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George Washington’s Mother Finally Gets the Attention She Deserves

New biography of Mary Ball Washington, who raised and guided the father of our country, celebrates a woman few of us knew much about — until now

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A revealing new biography, “Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother,” by New York Times best-selling author and historian Craig Shirley, should make every American’s reading list. Tough and aristocratic, Mary Ball Washington raised her son to become one of our country’s greatest leaders. She also ran a large farm, raised six children (mostly as a widow), and passed down her extraordinary strength to her eldest child — the one most of us know best. Yet few of us know a lot about her, until now.

In this excerpt from his new book, Craig Shirley — who contributes to many national publications, including LifeZette, and appears widely on television for his political commentary — shares a portion of what he uncovered. The book is available now.

America’s first president, George Washington, did not just arrive without cause at his exalted status, beloved by his fellow countrymen for over 200 years, with children, cities — including Washington, D.C., in 1791 — monuments, mountains, schools, even states and holidays named
in his honor. And later, as the standard by which all future presidents would be measured, recorded as also the greatest president by most historians — a man who would be widely revered for his integrity, grace, manners, charm, Christian faith, and humility.

His devout mother played a key role in the development of his character.

While he was sometimes described as having little genuine affection for Mary, the reserved Washington still credited his mother with his principled and moral upbringing. Indeed, this was inevitable, for when George was 11, his father died, leaving Mary Washington a single mother.

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“The relationship with his own mother was laden with difficulty for both of them. Self-centered and acquisitive, Mary Ball Washington was preoccupied with her eldest son to the virtual exclusion of her other children. That preoccupation expressed itself in fears for George’s safety, pleas not to put himself at risk in military action, and demands for assistance, usually monetary, even though she continued to occupy and enjoy the profits of his property on the Rappahannock,” said Patricia Brady in “Martha Washington: An American Life.”

Another book described Washington’s mother as “cantankerous and demanding.”

As a youngster, George traveled far and wide visiting friends and relatives, and he was away when he learned that his father, Augustine, was dying. He returned immediately to Ferry Farm on April 12, 1743, the day his father died.

“His father was stretched out on a bed pending his burial. He may have been an absentee parent, but his sudden loss left an emptiness in George’s life, a vacuum that needed to be filled.”

George was just 11 years old.

Augustine’s will was shortly probated and he left his son George the plantation of Ferry Farm, an equal division of slaves and estate, and a lot in the newly formed and nearby town of Fredericksburg. Mary was to supervise the children until they came of age.

George’s 14 years-older half brother, Lawrence, went off to fight in the amusingly named War of Jenkins’ Ear in 1740, “leaving George consumed by his loneliness.” When Lawrence returned, to the admiration and hero worship of his younger half brother, he settled 50 miles north from the family, away at a plantation named Epsewasson, high above the Potomac River.

Lawrence later renamed it Mount Vernon, after the famed British admiral Edward Vernon, whom he deeply admired. Mary Washington, née Ball, Augustine’s second wife, lived at Ferry Farm and raised George, tutoring him, admonishing him, driving him to distraction often, loving him, and also fashioning the boy who would eventually become one of the greatest men in history.

One historian wrote of young George’s and his mother’s strength of wills as “incompatible,” but this, said Dorothy Twohig, “fostered young Washington’s independence and self-reliance.”

Later, control of Ferry Farm became a source of irritation between the son and his mother.

Mary was born around 1708 or so — the exact date is not known. Much of her life was a mystery, sometimes placing her in some historical studies as less of a person and more of a mythic figure.

Her family, the Balls, were prominent in the Millenbeck and Epping Forest parts of Virginia’s Northern Neck, jutting out into the Chesapeake Bay, adjoining the Potomac on one side and the Rappahannock River on the other. Though she was well provided for by her husband, it was tough going for Mary Ball Washington after Augustine’s passing. She was a widow in her late thirties, raising six children all by herself, supervising farms, supervising slaves, supervising her family.

She never remarried, though she would have been an attractive catch, at a still desirable age and very wealthy. But it was well known around Fredericksburg, Virginia, that she was a handful and at times frustrating. Her son, by contrast, was equally legendary for his reserve. However, his resolute reserve in adulthood had not always been so.

In his youth, George Washington had a fearsome temper. This was observed not just by his mother, but by people such as Thomas, Lord Fairfax, in a note to Mary: “I wish I could say that he governs his temper … He is subject to attacks of anger on provocation, sometimes without just cause.”

Mary Ball Washington- The Untold Story of George Washington's Mothe

Perhaps he learned something from his mother. George’s capacity for rebellion may have been prompted by Mary’s overprotective care.

His later language describing the Revolution evokes a mother and son. The Mother Country, George wrote, “thought it was only to hold up the rod, and all would be hush!” and Great Britain “did not comprehend America — She meant … to drive America into rebellion, that her own purposes might be more fully answered.”

Through the following decades, from adolescence to adulthood, Mary was a near-constant irritant to the maturing George. Financial demands were but one of the many issues plaguing the relationship between mother and son, though her supposed loyalty to the English Crown during the most important chapter of American history may have also angered him. She was probably a royalist, at least initially.

“Mary Ball Washington … never expressed support for the Colonies’ cause,” declared one historian, Bonnie Angelo.

In this fashion, she was like another revolutionary’s mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson (who was also skeptical of independence for the colonies), though her son Thomas cowrote the most important revolutionary document in history.

But in a hotbed of revolutionary fervor such as Fredericksburg, where munitions were made for the colonies by Mary’s son-in-law Fielding Lewis, this would have been cause for concern — risking ostracization and being outcast — except that her son was leading the Revolution, and this protected Mary from any acts the local citizens might have contemplated taking against her. At least none were reported or recorded at the time, and she continued to be seen around town — shopping, going to church — untouched.

‘Honored Madam.’ That was how George Washington, the man, always greeted his mother in his letters. It was a phrase that revealed her austerity and his awe of the woman who had been called “commanding” and “strict” throughout her life, as well as “truly kind.”

Through all of the contradictory information, however, an image emerges of a woman whose fierceness and individuality are obvious antecedents to the same qualities in her bold son.

While, in George, these qualities evinced themselves through nobility and sacrificial leadership, Mary’s authority was used quite differently. Her small-time tyranny hung over the son who would go on to found the freest nation on Earth. He was the man who, when he could have seized kingship for himself, walked away.

His stubbornness and singularity that such independence required must have come from the single mother who ran a plantation on her own.

George Washington was part of, and witness to, the formation of the United States of America. He was the grand commander and grand president of the newly formed nation and the savior of Americans’ very freedoms. As Americanism took hold, Manifest Destiny and westward expansion, immigration and the desire for American freedom grew; so, too, did his status.

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“The first name of America, not only is, but always will be, that of Washington,” wrote John Frederick Schroeder in 1850, in his preface to his compilation of Washington’s sayings. “We pronounce it with filial reverence, as well as gratitude.”

And yet Mary, his mother, floated at the time above the truth, almost mystical, hagiographical. Fanciful books from Benson Lossing or Sara Pryor in the mid- to late 1800s certainly contributed to the early legends of her status as the mother of Washington — almost a goddess in her own right.

But these works, popular and definitive for over a century, were oft ignored once twentieth century histories, including Douglas Southall Freeman’s and James Thomas Flexner’s multivolume and momentous biographies, rewrote the depiction of Mary from matron to shrew.

Where were the monuments? Where were the cities in her name? Unverified and unlikely lore said that her son, the president, wished for a monument to be erected soon after her death, and some even reported that Congress passed a resolution. None exist.

George Washington Parke Custis, that great-grandson who knew and remembered her fondly from his childhood, was the first to lead the hagiographical charge. His remembrance of his greatgrandmother, partly published in 1821 in the National Gazette, brought Mary and her grave to national attention again. “Had she been of the olden time,” he had written, “statues would have been erected to her memory in the capitol [sic], and she would have been called the Mother of Romans.”

He lamented the lack of recognition that she deserved. “When another century shall have elapsed, and our descendants shall have learned the true value of liberty, how will the fame of the paternal chief be cherished in story and in song, nor will be forgotten her … Then, and not till then, will youth and age, maid and matron, aye, and bearded men, will pilgrim step, repair to the now neglected grave.”

Years passed, and the grave continued to go unmarked. To this day, no one knows exactly where Mary was buried, and no remains have ever been found. The supposed neglect of the area was exaggerated sometimes, as by an anonymous writer in the Richmond Visitor and Telegraph, who wrote, “Her grave is in a deserted, dreary, solitary field — the mound of earth that was originally raised over her sacred remains is now washed away.”

Fredericksburg’s own newspaper, Political Arena, chided this writer: “He surely never saw the spot … or his description would have been different.” Instead of a solitary field, it was on a “beautiful knoll” within the town, “in a highly cultivated and fertile field.” The paper continued, definitively saying the grave “stands in no danger of being profaned.”

By 1830, the people of Fredericksburg wanted something to commemorate her. Over a century later, James Thomas Flexner wrote a damningly negative view of the delay: “She had, by her complaints that had made her seem a Tory, so disassociated herself from her son’s charisma that it was not until she had been long dead, and her living presence had been completely eroded away by the Washington legend, that any marker was placed on her grave.”

There may be a grain of truth in this. People have long memories. But though 40 years had passed since her death by then, and 30 had passed since her eldest son’s death, there were still people who probably grew up knowing her or were raised by those who knew her — and they wanted some commemoration.

Hardly a lack of “her living presence” was felt in the town. The desire was there. The hope was there. They simply needed the money for to erect something befitting the Mother of Washington.

It came when Silas Burrows of New York, a man of considerable wealth, wrote to the Fredericksburg mayor, wishing “to erect a monument over the remains and to rescue from oblivion the sacred spot where reposes the great American mother, Mary, the mother of Washington.”

Within two years, a cornerstone had been placed, laid by President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson in a special ceremony on May 7, 1833. Secretary of War Lewis Cass, Attorney General Roger Taney, and private secretary Andrew Jackson Donelson also attended.

The ceremony was followed by a barbecue and procession of monument committee members, clergy, architects, mayor and councilmen, teachers and students, musicians, and others.

The president spoke with vigor and strength, a long eulogy for both Mary and her son. “In the grave before us, lie the remains of his Mother. Long has it been unmarked by any monumental tablet, but not unhonored. You have undertaken the pious duty of erecting a column to her name, and of inscribing upon it, the simple but affecting words, ‘Mary, the Mother of Washington.’”

“No eulogy could be higher, and it appeals to the heart of every American,” he added.

Excerpted with permission from “Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother,” copyright 2019 by Craig Shirley, published by Harper, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, 195 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10007. The book can be purchased at amazon.com here.

The opinions expressed by contributors and/or content partners are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of LifeZette.

Craig Shirley
meet the author

Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and Reagan biographer. He's written four books on Ronald Reagan, is working on several more, and is the author of the New York Times best-seller, "December 1941." His newest book is "Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother," just published in December 2019. He is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College in Illinois and has taught courses on Reagan at the University of Virginia.

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