New View Taking Shape of George Washington's Mother

Roundup: Talking About History

Washington Post 3-14-04

Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer

Bill and Annie Smith, strolling past the stately, stone entry pillars of Mary Washington College, are typical of Fredericksburg residents in their enthusiasm for the school's namesake: She wears an "MWC" sweatshirt, and his car has a bumper sticker that says, "Mary Wash."

They're also typical in another way: They don't know much about her.

"Obviously, she was George Washington's mother, and so of course she had a big influence on him," said Bill Smith, 28, a technology assistant.

"I think she was from here, from Fredericksburg," Annie Smith -- who said she was in her "early 30s" -- noted incorrectly. In fact, Mary was from Lancaster County, at the southern tip of the Northern Neck.

Students and neighbors of the small public liberal arts college and others in the Fredericksburg area -- including those who fought the decision to take "Mary" out of the school's name when it officially becomes a university July 1 -- could be forgiven for their lack of knowledge. Although the area takes great pride in knowing that George grew up in neighboring Stafford County and that his mother lived her last 17 years in Fredericksburg, dying at 81 in 1789, little documentation of her life -- and not a single confirmed portrait -- exists.

But the recent debate over what to call the school prompted some people to ask: Why keep the name? Who was Mary Ball Washington? Now, scholars are producing work about her for the first time in decades and are challenging the extreme images that have been painted of her.

In the 1800s, Mary's first biographers generally romanticized her, but biographers of the next century tore her down, some recent scholars have said. In some of the most prominent books about George Washington, written in the mid-1900s, she was described as superficial, materialistic and so overbearing that one biographer said George was "fleeing from his mother to war."

But recent research looks at the societal context of her relationship with her son, and current researchers have said Mary has been portrayed unjustly. On Tuesday, some of that work will be presented at the college's second symposium about its namesake -- a pair of lectures in honor of Women's History Month.

"What was said about her was purely subjective and derogatory," said Paula Felder, a lay historian who will be one of the event's two speakers. She has spent the last 25 years reconstructing 18th-century Fredericksburg, including the lives of George and Mary Washington.

"If she had died young, she would have been a footnote, but she hung around for almost his entire life, so they had to do something with her," Felder said of 20th-century historians, "so they made a plot."

Liane Houghtalin, a classics professor at Mary Washington and the symposium's other speaker, said early Colonials generally looked up to Greek and Roman societies and modeled their accounts after that romantic, fantastical style. In 19th-century biographies of George Washington, Houghtalin said, Mary was compared to Cornelia, an epic matriarchal figure from ancient Rome who, like Mary, didn't remarry after her husband died.

"Her early biographers didn't know much about her," Houghtalin said of Mary, "so they filled in, and legends grew up around her that parallel the ideal woman."

Philander Chase, senior editor of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, said the early glorification of Mary Washington was typical in the 19th century.

"I think that was done a lot by Victorians looking back at Colonial times," Chase said. "Mary Washington wasn't a perfect woman and a paragon of all virtues, but at the same time, she wasn't this terrible, awful woman."

The relatively few scholars who have seriously studied Mary Washington have said they think the backlash against her began primarily with Douglas Southall Freeman, who many considered to be George Washington's most prominent biographer. Felder and others, however, are questioning Freeman's portrait of the president's mother.

"A thousand trifles were her daily care to the neglect of larger interests," Freeman wrote of Mary in a six-volume biography of Washington in the 1940s. He also wrote: "When her complaints frequently drew money from the purse of her son, it somehow was spent and forgotten as a gift."

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