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  • The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington by Martha Saxton
  • Jacqueline Beatty
The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington. By Martha Saxton. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. 381 pages. Cloth, paper, ebook.

George Washington has, for good reason, long captured the nation’s popular and historical imagination. His mother, Mary Ball Washington, has received decidedly less attention, despite the pivotal role she played in shaping her son into the man who led the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and became the first American president. As Martha Saxton makes evident in her recent biography, The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington, the scant scholarly acknowledgment Mary has received has done her a great disservice. Saxton castigates “George and his historians” (xvii) for their mischaracterizations of Mary. George’s mostly male biographers have denounced Mary as a “termagant” (x) and portrayed her as “incompetent, crude, imperious, selfish, and unloving” (x); Ron Chernow, for example—an author with broad popular reach—characterized her as “‘crude,’ ‘illiterate,’ ‘self-centered,’ and ‘slovenly’” (x).1 The hagiographic treatment of George Washington has relegated his mother to the fringes of historical study and denigrated her character in her brief appearances.

Saxton’s work seeks to correct the record by portraying Mary as a far more complex figure than scholars and the public have yet known. The Widow Washington traces her experience as a relatively well-situated white woman in colonial Virginia, emphasizing that her position and power were ultimately never secure. Mary “became a slave owner at three years old” (xv) and thus held a position of privilege in Virginia society, but she lost both parents by her twelfth birthday. Her life, like those of most colonial Virginians, was marked by death—of friends, of siblings, of parents. “Trauma,” as Saxton conveys, “was Mary’s normality” (52).

The events young Mary experienced would plague her throughout her life for, as Saxton shows, financial insecurity and familial instability provoked regular unease. When faced with difficult circumstances, Mary turned to her faith, and especially to the Anglican devotionals and meditations of John Scott and Matthew Hale, whose wisdom and bromides she would eventually pass on to her own children. As Saxton demonstrates, understanding Mary’s early years is critical not just to creating a full picture of her own life but also to understanding the context in which George’s character was forged. [End Page 342]

Mary married Augustine Washington Sr. in March of 1731, joining a family with three children who had recently lost their mother. Her union with Augustine provided her financial security similar to what she had enjoyed briefly when her parents were alive. In addition, she joined a stable household and a well-established kinship network, which quelled some of the anxieties Mary acquired from losing many family members at a young age. Like most white women in colonial Virginia, Mary’s life revolved around her family. She gave birth to six children over her lifetime, five of whom lived to adulthood. According to Saxton, she was stern with her children, frugal, and hardworking—all traits she passed on to them, including George.

Mary also acquired the status of plantation mistress upon her marriage. Saxton admits that she felt some trepidation about rehabilitating a slave-holding woman—particularly one “whose fame derives from” (x) her ties to a man—but ultimately decided that the later judgments on Mary called for a firm corrective. And she fairly assesses Mary’s involvement in and support for slavery in colonial Virginia. As Saxton shows, Mary observed and internalized the cruel treatment of enslaved people at a young age, and she practiced it herself, particularly later in life when she could not afford an overseer to exert violence on her behalf. She experienced unkindness in her life and the challenges that came with being a woman in a staunchly patriarchal society, but she also benefitted from the protections of her white womanhood and actively participated, unquestioningly, in the brutality of slavery. Saxton’s biography thus fits into a larger body of scholarly work aimed at clarifying the prominent role of white female slave owners in bolstering and justifying the...


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pp. 342-345
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