TOPICS: Editors in the Field, Eighteenth-Century Life, George Washington, Historiography, Mary Ball Washington, Washington or Custis Family
by William M. Ferraro, Associate Editor
February 11, 2016
My trip to Fredericksburg, Virginia, in November 2015 to see George Washington‘s boyhood home at what is now known as Ferry Farm also allowed me to visit the house in town where George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, lived the final 17 years of her life. Born in 1708, married to the widower Augustine Washington in 1731, and widowed in 1743, Mary Washington never remarried. Until pressured to change by her children (sons George, Sam, John, and Charles, and daughter, Betty, who had married the prosperous Fredericksburg merchant Fielding Lewis), Mary Washington managed Ferry Farm on her own with the help of slaves. Apparently reluctant to move from the farm, she grudgingly agreed only at George’s insistence.
To ease the transition and to enable her to retain cherished independence, George purchased a modest house in Fredericksburg adjacent to the substantial home of Fielding and Betty Lewis, now known as Kenmore. He then upgraded the property. Presently in the hands of a local preservation foundation, Mary Washington’s quarters can be seen much as they looked during her occupancy. There is a formal parlor with decorative embellishments deemed fashionable at the period. In the prescribed manner for the time, Mary Washington entertained guests—generally with a spot of tea, according to the costumed tour guide—in this public setting distinct from her private room. That spacious room, across the hall, boasted features of a nice efficiency apartment: bed, writing desk, easy chair, wash area, dining table. Mary Washington’s slaves remained with her as cooks and servants. Upstairs is a small room where overnight visitors slept.
The yard was the real glory of Mary Washington’s home. Gardens with flowers, fruit trees, and vegetables filled a considerable portion of the two-acre lot. Walkways made strolling pleasurable and provided a direct route to her daughters’ house. A small stable in the back sheltered her horse. A generous covered porch—the most important feature—gave Widow Washington a comfortable perch to enjoy the beautiful outdoors connected to her house.
The current custodians and interpreters of Mary Washington’s home conclude from its suitability, fashionableness, and comforts that it represents clear evidence of George’s loving concern. In this regard, they agree with the surprising number of older publications that portray Mary Washington in a positive light and downplay differences between mother and son in favor of enduring emotional bonds.
Such depictions began with the flowery account of Margaret C. Conkling in Memoirs of the Mother and Wife of Washington (Auburn and Buffalo, N.Y., 1854). Benson J. Lossing’s Mary and Martha: The Mother and The Wife of George Washington (New York, 1886) adopts a scholarly tone as Lossing ponders fragmentary sources. Marion Harland’s The Story of Mary Washington (Boston, 1892) paints a respectful portrait with interesting line-drawing illustrations of significant sites and people in the subject’s life. Upset with women associated with famous men being overlooked by historians and biographers—or worse, flayed with falsehoods—Mrs. Roger A. Pryor in The Mother of Washington And Her Times (New York, 1903) mounted a vigorous defense: “The mother of Washington was in no sense a commonplace woman. Still less was she hard, uncultured, undignified, unrefined.” 1 Alice Curtis Desmond in George Washington’s Mother (New York, 1962), the most recent full-scale biography that has come to my attention, fundamentally agrees with Pryor’s assessment while taking sweeping liberties in her narrative.
All such attractive depictions of Mary Ball Washington failed to impress Douglas Southall Freeman, who wielded a pen of doom in his acclaimed multi-volume biography of George Washington. 2 Carefully testing all stories and traditions with the aid of a research team, and sticking closely to indisputable sources, Freeman essentially presented Mary Washington as an endless source of frustration and eventually a money pit for all her children, especially George. Deeming the son’s “lack of affection for his mother” to be “the strangest mystery of Washington’s life,” Freeman bluntly essayed: “His added years and understanding brought no improvement in his relations with her.” 3
My encounters with Mary Ball Washington while editing Washington’s papers have been limited. George and Mary infrequently exchanged letters, and the son’s other correspondence contains very few references to her. One of these rare mentions occurred in a letter from Fielding Lewis to George Washington dated March 2, 1779. “Our Friends are all well the Old Lady keeps her health,” Lewis informed his brother-in-law. Assuming the modern connotations for “Old Lady,” I ascribed negative feelings toward Mary Washington to both men. I have since learned that the phrase “old lady” was employed commonly and respectfully in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to describe elderly widows. In particular, references can be found pertaining to Nelly Madison, the mother of James Madison. She died in 1829 at the age of ninety seven.
With an interest in family relations and dynamics, I will remain alert to all documentary appearances of Mary Ball Washington and anticipate a veritable “mother lode” of such material to be mined from the Martha Washington Papers and the Washington Family Papers, which will be undertaken by Washington Papers colleagues over the next few years. Until then, I am inclined to stand with Freeman and pretty much all notable modern biographers of George Washington in presenting him as a dutiful son who fulfilled societal and legal expectations but felt little, if any, of the warmth and kindness that would animate a loving son.