“The Widow Washington” By Martha Saxton

“The Widow Washington”
By Martha Saxton
360 pp., Farrar, Straus & Giroux
$28

Reviewed by Kathleen DuVal for The Wall Street Journal

It was Mary Ball Washington who instilled in the first president a moral philosophy of industry, thrift and stoicism.

Like many mothers of famous men, Mary Ball Washington has been the object of both beatifying praise and disdainful condemnation. Ron Chernow’s 2010 biography of her eldest son, George, followed a long tradition in calling her “shrewish,” “hypercritical” and “illiterate.” Today people might be inclined to denounce her as a woman of privilege who, unlike her son, never questioned holding human beings in bondage or separating them from their families.

Rejecting facile judgements, Amherst College historian Martha Saxton’s brilliant and gripping book instead helps readers understand Mary Ball Washington within her own place and time. Drawing on local histories and archaeology as well as letters, diaries and a broad knowledge of related historiography, “The Widow Washington” is a clear-eyed biography of the mother of our first president and a fascinating window into the generation before the American Revolution’s founding fathers and mothers.

The book’s stark picture of Mary Ball’s upbringing leaves little room to view her as a woman of comfortable privilege. Mary’s mother (also named Mary) probably came to the Chesapeake as an indentured servant, as most English women did. She married, was widowed, married again and had baby Mary. When young Mary Ball was 3 years old, her father died, and her mother soon married a third husband. That stepfather was dead by the time Mary was 6, and her mother and older half-brother followed several years later. By the time Mary was 12, a married (and soon widowed) half-sister was her only family. In 1731 she would marry the widower planter Augustine Washington, and in 1743 herself would be left widowed with five small children, including 11-year-old George. As Ms. Saxton writes, in devastating terms, “trauma was Mary’s normality.”

There is so much marriage, childbearing, and death in Mary’s story that I started making a chart. I soon gave up, though, in part because I needed a bigger piece of paper, but mostly because Ms. Saxton guides the reader so carefully through all of these details that her portraits remain memorable. For example, she writes that Mildred Washington (the mother of Mary’s husband), soon after the death of her first husband, remarried and crossed the Atlantic to live at her new husband’s home in Whitehaven, England. Within months, Mildred died, “as did her infant girl carrying her name and the enslaved child” that she had brought with her from Virginia, Jane. Ms. Saxton’s vivid storytelling transforms the considerable genealogical work behind this history into poignant drama: “Both Mildreds and Jane were buried in Whitehaven.”

The traumas and strivings of Mary Ball Washington’s generation seem much further from us than the Age of Revolution and Enlightenment that their children ushered in. With families “battered by death and often divided by the Atlantic,” Ms. Saxton writes, early Virginians “labored to reconstitute ties and extend new ones.” Like most, Mary lived in a repeatedly reconfigured family. There were other differences as well. Unlike elite white women in the late 18th and 19th centuries, girls of Mary’s generation were encouraged to get outdoor exercise, including riding on horseback. They wore more comfortable clothes than their descendants would and their society acknowledged women’s sexuality (even while trying to control it).

As historians have long noted, death was so frequent in colonial Virginia and Maryland that property came under women’s control far more often than patriarchal British law and custom usually allowed. Women’s control over property would lessen over the course of the 18th century, but many landowners, including Mary’s father, made important provisions in their wills for their female family members.

With her marriage to Augustine Washington, Mary Ball became a stepmother, and, during their decade of marriage, she bore six children. In her era, British colonial women averaged around eight births, but only half of their babies would survive early childhood. Mothers also had a substantial chance of dying while giving birth. Against the odds, five of Mary’s six biological children survived to adulthood. After Augustine’s death, she did not remarry, perhaps in part to avoid additional births; historian Nora Doyle’s 2018 book “Maternal Bodies: Redefining Motherhood in Early America” shows the deep ambivalence that 18th-century women felt toward the dangers and difficulties of childbearing. Another reason not to wed was to protect the interests of her living children against a potential stepfather who might steward their property less wisely than she could.

Like Mary’s father’s will, her husband’s did not follow the rules of primogeniture, which would have granted the bulk of the property to the eldest son. Instead, it was a very Virginia will: He divided his land and enslaved people among his many children, and he made provisions for Mary to get income from properties the boys would eventually inherit, as well as to keep the land and slaves she had brought to the marriage. She would need to be a careful manager to make a living from these lands—some nearly exhausted from repeated tobacco planting—and prepare them for her still-minor sons.

There is no romanticizing of colonial Virginia in this book. Ms. Saxton places the hardships of women like Mary firmly within the context of a society based on slavery, acknowledging that enslaved women and men had it far worse. The Balls and the Washingtons built wealth out of Indian land and enslaved labor, and they lived and died in close proximity to people they held in bondage. Over and over, wills show these entanglements, as white men and women inherited black Virginians and divided black families along with land and houses, according to the horrific accounting possible when some people define others as property.

Mary Ball Washington and her colonial world created George Washington and his revolutionary one. She was George’s primary parent, and she taught and modeled for him many of the qualities that prepared him to be a general and president. It was Mary who instilled in him a moral philosophy of industry, thrift and stoicism and demonstrated the value of exercise and spending time outdoors. As a young widow, she trained him and his sister, Betty, in plantation management by involving them in farming and financial decisions. Far from illiterate, she encouraged her children to read and write, although her own handwriting was never the elite script that George learned. And she served as a model of command, for better and worse, including over enslaved people.

Mary made possible her children’s rise into a higher class. Preventing 14-year-old George from enlisting in the British Navy (as Ms. Saxton puts it, a “singularly dangerous institution” in a dangerous age), Mary instead encouraged him to become a surveyor, a profession that earned him a living and opportunities in the west. All her children married wealthier spouses, particularly important in an era when tobacco prices were falling even as luxury imports flowed in from industrializing England—along with tempting credit for purchasing them. Indeed, despite Mary’s training and their mutual careful management, George was in debt at the time of his marriage to the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis.

Though Mary placed her children well, her life continued to be hard. As her stepsons and sons came of age, they took the land and slaves willed to them, so she had less to live off, even as she dealt with embezzling overseers and the labor problems inherent in forcing men and women to work as slaves. She had to ask George for money, ending up in the humbling position common to the elderly, becoming dependent where once she had a large family dependent on her.

Then the Revolutionary War came, with its disruptions to markets and its crippling inflation. Worst of all, in the months before Yorktown, when Mary was in her 70s, she had to flee nearly 100 miles west when it appeared that British general Charles Cornwallis might attack Fredericksburg, where she had moved from her farm to be closer to Betty. In the months on the run, Mary’s son Samuel died, as did Betty’s husband, leaving the two women again without the white men who were supposed to protect them.

Back home in Fredericksburg after the war, Mary was frustrated with George for not understanding how hard a war Virginia had experienced while he was leading the Continental Army. Indeed, he was embarrassed by her complaints, fearing they made him look like a delinquent son. He wrote his brother John, “I have heard from very good authority that she is upon all occasions, and in all Companies complaining of the hardness of the times, of her wants and distresses.” But George also wrote to and about his mother with respect, even in the years when her parochial concerns seemed out of touch with his rising status in the country and the world.

Mary Ball Washington never became part of her son’s prominent life at Mount Vernon or in Philadelphia. Instead, well into her 70s, you could see her in a straw hat with a broad brim and black ribbons, being driven from Fredericksburg out to her remaining farm by Stephen, a man she grew old with and yet legally owned, critically observing her growing crops and the work of her overseer and enslaved laborers. Mary Ball Washington was the matriarch of a successful family in a patriarchal world—a world that Ms. Saxton memorably recreates, and the world from which our country was born.

Ms. DuVal, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of “Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution.”