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.
comments powered by Disqus
- Trump administration says joint UNC, Duke Middle East Studies program portrays Islam too positively
- What White Kids Learn About Race in School
- Frederick Douglass photos smashed stereotypes. Could Elizabeth Warren selfies do the same?
- Chronicling New York’s Muslim History
- New Documents Illuminate The University of Texas’s Secret Strategy to Keep Out Black Students
- Women Scientists Were Written Out of History. It’s Margaret Rossiter’s Lifelong Mission to Fix That
- Allen C. Guelzo Reviews Sidney Blumenthal's Latest Installment of His Biography of Lincoln
- What Reconstruction-Era Laws Can Teach Our Democracy: The NY Times Reviews Eric Foner's Latest Book
- Should historians read their own book?
- Cokie Roberts, Pioneering Journalist Who Helped Shape NPR, Dies At 75