On this day in 1789, George Washington’s mother passes away from breast cancer. Did you ever wonder about his mother? Did the two get along? What was their relationship like?
Not much is known about Mary Ball Washington’s early years, but we know that she was an orphan by the time she was 12 years old. She later married a widower, Augustine Washington.
No one could then know it, but the marriage would produce the father of a new American nation!
Mary and Augustine’s first son together was born in February 1732. George Washington soon had five more siblings, although not all of these children (or Mary’s step-children) would survive to adulthood. The Washingtons had high hopes for the education of their children, but these hopes died with Augustine when he passed away in 1743.
By age 11, George was the son of a single mother, without some of the benefits that he would have had if his father had lived. On the other hand, his mother was no wilting flower. She could handle the responsibilities suddenly shoved upon her.
George’s cousin reportedly was a bit afraid of her. “Of the mother I was ten times more afraid than I ever was of my own parents,” he said. “She awed me in the midst of her kindness, for she was, indeed, truly kind. . . . [E]ven now, when time has whitened my locks, and I am the grand-parent of a second generation, I could not behold that remarkable woman without feelings it is impossible to describe.” In her presence, he noted, they were “all as mute as mice.”
Relations between George and his mother seem to have become difficult at some point, although George largely kept his feelings about his mother private.
Early on, she wouldn’t let him join the Royal Navy. Later, as George served in the French and Indian War, Mary wrote to complain that she was having trouble getting butter. (Never mind the life-and-death situation you are dealing with, son. If you really want to do something useful, get me some butter!) Later, Mary embarrassed him by requesting a pension from the Virginia legislature. (Since you won’t sufficiently take care of me, son, I’ll find help elsewhere!) Following his victory at Yorktown, George stopped by Fredericksburg, where she then lived. Mary couldn’t be bothered to stay in town to see him. Instead, she later mailed him a prickly letter, thanking him for the money he’d left behind and asking for a different house: “some little hous of my one if it is only twelve foot squar.”
Did I forget to mention that Washington had already bought one house for her? Apparently she needed something better.
Washington biographer Ron Chernow notes: “The world might be buzzing excitedly about Yorktown, but Mary Washington resolutely refused to congratulate her son or even mention the event.” Nor did she send condolences when Washington’s stepson died at about the same time.
What a flood of conflicting emotions for General Washington. His mother won’t acknowledge his success, instead demanding a new house. He loses a much-loved stepson. And yet, in the midst of these difficulties, he is being celebrated for a victory that rocked the world!
Mary passed away several months after Washington was inaugurated as President. Washington officially mourned for five months, but did he let a little of his feelings shine through when he allowed her to be buried with no gravestone? A gravestone and monument were eventually added, but not until long after Washington’s death.
Washington may have had difficulties with his mother, but he undoubtedly obtained much of his strength from her as well. As his cousin observed: “Whoever has seen that awe-inspiring air and manner so characteristic in the Father of His Country, will remember the matron.”
Affectionately Yours, George Washington: A Self-Portrait in Letters of Friendship (Thomas J. Fleming ed., 1967)
Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington, a Biography, Vol. I: Young Washington (1948)
Edward G. Lengel, General George Washington: A Military Life (2005)
Letter from George Washington to Benjamin Harrison (Mar. 21, 1781)
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (2010)