The current candidates (acknowledged, available for draft, coyly denying) for the daunting and dangerous job of first lady should consider that even Martha Washington has not eluded criticism.
The latest canard directed at that paragon of virtues came from Smithsonian magazine, which called her "frumpish."
This slight has added vigor to the defense of the Founding Mother to be given by Mount Vernon librarian Ellen McCallister Clark this morning at a Decorative Arts Trust seminar on the first president's plantation.
In reply to the magazine, Clark said last week: "If she is thought of as dull, it is a reflection of a modern perspective that misunderstands the times in which she was living. Martha Dandridge Custis Washington is accurately remembered for her plainness of dress -- especially in her public years -- and her modest and unassuming manner. She had a great sense of duty ... in keeping with the republican ideals."
Other trials that beset Mrs. Washington, her successors and would-be successors: obstreperous relatives (a granddaughter was said to have skipped out on her husband and run off with a Marine), family illness and denigration of her husband.
Martha Washington's successors haven't escaped criticism either: Nancy Reagan for her Fancy Nancy image; Rosalynn Carter for her populist principles, and Bess Truman for burning her husband's letters ("Mrs. Truman, think of history!" someone said. "I have," she replied), as did Mrs. Washington.
But fortunately, Martha Washington has an advantage that Nancy Reagan and every other first lady have lacked -- the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union. The first (founded in 1853) and still most effective preservation organization has as its mission to preserve not only the Mount Vernon estate but also the reputations of its most illustrious owners.
Current candidates for first lady should take heed of these cautionary notes I respectfully draw from Clark's examples of Mrs. Washington's "amiable nature":
Remember that servants may write books or be quoted by others. Agnes Lee, the daughter of Robert E. Lee and great-great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, wrote in her diary that an old Washington servant on her death bed said, "The General ... was 'only a man,' but Mrs. Washington has been perfect."
Make friends of in-laws (especially rich ones). Clark says that Daniel Parke Custis wanted to marry Martha Dandridge, but his father, Col. John Custis, thought her beneath his son, "who belonged to both sides of two of the wealthiest and most notorious families in the Virginia colony." Old Col. Custis even threatened to cut Daniel off and leave his entire estate to a young slave named Jack. Martha herself charmed the old man, with a "prudent speech," into consenting to the marriage. When Col. Custis died, he not only provided "bountifully for both the Negro boy Jack and the wife of one of his neighbors," but also Daniel and Martha. At Daniel's death, Martha Custis, and her son and daughter were among the richest families in Virginia. People said that to George, her wealth only added to her attractions.
Give judiciously. Mrs. Washington gave the products of smoke-filled rooms -- her famous Virginia hams.
Suffer the little children. The tutor of her son John Parke Custis said, "I never did in my life know a youth so exceedingly indolent or so surprisingly voluptuous. One would suppose nature had intended him for some Asiatic prince." But John Parke eventually married and settled down and gave his mother grandchildren, a solace in her old age.
Above all, keep a close eye on your husband. Martha Washington, at great peril of camp fever and bullets, shared the winter quarters of her husband throughout the Revolutionary War. Though, as she wrote a friend, "I confess I shudder every time I hear the sound of a gun ... but I endeavor to keep my fears to my self as well as I can."
Prepare for a life best described by Mrs. Washington after George's inauguration in New York, then the national capital: "I live a very dull life here and know nothing that passes in town. I never go to any public places, indeed I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from and as I can not do as I like, I am obstinate and stay in a great deal."
Even in her day, she had defenders. Abigail Adams, her successor, wrote: "She is plain in her dress, but that plainness is the best of every article ... Her manners are modest and unassuming, dignified and feminine, not a Tincture of ha'ture."
Washington's defense was more impassioned: "I should enjoy more happiness and felicity in one month with you at home, than I have the most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay were to be seven times seven years."