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’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