“The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington” by Martha Saxton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 360 pp. $28. Review provided by The Washington Post.
Mary Ball Washington has not fared well at the hands of her famous son’s biographers. While early admirers of the first president depicted her as deeply spiritual and self-denying, by the mid-20th century she was portrayed as complaining, cold and covetous. Eager to uncover the real Mary, Martha Saxton, an emerita historian at Amherst College who has written biographies of Louisa May Alcott and Jayne Mansfield, set out to paint a more true-to-life portrait.
Saxton’s task proved challenging, as Mary left no journal and few letters. But by piecing together and reinterpreting insights from family correspondence, from the books Mary treasured and especially from her eldest son’s obsessive records, Saxton creates a sensitive and plausible, if at times speculative, picture that richly evokes Mary’s interior life and the world of a slaveholding widow and planter in 18th-century Virginia.
That Mary was a widow for much of her life matters. Virginia’s white men chased wealth and status through public office, aggressive land acquisitions and the exploitation of enslaved people’s labor. At a time of relentlessly high mortality rates, they secured the material well-being of their lineage by bequeathing land and slaves down the male line. A widow was given use of the couple’s property, or more often part of it, for her lifetime or until she remarried, at which time it would pass on to her husband’s heirs.
“Legally,” Saxton writes, “a widow’s role was to be transmitter of property from man to man.” But ephemeral possession did not mean that widows, like Mary, did not chose to actively manage the property. And therein, for Mary as for many other widows, lay the rub: a life spent administering for the oldest son and principal heir.
Mary Ball was born in 1708 or 1709 in Lancaster County, Va., the only child of parents whose previous spouses had both died. Mary’s mother probably was an indentured servant from England, like 80 percent of all free women who immigrated to the Chesapeake at that time. Mary’s well-to-do father died when she was 3, leaving her land and three slaves. Her mother quickly married a poorer man, who died when Mary was 6. By the time Mary was 13, she had also lost her mother and half brother, deepening her trauma and psychological insecurity while bringing her more land and a fourth slave. The grieving girl moved in with her newlywed half sister, Elizabeth. Mary grew into a tall, hard-working, outdoorsy young woman, short on cheer and polish. The many family losses she suffered as well as the perversion of commanding enslaved people, Saxton suggests, forged her rather severe character.
At 22, Mary moved up in the world when she married Augustine Washington, a wealthy widower, slave owner and father of three, with whom she had six children in less than eight years, starting in 1732 with George. All lived to adulthood except for her last child, a girl, who died at 16 months. Before Augustine succumbed to a sudden illness in 1743, he moved his family to Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River, where Mary would live until she moved to nearby Fredericksburg in 1772. Augustine’s death resulted in less income and more responsibilities, accentuating, Saxton suggests, Mary’s anxious and somber nature, and deepening her already strong reliance on her faith. The terms of Augustine’s will, and Mary’s determination to keep her children in their father’s social class, probably contributed to her decision to remain a widow for the rest of her long life. His death also had profound consequences for the 50 enslaved people he owned, who were divvied up among his heirs without any consideration to keeping families together.
In the next two decades, Mary raised her five remaining children, carefully molding their characters and values after her own. She had the satisfaction of seeing her brood marry up, as she had done – especially George, whose union with the wealthy widow Martha Custis catapulted him into Virginia’s upper elite. Like most white slave-owning women, Mary was directly involved in the cruel work of bending enslaved people to her will, ruling her 20 slaves with an iron hand and a tight fist. Yet she had trouble making ends meet, even more so when her children came of age and took the people they had inherited to their own lands, diminishing Mary’s workforce and separating slave families.
Her last decades were trying. She suffered being apart from her beloved eldest, who visited but sporadically and, perhaps embarrassed by her lack of gentility, rarely invited her to Mount Vernon. Despite her frugality, financial difficulties led Mary to frequently request small amounts of money from George, who resented her neediness, all the while spending lavishly on himself and his family and readily lending money to his brothers. Though George had trouble making Mount Vernon profitable, he seems to have decided that his mother’s financial woes were her own fault. He was eager to take over management of Ferry Farm, which his father had willed to him, but Mary resisted until she was well into her 60s.
The war years brought shortages, inflation, evacuation, the deaths of two sons and further separation from George, whom Mary worried about incessantly and whom she did not see for eight long years. She died in 1789, the year the Constitution was passed, of breast cancer.
In the able hands of Saxton, Mary Washington’s story vividly illuminates the role white women played in the creation and transmission of wealth in early America, the frictions that patriarchal inheritance created between mothers and sons and the tremendous price paid by the enslaved people who made much of Virginia’s wealth possible.
– Reviewed by Marjoleine Kars, who teaches history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Her next book, “Blood on the River,” about a massive slave rebellion in Dutch Guyana, will be published in August 2020.