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.
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 with her own family.
When Mary was 12, her mother died, and she moved in with her half-sister. Her religious education deepened at this time. She read devotional books, and was moved by many of their teachings. In time, Mary’s religious conviction gave way to a profound and long-lasting sense of inner strength—a contrast to the traits of submissiveness once associated with pious women.
Mary was 22 when she married Augustine Washington, a 36-year-old widower. They moved to a spacious plantation and had George in 1732. Over the next ten years they would have five more children (one, Mildred, died shortly after childbirth).
Augustine died in 1743, when George was 11 years old, leaving Mary to raise their five children and run Ferry Farm. While her property holdings (including roughly 20 slaves) made her an eligible option for re-marriage, she chose not to do so. Rather than risk marrying someone unsavory and putting her children at risk, she decided to shoulder the burden of raising them on her own—another testament to her independent streak.
Despite her modest means, she did the best she could to provide her children with an improvised education. Although she could barely afford it, she loaned George money for dancing lessons, which she knew were essential for entrance into elite Virginia society. (He ended up paying her back.) Mary loved tea, and she trained all her children in the genteel art of tea serving and drinking, something George would carry with him his whole life. In letters he sent his mother throughout his adolescence, George often addressed her as “Honourd Madam,” which some interpret as a lack of affection. Rather, it speaks to the respect and courtesy she instilled in him.
George moved out in the late 1740s, first to become a land surveyor and then to join the Virginia militia. As the years went on and her children grew up or died, money became increasingly tight for Mary. Even with enslaved workers, the expenses of running a farm were manifold. Money soon became a contentious issue between her and her oldest son. For the rest of her life, she would occasionally write to him asking for small sums of money.
“It is too much while I am suffering in every other way (and hardly able to keep my own estate from sale) to be saddled with all the expenses of hers,” George complained in a letter to his brother at one point. Historians point to this as evidence of Mary’s avarice or ineptitude, ignoring that George was famously penny-pinching, even though he was worth an estimated $525 million in today’s dollars. Additionally, the way Virginia inheritance laws were structured, after a father’s death, land was supposed to transfer to the oldest son—and George likely resented that his mother refused to relinquish control of the family property.
“The problem with some of the material about her is that it can make both people look bad,” Saxton says. “For example, if you start to use evidence about George not wanting to give his mother any money, you run the risk of making him look awful. So you have to spin a story in which she’s the villain.”
Mary did not see much of George as he accelerated through the ranks of the Continental Army and led the country through the American Revolution. Her apparent disinterest in his military career is often interpreted as disapproval (or even, preposterously, her loyalty to the crown). But no historical documentation supports this; in all likelihood she merely dreaded war, like everyone else, and was worried for her son’s safety. During the war, they went five years without seeing each other.
In 1782, she wrote a letter to George describing how difficult the experience was for her. “I was truly uneasy,” she wrote. George visited her on the way to his presidential inauguration in 1789, the last time he would see her. By then she was living in a house in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where she gardened and read. She died of breast cancer in August of that year, at age 81.
George, of course, would go on to lead the country as our first president, and live forever in the American imagination. The real Mary—and all her strength and sacrifice—would soon be forgotten in his midst.