George Washington’s “Last Act of Personal Duty”

The Presidential election of 1789 looked quite different than our current election day. For one, the election had to last almost a month to ensure that each state had time for their voters to choose their candidate. Then, in February, the Electoral College announced that Washington would be the first president with a resounding 69 electoral votes. Along with this victory, George Washington was unanimously chosen by the popular vote to lead our country. No other president has accomplished this feat. To most, Washington was the obvious choice. His status as a war hero, his strong self-will, and his determination to provide our new nation with solid-ground to build upon were just a few of the things that led him to victory.

When George was first notified of his new job title, he was at Mount Vernon and knew he must prepare to travel to New York City, the nation’s first capital city, to be inaugurated. First, he started by preparing Mount Vernon for his departure. He ordered his overseers, farm managers, secretaries, and even nephews keep him up-to-date on all goings-on while he was away. Washington, like most landed-gentry in the new country, was land rich and cash poor. So he also wrote a letter to a friend and merchant, Richard Conway, asking to borrow money. “Five hundred pounds would enable me to discharge what I owe in Alexandria &ca;” he wrote, “and to leave the State (if it shall not be permitted me to remain at home in retirement) without doing this, would be exceedingly disagreeable to me.” From this letter, we can see that Washington apparently was not especially enthusiastic about his new appointment. Nonetheless, he saw undertaking the presidency as his duty as expressed in his first inaugural address.

Among the other plans and arrangements he made, George visited his mother Mary in Fredericksburg. Once Richard Conway had agreed to lend him the needed funds, Washington thanked him and wrote that he would “set of tomorrow for Fredericksburg in order probably to discharge the last Act of personal duty, I may, (from her age) ever have it in my power to pay my Mother it would be very inconvenient for me.” Indeed, by 1789, Mary had fallen quite ill with breast cancer. She had been sick for a while, but only recently had the family realized she was ultimately nearing her end.

Washington's Last Interview with his Mother

“Washington’s Last Interview with his Mother” (1860) by an unknown artists, printed by H.E. Coates. Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

It had all started in April of 1787. George was heading to Philadelphia to join the Constitutional Convention when he received an urgent letter from Fredericksburg. He wrote to Henry Knox to inform him of his delay in reaching the convention, saying “I am summoned by an express who assures me not a moment is to be lost, to see a mother, and only Sister (who are supposed to be in the agonies of death) expire; and I am hastening to obey this melancholy call, after having just bid an eternal farewell to a much loved Brother who was the intimate companion of my youth and the most affectionate friend of my ripened age.” The previous few months had been rough for the entire family, as George’s letter suggests. John Augustine had passed away suddenly and it had taken its toll. George himself was complaining of arthritis, saying that he was “so much afflicted with a rheumatic complaint (of which I have not been entirely free for Six months) as to be under the necessity of carrying my arm in a sling for the last ten days”.

Upon arriving in Fredericksburg, after a hasty pace of a ride, George found Betty to be doing much better. Mary, on the other hand, he said “left little hope of her recovery as she was exceedingly reduced and much debilitated by age and the disorder.” It is not certain that this bout of illness had anything to do with the cancer that would later take Mary’s life, but the illness certainly kept the children, especially Betty, watchful of Mary’s health.

Mary Washington House

The Mary Washington House in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Credit: Beth Hosier/The George Washington Foundation

Mary Washington Monument

Mary Washington Monument in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Credit: Beth Hosier/The George Washington Foundation

So in 1789, when Mary’s health was deteriorating once more, George knew that he had to visit her before he left for New York and the presidency. Later, he wrote Betty, “When I was last at Fredericksburg, I took a final leave of my Mother, never expecting to see her more.” Many say that when George visited Mary in March of 1789, it was to ask for a blessing on his new position as President of the United States. Unfortunately, there is no documentation of what their visit entailed other than Washington spending time with his sick mother. Furthermore, given his personal adversity to taking the position, it seems unlikely that he would have needed or wanted permission to take the job. However, I think it can be said that given Mary’s strong influence as a single parent, George’s sense of duty may have been all the blessing or permission he needed from his mother.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

In Memory of Mother Washington

2016MaryWashingtonMounment

The Mary Washington Monument on Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Today, August 25th, marks the 227th anniversary of the death of George Washington’s mother, Mary.   Mary lived to be 82 years old, and suffered from breast cancer during her final years.

Few biographers have been neutral in their treatment of Mother Washington, a woman of great significance in George’s life.  Some writers have offered overly sentimental descriptions of this matron, whereas others have been critical, and even harsh in their evaluation of her role as George’s mother.

Mary Ball married Augustine Washington on March 6, 1731.  Their marriage produced six children: George, Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred.  When Augustine died twelve years later, a significant portion of the family’s property went to Augustine’s two oldest sons from his first marriage.  Mary raised their five surviving children at their Ferry Farm home, keeping the family together.  In 1772, at the insistence of her children, an aging Mary Washington moved into the town of Fredericksburg where she could be closer to her daughter, Betty.

In the summer of 1789, Mother Washington’s health was rapidly deteriorating.  Betty wrote to her older brother George,

“I am sorry to inform you my mother’s breast still continues bad.  …she is sensible of it and is perfectly resigned…  …the doctors think if they could get some hemlock it would be of service to her breast.”

Hemlock in Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen

19th-century illustration of hemlock or Conium maculatum (from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen). Public domain. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Hemlock, an extremely poisonous plant that “affects the transmission of nerve impulses to muscle and causes death through respiratory failure,” was a traditional treatment for breast cancer in the early 1700s. Although doctors in England had largely abandoned this treatment by the late 1780s, when Mary Washington was suffering from this disease, it is evident that local doctors were not up-to-date on the most recent treatments.

It seems likely that hemlock was indeed administered to Mary.  Burgess Ball wrote to George on the 25th of August, 1789:

“The Cause of her dissolution (I believe) was the Cancer on her breast, but for about 15 days she has been deprived of her speech and for the five last days she has remained in a sleep.”

These symptoms that Mary experienced in her final days, such as loss of speech and prolonged unconsciousness, seem consistent with hemlock poisoning, which attacks the nervous system and can cause comas.  Side effects include loss of speech (Steger 1972:71; http://www.webmd.com/).

George publically recognized his mother’s role in his life at a 1784 event where he addressed the citizens of Fredericksburg, when he referred to her, “…by whose Maternal hand (early deprived of a Father) I was led to Manhood”.

After his mother’s death, himself recovering from surgery to his left thigh (Abbot et al. 1992b, pp. 75-77), George consoled his grieving sister Betty Washington Lewis in a letter dated September 13, 1789:

“Awful, and affecting as the death of a Parent is, there is consolation in knowing that Heaven has spared ours to an age, beyond which few attain, and favored her with the full enjoyment of her mental faculties, and as much bodily strength as usually falls to the lot of four score.  Under these considerations and a hope that she is translated to a happier place, it is the duty of her relatives to yield due submission to the decrees of the Creator….” 

On August 28th, Betty Lewis and her children buried Mary Washington near a rock outcropping known today as “meditation rock” (Hetzel 1903:5).  The letter conveying the news of her death had still not reached her son George (Hetzel 1903:1), preventing him from attending the ceremony (cf. Rejai and Phillips 2000:15).  The burial site was part of the Lewis family’s Fredericksburg plantation.  This was a favorite spot of Mary’s, to sit, read the Bible, and spend time with her grandchildren.

For some time, Mary’s grave had no permanent marker.  An attempt to move her remains to Mount Vernon stirred concerned local residents into action (NRHP 2002 Section 8, p. 21) and an effort was begun to place a marker on Mary’s final resting place in 1826.  While a cornerstone for a marker was laid in 1833, construction failed to materialize a suitable memorial before 1893 when the Mary Washington Memorial Association brought this effort to fruition (NRHP 2002 Section 7 p. 16, Section 8, pp. 22, 27).  In 1894 President Grover Cleveland, as well as his Vice President, the Governor of Virginia, the Mayor of Fredericksburg, a senator from Virginia, and thousands of citizens attended the dedication of the completed memorial (NRHP 2002 Section 8, p. 28).

1903MaryWashingtonMonument copy

The Mary Washington Monument as it appeared in 1903. Library of Congress photo.

This Saturday, August 27th, you can commemorate Mary Washington’s death with the Washington Heritage Museums at the grave of Mary Washington.  A reception (cost $10) at the Mary Washington House on Charles Street follows.  For event details, visit washingtonheritagemuseums.org.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Further Reading

Abbot, W. W., Dorothy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, Beverly H. Runge, Beverly S. Kirsch, and Debra B. Kessler
1992  The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series Volume 1.  University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Hetzel, Susan Riviere
1903  The Building of a Monument Press of Wickersham Company, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

NRHP
2002  National Register of Historic Places Form, Washington Avenue Historic District,
http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Cities/Fredericksburg/1115262_Washington_Avenue_HD_2002_Final_Nomination.pdf (accessed August 11, 2016).

Rejai, Mostafa and Kay Phillips
2000  The Young George Washington in Phychobiographical Perspective.  The Edwin Mellon Press, Lewiston, New York.

Steger, Robert E.
1972  Native Plants Poisonous to Humans.  Journal of Range Management 25(1):71-72.