once described by her son’s biographers as a pious, self-sacrificing widow capably raising five children under difficult circumstances—has come more recently to be seen as selfish, cold, and determined to thwart her son’s ambitions. While neither portrait captures the strong, complex, and anxious woman revealed in the records —a woman haunted by childhood deprivation and loss—the first comes closer than the second.
The earliest writers about George Washington included Mary in their hagiographic accounts. Later scholars began using fragmentary evidence of George’s annoyance with his mother over her requests for small amounts of money and her unhappiness with his “inclination” to military life to condemn her as an overprotective, ignorant shrew.
Far from illiterate and greedy, Mary was a fervent reader of devotional books, frugal to a fault, and on occasion, so cash poor as to be unable to feed herself and her dependents. Orphaned early, fears of illness, death, and want pursued her throughout her long life as she relentlessly pursued sustenance for herself and family, including the people she held as slaves. She brought the same tenacity to protecting her children’s health and enhancing the opportunities available to them.
While their genders and generations have obscured their similarities, mother and son shared a number of important traits. Some were biological, like being tall and physically robust. Some were a mixture of biology and practice—for instance, both carried themselves quietly and commandingly. And the two were superb horse riders.
Their most significant similarities, however, lay in their approaches to daily life. Both were extremely careful with money. Even in his high-spending years, George accounted for every penny. Mother and son cared vigilantly for their property and dependents. Both labored to control hot tempers. Both were demanding slave owners, though in his later years, George came to feel that slavery was unprofitable and wrong. Mary never did
Having taken a decision, mother and son did not waver. George’s endurance at Valley Forge and his tireless pursuit of support from the vacillating Continental Congress attest to his ability to persist in the face of frustrations that would have made almost anyone else give up. Despite her straitened circumstances, legal challenges, and the hurdles Mary had to jump as a woman trying to manage on her own, she was able to raise and educate her five young children and give them advantageous social opportunities. Each of her children married up; George higher than any of the others.
It’s impossible to understand Mary’s bonds with her children without understanding what formed her. She was the product of an unusual alliance between the wealthy planter and widower Joseph Ball, from Lancaster County in Virginia, and Mary Johnson, who appears to have arrived in the colony as an indentured servant. Despite Mary Johnson’s obscure origins and limited education, her intelligence and energy—combined with Virginia’s small population and high death rate—permitted her to better herself dramatically. Mary Johnson was unable to write (although probably able to read, as the skills were taught separately), yet became a frequent court witness, putting her “X” on documents. She gained the friendship of several substantial men, among them Joseph Ball, whom she married, and the lawyer and member of the House of Burgesses, George Eskridge, who would oversee her daughter’s inheritance and marriage.
Mary Johnson, now Mary Johnson Ball, had little Mary in 1703 or 1704. When the child was about three, her elderly father died, leaving her three enslaved men and two parcels of land on the Rappahannock River, including one at the “Little Falls.” Mary Johnson Ball soon remarried, but that husband died not long after. For the next six or seven years, Mary lived with her twice-widowed mother and her two older stepsiblings, John and Elizabeth. She watched her mother manage her farm, going to court to recover small bits of property, and remaining an independent landowner in a culture that reserved that status for men. The girl felt her mother’s power and ability to direct her own life and knew the outlines of her almost mythic rise in life.
Then, when young Mary was about 12, both her half brother John and her seemingly indomitable mother grew sick and died. Mary Johnson Ball left her orphaned daughter a horse, her riding habit, and the promise of an enslaved woman. The sad girl made her new home with her half sister Elizabeth, who had recently married. Mary’s losses made her transition into adolescence, when girls typically began thinking about marriage, particularly confusing and uncertain.
Within months of their mother’s death, she and Elizabeth had to witness their overseer come with a cart to take away barrels of their tobacco, corn, barley, and wheat, his reward for a successful suit against their deceased mother for back pay. Mary’s world must have seemed very fragile.
Anglican practice had repeatedly called on Mary to recognize and accept, without rancor, God’s hand in taking away people close to her. She tried. The method she settled on seems to have been taking on responsibility and honing the habits of usefulness, frugality, and independence to try to stabilize, as much as she could, her own world. Within two or three years, she was managing her sister’s household as her sister bore two children. Much later, George advised a young relative without a dowry to be like a young girl he had known of whom, at 16 was so useful that she took charge of running a whole establishment. Surely, he was describing his mother and sharing his pride in her precocious competence.
As an adolescent, Mary acquired her first devotional book, probably from her sister’s husband. With it, Mary began her lifelong practice of seeking comfort and guidance from the writings of clergymen who explicated scripture, explained ritual, guided daily prayer, and offered readers godly ways to cope with painful events. Mary had no parent to turn to in these difficult years to tell her how to calm her anxiety over the omnipresence of death, how to fill her loneliness, or how to pacify the hurt she felt. At a similar age, George famously would study The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation to learn what an absent father might have taught him.
Some young women in the 1720s and later were already beginning to read novels, steeping themselves in the vocabulary and attitudes of sensibility, a prized virtue of the British and colonial elite that allegedly fostered sympathy with suffering and empathy for the feelings of others. Mary was not one of them. She developed neither much empathy nor stylish rhetoric, marking her hurried education and making her vulnerable to criticisms from the future president’s biographers.
When Mary married George Eskridge’s friend and brother-in-law, the widower Augustine Washington, he gave her Mathew Hale’s Contemplations, Moral and Divine—a book that had belonged to his first wife. Mary inscribed her name below that of her deceased predecessor. It became the most important book in her collection and her central aid in child rearing. Its wisdom, aphorisms, and anecdotes guided her for the rest of her life. George would have his own copy by 1764.
Mary’s conflict with her son also demonstrates how her gender rendered her desire for economic independence unintelligible to him.
During Mary’s married years, Augustine, who does not seem to have been particularly devout, was often away, so Mary would have presided over daily prayers and Bible reading. She passed on her lessons, and more importantly, her example of careful stewardship, thrift, vigilant oversight, independence, and fierce persistence most effectively, according to the evidence that exists, to her first son and her only surviving daughter Elizabeth (Betty). Mary actively involved both George and his sister Betty in running the plantation (later known as Ferry Farm) where they lived.
After George’s marriage to the wealthiest woman in Virginia, Mary continued running Ferry Farm, which Augustine had left to George. But George had moved with Martha to Mount Vernon. Like most Virginia farmers, Mary was cash poor. From time to time, she would ask George, the family patriarch, for small sums of money—six, 10, sometimes 20 pounds. George, now enjoying avenues of British credit that his wife’s riches opened up to him, was going deeply into debt to display his success to his fellow planters. He even lent as much as 400 pounds to a brother whose economic judgment he knew to be poor. Yet George’s irritation focused on his mother’s behavior. He began suggesting that her wants were imaginary. Eventually, he tried to soothe his frustration with her by taking over Ferry Farm and renting her enslaved people, stock, and tools. He bought her a small house of her choosing in Fredericksburg.
George thought the move into town would be the end of Mary’s farming. But she still had the land her father had left her, more than seven decades before at Little Falls. She persisted during the lean, inflationary, and frightening years of the Revolution, driving out to her holding, wearing a straw hat, trying to eke out a subsistence for herself and the enslaved people at Little Falls.
At the end of the Revolution, George’s indignation with his mother boiled over. He heard that she had been describing her tribulations to friends and family in trying to support herself and her enslaved workers at Little Falls. The Speaker of the Virginia Assembly alerted George that there had been talk of the possibility of a petition to give his mother a pension.
Historians have generally considered this Mary’s greatest affront—publicly humiliating her son with the implicit accusation of neglect. A formal petition has never been found, nor is it clear whether it was ever more than talk. In numerous letters, however, George expressed to friends and siblings his outrage that Mary was complaining about her inability to survive and pay the high wartime taxes. He insisted that the whole family was always ready to help her, yet her complaints made him out to be delinquent. George admitted, however, he had not seen her in seven years, and he knew little of her circumstances.
At the time of Mary’s complaints, she, her daughter Betty, and other family members had been evacuated from Fredericksburg up into the Alleghenies to avoid a feared British attack. While there, crowded into small quarters, within a span of three weeks, Mary’s son Samuel died, as well as Fielding Lewis, Betty’s husband, who had been much more attentive to her than her own sons. Betty also became perilously sick. Mary, nearly 80, once again saw her dearest and closest dying. She had no money. Her overseer had been cheating her for a long time, and Betty’s once wealthy husband had died, leaving behind enormous debts incurred manufacturing arms for George’s army.
There is no doubt that by complaining about her fear of losing her land to wartime taxes Mary was not behaving with the cheerful acceptance of good Christians. George would later remind her of the teachings of Matthew Hale. Nevertheless, while she was failing to live up to Hale’s ideals, she was trying to be a good steward of her remaining possessions.
Mary’s conflict with her son also demonstrates how her gender rendered her desire for economic independence unintelligible to him. He had a clear notion of independence for himself and other white men—based on land owning and freedom from injurious taxes—but was unable to extend that to others, let alone his elderly, worried mother. As a patriarch, he could only see his mother’s desperation for independence as his humiliation.
They reconciled; he praised her publicly for guiding him to manhood. In her will, she left him the “best” of everything: furnishings, her land at Little Falls, and an enslaved boy named George. After Mary’s death, George extended support to her indigent kin. As can often be the case between family members, their striking similarities sharpened their conflicts. And the particular character traits they shared look better and have been more easily forgiven on an acclaimed man than on his proud and unsung mother.
Martha Saxton is Professor Emerita of History and Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies at Amherst College. Her latest book, The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington, is the first biography of Mary Ball Washington based on archival sources. She is also the author of Being Good: Women’s Moral Values in Early America, and a biography of Louisa May Alcott.