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America’s First Mother Who Inspired — and Hounded — George Washington

Mary Ball Washington was one hell of a nuisance, but she still turned our country’s first head honcho into what he was

Welcome to Bad Moms. This Mother’s Day, as we celebrate the beautiful angels kind enough to raise our sorry asses, we’re profiling five of the most notorious moms in history. Who says dads get to be the only antiheroes in pop culture?

Mothers need not be bloodthirsty drug lords to make rank as notorious. Medellín coke queen Griselda Blanco may have doomed her children to lives of crime and excess, not to mention an early grave — but sometimes, Bad Moms can just be so controlling that they spur their sons to greatness while simultaneously rendering them ineffectual whenever Mama’s around. Case in point: Mary Ball Washington, in many ways a redoubtable woman who mothered our country’s first president, George, but also over-mothered him to the point of anguish. She embarrassed him at work in front of all his buddies, which just so happened to be the entire country.

For instance, after Washington nabbed the presidency in 1789, according to history podcast Retropod, which tells the story of their troubled relationship, he “did what a good boy should do: rode to Fredericksburg, Virginia, to tell his mom.”

In a move so passive-aggressive it would come to define mother-son animus for the ages, Mary Ball Washington, 80 years old, delivered the ultimate TKO in response: Cool, but I’m dying.

When he said he’d be happy to come visit after he settled in, she insisted he do nothing of the sort. “This is the last time you’ll ever see me,” she replied. “But go, do your job. That’s more important.”

That barely tops the incident in 1755, when Washington served as General Braddock’s aide in the French and Indian War. As he embedded and prepped for what would be a disastrous battle to capture Fort Duquesne, an area that would become downtown Pittsburgh, Mary somehow pushed a letter through to reach him in the woods while he himself was miserably sick, claiming she was in absolutely dire need of two things: a servant and some butter.

His response was cordial but direct: Sorry, Mom, kinda busy in this war sitch. Would def love to send you a stick of butter if even, oh, I dunno, the British army could locate some? Also, I would’ve totally swung by to see you and say hi if not for the fact that I’m IN THE MIDDLE OF A FREAKING WAR.

These were not, of course, the first times Mary Ball Washington made things all about her. Said to be tall like George (who stood at 6-foot-2), similar looking (there are no paintings of her) and resembling a “Roman matron,” Mary reportedly stopped him from joining the British Navy, even though she was okay with his half brother doing so. For G-Dub, it was simply too dangerous. Mary made George a bit of a laughingstock when she wrote the House of Delegates asking for money behind his back when he was busy finishing up the Revolutionary War. The issue? She didn’t like her digs — the house he bought her and fixed up for her in Fredericksburg.

As Greg Schneider writes at the Washington Post about the incident:

From the battlefield, grappling with the Benedict Arnold scandal, Washington dashed off an exasperated reply, begging the House not to give her anything. 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.”

Even still, after telling them to pay her nothing, Washington privately wrote to his brother, asking him to check out the situation on her behalf, and to “represent her in delicate terms.” In other words, even at great risk to his reputation, he still wouldn’t throw her under the bus.

Just to needle him, Mary still carried on publicly praising King George and the loyalists.

But for all her alleged thorn-in-his-side moves, it’s unclear whether any of it actually happened that way, and tales of Mary Ball Washington tend to run in extremes: Either she’s a saint or a pill, and nothing in between. More recent historians claim the 20th-century biographers of George were biased and took the legends and anecdotes of her continual pestering as fact without doing their due diligence.

By most other accounts, though, Mary Ball Washington was a baller. She was the only child of a colonel who died when she was three, leaving her three slaves, 15 cattle, a featherbed and 400 acres, enough to eventually give her a dowry worth taking. Her mother’s remarriage, and a series of deaths of a brother, stepfather and brother-in-law, made her land inheritance accumulate. Her mother’s death orphaned her at 12.

She was then passed to her father’s lawyer, George Eskridge, for guardianship. He introduced her to Augustine Washington, recently widowed when his wife Jane died while he was away on business. Mary became stepmother to his two sons, and she went on to have six more children, one of whom, the youngest girl, died in childhood. George, whom she named after Eskridge, was her first and oldest, but was largely ignored by his father and treated as a middle child.

When Augustine passed, George was only 11, and Mary chose not to remarry, which was unusual for the time, but Augustine’s will would’ve given his oldest son control over George’s inheritance if she remarried, so rather than give that up, she instead ran the farm left to her by Augustine, managed the slaves herself and looked after the children. She also rode horseback around her property to monitor and collect various rents, and it’s believed that the fact that George was considered “the finest horseman of his day” is probably entirely thanks to her.

And for women at that time, even the better-off ones, life sucked by today’s standards:

Like many women of America’s Colonial period, Mary Ball Washington lived a life of constant childbearing under harsh conditions. She bore six children in eight years; and, except for the baby daughter born in 1739 who died at 16 months, her children all survived, far below the mortality rate of the time. And she herself endured to a very old age.

Moving from her beloved farm to Fredericksburg, as she did at George’s urging once the youngest of her children grew to adulthood, meant giving up beloved staples she’d overseen growing herself. So perhaps we should ask whether when she complained to Washington of never having lived so poorly, was she an ungrateful nag or a woman genuinely lamenting Virginia’s food shortages and her lack of autonomy to fend for herself?

The only real clues to her true persona as a woman and a mother, still being sussed out, are somewhere in the story of George Washington himself, who is regarded by some historians and psychologists as driven by his mother’s need for better social standing for the family, and who possesses the kind of temperament and ambition defined by the need to earn her validation.

It may have been why he married Martha — for her money — when he was actually in love with Sally Fairfax, his friend’s wife. Here’s one analysis:

The Washington family was second tier gentry, and young GW’s prospects for advancing to the top tier suffered a severe blow when his father died in 1743. Washington was eleven at the time but remembered it later as occurring when he was “only 10,” which possibly suggests GW felt deserted by his father even before his death. George Washington’s relationship with his mother, Mary Ball Washington, remains controversial, but it is hard to read her surviving letters from the 1750s and picture her as anything but demanding and self-absorbed, much more concerned with her own problems than those facing her eldest son. It seems highly likely that such attributes in her were present when GW was a youth.

At the very least, it seems that the interaction of his needy, controlling mother, the lack of a father, his high extraverted/low neurotic disposition, his strong drive for advancement, and his recognition that others had it better than he did was a recipe for significant feelings of frustration as an adolescent. Custis’ account of young Washington racing a high-spirited horse until it dropped dead has the ring of truth do it. So does the wish expressed by Thomas 6th Lord Fairfax that young George gain better control over his temper.

In other words, George Washington, who was not that well-educated and no great speaker or intellectual, nor was he even considered to be all that charismatic, became president because he was seriously compensating for some deep-seated daddy and mommy issues. Another analysis takes this idea even further:

Unheeded by his father, unloved by his mother, ever painfully sensitive to his lack of education, socially awkward and inarticulate, frustrated in love, George Washington compensated by seeking glory in war and politics and social and economic distinction in the obsessive acquisition of land.

Washington was said to be coldly focused on profit, and a controlling perfectionist, just like Mom. He was also thin-skinned, and threatened to quit half a dozen times when he was an officer in Virginia over bad press or bad pay, eventually making good on the threat.

He was said to pout a lot when he didn’t get enough letters at war, suggesting a certain vanity. Martha, a wealthy widow, may have given him not just the status, but the fluffing his vanity seemed to require, though notably, she burned their correspondence. Well, nearly all: At least one letter was found that had slipped under a desk drawer. In it, he declares his “unalterable affection” for her. Still, in 1798, a year before his death, he was writing Sally Fairfax letters to tell her the moments he spent with her as a teenager were the “happiest in my life.”

But over time, historians say he grew out of the hotheaded temperament of his youth (and his mother?) to become a calm, fearless leader with great empathy for his people, a man of dignity and modesty. For someone so allegedly status-hungry, it’s interesting that Washington resigned as commander in chief in 1783 once the war was won and the Treaty of Paris had been signed. Was it a roundabout way of satisfying his mother, a public fan of King George III, who said if Washington gave up his power he would be “the greatest man in the world”?

Washington’s return to the game, attending the Continental Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 to help write the Constitution, is what led directly to his election as POTUS1. Washington was famously surprised and hesitant about accepting the job, which given his relation to Mary complicates that reading: Was he truly interested in getting back to his life as a farmer and gentleman, or was it merely a shrewd move of faux humility designed to snag the greatest position in the country?

Maybe it was both. It’s certainly possible that Mary’s temperament, character pitfalls and excessive mothering are behind some of his greatest successes and most irritating weaknesses, though we may never know if his care to protect her reputation comes from genuine admiration or the vanity behind the need for good PR. In 1784, at a Fredericksburg town celebration honoring him, George said that all of his success was from Mary, crediting “my reverend mother by whose maternal hand, early deprived of a father, I was led to manhood.”

Notably, Washington never fathered children of his own — his two stepchildren with Martha were hers from a previous marriage. By some accounts, he was a womanizer. By others, he was sterile, impotent or gay — “a big queen, basically.” Maybe he was closeted; maybe he was turned off from the idea of children after being raised by Mary.

Still, at his spring 1789 visit to Mary on her deathbed, passive-aggressive or not, he insisted he would decline the offer to be president to tend to her in her time of need. In reply, passive-aggressive or not, she told him he mustn’t. “But go, George,” she reportedly said. “Fulfill 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.”

Either way, he took the job, and she died a few months later, of breast cancer. He never saw her again. As all good mothers do — especially the complicated, sometimes bad ones — she got the last word.