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BEGINNING A SPECIAL SERIES ON WASHINGTON AFTER THE REVOLUTION
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
While making expansive gestures, Mrs. Graham talked at the top of her lungs almost without stop, laying down the law on political matters. Washington was deeply impressed with this friend “of liberty and of mankind” who was clearly as brilliant as she was eccentric. He wrote General Henry Knox, “A visit from a Lady so celebrated in the Literary world could not but be very flattering to me.” In sending out invitations to dine with her and her boyish husband, he explained to the neighbors that “I wish to shew them all the respect I can.” He placed his military records in her hands “for her perusal and amusement.” When the Grahams departed after a stay of ten days, Washington accompanied them some distance on the road. The General and the lady continued to correspond during the many years until she died, her letters crammed with political advice, his written with that special care he employed in addressing those whom he considered more educated than he.
The man who had ridden away from Mount Vernon to lead a revolution that pointed to the future of the Western world had come back eager to gather soothingly around him his personal past. But there were two elements of that past which deeply troubled him: his childlessness and his mother.
Less than a month after he had returned his commission as Commander in Chief to the Continental Congress, Washington wrote to ask if he could not have the document back. The paper, he explained, “may serve my Grand Children some fifty or a hundred years hence for a theme to ruminate upon, if they should be contemplatively disposed.”
Washington had no grandchildren and no children to create them. He could not have been referring to his wife’s grandchildren, descended from her first husband, since he did not consider them his own. He had, he wrote on another occasion, “no family … nobody to provide for.…”
Yet the man who had achieved so much could not give up the hope that the children who were so freely accorded to others would in the end be vouchsafed to him. True, he had been married to Martha for twentyfive years, and always without issue. The implications raised by his wife’s fecundity during her brief first marriage—her womb quickened in rapid succession four times—could not have been excluded from the ruminations of a man who so steeled himself to look at facts. Yet the magnificent athlete could not accept the conclusion that he was sterile. Surely, his childless state was linked to his marriage with Martha!
“If Mrs. Washington should survive me,” he decided, “there is a moral certainty of my dying without issue.” However, even a man who loved his wife as George Washington did could not exclude from his meditations an alternative. Its possibility was, indeed, strengthened because Martha was now “scarce ever well.… Billious Fevers and Cholics attack her very often, and reduce her low.” He tried to comfort her by ordering from England “a handsome and fashionable gold watch,” the hands to be “set with Diamonds,” but he could not help speculating what would happen if she did not survive him and he survived her.
Would he marry again? Would his new wife give him a child? He feared that she would not if he selected “a woman of an age suitable to my own.” But supposing he married “a girl?” He hoped that, “whilst I retain the reasoning faculties, I shall never marry a girl,” yet he remained haunted by the vision of a child of his own. Not only did he write Congress that his commission be returned as a souvenir for his grandchildren, but he was careful not to exclude from his promises to his collateral heirs the possibility that a babe might suddenly appear and from the cradle preempt all.
The most serious problem in Washington’s personal relations concerned the oldest connection of all and the psychologically most intimate. His mother was in her late seventies but, as he wrote, in “good health” and “in the full enjoyment of her mental faculties.” As soon as the weather had abated after his first return to Mount Vernon, Washington had journeyed to Fredericksburg to pay her a duty call in the small but elegant house he had erected for her there. After the “Mayor and Commonality” of the town had presented him with a congratulatory address, he thanked them for “the honorable mention which is made of my revered mother, by whose maternal hand (early deprived of a father) I was led from childhood.”
It was, however, normal for him to avoid, as far as possible, lengthy sessions in the presence of that maternal force. If, now that her son stood before her as one of the world’s acclaimed heroes, she added a word to the general praise or did not try to make him feel inadequate, it would have been a prodigy. She had been, during the Revolution, so uncomplimentary about Washington’s activities that she had generally been considered a Tory. To those who had lauded her son in her presence she had replied that he was off doing things that were none of his business and was allowing her to starve. Washington had heard “on very good authority that she is upon all occasions and in all companies complaining of the hardness of the times, of her wants and distress; and, if not in direct terms at least by innuendoes, asking favors.” This, Washington wrote from one of his military camps, was “too much,” when in fact she was provided with everything she needed or asked for. However, Washington quickly added that he would prefer not to remonstrate with his mother himself. He urged his favorite brother, John Augustine Washington, to do so.
Down the years, mediation by John had kept the relations between George and his mother from open explosion, but in January, 1787, the mediator died. A month later, Washington’s control broke.