Mary Washington Biography | Women of the Revolution


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.

    Mary Washington.


      THE MOTHER OF WASHINGTON! There needs no eulogy to awaken the associations which cling around that sacred name. Our hearts do willing homage to the venerated parent of the chief –

      “Who ‘mid his elements of being wrought
      With no uncertain aim – nursing the germs
      of godlike virtue in his infant mind.”

      The contemplation of Washington’s character naturally directs attention to her whose maternal care guided and guarded his early years. What she did, and the blessing of a world that follows – her teach impressively – while showing the power – the duty of those who mould the characters of the age to come. The principles and conduct of this illustrious matron were closely interwoven with the destinies of her son. Washington ever acknowledged that he owed everything to his mother – in the education and habits of his early life. His high moral principle, his perfect self-possession, his clear and sound judgment, his inflexible resolution and untiring application – were developed by her training and example. A believer in the truths of religion, she inculcated a strict obedience to its injunctions. She planted the seed, and cherished the growth, which bore such rich and glorious fruit. La Fayette observed that she belonged rather to the age of Sparta or Rome, than to modern times; she was a mother formed on the ancient model, and by her elevation of character and matchless discipline, fitted to lay the foundation of the greatness of him who towered “beyond all Greek – beyond all Roman fame.”

      The course of Mrs. Washington’s life, exhibiting her qualities of mind and heart, proved her fitness for the high trust committed to her hands. She was remarkable for vigor of intellect, strength of resolution, and inflexible firmness wherever principle was concerned. Devoted to the education of her children, her parental government and guidance have been described by those who knew her as admirably adapted to train the youthful mind to wisdom and virtue. With her, affection was regulated by a calm and just judgment. She was distinguished, moreover, by that well marked quality of genius, a power of acquiring and maintaining influence over those with whom she associated. Without inquiring into the philosophy of this mysterious ascendancy, she was content to employ it for the noblest ends. It contributed, no doubt, to deepen the effect of her instructions.

      The life of Mrs. Washington, so useful in the domestic sphere, did not abound in incident. She passed through the trials common to those who lived amid the scenes of the Revolutionary era. She saw the son whom she had taught to be good, whom she had reared in the principles of true honor, walking the perilous path of duty with firm step, leading his country to independence, and crowned with his reward – a nation’s gratitude; yet in all these changes, her simple, earnest nature remained the same. She loved to speak, in her latter days, of her boy’s merits in his early life, and of his filial affection and duty; but never dwelt on the glory he had won as the deliverer of his country, the chief magistrate of a great republic. This was because her ambition was too high for the pride that inspires and rewards common souls. The greatness she discerned and acknowledged in the object of her solicitous tenderness was beyond that which this world most esteems.

      The only memoir of the mother of Washington extant, is the one written by George W. P. Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington, and published more than twenty years ago in his “Recollections” in the National Gazette. These reminiscences were collected by him in the course of many years and to them we are indebted for all that is known of the life and actions of this matron. According to these, she was descended from the respectable family of Ball, who came to this country and settled on the banks of the Potomac. In the old days of Virginia, women were taught habits of industry and self-reliance, and in these Mrs. Washington was nurtured. The early death of her husband involved her in the cares of a young family with limited resources, which rendered prudence and economy necessary to provide for and educate her children. Thus circumstanced, it was left to her unassisted efforts to form in her son’s mind those essential qualities which gave tone and character to his subsequent life. George was only twelve years old at his father’s death, and retained merely the remembrance of his person, and his parental fondness. Two years after this event, he obtained a midshipman’s warrant; but his mother opposed the plan, and the idea of entering the naval service was relinquished.

      The home in which Mrs. Washington presided was a sanctuary of the domestic virtues. The levity of youth was there tempered by a well regulated restraint, and the enjoyments rational and proper for that age were indulged in with moderation. The future chief was taught the duty of obedience, and was thus prepared to command. The mother’s authority never departed from her, even when her son had attained the height of his renown; for she ruled by the affection which had controlled his spirit when he needed a guardian; and she claimed a reverence next to that due to his Creator. This claim he admitted, mingling the deepest respect with enthusiastic attachment, and yielding to her will the most implicit obedience, even to the latest hours of her life. One of the associates of his juvenile years, Lawrence Washington, of Chotank, thus speaks of his home:

      “I was often there with George, his playmate, schoolmate, and young man’s companion. Of the mother I was ten times more afraid than I ever was of my own parents; she awed me in the midst of her kindness, for she was indeed truly kind. And even now, when time has whitened my locks, and I am the grandparent of a second generation, I could not behold that majestic woman without feelings it is impossible to describe. Whoever has seen that awe-inspiring air and manner, so characteristic of the Father of his country, will remember the matron as she appeared, the presiding genius of her well-ordered household, commanding and being obeyed.” Educated under such influences, it is not to be wondered at that Washington’s deportment towards his mother at all times testified his appreciation of her elevated character, and the excellence of her lessons.

      “On his appointment to the command-in-chief of the American armies,” says Mr. Custis, “previously to his joining the forces at Cambridge, he removed his mother from her country residence, to the village of Fredericksburg, a situation remote from danger and contiguous to her friends and relatives. There she remained, during nearly the whole of the trying period of the Revolution. Directly in the way of the news, as it passed from north to south; one courier would bring intelligence of success to our arms; another, “swiftly coursing at his heels,” the saddening reverse of disaster and defeat. While thus ebbed and flowed the fortunes of our cause, the mother, trusting to the wisdom and protection of Divine Providence, preserved the even tenor of her life; affording an example to those matrons whose sons were alike engaged in the arduous contest; and showing that unavailing anxieties, however belonging to nature, were unworthy of mothers whose sons were combating for the inestimable rights of man, and the freedom and happiness of the world.”

      When news arrived of the passage of the Delaware in December, 1776, the mother received calmly the patriots who came with congratulations; and while expressing pleasure at the intelligence, disclaimed for her son the praises in the letters from which extracts were read. When informed by express of the surrender of Cornwallis, she lifted her hands in gratitude towards heaven, and exclaimed, “Thank God! war will now be ended, and peace, independence and happiness bless our country! ”

      Her housewifery, industry, and care in the management of her domestic concerns, were not intermitted during the war. “She looketh well to the ways of her household,” and “worketh willingly with her hands,” said the wise man, in describing a virtuous woman; and it was the pride of the exemplary women of that day, to fill the station of mistress with usefulness as well as dignity. Mrs. Washington was remarkable for a simplicity which modern refinement might call severe, but which became her not less when her fortunes were clouded, than when the sun of glory arose upon her house. Some of the aged inhabitants of Fredericksburg long remembered the matron, “seated in an old-fashioned open chaise, she was in the habit of visiting, almost daily, her little farm in the vicinity of the town. When there, she would ride about her fields, giving her orders and seeing that they were obeyed.” When on one occasion an agent departed from his instructions – she reproved him for exercising his own judgment in the matter; “I command you,” she said; “there is nothing left for you but to obey.”

      Her charity to the poor was well known; and having not wealth to distribute, it was necessary that what her benevolence dispensed should be supplied by domestic economy and industry. How peculiar a grace does this impart to the benefits flowing from a sympathizing heart!

      It is thus that she has been pictured in the imagination of one of our most gifted poets (Mrs. Sigourney, in her poetical tribute on the occasion of laying the corner-stone for the monument):

      Methinks we see thee, as in olden time,
      Simple in garb, majestic and serene, –
      Unawed by pomp and ‘circumstances’ – in truth
      Inflexible – and with a Spartan zeal
      Repressing vice, and making folly grave.
      Thou didst not deem it woman’s part to waste
      Life in inglorious sloth, to sport awhile
      Amid the flowers, or on the summer wave,
      Then fleet like the ephemeron away,
      Building no temple in her children’s hearts,
      Save to the vanity and pride of life
      Which she had worshipped.”

      Mr. Custis states that she was continually visited and solaced, in the retirement of her declining years, by her children and numerous grandchildren. Her daughter, Mrs. Lewis, repeatedly and earnestly solicited her to remove to her house, and there pass the remainder of her days. Her son pressingly entreated her that she would make Mount Vernon the home of her age. But the matron’s answer was: “I thank you for your affectionate and dutiful offers, but my wants are few in this world, and I feel perfectly competent to take care of myself.” To the proposition of her son-in-law, Colonel Lewis, to relieve her by taking the direction of her concerns, she replied: “Do you, Fielding, keep my books in order; for your eyesight is better than mine: but leave the executive management to me.” Such were the energy and independence she preserved to an age beyond that usually allotted to mortals, and till within three years of her death, when the disease under which she suffered (cancer of the breast), prevented exertion.

      Her meeting with Washington, after the victory which decided the fortune of America, illustrates her character too strikingly to be omitted. “After an absence of nearly seven years, it was, at length, on the return of the combined armies from Yorktown, permitted to the mother again to see and embrace her illustrious son. So soon as he had dismounted, in the midst of a numerous and brilliant suite, he sent to apprize her of his arrival, and to know when it would be her pleasure to receive him. And now, mark the force of early education and habits, and the superiority of the Spartan over the Persian schools, in this interview of the great Washington with his admirable parent and instructor. No pageantry of war proclaimed his coming – no trumpets sounded – no banners waved. Alone, and on foot, the marshal of France, the general-in-chief of the combined armies of France and America, the deliverer of his country, the hero of the age, repaired to pay his humble duty to her whom he venerated as the author of his being, the founder of his fortune and his fame. For full well he knew that the matron was made of sterner stuff than to be moved by all the pride that glory ever gave, or by all the pomp and circumstance of power.

      “The lady was alone – her aged hands employed in the works of domestic industry, when the good news was announced; and it was further told, that the victor-chief was in waiting at the threshold. She welcomed him with a warm embrace, and by the well-remembered and endearing names of his childhood. Inquiring as to his health, she remarked the lines which mighty cares, and many trials, had made on his manly countenance, spoke much of old times, and old friends; but of his glory, not one word!

      “Meantime, in the village of Fredericksburg, all was joy and revelry. The town was crowded with the officers of the French and American armies, and with gentlemen from all the country around, who hastened to welcome the conquerors of Cornwallis. The citizens made arrangements for a splendid ball, to which the mother of Washington was specially invited. She observed that although her dancing days were pretty well over, she should feel happy in contributing to the general festivity, and consented to attend.

      “The foreign officers were anxious to see the mother of their chief. They had heard indistinct rumors respecting her remarkable life and character; but forming their judgment from European examples, they were prepared to expect in the mother that glare and show which would have been attached to the parents of the great in the old world. How were they surprised when the matron, leaning on the arm of her son, entered the room! She was arrayed in the very plain, yet becoming garb worn by the Virginia lady of the olden time. Her address, always dignified and imposing, was courteous, though reserved. She received the complimentary attentions which were profusely paid her, without evincing the slightest elevation; and at an early hour, wishing the company much enjoyment of their pleasures, and observing that it was time for old people to be at home, retired, leaning, as before, on the arm of her son.”

      To this picture may be added another: The Marquis de La Fayette repaired to Fredericksburg, previous to his departure for Europe, in the fall of 1784, to pay his parting respects to the mother, and to ask her blessing. Conducted by one of her grandsons, he approached the house, when the young gentleman observed: “There, sir, is my grandmother.” La Fayette beheld – working in the garden, clad in domestic-made clothes, and her grey head covered with a plain straw hat – the mother of his hero, his friend and a country’s preserver! The lady saluted him kindly, observing, “Ah, marquis! you see an old woman; but come, I can make you welcome to my poor dwelling, without the parade of changing my dress.”‘

      To the encomiums lavished by the marquis on his chief, the mother replied: “I am not surprised at what George has done, for he was always a very good boy.” So simple in her true greatness of soul was this remarkable woman.

      Her piety was ardent; and she associated devotion with the grand and beautiful in nature. She was in the habit of repairing every day for prayer to a secluded spot, formed by rocks and trees, near her dwelling.

      After the organization of the government, Washington repaired to Fredericksburg, to announce to his mother his election to the chief magistracy, and bid her farewell, before assuming the duties of his office. Her aged frame was bowed down by disease; and she felt that they were parting to meet no more in this world. But she bade him go, with heaven’s blessing and her own, to fulfil the high destinies to which he had been called. Washington was deeply affected, and wept at the parting.

      The person of Mrs. Washington is described as being of the medium height, and well proportioned – her features pleasing, though strongly marked. There were few painters in the colonies in those days, and no portrait of her is in existence. Her biographer saw her but with infant eyes; but well remembers the sister of the chief. Of her we are told nothing, except that “she was a most majestic woman, and so strikingly like the brother, that it was a matter of frolic to throw a cloak around her, and place a military hat upon her head; and such was the perfect resemblance, that had she appeared on her brother’s steed, battalions would have presented arms, and senates risen to do homage to the chief.”

      Mrs. Washington died at the age of eighty-five, rejoicing in the consciousness of a life well spent, and the hope of a blessed immortality. Her ashes repose at Fredericksburg, where a splendid monument has been erected to her memory.

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