For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury, Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century; But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
Relationships with our mother’s vary on a wide spectrum from the absent mother figure to the stereotypical millennial who has yet to leave or already returned to the nest at thirty-years-old. One of the most interesting, and controversial among historians, relationships between mother and son is that of the father of our country with his own.
Some historians have chosen to ignore Mary Ball Washington as a historical figure while the rest consider her polarizing. Ron Chernow portrays her as cold and manipulative in his 2010 masterpiece Washington: a Life. A work that will be released next month, The Widowed Washington by Martha Saxton, appears to depict her as a strong, independent single mother who shouldn’t be vilified in history. Both perspectives, however, rely on the common principle of duty.
The lyrics in the introduction may have had you starting to hum the tune after the last line triggers the iconic melody. Gilbert and Sullivan often wrote about duty and the Pirates of Penzance, the opera that gave us the Modern Major-General, was even alternately called “the Slave of Duty.” Likewise the two books with competing narratives about Mary focus on duty as well.
Having not read Saxton’s book that is scheduled to be released next month in mid-June, I won’t spend time highlighting her arguments that Mary Ball Washington was performing her motherly duties in extraordinary fashion to create strong children. Instead I’ll focus on Chernow’s historical documentation, specifically two aspects of Mary that I find particularly complicated the personal relationship between her and George but that also reflects troubles we still face in this country.
During the Revolutionary War, George had given Mary an estate with workers from overseers to slaves that could be both self-sustaining as well as quite profitable though George never saw any of the profits despite paying all the costs. He did so driven by duty that a son provides for his mother although his personal finances were never as lavish as one might expect.
Another motivation most likely came from the need to keep appearances, of which George was acutely aware of his status as not just a public but future historical figure, and so the first instance of mother-son complications was particularly mortifying. Mary had petitioned the Virginia House of Delegates for a wartime pension, which the House would have gladly awarded given her status.
The Speaker of the House understood the pension might be seen as Washington not providing for his mother, so he penned the Commander-in-Chief during the war in 1781 to ask for his permission. Washington, embarrassed, asked her request be denied. This is considered by many historians from Chernow to Washington’s own historical estate MountVernon.org to be “the most uncomfortable moment” in their relationship.
The other instance a continuing one over the course of her life. Never once in her letters to friends or family did she hint to the slightest praise or pride in George’s work. Her son was providing her with easy living, although she maintained an active role in day-to-day affairs, had won the war against the world’s preeminent superpower, and been elected the first president of the United States all within Mary’s lifetime but she remained a disinterested figure in George’s life. In fact, she cared so little of George’s professional accomplishments that when she died in 1789 of breast cancer, she named her son George and not Charles the executor of her estate knowing the work would detract from the first year of his presidency.
George’s letters to his siblings and other family members announcing her death touted his own duty, an emotion that rises well above any semblance of love though these reasons may be obvious.
It’s hard to be a good man, a good son, do something good that matters.
Fast forward 140 years from Gilbert and Sullivan to Carrie Underwood. The duty of the son is still as relevant as it has historically been but the second half of this is not going to be about my relationship with my mother. It’s about the relationship to our mother country and the duty that comes with being a citizen.
I love this country for all that it is and can be. I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit for the quality of life we offer people or the wealth of opportunity that still exists though many pessimists challenge the truth of the American Dream. I also believe it is my duty, as well as other people’s individual duties, to serve the country as an active citizenry. But what do we really get in return? More often than not, the country responds with the same dispassion as Mary Ball Washington on a bad day.
Try as we might, the ability to make a difference may seem insurmountable, what Robert Kennedy called the enormous array of the world’s ills too great, and if George Washington could win a war and become president yet still not impress his mother, how can we do anything that will fulfill our duty to our great nation?
Well, if you’re reading this, you already are. Not because this writing is changing the world but because you’re the type of person predisposed to involving yourself in the country’s history and therefore becoming a stakeholder in the direction of its future. We’re going to have a lot of duties in the next year and a half leading up to elections from educating ourselves to possibly participating in electioneering activities and ultimately voting.
But just as George Washington started the nation without any approval from his mother, you too may be making a difference without any tangible return from your country but you’ll have done something good that matters and become the very model of a modern active citizen. Happy Mother’s Day.