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‘Complicated, Very Complicated’

George Washington’s often contentious relationship with his mother shaped the leader he became

By Peter R. Henriques


The reputation of Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother, has changed over the years from exaggerated saintliness to unalloyed shrewishness. Ron Chernow, author of the insightful Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of George Washington, described Mary as “crude,” “slovenly” and “illiterate,” a woman who “leveled a steady stream of criticism” at her son.

But to adequately understand the relationship between Washington and his mother, one must examine the trials of Mary Washington.

Since his father, Augustine, was often away and died when George was only 11, his mother was the central adult figure during George’s formative years. With her husband’s death in 1743, Mary, at the age of 34, suddenly found herself the single parent of five preteen children and in charge of an estate that was reduced by more than half through her husband’s grants of Mount Vernon and Wakefield to Lawrence and Augustine, his two sons by his first wife, Jane Butler.

This was not the only such blow Mary Washington suffered. Her own father, stepfather, half-brother and mother had died before she was 11, and she was sent to live with her older half-sister, Elizabeth Bonham. The two women grew close — Mary named her first daughter after her — before Elizabeth died in 1742. Mary’s search for security, when her early life had so little, goes far to explain her — and her relationship with her famous son.

With her unusual decision not to remarry, Mary would need all her toughness and strong will to function successfully in a male-dominated society. Still, she managed to keep all of her children under her own roof and raise them herself.

Strong religious views were among the critical components of Mary’s makeup. There seems little dispute that her favorite book was Matthew Hale’s Contemplations Moral and Divine, which focused on preparing for the next world and viewed the honors of the earth as “rust” compared with God’s glory.

All accounts, whether positive or negative, portray Mary as a very imposing woman. There seems little doubt that she ran her household, including the management of the enslaved, with something of an iron hand. As Henry Cabot Lodge expressed it, “She was an imperious woman, of strong will, ruling her kingdom alone.” But George’s cousin, Lawrence of Chotank, hinted that strictness and kindness were not incompatible. “Of the mother I was 10 times more afraid than I ever was of my own parents,” he wrote. There is an often-omitted second part of that quote which is important in rendering an accurate assessment of Mary. “She awed me in the midst of her kindness, for she was, indeed, truly kind.”

With no father to serve as a patron and no financial resources in Virginia’s deeply hierarchical and patriarchal society, young George needed to forge alliances with men of wealth and influence in order to advance — and he did forge those alliances. “Powerful Virginia elders, who saw much loose living and indolence around them, found stimulation and reassurance in a young man of unassailed morals and of mature, sound judgment, who was full of energetic vigor,” historian Douglas Southall Freeman wrote. George hardly would have attracted supporters had he been an oaf or socially inept or of poor morals, liabilities he avoided in part thanks to his upbringing.

As George Washington Parke Custis noted, Mary Ball Washington taught her son “the duties of obedience...the levity and indulgence, common to youth, were tempered by a deference and...restraint.”

When he became “the man of the house” at the tender age of 11, George had to learn to navigate a very complicated relationship with a mother inclined by temperament and experience to be chronically demanding. The struggle of growing up with and separating from this complex woman while remaining loyal to her prepared her son for a lifetime of accommodating difficult but necessary relationships and soldiering through challenging experiences.

When George was 15, for example, Mary would not allow him to join the British navy, resisting the pressure from three important male figures: Lawrence Washington; Col. William Fairfax, the wealthy owner of Belvoir; and family friend Robert Jackson who felt Mary’s objections were typical of “fond and unthinking mothers.”

Instead, Mary followed the advice of her older half-brother in England, Joseph Ball Jr. George, Ball told her, lacked the proper connections and would never achieve “any considerable preferment in the navy.” He warned that they would most likely “cut and staple him and use him like a negro, or rather, like a dog.” He opined that a Virginia planter with “three or four hundred acres of land and three or four slaves” would be better off. Viewed in the light that young George was in line to inherit a 600-acre farm at Deeps Run, Mary’s decision seems more practical — not one simply fueled by the irrational fears of an overly fond mother.

Certainly, among George Washington’s most salient traits were an extreme sensitivity to criticism and an intense desire for approval. He feared words of criticism in a way he never feared enemy bullets. Washington never was able to obtain his mother’s unalloyed approval, nor could he satisfy her seemingly endless demands. Always stinting on praise, no evidence shows her praising her son for his many achievements — and there is much evidence of her declining to do so.

By 1755, Washington had emerged from adolescent obedience. He decided to join Gen. Edward Braddock on his ill-fated march to retake the Ohio country from the French. Washington wrote that he would be slightly delayed in joining the expedition because his mother, “alarmed at the report of my intentions to attend your fortunes,” had hurried to Mount Vernon in an attempt to discourage him from doing so. While committed to his mother’s welfare, George Washington would not be dissuaded from seeking fame and glory, even if it meant risking his life or being unable to closely monitor his mother’s needs. A study of this relationship of more than 30 years — from the French and Indian War to Mary’s death in 1789 — reveals, especially in Mary Ball Washington’s later years, that George Washington had a strained and often contentious relationship with his mother.

Washington’s account books show significant outlays in behalf of his mother, often noting who was there when he gave his mother money so that he would later have support for the fact that he had done so. According to his father’s will, George Washington was to inherit Ferry Farm when he turned 21, but Mary occupied, managed and derived income from the property as if it were her own. Finally, in 1772, George persuaded his mother, then in her 60s, to move to Fredericksburg and bought a house for her near her daughter, Betty, and Betty’s husband, Fielding Lewis, in what is present-day Kenmore. Washington absorbed all the myriad expenses incurred in this move.

No doubt, the war years were difficult ones for Mary. Her firstborn was far away, leading what to her must have seemed a forlorn and dangerous crusade. The hard times she suffered were the background for her complaints that led to one of the most embarrassing moments of George Washington’s career. Benjamin Harrison wrote early in 1781 to alert his friend that there was a move in the Virginia legislature to treat his mother as an indigent woman and make her a pensioner of the state. One can only imagine how Washington, ever extremely sensitive about anything that might damage his reputation, felt on reading this letter that his mother was about to go on welfare.

While Washington quickly squashed the petition, the complaints from Mary clearly kept coming. In 1783, the general wrote his favorite brother, Jack, and urged him to “represent to her in delicate terms, the impropriety of her complaints and acceptance of favors even when they are voluntarily offered, from any but relations.”

The final letter penned by Washington to his mother in 1787 was his longest and in some ways his most revealing. In sending the money she requested, her son made it clear that he was hard pressed himself and defensively summarized all that he had done for her in the past. Constant self-justification seems to be a key part of Washington’s personality, especially as connected to his mother.

While saying she was welcome at Mount Vernon, Washington made clear that he did not think it was a good idea for a number of reasons. Rather, he concluded with suggestions on how she could raise enough money for comfortable, carefree final years, and then parroted one of the points emphasized by Matthew Hale: “Happiness depends more upon the internal frame of a person’s own mind, than on the externals in the world.”

Even in the aftermath of his mother’s death in 1789, Washington remained defensive on the issue of aiding his mother and listed his filial good works to his sister Betty in a tone of exasperation, if not hostility. Yet, the relationship was deeper and more complicated than implied by the negative picture often painted.

There is no question that Mary cared deeply for her son. From their first documented interaction to the last, she expressed her concern for his well-being. There is a little-noted 1789 letter from Betty Lewis to her brother, now the president of the United States and recovering from a near-fatal illness. Betty noted that their mother, although gravely ill and on her deathbed from breast cancer, “wishes to hear from you; she will not believe you are well till she has it from under your own hand.”

Mary signed her last known letter to him, “your loving and affectionate mother.”

Describing himself as “your affectionate son” may have been a pro forma close, but George Washington’s gestures on behalf of his mother went well beyond form, purchasing for her a new home and other amenities.

There is a little noted letter in which Washington indicates that he plans to visit her not only from a sense of duty but also by “inclination.” Adrienne, Marquise de Lafayette, the wife of Lafayette, wrote to Washington and asked him to send special best wishes to his mother. He responded, “My mother will receive the compliments you honor her with, as a flattering mark of your attention; and I shall have great pleasure in delivering them myself.” The point is that he would enjoy being able to tell his mother that such a prominent person sent special greetings.

In another letter Washington explained that he had been called suddenly to go to Fredericksburg to bid, “as I was prepared to expect, the last adieu to an honoured parent.” He declared the items his mother left him took on a special value because they were his mother’s and she wanted him to have them. “In this point of view I set a value on them much beyond their intrinsic worth.”

A final important piece of evidence for Washington’s affection for his mother is the general’s response to a welcome from the citizens of Fredericksburg on his first visit to the town in 1784 after winning American independence. They wrote, “It affords us great joy, to see you once more at the place which claims the honor of your growing infancy, the seat of your venerable and amiable parent.”

Washington wrote his own response, declaring that his pleasure was heightened by “the honorable mention which is made of my revered mother; by whose maternal hand (early deprived of a father) I was led to manhood.”

No doubt, George Washington’s mother often exasperated, even angered her son, but there was also in him a sense of a debt owed her, grudging admiration that strength pays to strength, and affection tempering his frustration and annoyance. There may be elements of understanding as well. Perhaps Washington made allowances for his mother because of their similarities.

Certainly, George Washington was in many ways his mother’s son, not only by genetics and heredity but by upbringing and example. He even inherited his bad teeth from her. She loved horses and excelled as a rider — as he did. She loved gardening and trees and nature and so did he. She had great physical endurance and so did he. She was clearly a strong willed, determined and powerful person — as he was. She was acquisitive with a materialistic strain — as he was. She was demanding and hard to satisfy as he was. She was controlling and defensive — as he was. She had an independence of spirit and a tenacity of purpose — and so did he. She was physically impressive — and so was he. She had an aura of authority around her — as did he. In the words of a relative: “Whoever has seen that awe-inspiring air and manner so characteristic in the father of his country will remember the matron as she appeared as the presiding genius of her well-ordered household, commanding and being obeyed.”

Of course, in some ways they were very different. George Washington grew into a remarkable leader with a very broad view of the world and the willingness to sacrifice for a cause larger than himself. In some ways Mary seems stunted and shortsighted; her willpower and force of personality appeared focused on herself, while Washington’s willpower and force of personality earned him a reputation as a selfless patriot.

No doubt, Mary Ball Washington mattered immensely in the life of America’s matchless man. Her actions and examples — both positive and negative — helped shape George Washington into the remarkable man that he became.

Peter R. Henriques is Professor Emeritus of History at George Mason University and the author of Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington.

Mary Washington was often described as formidable and sometimes difficult, but there are myriad examples of how much she cared for her son George. (Courtesy of Wallach Division Picture Collection, The New York Public Library)

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