The house where George Washington was born had long ago gone to ruins by 1816, when his adopted son George Washington Parke Custis sailed to Pope’s Creek in Virginia and laid a stone near the spot. Unmarked a few dozen miles to the west, Custis bemoaned, lay the grave of the woman who brought Washington into the world. Even today, no historian can precisely say where lies the body of Mary Ball Washington.
To the noble undertaking of unearthing the mother of the father of his country comes biographer Craig Shirley with his new book, Mary Ball Washington. Famous for biographies of Ronald Reagan, Shirley is new to the field of 18th-century history and has chosen a topic that could send the most veteran historian of the American Revolution into retreat.
According to one famous account, Mary (as Shirley gives us the courage to call Washington’s mother) frightened even her own children. “Of the mother I was ten times more afraid than I ever was of my own parents,” recalled an old man who had played with Washington in youth and remembered all the Washington boys being “mute as mice” in her presence. A biographer could be forgiven for being equally so, for so little can be said about Mary with certainty.
One would expect to find a wealth of primary-source material about a woman who lived to see her son win not only the Revolutionary War but also America’s first presidential election, but such is not the case. Only seven letters between Mary and Washington have survived, and they have left an unflattering portrait of her as the kind of woman who asks a son heading off to wage war in hostile terrain to pick up some groceries for her along the way.
“Sorry it is not in my power to provide you with . . . butter as you desire,” Washington wrote his mother while accompanying British general Edward Braddock on his infamous expedition to the Forks of the Ohio during the French and Indian War. “Butter cannot be had here to supply the wants of the camp.” Just weeks later, Washington would witness French and Indian forces slaughter his comrades. No wonder that Washington, a prolific correspondent, appears to have gone out of his way to limit communication with his mother.
So out of touch was Washington with Mary during the Revolutionary War that news of the Virginia legislature’s considering a petition to rescue her from self-proclaimed poverty surprised and humiliated him. “I am but little acquainted with her present situation, or distresses, if she is under any,” he responded. “Confident I am that she has not a child that would not divide the last sixpence to relieve her from real distress.”
The last surviving letter from Washington to his mother bears the date of February 15, 1787. In it, he complains about being made to appear an “unjust and undutiful son” and implores her to move in with whichever of her children she chooses so long as it is not him.
Out of the void of primary-source material has sprung up what one might expect when dealing with the mother of a patriarch: hagiography. True, Mary’s husband, Augustine Washington, has locked up his place in lore as the more influential of the parenting duo, thanks largely to the fabulist Parson Weems. But George Washington’s adopted son, Custis, believed the mother deserved her due, too, despite having no blood relation to her.
Where Weems spun the story about young George receiving his father’s forgiveness after confessing to killing a cherry tree, Custis offered an account of Mary listening to her son admit to killing a beloved family horse that he had tried to tame. “While I regret the loss of my favorite [horse],” she supposedly said, “I rejoice in my son, who always speaks the truth.” When Washington left Virginia to accept the presidency in 1789, he stopped to see his dying mother a final time and, in Custis’s telling, sobbed upon her shoulder.
For all that Custis did to warm readers to Mary, the most notable insight he provided was an unintentional and chilling one: that he himself had “not the happiness . . . to remember her.” It is a startling admission when one considers that she lived past his eighth birthday and not far away from the Mount Vernon estate where he grew up. Evidently, Washington made little effort to foster a relationship between his mother and his adopted son.
The biographer attempting a serious history of Mary, as a result, faces unsatisfying options for how to piece together her life. Dwell too much on the historiography of how accounts of Mary have changed through the years and risk saying less about her than about her biographers. Venture too far into the social history of how the typical 18th-century woman lived and forget that most readers will have bought the book not because of what is ordinary about Mary but because of what is extraordinary: She was George Washington’s mother. Focus too much on the political events that made her son famous and go for pages without the mere mention of Mary.
To note that Shirley falls at different points into the traps associated with each of these approaches is less a criticism than an acknowledgment of his labors to integrate historiography, social history, and political history into a coherent narrative. “This book,” he writes at its outset, “is just as much a historiography of Mary Washington as it is a biography” and “just as much a history of Mary’s times as [of] her near century of life.”
The results are not always successful. The style sometimes creates confusion as to what is fact and what is myth, as, for example, when Shirley relays the true story of Mary’s being so “alarmed” at her son’s plan to join the expedition to the Forks of the Ohio in 1755 that she showed up unexpectedly at his doorstep and made him miss a meeting he had set with British officers. A story like that requires no adornment, but some slips into Shirley’s account. “Oh, this fighting and killing,” he quotes Mary shouting at her son at one point, on the authority of early biographers happy to supply dialogue of dubious origin.
So what can be said for certain about the mother of Washington? She lost her father and mother at a young age, married the widower Augustine Washington, and never remarried after his death. Whether for selfish reasons (who would bring her butter?) or for selfless ones (what would become of her oldest son once out of her embrace?) or most likely for some combination of the two, she was protective of Washington. She quashed a plan to ship him out with the British Royal Navy, a career that Shirley speculates would have set Washington on a course different from the one he followed during the American Revolution.
Suspicions that Mary herself did not support her son’s side during the American Revolution have long shadowed her name. A French officer traveling to the town where she lived in Virginia heard her described as “one of the most rabid Tories.” Shirley doubts the “rabid” part but largely accepts the Tory piece. “She was probably a royalist, at least initially,” he writes.
That contention gives Shirley all the more reason to make his most intriguing argument: the drawing of a parallel between the struggle Washington waged for his country’s freedom and the struggle he waged for his own. “In the same way that he led a country to break away from its overbearing imperial matron,” Shirley writes, “George had to struggle to find independence in his own life, to step away from the power of his demanding mother.”
However much Washington wanted to detach himself from his mother, he never could completely. No child can. Parts of her character embedded themselves in his own. The surviving details of her life offer some of the best clues to understanding the touchiness that he displayed toward his own finances, the respect his mere presence commanded in others, and the domineering tone that pervades the letters he sent to his adopted son, Custis.
Shirley holds out hope that archeologists will one day find the remains of Mary Ball Washington. But in some sense, she never really went missing. Even in death, she lived on in the man whom a grateful country will always remember as its father.
This article appears as “The Mother of the Father of His Country” in the December 31, 2019, print edition of National Review.