J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

At Home with Mary Washington

At Boston 1775 headquarters we’ve been reading Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home, about the history and archeology of the farm where George Washington grew up and his mother, Mary, continued to live until 1772.

Along the way author Philip Levy explores the many legends that have grown up around Washington’s youth and how a lot of us still want them to be true. To interest reporters in the site during the excavations, he told them, “If the story of the cherry tree were true, it would have happened here.” What really happened there, he argues, is interesting in its own right.

The story includes buildings like Washington’s “Surveying Office” that went up well after his lifetime, a house found through archeology with great excitement but then dated to before the Washingtons, and a landscape that changed greatly along with the nearby Rappahannock River.

Yesterday was the anniversary of Mary Washington’s death in 1789. One of the Mount Vernon Twitter feeds linked to this article by Laura J. Galke from the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star about how she’s remembered:
“[C]rude and illiterate,” “self-centered,” “slovenly” and a “veteran complainer” were just a few of the adjectives that Ron Chernow used to describe Mary in his 2010 book, “Washington: A Life.”

He went on to suggest that she suffered from “some mild form of dementia.”

This, despite a 1789 letter penned by George Washington himself after the death of his mother that stated that she possessed “the full enjoyment of her mental faculties and as much bodily strength as usually falls to the lot of four score.” . . .

Mary Washington remained a widow, a decision that some have criticized. Yet there were real consequences for Mary and her children had she married a second time. Her children and their land would have come under the control of their stepfather: He could construct buildings on their plantations, put up fences, take down fences and keep the plantations’ proceeds.

It was not uncommon for children to be split up between family members upon the death of the father, but Mary kept the family together. Financially, this was challenging since the money generated by their two largest plantations and by the mine was no longer part of the family’s revenue after her husband’s death.
We have rather little information about Mary Washington, despite her son being so important in American history. Authors have therefore used her as a vessel for their times’ conception of motherhood. She was nearly sainted in the nineteenth century: Benson Lossing even titled the book he wrote about her and her daughter-in-law Mary and Martha.

Then in the twentieth century, around the same time psychiatrists were saddling mothers with the blame for autism and schizophrenia, Mary Washington became a burden and a shrew. Now Galke is making a case for her as a sort of career woman managing her family’s economic resources.

1 comment:

John L Smith Jr said...

The Philip Levy book you're describing is coming up on my reading list, so you've wet-ted my anticipation on it. Thank you! I am now reading "The Men Who Lost America" by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy of UV. I'm finding it fascinating reading. He goes into great research depth on George III, Lords North and Germain, Burgoyne, Clinton, Cornwallis and the Howe Boys. VERY intriguing reading - passing it along through the "Boston 1775 headquarters".