George Washington: He Called His Mother “Honored Madam”

4 min

George Washington has been called the “Father of His Country.” The man earned the title for many reasons. General Washington was the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. He guided the infant United States through seven long years of war to victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781 and the formal end of the Revolutionary War with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. He presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1789. General Washington then served as the first President of the United States, elected unanimously to two terms by the Electoral College. At his death, General Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee eulogized General Washington with these famous words: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

But long before he was the father of his country, George Washington was a son. Men who learn to command must first learn to obey, and men in positions of authority earn their trust by serving faithfully under authority. Throughout his life of service, George Washington was a man who understood and respected authority.

George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was the first of six children born to Augustine and Mary Ball Washington. Augustine was a justice of the peace and highly regarded in the community. George Washington grew up with respect and admiration for his father. The story of George as a young boy cutting down the cherry tree and then honestly confessing the deed to his father has been mocked by modern scholars as a myth. But a description of the event has been found that dates before Parson Weems supposedly “invented” the myth. Whether or not the particulars of the cherry tree are true, the account acknowledges that George Washington was a young man of honorable character and noble bearing.

Augustine Washington died in 1743 when his oldest son was only eleven years old. At that time, young George Washington inherited Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Young Washington was deeply influenced by his pious mother, Mary Ball Washington. She taught her son to be a gentleman. She taught him a reverence for the Word of God. She instilled in him a sense of honor and destiny.

When George was a young teenager, he had a strong inclination toward service in the British Navy. Lawrence Washington, George’s older half-brother from his father’s previous marriage, had served in the Navy and encouraged George to do the same. Lawrence had named his own large estate after his commander, Admiral Vernon. George was drawn to the adventure the high seas had to offer. His young heart thrilled at the prospect of palm beaches, distant ports, and exotic sights around the world. In 1746, when George was fourteen years old, Lawrence used his connections to secure a position for George as a midshipman in the Royal Navy.

George’s personal baggage had already been stowed onto the ship on which he was to sail when his mother announced that she could not give her blessing upon the plan. Mrs. Washington could not fully explain her course, and some of George’s friends called her “a fond, unthinking mother” and her objections “trifling.”

But young George Washington did not regard his mother’s objections as trifling. The Bible commands sons to “honour thy father and thy mother.” George honored his mother’s decision and gave up his ideas of life and adventure on the high seas. Instead, he took up the lowly career of surveying. As George would later write, “I am sure the alwise [all-wise] disposer of events knows better than we do what is best for us.” George’s respect for his mother’s authority would place him in the position of surveyor, and later as militia officer with experience on the frontier. His mother was known to have a favorite “prayer rock” near her home where she would regularly pray for her children. Step by step, George advanced to his destiny, sustained by the prayers and advice of a loving mother.

Washington’s reverence for his mother’s authority shaped his life. He held high esteem for superior authority. This respect is why he was so careful as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, always recognizing that he was under the authority of Congress. He astonished the world when, as a victorious commander, he resigned his commission and returned to civilian life. He set a pattern of servant leadership as the first President of the United States, always recognizing that he served only as the Constitution specified and that, as president, his authority was not absolute but rather regulated by law. All this was established in his character as a boy who learned to obey the fifth commandment to honor his parents.

It is a tribute to the son as well as to the mother that George Washington corresponded with his mother throughout his long and busy life. He always addressed her as “Honored Madam” or “Revered Mother.” She lived long enough to see her son victorious in the War for Independence, and even while serving as General Washington, her son took the time to visit his mother whenever possible.

Mrs. Washington was dying of cancer when her son was elected the first President of the United States. She lived four months into his presidency. Ever the respectful son, during his triumphal procession toward inauguration in Philadelphia, President-elect George Washington made a special stop in Fredericksburg to receive his mother’s final blessing.

On this Mother’s Day, every son who wants to be a man of character like George Washington should take the opportunity to honor his mother. If she has passed away, give thanks for her and speak well of her. If she is still alive, take the opportunity to write her a letter, make a phone call, or give her a warm hug, expressing your appreciation for the way that she has shaped your life.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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