George Washington

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George Washington is the story of a man who turned an impoverished childhood and frequent humiliations at the hands of the mother he feared into a career of rebellion and creation. He learned from the British commanders who rejected him during his days on the frontier how to fight a war of rebellion. When he had worn out and nearly bankrupted his soldiers and his allies, Washington disbanded the victorious army he had forged and resigned to Congress, giving life to democratic government. George III once said that...
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1997 Hardcover 1st Edition New in New dust jacket 8vo 548 pp; Excellent book.

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Overview

George Washington is the story of a man who turned an impoverished childhood and frequent humiliations at the hands of the mother he feared into a career of rebellion and creation. He learned from the British commanders who rejected him during his days on the frontier how to fight a war of rebellion. When he had worn out and nearly bankrupted his soldiers and his allies, Washington disbanded the victorious army he had forged and resigned to Congress, giving life to democratic government. George III once said that Washington would be the greatest man of the eighteenth century if he could give up power. And he did. Twice. A backwoods fighter before and during the French and Indian War, he employed a largely ragtag army of volunteers and the tactics of guerrilla warfare to defeat the world's most feared military power. His maneuvers to escape direct confrontation would be studied years later and serve as a model for Ho Chi Minh's field commanders in Vietnam. And, most important, as this fresh and authoritative narrative reveals, he exhibited the temperament for leadership in war and in peace, while suffering scoundrels, hardships, and a rogue press bent on his destruction.
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Editorial Reviews

Brad Hooper
The latest Chuck 'n' Di book to be headlined in the tabloids is this one by a veteran royalty-watching journalist. His tone is generally pro-Diana as he sorts through the mess the Wales marriage has become. Most of this is rehash, but there are some revelations here, particularly concerning Charles' abiding (and Diana-infuriating) affair with Camilla Parker Bowles and the controversy over the bugging of the royal family. Remember before ordering this title in great quantity that interest in it will die as quickly as it has peaked. A far more sober estimation of the royal crisis in Britain can be found in A. N. Wilson's forthcoming "Rise and Fall of the House of Windsor", reviewed on page 1778 of this issue.
Gilbert Taylor
The man who needs no introduction still needs interpretation, considering that he wrote some 28,000 letters, a partial memoir, a daily account of his affairs, and innumerable state papers--all in the ornate style of the Enlightenment. Randall balances Jefferson's domestic life--one of probity, romantic disappointment, and deaths of relations--with the highlights of his public career. His distinctive accent is on three normally neglected phases of the latter: his youthful lawyering on the frontier, his political eclipse as Virginia's ineffectual war governor, and his ambassadorship to France. Randall seems to strive for the biblio-epitaph the Sage himself might have prescribed. Jefferson had chiseled into his tombstone but three acheivements--none related to his offices--embodying his commitments to self-government, religious freedom, and public education. By telling the story straight, Randall shows Jefferson's belief in such values to derive naturally from his philosophical readings--but also, and perhaps more significantly, from the three overlooked phases of his life. Jefferson's values germinated in his ambivalence about the aristocratic, partially enslaved, and semitheocratic colonial society in which he started as an up-country barrister. Their truly radical character, and Jefferson as their ambassador, is deftly revealed in this formidably researched, well-planned volume.
Fred Stetson
Like many great figures, inconsistencies mark Washington's life and Randall delineates them with a skill... Washington emerges as a largely self-educated, self-made man, driven to place distance between himself and his mother, driven to acquire westward land and a mass of fortune driven to lead men into glorious battle and children to gain freedom from all forms of oppression.
Times-Union (Albany)
Robert M. Calhoon
Willard Sterne Randall... makes historical figures accessible by emphasizing visible behavior and broad contours of personalities.
The News and Observer (Raleigh)
Kirkus Reviews
Biographer Randall (Thomas Jefferson, 1993) adds another compelling figure to his portrait gallery of America's early leaders.

It was one of the triumphs of Washington's life that, when stymied in one of his ambitions, he found an outlet for it elsewhere. Though frustrated, for instance, in his desire to become a career British army officer because of undistinguished service in the French and Indian War (he was accused of touching off the war by killing a French officer who may have been on a diplomatic mission), he learned how to defeat the British through speed and knowledge of the terrain by witnessing firsthand the defeat of his commander, Gen. Edward Braddock. With almost half of this account devoted to Washington's pre-Revolutionary life, Randall compresses the more consequential war and early Federal years, thus sacrificing some of the drama that galvanized his biography of Benedict Arnold. On the other hand, Randall shrewdly details how Washington's dealings with hostile foes and haughty allies in the French and Indian War and his secret alliances with other patriots made him "a master of discretion and deception." He provides new insight into how Washington's growing awareness of the pitfalls of Virginia's tobacco economy led to disenchantment with the British mercantile system. Most important, he finds a thread between the prewar micromanaging plantation owner and the wartime ringmaster of intelligence units and surprise engagements like Trenton, discovering "the first modern American corporate executive." While displaying a more dry-eyed willingness to countenance unpleasant actions than what one expects (e.g., ordering Arnold's assassination), this Washington is also moving in his renunciations of power at the end of the revolution and at the end of his second term as president.

Not the landmark in storytelling and scholarship achieved by previous Washington biographers Douglas Southall Freeman and James Thomas Flexner, but an often penetrating narrative of Washington's formative influences.

From the Publisher
"A vividly written narrative that does [Washington] full justice as a man of the eighteenth century and as a bold and determined leader of the American Revolution."—The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Altogether human, Randall's demythologized Washington comes vividly to life."—Publishers Weekly (starred)

"What makes this volume so remarkably accessible . . . is the way Randall consistently builds scenes with the grace of a novelist. . . . It's a grand story, well told in this biography."—Burlington Free Press

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805027792
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/28/1997
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 560
  • Product dimensions: 6.55 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.67 (d)

Meet the Author

Willard Sterne Randall lives in Burlington, Vermont. His Thomas Jefferson was hailed by The Wall Street Journal as "outstanding . . . a splid one-volume biography."

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First Chapter

"A PROMPT AND LITERAL OBEDIENCE"

In the normal course of events, George Washington would have become an Oxford don and followed the profession of his English father. As it turned out, he never went to college. He received the least formal schooling of any of the Founding Fathers and remained self-conscious about this lack all his life. What robbed Washington of a university education but spared him the impecunious existence of an Oxford don was a revolution in England in the mid-seventeenth century. Had not the English civil wars of the 1640s intervened, the Washingtons probably would never have left England. George Washington probably would have studied and taught at Oxford until, as a middle-aged bachelor, he gave up the austere existence of the scholar to become an obscure country parson, sitting below the salt at the table of the local lord of the manor.

George Washington was the first of his old English family to oppose a king. All of his English and American ancestors including his mother were staunch royalists. Several Washingtons were courtiers knighted by James I. William Washington married Anne Villiers, half-sister of the first Duke of Buckingham, the corrupt court favorite of King James. His younger brother, Thomas, was a page to Prince Charles I. Henry Washington was a celebrated colonel in Charles I's royalist army. Henry's sister married royalist Colonel William Legge. Their son was created the first Earl of Dartmouth; the second earl was British secretary of state at the outbreak of the American Revolution. Indeed, the first Washington to settle in America had to leave England because his family would not rebel against their king.

There is an enduring myth that Washington's family "was gentle but undistinguished," that "usually the Washingtons married their social betters," that George Washington "did not know his forebears and cared less," but recent research shows that Washington himself contributed to his own log-cabin image. As president, Washington responded to a request for information on his family origins from Sir Isaac Heard, Garter King of Arms in London, averring that he had "no document" to shed light on his English origins. All he would admit was that two brothers, John and Lawrence Washington, had "emigrated from the north of England" but "from whom they descended" he had no written record. But why would he feel the need to produce written records for the royal genealogists at Windsor Castle? He rejected a peerage during the Revolution and a monarch's crown during the constitutional crisis of 1787-1789. To the English, who must have known of his roots and certainly should have known better after a bitter civil war than to ask about them, he gave a short, cold answer. They were "of no moment," he said.

He provided more details in written memoranda to Colonel David Humphreys, his plump, supercilious former aide who started to write Washington's first biography. He required Humphreys to show him a draft of the biography and then "consign them [the original notes] to the flames." He corrected Humphreys on important particulars, but only those he considered noteworthy. Humphreys wrote that Washington came from an "opulent" family in England and that "his ancestors, who transferred a considerable inheritance from their native to their adoptive country, had been in the New World from the year 1657" when two brothers "came to America over the Atlantic from Cumberland in England." If Washington knew more, he refused to cooperate.

Just as he showed his detestation for the trappings of English nobility by refusing to wear a wig during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Washington opposed the acceptance of any title or honors from any foreign government. His objection became part of the Constitution. But he was also a master diplomat. Many American revolutionaries traced their descent from English Puritans, the persecutors of his family. By the time of his presidency Washington could afford to downplay the importance of his ancestry, but as a young orphan in the deferential status-conscious royalist society of Virginia his ease of access to colonial drawing rooms and his ability to win rapid advancement in the military and in government, coupled with his success at courting a wealthy and socially prominent woman, all depended at least in part on the fact that both sides of his family came from impeccable English stock who were already part of the Virginia ruling class. Several had served in Virginia's House of Burgesses. Many were militia officers. Almost all held rank and status in the country gentry as county court justices and Church of England vestrymen.

The Washingtons today would be called a "county family" in England. Through his paternal grandmother, George Washington was descended from King Edward III and was related to the Churchills. Washington's paternal ancestors came from Sulgrave Manor, a Northamptonshire estate about seventy-five miles northwest of London. The size of the Washington family was its curse. Too often the land was divided and its money parceled out among heirs. George Washington's last English forebear, Lawrence, was fifteen when Sulgrave Manor was sold off in 1616. He had to leave the land and find some other respectable livelihood--the clergy or the military--or, all else failing, become a lawyer or merchant. But most of these required a university education. His great-uncle and uncle had gone to Oxford, where, at seventeen, Lawrence enrolled in Brasenose College.

He arrived at Oxford's high-water mark of enrollment. An unprecedented proportion of young Englishmen, many with little or no money, were matriculating during Oxford's brief democratization. In a boom unsurpassed until the nineteenth century, more Oxonians graduated to Parliament between 1620 and 1660 than at any time before the mid-twentieth century. Lawrence Washington proceeded to the bachelor of arts degree and was elected a Fellow on condition that he could not have an income of more than a few pounds sterling a year. Wealth was considered grounds for disqualification. If he married, he would have to leave. For six years, Washington shared bachelor digs at Brasenose. He bought out the furnishings of his predecessor, and added, for his own sleeping room, a four-poster bed and a large number of leather-bound books. In the basement, he kept hogsheads of beer; in the yard heifers, cows, and a hog for bacon. Students assembling in his chambers around a large table sat on leather chairs or cushions while Washington read and lectured on philosophy and interrogated them.

Lawrence Washington turned out to be a fine young bureaucrat before there was the word for one who climbs relentlessly up through an organization. At twenty-four he was appointed Lector of Brasenose, at twenty-nine the college's disciplinarian, one of two university proctors. He held sway over everyone in town and in gowns in Oxford. He patrolled the streets at night to enforce the curfews, pursuing malefactors into their houses and hauling back young lords from brothels and taverns. He ordered women found in college rooms to be flogged. From his rare perch of clerical and civil power, Washington fell into an intense internal struggle that destroyed him.

The English revolution, so much the precursor of the American Revolution, began in the English universities. Eager college students lined up to read from Bibles chained to churches so they wouldn't be stolen. The universities were thronged with poor students whose scant 10 [pounds sterling] tuition was paid by merchants who were secret Puritans. Lawrence Washington was appointed university proctor by Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, the king's point man for the suppression of Puritanism, who was also chancellor of Oxford. On August 22, 1631, with King Charles I personally presiding, Laud denounced the principal officers of Oxford as heretics. Lawrence Washington's roommate and closest friend was fired. Four days later, Reverend Lawrence Washington, who was more acceptable to Laud, was appointed to replace his roommate. As Laud's willing agent on the Brasenose faculty, Reverend Washington carried out a thorough purge of Oxford's Puritan clergy.

Father Washington also caught the eye of a wealthy and unusually literate young widow, Amphilis Twigden of Great Tring Manor in Hertfordshire. When nine out of ten women in East Anglia couldn't sign their names, Amphilis wrote long, charming letters. Reverend Washington soon decided that Amphilis was better and more profitable company than Laud's plotting clerics. He risked his position by courting her. In search of a higher-salaried job, he outfitted himself expensively, strapped on a dress sword, and went off to London. He drew on connections at Charles I's court to collect his political debt. Archbishop Laud appointed him rector of the rich parish of Purleigh in Essex. He married Amphilis, and in 1633 she gave birth to their first son, John, the great-grandfather of George Washington and the first American Washington.

John Washington was expected to emulate his father and become an Oxford don. According to custom, Reverend Washington secured the king's recommendation for a "schollers' place" [sic] for eight-year-old John at Charterhouse School in London where he was to prepare for Oxford. But the Puritan backlash during the English civil wars brought a sudden end to Reverend Washington's cozy existence and dashed his son's academic prospects. The Puritans took a dim view of the jovial, amiable cleric who liked to have a pot of ale at one of Purleigh's pubs. The Puritans stripped some 2,800 Church of England curates of their benefices. Lawrence Washington was Puritan Enemy Number Nine on the list of "scandalous, malignant priests." Parliamentary inquisitors in Essex described him as "a common frequenter of ale-houses, not only himself sitting daily tippling there but also encouraging others in that beastly vice. [He] hath often been drunk."

Out of work with six children, the Washingtons were spared from starvation only by their royalist relatives. Lawrence's aunt Margaret was married to Sir Edwin Sandys (connecting the Washingtons with the Churchills). Sandys was treasurer of the Virginia Company and an early investor in the transatlantic tobacco trade. He sheltered Washington's wife and children. Reverend Washington went off alone to Little Brasted in Essex, "a poor and miserable [parish] whose pulpit was only filled with difficulty," and lived in poverty and increasing tipsiness.

Any chance Reverend Washington's sons had for a university education had been dashed. If his father had not been purged John probably would have gone to Oxford where, each year, an increasing proportion of freshmen had been following their fathers into the church. The year John was to matriculate, all known royalists were expelled. Instead, John Washington used his Sandys connections and a small inheritance to become the first Washington to go to sea and seek his fortune as a merchant adventurer. As the Puritan Commonwealth continued to make life precarious for young royalists, John Washington sailed to America, where the colony of Virginia had declared itself a royalist sanctuary.

The father's catastrophe proved good fortune for the son. John Washington became apprenticed to a merchant. He learned to keep accounts in a counting house along the London waterfront where cargoes came from all over England's booming maritime empire. There were wonderful opportunities to make money as the English competed for trade routes with the Dutch, French, and Spanish. John Washington decided to get into the tobacco re-export business: more than 40 percent of all tobacco imported from the English colonies Virginia and Maryland was reshipped to European markets. By 1656, twenty-four-year-old John Washington knew the tobacco trade and navigation well enough to invest his inheritance in the cargo of the Sea Horse, a merchant ketch whose owner signed him on as first mate and junior partner. Young Washington could expect a handsome profit. At each port, he went ashore to trade tobacco. In Denmark, the Sea Horse docked at Copenhagen and Washington traveled alone to the royal city of Elsinore.

As part of his contract, young Washington agreed to cross the Atlantic Ocean to procure a new cargo of tobacco in Virginia. The ship anchored in the Potomac River in February 1657. While John was ashore, the Sea Horse blew aground during a storm and began to sink. Washington managed to repair and refloat the ship, but most of the tobacco was water-logged and had to be jettisoned. His inheritance lost, John Washington decided then and there not to return to England. While ashore, he had met an elderly planter-exporter named Nathaniel Pope who latched on to the young Englishman as just the right bridegroom for his daughter. Here was the son of an Oxford don who knew the European tobacco markets! For father and prospective son-in-law, it was love at first sight. Pope, a rich tobacco planter and member of the Maryland Assembly with extensive landholdings, was the ideal model for a young merchant mariner on the make.

It is hard to tell whether Washington fell in love with Anne Pope or his prospects as heir-apparent, but he suddenly broke his contract with Captain Prescott, who refused to pay him and sailed away. Pope advanced Washington a hefty 80 [pounds sterling] in gold and dangled the bequest of 700 acres of riverfront land. Shortly afterward, John married Anne. Nathaniel Pope appointed Washington to administer his family's lands. In only a few years, John Washington assumed the same second-tier social status in Virginia that his family had long enjoyed in England, even if to settle in Virginia in the 1650s was like deciding today to emigrate to the Brazilian rain forest. After the manor houses of England, the Virginia Tidewater plantation houses were rude shacks in a wilderness.

John Washington's migration added two new elements to the Washington family character. From that time on, they relentlessly pursued money and land. By the age of thirty, John Washington succeeded as a merchant-planter. At a time when frontier land was still cheap and tobacco fetched a high price in England, George Washington's great-grandfather accumulated five thousand acres in ten years. He also received paid emoluments from the royal governor as county coroner, trustee of estates, guardian of children, justice of the county court, and most notably, lieutenant colonel in the Virginia militia, initiating another Washington family tradition.

In September 1659, John and Anne Washington's first son was born at about the same time he began to import indentured servants from England. He received "head rights" of fifty acres for each servant. He put the servants to work for five to seven years clearing, cultivating, and defending his land. In all, he "brought over" sixty-three white servants. His neighbors elected him to the Virginia House of Burgesses for the Northern Neck.

As his wealth increased, so did his family. Anne Pope Washington gave birth to five children in nine years and died. Washington remarried quickly, choosing Anne Gerrard, a woman already twice widowed. The second Mrs. Washington was a shrewd businesswoman who imported servants, something few women did. His second marriage brought Washington a mill and a tavern plus a courthouse and a jail, which he leased to the colonial government. He combined a sharp eye for real estate and a knack for inside trading. When speculators along the Potomac failed to perfect their titles to grants of royal lands by settling them fast enough, the lands reverted to the colony's government. Colonel Washington made a secret pact with the secretary of the colony. They had the land surveyed just before its original grant expired and then quickly patented it for themselves. By this inside trading, the tract where Little Hunting Creek emptied into the Potomac became the future site of Mount Vernon. Colonel Washington's half-share of this 5,000-acre boondoggle placed him squarely among the leading families of the Potomac region.

The first Colonel Washington's militia appointment helped touch off Bacon's Rebellion in September 1675, and cast a shadow over the Washington family name. When Indians raided Virginia from Maryland, Virginia's royal governor, William Berkeley, ordered Washington to call out the militia. The governor of Maryland gave Virginia permission to pursue the natives. Washington crossed the Potomac and learned that Indians had taken refuge in a makeshift fort.

Whether the Indians came out to parley or, seeing that the fort was about to fall, came out to surrender is unclear. According to testimony before an investigating committee of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Washington suggested marching the prisoners to the farm where the fighting had taken place to compare the markings of the Indians killed there with his live prisoners. The Marylanders later contended that Washington grew impatient with Indian denials and ordered his men to club the Indians to death. The surviving Indians gave him the nickname Burner of Towns. The name became hereditary and was later applied to George Washington. Governor Berkeley gave John Washington only a stern reprimand. Undeterred, Washington continued to support the royalists during Bacon's Rebellion and made money by smuggling supplies to the Maryland shore even after Bacon's rebels seized his farms. Once again a Washington had upheld the king's side in an armed rebellion.

Colonel Washington died at forty-four. His estate was divided equally among his wife and three children, two sons and a daughter. The Washingtons traditionally took a dim view of the standard practice of primogeniture. His oldest son, Lawrence, George Washington's grandfather, received most of the land and a share in Washington's mill. Living the life of a young country gentleman, Lawrence made enough money from a string of public offices to support himself. He was elected a member of the House of Burgesses and sheriff of Westmoreland County. He was an aberration among Washingtons; he cared little for land speculation. Social status meant more to him. He married Mildred Warner, daughter of the late Speaker of the House of Burgesses and a member of the governor's council. George Washington's grandparents led a life of ease. They made a long wedding trip to England and had three children. Like his father, Lawrence died young. He was thirty-seven.

Their second son, Augustine, was only three when his father died. Gus, as everyone called him, grew into an amiable blond giant. He very nearly spent his life in England, where his mother and her new husband took him. When Mildred died, her husband plunked Gus into Appleby School in Westmoreland, England. The boy spent nearly four happy years in the English boarding school while his Virginia relatives went to court to break Mildred's will. They succeeded. Brought back to Virginia, Gus was raised by an uncle, John Washington, the sheriff of Stafford County. George Washington's father grew to over six feet tall and became known for his great strength and kindness. Not long after Gus's twenty-first birthday, he married Jane Butler, daughter of a lawyer and planter. Their marriage united 1,740 prime acres, a powerful attraction to Gus, who inherited the Washington acquisitiveness for land. A year after their marriage the young couple bought a fine piece of ground on a neck of land on the south bank of the Potomac. They built a modest one-and-a-half-story house named Wakefield. In this frontier farmhouse, George Washington was born.

Exactly where George Washington was born was for a long time a subject of intense scholarly controversy. Washington's well-meaning adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, evidently erred when he marked the spot in 1815 with a small monument. The federal government bought twenty-one acres around the site in 1882 and erected a 51-foot shaft of granite near where the house had stood before it was destroyed by fire. As the bicentennial of Washington's birth approached, the Wakefield National Memorial Association erected a supposed replica of the house. Memorial House, built on the foundations of a 38- by 14-foot eighteenth-century-style building, became a national park. But further research revealed a much larger U-shaped foundation almost sixty feet long, centrally located on the plantation. For years, the civic group that had built the replica in the wrong place resisted the findings of archaeologists, refusing to tear down the reproduction and build a more authentic structure. Instead, they devoted their efforts to filling the ersatz house with period furniture. Only one small tilt-top table could be obtained that, according to tradition, came from the original house.

What may be an exact replica of Washington's birthplace was built in 1825 several hundred miles to the south in Florence, Alabama, while Washington's heirs still inhabited Mount Vernon. It is a handsomely trimmed, one-and-a-half-story, three-bedroom brick house. Its most striking features are crow-step gables rising on both sides and two full Doric columns and two half-columns in front, making a relatively small house appear gracious and inviting. Like many houses of the era, it has a center hall flanked by living room and dining room. The high-ceilinged master bedroom is off the dining room. Upstairs, there are two more bedrooms under the eaves, separated by a sitting room. The largest room in the house is the kitchen, which is connected to the dining room by a generous pantry.

The original Wakefield was modest by Virginia Tidewater standards because Gus Washington used his money wisely to develop iron-ore mining and build furnaces on his lands. When England went to war with Sweden, English iron imports disappeared. An iron rush ensued in Virginia, and Gus Washington was the first out of the gate. In 1724, Washington discovered rich iron ore deposits about eight miles northeast of Fredericksburg. For half a dozen years, small amounts of iron ore had been mined in the Northern Neck and shipped to England. Through a Virginia partner, London investors offered Gus Washington a one-sixth interest in a new iron-mining and manufacturing works, the Principio Company, in exchange for the rights to his iron ore deposits. Washington went to London to negotiate for himself. He took along his two sons, Lawrence and Augustine, Jr., and enrolled them in his alma mater, Appleby. He returned to Virginia with a generous contract only to discover when he arrived home that his wife, who had stayed behind with their four-year-old daughter, was dead.

Few mothers of American presidents have been praised or vilified more than Mary Ball Washington, the first president's tall, athletic, jut-jawed mother. In the early nineteenth century, early Washington biographer and Methodist clergyman Mason Weems invented the story that young Washington could not tell a lie after he cut down a cherry tree. The Reverend Jared Sparks, president of Harvard College and biographer of the Founding Fathers, sanitized Washington by bowdlerizing his letters (those that he didn't give away to autograph collectors). Both men busily grafted and pruned facts to form a Washington myth. Parson Weems and Jared Sparks deified Mary Ball Washington, or at least made her the mother of a god. As with so much else, the historians of the twentieth century have been busy not only chopping down George Washington but knocking his mother off her pedestal. On the occasion of Washington's bicentennial in 1932 one proclaimed that Mary Ball was "grasping, querulous and vulgar":

She was a selfish and exacting mother whom most of her children avoided as soon and as early as they could, to whom they did their duty but rendered little love. It was this sainted mother of Washington who opposed almost everything that he did for the public good, who wished his sense of duty to end with his duty to her.

Nineteenth-century mythmakers put Washington's mother in the log cabin with her godlike son. Twentieth-century chroniclers diminish her as a crude frontier type. But Washington's legend has become so powerful that another president, Harry S. Truman, wrote glowingly of George Washington as one of his favorite chief executives but put his mother down as "a strange woman" and a "miser" who "although she was really quite rich complained all her life that she was destitute."

According to family records exhumed by Mary Ball Washington's brother, Joseph, Jr., a London barrister of Lincoln's Inn and a court official who left Virginia to live and practice law in England, the first Ball family came to America in 1657, the same year John Washington emigrated. The Balls, also royalists, sailed into exile with their entire household, family and servants. Settling in Lancaster County, William Ball established himself as a major planter and trader. After only two years in the colony he became a justice of the county court. He helped Governor Berkeley put down Bacon's Rebellion. He was rewarded by promotion to lieutenant colonel of county militia and served as a fellow officer of Lieutenant Colonel John Washington. When Colonel Ball died in 1680, he left his wife, Hannah, nine slaves as part of a sizable estate. His son, William II, George Washington's maternal grandfather, assumed his mantle in county politics and served in the House of Burgesses. He had six children. Widowed at fifty-eight, he married again, to a woman who could not write, a condition not uncommon among Virginia frontier women.

The first of William and Mary Ball's children was George Washington's mother, Mary Ball. During his sojourn in England, Gus Washington met Mary Ball, who was visiting relatives in London. At twenty-two she was already considered virtually a spinster--girls in Virginia usually married by eighteen. Mary Ball had gone to London to be introduced into English society. On her illiterate mother's side she was a Montague, a member of a famous landed family. George Washington's mother, Mary Ball, was only three years old when her father died. She was taken to her stepfather's farm at Yeocomico, Virginia. Her mother married again, a fourth time; she died at thirty-five. Her chief gifts to her daughter were a devout Anglicanism and a love of horses.

Each time a parent or stepparent died, Mary Ball received a legacy in land, livestock, furniture, slaves, cash, and, usually, a good horse. When her mother died, she was sent to live with a half-sister. She learned what was expected of a Virginia gentlewoman: sewing, dancing, embroidery, the Anglican catechism (she had already learned to read and write), painting, horseback riding, how to treat her slaves. She also became acquisitive and attached to all her possessions, especially her horses. By the time Mary was eighteen she had enough land and personal property to have been pursued by the usual coterie of Tidewater swains. But if she was, she may not have found anyone she would accept. Could it have been that there was something so strong and independent about her that every suitor seemed to back away?

For one thing, Mary Ball had developed a lifelong disregard for the opinions of others, especially about fashion. She far preferred the company of horses to that of other people. She seemed to be happiest when she was eighteen and a brother-in-law bequeathed her a young dappled gray horse. Throwing a silk plush saddle over its back, she charged over fields and fences and through woods. She remained unconcerned that she was considered "a young woman of a mind that never was orderly." She had thick dark eyebrows, a strong-set jaw, and a high, intelligent-looking forehead. She remained single until Gus Washington's bereavement. The fact that the tall, gray-eyed, fair-haired widower Washington already had three children did not deter Mary Ball. They married in the spring of 1731. Eleven months later, on February 11, 1732, under the existing English calendar (eleven days were later added to catch up with the rest of the world), their first son, George, was born. Into Wakefield, the Washington's modest brick house on Pope's Creek, Mary crowded all the furniture she had inherited, jammed alongside the Washington family's accumulation. When she was pregnant with George Washington, she experienced a shock that may have shaped her relationship with the large child taking shape in her womb. One summer Sunday afternoon, while the family was having dinner with guests from church, a thunderstorm rolled in. A bolt of lightning struck the house and traveled down the chimney and hit a young girl who was visiting the Washingtons for Sunday dinner. The electric current was so strong it fused the knife and fork she was using to cut her meat. She died instantly. The lightning hit with such force that it severely jolted the pregnant Mary Washington, who was sitting only a few feet away. From that time on, Mary Ball Washington cringed and tried to hide whenever lightning passed overhead, burying her face in her hands. For the moment, she recovered, but she became increasingly fearful over the years. She was so happy a few months later when a strong, sound baby was born that she traveled around the Tidewater showing off George Washington to all his cousins for an entire month, before she even had him baptized.

Mary Ball Washington never recovered fully from the shock she had seen and felt. She rarely traveled any farther than church on Sunday and her timorousness touched off a number of clashes with her family, especially her sons, whom she discouraged from taking any risks. In his choice of a military career, George Washington faced a long struggle against a mother who kept him from going to sea as a boy and embarrassed him in front of senior British officers when he was a young aide-de-camp. Even when he became a hero in the American Revolution, she could not understand; in fact she resented his desire to stray from her side and leave the safety of the farm to go off to war. She never understood her own role in shaping his need to act with courage in a very public way. Her step-granddaughter (the wife of Robert E. Lee) passed down the family tradition that Mary Ball Washington "required from those about her a prompt and literal obedience somewhat resembling that demanded by proper military subordination." She had no doubt of her own "mental power that enabled her rightly to judge and wisely to direct." From his boyhood, George Washington knew what an order sounded like--and the pain of disobeying one.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 2004

    well written

    I thought the book was well written leading up to Washingtons Presidency, but I would have like to seen more than two chapters devoted to this. It felt like the end of the book was more a story of Jefferson and Hamiltons feud rather than dealing much with the Presidency of George Washington.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2003

    engaging fun

    This book is my second presidential biography and my first by this author. The author kept my attention easily. I feel that I have a much greater apreciation of our first president. Willard Sterne Randall did a great job explaining the motivations and insperations of president Washington. A few times I found the lists of items that the former president owned tedious but there weren't that many long lists. The war coverage was exciting but at times i wished that there was better explination of terms used to describe the intracasies of fort preperations and weopons. A lot of words I couldn't even find in my scrabble dictionary but sometimes there meaning became clear in the sentence. This should not discourage anyone from reading this this boook. Having lived in virginia beach for 17 years i loved reading about his trips through virginia. I have visited Mount Vernon and I hope anyone who reads this book will also get a chance to rock in the rocking chairs on the portico overlooking the Potomic. I loved The storys about his family and his embarising mother. This book made a stoic figure from my school days a man thatI could relate to.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2002

    washington

    Randall paints the human and very early English-American side of Washington. The book reads very well and is easy to read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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