The Mother of Washington – A Book Review

There is a remarkable strip of land down on the ocean shore of Virginia that for three hundred years has borne the name of the Northern Neck. It is the first of three peninsulas, counting downward, into which rivers and creeds have carved the coast – a long, narrow strip of land endged on the north by the Potomac River and on the south by the Rapphanock . . . A notable Neck it is, too. Never in history perhaps have so much worth and valor come out of such a small area in so comparatively short a space of time. In the course of a few generations those little green acres have produced presidents, statesmen, and world-known warriors. It produced also, incidentally, their forebears.


So begins this lovely biography of Mary Ball Washington by Nancy Byrd Turner. I came across a quote from this book in February as I was researching a birthday post for George Washington that actually ended up being a tribute to his mother. I recognized the author’s name since all of my children had memorized her delightful little Thanksgiving poem. Intrigued, I found a lovely old hardback on ABE, and read it at bedtime over a few months with growing delight.

To begin with, there were so many places and family names I recognized. My own childhood home, King George, was the county that lies between the birthplace of Mary’s children and the homeplace where she raised them. Although Mary left very little in the way of a written record (she did not keep a diary, and she did not write many letters), the author pulled together all the original sources she could find, and filled in the rest with historical records and period details.

I have always been intrigued by Mary Ball Washington because, by most accounts, she was not your run-of-the-mill 18th century aristocratic lady. I’ve always imagined her as a woman very similar to my own beloved grandmother—Mary’s  great-times-six-granddaughter—capable and steadfast; proper and dignified, of course, but with a streak of spice; taking heartache and hardship in stride. This biography confirms my impression.

I also appreciated the author’s love for her subject. This is an old-fashioned, unashamed encomium of a remarkable woman. Though she does point out some character flaws, overall, Nancy Byrd Turner treated Mary Ball Washington as a heroine, and a founding mother of our country. It’s important to note that the author is a woman of her time, and thus it is necessary to read it without chronological snobbery. In other words, she’s not politically correct—some of the faults and the virtues that she highlights are not the same as those that would be condemned or celebrated today.

Portrait of Mary Ball Washington, by Robert Edge Pine, 1916 Most of all, I was struck throughout the book by Mary Ball Washington’s determination, sometimes quiet, and sometimes not so quiet, as she tended to the duties that God had placed before her to her children and to her home. The author includes the oft-told tale of how Mary was bound and determined that her oldest son would not go to sea. He acquiesced to her wishes. But the author also makes it clear how in doing what today would be grimly judged as “manipulation,” she surely was God’s instrument to preserve him for a larger purpose.

On the other hand, when George and the rest of her surviving children dedicated their lives and fortunes to the cause of independence, she resisted. After all, she had been raised and had lived a dutiful British citizen. The king was the king. She was especially put out with her oldest son who seemed to be helping to engineer the “rebellion.” With patient compassion for his mother’s sentiments, George in turn stood his ground. In the end, because she loved and prayed so faithfully for her son, she also came to love and pray for the cause that he had embraced.

Many lessons for me as a mother in this slim volume.

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