Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother
By Craig Shirley
(Harper, 368 pages, $30)
“My great age, and the disease which is fast approaching my vitals, warn me that I shall not be long in this world. I trust in God that I may be somewhat prepared for a better.”
So said a weak Mary Ball Washington, mother of America’s first president, George Washington, to her son in March 1789 as she lay dying from cancer at roughly age 80 (her exact age unknown). Her son had come to bid America’s first mother a final goodbye. He told her about this significant new office that he was assuming for his country — to which all 69 electors had unanimously chosen him on Jan. 7. The only president ever selected unanimously. (RELATED: The Legacy of George Washington: Political Wisdom, True Liberty, and Human Greatness)
“But before I can assume the functions of my office,” he told the frail old woman, “I have come to bid you an affectionate farewell.”
Shirley’s book provides far more than a history of her and her son. He provides a character study that fascinates.
The 57-year-old Washington continued, “So soon as the weight of public business, which must necessarily attend the outset of a new government, can be disposed of, I shall hasten to Virginia, and—” Here, the mother interrupted the son: “—and you will see me no more.”
The mother sensed this was the end, the final time she would glimpse the son before he went out to fulfill the destiny that she had helped raise him to one day accept. “But go, George,” she urged, “fulfill the high destinies which Heaven appears to have intended you for; go, my son, and may that Heaven’s and a mother’s blessing be with you always.”
It was a touching motherly benediction, and yet, the old woman held on months longer, not succumbing until August 25, 1789, taking her final breath around 3 o’clock that afternoon. The son was not there to see it. He was fulfilling that destiny, one that he likewise believed was Providential.
This incident is one of many dramatic moments related in Craig Shirley’s superbly done biography, Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother. Published in 2019, well over two centuries after the death of the first mother and first president, Shirley’s book received critical acclaim from historians like Douglas Brinkley, Michael Barone, and Jon Meacham, but it hasn’t been enough. It’s a book that should be read by millions of Americans, especially in public schools. And it should be read for Mother’s Day.
Think about the significance of this singular woman.
George Washington is, of course, the father of our country. He was the hero of the American Revolution, who pulled off a stunning victory against the British empire, one that his countrymen considered nothing short of miraculous. It was no surprise when Washington was the founders’ choice not only for military general but later as their new nation’s first president.
That first president was admired for not only his brawn but his brain. He helped establish his young nation by both his victories on the battlefield and his capabilities of mind. That first president fully understood the “great experiment” (as he and other founders put it) being entrusted to them and the American people, namely, whether human beings were indeed genuinely capable of self-governing. Think about that more deeply, because Washington did: He averred that the people of this nation needed to be able to genuinely self-govern themselves before they could self-govern their country. For that self-governance, he said in his Farewell Address, “religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
George Washington was so beloved, even revered, by his countrymen that many wanted him to become king. He knew, however, that such would have gone against everything he and his people had fought for. Such had been the way of Napoleon, Caesar, Cromwell — of so many, but not of Washington. Napoleon was selfish, a narcissist, an egomaniac. Washington was selfless, humble, a role model.
After his military victory in the American Revolution, Washington returned his commission — his “sword” — to Congress. This overture electrified not only the country but the world. As noted by Gordon Wood, preeminent historian of the American Revolution, most such military heroes expected in return some type of significant political reward commensurate with their military achievement. But not George Washington. His selfless action, noted Wood, “captivated the world.”
“He could have been king,” wrote presidential historian Richard Norton Smith. “Congress, in effect, offered him a crown. He spurned it. And in the process, he gave us a whole new definition of greatness: the renunciation of power, not the embrace of it. It was no accident that on his deathbed Napoleon said, ‘They wanted me to be another Washington.’”
All of which brings us back to Mary Ball Washington. Where did a man of such character come from? Who forged the boy that rose to become this kind of man and leader?
The answer, of course, was his mother. That was especially so because the young George lost his father, Augustine (Gus), on April 12, 1743, when the boy was only 11 years old. Thereafter, it was mother Mary, now widowed in her late 30s, who had to raise six children by herself. Not just that, but she ran the property, the farm, and the business, and, yes, she supervised slaves as well. She never remarried.
In the process, she raised a president — the nation’s first.
“His devout mother played a key role in the development of his character,” writes Craig Shirley. “While he was sometimes described as having little genuine affection for Mary, the reserved Washington still credited her with his principled and moral upbringing.”
And as Shirley shows, the relationship between the two was “laden with difficulty” for both of them. It was a struggle for anyone to have much affection for Mary. Shirley describes Mary Ball Washington as “self-centered and acquisitive,” “tutoring and fashioning” her son but also “driving and admonishing” him. She was not a warm lady and, frankly, was hard to feel warm about. She was not easy to like. She was a cold woman, austere, and herself quite a character — an odd one. And Craig Shirley’s book provides far more than a history of her and her son. He provides a character study that fascinates.
But whatever her personal shortcomings, this woman raised a president, our nation’s first. He was our first president and Mary Ball Washington was our first mother — one who needs to be remembered, and perhaps particularly so for America’s annual celebration of Mothers’ Day. Get this book and read and learn and remember.