The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington by Martha Saxton (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)
Historians who have studied Mary Ball Washington described her in a not so favorable light. She was overbearing, overprotective, selfish, imposing, and crude; it is from her that historians have credited George Washington’s desire to escape the clutches of her bosom by fleeing to the military. Martha Saxton believes this is not so. Offering a new interpretation of the limited sources available on Mary Ball Washington, Saxton argues that she was a “determined, energetic, anxious woman who loved her children and tried to do her utmost for them.” Much attention is paid towards examining the relationship between Mary and her son George, one of the original founding fathers. Indeed, this book tells the history of the relationship between mother and son.
The first one hundred pages of the book study the early life of Mary Ball. Because little evidence exists in the historical record to paint a complete picture of her life, Saxton worked with what she had. At times, when lacking appropriate sources, Saxton relies on generalizations of colonial life in North America. This can lead readers to question the authority of the work in places where gaps exist. For example, when discussing the books Mary may have read (the author speculates that since a book had Mary’s name inscribed in it she must have read it and embodied its teachings—a dubious assertion) Saxton states, “this book gave Mary much guidance. Private devotions were extremely significant to religious Virginians.” I do not doubt the validity of the assertion regarding most Virginians’ devotion to their religion, but without clear evidence regarding Mary it is hard to say anything definitively. Perhaps she was the exception? We do not know. Claims such as these are present throughout the book and they detract from its authority.
Saxton spends too much time describing slave life in colonial Virginia. Chapter seven, titled “People and Property at Ferry Farm,” is devoted almost entirely to descriptions of plantation slave life. By exploring plantation life, this detracts from the main story of Mary Ball Washington. Certainly, slaves played a significant role in Mary’s life, but large swaths of the book devoted to the study of slaves are not needed to make this point clear.
Most of the supporting evidence for Saxton’s arguments is derived from studying her relationship with George. Chapter ten, titled “Single Mother,” contains the most evidence available on the matter. On one occasion, Saxton mentions how George’s cousin Lawrence remembered Mary as a “kind” woman. This evidence contradicts historians’ earlier assertions that leave out mention of this positive remembrance. Mary had a profound influence on her favored son George, Saxton says. Mary gave George his self-control and she also gave him a strong moral compass. In exhibiting the desire for only wanting the best for her children, Mary ensured that they had diversions for socializing and entertainment. This alludes to her good nature. Saxton believes Mary tried to ensure that her children were safe, but that she was not an overly protective mother, an argument made popular in the historiography. Despite this claim, little evidence exists to support it.
In chapter eleven, “Mary’s Stewardship: Scraping By,” concerning the remembrance of Mary as being a demanding plantation owner, Mary was forced into a role that required her to be tough, a role that required her to demonstrate her toughness constantly. Saxton reminds us that she lived in a time that was difficult for women. Mary had to prove herself regularly in order to maintain authority over her plantation. In chapter thirteen, “Mary and George’s Seven Years’ War,” Saxton contradicts other historians’ treatment of Mary’s letters to George during his military service, going against existing scholarship that claims that Mary was grasping and insensitive. Saxton argues that George did not care about his mother’s requests since he received similar appeals from his brothers. Saxton concludes the chapter with a sympathetic anecdote describing how Mary had a feverish desire to be helpful to her son.
Despite the good nature between Mary and George, their relationship was not without tension, Saxton admits. According to the author, George became unsympathetic to the woes of his mother. She does not discredit the former president, instead pointing out that he was busy running a new country. The tension in the relationship that had existed between mother and son stemmed from George’s belief that she had become an annoyance due to her constant complaints and vocalization of her problems.
At the end of the book, one of the best examples of Mary’s good nature is demonstrated in her will. Mary left all of her “best” to George. Her “best” bedroom, her “best” bed, her “best” dressing glass, her “best” curtains, the best was all left for George. “[Mary] wanted [George] to know that whatever she had done for him, it had been her best.” George was certainly shaken by the death of his mother. Her influence on him extended beyond her living years. George would go on to support Mary’s closest surviving relatives.
In The Widow Washington, Saxton utilizes the same evidence on Mary Ball Washington used by previous historians but offers fresh insights and new interpretations. This is the strength of her book. Saxton argues that Mary was unfairly treated by historians of the past and this book sets out to do justice to her memory. One of the more interesting assertions states that Mary was not a loyalist. The fact that the British sought to upset colonial plantation life by encouraging slaves to abandon their masters and join the British army would, Saxton posits, have made Mary strongly anti-British, having been a slave owner all her life.
The assertions in this book do a splendid job of providing a unique interpretation that is a valuable contribution to modern scholarship. The road to these conclusions, however, is not built on a good foundation. Saxton covers a lot of ground in this book, sometimes too much, and uses general information to draw specific conclusions about an individual. The unnecessary over explanation of plantation slave life causes her to lose sight of her main points. Too much attention is paid to very specific detail and unnecessary tangents which make it confusing and hard to follow. These diversions make the book unnecessarily long. Sure, this points to good exhaustive research work that leaves no stone left unturned, but it makes for an extremely onerous read. Her academic writing style is valuable to researchers studying Mary Ball Washington, but her over the top research work reads like filler for the absence of direct information, rather than building a good basis for the author’s new—and different—conclusions about her subject.