Like many outstanding men, George Washington had a remarkable woman behind him: his mother, Mary Ball Washington. Because his father died when he was 11, she was the parent who most shaped his character.
Born in 1708, in Lancaster County, Va., Mary Ball Washington was orphaned by the age of 13. In 1731, Mary married Augustine Washington, a planter and widower with three children
After bearing her first child, George, in 1732, Mary Washington had five more children. Tragedy struck when her step-daughter Jane died at the age of 12 and her youngest child, Mildred, aged 16 months, died five years later. Three years later, in 1743, her husband died after a brief illness, leaving her a widow with five young children. Defying expectation, she did not remarry and successfully managed her children’s inheritances on her own — a remarkable feat for the times.
Her family remembered Mary Washington as a formidable yet loving figure. In a public address Washington referred to “… my revered mother, by whose maternal hand, early deprived of a father I was led to manhood …” Throughout the 19th-century, she was presented in literature and popular culture as a shining example of American motherhood. Prints, engravings, even porcelain figures were produced featuring Washington receiving his mother’s blessing.
In the last century Mary Washington's reputation took a negative turn after the publication of Douglas Southall Freeman's multi-volume biography of George Washington. Historians accepted his arguments unquestioningly because of his status as a respected biographer. They also characterized her as a critical and demanding parent, unsupportive of her son’s achievements.
Washington too was criticized for neglecting his obligations. As the eldest son of a widow, he was responsible for caring for her economically and ensuring that she had a roof over her head. He did his best to fulfill these obligations, but during the American Revolution it was difficult, and at times Mary had to ask her son for money. When she did not receive her expected allowance from her son, Mary Washington wrote to the General Assembly of Virginia to request a pension. This public request for funds was embarrassing for George Washington.
Today’s historians have taken his side on this issue and vilified Mary as a greedy, grasping woman who was either oblivious or didn't care that her son was in the middle of fighting a war. They have failed to acknowledge the seriousness of her plight. The harvest had failed in 1778, so she did not have enough food for her slaves and herself. Her other children were also struggling financially during the war.
Like all families, the Washingtons had personal squabbles. Mother and son had very similar temperaments which sometimes put them at loggerheads. However, in practically every surviving Washington family letter, Mary and her children referred to the "pleasure" of seeing the other again.
The Mary Washington House will be celebrating George Washington’s birthday on Sunday, Feb. 18 from 12 to 4 p.m. Guests can decorate a cupcake. Especially for children, there will be story time and 18th-century games. The event is free with a paid admission.
Michelle L. Hamilton
Michelle L. Hamilton is the manager of the Mary Washington House Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia and the author of “Mary Ball Washington: The Mother of George Washington” (MLH Publications, 2017).