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 was 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. He was her firstborn child. 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? 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.
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. 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).
Who was Mary (Ball) Washington?
Mary Ball’s grandparents emigrated from England to the colony of Virginia in the 1650s. Mary Ball was born in the colony of Virginia as was her son George.
“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.
Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, author of the book, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South writes:
“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).
George and Martha Washington were also slave owners. Read Nasty Women Writers’ post: Ona Judge – American (1773-1848): Enslaved by and on the run from Martha and George Washington
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) Washington was independent and self-sufficient
Mary (Ball) Washington 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.
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
Shirley, Craig. Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.