Mary Ball Washington is a Fredericksburg fixture. Tourists flock to the Mary Washington House on Charles Street, which her son, George, purchased for her in 1772, and the Ferry Farm, our first president’s boyhood home.
But how much do we really know about the mother of George Washington?
The traditional answer was not much. But that answer is starting to change, in part with the release of a new biography, “The Widow Washington,” by Martha Saxton, and research conducted at the Mary Washington House.
The new historical evidence presents Mary Washington as a more nuanced character.
Born in 1708 in Lancaster County, Mary Ball entered into a world of wealth and privilege as a member of Virginia’s burgeoning gentry class. But her childhood was difficult, marred by the early deaths of close family members.
Orphaned by the age of twelve, Mary was cared for by her half-sister, Elizabeth Bonum, and the two developed a close bond.
In 1731, Mary married Augustine Washington, a wealthy planter who had lost his first wife the year before. The marriage firmly placed Mary Washington within the comfortable status of the gentry, but the marriage also brought her three stepchildren to help rear.
The family grew in 1732 when Mary gave birth to her first child, George. Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred would follow.
Tragedy struck again in 1743, when her husband Augustine died after a brief illness, leaving Mary a widow to raise five children at the age of 35.
Following Augustine’s death, Mary lost the financial comfort that her husband had provided, as his vast landholdings and plantations were divided among his sons. To combat her financial insecurity, Mary could have remarried, an option that many colonial widows followed.
But she decided to not follow that path and remained a widow, overseeing the management of her children’s inheritances. And while she was unable to send them to elite schools, she provided her children—particularly George—with the practical education of running a vast plantation.
Mary Washington also instilled in her children industry, stoicism, piety, thrift, and independence.
In recent years, Mary has been unfairly condemned for not allowing 14-year-old George to join the British Navy. Her decision was firmly rooted in providing the best future for her son, a course of action that would not have been permitted had he enlisted as an ensign in the Navy.
Instead, Mary encouraged George in his surveying career, which allowed him to make powerful contacts within Virginia society.
Like any family, the Washingtons occasionally had family squabbles. The most famous family dispute occurred during the Revolutionary War, when George openly questioned Mary’s claim of financial security.
The Revolution brought inflation and high taxes to the home front. Compounding her difficulties, in 1780 Mary was forced to flee into Virginia’s western interior with her family to escape possible capture from British military forces.
While in the west, her son, Samuel, and son-in-law, Fielding Lewis, died from illness. During this time, someone petitioned the Virginia Assembly for a pension for Mary Washington.
When George received word of the planned pension, he erupted in anger. Sensitive to his public image, George feared that if word of his mother receiving a pension became public, he would look like an uncaring son in the court of public opinion. George argued that his mother’s claim to poverty was exaggerated, a claim modern historians have accepted unquestioningly despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Regardless of the occasional family dispute, Mary and George deeply cared for each other, as evidenced in the surviving correspondence between the two.
In her final months, Mary expressed concern for the health of her eldest son.
Before leaving for the presidency in 1789, George paid one final visit to his mother at her home in Fredericksburg. Mary was then in the final stages of breast cancer, and according to family tradition, the two had a loving and tender final goodbye prior to her death on August 25, 1789.