A Documentary Lens Benefits Mary Ball Washington: Her Son’s Correspondence on March 21, 1781

TOPICS: Featured Document(s), Washington or Custis Family

by William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
August 20, 2021

Mary Ball Washington, as featured  in Benson J. Lossing’s Mary and Martha: The Mother and The Wife of George Washington (New York, 1886).

Longstanding assessments of Mary Ball Washington have been harsh and critical. George Washington’s mother is presented as selfish, demanding, difficult, and largely uncouth.1 Some softening has occurred since the turn of the century, with investigations giving her credit for holding her family together despite limited financial means after being widowed in 1743, and for inculcating in her children the rudiments required for a place in respectable society through instruction in basic Christian precepts and proper manners.2 In particular, two full biographies of Mary Ball Washington have been published that shine a more sympathetic light on her life.3 A less fully developed but still positive reinterpretation can be found in Alexis Coe’s George Washington biography, which attracted considerable attention.4

Very few documents survive with direct information on Mary Ball Washington. That reality has allowed latitude for analysis and conclusions. Arguably, the most important letter prompting a negative view of his mother was one George Washington wrote his friend and Virginia legislator Benjamin Harrison on March 21, 1781. In response to a communication from Harrison that the Virginia legislature had received reports of Mary Ball Washington’s distressed circumstances and was contemplating a pension or other financial assistance for her, Washington definitively dismissed any such action or public beneficence. To support his dismissal, he detailed the efforts he had made before the war to “purchase a commodious house” with “Garden & Lotts (of her own choosing) in Fredericksburg, that she might be near my sister [Betty] Lewis, her only daughter.” Washington then discussed other steps that had been taken to ensure his mother had sufficient money for her needs and confidently expressed “that she has not a child that would not divide the last sixpence to relieve her from real distress.”5 This letter, which gave plenty of room for unfavorable inferences, first appeared to the general public in the second large-scale edition of George Washington’s documentary record, and it is not surprising that interpretations of his mother soon became more demeaning.6

What has been missed by those who edited this letter or seized upon it as evidence to deride Mary Ball Washington as a constant burden on her son are the circumstances under which Washington penned these thoughts. For starters, Washington authored eight other letters on that busy day.7 While his aides-de-camp drafted most of these letters, it is known that they typically followed outlines or other specific directions from Washington. The general then reviewed the drafts and suggested revisions before signing a final clean version sent to the recipient.8 At least three letters written on this date followed that pattern, and it may have been the case for three others.9

Mary Ball Washington’s home in Fredericksburg, as featured on pg. 57 of Benson J. Lossing’s Mary and Martha: The Mother and The Wife of George Washington (New York, 1886).

Washington himself drafted two other highly complex letters sent on this date. The longest one went to Maj. Gen. William Heath and answered a lengthy remonstrance from Massachusetts officers upset that Washington had chosen Frenchmen for commands in the detachment sent to the southern department under Major General Lafayette. Having to explain his decision to the aggrieved officers troubled Washington, who believed it “a painful reflection, that the best endeavors to promote the Service is subject to, and often meets with, the most unfavourable constructions; and that the numerous embarrassments which the distressed situation of our affairs unavoidably involve us in, should be increased by ill founded jealousies, & groundless suspicions.” Underscoring the importance he placed on this letter, Washington wrote and signed the recipient’s copy as well as the draft.10

The second letter that Washington drafted himself on March 21 went to French major general Chastellux, whom he had just seen at Newport, R.I., months after meeting him for the first time the previous fall and striking up a friendship. While predominantly a courtesy letter to thank his French army hosts for the hospitality shown him on his recent visit to discuss joint operations, Washington also shared diplomatic and military intelligence. Easily overlooked, he began with a description of his return trip from Rhode Island that included “passing over very bad roads & riding thro very foul weather.”11 Washington had departed for Rhode Island from his headquarters at New Windsor, N.Y., on March 2. His trip covered eighteen grueling days with numerous public appearances, social activities, and official duties in Connecticut (going and coming), Newport, and Providence.12

Washington’s letter to Benjamin Harrison—known, unfortunately, only from a letter-book copy—assumes a new cast in the context of his being a weary traveler bothered with an abundance of letters to prepare on irksome topics. Rather than calm and measured remarks about his mother, his words likely arose in large measure from temporary crankiness and exhaustion. Knowing and appreciating the context of Washington’s letter renders it an outlier in evaluating his sentiments toward his mother. Once again, we see how the recovery and awareness of an entire documentary record is vital to biography, history, and all scholarship.

 


  1. Central to this unflattering depiction are two influential multivolume biographies: Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, 7 vols. (New York, 1948‒57), especially 1:193–94, 6:228–31; and James Thomas Flexner, George Washington, 4 vols. (Boston, 1965‒69), especially 1:18–20, 2:471, 3:36–37. For a recent reiteration, see Peter Stark, Young Washington: How Wilderness and War Forged America’s Founding Father (New York, 2018), 182, 190–91, 353–54.
  2. See Philip Levy, George Washington Written Upon the Land: Nature, Memory, Myth, and Landscape (Morgantown, W.Va., 2015), 122‒23, and Kevin J. Hayes, George Washington: A Life in Books (New York, 2017), 8–13; see also “Rehabilitating Mary Ball Washington’s Importance as George Washington’s Mother” (https://washingtonpapers.org/rehabilitating-mary-ball-washingtons-importance-george-washingtons-mother/).
  3. See Martha Saxton, The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington (New York: 2019), and Craig Shirley, Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother (New York, 2019).
  4. See Alexis Coe, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington (New York, 2020), especially xxxiv–xl, 4–9.
  5. Papers of George Washington, Library of Congress.
  6. See Worthington C. Ford, ed., The Writings of George Washington, 14 vols. (New York, 1889‒93), 9:182‒84. Washington’s letter to Benjamin Harrison appeared again in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745‒1799. 39 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1931‒44), 21:340‒42.
  7. Only one of these letters appears in the first edition that includes the missive to Benjamin Harrison (see Ford, Writings, 9:185‒87). A subsequent edition with the Harrison letter presents all eight (see Fitzpatrick, Writings, 21:342‒51).
  8. For the preparation of Washington’s military correspondence, see his letter to the Board of War, Nov. 19, 1779, n.4, in William M. Ferraro, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 23 (Charlottesville, Va., 2015), 341.
  9. The letters that Washington signed after his aides-de-camp completed the recipient’s copy were to Samuel Huntington, president of Congress (National Archives, Papers of the Continental Congress, item 152); to Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson (Library of Virginia, Richmond); and to French lieutenant general Rochambeau (with a postscript dated March 22, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Rochambeau Papers and Rochambeau Family Cartographic Archive, New Haven, Conn.). Only drafts survive for letters written on March 21 to Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, to Major General Steuben, and to Joseph Reed and James Potter (all Papers of George Washington, Library of Congress).
  10. For Washington’s autograph letter signed, see the Heath Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. Washington’s signed draft is in the Papers of George Washington, Library of Congress.
  11. Papers of George Washington, Library of Congress.
  12. Details on Washington’s trip to Rhode Island—and full annotation of his outgoing and incoming correspondence on March 21, 1781—will be in volume 31 of the Revolutionary War Series, Papers of George Washington, forthcoming.