Long before Mother’s Day became an official holiday, the women who gave birth to us were being held aloft upon the American pop culture pedestal, revered, beloved, honored and practically beatified. Thirteen moms in history, however, had that most rarefied swell of pride by living to see their sons grasp the golden prize of American Motherhood, when their boys became President of the United States.
Among these were gently understanding mothers filled with unconditional love who humbly deferred credit for the worldly success of their sons, women who lived forever in the hearts of their sons.
And then, there was Mary Ball Washington.
Demanding, intrusive, unhappy, disapproving and disciplinary. In fairness, at times she could be loving, in a manipulatively smothering manner to successfully inspired guilt and humiliation.
On the one hand, she was so seemingly indifferent to anything her boy George accomplished that she failed to acknowledge even his unanimous election as the nation’s first President. On the other hand, she felt pilgrimages of adoration to her by the likes of Jefferson and General Lafayette were simply her entitlement.
She obsessed on the trivial at the expense of the big picture. The Mother of the Father of His Country was not only the first woman to see her son become President but surely one of the original pieces of work.
Of Dutch and English ancestry, she was an only child, born in Lively, Virginia on November 30, 1708. Her father died when she was three and her mother when she was twelve.
She inherited a substantial degree of property overseen by a lawyer (his name was George) who was also assigned to be her guardian, but seemed to function at her own whim until she married twelve years later, in 1731, becoming the second wife of Augustine Washington.
His 1743 death left an eleven-year old George Washington without a father. If left his mother with two stepsons, four sons, one daughter and one stepdaughter.
Mary Washington viewed her financial future with fear, the bulk of her late husband’s estate would be inherited by his eldest son Lawrence. In reaction, she focused her anxieties on her eldest son, George and what she often claimed was her worry for his safety was more often concern about her having lots of money. After all, she also knew that her late husband’s will had left Ferry Farm to inherit at age 21 and that he would be her likely provider in old age. She would make sure of that. He moved away from her as soon as he could, to live with his older brothers at their estates, but she still exercised control over him.
The first great disappointment of his life was her refusal to let him go study in England as his step-brothers had done. As a young adult on the brink of making his own decisions, he was offered a place in the English navy. Fearing that this would ruin her plan for him to take up farming and generate a steady income for her, she got her own brother into the act and forced George to turn down the offer.
It was only when he decided to pursue surveying work in the western frontier region that she dropped her stated worry about his safety out there. It would pay nicely.
She watched his every move like a hawk, always quick to criticize and never known to praise. One of his childhood friends recalled, “Of the mother I was ten times more afraid than of my own parents.”
As George matured, he did what he could to keep her from knowing what was up with him. When he suffered military defeat, he asked his siblings to withhold the news from her.
She had, nevertheless, an uncanny ability to track down and annoy him with complaints that he was ignoring her emotionally and financially, always managing to ignore any public recognition he received. When he inherited Ferry Farm at 21 years old, George basically let his mother keep everything. That wasn’t enough.
He couldn’t bring himself to openly confront her but he complained to his siblings about how much money she seemed to burn through. No matter what he did for her, he reflected, he never seemed to please her enough.
In 1781, as he was leading the American colonies as Commanding General of the Continental Army and devising a final military strategy to win independence for what would soon be the new nation, Mary Ball Washington was moaning again about how he wasn’t answering her pleas for more money.
This time, she proposed a scheme that would not just get her fast cash, but publicly shame George Washington up and down the eastern seaboard. She had the Virginia House of Delegates petitioned with a plea to provide her with a pension. It wasn’t long before General Washington had to turn from winning a war to combating his mother.
Humiliated, he dashed off a note to the Virginia House of Delegates asking them to cancel the request. “Before I left Virginia, I answered all her calls for money; and since that time have directed my steward [his brother John] to do the same. Whence her distresses can arise therefor, I know not.”
He sent her more money.
A year later she got around to thanking him – in the very same letter in which she complained that he hadn’t given her enough warning that he had been planning to come to her. For all the poverty and sickness that she claimed consumed her life, Mary Ball Washington managed to get herself off for a nice long visit with kinfolk willing to endure her. Of course, that’s right when George Washington came home to make her a surprise visit.
Mary Washington did love and worry about her son, and he felt likewise. In the end, he swallowed his resentments and dutifully tried to please and earn her validation. It was just that she seemed to have a problem providing it without also making demands at the same time.
During the American Revolution, however, she often walked to a rock where she sat in meditative prayer, hoping for the safety of her son and the successful fight for independence.
At least that’s what the Mary Washington Memorial Association, created by Victorian ladies claimed.
According to French soldiers encamped in Virginia during the war, however, Mary Washington was a Loyalist who supported England and couldn’t fathom all the revolutionary trouble her boy had gotten himself mixed up in.
It does seem as if she chose to test how devoted her son could be to her right when he was facing his most challenging moments. Just as he was trying to negotiate a peace treaty with England, end the war and help establish a beacon of democracy in North America, for example, Mary Washington got going all over again.
Exasperated, George asked his brother John to deal with mom. “[I]t is too much while I am suffering in every other way,” he griped, “to be saddled with all the expense of hers.” Fearing that she would again go public to embarrass him into giving her money, General Washington advised his brother to “represent to her in delicate terms the impropriety of her complaints.”
In response, Mary Washington started harping on John, warning him that, “I am going fast…I never lived so poor in my life.”
Actually, John went faster, dying in 1787.
Soon enough, Mrs. Washington’s was back nagging George.
In 1772, before the Revolution, he’d finally written her a good long letter and told her that she’d be better off no longer living alone at Ferry Farm, near Fredericksburg, Virginia. He urged her to instead “live with one of your children” – but just not with him at Mount Vernon; she’d find that with so many visitors it was like a “tavern” and would “never answer your purposes.”
Mary got the message. With the skill of professional martyrdom that only a mother could employ, however, she refused to make herself a burden on any of her children. She wanted to live alone. In her own, little place.
So, George Washington had to buy her a house. It was located in town, perhaps a bit too close for the comfort of her daughter Betty Lewis.
Sure enough, over the years the impossible duty of keeping Mary happy fell largely on Betty. In the last days of winter in 1789, before heading north to New York City, to be sworn in as the first President of the United States, George Washington made a side trip to dutifully check in on them both in Fredericksburg.
He was shocked at the physical condition not of his mother – but of Betty. She had been worn down by the demands of Mary.
His mother had, however, lost a considerable amount of weight, suffering from what was believed to be cancer. Washington received a number of reports about her fighting against her doctor’s wish to dress a wound. On one earlier occasion, she had a messenger carry by horseback a dire warning to him at Mount Vernon, alarming him into coming to her, being led to believe she was on her deathbed.
But she was pleased she could still get him to come running to her when she wanted.
True to form, on George Washington’s March 12, 1789 visit, his mother refused to acknowledge that he’d been chosen as the first President. He had to bring it up, promising that as “soon as public business, which must necessarily be encountered in forming a new government, can be dispensed with, I shall hasten back.”
“You will see me no more,” she sighed. “I shall not be long in this world. But you, George, go fulfill the highest destinies which heaven has assigned you.”
And with that final guilt trip, she placed her holy hand over his head to offer “heaven’s blessing”and sent him on his way.
Indeed, it was last call for Mary Ball. She died on August 24, 1789.
Looking back at their relationship, George Washington’s step-grandson, who knew her, characterized the senior Mrs. Washington as the “parental authority which commanded obedience.”
The first President had a few choice words of his own in memorializing mom: “She had a great deal of money from me.”
One tough mother.