Aren’t All Presidents Mama’s Boys?—Not Our Founding Father

By Stephen Yoch

 

Little Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and FDR were mama’s boys. Isn’t that a prerequisite to being president?

 

The father of our country was the exception that proved the rule.

 

The paradigm for U.S. presidents is an absent father and an overprotective, doting mother. There is certainly evidence that a number of presidents were heavily influenced by their mothers. Indeed, many were literally named after their mothers:

 

  • Rutherford Birchard Hayes was named after his mother Sophia Birchard
  • Woodrow Wilson was named after his mother Janet Woodrow
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt was named after his mother Sara Delano
  • John Fitzgerald Kennedy was named after his mother Rose Fitzgerald
  • Lyndon Baines Johnson was named after his mother Rebecca Baines
  • Richard Milhous Nixon was named after his mother Hannah Milhous
  • Ronald Wilson Reagan was named after his mother Nellie Wilson

Whether it was Abraham Lincoln or Woodrow Wilson, they all were unabashed devoted and dutiful sons. But what about George Washington, the father of our country?

 

Washington’s father died when he was only 11 and his mother never remarried. The oldest of six children, he never had a close or loving relationship with his mother. While some historians would disagree, most acknowledge that from the beginning, young Washington bristled and resisted his mother’s controlling hand.

 

At only age 14, Washington sought to join the British navy. The steadfast resistance of a demanding mother prevented him from leaving the colonies and likely changing the course of history. Mary Washington’s refusal was not driven solely by a desire to protect Washington, instead she focused on having him working on the family farm and providing leadership to his younger siblings. What is clear is that her compulsion to keep him under her thumb had exactly the opposite effect. It energized Washington to take chances and seek opportunities early in life to escape her clutches.

 

At age 19, Washington sought a military position as a major in the Virginia militia. Over his mother’s strenuous objections, he obtained the position and ultimately played a central role in the French and Indian War, raising him to national prominence. Yet, despite his success, Mary Washington repeatedly objected that he had “abandoned her” and was not fulfilling his family duties.

 

The relationship was so troubled that Mary Washington refused to attend her son’s wedding to Martha Custis or his presidential inaugurations. Throughout his life, Washington maintained the role of supportive son, attending to her financial needs, but they never developed the warm and loving relationship that is the characteristic of so many of our presidents.

 

Washington often set the pattern for many subsequent presidents, including achieving great success in the face of an early loss of a father, however, he sought desperately to avoid those traits he saw in his mother that he disliked the most. While it was certainly not her goal, her actions motivated Washington away from her and toward his destiny.

 

Stephen Yoch is the author of the historical fiction novel Becoming George Washington.