Widow, slaveholder, mother of our first presidentHistorians in the News
tags: books, reviews, George Washington, biography, Mary Washington
Marjoleine Kars teaches history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Her next book, “Blood on the River,” about a massive slave rebellion in Dutch Guyana, will be published in August 2020.
Mary Ball Washington has not fared well at the hands of her famous son’s biographers. While early admirers of the first president depicted her as deeply spiritual and self-denying, by the mid-20th century she was portrayed as complaining, cold and covetous. Eager to uncover the real Mary, Martha Saxton, an emerita historian at Amherst College who has written biographies of Louisa May Alcott and Jayne Mansfield, set out to paint a more true-to-life portrait.
Saxton’s task proved challenging as Mary left no journal and few letters. But by piecing together and reinterpreting insights from family correspondence, from the books Mary treasured and especially from her eldest son’s obsessive records, Saxton creates a sensitive and plausible, if at times speculative, picture that richly evokes Mary’s interior life and the world of a slaveholding widow and planter in 18th-century Virginia.
That Mary was a widow for much of her life matters. Virginia’s white men chased wealth and status through public office, aggressive land acquisitions and the exploitation of enslaved people’s labor. At a time of relentlessly high mortality rates, they secured the material well-being of their lineage by bequeathing land and slaves down the male line. A widow was given use of the couple’s property, or more often part of it, for her lifetime or until she remarried, at which time it would pass on to her husband’s heirs. “Legally,” Saxton writes, “a widow’s role was to be transmitter of property from man to man.” But ephemeral possession did not mean that widows, like Mary, did not actively manage the property. And therein, for Mary as for many other widows, lay the rub: a life spent administering for the oldest son and principal heir.
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