Sunday, February 5, 2012

The First First Lady

I had a hard time finding a good biography of Martha Washington. First I tried my public library. The only one in the adult biography section was Washington's Lady by Elswyth Thane.

This book was not at all what I was looking for. First of all, it was novelized. Which doesn't always mean the book will be bad. I have really enjoyed some novelized books. Like Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark. I read this book about six years ago or so and it was excellent in revealing the heart of historic figures and giving a basic overview of their lives.

But this time I really wanted to read a biography about Martha Custis Washington and the details of her life. And the details were certainly not in Thane's book. In fact, it was more about George Washington. And it also portrayed Martha as an idiot. I stopped reading the book a third of the way through after the author describes her in her sitting room with George and all his political friends and Martha thinks to herself she had no idea what they were talking about all this conflict with the British. What did it all mean?  Since I had already read about Abigail Adams, I now knew that women DID know what was going on in the political scene. Especially the wife of a war hero!

So I returned that book and purchased  Martha Washington: A Brief Biography by Ellen McCallister Clark.

Martha Washington: A Brief Biography (The George Washington Bookshelf)

This book was brief but full of information. Martha was known as a charming hostess and was greatly admired by the troops because she stayed with George every winter wherever he was encamped during the Revolution and functioned as a nurse and morale booster.

Martha was quite rich! Her resources and money from her first marriage threw George into the right circles to advance him politically.

She had two children from her first marriage. Her daughter was very sickly and died at the age of 17. Her son "had been given every advantage but lacked ambition and direction as he grew into manhood." Basically, Martha (and George) were over indulgent with her son and did not give him proper discipline. The author does not explore why. Maybe because their attentions were given to the country's formation? Maybe she was too broken over having been widowed at a young age and burying two babies then her teen aged daughter? Whatever the reason, this seems to be a pattern that is emerging as I read the First Ladies: successful in politics doesn't necessarily mean successful in parenting (stay tuned for Dolley Madison...) But it's a good warning to me as a mother. I have lots of duties outside the walls of my home, but I cannot be lax in discipline and attention to my own children.

I do not feel like I "know" Martha like I "know" Abigail Adams. I think that was because I choose a brief biography. After I finished this book in June 2011, I determined to read longer biographies so I could know the First Ladies more fully. And to challenge myself to become a reader of long books rather than a reader of short books.

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