3/21/12 - george washington's mother

In today's excerpt - in 1782, fifty-year-old General George Washington's army had defeated the British at Yorktown, a battle that would eventually be viewed as the end of the war. But at that moment, Washington had not yet heard whether a treaty had been reached in Paris, both his country's and his personal finances were in shambles, and he was still trying to hold together soldiers who were famished and complaining of unpaid wages. In the middle of it all, he fended off the carping of his notoriously disgruntled mother and he managed to find glasses to help him with his failing eyesight:

"As he dealt with this discontent, Washington again had to deal with his dis­gruntled mother. Mary Washington had written to apprise him that the overseer at her Little Falls Quarter farm was pocketing all the profits for himself, and this made George no less upset than his mother. As he told [his younger] brother Jack, he had maintained this place for her with 'no earthly inducement to meddle with it, but to comply with her wish and to free her from care,' but he hadn't received a penny in return. He protested that it was 'too much while I am suffering in every other way (and hardly able to keep my own estate from sale), to be saddled with all the expense of hers and not be able to derive the smallest return from it.' This parenthetical statement-that he could hardly keep Mount Vernon safe from sale again-reveals the dreadful toll that his neglected business interests had taken on his personal fortune.

"After asking Jack to stop by Little Falls to replace the overseer, Washington mentioned that he had heard nothing further of their mother's petition for a pension from the Virginia assembly. But it turned out that Mary was still up to her old antics and broadcasting her financial grievances to anyone who cared to listen. As Washington worried anew that she would blacken his reputation, his repressed anger toward her, long tamped down, spilled out. He told his brother that he had learned 'from very good authority that she is upon all occasions and in all companies complaining of the hardness of the times, of her wants and distresses; and if not in direct terms, at least by strong innuendoes, inviting favors which not only makes her appear in an unfavorable point of view, but those also who are connected with her.' As someone who jealously guarded his reputation, Washington was crestfallen by Mary's unend­ing torrent of abuse, and he dispatched Jack on a private mission to visit her and 'inquire into her real wants and see what is necessary to make her comfortable.' As always, Washington was ready to pay what she needed, but he demanded that she halt the character assassination: 'I wish you to represent to her in delicate terms the impropriety of her complaints and acceptance of favors, even where they are volun­tarily offered, from any but relations.' As always, the headstrong mother and son were locked in a fierce contest of wills in which both sides refused to yield an inch.

"Around this time Washington discovered that his vision had grown slightly blurry and that it cleared when he borrowed spectacles from his colleagues. He had become older and wearier during this long war, and the eyestrain caused by reading his copious correspondence had been enormous. He ordered a pair of handsome silver-framed reading glasses from David Rittenhouse of Philadelphia, a renowned astronomer and optical expert. Washington sampled the lenses of various people, then asked Rittenhouse to duplicate the ones that worked best. By mid-February he had the new reading glasses in hand but had to keep tilting them at different angles until his eyes adjusted to the novel experience. 'At present, I find some difficulty in coming at the proper focus,' he informed Rittenhouse, 'but when I do obtain it, they magnify properly and show those objects very distinctly which at first appear like a mist, blended together and confused.' Little did Rittenhouse know, as he fashioned these spectacles, that they would soon serve as a key prop in one of the most emotionally charged scenes in American history."


Ron Chernow


Washington: A Life




Copyright 2010 by Ron Chernow


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