Channelling Martha Washington


Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“Is this Thomas Fleming? I hate to wake you up but it’s VERY important that we talk.”

It was a woman’s voice, with the gentlest, most piquant Southern accent I’d ever heard.

“I’m wide awake.”

“This is Martha Washington. I’m intrudin’ on the General’s channel, somethin’ I don’t often do—but this contretemps between him and Tom Jefferson has thrown things into turmoil here in Elysium. You’ve got to remind him that he’s the father of his country, and that includes all the people, even those he doesn’t particularly admire, like Tom and his friends.”

“I’ll do my best, Mrs. Washington. But I’m just a spectator at this fight.”

“I know, I know. I just feel so sorry for Martha Jefferson. The things she had to endure as Tom’s wife. Fleein’ British cavalry day and night. Losin’ all those babies in childbirth. I sometimes think the poor thing died of dismay, I really do. But she’s managed to forgive Tom. Which is more than she could do in the land of the livin’.”

“You think she was angry with him when she died?”

“Think? Mr. Flemin’, I know she was. She’s told me! That’s why she demanded he promise never to marry again. I’m afraid for a while she took awful satisfaction in those stories of him and that mulatto girl, Sally Hemins’. But when he died still a pathetic celibate bachelor, murmurin’ her name with his last breath, she was struck with guilt and rushed to embrace him. They’ve been quite happy up here ever since. The only trouble they have is when Tom gets frettin’ about bein’ misrepresented by those awful historians! And now by the voice of authority himself, George Washington!”

“I think the General’s just upset about the way things are going in Washington D.C. at the moment.”

“You’re almost certainly right. He goes thru these episodes whenever someone he doesn’t trust gets to be president. When Jemmy Madison let them burn the White House around his ears, George was impossible to live with for months!

“He thinks that was Mr. Madison’s fault?”

“George is a great admirer of Harry Truman’s presidential motto, the buck stops here. He blamed Jemmy. I think he almost regretted that if it wasn’t for Dolley, the poor man would have been impeached and maybe hanged!”

“Are you fond of Dolley?”

“Who wasn’t—or should I say isn’t—fond of Dolley? Even George all but deliquesced when she turned her charm in his direction—and still does, in spite of Jemmy’s awful record as president. The woman is a marvel and always has been. Would you like to hear a secret opinion of mine?”

“Of course,” I said.

“I think Dolley would have made a wonderful president.”

“Would you like to see a woman president someday?”

“The sooner the better. I don’t believe there’s a single wife up here in Elysium who doesn’t think so. When I think of all the things we put up with durin’ our sojourns as what you call First Ladies, it’s the least the Divinity could do!”

“Do you think Hillary Clinton has the right stuff?”

“Absolutely. But only if she could get rid of that awful husband! I agree with George about him. Bill damaged the presidency even more than Lyndon Johnson with his cowardly resignation in 1968. We all thought that was the epitome of presidential disgrace at the time. But thirty years later Bill Clinton outdid him and just about anyone else who’s likely to come along! Lyin’ to the American people on national television with that infamous ‘Ah did not have sex with that woman!’”

“Who’s your favorite among presidential wives?”

“I can’t play favorites. I have to welcome just about everyone. But between us, I think Ladybird Johnson deserves some sort of encomium. Simply puttin’ up with Lyndon for forty years was a feat in itself. But she did it with such dignity. She even helped the scoundrel get elected in 1964 with her wonderful speakin’ tour through the South! She’s told me she was appalled when he resigned.”

“A lot of people say that was a very statesman-like thing to do. He and the Vietnam War were so unpopular. He seemed to be dividing the country.”

“You should talk to Harry Truman one of these nights. He goes on so about Lyndon’s resignation! Harry says if Lyndon had stood for reelection the way Abe Lincoln did in 1864, he would have won and all those protestors chantin’ insults outside the White House would have looked silly. Instead he let them run a president out of office! Harry says it was a sad day for the country. I’m inclined to agree with him.”

“Are you friendly with Mrs. Truman?”

“I should say so! Women just love Bess. She’s always got a story that makes you laugh out loud!”

“She looked so solemn as First Lady.”

“That was an act to shut up the reporters.”

“Do you like Eleanor Roosevelt?”

“She spends too much of her time frettin’ about the travails of the common man. And she still tends to brood about Franklin’s infidelity. She’s never quite gotten over him croakin’ in Warm Springs with his old girl friend Lucy Mercer in the house. Then there’s Sarah, his mother! Any wife who had to put up with her has a right to claim a halo on arrival here!”

“What do you think of Mary Lincoln?”

“Oh she’s the same excitable creature she was in the White House. Always bleatin’ about the way Abe isn’t appreciated by so many people. What she really means is how she isn’t appreciated. I’ve told her Abe’s been beatin’ George in the greatest president polls for years. But it doesn’t make any impression. She likes feelin’ persecuted. Of course, she isn’t helped by the way Abe keeps laceratin’ himself for the Civil War. The poor man is just drenched in guilt most of the time. Visitin’ them can be an ordeal, let me tell you.”

“How do the first and second Mrs. Wilsons get along?”

“Badly, just as you might expect. Edith more or less pretends Ellen never existed. Edith’s still enraptured with herself for the way she ran the country for a full year while Woodrow lay there, wonderin’ what day it was, after his stroke. I’d barely met her when she told me that no other first lady could claim the title presidentress. Can you imagine?”

“Grace Coolidge is one of my favorite first ladies.’

“A delightful woman. I love the story she tells about the first time she saw her future husband. She was a teacher in a school for the deaf in Massachusetts. She was waterin’ the flowers outside the school one day and happened to glance up at the window of a boardin’ house next door. There was Cal, shavin’ in front of a mirror with nothin’ on but long underwear and a hat! Grace burst out laughin’ and Cal looked out and saw her. He started pursuin’ her from that moment and wore her down with sheer persistence.”

“Did you enjoy being First Lady?”

“They didn’t call me that. Dolley was the first one to get that title—and she earned it, I might add. They called me Lady Washington. Can you think of anything sillier? To answer your question—I felt like a state prisoner a lot of the time.”

“Where did they get that Lady Washington title?”

“A lot of it was Johnny Adams doin’. He thought the president should be called “His Highness, the President of the United States, and Protector of the Rights of the Same.” In letters and formal addresses, he thought George should be called “His Majesty.” He said the vice president deserved the same titles. George told me one day he thought Ben Franklin had it right when he said that Johnny was always an honest man and sometimes a gifted one but on some things he was totally out of his senses.”

“Do you like Abigail?”

“She’s a sweet woman, down deep. So many afflictions! Sometimes we compare notes on the children we lost. In some ways her losses were worse. Hers died in middle age. Both her younger sons were tormented by a sense of failure. Her daughter’s marriage was a disaster that left her secretly longin’ for death, I suspect.”

“You were very nice to Abigail in spite of John’s wacky titles.”

“I was just bein’ hospitable, as any Southern woman would be. Abigail was so grateful for the way I insisted she sit beside me at my receptions. She and John were constantly tormented by his envy of George and Tom Jefferson. Of just about anybody, I sometimes think, who was taller and better lookin’ than he was. The Adamses were always comparin’ themselves. We weren’t together ten minutes when Abigail told me my figure was much better than hers! If I’d been mean I might’ve said isn’t everybody’s? But I couldn’t say such a thing.”

“Do you think she was in love with Thomas Jefferson?”

“There was some sort of spark between them. Ben Franklin told me the French have a phrase for it, amitie amouresse. Friendship love. It doesn’t get to the sensual but it might in a daydream or two! Which means there’s room for some heartbreak later on. Abigail still broods about the way Tom’s scribblers attacked poor little Johnny and drove him out of the presidency. One day she got talkin’ to me about it and all but wailed:‘I thought we were friends!’”

“I suspect those scribblers are the real source of the animosity between Tom and General Washington.”

“I’ve told him that more than once. But he storms and declares I’m wrong. He says Tom was a threat to the office of the president and still is. And women are supposed to be the jealous tribe! But we can’t get along without each other, can we?”

“I hope not.”

“Let’s promise here and now to try to be peacemakers when we get the chance.”

“Amen to that, Mrs. Washington. I enjoyed our visit.”

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stephen frederick knott - 5/24/2010

This is embarrassing . . . below the level of quality one expects from HNN.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/23/2010

Well, apparently it's true: Mr. Fleming's goal in this series is to tarnish the reputation of Pres. Washington, possibly beyond repair.