The Mythology of Mary Ball Washington

The Reclaiming of the “Shrew”

For more than 200 years, Mary Ball Washington – the mother of the Father of His Country – has been unfairly portrayed in extremes. She started out as the sainted “Mother Mary” hovering over the Christlike George Washington, but then in the 1950s when it came to light that she committed the cardinal sin of annoying her son, she began a steep descent into being a shrewish harpy intent on thwarting her son’s ambitions and draining him of his wealth.

Now, the pendulum is starting to settle into a middle ground closer to the truth – no thanks to me.

Listen now:


In 2014 in my first months of blogging, I wrote a post called “Washington’s Mortifying Mother (And My Own)” that was about Mary Ball Washington’s overbearing ways and how they reminded me of my relationship with my own mother, who had just died a couple years earlier. The examples I used of Mary’s egregious mothering came from the author James Thomas Flexner. I didn’t realize he was part of the crew that dragged her reputation into the mud, and I didn’t realize each one of those examples I gleaned from Flexner is either highly questionable or straight-out false.

In the span of three months in 2019, two biographies of Mary Ball Washington were published. Both acknowledge the two extremes in which she has been portrayed, but only one of them actually brings a new perspective to the table. The other falls into many of the same traps it identifies.

Martha Saxton digs into the ways Mary Washington has been unfairly maligned by looking at whether men of her time would be criticized for identical actions, and Craig Shirley retreads the same ground he seeks to criticize.

In this episode of the podcast, we dive into what we actually know about Mary Ball Washington, a woman whose life was shaped by death and who strived to give young George every opportunity to ascend to a higher level of aristocracy. And we look at four of the most popular allegations levied against her – that she tried to crush her son’s military dreams, that she was so out of touch she dared to ask him for butter when he was at war, that she was a Loyalist rooting against the Continental Army, and the kicker – that she was so greedy and needy that she went behind her son’s back to petition the Virginia state legislature for a pension.

Detail of a beautifully illustrated Mothers Day 1932 spread that ran in several papers, including the Springfield Press (Springfield, Missouri). This article added some new details to the lightning story. Newspapers.com.

We also dig into the origins of two wild legends about Mary Ball Washington – the story of her favorite horse that inspired the legend of young George and the cherry tree, and the story of a bolt of lightning that may have changed her forever. (I wrote about that lightning back in 2014 before I thought to question the story, and it turns out there is a lot to question.)

And finally, we look at one enduring way in which Mary Ball Washington shaped her country and the role of the presidency.

Listen now:

The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington by Martha Saxton
Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother by Craig Saxton
“The Legend of Mary Washington and the Deadly Lightning Strike” by Heather Baldus, Lives & Legacies: Stories from Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm
You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe
The Mother of Washington” by George Washington Parke Custis, Ladies’ Magazine and Literary Gazette, September 1831, Volume IV, No IX.
A New Portrait of Mary Ball for Mothers Day” by Eleanor Early, Editorial and Magazine Section of the Springfield Press (Springfield, Missouri), May 7, 1932, via Newspapers.com
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
George Washington: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall


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