August 25 of this past year was the 230th anniversary of the death of Mary Ball Washington, the mother of the first president of the United States. Her life was extraordinary, as she lived into her 80s, seeing her son George lead the Continental Army to victory against Great Britain in the Revolutionary War and then become the nation’s first President in 1789.
Yet her afterlife at the hands of historians has taken some curious turns. In the 19th century, as the first biographies of Washington were being written, Mary was venerated as the saintly mother who gently nurtured the boy who would become the first American president. But by the mid-20th century – aided by some contentious letters of mother and son – Mary suddenly became a selfish shrew who wanted to keep George on the Fredericksburg, Virginia farm on which he spent his boyhood. 20th century historians, such as James Thomas Flexner and Douglas Southall Freeman, made it appear that George Washington became a leader despite, not because of, his mother’s influence.
But 2019 saw the publication of two excellent books – from authors of differing ideological perspectives – argue that Mary was neither a saint nor a demon. The authors also contend that despite some disagreements between George and Mary – about George’s career plans in his youth and Mary’s living arrangements in her senior years – Mary was an undoubtedly positive influence on George.
The books are The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) by Martha Saxton, a self-described feminist and former women’s studies professor at Amherst University; and Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother (Harper) by Craig Shirley, a conservative former Reagan administration official who now heads D.C.-area firm Shirley Banister McVicker Public Affairs.
They both note that historians have not given Mary her due for raising George and his siblings as a single parent since the age of eleven, when his father, Augustine, suddenly passed away. Saxton writes of Mary Washington: “She poured her exceptional vitality, deep religious convictions and unflagging persistence into her first son, George. We still admire him for the honorable ways he used these qualities to create a country and a government. Why has she not received historians’ respect for her years of lonely and challenging work?”
Similarly, Shirley writes: “His devout mother played a key role in the development of his character. … [T]he 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 and Saxton both also demolish another modern myth about Mary – that she was barely literate. The otherwise excellent historian Ron Chernow got it flat wrong in his biography Washington: A Life, when he called Mary an “unlettered countrywoman” who was barely literate. But Shirley and Saxton refute this by showing how Mary read long, thick books on the religious philosophy of contemplation. And she passed on her love of these books’ authors, such as Matthew Hale, to George. Shirley quotes Washington Irving, famous 19th century author of fiction such as “Rip Van Winkle” and also a Washington biographer, as writing that “Mary’s teaching of Hale imposed a sense of ‘outward action as well as self-government, [which] sank deep into the mind of George.”
This necessary reevaluation of Mary Washington will continue in at least one book in 2020. My book George Washington Entrepreneur: How Our Founding Father’s Private Business Pursuits Changed America and the World, forthcoming in June, will show how Mary helped imbue her son with entrepreneurial qualities that made him a capitalist and innovator and later found a country that welcomed these qualities. I hope to make the “best of” list of many individual readers.