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Setting record straight on Mary Washington

This article is adapted from the author’s remarks as the keynote speaker during a 2013 Mother’s Day program at the Mary Washington Monument in Fredericksburg.

BY LAURA J. GALKE

Recently, a visitor to Ferry Farm asked the docent on duty an interesting question: “Why are so many things in this town named after Mary Washington, when she was so awful?”

Now, we can forgive this visitor, because she had obviously read recent biographies about George Washington and his mother.

During the 1800s, biographies of George Washington sentimentally praised Mary Washington. In the 1900s, as the discipline of history became more professional and surviving historical documents about Washington’s life were consulted, biographies of George Washington were decidedly unkind to Mother Washington, and many were critical of her role in George’s life.

But, as historian Jack Warren has noted, just because the biographies of the 20th century were more scholarly doesn’t mean their portrayals of Mary Washington were more accurate.

THE RAP AGAINST MARY

These are the main criticisms against Mary:

1) She marries late (implying that she’s not attractive). Because of differences in age and life expectancy during the 1600s, widows often married again, and quickly. But 18th-century women typically married in their early 20s.

2) She remains a widow. Many assume that her children would have been better off with a new father who was wealthy, provided generously for their education, trained the boys in the ways of a proper gentleman, managed their properties wisely and relinquished those properties when they came of age.

3) She’s greedy. She asked George for money, yet when she died, her probate inventory says her blankets are “much worn.” She asked Virginia for a pension. She didn’t leave the house at Ferry Farm, part of her dowry, to George as soon as he became 21.

4) She’s selfish. For instance, she didn’t let George join the British navy in 1746 or Charles join a Virginia regiment in 1756. Some argue that she wanted her sons to stay with her.

MODERN BIOGRAPHIES

Washington’s 20th-century biographers have had little positive to say about his mother:

One of the earliest was Samuel Eliot Morison’s 1932 description in his work, “The Young Man Washington”: “Mary Ball, the mother of Washington, [was] grasping, querulous, and vulgar. She was a selfish and exacting mother whom most of her children avoided as early as they could; to whom they did their duty but rendered little love.”

John Ferling, in his 1988 book, “The First of Men: The Life of George Washington,” described George’s mother as “domineering” and indicated that “she must have nagged at her son” and that she was “complaining.”

“[C]rude and illiterate,” “self-centered,” “slovenly” and a “veteran complainer” were just a few of the adjectives that Ron Chernow used to describe Mary in his 2010 book, “Washington: A Life.”

He went on to suggest that she suffered from “some mild form of dementia.”

This, despite a 1789 letter penned by George Washington himself after the death of his mother that stated that she possessed “the full enjoyment of her mental faculties and as much bodily strength as usually falls to the lot of four score.”

Let me provide an alternative to these narratives portraying Mary Ball Washington in unfavorable terms.

I’ve researched 18th-century British colonial society, considered the historical documents that record the major events experienced by the Washington family when they lived in Fredericksburg and studied the artifacts from her home at Ferry Farm. From these data, it is clear to me that Mary took her roles as wife and mother very seriously and executed these duties in the way that the society of which she was a part expected. In fact, I argue that she was quite creative in the performance of her maternal responsibilities.

Mary Washington was born Mary Ball in late 1708 or early 1709 in Lancaster County. Mary’s father died in July 1711 when she was 3 years old. In 1721, when she was 13, Mary’s widowed mother died.

Mary Ball, clearly an adored daughter and sister, at the age of about 14 inherited 1,000 acres, cattle, slaves and horses. This became part of her dowry—the material goods an unmarried woman owned that, upon marriage, became the property of her husband under English common law. The larger the dowry, the more attractive the maiden was to suitors and the more offers of matrimony she would enjoy. With a generous dowry, Mary Ball could afford to be choosy: There was no need for her to leap at the first offer of marriage. She could take her time selecting a suitor appropriate to her status and class.

Since 600 of Mary’s acres adjoined the iron mine of Augustine Washington, she made an attractive bride after the death of his first wife. She was 22 when she and Augustine married on March 6, 1731.

Biographer James Flexner and others claim 22 was an advanced age for a woman to marry, using terms like Mary was “ripe,” or inflating her age to 25 and calling her an “old maid.”

Together, Mary and Augustine had six children, beginning with George in 1732. Despite business trips, some of which took Augustine to England, George was followed by the birth of his sister Betty in 1733, in 1734 by Samuel, in 1736 by John Augustine, in 1738 by Charles and by little Mildred in 1739. The family moved a number of times, settling across the Rappahannock in the fall of 1738. In 1740, their infant daughter, Mildred, died.

The family experienced a fire in their home later in 1740. Recent archaeology at Ferry Farm (the popular name for their mid-18th-century home) demonstrates that the fire was contained to one or two rooms of the house: It did not destroy it.

Just a few years later, George Washington’s father, Augustine, died at age 49. Mary was a widow at the age of about 35, and had five children to raise, the oldest of whom, George, was 11.

In addition to the profound grief the family experienced at Augustine’s passing, his death brought about many changes. Augustine’s two oldest sons from his first marriage inherited the family’s two largest plantations and the iron mine in Stafford County. Augustine left Mary in charge of the properties of their four minor-aged sons until they came of age.

Mary Washington remained a widow, a decision that some have criticized. Yet there were real consequences for Mary and her children had she married a second time. Her children and their land would have come under the control of their stepfather: He could construct buildings on their plantations, put up fences, take down fences and keep the plantations’ proceeds.

It was not uncommon for children to be split up between family members upon the death of the father, but Mary kept the family together. Financially, this was challenging since the money generated by their two largest plantations and by the mine was no longer part of the family’s revenue after her husband’s death.

On May 7, 1750, Betty, Mary’s only daughter to survive infancy, married Fielding Lewis. Betty was the first of her children to wed; she was only 16. Sixteen was a young age for a bride in 1750, and her dowry—two enslaved women, Mary and Betty, and 400 pounds when she reached her majority at 18—was a far cry from that of her mother. The marriage was a good one—Fielding Lewis was a respected, gentry-class gentleman.

THE ARCHAEOLOGY

Mary’s home in Stafford was a genteel British household equipped with the accessories needed to communicate her family’s good taste and sophistication to visitors and to train her children in the practices of a fine Virginia family.

Archaeology proves she had English-made tea-wares, including about seven different teapots, mantelpiece figurines, powdered wigs, imported sleeve links and the tools for fancy needlework.

The etiquette and manners associated with drinking tea were important for all of the Washington children to know. George could not have won the affections of widow Martha Dandridge Custis if he had been awkward or bad-mannered when taking tea.

THE DOCUMENTATION

There’s also evidence that Mary Washington practiced household medicine. In spring 1758, when George Washington was suffering from dysentery, he stopped at Ferry Farm on his way from Mount Vernon to Williamsburg to receive care from his mother and build strength for the journey.

The historical record also demonstrates her efforts to provide her sons with the real-life experiences they would need as adult members of the Virginia gentry.

Legal documents indicate Mary managed the Ferry Farm property directly, instead of leaving it in the hands of an overseer.

She did not always do things the way George wanted her to. He tried to move her from her Stafford home into Fredericksburg starting in 1760. It wasn’t until 12 years later that she actually moved to her home on Charles Street, which operates today as a fine museum. Its location put Mary within walking distance of her daughter Betty’s home, Kenmore. Mary remained on Charles Street until she died from breast cancer on Aug. 25, 1789. She passed in her own bed, in her own home, in the manner that she desired.

Her self-reliant spirit was what gave Mary the strength to raise five children as a widow, manage her sons’ properties and train her children in the skills they needed to become successful, happy and productive adults.

The view of Mother Washington as selfish, querulous, vulgar, or demented is erroneous. Such narratives, which argue that George Washington achieved success despite his mother, are disgraceful not simply because they are inaccurate, but because they claim that George’s parents—and his mother in particular—had no positive role in his life.

Such inaccurate interpretations degrade otherwise superb historical biographies of George, and leave visitors to our community confused as to why we in Fredericksburg would honor Mary Washington by naming a hospital, a university and streets after her.

Let us remember the example of Mary Ball Washington as a woman of courage, strength and independence.

Laura J. Galke is an artifact analyst with The George Washington Foundation, the nonprofit that manages Kenmore, the home of Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis, as well as the childhood home of George Washington.

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