by William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
November 17, 2017
In a blog post from February 2016, I reviewed interpretations of George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, and found them to fall into two camps: either simplistically laudatory or bitingly critical. Moreover, neither side found evidence of a close relationship between mother and son. For sure, the documentary record contains few letters between Mary and George, and references to Mary in her famous son’s voluminous surviving correspondence are exceedingly scattered. There is little basis to claim that she played a central role in George’s accomplishments and fame. The absence of such evidence gives greater salience to Mary’s carping in her old age about lack of money and support from her children. George’s frustration over these complaints prompted harsh portrayals of his mother in subsequent historical analysis.
Recently, scholars have taken new approaches to configure a more substantial and nuanced interpretation of Mary Washington. Philip Levy provides the most creative and sustained reassessment in his George Washington Written Upon the Land: Nature, Memory, Myth, and Landscape (Morgantown, W.Va., 2015). Using archaeological discoveries and exhaustively rereading all historical sources bearing on George’s childhood, Levy presents Mary as resourceful, inventive, determined, and an assiduous advocate for her eldest child. For example, he explains that the large number of wig curlers found in a contained area at Ferry Farm (Mary’s home near Fredericksburg, Va.) indicates the operation of an “artisanal shop” to generate cash for the household.1 Mary used the money to stretch the family’s “purchasing power,” so that she and her children could obtain objects vital to gentry status, even if not the finest versions.2 Mindful of hierarchy in colonial Virginia, Mary ensured that George secured opportunities for social advancement and avoided missteps. For instance, when George wished to join the Royal Navy, Mary solicited her brother’s opinion of a British naval career. His severely negative response scuttled the idea.
Less ranging in his handling of Mary Washington but equally positive, Kevin J. Hayes sees Mary as crucial to instilling in George a love of learning. In George Washington: A Life in Books (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), Hayes painstakingly reviews, page by page, all surviving books once in George’s possession. In his brief section on Mary, he presents her as far from illiterate or coarse. She owned and read books that implanted piety and religious feeling in her son, and she encouraged him to reflect on his reading and experiences through shared engagement with books promoting meditation and contemplation. Volumes that Mary signed ended up in George’s hands and remained in his library until his death. The mother’s early interests and lessons maintained a place in her son’s home and heart.
Both Levy and Hayes rely heavily upon documents in The Papers of George Washington to undergird and extend their arguments. As Washington Papers editors continue their work on this landmark edition, the contents promise to inspire and invigorate a continuous stream of new scholarship and insights on George Washington and his world.
- Philip Levy, George Washington Written Upon the Land: Nature, Memory, Myth, and Landscape (Morgantown, W.Va.), 122.
- Levy, George Washington, 123.