Mary Ball Washington, the mother of George Washington, first President of the United States of America, has a terrible reputation. She is often depicted as troublesome, irksome and not nice to George. Their relationship is depicted as fraught and unpleasant. One reason for this portrayal is that George was strapped financially and his mother kept asking him for money. This is recorded in some of his letters and in his accounting notes left behind where he begrudges funds given to his elderly mother.
But the largest disagreement between them seems to have been that George Washington was a military man and his mother did not like war. Of this she was clear and steady. She did not support any of his wishes toward engaging in battle and endeavored to discourage him from undertaking the positions that would eventually lead him to be named General and commander-in-chief of the army fighting the Revolutionary War that eventually catapulted him into the role as first President of the newly formed United States of America.
Mary was willing to praise his accomplishments as a man but not as a soldier. Do we know the inner workings of her mind around this? No. Mary did not leave an autobiography or journal. There are no writings from her friends, confidants or even children about her personal life. What we do know from letters and other correspondence is that she held steady to not loving and often not supporting any of George’s decisions that included fighting in wars.
Perhaps, more than anything else, this indicates that she was a worried and terrified mother—quite a rational response to your child going to war. He might die. And she did not want him to. Did that mean she was mean and unsupportive? No. Did that mean she was a pain in his side? Well, why not? Because he was George Washington?
He was first and foremost her firstborn child. That is who he was to her. That she treated him as such, she is in perpetual condemnation? That she did not glorify him as a God and rather laughed when others did, we dismiss her? He was her human son with human foibles which she as his mother was more than privy to. She was proud of the man he had become. To the Marquis de Lafayette’s praise of him she replied “I am not surprised at what George has done, for he was always a good boy”(Shirley 232).
Perhaps for her that was the highest compliment. She was a mother, his mother. She spoke her mind and was not swayed by public opinion or the opinions of her son. She was independent in thought and action and stayed that way. Maybe she did not agree with his choices, or even his politics, does that make her a bad person? No, but I guess is does make her #Nasty.
She has been called “self-centered and acquisitive,” “cantankerous and demanding” by other biographers (Shirley 2). Why? Because she did not bow down and give her life over to him? It’s easy to look from a modern point of view and think disapprovingly of her, now that we are over 200 years in to this country many now credit with him founding, now that the pedestals have been set up for all of those early “founding fathers.” But Mary Ball Washington lived to see only the very early birth pangs and pretty profound struggles of the fledgling United States of America. When she knew George Washington he was not yet the George Washington many people all but worship today.
When friends commented on his wins in battles and people crowded to see him and treated him like celebrity, she replied: “George appeared to have deserved well of his country for such signal services. But, my good sirs, here is too much flattery! Still, George will not forget the lessons I have taught him—he will not forget himself, though he is the subject of so much praise”(Shirley 214).
George Washington did not form in a vacuum, nor did he spring from the head of his father as some like to say of the daughter of Zeus, Athena. The man who “would be widely revered for his integrity, grace, manners, charm, Christian faith, and humility”(Shirley 2) was most influenced by one person: his mother, Mary Ball.
“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 her with his principled and moral upbringing. Indeed, this was inevitable, for when George was eleven, his father died, leaving Mary Washington a single mother”(Shirley 2).
Mary’s grandparents emigrated from England to the colony of Virginia in the 1650s. The name Ball means bold and courageous and was originally descended from the surname Baldwin. Mary Ball was born in the colony of Virginia as was her son George(Shirley 33) in a place called Epping Forest, perhaps named after a forest in England, which was also the fierce female warrior Boudicca’s last stand (Shirley 39).
“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”(Shirley 3).Her parents both died when she was very young. She grew up in the home of her step-sister.
With despair and transparency we must openly acknowledge that Mary Ball was a slave owner from a very young age. At the age of three she was bequeathed three enslaved Africans (Tome, Joe and Jack) in the will of her father. She remained a slave owner all of her life. This was not rare.
In an article on history.com, Becky Little quotes Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, author of the book, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South: “Slaveholding parents “typically gave their daughters more enslaved people than land. What this means is that their very identities as white southern women are tied to the actual or the possible ownership of other people.” (https://www.history.com/news/white-women-slaveowners-they-were-her-property)
“Slavery was very much a part of the culture and background of colonial America, especially in the South, where staple crops like tobacco needed tending. At first, white indentured men and women from Europe, and later, Native Americans, toiled on the land, but indentured servants eventually worked off their status. As the indentured became “un-indentured” and developed their own small farms, the need grew for reliable, durable, and cheap (free) labor.
After 1619—when Great Britain entered into the slave trade—some ten million African slaves were shipped to North America and South America, all the way down to Brazil”(Shirley 18).
Mary is described physically as having “—the dignity of bearing and the erect carriage giving something of stateliness to her presence, while her brown hair was fine, and her eyes a clear blue…She possessed great physical strength and powers of endurance, and enjoyed through her life robust health”(Shirley 64).
At 23 she married Augustine Washington and moved to Popes Creek, a place on the Potomac river previously inhabited by the Powhatan Alliance for thousands of years. (read a NWW post on the first people of the Chesapeake Bay)
She quickly became pregnant with her first son, George. During this time, a visiting friend died from a lightning bolt which “fused the guest’s flesh and utensils together”(Shirley 74). This tragedy stayed with Mary the rest of her life as an intense fear of thunderstorms and perhaps other nervous tendencies.
A few years later the family moved north to little Huntington Creek, future home of Martha and George Washington and the Mount Vernon estate, and then on to Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg, VA where Mary lived until her elder years. It is here that her husband Augustine died after twelve years of marriage leaving her with 5 living children and a plantation to care for. Mary had previously lost a baby daughter, her sixth child, in infancy.
Mary Ball chose to never remarry, running the household and plantation on her own. “Had she remarried all of the land, including her children’s would have gone to her new husband”(Shirley 117).
The current manager of the Mary Washington House Museum in Fredericksburg, VA, a small house that George moved his mother to for her later years, states that, “Mary Washington was strong woman who managed a plantation and five children on her own in a world dominated by men . . .This accomplishment should be respected”(quoted in Shirley 117).
This was a rare thing to do. “The custom of remarrying was so common, for both men and women, that it can’t be emphasized enough how unusual it was that Mary never remarried”(Shirley 117).
Life in the colonies was not easy. She remained independent and self-sufficient until her elder years, running the plantation in a planned, organized and efficient way.
“George Washington Parke Custis, her adopted great grandson, wrote that she was ‘always pious, in her latter days her devotions were performed in private. She was in the habit of repairing every day to a secluded spot, formed by rocks and trees near to her dwelling, where, abstracted from the world and worldly things, she communed with her Creator in humiliation and prayer’”(Shirley 91).
George’s cousin Lawrence said:” Whoever has seen that awe-inspiring air and manner so characteristic in the Father of his Country, will remember the matron as she appeared when the presiding genius of her well-ordered household, commanding and being obeyed”(120).
This is the description of an independent, strong and powerful woman. It would behoove us to remember her that way.
Sounds like she broke the rules of how mothers should behave around their sons and for this receives such scorn. The rules that Mothers exist “for one purpose: to bear and nourish the son” and “finds in him, her reason for existence”(Rich 187).
Whoops. Guess Mary missed that memo.
Mary Ball Washington is a #Notablenastywoman.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
Little, Becky. “The Massive, Overlooked Role of Female Slave Owners.” https://www.history.com/news/white-women-slaveowners-they-were-her-property
Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1986.
Shirley, Craig. Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.