Category Archives: USA
Martha Saxton, Amherst CollegeIt is important and poignant to recall the hard life of Mary Ball Washington, who struggled – mostly alone – to raise our Founding Father. Historians have left us with inaccurate and mostly unpleasant accounts of her long and laborious years.
After George Washington’s death, historians canonized him and his mother, too.
But unlike George’s enduring sainthood, praise for Mary was short-lived. In the late 19th century, George’s biographers began interpreting the few shreds of evidence about Mary – almost all of it from George – to mean that she was overprotective, possessive and greedy.
By the 1950s she had become, in the word of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, a termagant, an ill-tempered shrew. The author, James Flexner, created a portrait of Mary as a woman insatiably hungry for money that she didn’t need, and intent on keeping George by her side. Other nasty myths still circulate alongside these: that she was illiterate, pipe-smoking, uncouth and slovenly.
These poisonous portraits bear little resemblance to the industrious, worried, frugal, devoted and self-reliant woman who emerges from my research as a professor of history and women’s studies. I recently wrote a book about Mary Washington. In my research, I found that Mary’s challenging life was very different from the myths that grew up around her.
George Washington’s mother, daughter of a servant
Mary was born in either 1708 or 1709; there are no records. Her father was an elderly, slave-owning planter and her mother was probably an indentured servant. By 12, she had lost her father, stepfather, mother and half-brother to death in the disease-ridden Chesapeake region.
From these terrible losses Mary acquired two parcels of land, a good horse and saddle, and three enslaved boys. She stayed in what had been her mother’s house, living with her older half-sister. There the shocked girl worked diligently to help manage the household and make herself indispensable.
She also grew into her role of slave-owner, and learned to extort work out of people who were enslaved. She began assuming the habits of Anglican piety in this mournful time, trying to subdue her feelings and resign herself to God’s mysterious will.
When she was about 22, she married Augustine Washington, a wealthy widower with two sons in Great Britain and a daughter in Virginia. Mary traded her duties on a small farm and the companionship of her affectionate half-sister for more expansive tasks as the mistress of a large plantation and marital obligations to an acquisitive, restless planter.
The couple had five surviving children: George, born in 1732; Elizabeth, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles. The growing family and many of their enslaved people moved three times, eventually settling across the Rappahannock River from the growing town of Fredericksburg.
Augustine died suddenly in 1743 when he was about 49 years old. George, the eldest, was 11, and the youngest was 4. Augustine left his best properties to his eldest sons by his first marriage, Lawrence and Augustine. Mary was allowed to stay in the Fredericksburg house but was to turn it over to George when he came of age at 21.
She received the same number of enslaved people she had brought to the marriage. If she wanted more, they were to come from those allotted to her other children – setting their desires at odds with hers. If she remarried, the executors could demand security to be sure her children would receive their full inheritances at 21. Failing that she would lose custody of them. She remained a widow all her years.
Single motherhood was hard for George Washington’s mom
With her income and resources seriously diminished because of the dispersal of Augustine’s properties, Mary set about making sure that her daughter and four sons had such education and polish as she could provide. Elizabeth learned the arts of serving tea, managing a household and decorative handwork.
Mary kept the young men in proper clothes and wigs. These could be expensive, costing as much as 3 pounds. That could have been about US$2,400 in today’s dollars, assuming the American pound was valued the same as the British pound at the time. The wigs had to be de-liced by enslaved people who would otherwise be doing field work.
Mary dissuaded George from going into the British Navy at 14 but failed to convince him not to join General Edward Braddock’s disastrous 1755 campaign. She nursed George back to health after the illness he suffered succeeding this battle and several other serious sicknesses, including smallpox.
She tried to imbue in her children her extensive practical and religious wisdom. She had some success, especially with George and Elizabeth, but none of her children became frugal. Despite the family’s straitened circumstances, Mary saw all of her offspring marry up. George married Martha Dandridge Custis, the richest woman in Virginia.
Mary Ball Washington after the Revolution
In the years before the Revolution, Mary, like almost all small farmers at the time, was poorer than ever and sometimes asked her extremely wealthy eldest son for small amounts of money. As he slid deeply into debt himself from his extravagances and expanding ambitions, he begrudged her the insignificant bits of cash she needed and insisted she could not be in want – a claim he repeated throughout her life.
George wrote in 1782, having not seen or been in touch with his mother for seven years, “confident I am that she has not a child that would not divide the last sixpence to relieve her from real [emphasis in the original] distress. This she has been repeatedly assured of by me … in fact she has ample income of her own.”
Mary lived through the long years of the revolution alone. In her last years, she struggled like all small farmers against debt and bad harvests. She, too, suffered from high taxes, severe shortages of corn and salt and the threat of smallpox. Her overseer, exploiting the vulnerability of an elderly woman, cheated Mary throughout the war.
Mary lived to see the revolution won and her son elected the nation’s first president. As George said, praising her in Fredericksburg at the end of the revolution, she led him to manhood in the absence of a father. Always sparing in her praise of worldly achievements, she gave him the compliment he probably most valued: that he had always been a good son. She died of breast cancer in August 1789 months after George became the nations’ first president.
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Mary Washington and George Washington shared many traits
After some years of reflected hagiography, Mary‘s reputation began a precipitous decline in the late 19th century. Ideas about biography and psychology began changing. Nurture began competing with an earlier idea of people being born with an essential character that needed to unfold. Mothers, who in the antebellum period were described as self-sacrificing vessels of virtue holding the new nation together, began to be held responsible for facilitating – or not – their sons’ ambitions.
Male writers then saw evidence of Mary’s love for George – such as keeping him out of the British Navy – as possessiveness and interference with his glorious military destiny. They saw her requests for money as her irrational greediness, not his stinginess.
Male historians, even now, have never doubted that his exasperation with his mother was justified, nor have they tried to find out more about her circumstances. Instead, they agree that he desperately needed to free himself from her efforts to limit him before he could father our nation.
But mother and son were much alike in physical strength, in superb horsemanship, in irascibility, in penny-pinching, in the capacity for extraordinary persistence and in their strenuous, lifelong efforts to maintain a measure of equilibrium. I believe that without Mary’s brave, enduring and self-denying mothering, we would not have had the brave, enduring and self-denying man who led both the revolution and the optimistic experiment in governing that resulted.
Patricia A. O’Brien, Georgetown UniversityThis year marks 75 years since the United States launched its immense atomic testing program in the Pacific. The historical fallout from tests carried out over 12 years in the Marshall Islands, then a UN Trust Territory governed by the US, have framed seven decades of US relations with the Pacific nation.
Due to the dramatic effects of climate change, the legacies of this history are shaping the present in myriad ways.
This history has Australian dimensions too, though decades of diplomatic distance between Australia and the Marshall Islands have hidden an entangled atomic past.
In 1946, the Marshall Islands seemed very close for many Australians. They feared the imminent launch of the US’s atomic testing program on Bikini Atoll might split the earth in two, catastrophically change the earth’s climate, or produce earthquakes and deadly tidal waves.
Australia was “included in the tests” as a site for recording blast effects and monitoring for atom bombs detonated anywhere in the world by hostile nations. This Australian site served to keep enemies in check and achieve one of the Pacific testing program’s objectives: to deter future war. The other justification was the advancement of science.
The earth did not split in two after the initial test (unless you were Marshallese) so they continued; 66 others followed over the next 12 years. But the insidious and multiple harms to people and place, regularly covered up or denied publicly, became increasingly hard to hide.
Radiation poisoning, birth defects, leukaemia, thyroid and other cancers became prevalent in exposed Marshallese, at least four islands were “partially or completely vapourised”, the exposed Marshallese “became subjects of a medical research program” and atomic refugees. (Bikinians were allowed to return to their atoll for a decade before the US government removed them again when it was realised a careless error falsely claimed radiation levels were safe in 1968.)
In late 1947, the US moved its operations to Eniwetok Atoll, a decision, it was argued, to ensure additional safety. Eniwetok was more isolated and winds were less likely to carry radioactive particles to populated areas.
Dissenting voices were initially muted due to the steep escalation of the Cold War and Soviet atomic weapon tests beginning in 1949.
Opinion in Australia split along political lines. Conservative Cold War warriors, chief among them Robert Menzies who became prime minister again in 1949, kept Australia in lockstep with the US, and downplayed the ill-effects of testing. Left-wing elements in Australia continued to draw attention to the “horrors” it unleashed.
The atomic question came home in 1952, when the first of 12 British atomic tests began on the Montebello Islands, off Western Australia.
Australia’s involvement in atomic testing expanded again in 1954, when it began supplying South Australian-mined uranium to the US and UK’s joint defence purchasing authority, the Combined Development Agency.
Australia’s economic stake in the atomic age from 1954 collided with the galvanisation of global public opinion against US testing in Eniwetok. The massive “Castle Bravo” hydrogen bomb test in March exposed Marshall Islanders and a Japanese fishing crew on The Lucky Dragon to catastrophic radiation levels “equal to that received by Japanese people less than two miles from ground zero” in the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts. Graphic details of the fishermen’s suffering and deaths and a Marshallese petition to the United Nations followed.
When a UN resolution to halt US testing was voted on in July, Australia voted for its continuation. But the tide of public opinion was turning against testing. The events of 1954 dispelled the notion atomic waste was safe and could be contained. The problem of radioactive fish travelling into Australian waters highlighted these new dangers, which spurred increasing world wide protests until the US finally ceased testing in the Marshalls in 1958.
In the 1970s, US atomic waste was concentrated under the Runit Island dome, part of Enewetak Atoll (about 3,200 miles from Sydney). Recent alarming descriptions of how precarious and dangerous this structure is due to age, sea water inundation and storm damage exacerbated by climate change were contested in a 2020 Trump-era report.
The Biden administration’s current renegotiation of the Compact of Free Association with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and its prioritisation of action on climate change, will put Runit Island high on the agenda. There is an opportunity for historical redress for the US that is even more urgent given the upsurge in discrimination against US-based Pacific Islander communities devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are peoples displaced by the tests.
Australia is also embarking on a new level of engagement with the Marshall Islands: it is due to open its first embassy in the capital Majuro in 2021.
It should be remembered this bilateral relationship has an atomic history too. Australia supported the US testing program, assisted with data collection and voted in the UN for its continuation when Marshallese pleaded for it to be stopped. It is also likely Australian-sourced atomic waste lies within Runit Island, cementing Australia in this history.
The idea of “news” is a pretty new thing. So is the concept of “fake news”, as in false or misleading information presented as news. Accordingly, we don’t expect to understand the term outside of our own epoch.
Most people identify “fake news” with Donald Trump, as he used the term widely to challenge mass media coverage of his 2016 presidential campaign. Trump ran as much against the “fake news” of the New York Times and CNN as against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.
For sure, it’s a long way from Trump to Thucydides, the famous Athenian historian and general. There was no “news” in the ancient world, unless we consider the scuttlebutt in the agora (city square) as a kind of Athens Times or some such.
And poor Thucydides would probably cringe at being compared to Trump. Yet there seems to be a meaningful analogy between Trump and fake news, and Thucydides and myth. More on that in a moment.
Mistrust and misinformation
By news, we mean something like truth, facts about the world. In that sense, fake news is an oxymoron. News can be false, of course. But we’d like to believe that untrue in this case really means a mistake, a gaffe that in some sense is always correctable. News agencies can and do retract stories and reporters file corrections.
News suggests the default is truth or a commitment to truth. If they are true to their profession, journalists demonstrate a higher commitment or calling, to get stories right, or at least not to fake it. Intentional falsification results in professional suicide.
Which brings us back to Trump and Thucydides. Trump’s brilliance, if we can call it that, was his grasp of a certain presentiment in the American electorate that proved strong enough to catapult him to victory in 2016.
People’s mistrust in institutions seems to be at an all-time high. They feel they are being gaslighted, that there exists a cabal of smug elites who hold them in contempt. As Trump would have it, that cabal includes a press corps, threatened by new media, that has sold out and joined with the deep state and the Democratic Party.
Trump realised he could not become president by preaching to Republicans only, to those who never or almost never voted Democratic. He needed those whose distrust of institutions was compounded by a sense of betrayal.
The point of all of this is the importance of truth. Real fake news (as opposed to the claim that all news is fake) is about serving up falsehood as truth. No news or fake news in a democracy can be extremely pernicious, as representative government relies on information.
In the US today, a fundamentally ill-informed public produces inferior laws and weak administration. Over time it may well bring about the ultimate disintegration of the democratic regime altogether.
So, too, went the argument in ancient Athens 26 centuries ago.
There was no Trump or (fake) news. But there was Thucydides (and Plato) and a democracy that needlessly destroyed itself. By engaging in the disastrous Peloponnesian War, the Athenians forfeited their empire, upended their democracy and lost their freedom.
Thucydides and Plato lived through the crisis of Athenian democracy and, not unlike Trump, informed posterity that the fate of their beloved Athens resulted from the systematic misinformation and mis-education of the citizens.
The wrong myths
Demagogues easily manipulated the Athenian demos (common people), precisely because they had mistaken the fake for the real, because they had been systematically mis-educated. Of course, neither blamed the press or journalists. They blamed the poets.
Athenians read, or had read to them, Homer and the stories of epic heroes and war trophies and great victories on the battlefield. Thucydides and Plato decried Homer as the fake news of the ancient world. These heroes were the wrong kind and the myths containing their stories had to go.
Plato seemed desperate to displace Homer. His teacher Socrates was offered as an antidote to the sullen, self-centred, violent heroes of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Socrates was a new hero for a new time, a hero of logos (reason) for a new era where the reed would be mightier than the sword.
So too with Thucydides. Throughout his history of war and plague, he demonstrated with scientific observation the futility of appealing to gods and myths. What good did sacrifices to the gods do the Athenians? How did faith in a higher justice serve the Melians or the people of Mytilene?
Homeric fake news doomed the citizenry of Athens to war and decline. Salvation depended on the people dis-enthralling themselves. Survival entailed embracing the logos and adopting a science of society.
The Athenians instead exiled Thucydides and offered Socrates a hemlock milkshake. Trump got off lightly, being merely impeached twice.
This story is based on the author’s public lecture, “Fake news in ancient times: Thucydides, Plato and the expense of truth”, University of Canterbury, February 25.