January 6, 1759 – George Washington Marries Martha Dandridge Custis

On this day in history, George Washington married the 26-year-old widow Martha Dandrige Custis. It was less than ten months after their initial meeting and less than eighteen months after the death of her first husband, by whom she had two children. They were married in Martha’s home in New Kent County.

Made of purple silk, these shoes are believed to have been worn by Martha Dandridge Custis during her wedding to George Washington. (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

Made of purple silk, these shoes are believed to have been worn by Martha Dandridge Custis during her wedding to George Washington. (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

The marriage brought George Washington the use of Martha’s immense wealth and made him one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. Martha owned nearly 300 slaves and had more than 17,438 acres of land— worth a fortune in early America (close to some three million dollars in today’s money).

At the time, Martha had, by virtue of a Virginia statute enacted in 1673, certain rights over her estate.

On a widow’s dower rights, the statute in force, enacted by the Virginia Assembly in 1673, read:

An act for establishing the dowers of widdows.

WHEREAS many doubts have arisen concerning the estates of persons dying intestate, and of what parte thereof ought to appertaine to the widdow; for cleareing whereof, Be it enacted by the governour, councell and burgesses of the grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that where persons dye intestate, the widdow shalbe endowed with the third part of the reall estate to bee equally divided as to houseing, ffenced grounds, orchards, woods, and other valuable conveniences, dureing her naturall life, and the third part of the personall estate, if there be but one or two children, but if there be any number of children more, how many soever, in that case the personall estate to be devided amongst the widdow and all the children share and share alike; and in case the husband make a will that he hath in it his power to devise more to his wife then what is above determined, but not lesse.”

[Note that the verb endow meant “to provide with a dower.”]

Because Martha’s first husband died without a will, Martha was granted a dower share – the lifetime use of one-third of the estate’s assets. This share would be held in trust for her children. The slaves working the estate were also subject to a dower-determined distribution. [From 1705 until 1792, Virginia defined slaves as real property. This is because if the slaves did not remain with the land to work it, the value of the land was diminished. See Donn Devine, “The Widow’s Dower Interest,” in Ancestry Magazine, Vol. 12, no. 5, 1 Sep 1994.)] Martha received approximately 85 slaves as part of the dower share of the Custis estate.

Martha Washington as a Young Woman

When Martha remarried, another principle of law came into effect: coverture, which defined the legal status of woman following marriage. Under the doctrine of coverture, the husband and wife became a single unit for property purposes, with the husband having complete control over most of the property of either person. Whatever personal effects a woman brought into marriage, including clothing, furniture, or money, became the property of her husband. (See Dorothy A. Mays, Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World, Calif.: 2004, p. 91.) On the other hand, whatever real estate the wife brought into the marriage could not be sold or mortgaged without the wife’s consent. (Courts tried to ensure that the wife gave over such consent with her own free will.) However, the husband had the use his wife’s land and slaves, and could dispose of the income they produced in any way he wished. Moreover, the wife’s interest in dower real estate was limited to a life estate, not a fee simple interest. But this meant that while Washington could control Martha’s dower wealth, he didn’t actually own it (in fee simple) and could not sell it. Martha’s one-third was “his” property only for the duration of Martha’s life.

George Washington as a Young Man

[As Joseph A. Ranney explains in “Anglicans, Merchants, and Feminists: A Comparative Study of the Evolution of Married Women’s Rights in Virginia, New York, and Wisconsin,” 6 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 493 (2000), in the agricultural state of Virginia, power resided almost exclusively in ownership of land and of the labor needed to work the land. Retention of land holdings was the key to preserving wealth and power. Thus, because planters who had only daughters faced the prospect that at their death the family lands would effectively pass to the daughters’ husbands, Virginia laws were designed to keep landed wealth in the family of the daughter rather than of the husband.]

Further complications ensued for the Washingtons. Martha’s dower slaves intermarried with George’s slaves. Because legal status was traced through the female, all children of dower mothers became dower slaves, but children of dower fathers did not. George did not have the strength to do away with slavery in his own household while he was alive, but he did have a sense of its injustice, and refused to break up families when selling slaves. Thus, he could not (would not) sell any mixed dower families. In his will, he designated that all of his slaves be freed upon his wife’s death, but he had no power to dispose of any of the many dower slaves.

Thus, it is perhaps too glib to assert that Washington gained a fortune by marrying Martha Custis; the reality is more complicated. He did indeed get the use of her dower land and its fruits while she was alive. Martha furthermore was now totally dependent on George because of coverture. She had one major protection by law: the doctrine of necessities, whereby “a married woman had the right to be maintained in a manner commensurate with her husband’s social status.” (Marylynn Salmon, The Legal Status of Women, 1776-1830.) But this could be redefined as “bare necessities” if the husband squandered her assets. Divorce was also not readily available as an option; especially in the South, divorce laws were quite conservative, “probably related to slavery: it was difficult for lawmakers to grant women absolute divorces because of their husbands’ adulterous relationships with slaves.” (ibid)

As far as we know, Martha had none of those problems, although like other of the Founding Fathers, George did spend overmuch, and ran up considerable debt. But Martha had her property, come hell or high water.

Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art "The Washington Family" by Edward Savage, painted between 1789 and 1796, shows (from left to right): George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington, Nelly Custis, Martha Washington, and an enslaved servant (probably William Lee or Christopher Sheels).

Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art “The Washington Family” by Edward Savage, painted between 1789 and 1796, shows (from left to right): George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington, Nelly Custis, Martha Washington, and an enslaved servant (probably William Lee or Christopher Sheels).

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