The Founding Mothers, some of whom went on to become the inaugural First Ladies of the United States, set the precedent for future women. They assumed their role as hostess of the White House, encouraged their husbands to “remember the ladies”, established and grew businesses, and supported their husbands through seemingly unending travails. Although these women were deeply different, strange resonances are found in comparing their lives.
Many of the Founding Mothers were reticent, and would likely have been content to remain in obscurity, while others fought for their rights to be recognized. Many of the marriages to Founding Fathers were second marriages for the women, but first for their partners. Nearly all, of course, came from money of their own. This background taught them to be prepared for what would soon be their destiny: the support and encouragement of their spouses, a dedication to smoothing feathers amongst political squabblers, and financial acumen that came in handy both for a husband and a country on the rise. The Founding Mothers left a mark on the new nation that would last for many years.
Martha Dandridge was born on June 2, 1731 on Chestnut Grove Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia. The eldest of eight children born to John Dandridge and Frances Jones, Martha received an education typical for a girl of her class and time, which included housekeeping, religion, music, and dancing. Unlike many other young women of her time, she also learned to read and write, and even to perform basic mathematical functions. These skills would end up useful in her first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis.
Although he was 20 years her senior, Custis was one of the most eligible bachelors in Virginia. On May 15, 1750 Martha married 38-year-old Daniel and went on to have four of his children—although only two would live beyond the age of four. Reportedly, Custis was deeply in love with his young wife and spoiled her as thoroughly as possible.
Related: 10 Revealing Revolutionary War Books
Unfortunately, Daniel died in 1757, leaving Martha widowed by the age of 25. At this point, Martha was a young, attractive, and wealthy widow who had the liberty to choose her own destiny—and she chose George Washington. The attraction between Washington and Martha was immediate and mutual. Only 10 months after their initial meeting, Martha and George married on January 6, 1759.
The Washingtons never had any children of their own, but they were kept busy raising Martha’s two surviving children: John “Jacky” Parke Custis (1751-1781) and Martha “Patsy” Parke Custis (1756-1773). While George was traveling on military and business matters, Martha Washington was the effective manager of Mount Vernon. She spent every winter in military encampments with General Washington during the war. During this time, Martha entertained visiting diplomats and the wives of fellow officers, assisted with secretarial duties, and kept her husband company. In 1780, Martha became the public face of a campaign to raise money to supply the troops with desperately needed food and clothing.
After the Revolutionary War ended, George Washington was called to serve his country as its first president in 1789. Although Martha was initially hesitant for her husband to become president after spending so many years leading the country through war, she eventually acquiesced. Once installed as First Lady, Martha quickly settled into the job and became an asset for the president. Eight years later, the Washingtons retired for good to their Mount Vernon estate. Unfortunately, George Washington passed away just two years later in 1799. After years of difficulty with her health, Martha only worsened after the passing of her husband. She passed away less than three years later, but not before signing a deed of manumission for her husband’s slaves in 1800, granting them their freedom.
Born in 1744, Abigail Smith grew up in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Her family was prominent in the community–her father, Reverend William Smith, was part of a prestigious ministerial community within the Congregational Church, and her mother’s family was the influential Quincys. Starting when she was 11, Abigail and her sisters were tutored by Richard Cranch, who had recently moved to Massachusetts from England. Years later, after Abigail’s older sister had become engaged to Cranch, he brought a friend to the Smith household. A young lawyer named John Adams met 17-year-old Abigail and fell in love. In 1764, the Adamses were married, and the couple moved to Adams’ farm in Braintree, where they had three sons and two daughters.
As her husband’s commitments–and travel–increased due to his work as a lawyer and political revolutionary, Abigail managed the farm and business affairs and raised their children primarily on her own. In 1774, the tension between the colonies and Great Britain forced John Adams to head to Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. It was during this period that he and Abigail began writing regularly to each other.
Related: The Midnight Ride of Sybil Ludington
Her vivid letters detailed her life during a time of revolution, focusing on her struggles at home with shortages and inflation, running the house with minimal help, and teaching four children when formal education was interrupted. It was also during this period that she made her famous exhortation of her husband and his fellow Founding Fathers: “Remember the ladies.”
Although no political avenue for women was made available during this time, John Adams sought Abigail’s opinion on political and other matters throughout his life. When Adams was elected president in 1797, he eagerly wrote to Abigail, “I never wanted your advice and assistance more in my life…” In 1800, the Adams became the First Family to occupy the White House, after the capital shifted from Philadelphia to Washington, DC.
The Adams retired to Quincy in 1801 and, until Abigail’s death, enjoyed a lifestyle of companionship that had been interrupted for years. Abigail died in 1818 and is buried in the United First Parish Church. Her husband was laid to rest beside her eight years later. She was the second woman to serve as First Lady and is one of only two women who were both wife and mother to a president. A remarkable woman with various roles, Abigail Adams was not only an early advocate for women’s rights but also a major political influence on her husband John Adams.
Martha Wayles was born on October 30, 1748, in Charles City, Virginia to John Wayles and his first wife, Martha Eppes. Only six days after Wayles was born, her mother passed away. When Martha reached the age of 18, she married her first husband, Bathurst Skelton, a Virginia attorney. The couple had one son before Skelton passed away. Martha was only 19.
About a year later, Martha met Thomas Jefferson. He was her third cousin, but they quickly fell in love. They were married on New Year’s Day in 1772, after which they set out for the property that would become known as Monticello. The pair had six children, of whom two reached adulthood.
During their marriage, Martha ran plantation life at Monticello and was an active hostess when she felt well; her beauty, grace, and musical skills were reportedly well-regarded by society. When Thomas Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia in 1779, Martha became First Lady of the state. She led a very effective drive to raise funds for the state militia in her role, and later helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Washington’s Continental Army.
Unfortunately, Martha was frequently in bad health. Delicate even before her second marriage, her condition was greatly worsened by the stress of giving birth to seven children–and losing five of them–in less than 14 years. At times Jefferson was forced to reduce his political activities in order to stay with his wife. Jefferson wrote on May 20, 1782 that her condition was dangerous; by September 6, after months of tending to her devotedly, Jefferson noted in his account book, “My dear wife died this day at 11:45 A.M.”
Jefferson, who had reportedly promised Martha to never marry again, stayed in his rooms alone for three weeks after her death. When Jefferson became president in 1801, he had been a widower for 19 years. When he needed the womanly assistance that Martha would have provided, Jefferson called on Dolley Madison for society and hosting duties. During the winter of 1802-1803, Martha and Thomas’s daughter, Patsy, took on the role of lady of the President’s House for seven weeks.
As the common-law wife of a man who never became president, Deborah Read’s status as a Founding Mother is perhaps the weakest. But her contributions to Benjamin Franklin’s life in both material and political ways is not to be underestimated.
Read was the second of seven children born to British carpenter, John Read, and his wife, Sarah White Read. Her birth date and location are unclear–she was born around 1708, either in Birmingham, England, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In October 1723, Read first met the then 17-year-old Benjamin Franklin as he walked past the Read home one morning, carrying three large rolls, one tucked under each arm and a third in his mouth. Deborah was immediately bemused and taken by the strange young man, who soon was renting a room in the family house.
Franklin had been unable to find accommodations near his printer’s shop job. Deborah Read’s father allowed him to stay in their home, and soon a romance blossomed between Franklin and Read. In 1723, Franklin proposed. Read’s mother, who disliked the fact that the partners were so young, and Franklin’s prospects so precarious, pressured her not to accept. Without parental approval, the engagement never came to fruition, and Franklin left Philadelphia for London. The governor wished that Franklin would establish another newspaper, but instead he found himself working as a typesetter in London for three years.
The pair remained in love, and Read promised that she would wait for Franklin’s return. However, upon arriving in London, Franklin decided to end the relationship. Under pressure from her mother, Deborah married another man, one John Rogers. Rogers, who had managed to pass himself off as a viable partner, soon proved dissolute. He couldn’t keep a job for long and eventually disappeared, along with Deborah Read’s dowry and a slave. There were also reports that Rogers had another wife back in England. After his disappearance, Read moved back into her mother’s house.
Franklin had returned to Philadelphia about two months before John Rogers disappeared. The pair soon rekindled their relationship and hoped to marry. But with the final fate of Rogers unclear–he may still have been alive in the West Indies–the two couldn’t risk the brutal punishment for bigamy. So, they decided to live in a common-law marriage. Deborah Read and Benjamin Franklin held a small ceremony to announce their intentions to friends and family in 1730, then moved in together.
Read and Franklin had two children, and Deborah also raised Franklin’s other illegitimate child, William. Soon, Franklin was being sent around the world as a standard bearer for the burgeoning United States. Unfortunately, Read’s deep fear of the sea and travel meant that the couple were frequently separated as Franklin’s stature grew.
Despite the distance, the pair, at least initially, remained emotionally close. They wrote each other frequent letters, sharing personal tidbits from their lives. And Deborah, proving an astute business manager even without formal education, built up Franklin’s printing business, stationery shop, and his general store, allowing him the financial security to continue his travels.
Sadly, the decades of separation eventually took a toll on their relationship. Their letters became less and less emotionally intimate. By the late 1760s, Deborah Read’s health had declined, and she began begging Franklin to return home. Read had a number of strokes that caused her both physical and mental pain. She declined into a depression and even stopped writing back to her husband in 1773, after four years of asking him to come home. Although Franklin kept writing to Read, even after she stopped responding, he did not return before her death on December 19, 1774.
Despite his shockingly cavalier behavior towards Deborah Read at the end of her life, Benjamin Franklin would likely not have achieved even a modicum of his success without her unflagging support. A wife who was able to not only maintain, but grow, a business freed up Franklin’s time to write and pursue political goals.
Deborah Read’s steady presence was one that a young nation, however unknowingly, relied on.
One of the White House’s most successful hostesses, Dolley Madison successfully used her social skills, charm and popularity to win over her husband’s political opponents. Although born a Quaker, Madison left behind her somber outlook and apparel upon her second marriage to James Madison in favor of a world filled with parties, clothing, and influence. In her second marriage, Madison formalized many of the modern expectations of a president’s spouse.
Born in North Carolina, Dolley Payne was primarily raised on a plantation in Virginia. The eldest daughter of Mary Coles and John Payne, Dolley received little formal education, but did learn domestic skills such as needlework, food storage, and managing household help. She also received religious schooling from her family, who were Quakers.
Dolley married John Todd, Jr., a lawyer, in 1790—accommodating the wishes of her father. The couple quickly welcomed two sons: John Payne and William Temple. Just three years later, Todd died in a yellow-fever epidemic; compounding the difficult situation, Dolley’s son William, her mother-in-law, and her father-in-law all died in the same plague. Dolley found herself responsible for the wellbeing of her son John Payne, while unable to access the wealth left behind by her husband due to the period’s strict coverture laws. However, it wouldn’t be long before the young widow’s beauty attracted the attention of “the great little Madison.” Although Virginia Representative James Madison was 17 years her senior and of Episcopalian faith, the pair were married in September 1794.
In 1801, Madison’s appointment as Jefferson’s Secretary of State marked the beginning of Dolley’s celebrated role as political wife and public servant. She presided over the first inaugural ball in Washington, and helped lead a fundraiser for Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the western wilderness. Perhaps her most important role was rallying support for her husband in the 1808 presidential race. Eventually, Democratic-Republican James Madison was elected President, serving two terms from 1809 to 1817, and Dolley became the official First Lady.
The Madisons were the third family to live in the mansion now known as the White House. Dolley, as the first wife to spend more than a few months in the mansion, took primary responsibility for decorating and furnishing the intimidatingly large home. She worked with Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the Second Architect of the White House, who had designed the East and West Colonnades.
Dolley also took social charge as First Lady, charming seemingly everyone around her. She remains the only First Lady who was given an honorary seat on Congress’s floor. Her feat in saving George Washington’s portrait from the burning of the White House in 1814 is renowned to this day–although some historians point out that Jean Pierre Sioussat, Master of Ceremonies, is likely to have directed servants to save the portrait.
Regardless of who saved the portrait, Dolley took action after the pillaging of Washington, establishing the Washington City Female Orphan Asylum, which took in children made homeless by the War of 1812. Dolley’s husband died less than 20 years after vacating the presidency, leaving her to suffer in poverty for much of the remaining 12 years of her life.
Featured photo of Martha Washington: Wikimedia Commons