The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The mother who made George Washington — and made him miserable

When George Washington was elected president, he did what a good boy should do: rode to Fredericksburg, Va., to tell his mom.

Mary Ball Washington was 80 years old, ancient for a woman of that time, but still formidable. George’s visit, according to some accounts, produced one of the great archetypal mother-son conversations.

George: Guess what? They want me to be president.

Mom: I’m dying.

George, flustered: Well, as soon as I get settled in New York, I’ll come back and …

Mom: This is the last time you’ll ever see me. But go, do your job. That’s more important.

George and his mother had an unusual relationship for the 1700s, more like what you might see in a sitcom from the 1970s. She was indispensable to him but intolerable. She hectored him; he performed Enlightenment-era eye rolls with quill and ink.

The fake news that haunted George Washington

Two hundred years ago, when the mythology of George Washington was being etched in marble, Mary Washington enjoyed a flowering of attention as the Grandmother of Our Nation. Then historians recast her as a controlling shrew.

There’s so much material. When George was 15, he was all set to go off and join the British Navy. But his mother wouldn’t let him. Too dangerous.

In the heated final months of the Revolutionary War, George got a heads-up from a buddy in Williamsburg that his mother had written to the House of Delegates asking for money. From the battlefield, grappling with the Benedict Arnold scandal, Washington dashed off an exasperated reply, begging the House not to give her anything.

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Listing all that he had done for her — bought her a house, rented her land, “answered all her calls for money” — George fumed that any of her five children would “divide the last sixpence to relieve her from real distress. This she has been repeatedly assured of by me.”

But maybe the best example came in 1755, when young George was fighting the French alongside Gen. Edward Braddock in the wilds of Pennsylvania. Things were going poorly; Braddock would be killed in the next few weeks. And George got a letter from his mother asking him to send her a servant and — not making this up — some butter.

Addressing his response to “Honourd Madam,” George replied that he was “sorry it is not in my power to provide you with a Dutch Servant, or the Butter … you desire. We are quite out of that part of the Country where either are to be had, there being few or no Inhabitants where we now lie Encampd, & butter cannot be had here to supply the wants of the army.”

Plus, he apologized for not visiting the last time he went to Williamsburg.

So, yeah, George’s mom was a handful. As Washington’s cousin Lawrence later remarked about her: “Of the mother, I was ten times more afraid than I ever was of my own parents.”

But it’s possible now to look at the fullness of Mary Washington’s story and see something else. Those qualities that made her hard to deal with also served her well in a harsh era in which the odds were stacked against her. Or, more significantly, against her son — born in the Virginia colony to a distracted British businessman who already had two sons from a previous marriage.

In the world of his father, Augustine Washington, George was a middle child and nothing special. But to Mary Ball, he was her firstborn, and he was going to get what was coming to him.

Augustine died when George was 11 and Mary was about 35. She could have remarried. But a new husband would have gotten title to her land. And Augustine’s will had provisions giving his eldest son control over George’s inheritance, if that happened.

So she did the hard thing and stayed single. She managed the property herself, saddling up and riding around to collect rent. She had been an orphan by age 13 and was used to standing alone.

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Raising five kids and managing a farm and a corps of enslaved workers was demanding. Mary Washington was known to jangle as she swooped about, clusters of keys dangling from her waist. She gardened and rode horses until near the end of her long life.

“I’ve seen her original will in the courthouse in Fredericksburg. While the rest of the ink has faded, her signature is very bold. You can see she had a very firm hand when she wrote ‘Mary Washington,’ ” said Michelle Hamilton, who manages the Mary Washington House historic site in Fredericksburg.

Hamilton, who dresses in period-style apron and bonnet while giving tours of the house, has a master’s degree in history from San Diego State University. She got to know Mary Washington after coming to work here in 2015. “I love stories of strong women — the underdog,” she said. “I just came to love her here.”

And Hamilton grew to resent historians’ harsh characterizations. That quote from Washington’s cousin Lawrence, about being afraid of her? It goes on, as Hamilton can recite: “She awed me in the midst of her kindness, for she was, indeed, truly kind.”

Mary lived down the hill from her daughter and up the street from another son. She may have pestered them for money, from time to time, but she insisted on being self-sufficient — with the help of a half-dozen slaves — until the end.

After she died, the people of the town and the new nation who worshiped her son also revered the mother. She was buried near an outcropping called Meditation Rock, where Mary was said to have prayed for George every day during the Revolution. A grand monument was planned, but the pieces fell into disrepair.

In the late 1800s, it was the women of Virginia who came forward to rescue Mary Washington’s legacy. They led a crusade for the preservation of her home (someone wanted to dismantle it and reassemble it at the Chicago World’s Fair) and to erect a stone monument near what’s now the University of Mary Washington.

In 1954, President Eisenhower placed a wreath at that monument in honor of Mother’s Day.

Sure, she was a little kooky — the constant harping on money. The butter. But she not only gave birth to George Washington, she also nurtured and protected the icon who still stands as almost universally admired. Created him, in many ways. And she lived life, as much as she could, by her own terms.

Mary was right, by the way. George never saw her again after that visit in spring of 1789. But according to the memoirs of Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, she sent him off in grand fashion.

“But go, George,” she said, dying of breast cancer, “fulfil the high destinies which Heaven appears to have intended for you; go, my son, and may that Heaven’s and a mother’s blessing be with you always.”

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