Newt Gingrich: Mary Ball Washington -- What to know about the mother who created the father of America

In 1783, after leading the United States to victory in the Revolutionary War, George Washington could have made himself a monarch, even a dictator. As commander of the army, he could have consolidated power under his authority, as so many military leaders have done throughout history.

Instead, Washington voluntarily resigned his military commission and went home to Mount Vernon. He wanted to live a quiet life as a private citizen. An incredulous King George III of Britain summed it up well when told of Washington’s plans: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” We should all be thankful for Washington’s unmatched character.

We should also be thankful for Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, who raised her eldest son to become one of the greatest leaders in history. Mary played an indispensable role in forming George’s character.

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In this week’s episode of my podcast “Newt’s World,” I explore George Washington’s family and upbringing, and how his mother shaped his life.

Cropped portrait of George Washington based on the unfinished Athenaeum Portrait, by Gilbert Stuart, 1796

Cropped portrait of George Washington based on the unfinished Athenaeum Portrait, by Gilbert Stuart, 1796 (Public Domain)

Mary Ball Washington’s story would be fascinating and impressive on its own, even if she never had George.

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Born in the early 18th century, Mary lived at a time when most women’s duties were relegated to household matters. Women could not even own property. And her husband, Augustine, died in 1743, when George was 11.

Despite such adversity, Mary was a resilient widow who single-handedly raised five children and ran a large farm.

We should be thankful for Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, who raised her eldest son to become one of the greatest leaders in history. Mary played an indispensable role in forming George’s character. 

With no men in George’s life after his father and half-brother died, Mary was really the one who made George into the man that he became.

She also changed the course of American history. When he was 14, George desperately wanted to join the British navy as a cabin boy, but his mother refused. At that time, some of the worst scum of British society became seamen, and they treated American boys worst of all. Who knows what would have happened to George had his mother not put her foot down?

Their relationship was hardly perfect — it was complex and at times confrontational. Mary was a tough, frank woman. She was also probably a Tory sympathizer during the revolution, having grown up immersed in British culture. It is incredible to imagine this dynamic: Here you have George commanding the army to rebel against Britain, and his mother may have sympathized with the enemy.

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I discuss all of these stories and more with Craig Shirley, author of Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington's Mother. Shirley has done extensive research on both Mary and George and provides insight into how Washington became America’s indispensable man.

I hope you will listen to this week’s episode to learn about the woman who instilled in Washington the courage and character to create our great republic.

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