Everybody thinks of George and Martha Washington living graciously at their Mount Vernon country home. But while he was President, they had to live in northern cities. Especially interesting is their time in Yankee New York.
The first presidential mansion was the three-story home above on Cherry Street in New York City, which had a population at the time of 33,000.
The next year, they moved to Broadway Street to a home where there were two drawing rooms for hosting weekly “levees.”
Martha Washington was ill at the time of the first inauguration in April of 1789, staying behind in Virginia. Apparently George dined alone that evening but attended the ball and enjoyed dancing the minuet. Soon his wife and grandchildren, Nellie and Washy, joined him. Congress bought new mahogany furniture for the house.
Business of state was conducted at the Fraunces Tavern, where George was assembling the first Cabinet: Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State; Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury; and Henry Knox, Secretary of War. Our first President signed the Bill of Rights here. Ironically, the Fraunces was the site where, a dozen years before during the war, an attempt was made on the general’s life. One account is that a young girl found out about some poisoned peas on his plate and threw them out the window.
But in 1789 both George and the new government were up and running. He held public receptions on Tuesday afternoons while Martha had hers at 8 p.m. on Fridays. at which they liked to serve lemonade and ice cream.
Although George enjoyed taking walks in Battery Park, he also rode in a carriage pulled by six horses. He often went to the theatre.
Many of Martha’s peers had compliments for her. She was affable, gentle and benevolent. Unlike some that followed, she didn’t act as an intermediary between factions or gather and disseminate information, said Cokie Roberts, herself a daughter of two politicians. “I could never keep quiet as she does,” Abigail Adams revealed in a letter to a friend.
In 1790 the family moved to Philadelphia, where they and their servants spent the remaining seven years of two terms in office.
“Our dwellings in New York and Philadelphia were not home, only a sojourn,” the relieved first lady said when she returned to Mount Vernon, and added that she was content to be “an old-fashioned Virginia housekeeper.”
Sadly, the retirement did not last long. George Washington passed away on December 14, 1799, just before the dawn of a new century. The previous one had been hallmarked on this side of the Atlantic by his great efforts.
I had fun researching this one! Facts come from Cokie Roberts’ book Ladies of Liberty (2008), John Kaminsky’s book Founders on the Founders (2008), smithsonianmag.com, nyhistory.org, ushistory.org, washingtonpost.com, mountvernon.org, frauncestavernmuseum.org, and phillymag.com.