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How George Washington's Iron-Willed Single Mom Taught Him Honor

May 10, 2019 in History

By Matt Mullen

In the drama of her son’s life, Mary Ball Washington has been cast as a villain and a saint—or written out entirely. In reality, she was an independent woman at a time when few others were.

Here are some of the ways Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother, has been described by historians: Crude. Greedy. Illiterate. Self-centered. Slovenly. A Loyalist. An especially ruthless slave-owner. An impediment to her son’s success.

Alternatively, she has been described as a saint, a perfect Christian mother who raised a perfect son.

In reality, none of these things are true. “She has been the object of both meaningless praise and more often antagonism from writers who dreamed of a different mother for their hero George,” historian Martha Saxton writes in The Widow Washington, a new biography of our first president’s deeply misunderstood mother.

President George Washington and his mother.

Mary Ball Washington was neither a villain nor a saint—but rather an exceptionally strong and resilient woman, a single mother who raised five children and instilled in them qualities of fortitude and purpose. She was independent in ways few other women were at the time, choosing not to remarry after her husband Augustine’s death and refusing to give up her property.

By many accounts Mary was a tough mother. After she was widowed, she didn’t have the money to send George to school in England, as was common for well-to-do Virginia families at the time. Instead she enlisted him and his siblings to help run the farm. She emphasized obedience in her children. “She treated George seriously as a man and seriously as a religious being,” Saxton writes.

Prior historians once interpreted this as poor mothering, which contributed to Mary’s unfortunate standing in history. In fact, it was common of mothers at the time to be stern, even remote. “The fond mother, the mother who is psychologically and emotionally utterly available and has nothing but unconditional love for her children came about in the late 19th century,” Saxton says. “That’s not the kind of mother Mary was.”

Mary Ball was born around 1708 or 1709, in Lancaster County, Virginia. Her father died when she was 3, and her mother remarried and had more kids. After her step-father died just a few years later, Mary grew up in a matriarchal household. She watched how her mother openly exercised authority and independence—something she would later emulate …read more


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