The True George Washington: Family Relations: His Mother

Updated September 23, 2019 | Infoplease Staff

His Mother

The mother, Mary Washington, was more of a factor, though chiefly by mere length of life, for she lived to be eighty-three, and died but ten years before her son. That Washington owed his personal appearance to the Balls is true, but otherwise the sentimentality that has been lavished about the relations between the two and her influence upon him, partakes of fiction rather than of truth. After his father's death the boy passed most of his time at the homes of his two elder brothers, and this was fortunate, for they were educated men, of some colonial consequence, while his mother lived in comparatively straitened circumstances, was illiterate and untidy, and, moreover, if tradition is to be believed, smoked a pipe. Her course with the lad was blamed by a contemporary as "fond and unthinking," and this is borne out by such facts as can be gleaned, for when his brothers wished to send him to sea she made "trifling objections," and prevented his taking what they thought an advantageous opening; when the brilliant offer of a position on Braddock's staff was tendered to Washington, his mother, "alarmed at the report," hurried to Mount Vernon and endeavored to prevent him from accepting it; still again, after Braddock's defeat, she so wearied her son with pleas not to risk the dangers of another campaign that Washington finally wrote her, "It would reflect dishonor upon me to refuse; and that, I am sure, must or ought to give you greater uneasiness, than my going in an honorable command." After he inherited Mount Vernon the two seem to have seen little of each other, though, when occasion took him near Fredericksburg, he usually stopped to see her for a few hours, or even for a night.

Though Washington always wrote to his mother as "Honored Madam," and signed himself "your dutiful and aff. son," she none the less tried him not a little. He never claimed from her a part of the share of his father's estate which was his due on becoming of age, and, in addition, "a year or two before I left Virginia (to make her latter days comfortable and free from care) I did, at her request, but at my own expence, purchase a commodious house, garden and Lotts (of her own choosing) in Fredericksburg, that she might be near my sister Lewis, her only daughter,—and did moreover agree to take her land and negroes at a certain yearly rent, to be fixed by Colo Lewis and others (of her own nomination) which has been an annual expence to me ever since, as the estate never raised one half the rent I was to pay. Before I left Virginia I answered all her calls for money; and since that period have directed my steward to do the same." Furthermore, he gave her a phaeton, and when she complained of her want of comfort he wrote her, "My house is at your service, and [I] would press you most sincerely and most devoutly to accept it, but I am sure, and candor requires me to say, it will never answer your purposes in any shape whatsoever. For in truth it may be compared to a well resorted tavern, as scarcely any strangers who are going from north to south, or from south to north, do not spend a day or two at it. This would, were you to be an inhabitant of it, oblige you to do one of 3 things: 1st, to be always dressing to appear in company; 2d, to come into [the room] in a dishabille, or 3d to be as it were a prisoner in your own chamber. The first you'ld not like; indeed, for a person at your time of life it would be too fatiguing. The 2d, I should not like, because those who resort here are, as I observed before, strangers and people of the first distinction. And the 3d, more than probably, would not be pleasing to either of us."

Under these circumstances it was with real indignation that Washington learned that complaints of hers that she "never lived soe poore in all my life" were so well known that there was a project to grant her a pension. The pain this caused a man who always showed such intense dislike to taking even money earned from public coffers, and who refused everything in the nature of a gift, can easily be understood. He at once wrote a letter to a friend in the Virginia Assembly, in which, after reciting enough of what he had done for her to prove that she was under no necessity of a pension,—"or, in other words, receiving charity from the public,"—he continued, "But putting these things aside, which I could not avoid mentioning in exculpation of a presumptive want of duty on my part; confident I am that she has not a child that would not divide the last sixpence to relieve her from real distress. This she has been repeatedly assured of by me; and all of us, I am certain, would feel much hurt, at having our mother a pensioner, while we had the means of supporting her; but in fact she has an ample income of her own. I lament accordingly that your letter, which conveyed the first hint of this matter, did not come to my hands sooner; but I request, in pointed terms, if the matter is now in agitation in your Assembly, that all proceedings on it may be stopped, or in case of a decision in her favor, that it may be done away and repealed at my request."

Still greater mortification was in store for him, when he was told that she was borrowing and accepting gifts from her neighbors, and learned "on good authority that she is, upon all occasions and in all companies, complaining ... of her wants and difficulties; and if not in direct terms, at least by strong innuendoes, endeavors to excite a belief that times are much altered, &c., &c., which not only makes her appear in an unfavorable point of view, but those also who are connected with her." To save her feelings he did not express the "pain" he felt to her, but he wrote a brother asking him to ascertain if there was the slightest basis in her complaints, and "see what is necessary to make her comfortable," for "while I have anything I will part with it to make her so;" but begging him "at the same time ... to represent to her in delicate terms, the impropriety of her complaints, and acceptance of favors, even when they are voluntarily offered, from any but relations." Though he did not "touch upon this subject in a letter to her," he was enough fretted to end the renting of her plantation, not because "I mean ... to withhold any aid or support I can give from you; for whilst I have a shilling left, you shall have part," but because "what I shall then give, I shall have credit for," and not be "viewed as a delinquent, and considered perhaps by the world as [an] unjust and undutiful son."

In the last years of her life a cancer developed, which she refused to have "dressed," and over which, as her doctor wrote Washington, the "Old Lady" and he had "a small battle every day." Once Washington was summoned by an express to her bedside "to bid, as I was prepared to expect, the last adieu to an honored parent," but it was a false alarm. Her health was so bad, however, that just before he started to New York to be inaugurated he rode to Fredericksburg, "and took a final leave of my mother, never expecting to see her more," a surmise that proved correct.

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