Madame De Maintenon
Mary The Mother Of Washington
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Mary The Mother Of Washington
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A. D. 1714-1796
When, in any part of the earth, men's thoughts turn to the ideal subject of equal human rights under the law, and. equal opportunities at birth, there rises, out of all the mists of democracy in the past, but one colossal figure George Washington cold, silent, immovable, yet a man the most generally admired of any the world has produced. As governmental systems pass on the scale from the American method onward through constitutional monarchy to the deepest shades of despotism, the fame of Washington advances, until those historians who are furthest away are most sensible of what he did that was godlike, and most enthusiastic in placing him foremost among the men who have been. He was in himself a Solon and a Caesar and a Cincinnatus. "He was a Cromwell without ambition," says Alison, "a Sylla without proscription."
This powerful, terrible, inexorable, gentle, patient, just man, the Father of His Country of Seventy-five Million People, with many millions more lately added, inherited his remarkable personality from his mother Mary. We have it directly and authentically from the pen of Lawrence Washington, a half-brother, who was himself father and friend to Pater Patriae: "Of the mother I was ten times more afraid than I ever was of my own parents. She awed me in the midst of her kindness, for she was indeed truly kind. And even now, when time has whitened my locks, and I am the grandparent of a second generation, I could not behold that majestic woman without feelings it is impossible to describe. Whoever has seen that awe-inspiring air and manner, so characteristic in the Father of his Country, will remember the matron as she appeared when the presiding-genius of her well-ordered household, commanding and being obeyed."
In seeking for an American woman upon whom the eyes of past generations have been drawn, and on whom the admiration of coming ages is likely to rest, we have felt even more than a patriotic honor in choosing Mary, the mother of George Washington. Fortunately for the curiosity and instruction of the world, a man connected with her family but in no wise related to her, George W. P. Custis, grandson of the widow Custis, who married George Washington, gathering the records and traditions of the family before they were lost, prepared a sketch of the life of Mary Washington, which contains all or nearly all that is authentically known of her, and this sketch here follows :
"Mrs. Washington was descended from the respectable family of Ball, who settled, as English colonists, on the banks of the Potomac. Bred in those domestic and in-dependent habits which graced the Virginia matrons in the old days of Virginia, this lady, by the death of her husband, became involved in the cares of a young family, at a period when those cares seem more especially to claim the aid and control of the stronger sex. It was left for this eminent woman, by a method the most rare, by an education and discipliné the most peculiar and imposing, to form in the youth-time of her son, those great and essential qualities, which gave lustre to the glories of his after-life. If the school savored the more of the Spartan than the Persian character, it was a fitter school to form a hero, destined to be the ornament of the age in which he flourished, and a standard of excellence for ages yet to come.
It was remarked by the ancients that the mother always gave the tone to the character of the child; and we may be permitted to say that, since the days of old renown, a mother has not lived better fitted to give the tone and character of real greatness to her child, than she whose remarkable life and actions this reminiscence will endeavor to illustrate.
At the time of his father's death, George Washington was only twelve years of age. He has been heard to say that he knew little of his father, except the remembrance of his person and of his paternal fondness. To his mother's forming care he himself ascribed the origin of his fortunes and his fame.
The home of Mrs. Washington, of which she was al-ways mistress, was always a pattern of order. There the levity and indulgence common to youth were tempered by a deference and well-regulated restraint, which, while it neither repressed nor condemned any rational enjoyment usual in the springtime of life, prescribed those enjoyments within the bounds of moderation and propriety. Thus the Chief was taught the duty of moderation and obedience, which prepared him to command. Still, the mother held in reserve an authority a reverse which never departed from her, not when her son had become the most illustrious of men. It seemed to say : "I am your mother, the being who gave you life. the guide who directed your steps when they needed a guardian; my maternal affection drew forth your love; my authority constrained your spirit; whatever may be your success or your renown, next to your God, your reverence is due to me." Nor did the Chief dissent from these truths; but, to the last moments of his venerable parent, yielded to her will the most dutiful and implicit obedience, and felt for her person and character the highest respect and the most enthusiastic attachment.
Such were the domestic influences under which the mind of Washington was formed; and that he not only profited by, but fully appreciated their excellence and the character of his mother, his behavior toward her at all times testified. Upon his appointment to the command in chief of the American armies, previously to his joining the forces at Cambridge, he removed his mother from her country residence to the village of Fredericksburg, a situation remote from danger and contiguous to her friends and relatives. It was there the matron remained during nearly the whole of the trying period of the Revolution. Directly in the way of the news as it passed from north to south, one courier would bring intelligence of success to our arms; another, "swiftly coursing at his heels," the saddening reverse of disaster and defeat. While thus ebbed and flowed the fortunes of our cause, Providence preserved the even tenor of her life, affording an example to those matrons whose sons were alike engaged in the arduous contest; and showing that unavailing anxieties, however belonging to nature, were unworthy of mothers whose sons were combating for the inestimable rights of man and the freedom and happiness of the world.
When the comforting and glorious intelligence arrived of the passage of the Delaware (December, 1776), an event which restored our hopes from the very brink of despair, a number of her friends waited upon the mother with congratulations. She received them with calmness; observed that it was most pleasurable news, and that George appeared to have deserved well of his country for such signal services; and continued, in reply to the gratulating parties (most of whom held letters in their hands from which they read extracts) : "But, my good sirs, here is too much flattery still, George will not forget the lessons I early taught him he will not forget himself, though he is the subject of so much praise."
Here let us remark upon the absurdity of an idea which, from some strange cause or other, has been suggested, though certainly never believed, that the mother was disposed to favor the Royal cause. Such a surmise has not the slightest foundation in truth. Like many others, whose days of enthusiasm were in the wane, the lady doubted the prospects of success in the beginning of the war; and long during its continuance feared that our means would be found inadequate to a successful contest with so formidable a power as Britain; and our soldiers, brave, but undisciplined and ill-provided, be unequal to cope with the veteran and well-appointed troops of the King. Doubts like these were by no means confined to a woman ; but were both entertained and expressed by the staunchest of patriots and most determined of men. But when the mother, who had been removed to the county of Frederick, on the invasion of Virginia, in 1781, was in-formed by express of the surrender of Cornwallis, she raised her hands to heaven and exclaimed: "Thank God, war will now be ended, and peace, independence and happiness will bless our country."
During the war, and, indeed, during her useful life, up to the advanced age of 82, until within three years of her death (when an afflictive disease prevented exertion), the mother set a most valuable example, in the management of her domestic concerns, carrying her own keys, bustling in her household affairs, providing for her family, and living and moving in all the pride of independence. She was not actuated by that ambition for show which pervades lesser minds; and the peculiar plainness and dignity of her manners became in no wise altered, when the sun of glory arose upon her house. There are some of the aged inhabitants of Fredericksburg who well remember the matron, as seated in an old-fashioned open chaise. She was in the habit of visiting, almost daily, her little farm, in the vicinity of the town. When there, she would ride about her fields, giving her orders, and seeing that they were obeyed.
Her great industry, with the well-regulated economy of all her concerns, enabled the matron to dispense considerable charity to the poor, although her own circumstances were always far from rich. All manner of domestic economies, so useful in those times of privation and trouble, met her zealous attention ; while everything about her household bore marks of her attention and management, and very many things the impress of her own hands. In a very humble dwelling, and suffering under an excruciating disease (cancer of the breast) thus lived this mother of the first of men, preserving unchanged her peculiar nobleness and independence of character.
She was continually visited and solaced by her children and numerous grandchildren, particularly by her daughter, Mrs. Lewis. To the repeated and earnest solicitations of that lady, that she would remove to her house, and pass the remainder of her days ; to the pressing treaties of her son, that she would make Mount Vernon the home of her age, the matron replied : "I thank you for your affectionate and dutiful offers, but my wants are few in this world, and I feel perfectly competent to take care of myself." Her son-in-law, Colonel Fielding Lewis, proposed to relieve her of the direction of her affairs ; she observed : "Do you, Fielding, keep my books in order, for your eyesight is better than mine; but leave the executive management to me."
One weakness alone attached to this lofty-minded and intrepid woman, and that proceeded from a most affecting cause. She was afraid of lightning. In early life she had a female friend killed by her side, while sitting at table; the knife and fork, in the hands of the unfortunate girl, were melted by the electric current. The matron never recovered from the shock and fright occasioned by this distressing accident. On the approach of a thunder-cloud she would retire to her chamber, and not leave it again until the storm had passed away.
She was always pious, but in her latter days her devotions were performed in private. She was in the habit of repairing every day to a secluded spot, formed by rocks and trees near her dwelling, where, abstracted from the world and worldly things, she communed with her Creator in humiliation and prayer.
After an absence of seven years, it was at length, on the return of the combined armies from Yorktown, permitted to the mother again to see and embrace her illustrious son. So soon as he had dismounted, in the midst of a numerous and brilliant suite, he sent to apprise her of his arrival, and to know when it would be her pleasure to receive him. And now mark the force of early education and habits, and the superiority of the Spartan over the Persian school, in this interview of the great Washington with his admirable parent and instructor. No pageantry of war proclaimed his coming, no trumpets sounded, no banners waved. Alone and on foot the Marshal of France, the General-in-Chief of the combined armies of France and America, the deliverer of his country, the hero of the age, repaired to pay his humble duty to her whom he venerated as the author of his being, the founder of his fortune and his fame. For full well he knew that the matron would not be moved by all the pride that glory ever gave, nor by all the "pomp and circumstance" of power.
The mother was alone, her aged hands employed in the works of domestic industry, when the good news was announced, and it was further told that the victor Chief was in waiting at the threshold. She welcomed him with a warm embrace, and by the well-remembered and endearing name of his childhood. Inquiring as to his health, she remarked the lines which mighty cares and many trials had made on his manly countenance, spoke much of old times and old friends, but of his glory not one word!
Meantime, in the village of Fredericksburg, all was joy and revelry. The town was crowded with the officers of the French and American armies, and with gentlemen from all the country around, who hastened to welcome the conquerors of Cornwallis. The citizens made arrangements for a splendid ball, to which the mother of Washington was specially invited. She observed that although her dancing days were "pretty well over," she should feel happy in contributing to the general festivity, and consented to attend. The foreign officers were anxious to see the mother of their chief. They had heard indistinct rumors respecting her remarkable life and character, but, forming their judgments from European examples, they were prepared to expect in the matter that glare and show, which would have been attached to the parents of the great in the Old World. How were they all surprised when the matron, leaning on the arm of her son, entered the room. She was arrayed in the very plain yet becoming garb worn by the Virginia lady of the olden times. Her address, always dignified and imposing, was courteous though reserved. She received the complimentary attentions which were profusely paid her, without evincing the slightest elevation, and, at an early hour, wishing the company much enjoyment of their pleasures, observed that it was time for old people to be at home, and retired. The foreign officers were amazed to behold one whom so many causes contributed to elevate, persevering in the even tenor of her life, while such a blaze of glory shone upon her name and offspring. The European world furnished no examples of such magnanimity. Names of ancient lore were heard to escape from their lips, and they observed that "if such were the matrons of America, it was not wonderful the sons were illustrious." It was on this festive occasion that General Washington danced a minuet with Mrs. Willis. It closed his dancing days. The minuet was much in vogue at that period, and was peculiarly calculated for the display of the splendid figure of the Chief, and his natural grace and elegance of air and manner. The gallant Frenchmen who were present, of which fine people it may be said that dancing forms one of the elements of their existence, so much admired the American performance as to admit that a Parisian education could not have improved it. As the evening advanced, the Commander-in-chief, yielding to the gaiety of the scene, went down some dozen couple, in the contra-dance, with great spirit and satisfaction.
The Marquis of Lafayette repaired to Fredericksburg, previous to his departure, for Europe, in the fall of 1784, to pay his parting respects to the mother, and to ask her blessing. Conducted by one of her grandsons, he approached the house. The young man observed : "There, sir, is my grandmother !" Lafayette beheld, working in the garden, clad in domestic-made clothes, and her gray head covered in a plain straw hat, the mother of "his hero." She saluted him kindly, observing: "Ah, Marquis, you see an old woman but come, I can make you welcome to my poor dwelling, without the parade of changing my dress." The Marquis spoke to her of the happy effects of the Revolution and the goodly prospect which opened upon independent America, stated his speedy departure for his native land, paid the tribute of his heart, his love and admiration of her illustrious son, and concluded by asking her blessing. She blessed him, and to the encomiums which he lavished upon his hero and paternal Chief, the matron replied in these words : "I am not surprised at what George has clone, for he was always a very good boy."
In her person Mrs. Washington was of the middle size, and finely formed, her features pleasing, yet strongly marked. It is not the happiness of the writer* to remember her, having only seen her with infant eyes. But the sister of the Chief he perfectly well remembers. She was a most majestic woman, and so strikingly like the brother that it was a matter of frolic to throw a cloak around her and place a military hat upon her head, and such was the perfect resemblance, that, had she appeared on her brother's steed, battalions would have presented arms, and senates risen to do homage to the Chief.
In her latter days the mother often spoke of her "own good boy," of the merits of his early life, of his love and dutifulness to herself; but of the deliverer of his country, the Chief Magistrate of the Great Republic, she never spoke. Call you this insensibility or want of ambition? Oh, no; her ambition had been gratified to overflowing. She had taught him to be good; that he became great when the opportunity presented was a consequence.
Thus lived and died this distinguished woman. Had she been a Roman dame, statues would have been erected to her memory in the capitol, and we should read in classic pages the story of her virtues. When another century shall have elapsed, and the nations of the earth, as well as our descendants, shall have learned the true value of liberty, the name of our hero will gather a glory it has never been invested with; and then will youth and age, maid and matron, aged and bearded men, with pilgrim step, repair to the grave of the Mother of Washington.
Here ends the memorial written by Custis when he was a young man. Through it breathes a respect for the manners and customs of the forefathers who handed us down liberty at the expense and risk of their lives, and a sensibility of the value of sound maternal instruction, frugality and simplicity, which cannot be flattered or too highly ex-tolled. Some biographical facts may be added to this memorial. Mary Ball, daughter of a prosperous farmer, was born in 1714. On March 6, 1730, she became the second wife of Augustine Washington, who already had three sons and a daughter. She moved into a comfortable home in Westmoreland County, which gave a view of the Potomac River. The dwelling, though a considerable one in Colonial days, was of frame, with steep roof, four rooms, an enormous chimney at each end, and a large hall. Nearly two years later, the eldest child of these second nuptials was born. This was George Washington. The date was then February 11 it is now the 22nd from the Gregorian correction of the calendar, which was not then acceptable in Protestant countries. The house, it is said, burned three years afterward and the family removed to what is now Stafford County, near the Rappahannock, and near Fredericksburg. The mother, from the first, held every member of the double family to continuous industry and frequent worship. Prayers were said morning and evening, with every soul present. In 1743, the husband died, and the mother was left with two sets of children, for George by this time had three brothers and two sisters. So well was this office performed, and so high was the spirit of amity in the family, that George was afterward made the heir of Mount Vernon, which was left to him by his half-brother Lawrence. Her reading was chiefly devotional, her favorite book being Hale 's "Moral and Divine Contemplations." She knew no Ianguage but her own, and her spelling was as uncertain as anybody's in that age of freedom. She was gifted with strong, good sense. She was provident, and exact in matters of business. She was an imperious woman, and brooked no opposition. She was, more than most people, dignified, silent, and little given to mirth. She was forced to work hard, but she believed work to be good for people, and that he who was an idler was a curse to any community. She had a way of impressing her views on the subjects of her small kingdom, a way that was certain and yet not unkind, perhaps kind, yet awesome. Happily, Washington, who could rebel against a King that expected to hang him on a scaffold, could not rise up against the rule which she more affectionately established, and he therefore accepted her doctrines as the chart for a new government in a new world. She died in 1796, and her grave at Fredericksburg was not more than ordinarily marked for nearly thirty-seven years.
Early in the 30's the Monument Committee of the State of Virginia was given charge of the work of erecting a monument over her resting-place, with Basset as chair-man. The corner-stone was laid with ceremonies on May 7, 1833, by Andrew Jackson, President of the United States, who was accompanied by the great officers of the Nation and a large concourse of people. The shaft is forty-five feet high, surmounted by a bust of George Washington. Still above the head of the bust an American eagle is in the attitude of lowering a civic wreath upon the brow of the hero. The inscription on the monument is simply
MARY, THE MOTHER OF WASHINGTON
The President, then at the height of his popularity on account of his successful stand against nullification, made an extended address, filled with the noblest sentiments of affection and admiration for the Father of his Country. We shall excerpt only those passages which bear directly upon the subject of this article :
"In the grave before us," said the President, "lie the remains of Washington's mother. Long has it been unmarked by any monumental tablet, but not unhonored. You have undertaken the pious duty of erecting a column to her memory, and of inscribing upon it the simple but affecting words, 'Mary, the Mother of Washington.' No eulogy could be higher, and it appeals to the heart of every American. The mother and son are beyond the reach of human applause; but the bright example of pa-rental and filial excellence which their conduct furnishes, cannot but produce the most salutary effects upon our countrymen. Let their example be before us, from the first lesson which is taught the child, till the mother's duties yield to the course of preparation and action which nature prescribes for him.
"Tradition says that the character of Washington was aided and strengthened, if not formed, by the care and precepts of his mother, and in tracing the recollections that can be gathered of her principles and conduct, it is impossible to avoid the conviction that these were closely interwoven with the destiny of her son. He possessed an unerring judgment (if that term can be applied to human nature), great probity of purpose, high moral principles, perfect self-possession, untiring application, an inquiring mind, seeking information from every quarter, and arriving at its conclusions with a full knowledge of the subject; and he added to these an inflexibility of resolution which nothing could change but a conviction of error. Look back at the life and conduct of his mother at her domestic government as known to her contemporaries and described by them to the honorable Chairman today, and these will be found admirably adapted to form and develop the elements of such a character. The power of greatness was in Washington, but had it not been. guided and directed by maternal solicitude and judgment, its possessor, instead of presenting to the world examples of virtue, patriotism and wisdom which will be precious in all succeeding ages, might have added to the number of those master-spirits, whose fame rests upon the faculties they have abused and the injuries they have committed.
"Happy for our mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters that they have before them this illustrious example of maternal devotion, and this bright reward of filial success. The mother of a family, who lives to witness the virtues of her children, who is known and honored because they are known and honored, should have no other wish on this side the grave to gratify. Upon the mother must frequently, if not generally, depend the fate of the son.
"I witnessed the public conduct and the private virtues of Washington, and I saw and participated in the confidence which he inspired, when probably the stability of our institutions depended on his personal influence. Many years have passed over me since, but they have increased instead of diminished my reverence for his character, and my confidence in his principles.
"At your request and in your name, my fellow-citizens, I now deposit this plate in the spot destined for it; and when the American pilgrim shall, in after ages, come up to this high and holy place, and lay his hand upon the sacred column, may he recall the virtues of her who sleeps beneath, and depart with his affections purified and his piety strengthened, while he invokes blessings upon the Mother of Washington."
The poem of Mrs. Sigourney to Mary Washington was first read at these ceremonies. It is as follows :
Long hast thou slept unnoted. Nature stole,
Methinks we see thee, as in olden time,
Of the might that clothed
Rise, noble pile !
Ye who stand
Our parallel, as was said in the third article of this volume, lies logically between Mary and Cornelia. The Romans held in highest veneration that mother whose teachings led two statesmen on to unsuccessful rebellion for the right, and to death at the hands of the people's foes. But while the Romans would praise Cornelia, they would not profit by the martyrdom of her sons. Mary Washington was the mother of a modern Gracchus, who entirely overthrew the patricians, and cast their wicked ex-actions, thefts, and contumelies across the seas. Her son was a Confucius, a Manu, a Zoroaster, an Ur, a Menes, a Hercules, a Romulus, a Pharamond, a Barbarossa, who at last brought true the dreams of poets of the Grecian isles and golden age; he at last conveyed to a continent the legacy of its liberty the divine rights of kings clipped off, the hoary shackles of church and feudalism removed, the single and sufficient right assured to start as if the world were new created, and no angel yet stationed at the gates of Eden with flaming sword of evil. So much was Mary's son greater, or more potent, or more important, than Cornelia's twain.
Nor should we pass from the contemplation of this imperious, simple, industrious, moral American woman without contrasting her with Cleopatra, her antipodes. And though he who properly looks with interest on spectacles of sustained dramatic power, may not soon forget the scene of dying Antony going up on the pulley to his frantic Queen, yet must the noble heart ever dwell with finer, deeper feeling upon the return of the Father of his Country to the cabin of his mother, that she, in the maternal majesty which alone could daunt his heart might put her hand upon his brow and sanction him once more.