The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington
By Martha Saxton
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
360 pages, $28.00
Much ink has been spilled on the life and times of George Washington, but little attention has been devoted to his mother Mary Ball Washington. When Mary Washington appears in studies of her famous son, she is labeled as a “shrew,” “illiterate,” a “helicopter parent,” and “Medea in a mob cap.” It was with trepidation that I picked up Dr. Martha Saxton’s new biography, The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington. Would the same hackneyed stereotypes be repeated for three hundred pages? I quickly realized that my fears were unfounded. Dr. Saxton presents an insightful and engaging biography that firmly places Mary Washington’s life within the context of Colonial Virginia. Under Dr. Saxton’s skillful handling, Mary Washington has finally received the scholarly attention that she deserves as the driving force behind George Washington’s life. An argument can be made that without Mary Washington’s role in her oldest son’s life, the American Revolution could have turned out much differently.
Born in 1708, Mary Ball was born in a colonial Virginia very different from the genteel version of colonial life often presented at such sites as Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon among others. Mary’s mother, also named Mary, was born in England and immigrated to Virginia as an indentured servant. Through skillful marriages, Mary Ball was able to enter Virginia’s emerging gentry class—an achievement that would become impossible by the time of the American Revolution. Mary Washington’s childhood was difficult, marred by the early deaths of close family members. Orphaned by the age of twelve, Mary Washington was cared for by her half-sister Elizabeth Bonum and the two developed a close bond. In 1731, Mary married Augustine Washington, a wealthy planter who had lost his first wife the year before. The marriage firmly placed Mary Washington within the comfort of the status of the gentry, but the marriage also brought three stepchildren to help rear. The family grew in 1732 when Mary Washington gave birth to her first child, George. Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred would follow. Tragedy struck in 1743, when Augustine Washington died after a brief illness, leaving Mary Washington a widow to raise five children at the age of thirty-five.
Following Augustine’s death, Mary Washington lost the financial comfort that her husband provided as his vast landholdings and plantations were divided amongst his sons. To combat her financial insecurity, Mary could have remarried, an option that many colonial widows followed. Mary Washington decided to not follow that path and remained a widow, overseeing the management of her children’s inheritances. While she was unable to send her children to elite schools, she provided her children—particularly George, with the practical education of running a vast plantation. Mary Washington also instilled in her children industry, stoicism, piety, thrift, and independence. In recent years, Mary has been unfairly condemned for not allowing fourteen-year-old George to join the British Navy. Mary’s decision was firmly rooted in providing the best future for her son, a course of action that would not have been permitted as an ensign in the Navy. Instead, Mary encouraged George in his surveying career which allowed him to make powerful contacts within Virginia society.
These insights into Mary’s world are fully covered in Dr. Saxton’s work. Utilizing a diverse arrange of primary sources: letters, diaries, planation inventories, land grants, wills and period newspapers, Dr. Saxton firmly places the reader with the complex world of Colonial and Revolutionary War Virginia. The colonial Virginia that Dr. Saxton uncovers is a stark and at times cruel place. This is not the romanticized world of Colonial Williamsburg. Mary Washington was a slave owner from the age of three until her death at 80. Becoming the owner of enslaved workers at such a tender age quickly hardened Mary to the plight of the men, women, and children that she owned. Unlike her son, Mary never expressed any qualms about slave ownership and would separate enslaved workers from their spouses and children. To cope with the early loss of many of her family members, Mary also developed a hard exterior that made her less empathetic to the plights of others.
Like any family, the Washington’s occasionally had family squabbles. The most famous family dispute occurred during the Revolution when George openly questioned Mary’s claim of financial security. The Revolution brought inflation and high taxes to the home front. Compounding Mary Washington’s difficulties, in 1780 Mary was forced to flee into Virginia’s western interior with her family to escape possible capture from British military forces. While in the west, her son, Samuel, and son-in-law, Fielding Lewis, died from illness. During this time, someone petitioned the Virginia Assembly for a pension for Mary Washington. When George received word of the planned pension he erupted in anger. Sensitive to his public image, George feared that if word of his mother receiving a pension became public he would look like an uncaring son in the court of public opinion. George Washington argued that his mother’s claim to poverty was exaggerated. A claim modern historians have accepted unquestioningly, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Regardless of the occasional family dispute, Dr. Saxton reveals a more loving and respectful relationship between mother and son than historians have previously presented. Mary and George deeply cared for each other, evidenced in the surviving correspondence between the two. Before leaving for the presidency in 1789, George Washington paid one final visit to his mother at her home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Mary Washington was in the final stages of breast cancer, and according to family tradition the two had a loving and tender final goodbye. In her final months, Mary expressed concern for the health of her son until her death on August 25, 1789.
Dr. Saxton’s biography is a timely addition to the study of the Washington family and their place in the Colonial and Revolutionary War period. The work challenges previously held beliefs about Mary Washington and her son and will likely raise a few eyebrows and instigate scholarly debate. I hope that this work receives a wide readership.
Michelle L. Hamilton
Author, Mary Ball Washington: The Mother of George Washington
Manager, Mary Washington House
The book is available for purchase on Amazon