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Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington's Mother

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The Mother of the Father of our Country. Mary Ball Washington was an unlikely candidate to be the mother of historys most famous revolutionary. In fact, George Washingtons first fight for independence was from his controlling, singular mother. Stubborn, aristocratic Mary Ball Washington was entrenched in the Old World ways of her ancestors, dismissing the American The Mother of the Father of our Country. Mary Ball Washington was an unlikely candidate to be the mother of history’s most famous revolutionary. In fact, George Washington’s first fight for independence was from his controlling, singular mother. Stubborn, aristocratic Mary Ball Washington was entrenched in the Old World ways of her ancestors, dismissing the American experiment even as her son led the successful rebellion against the crown. During his youth, ambitious George dove into the hard-scrabble work of a surveyor and rose through the ranks of the fledgling colonial army, even as his overprotective mother tried to discourage these efforts.Mary’s influence on George was twofold. Though she raised her eldest son to become one of the world’s greatest leaders, Mary also tried many times to hold him back. While she passed down her strength and individuality to George, she also sought to protect him from the risks he needed to take to become a daring general and president. But it was this resistance itself which fanned the spark of George’s independence into a flame. The constant tug of war between the two throughout the early years helped define George’s character.In Mary Ball Washington, New York Times bestselling author Craig Shirley uncovers startling details about the inner workings of the Washington family. He vividly brings to life a resilient widow who singlehandedly raised six children and ran a large farm at a time when most women’s duties were relegated to household matters. Throughout, Shirley compares and contrasts mother and son, illuminating the qualities they shared and the differences that divided them. A significant contribution to American history, Mary Ball Washington is the definitive take on the relationship between George and Mary Washington, offering fresh insight into this extraordinary figure who would shape our nation—and the woman who shaped him. 


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The Mother of the Father of our Country. Mary Ball Washington was an unlikely candidate to be the mother of historys most famous revolutionary. In fact, George Washingtons first fight for independence was from his controlling, singular mother. Stubborn, aristocratic Mary Ball Washington was entrenched in the Old World ways of her ancestors, dismissing the American The Mother of the Father of our Country. Mary Ball Washington was an unlikely candidate to be the mother of history’s most famous revolutionary. In fact, George Washington’s first fight for independence was from his controlling, singular mother. Stubborn, aristocratic Mary Ball Washington was entrenched in the Old World ways of her ancestors, dismissing the American experiment even as her son led the successful rebellion against the crown. During his youth, ambitious George dove into the hard-scrabble work of a surveyor and rose through the ranks of the fledgling colonial army, even as his overprotective mother tried to discourage these efforts.Mary’s influence on George was twofold. Though she raised her eldest son to become one of the world’s greatest leaders, Mary also tried many times to hold him back. While she passed down her strength and individuality to George, she also sought to protect him from the risks he needed to take to become a daring general and president. But it was this resistance itself which fanned the spark of George’s independence into a flame. The constant tug of war between the two throughout the early years helped define George’s character.In Mary Ball Washington, New York Times bestselling author Craig Shirley uncovers startling details about the inner workings of the Washington family. He vividly brings to life a resilient widow who singlehandedly raised six children and ran a large farm at a time when most women’s duties were relegated to household matters. Throughout, Shirley compares and contrasts mother and son, illuminating the qualities they shared and the differences that divided them. A significant contribution to American history, Mary Ball Washington is the definitive take on the relationship between George and Mary Washington, offering fresh insight into this extraordinary figure who would shape our nation—and the woman who shaped him. 

30 review for Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington's Mother

  1. 5 out of 5

    The Colonial

    With a span of bestselling biographies that chronicle the eventful life of Ronald Reagan, historian Craig Shirley shifts gears to a rather unlikely subject who first made a name for herself in the early-seventeenth century. This unpredictable dame who has been characterized by both acquaintances and historians alike as a cantankerous and unabashed Royalist hasnt been given a biographical spotlight since the nineteenth century, though interestingly enough, two have come to light in 2019. Shirley With a span of bestselling biographies that chronicle the eventful life of Ronald Reagan, historian Craig Shirley shifts gears to a rather unlikely subject who first made a name for herself in the early-seventeenth century. This unpredictable dame who has been characterized by both acquaintances and historians alike as a cantankerous and unabashed Royalist hasn’t been given a biographical spotlight since the nineteenth century, though interestingly enough, two have come to light in 2019. Shirley admits in his introduction that this may be due to the fact that Mary did not leave much of any record of her life, whether through correspondence or diary entries—leaving his audience in a predicament from the beginning, and questioning whether or not there will be enough material gathered that will fulfill her life story. Born on or around 1708, it’s evident from the opening that there already may be a few signs of speculation—always a red flag for a subject that has been previously left alone. Shirley from there moves into a drawn-out yet meticulously researched social history of early to mid-eighteenth century Great Britain and its Thirteen Colonies, discussing the farming and mercantile prospects of the populace, the fashion articles that Mary perhaps wore, and the traditional gender roles that she would have embraced. While indeed interesting, this extra detail can at times be unrelated to Mary, and rather leans toward the categorization of blatant filler content—with over-extended instances of Shirley delving and spending far too much time on the etymological background of the Ball and Washington surnames. Setting aside the question of whether or not this biography perhaps could have been more appropriate as a broad genealogical focus on George Washington’s ancestry, it is interesting to point out that his great grandfather William Ball had already made a name for himself as an immigrant of property and prestige in Lancaster, Virginia, rising in rank from major to colonel. Both of these traits and aspirations would no doubt be mirrored and inherited down the line decades later to young Washington. Upon investigating Mary’s upbringing, Shirley fortunately gives a much more in-depth look at the controversy surrounding her birth year—as well as the two-part scandal of perhaps being born out of wedlock to her father’s own maid. Brief snippets of her early life are taken from her parent’s last wills and testaments, though for the most part little can be gathered here apart from dreary periods of being an orphan and experiencing a constant reminder of death—and the inheritances that come with it. Shirley notes that unfortunately there is not a likeness of Mary that survives, so it is difficult to picture her youth and maiden appearance upon marrying and becoming the second wife of Augustine Washington. A recurring theme both at this stage of the biography and further on is the fact that Shirley seems to pull mostly from secondary sources and nineteenth century accounts—which even he acknowledges can all but be verified or relied upon—as they are known for their tendency to border along the lines of hagiography. Furthermore, a good portion of the facts and research being presented to his audience are summaries and passages from prior works, quoting liberally from the likes of Benson J. Lossing and other earlier biographers, as well as Douglas Southall Freeman, Ron Chernow, and Williard Sterne Randolph. The newlyweds matrimonial bliss is brief as they bring the future first President of the United States into existence the following year, accompanied by five other children—each being born at the astonishing rate of almost one year after the next. It’s here that the reader familiar with the faults of Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages will be equally frustrated by the similar circumstances found in Shirley’s biography, where Martha takes a backseat most of the time while the story focuses and centers around young George Washington and his childhood circumstances and upbringing. Extensive tangents that feature prominent individuals that the Washington’s were intimate with, as well as pivotal legends and events are found throughout, which constantly overshadow Mary—including the background of her husband Augustine and his landholdings, the births of George III and Thomas Jefferson, and the apocryphal myths of her son: George Washington grew up here. Here, also, stories of his youth developed. Parson Weems, the origin of many of these fanciful tales, recounts the most famous of all these stories, as told to him by an anonymous “aged lady, who was a distant relative”in 1833: “One day,” he wrote, “in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don’t believe the tree ever got the better of it.” Augustine Washington was flabbergasted, confused, and wanting to know who did it. With George Washington now enlisted and marching along with Braddock’s expedition, Shirley’s primary focus unabashedly serves Mary’s son and his exploits in the field, with bits and pieces of letters from home showing the matriarch’s voice and concerns—but otherwise no traces of substance or value are found that would portray her character or actions. Upon selling his childhood home to Hugh Mercer and installing his mother in a more comfortable setting at Fredericksburg, George Washington—all too often at odds with his mother—was unsurprised to learn Mary was not a fan of this change in circumstance. This is a rare occurrence in the text, where by now the over the top and obvious abuse of filler content carries through to the end of the American Revolution and into the Founding era. Indeed, only snippets of Mary’s opinions and alleged conversations from various acquaintances are added in—along with brief appearances of her attendance at dinners and balls in honor of both her son and independence from Great Britain. Unfortunately, Shirley’s biography is a classic bait-and-switch tactic of fooling the audience with an enticing title, and delivering to them instead something dramatically unrelated and deceiving—a bold, frustrating, and unnecessary move. Indeed, there would have been nothing wrong with publishing a history of the colonies until the formation of the United States, as he devotes much more attention to events such as the Constitutional Convention of 1787—and that of Washington’s leadership and ascent—than he does his protagonist. Forgettable and altogether regrettably disappointing, Shirley concludes with Mary’s final two years battling breast cancer, which go in tandem with George’s difficulties in handling her estate, as well as his death years later. While absent of illustrations, the book is accompanied by a helpful Family Tree and index. Read the Full Review and More

  2. 4 out of 5

    Andrea Waugh

    Meandering. The first few chapters were a confusing genealogy of GW's ancestors. Assertions are made with no support. When the story of the lightning bolt at dinner was dismissed but the author insisted "something" happened to alter Mary Ball Washington's personality when she was pregnant--I was done.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ellen

    Not surprisingly, since little is known about George Washington's mother, this book is mostly about George and their relatives. It's still interesting, and I'd recommend it. The book is difficult to read, partly because of the small, odd typeface chosen by the publisher and partly because of the author's preference for strange, overcomplicated sentences.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Desirae

    This was fine, but I agree with other reviewers who've noted that there really isn't a lot of source material to warrant a full book on this subject matter. The biggest aspect was the nature of George and Mary's relationship, and the text was undecided as to whether it was of a positive or negative regard.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

    Calling this book The Untold Story of George Washingtons Mother is akin to calling me the worlds top supermodel: no proof, no data, nothing but me telling you it is so. Author Shirley admits up front there is extremely little source material on Mary Ball Washington, and then proceeds to craft a 290 page book around everything BUT Mary Ball Washington. Go figure.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Alexander Peck

    The scholarship for this book seems good. The summary of the history of times she was alive was fair and represents about 65% of the book. I would almost recommend that as a quick primer on the Revolution but for the other flaws. I think there was a bit of an editing problem, things were redundant, weirdly phrased. The author calls Mary Washington a helicopter parent twice. Now the author should not used this term but how could anyone proofing or reading any drafts of this not say something after The scholarship for this book seems good. The summary of the history of times she was alive was fair and represents about 65% of the book. I would almost recommend that as a quick primer on the Revolution but for the other flaws. I think there was a bit of an editing problem, things were redundant, weirdly phrased. The author calls Mary Washington a helicopter parent twice. Now the author should not used this term but how could anyone proofing or reading any drafts of this not say something after these words punch you in the eyes and then again. Sons are always embarrassed by their mothers, Mothers don't want their children fighting in a war and they mostly still love each other. The book tries desperately to create some sort of grand rift between them which is at least sensationalist but likely a lie. The book also has a profound misunderstanding of honor and an underestimation of the humility of both characters jumping to the worst conclusions on all of their motives.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    There really was precious little to go on, Washington's mother was apparently a peevish person who hit up her son for more and more money because she had trouble living within her means. But there are few records that show much about her, i.e. much of this book is history and not much biography. Also a lot of speculation, some of it justified and some of it not-so. At the end of the book, I learned a little, though not a lot.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Heather

    If a reader is looking for in depth coverage of the life of Mary Ball Washington, George Washingtons mother, they should look elsewhere. Perhaps a quarter of the text is devoted to Mary, the rest to her famous son, other family, and to the news and general way of life in the colony then state of Virginia and in the specific places she lived. It is this last part that I really enjoyed, and would definitely recommend the book to Fredericksburg area locals who have any interest at all in history. If a reader is looking for in depth coverage of the life of Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother, they should look elsewhere. Perhaps a quarter of the text is devoted to Mary, the rest to her famous son, other family, and to the news and general way of life in the colony then state of Virginia and in the specific places she lived. It is this last part that I really enjoyed, and would definitely recommend the book to Fredericksburg area locals who have any interest at all in history. Many local spots are mentioned, and I learned details of what happened going back to before George’s birth. Because I’ve been to so many places mentioned in the book, I was able to picture the events happening more vividly. For those of us who have visited the George Washington birthplace, Ferry Farm, Mount Vernon, Kenmore, Meditation Rock, St. George’s Church(same building?), Mary Washington’s Home, Kenmore, her monument, and other spots around Fredericksburg, this book gives context to those places through the lens of Mary’s life.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Nicole

    2.5 stars I enjoyed the information provided and comparing it to another book I recently completed on Mary Ball Washington, however, I did not enjoy the author's defensive tone when discussing other authors of similar books.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Rpmgrace

    A hardy, devoted to her son woman with many details that made her come to life. I did think there were too many times when the author repeated himself. I did not finish the book but close. Too many others to read.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jks

    The story did not flow very well. It jumped around and became a supplementary book of George. It did give me a impression of a very strong single Mom who was not always appreciated. It has interested me enough to plan a visit to her Museum.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kate Guinan

    Dreadful. I understand that primary source material does not exist for many women in history. Many authors supplement with historiography of that time period setting the background of their subject. There seems to be so little documentation of Mary Washington's life, there is only one surviving letter from her son George, so Mr. Shirley's got nothing and is filling pages with nothing. He literally spends the first TWO chapters talking about the origins of the names Ball and Washington. I tried Dreadful. I understand that primary source material does not exist for many women in history. Many authors supplement with historiography of that time period setting the background of their subject. There seems to be so little documentation of Mary Washington's life, there is only one surviving letter from her son George, so Mr. Shirley's got nothing and is filling pages with nothing. He literally spends the first TWO chapters talking about the origins of the names Ball and Washington. I tried two more chapters but it's just as dull as dirt. Couldn't finish.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

    I was eager to learn about Mary Ball Washington. The author squeezed as hard as he could, but the conclusion I draw is: there just isn't enough documentation to write a significant biography of Mrs. Washington. Kudos to Craig Shirley for trying.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Linda Mcleod

    I couldn't get halfway through this. Pedantic biography of a not so interesting person. Felt like i was reading a textbook.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Barb

  16. 5 out of 5

    Tammy Dockham

  17. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Daniels

  18. 5 out of 5

    Nedra Bennett

  19. 4 out of 5

    Mattie Nason

  20. 5 out of 5

    LL Capunay

  21. 4 out of 5

    W Barry Smith

  22. 5 out of 5

    Liv Worthen

  23. 5 out of 5

    Brian Horan

  24. 4 out of 5

    Mary Dollar

  25. 5 out of 5

    sandra moore

  26. 4 out of 5

    Victoria Lindstrom

  27. 5 out of 5

    Brittany Singer

  28. 5 out of 5

    Vance Barnwell

  29. 4 out of 5

    Mark B

  30. 4 out of 5

    Roberta Williams

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