The Widow Washington is the first life of Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother, based on archival sources. Her son’s biographers have, for the most part, painted her as self-centered and crude, a trial and an obstacle to her son. But the records tell a very different story. Mary Ball, the daughter of a wealthy planter and a formerly indentured servant, was orphaned very young and grew up in an atmosphere of work, frugality, and piety. She married the older planter Augustine Washington and had five children with him before his death eleven years later. As a widow deprived of most of her late husband’s properties, Mary struggled to raise her children and secure them places among Virginia’s elite. In her later years, she had a contested relationship with her wealthy son and struggled with fears of poverty and helplessness.
Yet Mary Ball Washington had a stronger impact on George than mothers like her usually had on their sons, and she taught him many of the moral and religious principles by which he lived. The two were strikingly similar, though the commanding demeanor, persistence, athleticism, penny-pinching, and irascibility that they shared have served the memory of the country’s father immeasurably better than that of his mother. Martha Saxton’s The Widow Washington is a necessary and deeply insightful corrective, telling the story of Mary’s long, arduous life on its own terms, and not as her son’s satellite.