In this biography of the mother of U.S. President George Washington, Saxton aims to recast many historians' characterization of Mary as a cruel matriarch to a survivor of social and familial hardship in a colonial Virginia undergoing drastic economic and cultural shifts.
... 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 ... In the able hands of Saxton, Mary Washington’s story vividly illuminates the role white women played in the creation and transmission of wealth in early America, the frictions that patriarchal inheritance created between mothers and sons, and the tremendous price paid by the enslaved people who made much of Virginia’s wealth possible.
Rejecting facile judgements, Amherst College historian Martha Saxton’s brilliant and gripping book instead helps readers understand Mary Ball Washington within her own place and time. Drawing on local histories and archaeology as well as letters, diaries and a broad knowledge of related historiography, The Widow Washington is a clear-eyed biography of the mother of our first president and a fascinating window into the generation before the American Revolution’s founding fathers and mothers ...The book’s stark picture of Mary Ball’s upbringing leaves little room to view her as a woman of comfortable privilege ... There is so much marriage, childbearing, and death in Mary’s story that I started making a chart. I soon gave up, though...mostly because Ms. Saxton guides the reader so carefully through all of these details that her portraits remain memorable ... There is no romanticizing of colonial Virginia in this book. Ms. Saxton places the hardships of women like Mary firmly within the context of a society based on slavery, acknowledging that enslaved women and men had it far worse ... Mary Ball Washington was the matriarch of a successful family in a patriarchal world—a world that Ms. Saxton memorably recreates, and the world from which our country was born.
Beginning with the premise that George’s prominence framed only a fraction of Mary’s experience, Saxton leverages her expertise as a scholar of early American and women’s history to expand this evidentiary base and more fully reconstruct Mary’s life. Deeds, wills, and litigation reveal Mary’s family’s concerns, while the meticulous accounting of her close relations and archaeological work from her longtime home, Ferry Farm, reveal the contours of her material world ...[a] sympathetic, renewed portrait ... Saxton revisits moments other authors have used to characterize Mary, suggesting that Mary has often been misunderstood because she bridged two very different eras and navigated them as a widow ... an accessible, informative biography of Mary Ball Washington, a woman of colonial Virginia.