Sunday is Mother’s Day. In the world of U.S. coins and paper money, there’s not much to look at with respect to such a holiday. We do, however, have an extremely popular first president who has appeared on coins, tokens, medals, paper money, and nearly every kind of financial product that can be stamped or printed—namely, George Washington. And as it happens, his journey to the status of Founding Father was strongly influenced by one of the most epic presidential mothers of all time: Mary Ball Washington.
Mary was 80 years old when her son became the first American president. She is sometimes remembered—when she is remembered at all—for being one of those demanding, embarrassing sorts of mothers, very controlling and eternally complaining. When George was a boy of 15, he wanted to join the British Royal Navy, but Mary wanted him by her side and wouldn’t permit it. Later, when he fought in the militia, her letters followed him, upbraiding him for being inattentive, and asking for money and other forms of assistance —including, on one noteworthy occasion, an indentured servant and some butter. Washington wrote back to let her know that they were “quite out of that part of the country where either are to be had. There are few and no inhabitants where we now lie encamped and butter cannot be had here to supply the wants of the camp.”
She later wrote to the Virginia House of Delegates requesting a state pension, claiming that she was quite destitute. When her son learned of this he was furious and pointed out that he sent money to her on a regular basis; “whence her distress arise therefore, I know not, never having received any complaint of inattention or neglect.” He also noted that any of her five children would “divide the last sixpence to relieve her from real distress. This she has been repeatedly assured of by me.”
Entertaining anecdotes, however, are more easily passed along than workaday truths. There is no doubt that Mary Washington was a challenging character who was remembered with equal parts fear and respect. A staunch loyalist to the British during the Revolution, she was tolerated by her neighbors because of her social standing and the dedication of her son to the American cause. One of Washington’s cousins said that “of the mother, I was ten times more afraid than I ever was of my own parents”—but he also said that “she awed me in the midst of her kindness, for she was, indeed, truly kind.”
Mary Ball came by her independence and tough-mindedness the hard way. Born in 1708, she was an only child. Her father died when she was only three, and her mother when she was 12. She was brought up by her guardian, a lawyer named George Eskridge (for whom she later named her son). In an era when women married in their teens, Mary remained single until the age of 22, when she married a widower named Augustine Washington. Biographers have speculated that her strong-minded nature chased away any earlier suitors.
Mary’s new husband already had two older sons by his first wife. Augustine and Mary had George in 1732, followed by five more children by 1739. Augustine died when Mary was 35, and his property was divided with the lion’s share going to his two eldest sons, Lawrence and Augustine Jr. By the custom of the time, if she were to remarry, her own property would belong to her new husband—and by the requirements of Augustine’s will, George’s inheritance would go to Lawrence. To secure George’s future she opted not to remarry but to run her husband’s estate herself, even though marriage would have made her more secure. She worried about money; she had just five years during which she would receive an income from her late husband’s farm, at that point George would come of age, and that income would go to him.
As for her refusal to let George join the British Navy, it was no simple matter of keeping her thumb on him. Mary had done her homework, writing to her brother, Joseph, for his opinion. He replied that George’s prospects in the navy would be poor, as he was a middle son with no financial or social leverage and no influential patrons. The navy would be extremely hard on him, even brutal. Better to take over the farm and become a planter himself.
As it turned out, George became a successful planter and soldier, and he inherited his eldest brother’s Mount Vernon estate when the latter died. He went on to become the nation’s first president, and has endured as one of the most popular symbols of the republic.
There is always more to history than the popular imagination holds. Each major figure’s story, when examined more closely, has layers, nuances, confounding factors, and contradictions. George Washington might have been destined for greatness had he landed in an orphanage—but he had a strong-minded mother who chose to forgo an easier life for herself in favor of her son’s future. She may not appear on American money, but she appears in the face of her son and in the gifts he bestowed on the young country.
Happy Mother’s Day! ❑