Retirement at Mount Vernon
Martha Washington returned to her beloved home at Mount Vernon on March 15, 1797. Not long after her return, she confessed to her friend, Lucy Flucker Knox, “I cannot tell you, My dear friend, how much I enjoy home after having been deprived of one so long, for our dwelling in New York and Philadelphia was not home, only a sojourning. The General and I feel like children just released from school or from a hard taskmaster, and we believe that nothing can tempt us to leave the sacred roof-tree again, except on private business or pleasure.”*
Martha was now sixty-five years old. She was often sick, subject to a variety of ailments and suffering from the infirmities of age. Nonetheless, she plunged into the task of restoring Mount Vernon to its former glory. The plantation’s daily upkeep had suffered during the Washingtons’ absence and there was much to do. In addition, an almost constant stream of guests visited her home, requiring food, entertainment, and lodging. Martha requested, and received, additional servants to help her around the house.
In her leisure time, Martha indulged in her favorite pastimes. She especially enjoyed doing needlework and reading. A devout Anglican, she also perused a variety of devotional works and was said to read from the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer almost every day.
Perhaps the role Martha loved best was as doting grandmother. Her son’s two youngest children, George Washington Parke (“Wash” or “Tub”) and Eleanor Parke (Nelly) Custis, had lived with the Washingtons during the presidency and she had raised the children as their own.
By the time they returned to Mount Vernon, Wash had gone off to college, first at the College of New Jersey at Princeton and then to St. John’s College in Annapolis. Like his father, however, Wash had no taste for academic life. Over his grandfather’s strenuous objections, he quit school in 1798 at age seventeen.
By the end of the year, Custis had obtained a military appointment as a Cornet in the Troop of Light Dragoons. He would later build a home, which he called Arlington, on land he inherited from the Custis estate. After the Civil War, his estate would become the site of Arlington National Cemetery.
Martha’s granddaughters continued to be a source of constant joy. Although the oldest two girls, Elizabeth Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis did not reside with the Washingtons, Martha was very fond of them both.
By the time the Washingtons returned to Mount Vernon after the presidency, Martha Parke Custis had married and given birth to two daughters. Elizabeth Parke Custis also soon married and gave birth to another great-granddaughter. Both women lived in District of Columbia and visited their grandmother whenever they could.
Martha was most attached of all to Nelly Parke Custis, whom she had reared in her own home and treated as a daughter. Nelly was equally attached to Martha; in fact, she was far more dedicated to her grandmother than to her biological mother, Eleanor Calvert Custis Stuart.
On February 22, 1799, nineteen-year old Nelly further cemented the connection by marrying George Washington’s nephew, Lawrence Lewis, in a wedding at Mount Vernon. With Martha’s blessing, the couple continued to live with them while their house, called Woodlawn, was being built nearby.
The Provisional Army
At only one point in the years after their return did Martha find her plans to keep her husband at home, away from the demands of public life, seriously challenged. Tensions with France, which had begun to the surface under Washington’s administration, threatened to erupt into all-out war. On May 3, 1798, President John Adams appointed Washington to be Commander-in-Chief of the Provisional Army, the force that would defend the nation in case of a French invasion.
Although Washington accepted the appointment, he was able to arrange many of the military preparations from Mount Vernon. He also delegated a great deal of responsibility to his second-in-command, Alexander Hamilton. His postion required only one six-week trip away from home.
Most importantly, war never came. Changes in the French government made it possible for Adams to negotiate a diplomatic solution and find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Martha breathed a sigh of relief. She believed that now she would be able to enjoy many more peaceful years under the “sacred roof-tree” at Mount Vernon with her beloved husband.
*Martha Washington to Lucy Flucker Knox, n.d. in“Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington, ed. Joseph E. Fields (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1994), 303.