Founding Fathers Quote Friday: Motherhood

Favorite Founding Father's Quote Day

My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.
–George Washington


George Washington’s father died when he was 11 years old, and his mother, Mary Ball Washington, did not remarry. She subsequently raised their five children herself on their 600-acre farm (with some servants and slaves, I am sure). She didn’t actually inherit the land, but rather managed it until he was to inherit it at 21. She is also credited with directing George’s schooling, although she probably didn’t do much of it herself.

However, Mary Washington’s personal virtues were probably overrated by some 19th-century historians, and more often she has been portrayed as somewhat neurotic and clingy. An anonymous history teacher writes,

After looking over local lore, various scholarly biographies, and the letters of George Washington I would have to state Mary Ball Washington was not our typical idea of what a mother is or does. It does appear from the evidence that George Washington’s relationship with his mother was very formal and at times strained. I have no doubt that Mary Ball Washington could be a star in the Maternal Embarrassment Hall of Fame.

In one instance, Mary notoriously refused to give permission for George to enter the British Navy when he was 14. Obviously, this was a huge disappointment to George, and it would seem to have been unwise to limit her son’s career options that way. However, it turned out that he found far better opportunities by staying in Virginia and learning about planting from his half-brother Lawrence, who had inherited significant landholdings from their father. When George married Martha Custis in 1759, he acquired her former husband’s 17,000 acres; and then after Lawrence and his wife died, George inherited their land in 1761.

Through his brother’s connections in Virginia society, George had ended up serving in the French and Indian Wars, which was excellent preparation for his later role as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.

To make matters worse for the patriotic historian, Mary was purportedly a British Loyalist throughout the war. You might think this would have caused a morale problem for the father of our country, but arguably her independent spirit was passed on to George; it served him well in dealing with the Continental Congress and, later, the various factions of the new government of the United States.

It is no secret that Mary Ball Washington was the second wife of Augustine Washington. He married her at 22 at a time most of her neighbors had written her off as a spinster. [Willard Sterne] Randall wonders [in his biography titled George Washington: A Life], Could it have been something so strong and independent about her that every suitor seemed to back away? Luckily for our nation Augustine Washington did not. Randall also mentions Mary Ball Washington’s step-grand daughter (the wife of Robert E. Lee) passed down the family tradition that Mrs. Washington required from those about her a prompt and literal obedience somewhat resembling that demanded by a proper military subordination. [American Presidents Blog]

Washington was known to be somewhat aloof toward his subordinates and always strived to be in control of a situation, like his mother.

So, what can we conclude about the influence of a mother? Simply that no one can predict exactly how a child will turn out or what particular events will be significant in their formation, and likewise a particular kind of “motherhood” cannot be prescribed. However, a mother’s influence will definitely be far-reaching.

For more information, see:

Mary Ball Washington: His “Revered Mother”
by Barbara Crookshanks

George Washington’s Mother
by Jean Fritz

George Washington: An Illustrated Biography
David Adler


7 thoughts on “Founding Fathers Quote Friday: Motherhood

  1. Hi Dave. It’s kinda funny, Cato of Utica used the same quote for today!

    Interesting history. Although, somewhere I’ve read that her “tory leanings” has been challenged. Maybe she just didn’t want her boy going off to war to get himself most likely killed. I only wish I remember where I read it.

    Yes, the founding mothers (may I distinguish between the founding wives?) deserve due credit in the shaping of our country.

    It’s a fine way to start off this month’s FFQF. And I do love a good history lesson.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. I’ve been reading The Blank Slate by Pinker, and in the chapter about kids, he says that of child characteristics, genetics is about 50% when you’re a kid (and intelligence rises to .8 later in life), parental influence is generously 5-10%, and the rest is unknown, but possibly peers. I wish I knew more about what he was talking about to evaluate that.

  3. I haven’t read Pinker, but I would suggest that at birth, one’s genes have contributed primarily to anatomical structure and chemical balance. This then forms the basis for certain predispositions and reflexes, which are modified by social interaction, nutrition, physical activity, language development, personal decisions, etc.

    The particular proportions reflect the relative importance of development. As you become less like an infant, your genetic predispositions have less significance, and it makes sense that over the span of childhood this might average around 50%. Only imbeciles are completely determined by their genetic inheritance; and this is reflected in the fact that proponents of genetic determinism (in whatever form) essentially consider most people to be imbeciles.

    The low proportion for parental influence probably indicates the lack of intentionality in parenting and the lack of involvement. If you don’t really like being around children, and so you contract others to take care of them for most of their waking hours, your influence will become relatively insignificant.

    The “unknown” part is due to the fact that scientists studying this phenomenon know almost nothing about what is actually happening in the brain as it relates to coherent thought, and much less how to measure the development of personal characteristics in terms of personal choices. Yet, coherent, conscious thought and willful decisions comprise most of our concept of “self” apart from social conditioning.

    If this “self” cannot be quantified, the only logical conclusion for the scientifically oriented would be that it does not exist at all, and that we are simply domesticated animals with wild imaginations. Welcome to The Matrix!

    As for Washington, I would guess that early on he developed a little bit of stubbornness in reaction to his mother’s controlling habits, and this eventually led him to develop the “command composure” that he was known for.

    Thanks for commenting!

  4. Well, Pinker does address intentionality in parenting, birth order, socio-economic status, etc. He makes some points about study design that I’d have to go find my book to repeat. It’s an interesting book – you might like it.

  5. I tried reading The Language Instinct once, but I got bored. I can’t remember why in particular I found it boring, but I know that others seem to like him a lot.

  6. Enh, as I get older, I get more able to slog through stuff. Case in point – I just finished up the AAP’s Pediatric Nutrition Handbook, and actually found it interesting.

  7. As I get older, I find that I have less time for leisure reading. If an author can’t make his point succinctly or doesn’t have something original to say, I’m unlikely to read the whole book.

    On the other hand, some philosophy and foreign language texts used to baffle me as a teenager, but now I find them relatively easy to plow through. Go figure.

Instigate some pointless rambling

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