“She has been the object of both meaningless praise and more often antagonism from writers who dreamed of a different mother for their hero George,” historian Martha Saxton wrote in “The Widow Washington,” a new biography of our first president’s deeply misunderstood mother.
Mary Ball Washington was neither a villain nor a saint—but rather an exceptionally strong and resilient woman—a single mother who raised five children and instilled in them the qualities of fortitude and purpose.
After she was widowed, she didn’t have the money to send George to school in England, as was common for well-to-do Virginia families at the time. Instead she enlisted him and his siblings to help run the farm. She emphasized obedience in her children. “She treated George seriously as a man and seriously as a religious being,” Saxton writes.
Mary Ball was born around 1708 or 1709, in Lancaster County, Virginia. Her father died when she was 3, and her mother remarried and had more children. After her step-father died just a few years later, Mary grew up in a matriarchal household. She watched how her mother openly exercised authority and independence—something she would later emulate with her own family.
When Mary was 12, her mother died, and she moved in with her mother’s half-sister. Her religious education deepened at this time. She read devotional books, and was moved by many of their teachings.
Mary was 22 when she married Augustine Washington, a 36-year-old widower. They moved to a spacious plantation and had George in 1732.
Augustine died in 1743, when George was 11 years old, leaving Mary to raise their five children and run Ferry Farm.
Despite her modest means, she did the best she could to provide her children with an improvised education. Although she could barely afford it, she loaned George money for dancing lessons, which she knew were essential for entrance into elite Virginia society.
Mary loved tea, and she trained all her children in the genteel art of tea serving and drinking, something George would carry with him for the rest of life. In letters he sent his mother throughout his adolescence, George often addressed her as “Honoured Madam,” it speaks to the respect and courtesy she instilled in him.
George moved out in the late 1740s, first to become a land surveyor and then to join the Virginia militia.
Mary did not see much of George as he accelerated through the ranks of the Continental Army and led the country through the American Revolution. During the war, they went five years without seeing each other.
In 1782, she wrote a letter to George describing how difficult the experience was for her. “I was truly uneasy,” she wrote. George visited her on the way to his presidential inauguration in 1789, the last time he would see her. By then she was living in a house in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where she gardened and read. She died of breast cancer in August of that year, at age 81.
George, of course, would go on to lead the country as our first president, and live forever in the American imagination. The real Mary—and all her strength and sacrifice—would soon be forgotten in his midst.
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