The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington cover
The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington
by Martha Saxton
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Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 2019; 384 pp.
Genre: Non-fiction
Category: American Studies, Biography, History
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An insightful biography of Mary Ball Washington, the mother of our nation's father

The Widow Washington is the first life of Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother, based on archival sources. Her son’s biographers have, for the most part, painted her as self-centered and crude, a trial and an obstacle to her oldest child. But the records tell a very different story. Mary Ball, the daughter of a wealthy planter and a formerly indentured servant, was orphaned young and grew up working hard, practicing frugality and piety. Stepping into Virginia’s upper class, she married an older man, the planter Augustine Washington, with whom she had five children before his death eleven years later. As a widow deprived of most of her late husband’s properties, Mary struggled to raise her children, but managed to secure them places among Virginia’s elite. In her later years, she and her wealthy son George had a contentious relationship, often disagreeing over money, with George dismissing as imaginary her fears of poverty and helplessness.

Yet Mary Ball Washington had a greater impact on George than mothers of that time and place usually had on their sons. George did not have the wealth or freedom to enjoy the indulged adolescence typical of young men among the planter class. Mary’s demanding mothering imbued him with many of the moral and religious principles by which he lived. The two were strikingly similar, though the commanding demeanor, persistence, athleticism, penny-pinching, and irascibility that they shared have served the memory of the country’s father immeasurably better than that of his mother. Martha Saxton’s The Widow Washington is a necessary and deeply insightful corrective, telling the story of Mary’s long, arduous life on its own terms, and not treating her as her son’s satellite.