There was no day in May to honor Mom in the 18th century. So how did our founders honor their mothers?
Some clues are found in letters written to Mom. Most do not survive, but it’s a tantalizing prospect to consider the personalities behind the marble icons, perhaps even to picture one’s mother complaining that her son has the time to fuss with Congress, but not to write a note home.
A brief sample of some letters helps us see these famous figures of American history in a more intimate light, as real people with personalities and family dynamics that might not be so unfamiliar to us today.
The father of our country had a mother, of course. She was Mary Ball, the second wife of Augustine Washington. She was only 35 when she was widowed and took control of the family’s estate.
The Washington myth has caused many to speculate that his mother must have had some kind of unparalleled virtue. Perhaps.
Early surviving letters from George date to 1755, when the young soldier was in the field for the French and Indian War. He typically addressed letters to his mother with the salutation, “Honored Madam.”
But as George headed off to war, Mary apparently sent him with a shopping list.
In June, George wrote to apologize for failing to procure the “Dutch man” or butter that mom had requested, “for we are quite out of that part of the country where either are to be had, as there are few or no inhabitants where we now lie encamp’d.”
A month later, in the wake of the disastrous Braddock Expedition, he wrote to let Mary know that he was alive and to offer his thoughts about what had happened.
“As I doubt not but you have heard of our defeat, and, perhaps, had it represented in a worse light, if possible, than it deserves, I have taken this earliest opportunity to give you some account of the engagement as it happened,” wrote George.
He complained that his fellow soldiers were “struck with such a panic that they behaved with more cowardice than it is possible to conceive…. [But] the Virginia troops showed a good deal of bravery, and were nearly all killed; for I believe, out of three companies that were there, scarcely thirty men are left alive.”
George concluded with a frank description of his health.
“I am still in a weak and feeble condition, which induces me to halt here two or three days in the hope of recovering a little strength, to enable me to proceed homewards; from whence, I fear, I shall not be able to stir till toward September; so that I shall not have the pleasure of seeing you till then, unless it be in Fairfax.”
A letter from 1787 also had the directness one might expect from a family member, but the tone was much different. Writing from Mount Vernon, George composed a testy letter in response to his 78-year old mother’s request for money. He said he was enclosing 15 guineas, “which believe me is all I have.”
And then begins, well, a bit of a rant, a surprising barrage of frustration from the famously controlled Washington.
“Those who owe me money cannot or will not pay it without Suits and to sue is like doing nothing, whilst my expences, not from any extravagance, or an inclination on my part to live splendidly but for the absolute support of my family and the visitors who are constantly here are exceedingly high; higher indeed than I can support, without selling part of my estate.”
But he’s kind of abrupt with Mary: “It is really hard upon me when you have taken every thing you wanted from the Plantation by which money could be raised—When I have not received one farthing, directly nor indirectly from the place for more than twelve years if ever.”
And though George is willing to sacrifice, he seems concerned that it is for naught:
“I do not mean by this declaration to with hold any aid or support I can give from you; for whilst I have a shilling left you shall have part, if it is wanted, whatever my own distresses may be. what I shall then give I shall have creadit for. now I have not for tho’ I have received nothing from your Quarter, and am told that every farthing goes to you, and have moreover paid between 3 & 4 hundred pounds besides out of my own pocket I am viewed as a delinquent. & considered perhaps by the world as unjust and undutiful Son.”
He signed off, as usual, “Yr. most dutiful and affect’e son.”
James Madison was the eldest of Nelly Conway Madison’s twelve children. “Mother Madison” died at Montpelier in 1829 at the age of 98. Only three letters from James to his mother survive. All date from his presidential years.
Each letter begins with the salutation, “My dear mother.” In the first, from October 1809, James reports that he and wife Dolley are well, and writes, “I hope you may enjoy the same blessing.”
But there is a practical nature to the message. James advises Nelly to purchase more corn before the price goes up further, and he encloses $100.
In August 1814, James wrote, “I can not say how soon I shall be able to make you the visit usual at mid-season. You well know that it will afford me too much gratification to be delayed a moment longer than may be necessary.”
But the delay would be considerable, as British troops burned Washington days later, sending the president scurrying to the countryside for safety.
In 1816, James again wished his mother her good health and sent “a remittance” of $400. The main purpose of the message seems to be the delivery of money to the 85-year old back at Montpelier.
As Mother’s Day is celebrated this year, let’s seek to demonstrate the filial piety preached by our forebears. But then, let’s try to outdo them.