Amherst Magazine

Work in Progress

imageBy Emily Gold Boutilier

When it comes to George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, the historical record is thin. Scholars know she was a slave owner, having inherited, as a child, three slaves close to her own age. They also know she was in her 30s when her husband died, and that, unlike most widows of her era and class, she never remarried.

Martha Saxton, professor of history and women’s and gender studies, became interested in Mary Washington while working on her 2003 book Being Good: Women’s Moral Values in Early America. “She and George often disagreed about money,” Saxton says. “This was not at all atypical of first sons and their widowed mothers in this period. That intrigued me.”

Saxton dug deeper. The few books written about Mary Washington, Saxton says, are either classified as fiction or so imagined that they might as well be called fiction. In the 19th century, George Washington’s biographers characterized Mary as the perfect mother, while 20th-century biographers drew her as craggy and difficult. Because Mary left almost no records,  Saxton explains, “it’s been easy for people to adopt whatever position they needed to.”

This academic year, Saxton is on sabbatical at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, where she’s researching and writing a book tentatively titled The Widow Washington. She’s studying letters, diaries and other documents from and about Mary’s relatives, friends and acquaintances, piecing together details about Mary Washington as a mother, slave owner, widow and landowner.

“I have little surprises every day,” Saxton says.  Recently, she discovered that the man who probably introduced Mary to George’s father was influential in passing legislation that prevented slaves from giving testimony in court.

In addition to reconstructing Mary Washington’s life, the book will look at the transformation of biography over the past two centuries. 

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04.