with joy. "On the great national days of the fourth of July and twenty-second of February, the salute from the then head of Market street (Eighth street) announced the opening of the levee. Then was seen the venerable corps of the Cincinnati marching to pay their respects to their president-general, who received them at headquarters and in the uniform of the commander-in-chief.... [Each veteran] gave in no name — he required no ceremony of introduction — but, making his way to the family parlor, opened the general gratulation by the first welcome of Robert Morris. "A fine volunteer corps, called the light-infantry, from the famed light-infantry of the Revolutionary army, commanded by Lafayette, mounted a guard of honor on the national days. When it was about to close, the soldiers, headed by their sergeants, marched with trailed arms and noiseless step through the hall to a spot where huge bowls of punch had been prepared for their refreshment, when, after quaffing a deep carouse, with three hearty cheers to the health of the president, they countermarched to the street, the bands struck up the favorite air, "forward" was the word, and the levee was ended."
In a letter to Jared Sparks from Woodlawn in 1833, grandaughter Nelly Custis recalled how Sundays were spent during Washington's presidency and reflected on her grandparent's religious beliefs, In New York and Philadelphia he never omitted attendance at church in the morning, unless detained by indisposition. The afternoon was spent in his own room at home; the evening with his family, and without company. Sometimes an old and intimate friend called to see us for an hour or two; but visiting and visitors were prohibited for that day [Sunday]. No one in church attended to the services with more reverential respect. My grandmother, who was eminently pious, never deviated from her early habits. She always knelt. The General, as was then the custom, stood during the devotional parts of the service. On communion Sundays, he left the church with me, after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back for my grandmother...I had the most perfect model of female excellence [Martha Washington] ever with me as my monitress, who acted the part of a tender and devoted parent, loving me as only a mother can love... approving in me what she disapproved of others. She never omitted her private devotions, or her public duties...She had no doubts, no fears for him. After forty years of devoted affection and uninterrupted happiness, she resigned him without a murmur into the arms of his Savior and his God, with the assured hope of his eternal felicity.
President and Mrs. Washington and the grandchildren, to escape the yellow fever epidemics, spent part of 2 summers (1793 & 1794) in the hills of Germantown, nearly 10 miles from the city. Ironically, the house they stayed in had been headquarters for British General William Howe after the American defeat at the Battle of Germantown.
1793-4. The Washington Family's Temporary Residence in Germantown, Pennsylvania.
George Washington's term as President ended on March 4, 1797. Bishop William White (1748-1836) wrote of the Washington family's final days in Philadelphia, "On the day before his leaving of the Presidential chair a large company dined with him. Among them were the foreign ministers and their ladies, Mr. and Mrs. Adams, Mr. Jefferson, with the other conspicuous persons of both sexes. During the dinner much hilarity prevailed; but on the removal of the cloth it was put an end to by the President: certainly without design. Having filled his glass, he addressed the company, with a smile on his countenance, as nearly as can be recollected in the following terms: 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is the last time I shall drink your health as a public man. I do it with sincerity, and wishing you all possible happiness.' "
1796 Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828). Martha Washington (1731-1802).
Private citizen George Washington, his wife Martha, and their grandchildren returned to Mount Vernon, where they continued to receive visitors on a daily basis, finally and happily relieved of the burden of the office.
Benjamin Latrobe visited the couple at their Virginia home in 1796, writing that Martha Washington, retains strong remains of considerable beauty, seems to enjoy very good health, & to have as good humor. She has no affectation of superiority in the slightest degree, but acts completely in the character of the mistress of the house of a respectable and opulent country gentleman.
1796 James Peale ( 1749-1831). Martha Washington (1731-1802).