History of American Women Part 1

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Abigail Ellsworth

Wife of Founding Father: Oliver Ellsworth

Abigail Wolcott was born February 8, 1755, in East Windsor, Connecticut, the fifth of seven children born to William and Abigail Abbott Wolcott. Oliver Ellsworth, the second son of Captain David and Jemima Leavitt Ellsworth, was born in Windsor April 29, 1745. At 17 Oliver went to Yale to study the ministry, but was expelled for playing pranks. Ellsworth graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1766 and began the study of law.

Returning to his home in Windsor, Connecticut, Oliver studied theology and then law, and was admitted to the bar in 1771. At first his law practice was so poor that he had to support himself by farming and occasionally wood cutting, and on days when the court was sitting he had to walk from his farm in Hartford and back – a round trip of twenty miles – since he was too poor to keep a horse.

Abigail Wolcott married Oliver Ellsworth on December 10, 1772, providing him with the strength and stability to continue his highly productive life. It was said of Abigail: “She exercised such concern and thoughtfulness for her husband’s needs that no anxiety regarding household cares ever disturbed his public life.”

Abigail bore nine children with Oliver Ellsworth:
• Abigail (born 1774) traveled with her father to Philadelphia in 1790.
• Oliver Jr. (born October 1776) died May 1778.
• Oliver III (April 1781) received a Master’s degree at Yale in 1802; died July 4, 1805.
• Martin (April 1783) served as a Major in the War of 1812; died November 2, 1857.
• William (June 1785) died July 24, 1785.
• Frances (August 1786) died March 14, 1868.
• Delia (July 1789) married Thomas Scott Williams; died June 24, 1840.
• Twins Henry and William (November 1791). Henry was a lawyer and a businessman; died in 1858.
• William (November 1791) married Emily Webster, daughter of Noah Webster; professor at Trinity College; served in the US House of Representatives and Governor of Connecticut; died in 1868.

Elected to state office in 1773, Oliver Ellsworth quickly became one of the most powerful political figures and successful lawyers in Connecticut. He served throughout the Revolutionary War in many state and federal political positions, including delegate to the Continental Congress, member of Connecticut’s Council of Safety, and the Governor’s Council.

In 1775, Oliver sold his farm and moved his small family to Hartford. There his rise was rapid, and before long there were few important cases in Connecticut in which Ellsworth did not represent one side or the other. He was a delegate to the General Assembly of the state that met soon after the Battle of Lexington, and throughout the Revolutionary War was a member of the Continental Congress.

Oliver Ellsworth named his home Elmwood for the thirteen elm trees he planted on the property that represented the original states. Built in 1781 on land that had been in the Ellsworth family since 1664, the original house is a 2-story wood frame building with a peaked cedar shake roof and clapboard exterior walls. Its design was four rooms on the first and second floors with a central hallway running front to back.
In 1788, a two-story addition for a drawing room on the first floor and a bedroom above was added. Elmwood has the distinction of being visited by two sitting Presidents. On October 21, 1789, President George Washington visited, entertaining the Ellsworth children by singing the Darby Ram. On October 3, 1799, President John Adams was a guest.

In 1787, Oliver Ellsworth joined William Samuel Johnson and Roger Sherman as Connecticut’s delegation to the Constitutional Convention. He was one of the five men who drafted the Constitution and one of the three who proposed the Connecticut Compromise that resolved issues allowing the Constitution to be ratified.

When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, Ellsworth once again represented Connecticut and took an active part in the proceedings. During debate on the Great Compromise, Ellsworth proposed that the basis of representation in the legislative branch remain by state. He also left his mark through an amendment to change the word national to United States in a resolution. Thereafter, United States was the term used in the convention to designate the government.

His name was not affixed to that document, because pressing domestic considerations compelled his return home as soon as all of the provisions of the constitution had been completed. But his force and energy were successful the following year in securing its ratification in the Connecticut state convention.

While serving a seven year term in the new US Senate, Ellsworth helped to work out the practical details necessary to run a new government. As chairman of the committee for organizing the national judiciary, he drafted the Judiciary Act of 1789. The original bill, in his own handwriting, passed with but slight alterations, and the federal court system it established has continued to the present with few changes. In 1796, George Washington asked Ellsworth to be the third Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.

President John Adams appointed Ellsworth as a commissioner to France to renegotiate a treaty. He led a delegation there between 1799 and 1800 in order to settle differences with Napoleon’s government regarding restrictions on US shipping that might otherwise have led to war between the two nations. Highly respected by Napoleon, Ellsworth was successful.

Ellsworth came down with a severe illness resulting from his travel across the Atlantic. As a result, he retired from national public life upon his return to America in early 1801, and he and Abigail lived at their family home in Windsor, CT. He was nevertheless able to serve again on the Connecticut Governor’s Council until his death.

In May 1807, after a reorganization of the Connecticut state judicial system, he was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court, but failing health compelled his resignation within a few months.

Oliver Ellsworth died at Windsor on November 26, 1807, and was buried in the cemetery of the First Church of Windsor. Yale had honored him with an honorary LL.D. in 1790; Princeton did the same in 1797. It has been speculated that Ellsworth’s negotiations with Napoleon might have contributed to his sudden decision three years later to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States for $15 million.

Abigail Wolcott Ellsworth died August 4, 1818, and is buried in Palisado Cemetery, Windsor, Connecticut. Her influence as a mother was so profoundly felt not only by her children, all of whom became active in public service, but also in the lives of their descendants, many of whom carried out Oliver and Abigail’s commitment to excellence in public service in many fields of endeavor.

Susannah French Livingston

Wife of Patriot: William Livingston

William Livingston was born in 1723 at Albany, NY, son of Philip and Catharine (Van Brugh) Livingston. His mother was the daughter of the Dutch mayor of Albany Pieter Van Brugh. His paternal grandfather, Robert Livingston, had emigrated to American in 1673, and received grants to Livingston Manor – a large tract of land on the Hudson River. William spent his childhood there under the indulgent care of his maternal grandmother Sarah Van Brugh.

At the age of fourteen, William lived for a year with a missionary among the Mohawk Indians in the wilds of New York’s Mohawk Valley, an experience which his family felt would be valuable if he later turned his attention to the fur trade or land speculation on the frontier.

In 1738, William went to Yale to follow the path of his three elder brothers, and graduated in the class of 1741, at the age of 18. While in college, he developed a strong interest in art, languages and poetry, and decided that law interested him more than entering the family fur business at Albany or mercantile pursuits.

William studied law under James Alexander and William Smith, both considered to be the best legal minds of that day. Both Alexander and Smith were champions of civil rights, and their influence on Livingston became clear as he matured. Alexander had been a vigorous champion of the freedom of the press in connection with the Zenger trial.

In 1745, William married Susannah French, the daughter of New Jersey landowner Philip French and the granddaughter of a lieutenant governor of New York. Simple and unpretending in manner, she was endowed with a strong intellect and a warm heart. The couple became a glittering fixture in the city’s social whirl, but William still found time to pursue his interest in art, languages, and poetry. The marriage would produce 13 children, a large family even for that time. “As many children as there are states in the Union,” he would boast.

In 1748, William was admitted to the bar and opened a law practice in New York City, where he became known as a strong supporter of civil rights, especially freedom of religion and freedom of the press. He gained a reputation as a supporter of popular causes against the more conservative factions in the city.

William also became known for his political essays, which were published in the Independent Reflector, a weekly newspaper that he founded in 1752. He first entered politics as a member of the New York Assembly, a position he held from 1759 to 1769. In 1769, Livingston’s supporters, split by the growing debate as to how to respond to British taxation of the colonies, lost control of the assembly.

In 1760, William had grown tired of legal practice and was planning to build a country home, he bought 120 acres in what was then sleepy Elizabethtown, New Jersey, just across the river from his New York home. For the next 12 years, Livingston developed the extensive grounds, and oversaw the building of a beautiful 14-room Georgian-style home, in which to house their growing family. Finally, in 1773, William and Susannah and their children moved to their new estate, Liberty Hall.

In 1774, the Livingston’s daughter Sarah married John Jay, in what was then qualified as a royal wedding. Jay was also a Dutch American who became prominent in the birth and development of the United States, serving as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and as the first Secretary of State under President George Washington. Sarah Livingston Jay became New York City’s foremost social hostess.

When New Jersey began organizing its defenses in late 1775, William joined the militia as brigadier general, the state’s ranking officer. But he insisted that the first regiments raised for Washington’s Continental Army be commanded by more experienced men, while he concentrated on the less glamorous tasks of raising, organizing, and training the state’s citizen-soldiers. These efforts contributed significantly to the later combat effectiveness of New Jersey’s units.

When a massive buildup of British ships and troops in New York harbor indicated that a major invasion was imminent, Congress called on the states to reinforce Washington’s outnumbered army. In 1776, William left Congress and took to the field with New Jersey’s militia to secure the state’s northern shoreline against any sudden enemy landing, to break communication between the British and local Loyalists, and to hunt for deserters.

With the militia’s headquarters located in Elizabethtown, General Livingston used his own beloved Liberty Hall as a barracks for some of his men. He was no soldier, but discharged his duties with his usual conscientiousness until the legislature under the new constitution elected him New Jersey’s first governor on August 31, 1776.

William became involved in New Jersey politics, and served as a member of the Essex County Committee of Correspondence. As tensions mounted between the colonies and England, Committees of Correspondence were part of a vital communication network set up between the colonies to pass news of major events. An outspoken supporter of American Independence, he quickly rose to a position of leadership and was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress. His elder brother, Philip, signed the Declaration of Independence.

First Lady of New Jersey
When Susannah Livingston became First Lady of New Jersey, she was a fifty-three-year-old grandmother. When the British invaded New Jersey in November 1776, she and her adult daughters, Judith and Susannah, fled Liberty Hall for Basking Ridge, where they found refuge on the estate of her brother-in-law, William Alexander.

The ensuing war years were difficult ones for the Governor Livingston, who spent them on the run from British troops, but he didn’t shy from politically unpopular decisions. His insistence on treating those who remained loyal to the Crown with justice and moderation was resented by many Patriots. Actually his actions were quite remarkable, considering that his home was pillaged in 1776, and that a bounty was put on his head by the Loyalists.

Dangerous Encounters
That bounty, and the widespread recognition of William’s importance to the war effort, led to a number of dangerous incidents. The most dramatic occurred in February 1779 when 1000 British troops, guided by local Tories, landed in the predawn darkness near Elizabethtown to capture the governor and surprise the Continental brigade stationed nearby.

Alert sentries detected the approaching British soldiers, and William managed to escape just twenty minutes ahead of the enemy. Two of his daughters remained behind to mislead the British and hide official state papers. Confronted with a brigade of fully alerted continentals, the raiders quickly withdrew.

Throughout these trying months William’s force of character prevented widespread bitterness over the enemy’s constant harassment from diluting the state’s commitment to the cause of liberty. For the next fourteen years, his many duties, the threats of the enemy, and the disloyalty of friends caused him many hardships, but failed to overcome his spirited support of the patriot cause.

In 1779, the Livingston family was able to return to Liberty Hall, which had been looted and heavily damaged during the Revolutionary War. Between the needs of the two armies, almost everything in the house was either pillaged or destroyed, and when the family returned in 1779, daughter Susan wrote to her friends that even the “windowpanes and hinges” had been taken away.

When the war ended in 1783, William was finally able to return home. Although the pressure of affairs often prevented it, he enjoyed his estate whenever possible, and managed to pursue his great love of gardening and agriculture. He conducted agricultural experiments, and became a member of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, and looked forward to the day when the question of slavery would be settled through gradual emancipation.

William also served as an influential member of the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention, was one of the signers of the Constitution, and was instrumental in securing New Jersey’s speedy ratification. His contributions were recognized in 1788, when his alma mater, Yale University, honored him with an honorary doctor of laws degree.

William Livingston was a man of considerable wealth, and could have avoided the turmoil of the time by escaping to his land holdings. He did the opposite, and used his considerable talents to fight for independence, and later for the development of the new republic into an effectively governed nation. By heritage an aristocrat, he nevertheless fought with brilliance and selflessness for the rights of his fellow citizens.

After Susannah French Livingston died on July 17, 1789, her husband’s health began to wane. He complained of chest pains in June of the following year.

While still in office, Governor William Livingston died on July 25, 1790, at Liberty Hall in his 67th year. He was originally buried at the local Presbyterian Churchyard, but a year later his remains were moved to a vault his son owned at Trinity Churchyard in Manhattan, and in 1844 were again relocated to Brooklyn’s Green Wood Cemetery.

Mary Digges Lee

First Lady of Maryland

Mary Digges was born in Maryland in 1745, on her family’s estate, Mellwood Park, the daughter of Ignatius and Elizabeth Parnham Craycroft Digges, prominent landowners in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The family home received such distinguished guests as George Washington. The future President would visit Mary’s father, Ignatius Digges, for a brief rest from his travels around the colonies.

Image: Mary Digges Lee
Portrait by John Wollaston

The Digges were Roman Catholic, and Ignatius consented to the marriage only after Thomas, an Anglican, wrote a series of heartfelt letters during the summer of 1771 giving his assurance that he would convert and that all their children would be raised Catholic.

Coming from such a prominent family, it was fitting that Mary would be courted by the son of another prominent family, the Blenheim branch of the Lee family. Thomas Sim Lee was born in Maryland on October 29, 1745. His was educated in the private schools of his native state, and may have studied in Europe as well.

On October 27, 1771, Mary Digges and Thomas Sim Lee were married at her home, Mellwood Park. They lived at Needwood, which is now in Frederick County, and had seven children who survived to adulthood. They were very committed to their religious and community ties. They founded the St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Petersville, Maryland.

The couple were very active in patriotic activities during the American Revolution. During the Revolutionary War, Thomas Lee organized a local militia in which he served as colonel. He entered politics in 1777, serving as a member of the Governor’s Executive Council, a position he held two years.

The Maryland Legislature elected Thomas Lee as the second governor of Maryland in 1779, and he was reelected in 1780 and 1781. During his first tenure, Maryland officers reported deplorable conditions suffered by the Continental troops.

In the summer of 1780, Mary, now First Lady of Maryland, rallied the support of Maryland’s women to provide much needed supplies for the soldiers. She personally collected money and materials for the troops and encouraged other women to contribute to the war effort.

In August, when a desperate plea was made for linen to be used in shirts by Maryland’s Extraordinary Regiment, Mrs. Lee drew upon the combined resources of the Maryland women and ordered that 260 be delivered to the troops immediately.

With supply shortages the most immediate threat, General George Washington appealed to his friend, Governor Lee for assistance, stating “unless some extraordinary and immediate exertions are made by the States from which we draw supplies, there is every appearance that the army will infallibly disband by fortnight.”

Governor Lee in turn appealed to his wife Mary for support. Determined to come to the aid of her countrymen, Mary called for the support of Maryland’s women in collecting much needed supplies. Responding to the pleas for linen to be used to make shirts for the soldiers, Mary rallied the women together and ordered that 260 shirts be delivered at once. She received a letter of gratitude from the Council of Maryland.

On September 27th, 1780, Mary wrote to General Washington for input on how best to utilize the money and materials that she had collected. She proudly proclaimed that they had raised “a considerable sum for the relief of the American army.”

On October 11th, Washington replied with gratitude to Mary for the “patriotic exertions of the ladies of Maryland in favor of the army.” He praised her for her assistance and recognized the generosity of Maryland’s women. Also in his letter, the general directed that the money be dedicated to the purchase of shirts and black socks for the troops in the Southern army where the need was the most grave.

After completing his term as governor, Thomas Lee left office on November 22, 1782. He served in the Continental Congress in 1783, and was a member of the State convention that ratified the US Constitution in 1788.

Although he didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, or the US Constitution, Thomas Lee was an important participant in the process of their creation. He worked closely with many of the Founding Fathers and played an important part in the birth of the nation and his state.

In 1792, Lee was again elected governor of Maryland. He was reelected to a fourth term in 1793, and to a fifth term in 1794. During his final tenure, the state militia was re-established and reorganized to help suppress the Whiskey Rebellion.

Thomas Lee left office on November 14, 1794. Later that same year, he declined a seat in the state senate, and didn’t seek the governorship in 1798. After he retired from political life, Governor Lee focused his attention on his Frederick County estate, Needwood, where he and Mary lived out their lives.

Mary Digges Lee acted in defense of her country at a time when women of her social status were expected to remain behind the scenes. While her aid to the war effort was very important, her actions hold a deeper significance for American women. Through her actions, she earned her title of First Lady of Maryland, as well as her place in American history. She was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996.

Mary Digges Lee died on January 25, 1805 at the age of 60.

Thomas Sim Lee remained a widower until his death at Needwood on October 9, 1819, at the age of 74, and was buried at the family estate. He was reinterred at Mt. Carmel Roman Catholic Cemetery near Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in 1888.


Anne Hooper

Wife of Declaration of Independence Signer: William Hooper

William Hooper was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1742. His early education, at the age of seven, was seven years at the Boston Latin School. When he completed these studies, he entered the sophomore class of Harvard College in 1757, at age 16, graduating in 1760 with a B.A. degree and in 1763 with a M.A. degree. Although William Hooper’s parents wanted him to enter the clergy, but much to the chagrin of his father rejected the ministry as a profession.

The next year, he further alienated his Loyalist father and isolated himself from his family by studying law under James Otis, a brilliant but radical Boston lawyer. After passing the bar exam, he decided to leave home, because Boston already had too many attorneys.

In 1764, Hooper settled in Wilmington, North Carolina, to begin the practice of law. He was warmly received by the planters and lawyers of the lower Cape Fear region and became a Circuit Court Lawyer, following the sessions of the court and traveling hundreds of miles on horseback. By June 1766, he was unanimously elected recorder of the borough.

On August 16, 1767, William Hooper married at King’s Chapel in Boston, Anne Clark of New Hanover, North Carolina, the daughter of Barbara Murray and Thomas Clark, Sr., a wealthy early settler to the region and the late sheriff of New Hanover County. The two had a son, William, in 1768, followed by a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1770 and then another son, Thomas, in 1772.

Anne was the sister of Thomas Clark, Jr., who became a colonel and brigadier general in the Continental Army. It was the fortunate affluence of the Clark family that enabled the Hoopers to survive the difficult years of the American Revolution.

Anne and William lived either in Wilmington or at his nearby estate, Finian, about 8 miles away on Masonboro Sound, rode the circuit from court to court, and built up a clientele among the wealthy planters of the lower Cape Fear region. Ambitious, he harbored political aspirations and by 1770-71 had obtained the position of deputy attorney general of North Carolina.

Hooper built a highly respected reputation in North Carolina among the wealthy farmers as well as fellow lawyers. He increased his influence by representing the colonial government in several court cases. But from the beginning, his health was precarious in the low-lying Wilmington area.

Initially Hooper supported the British government in North Carolina. The increasingly popular Hooper was appointed Deputy Attorney for the Salisbury district in 1769, and Deputy Attorney General for North Carolina in 1770.

As Deputy Attorney General of North Carolina, he sided with Royal Governor William Tryon, and worked to suppress a rebellious group known as the Regulators, an uprising that lasted from 1764 to 1771, where citizens took up arms against corrupt colonial officials.

In 1770, it was reported that the group dragged Hooper through the streets of Hillsborough during a riot. Hooper advised Governor Tryon to use as much force as was necessary to stamp out the rebels, and even accompanied the troops that defeated the rebels in the Battle of Alamance in 1771.

But Hooper’s support of the colonial government began to erode, causing problems for him due to his past support of Governor Tryon. Hooper had been labeled a Loyalist, and therefore he was not immediately accepted by the Patriots.

Hooper eventually was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly in 1773, where he became an opponent to colonial attempts to pass laws that would regulate the provincial courts. This in turn helped to sour his reputation among Loyalists.

During his time in the assembly, Hooper slowly became a supporter of the American Revolution and independence from Britain. After the governor disbanded the assembly, Hooper helped to organize a new colonial assembly. His Loyalist father was displeased and disowned his patriotic son.

William’s prophetic observation in a letter of April 26, 1774, to his friend James Iredell is often quoted as a landmark of colonial foresight at this early period. Hooper wrote:

The Colonies are striding fast to independence, and ere long will build an empire upon the ruins of Great Britain; will adopt its Constitution, purged of its impurities, and from an experience of its defects, will guard against those evils which have wasted its vigor.

This was the earliest known prediction of independence, which won for Hooper the epithet Prophet of Independence.

William Hooper became a man of prominence in the legislative body, and in 1774 was chosen as one of the delegates to the First Continental Congress. With Thomas Jefferson, he served on a committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. He was elected to the Second Continental Congress, but much of his time was split between the congress and work in North Carolina, where he was assisting in forming a new government.

Because of those duties, Hooper missed the vote approving the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July, 1776, but arrived in time to sign it on August 2, 1776.

In 1777, financial difficulties with his law practice and a desire to be near his family prompted him to resign from Congress and return to Wilmington. Hooper resumed his residence at Finian and his law practice in the newly opened courts, again riding the circuits with his friend Iredell as he had done before the Revolution. He also attended the General Assembly from 1777 until 1781 for the borough of Wilmington, serving on numerous committees.

Throughout the Revolution, Hooper was sought by the British as a traitor for signing the Declaration of Independence. They decided to educate Hooper so that all rebels would understand the consequences of their actions. In 1780, the British invaded North Carolina. Hooper moved his family from Finian into Wilmington for safety, but in January 1781, while he was away on business, Wilmington fell to the enemy, and Hooper was separated from his family.

Suffering from malaria and a badly injured arm, Hooper became a fugitive from the British, and was forced to rely on friends in Edenton for food and shelter, hiding from house to house in the Windsor and Edenton areas. The Hooper house in Wilmington was burned, and an ailing Anne Hooper and two of her children were forced to flee by wagon to Hillsborough in central North Carolina, where her brother, General Thomas Clark, found shelter for them. When the British left the Wilmington area in November 1781, Hooper returned to find that they had also shelled his plantation house at Finian.

After nearly a year of separation, Hooper was reunited with his family. On April 10, 1782, the Hoopers purchased General Francis Nash’s former home and settled in Hillsborough. He established a mini-plantation on his eight acres, with the help of 24 slaves, and built a law office on the grounds. He remained to some extent in public life as a state legislator, but never regained his early prominence.

After independence was won, Hooper returned to his career in law, but he lost favor with the public due to his political stance. He pursued a conservative path, which many disagreed with. As stipulated in the treaty ending the war, he forgave Loyalists and protected their rights, even when the majority in his jurisdiction wanted revenge. The British reneged on their obligations, which only made matters worse.

In 1787, he campaigned heavily for North Carolina to ratify the new United States Constitution. But by this time he had become quite ill. He was appointed a federal judge in 1789 and served for one year, before his bad health forced him to retire.

After five months of complications associated with his previous health problems, William Hooper died at Hillsborough on October 14, 1790, at the age of forty-eight. Anne Hooper died in August 1795. They were initially interred at the Presbyterian Churchyard in Hillsborough.

In 1894, William’s remains were sent to the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro. There, an imposing 19-foot-high monument, surmounted by a statue of Hooper in colonial dress and in orator’s pose, honors the patriotic services of William Hooper. The sandstone slab, with six additional words deeply incised, Signer of the Declaration of Independence, was later returned to the original Hillsborough grave site.

We seldom think about how young the founders of our country were when they pledged their lives and fortunes – and sometimes sacrificed them. Many of them died poor. William Hooper was only 35 years old when he signed the Declaration.


Martha Washington – 

Wife of President George Washington

Although the title was not coined until after her death, Martha Washington was the first of the First Ladies of the United States. During her lifetime, she was known as Lady Washington. When George Washington took his oath of office in New York City on April 30, 1789, and assumed the new duties of President of the United States, his wife brought to their position a tact and discretion developed over 58 years of life in Tidewater Virginia society. Martha was a rather small, pleasant-looking woman, practical with good common sense.

The oldest daughter of John and Frances Dandridge, Martha was born June 2, 1731, at her parents’ Chestnut Grove Plantation near Williamsburg, Virginia. As was typical of the time, she was educated at home by her mother and a tutor, and likely learned music, sewing, household management, and how to keep a family contented. Her later skills at plantation management, crop sales, homeopathic medicine, animal husbandry suggests a wider education than previously thought.

At the age of 18 – about five feet tall, dark-haired, and gentle in manner – Martha married Daniel Parke Custis, a rich planter two decades her senior. They lived at White House Plantation on the south shore of the Pamunkey River in Virginia, a few miles upriver from Chestnut Grove.

Martha had four children with Custis – a son and a daughter died when they were toddlers, but two other children, John (Jacky) and Martha (Patsy), survived to young adulthood.

In 1757, when Martha was 26, Daniel Parke Custis died after a brief illness. Jacky was three and Patsy was less than a year old. Martha was left with the duties of running the household, the estate, and raising her children. She was also a rich widow with independent control over her inheritance and trustee control over the inheritance of her minor children.

Martha Custis had considerable power through her wealth and privileged social status. Evidence of her business acumen in the lucrative tobacco trade is found in letters she wrote to the London merchants who handled the exportation of the large Custis crop output.

At a cotillion in Williamsburg, Martha met a young colonel in the Virginia Militia who was fighting for the British in the French and Indian War. His name was George Washington. In March 1758, he visited her twice; the second time he came away with either an engagement of marriage or at least her promise to think about his proposal.

Martha Dandridge Custis and George Washington married on January 6, 1759, at White House Plantation. Their wedding was a grand affair, and the couple honeymooned for several weeks before setting up housekeeping at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, which he initially leased from his half-brother Lawrence’s widow, and inherited it outright after her 1761 death. The marriage changed George from an ordinary planter to a substantially wealthy landowner.

Before his marriage, George had increased the size of Mount Vernon from the original one-and-one-half-story dwelling to a two-and-one-half story home. He had resigned his commission in the militia, so George, Martha, Jacky (4) and Patsy (2) moved to Mount Vernon in April 1759.

There, the couple delighted in raising their children and entertaining Virginia society. It is estimated that between 1768 and 1775 over 2000 guests visited the Washingtons, some staying for extended periods. Martha managed her husband’s plantations during his absences.

While George Washington oversaw all financial transactions related to the plantation, Martha was responsible for the not insubstantial process of harvesting, preparing, and preserving herbs, vegetables, fruits, meats, and dairy for medicines, household products, and food needed for those who lived at Mount Vernon – relatives, slaves, and servants – as well as long-staying visitors. Martha’s greatest concern was the comfort and happiness of her husband and children.

Martha and George Washington had no children together, but they raised Martha’s two surviving children. Patsy died during an epileptic seizure in 1773 at the age of 17, which led Jacky to return home from college to comfort his mother.

Jacky later married Nelly Calvert, and they had six children. Nelly was in poor health after the birth of a baby girl and as a result, the infant was sent to Mount Vernon to be nursed. After the birth and death of twins, another son was born, and he joined his sister at Mount Vernon.

When George’s career led him to the battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War and finally to the Presidency, Martha followed him bravely. Her love of private life equaled her husband’s; but, as she wrote to her friend Mercy Otis Warren, “I cannot blame him for having acted according to his ideas of duty in obeying the voice of his country.” As for herself, “I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.”

Around 1774, the political unrest in the colonies was becoming more vocal. The colonists were being burdened with an inordinate amount of taxes and levies. Some of the Washingtons’ friends and acquaintances were soon to become the Founding Fathers. Martha was considerably torn. Her friends and family were split on both sides. Her son’s in-laws were Loyalists as well as some of their neighbors.

George felt it was his duty to assume some role of leadership at the urging of some of his fellow patriots. He began by working on recruiting and training an armed force. Militia were organized by state. Realizing he would have to be away from home, George asked Jacky and his family to stay at Mount Vernon with Martha, which they did.

During the American Revolution, Martha Washington assumed a prominent role as caretaker for her husband, appointed the General of the American Army by the Continental Congress, and his troops. She also lent her name to support a formal effort to enlist women of the colonies to volunteer on behalf of the Continental Army. In appreciation, American servicemen addressed her as Lady Washington.

Martha often accompanied George to his headquarters during the war years. She spent the winter of 1775 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the spring of 1776 in New York. In the spring of 1777, she traveled to his headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey, but returned to Mount Vernon for the summer. The next winter, she joined her husband at Valley Forge, and later stayed with him during campaigns in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

Jacky Custis was serving as an aide to his stepfather, General Washington, during the siege of Yorktown in 1781. Almost at the very hour of Washington’s victory over the British, Jacky died from camp fever only a few miles away. Arriving at the scene, Washington wept like a child. He vowed to Martha, “I adopt his two younger children as my own, from this hour.”

Martha and George then raised her two youngest grandchildren – George Washington (Wash) Parke Custis and Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis. They also provided personal and financial support to nieces, nephews, and other family members in both the Dandridge and Washington families. Many years later, George Washington Parke Custis’ daughter, Mary Custis, married Robert E. Lee.

When Jacky’s widow Nelly married Dr. David Stuart in 1783, she and her two eldest daughters lived at the Stuart home in Abingdon, while Wash and Nelly continued to live at Mount Vernon. In 1784, Martha’s 15-year-old niece, Frances Basset, came to live at Mount Vernon. She married George’s nephew, Major George Augustine Washington, in 1785.

The Revolutionary War ended on November 25, 1783, when the British left their last stronghold. Washington said farewell to his troops at Fraunces Tavern in New York, and on Christmas Eve, he rode into Mount Vernon.

The Constitutional Convention was convening and George traveled to take part. He was named president of the convention and before ratification of the new Constitution, he was being urged to accept the role of the President of the United States. George returned to Mount Vernon, and in April, 1789, he was elected unanimously by the Electoral College.

Official First Lady Portrait

George Washington was inaugurated president on April 30, 1789. Unable to attend the inaugural ceremony in the first capital city of New York, Martha Washington followed the route George had traveled a month earlier. She and her grandchildren were hailed with fanfare all the way to New York, all of which was reported in the national newspapers.

By the time Martha arrived at the capital, her husband’s secretary had created a series of rigid protocol rules that she found especially limiting of her, particularly the one that forbade her and the President from accepting invitations to dine in private homes.

Martha established her public role as hostess in a series of presidential mansions. Her duties included not only the operation of her own house, but planning and arranging formal dinners, parties, and receptions.

Despite the company of her grandchildren, Martha expressed a sense of loneliness in New York, where she had fewer personal friends than she would find in the next capital of Philadelphia (1790-1800). She also discovered that even her mundane activities, like shopping or taking her grandchildren to the circus, were recorded by the press.

Her eight years as First Lady of the United States were extremely unpleasant to her personally, but she viewed it as a duty to her husband and her country. Yet, she was greatly loved by Revolutionary War veterans, and was publicly known to provide financial support or to intercede on behalf of those among them in need. Not only Americans, but Europeans responded to Martha Washington as something of an American heroine, sometimes sending her lavish gifts.

On March 4, 1797, George Washington gave his farewell to Congress, and the Washingtons bid farewell to public life. They returned to their beloved Mount Vernon, where they were surrounded by kinfolk, friends, and a constant stream of guests eager to pay their respects to the celebrated couple. They celebrated George’s sixty-seventh birthday with a wedding ceremony – young Nelly Custis married his nephew, Lawrence Lewis.

On December 12, 1799, Washington was caught out in sleet and snow while riding over his farms. The resulting illness progressed rapidly, and Washington suffered with a throat inflammation that made breathing extremely painful. Doctors arrived early on the morning of December 14, but could do little to ease his pain. He faced death with characteristic courage, saying, “I die hard, but I am not afraid to go.”

With his wife at his side, George Washington, the father of our country, died December 14, 1799.

Four days later a solemn funeral was held at Mount Vernon. Martha was too grief-stricken to attend. She closed the door to their bed chamber and moved herself to a tiny garret chamber on the third floor of the mansion. She assured their privacy by burning all the intimate letters written during their courtship and time spent apart during her husband’s many absences while serving a new immerging nation.

Although she curtailed her life to Mount Vernon, once the new capital city was established and named for her late husband, Martha Washington welcomed political figures who came to pay their respects to her. She expressed her loneliness for her late husband frequently and her desire to soon join him in death.

George Washington’s will had ordered the freedom of half of his slaves, leaving the old and the young to remain. Martha freed them all in 1800. Her own health was deteriorating and in March of 1802, sensing her death, she made a will.

After becoming gravely ill and lingering for seventeen days, Martha seemed aware of her fate and requested the last sacraments from her minister. Dressed in a special white gown, she spoke to her assembled grandchildren and relatives. Exhausted, she laid back and fell asleep, never to awaken.

Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, the first of first ladies, died of severe fever on May 22, 1802. Her funeral took place three days later at Mount Vernon. Her service was modest attended only by family members, friends and neighbors. George and Martha Washington lie buried at Mount Vernon in an unpretentious tomb he had planned for them.

Ruth Cunningham –

Wife of Founding Father James Otis, Jr.

Ruth Cunningham, the shy but beautiful daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant, married James Otis, Jr. in 1755. The marriage enhanced Otis’ social standing and improved his financial situation. But his new bride did not share his political and social idealism. They had two daughters.

James Otis Jr. was Boston’s most brilliant young lawyer. James had attended Harvard College, graduating in 1743, but continued his education in law under Jeremiah Gridley, a member of the General Court of Massachusetts. After Otis was admitted to the bar, he launched his law practice in Plymouth, Massachusetts, but relocated to Boston in 1750. His younger sister Mercy Otis Warren and his brother Joseph Otis also rose to prominence.

Though unhappily married, mainly due to political differences, James and Ruth Otis had three children. Otis served the Boston vice-admiralty court as advocate general from 1756 to 1760, and during this time became more active in public as well as legal affairs.

“Every man’s home is his castle,” declared Otis. “And whilst he is quiet he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle.” (Otis did not mention that in his ‘castle,’ his wife had refused to sleep with him so long as he spoke out against the king’s authority).

It was also during this time that the political differences between Otis and his wife grew deeper, and began to unravel the emotional bonds of their marriage. James was an early advocate of the political views that led to the American Revolution. Ruth Otis was a loyalist, and she continued to support the British.

In 1761, as the British pressed the Sugar Act against the unreceptive American Colonies, Otis spoke out against England in the courtroom and through his writings. He ignited a patriot cause that was to become a revolution and a quest for independence. The phrase, Taxation without Representation is Tyranny, is usually attributed to him.

In February 1761, Otis argued brilliantly against the Writs of Assistance in a nearly five-hour oration before a select audience in the State House. These writs enabled British authorities to enter any colonist’s home with no advance notice, no probable cause and no reason given. His argument failed to win his case, although it galvanized the revolutionary movement.

More than thirty years later, John Adams claimed that “the child independence was then and there born, [for] every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance.” In a pamphlet published in 1765, Otis expanded his argument that the general writs violated the British unwritten constitution harkening back to the Magna Carta. The text of his 1761 speech was first printed in 1773 and in longer forms in 1819 and 1823.

Otis did not identify himself as a revolutionary; his peers, too, generally viewed him as more cautious than the incendiary Samuel Adams. Otis at times counseled against the mob violence of the radicals. Yet on other occasions Otis exceeded Adams in rousing passions and exhorting people to action.

Otis effectively made alliances with Boston merchants so that he instantly became a patriot star after the controversy over the Writs of Assistance. He was elected by an overwhelming margin to the provincial assembly a month later. He subsequently wrote several important patriotic pamphlets, served in the assembly and was also was friends with Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense.

Hannah Fayerweather Winthrop, wife of Harvard professor John Winthrop, wrote an unsympathetic letter about Ruth Otis to James’ sister Mercy Otis Warren in 1769.

The letter reads:

I went to see Mrs. Otis the other day. She seems not to be in a good state of health. I received a Visit lately from Master Jemmy [James and Ruth Otis’ son, then age ten]. I will give you an anecdote of him. A gentleman telling him what a Fine lady his mama is and he hoped he would be a good Boy and behave exceeding well to her, my young Master gave this spirited answer, “I know my Mama is a fine Lady, but she would be a much finer if she was a Daughter of Liberty.

Both Warren and Winthrop, and all three women’s husbands, were strongly in favor of a boycott of British goods to protest the Townshend Acts, which levied taxes on goods imported into the American colonies, such as lead, paper, paint, glass and tea. These were items that were not produced in America and that the colonists were only allowed to buy from Great Britain.

James Otis’ constant struggle against the Crown gained political change but also made political enemies. In a scathing attack on crown officials, he criticized customs commissioners in the Boston Gazette. In 1769, one of those commissioners, John Robinson, confronted Otis in a coffee house. They came to blows, and Otis received a gash on his head.

Otis suffered from increasingly erratic behavior as the 1760s progressed. Some believe Otis was a manic depressive or schizophrenic and that his illness could be successfully treated today. John Adams has several examples in his diary of Otis’ mental illness well before 1769. By the end of the decade, Otis’ public life came to an end, but he was able to continue his law practice during times of clarity.

In 1771 he was elected to the legislature, and sometimes afterward appeared in court and in the town meeting, but found himself unable to take part in public business.

In June, 1775, while living in a state of harmless insanity with his sister, Mercy Warren, at Watertown, Massachusetts, he slipped away unobserved, borrowed a musket from some farmhouse by the roadside, and joined the minute men who were marching to the aid of the troops on Bunker Hill. He took an active part in that battle, and after it was over made his way home again after midnight.

The last years of his life were spent at the residence of Mr. Osgood in Andover, Massachusetts. For a brief time it seemed as though his reason was restored. He even took a case in the Court of Common Pleas in Boston, but found he was unequal to the task.

He was persuaded to dine with John Hancock and some other friends. But the presence of his former friends and the memories of previous events shocked his fragile mind, and he was persuaded to go back home.

After his mind had become settled he said to Mrs. Warren, “My dear sister, I hope, when God Almighty in his righteous providence shall take me out of time into eternity, that it will be by a flash of lightning,” and this wish he often repeated.

Six weeks later, on May 23, 1783, while standing in the side doorway during a thunder-shower, with his
cane in his hand, and telling the assembled family a story, he was struck by lightning and instantly killed. Not one of the seven or eight persons in the room was injured.

His remains were brought to Boston and interred in the Granary Burying Ground with every mark of respect, a great number of the citizens attending his funeral.

Speaking of James Otis, John Adams said:

I have been young and now I am old, and I solemnly say I have never known a man whose love of country was more ardent or sincere, never one who suffered so much, never one whose service for any 10 years of his life were so important and essential to the cause of his country as those of Mr. Otis from 1760 to 1770.

James Otis, Jr. died suddenly on May 23, 1783, at the age of 58 when he was struck by lightning while standing in the doorway of a friend’s house,

He is reported to have once said to his sister Mercy, “My dear sister, I hope, when God Almighty in his righteous providence shall take me out of time into eternity that it will be by a flash of lightning.”

Ruth Otis outlived both her husband and her son, who died in British captivity in 1777. Of the two Otis daughters, one married a British officer and moved to England; the other married the son of Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln of Hingham. So the family remained split.

Ruth Cunningham Otis never changed her mind politically. When she died in 1789, she reportedly still preferred the British government to the new U.S.A. that her brother-in-law Samuel A. Otis had gone to work for.

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