Why do we remember Martha Washington as Lady Washington? Isn’t this the kind of aristocratic pretension that Mister Jefferson taught us to reject? No. Very simply, the wives of the American generals were known as the Lady Washington, the Lady Knox, the Lady Greene, etc., simply as a way of identifying the spouses of our top Continental Army officers. More than the sobriquet Lady Washington, Martha seems to have cherished the name the enlisted men gave her—“the soldiers’ best friend.” She spent six of the eight years that her husband was away from Mount Vernon with him in camp.
This alone entitles Lady Washington to our gratitude and respect. Travel by coach was extremely dangerous in the 1770s. Coaches overturned; ferries sank. And when she would finally arrive at the Army’s winter quarters, she would be subject to camp diseases.
At the beginning of the Revolution, we were losing more young men to smallpox than to British bullets or Hessian bayonets. His Excellency the General was immune because he had suffered smallpox after traveling to Barbados with his tubercular brother, Lawrence. But Martha had to undergo inoculation against the dreaded killer. In Congress, John Adams went so far as to require all new recruits to the Continental Army to undergo inoculation against the disease.
Listening to Lady Washington, it becomes clearer that the Glorious Cause of American Independence required more than the immortal words and the powerful ideas of the Declaration and more, even, than the great military victories over the British. Independency, as Lady Washington called it, was also a psychological and social question. A monarchical people—as we Americans then thought of ourselves—needed more than brilliant speeches and persuasive pamphlets to make the break. Monarchy was a matter of sentiment.
To understand this, I have been greatly aided by my wife of thrity-five years. She has held regular social events in our home in Annapolis. One of the most eagerly attended of these was a “Royal Wedding Reception” held on the day of Kate and William’s nuptials in London. And another was a “Royal Baby Shower,” held to celebrate the arrival of little George, a direct heir to the ancient Throne of the United Kingdom. Her guests for these events were dozens of local ladies, all decked out in hats and gloves. They flocked to our home to be served on English china. All the souvenirs and royal paraphernalia that we have inherited from my wife’s Canadian and Welsh ancestors were in use. These events supported local charities.
The great popularity of “the Royals” is seen everywhere. Go to any supermarket checkout. Go to the du Pont Mansion, “Winterthur,” and see the busloads of eager visitors touring the Downton Abbey exhibit. Americans—especially American women—love this stuff.
This is not so surprising. The great nineteenth century political scientist, Walter Bagehot, explained in his classic work, The English Constitution, how monarchy embodied the “dignified” aspect of government while Parliament, powerful as it is, represented merely the “efficient” machinery of democracy.
Bagehot argues with some force that most of us cannot really follow the details of government budgets and foreign military engagements, but everyone can identify with the central principle of monarchy—which is the family. To be sure, we will probably never hear a better defense of the ideal of marriage than that delivered by the Bishop of London at the Royal Wedding.
Breaking with royalty was not easy. It was the courage and perseverance of General George Washington that carried the Revolution to success. He was truly the “indispensable man.” But it is just as true that Martha Washington was the indispensable woman.
Their marriage embodied the new republican ideal. And, as Dr. Benjamin Rush, said of Washington’s massive presence: “There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side.” And what queen could be found sitting by the bedside of a sick soldier boy, nursing him and comforting him in his misery?
The Washingtons—both of them—were everything to us in the Founding Era that King George III and Queen Charlotte were not. Seeing them and their devotion to one another, seeing that intimate and enduring partnership, Americans knew that we could indeed be the “New Order of the Ages.” Surely Abigail Adams was right when she said, “George Washington is the head of our government, but Martha Washington is its heart.”
Today, all too casually, Americans are being told to cast aside marriage. The goal of the most thorough progressives is not the expansion of marriage, but its abolition. If we allow marriage to be dissolved, we may find to our great sorrow, that just as the Washingtons’ marriage made America, unmaking marriage will unmake America.
Robert Morrison is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council.