- - Monday, December 9, 2019

If best-selling author Craig Shirley’s take on Mary Ball Washington is correct, the first battle in America’s War for Independence took place a generation before Lexington and Concord, and was fought between George Washington and his mother.

Our Founding Father, Mr. Shirley writes, was “widely revered for his integrity, grace, manners, charm, Christian faith, and humility,” and his mother “played a key role in the development of his character.” Key, but not always benign.

As serious biographers of Washington like Douglas Southall Freeman and Thomas Flexner long ago pointed out, Mary Ball Washington could be stubborn, self-centered and smothering. Or, as Craig Shirley more gently expresses it, “While he was sometimes described as having little genuine affection for Mary, the reserved Washington still credited her with his principled and moral upbringing. Indeed, this was inevitable, for when George was eleven, his father died, leaving Mary Washington a single mother.”

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Probably the deepest, most positive family relationship of George Washington’s youth was with his older half-brother, Lawrence, the product of his father’s first marriage. 

A successful planter and a dashing volunteer who served under the English Adm. Edward Vernon at the 1741 siege — not, as Mr. Shirley describes it, “battle” — of Cartagena, during the Anglo-Spanish “War of Jenkins’ Ear,” Lawrence subsequently renamed his plantation in honor of his old naval commander. After he died in 1752, George would come into the property. It is still famous as Mount Vernon.

The strongest feminine influence by far in George Washington’s life was his wife, Martha. A warm, understanding, loving and lovable partner, she was, in many ways, the mirror opposite of her mother-in-law. A modern biographer of Martha Washington, Patricia Brady, describes some of the characteristics that made George Washington’s mother so different from his wife:

“Self-centered and acquisitive, Mary Ball Washington was preoccupied with her eldest son to the virtual exclusion of her other children. That preoccupation expressed itself in fears for George’s safety, pleas not to put himself at risk in military action, and demands for assistance, usually monetary, even though she continued to occupy and enjoy the profits of his property on the Rappahannock.”

If his mother had prevailed, young George would never have volunteered his services in the French and Indian War, earning his first military laurels in the 1750s as a combat-tested officer in the Virginia Militia (wearing a blue coat, not the red one Mr. Shirley attributes to him). Absent that, he would not have been chosen by the Continental Congress in the 1770s to command the infant American Army.

It was precisely because Washington declared his independence from his mother that he was able to fulfill his destiny. To that extent, perhaps we should be grateful that Mary Ball Washington was as “cantankerous and demanding” as some modern historians have described. If she hadn’t been, her son might never have freed himself from her apron strings and become the man he did.

Craig Shirley, whom many readers will remember as the author of four outstanding books on Ronald Reagan, has done a commendable job of assembling the scattered bits and pieces of information available about this obscure mother of a very famous son.

The result, of necessity, is more of an episodic patchwork quilt than an epic tapestry, but it is written with verve, fairness and sympathetic imagination, and it fills a long-standing void in our understanding of how George Washington evolved from an ambitious, largely self-educated young provincial who had trouble controlling his temper, into an inspiring, stoically self-disciplined leader of men.

Mary Ball Washington was an ailing octogenarian dying of cancer when her son was elected first president of the United States in January 1789. Before leaving his native Virginia to take up his new duties in New York City (the provisional U.S. capital) Washington “discharge[d] the last Act of personal duty, I may, (from her age) ever have it in my power to pay my Mother,” visiting her in the comfortable home he had provided for her in Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

Throughout his adult life, George Washington’s attitude toward his mother had been respectful but reserved. In his letters he addressed her as “Honored Madame,” though he may have been honoring the fact of her motherhood more than her qualities as a person. But if she had been a better, more lovable mother, her son might never have become the “Father of His Country.”

In telling the story of this half-forgotten parent of a famous offspring, Craig Shirley has deepened our understanding of both mother and son.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

• • •


By Craig Shirley

Harper, $29.99, 344 pages

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