A sympathetic look at George Washington’s mother.
Saxton (Emerita, History and Women’s Studies/Amherst Coll.; Being Good: Women’s Moral Values in Early America, 2002, etc.) believes that Washington’s biographers have treated Mary Ball Washington (1708-1789) unfairly. “The caricature of an incompetent, crude, imperious, selfish, and unloving woman flowered fully in the 1940s and ’50s,” Saxton writes, a portrait based on scant evidence and shaped by sentimental maternal stereotypes. Steeped in Colonial history, the author takes on a formidable project: to uncover the shards of Mary’s life, place her in the context of her times, and tease apart “the biographical fates of mother and son” in order to give Mary “the dignity of her independent existence.” Saxton offers a sensitive, sharply drawn portrait of a resourceful woman whose early losses made her anxious and fearful for life. By the time she was an adolescent, her father, stepfather, half brother, and mother all had died. After 11 years of marriage, she became a widowed mother of five, facing financial instability. “Trauma,” Saxton observes, “was Mary’s normality.” As an old woman, one evening, during a thunderstorm, her daughter found her praying alone: “my trust is in God,” Mary confessed, “but sometimes my fears are stronger than my faith.” Her fears led her to be overprotective of her children, not least her eldest son, George. When he was 14, Mary strongly opposed his desire to join the British navy as a midshipman—“a singularly dangerous institution,” Saxton notes. Mary prevailed but later found herself repeatedly at odds with her son’s “aggressive, restless, and risk-taking spirit” as well as his vanity and stinginess. Besides closely examining Mary’s relationships with various members of her extended family, Saxton mostly succeeds in the challenge of treating fairly Mary’s role as a demanding, often cruel, slaveholder who tried to project strength and authority through “force, name-calling, and abuse.” Her religious beliefs validated that treatment: “violence,” Mary thought, “could justifiably produce obedience,” and obedience led to moral behavior. Like others of her time and class, slavery shaped her identity.
A fresh perspective on Colonial America.