BIOGRAPHY

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

Harper. Dec. 2019. 384p. notes. index. ISBN 9780062456519. $28.99. BIOG
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Shirley (Reagan Rising) acknowledges that this biography is as much a work of historiography as it is history. The life of Mary Ball Washington (1707–89) is relatively unknown, an amalgam of myth, legend, and oral tradition. Spending most of her days in Fredericksburg, VA, Washington was a devout widow who raised six children while tending to the family farm. George, her eldest son, always addressed her as “Honored Madam,” terminology that is at the heart of any attempt to unravel their complex relationship. What is most fascinating about her life and legacy is the way in which she has been perceived throughout history, alternately presented as a heroic mother of a prominent leader or a demanding mother who aimed to rein in her rebellious son. There is a lot of material here for a dual-biography of the pair, although that is not Shirley’s intent. He does a masterly job of sorting through these contradictions, using a rich array of primary sources to tell Mary’s story against the backdrop of Colonial America, slavery, and the marriage, child-rearing, and religious customs of the time.
VERDICT For general readers of American history, especially those interested in the revolutionary period.

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