Though some will disagree, I'm convinced that George Washington remains our greatest president. However, I'll concede that, whatever the reasons for his greatness, a sense of humor wasn't among them.
No biographer, not even the mythmaking Parson Weems, ever accused him of having one. Solemn old George.
Yet I must report that he once said, with a perfectly straight face, "Everything I am I owe to my mother."
This may not strike us as much of a one- liner, but consider this: The eminent historian Samuel Eliot Morison expressed a widely held professional opinion when he characterized her as grasping, querulous, vulgar, exacting and selfish. He added that she "opposed almost everything 9her son0 did for the public good." Morison's comments came in his essay "The Young Washington." They're abundantly supported in the full-dress biographies, including James Thomas Flexner's multi-volume life.
Mary Ball married Augustine Washington in 1731 and bore George the next year. Augustine died when George was 11, thereby removing the only check to her bullying ways. She intimidated adults as well as children. Apparently George managed, through innate strength of character, to keep her from controlling him completely even when he as a boy. But one of his playmates recalled years later that he himself was "ten times more afraid" of her than of his own parents. And adults, as one biographer put it all too kindly, were "awed" by her.
She didn't die till after he became president. Throughout her long life she insisted that her son put her comfort ahead of his career and country. Moreover, she belittled his accomplishments so consistently that during the Revolutionary War people suspected her of being a Tory. In all her surviving correspondence, according to one authority, not a word of praise for him can be found.
Early in his military career he had the chance to become General Braddock's aide. She fought against his going, though he finally decided to disobey her. Then in the middle of Braddock's campaign -- when Washington was trying desperately to help avert disaster, she wrote him asking for -- of all things -- some butter.
He emerged after Braddock's defeat with a solid reputation as a military man, despite his youth. When the governor of Virginia offered him the command of the state's western militia, his mother objected vigorously.
He replied in a letter: "Honored Madam: If it is in my power to avoid going to the Ohio again, I shall, but if the command is pressed upon me . . . it would reflect eternal dishonor upon me to refuse it."
In the midst of the Revolutionary War, during the winter after Valley Forge, she wrote him: "I would be much obliged to you to send me forty pound 9sic0 cash for corn . . . I have never lived so poor in my life."
She lamented so loudly that Virginia's House of Delegates heard her. To Washington's extreme embarrassment some of the delegates proposed to give her a pension. He was forced to disclose that he had answered every call for money that she'd made and that she had "an ample income of her own."
With an excess of fairness I ought to note that she's had at least one book written in her defense, Mrs. Roger Pryor's The Mother of Washington, issued in 1903. Let me offer a single sample of Mrs. Pryor's approach. To offset the boy whom Mary Washington terrified, Mrs. Pryor quoted two little girls who "adored her! They found naught to remember but smiles, gentle words, sweet, motherly ways." About the qualities that concerned Mr. Morrison, Mr. Flexner, and other historians, Mrs. Pryor said nothing.
Yet when we think about Mary Washington's utter obnoxiousness, we can't avoid the possibility that it gave her son the training in restraint, patience, and self-discipline which helped to make him the Father of his Country. So perhaps he was right in saying that all he was he owed to his mother!