The Mother Who Raised the Father of Our Country
May 10, 2020
For Mother’s Day, I interviewed Craig Shirley about his most recent book, “Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of Story of George Washington’s Mother.”
Four books on Ronald Reagan, one on Newt Gingrich and one on December 1941 – my own favorite – and now you turn to George Washington’s mother? How did that happen?
Actually, I’d been thinking about a book on Washington for a long time. I am proud to be called a Reagan scholar and biographer, but I’ve also written books about other historic figures such as FDR. But I wanted to get at Washington in a different way and I realized that there had never been written an accurate and detailed biography of his mother. That, plus Washington is my favorite president. And because for many years our house in Mount Vernon was on one of Washington’s five farms — Dogue Creek — where he used to do his experimental farming and allowed friends to build fishing shacks and where he and Martha used to have big picnics. Now we live in a 1730 Georgian four-square manor house — Ben Lomond — here on the Middle Peninsula and this was the old stomping ground of the Ball family but also Washington.
Mary Ball Washington does not have a great historical reputation. Most people have forgotten her. Those who remember her say uncomplimentary things — that she was a Tory sympathizer, for instance. Is that true?
No, she did not have a good reputation, which is why I wanted to write this historical corrective. History has been very unkind to Mary and unfairly so. My observation is that good parents can raise a bad child but it is almost impossible for bad parents to raise a good child. She was a single mother in her 30s raising six children (Mildred, the youngest, died as a small child) in a century that was not very hospitable to women. If she was tough, it was because she had to be to survive. Women in the 1700s could not vote, we know that, but they could not even own property. When their husbands died, they were expected to act as caretaker until their eldest son reached the age of majority.
As far as being a Tory sympathizer, it was yes and no. She was born around 1708 in the Colonies, which were deeply steeped in the British culture. King George II and King George III were her kings. She was a member of the Church of England, the Anglican Church. She — and almost everybody in the Colonies — breathed British, lived British, believed British. For the first 60 years of her life, she’d been deeply steeped in the ways of the British, so to ask her (and others) to reject all that she’d learned and grew up believing was quite a task, which explains why so many Colonists were opposed to the revolution. It would be like taking one of us and putting us down in Moscow in the 1930s and telling us that all we learned about America and freedom and privacy was wrong and forced collectivism was the only way.
There was one report of French soldiers moving through Fredericksburg and noting that Mary was a strong Tory, but if that is true, she never acted on it.
Okay, but you won’t deny that she talked her son out of joining the British Navy. If she had gotten her way, would GW even have become a soldier?
Yes, she did, and once again altered the course of history. Had Washington become a British cabin boy, he might have died at sea, as many cabin boys did in those times. But had he lived, he might well have stayed in the British Navy and there might never have been an American Revolution. Washington was “The Essential Man.” He was chosen unanimously to lead the Continental Army. He was unanimously chosen to preside over the Constitutional Convention. He was unanimously chosen as first president of the United States and unanimously reelected as president of the United States. He held together the Continental Army for seven years. Among all the men of the revolution, only Washington had the strength to do so.
Her eldest son addressed her as “Honored Madam.” That seems pretty formal. Was there an emotional distance between GW and his mother?
Yes, there was an emotional distance. In all his letters to his mother, he always used the salutation “Honored Madam.” (I wanted to name this book Honored Madam but my publisher overruled me.) I think it showed his respect for her but also suggested a formal wall between the two of them.
While writing about Reagan, my father, Lou Cannon, whom you know, was struck by how strong a person Reagan’s mother was. He found that to be common among U.S. presidents. Was this another precedent set by George Washington?
Your father stands as one of the best, if not the best, of the Reagan biographers and I will always be grateful that Lou did the forward to my Reagan book, “Last Act.” And I agree with Lou, Nelle Reagan was a strong influence in Reagan’s life, which explains why he followed her in the Disciples of Christ Church and not the Catholic Church of his father, Jack. Reagan kept her Bible at his side, all his life, and often told of how she wrote in the margin, “As long as you have books, you will never be alone.”
It seems that little is known about George Washington’s childhood? Did you find enough to know how Mary Ball Washington helped shape her son’s character?
This period of George’s life is a bit thin. But we went through correspondence, contemporaneous history and other accounts to construct a fairly detailed account of his childhood. He was a dutiful son, spent a lot of time traveling, loved horseback riding, dancing and being a surveyor. A cousin of George’s, Lawrence Washington, wrote of Mary, “I was often there with George, his playmate, his schoolmate. … Of the mother, I was ten times more afraid than of my own parents. She awed me in the midst of her kindness, for she was truly kind … and even now, when time has whitened my locks … I could not behold that majestic woman without feelings it is impossible to describe.”
What struck you about their correspondence? I mean, what did they write to each other?
Much of it is lost to history. She did not burn his letters, like Martha Washington did, but for the years of the revolution, he did not write her once. But he also did not make any entries into his diaries for that period of time. Clearly, Washington was afraid of his correspondence falling into enemy hands. But he never signed off “Love” and neither did she. It was just a more formal and correct time.
How would you describe the nature of their adult relationship?
Formal. But he was always devoted to Mary. He made sure she got her regular allowances for her livelihood. He visited her often, though not during the revolution, but when he went to Williamsburg, Fredericksburg was on the way.
Mary Ball Washington’s husband died before he turned 50, meaning that she lived alone a long time. Why didn’t her son George bring his mom to live at Mount Vernon?
Not clear, but she never did visit Mount Vernon. She may have gone years earlier when it was still known as Little Hunting Creek, but we just don’t know. But, once, Washington wrote a letter to his mother-in-law telling her to come visit — there was plenty of food, plenty of company, plenty of music and plenty of room. Along about the same time, he wrote a letter to his mother telling her she wouldn’t like visiting Mount Vernon as she wouldn’t like the food, she wouldn’t like the music, she wouldn’t like the company and their wasn’t much room.
All right, here’s a thought experiment for Mother’s Day 2020: What would America look like without Mary Ball Washington?
That is really the essential point. She raised George. She molded George. And all those qualities we admire in him have become the standard for all other presidents — integrity, honesty, bravery, faith, humor, leadership, camaraderie, modesty — all the superior attributes we’ve found in most other presidents like Lincoln, FDR and Ronald Reagan. After the American Revolution, King George III said if Washington laid down his sword Cincinnatus-style, he would be regarded as the greatest man in the world. That is precisely what Washington did. And it is my belief that he gained all these magnificent qualities from his mother, Mary Ball Washington.
As the old adage goes, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.