Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother by Craig Shirley (Harper, 2019)
Rare indeed is the historian of early American history who is unfamiliar with George Washington. Lesser known, however, is the story of Mary Ball Washington, his mother. In Craig Shirley’s book, Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother, Shirley explores the life of Mary Ball Washington. Written chronologically, the book follows Mary’s life from birth right up until her death. Shirley illustrates her life and how it interacted with that of her son George. As such, the narrative is one that is intertwined, telling the life story of both Mary and George Washington with the main narrative focused on the former. Shirley argues that Mary Ball Washington played a decisive role in the development of the former president’s character. Characteristics of humility, honesty, charm, grace, manners, and faith—traits George would famously embody—were all developed during the course of his life from his mother.
Shirley’s contention is driven home from a variety of George’s early life experiences with his mother. For example, when George’s father died, Mary had decided not to send the young Washington to England for an education. Instead George was taught at home where he learned how to be a surveyor, a skill he would otherwise not have gained in England and which benefitted him greatly in his later experiences on the colonial frontier. Furthermore, the effects of being taught in the colonies, Shirley argues, exposed the young George to a tutor who would guide him in the “Rules of Civility,” something that would come to be associated with the first president of the United States and something that shaped his character in his early life.
By withdrawing George’s brothers from school in England, they came back to the colonies where George’s older half-brother Lawrence became a father figure to the young, impressionable Washington. This admiration inspired George to flirt with the idea of joining the Royal Navy, something Mary flatly refused. Had Mary not saved her son from a life at sea, he would have never become president. Despite his failed ambitions of life in the navy, George did enlist to fight in the French and Indian War. His sense of duty, in this case manifested in his desire to fight for King and Country against the French in the North American wilderness, Shirley argues, was derived and learned from his mother.
Among the sources used in the author’s arsenal are a host of primary source documents like letters from the hand of Mary and her son George. Wills, personal memoirs, bills of sale, and newspaper articles were all consulted and included in this work. More importantly, Shirley has taken knowledge from fields outside of history and has not only considered them but incorporated them into his work. For example, archaeological discoveries made in 2008 of the former president’s childhood home reveal intimate knowledge about a fire that supposedly burned down the whole house. Through his work, archaeologist Philip Levy discovered that the fire only occurred in one room of the house. The historical record would have you believe the entire house burned down, but this is not the case. When tracing the genealogy of the Washington family, the author consults genealogist Earl Leon Werley Heck to offer his insights on the family history. By taking into consideration different fields of professional study outside of history, Shirley offers work that is thorough in its purpose of gaining mastery over Mary and George’s world. No stone is left unturned.
The strengths of this book are many, but one critique should be considered. Few documents directly related to Mary Washington’s life exist today. Thus, when constructing this book, the author had to craft a story that could work around this lack of available source material. In doing so, Shirley has created a narrative that is, in certain parts where primary source documentation does not exist, impossible to be definitive in any sense of the word. For example, much of Mary’s early life is unknown. The author states this, then works around it by crafting a story based on the average experiences of upper-class landed gentry provincial women of the eighteenth century. This method of filling the holes in the historical record is followed throughout the book—when lacking sources to craft a definitive narrative of Mary Ball, Shirley resorts to, essentially, describing the average life of a woman similar to Mary’s social class in the colonial period. When discussing Mary’s childhood clothes the author states, “Her clothes as an infant were made from linen, most likely, according to Alice Earle, whose book Child Life in Colonial Days . . . did allow some thoughts on the Virginia lifestyle.” Similarly, when providing a glimpse of Mary’s character as it may have been, Shirley defines her character based on the characteristics of the typical woman in nineteenth-century America based on the observations of Alex De Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America, published almost a century after Mary’s time. Thus, Shirley bases Mary’s characteristics on assumptions that they were similar to women who would have been her great great grandchildren.
Much of the narrative produced by Shirley, when confronted by the absence of documentation, lacks any authoritative attribution. This is not a bad thing. In Shirley’s case, he did the best a writer could do given the scope of the project and source material available to give the fullest picture possible of the subject. Ultimately, Mary Ball Washington is a well written book. It is easy to read. One does not need to have any background in early American history to understand fully the ideas and the narrative the author is communicating. As far as lesser-known history of the American Revolution is concerned, Craig Shirley’s book is a good addition to any private library.
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