Mount Vernon – George Washington’s Home

The home gave remarkable opportunity to George Washington to show his superman qualities. As a general he was a genius.

As a President he was of vast ability. But at Mount Vernon he displayed what would be termed, in modern phraseology, in super-degree, the qualities of a buyer.

He filled Mount Vernon with the most delicately beautiful furniture of his time. Silver, china, glass were purchased by him in great quantities and in great good taste. Upholsteries, hangings were freely bought. And all this was done without being in touch with shops where things of value could be purchased. He was never in England. But he dealt in London!

Nor should it be thought that he merely transferred his problems to others. The important point was that he knew what he wanted.

He was a superman as a manager and administrator. The same basic qualities which made him do the impossible at Valley Forge, which made him had the army together in defeat as in victory, and even through the impossible two years between the surrender of Cornwallis and the Treaty of Peace, gave him the power to manage Mount Vernon and its multifarious concerns. He could be absent from home for years at a time and, returning, find that his explicit orders had been carried out as if he had been there to see to them. With what might almost be called modesty, he quietly saw to the controlling of everything that needed his control.

In the long lists of ordered purchases from abroad, he even specified precisely what cloth he wanted for his splendid and colorful clothes, and he even wrote out directions as to cloth for the gowns of his wife. But it may fairly be presumed that in this last respect she had sup-plied her ideas, for he would have been the last man in the world to be discourteous or disregardful toward his wife.

His mail orders sometimes covered two hundred items at a time. And the difficulty of buying was much increased by his being compelled to use a system essentially of barter. He looked on tobacco as an injurious crop, but grew on his estate a sufficient quantity to sell for enough to make all his purchases.

To those handling his orders in London his letters were full of precise directions, such as—this being an excellent example : “1 fine bed coverlid to match the curtains. 4 chair bottoms of the same ; that is, as much covering suited to the above furniture as will go over the seats of 4 chairs (which I have by me) in order to make the whole furniture of this room uniformly handsome and genteel.”

He makes use now and then of the words “hand-some,” “genteel” and “fashionable,” and mentions leeway in judgment when there is doubt regarding a possibly changing fashion. And steadily he brings things to pass.

Now and then, even the great Washington met with temporary setbacks. When he pleased him-self by ordering busts of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charles of Sweden, Frederick the Great, Prince Eugene, and the Duke of Marlborough, with the idea that he would have great pleasure in contemplating these military leaders, picture his dismay at finding that the dealer had supplied, instead, such things as busts of AEneas and Anchises, and two groups each of Bacchus and Flora! But it was seldom that, either by inadvertence or inability, any one sent Washington anything other than he ordered. His word was law.

Washington loved the soil. He was an innate farmer. In himself he fitted the ancient myth of the man who regained his strength whenever he touched the ground, and I remember coming some-where upon some writing of his in which he was positively lyric in praise of the triumphs of the farmer, compared with those of the soldier.

Admiral Vernon, Admiral of the Blue, was the man for whom Mount Vernon was named. The Admiral had won fame and immense public interest by attacking Carthagena, and he had also won the devotion of his men. Among others he won the loving admiration of one of his officers named Lawrence Washington, who named in his honor his estate of Mount Vernon, which he had inherited from his father.

Lawrence Washington, retiring from the service, was taken ill and went to the West Indies in an effort to recover his health. His young half-brother, George Washington, accompanied him to care for him—the only time when George Washington left the confines of what was to be the United States of America.

Lawrence returned home in time to die here, and he willed Mount Vernon to his half-brother George. From this time until the close of his life, George Washington loved Mount Vernon with a love that was unfeigned and unbounded.

To take advantage of the glorious river view the house, which stands on a bluff one hundred and twenty-five feet above the water, has its greatest dimension in its lengthwise front, giving thus the opportunity for views from many windows. It is ninety-six feet long by thirty deep and each of the long facades is a finished front for the building, one facing toward the river and the other inland.

A little octagonal weather-vaned cupola, or lantern, with each of its eight sides holding fifteen panes of glass, surmounts the roof and gives an unrivaled outlook in every direction. Below the cupola are several dormers, almost hidden behind an openwork rail extending along the whole piazza roof, above the line of eight tall, two-story square pillars, which form the most striking feature of the mansion’s front.

The house, originally built in 1743, is much longer than when Washington acquired it, it having been quite typical of his methods that, when about to leave on an indefinite absence, he ordered changes that added forty-four feet to the front. When he returned, he found the changes and additions made as completely and satisfactorily as they could have been if he had given them personal supervision.

Along the riverfront of the entire house is a piazza, fifteen feet deep and twenty-five feet high The floor of the piazza is paved with flat stone flags, carried here from the Isle of Wight. Back and forth on these stones was the rainy day walk of the Father of his Country. Here he received many visitors and seated them in the thirty Windsor chairs that originally stood here.

There is considerable of the original furnishing in the house, but it is all a matter of restitution, for after the death of Washington and his widow the entire house was emptied by bequest, gift and auction. When the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association was organized in 1856 and the National Government and the entire nation began to take an interest in the matter, many of the original furnishings and ornaments were restored, and the rest of the space was gradually filled with similar things of the period. The ladies to whom has fallen the heritage of caring for Mount Vernon manage it with most devoted and efficient care.

Mount Vernon is sixteen miles south of Washington on the opposite side of the Potomac. It may be reached by steamer or by trolley or, as most people nowadays go, by motor-car. The road is well surfaced and leads through Alexandria. This road is strikingly in appearance as it must have been generations ago, though there are more woods and fewer fields, with here and there a cabin beside the road, with clothes drying on the fence; and the last time I went over it I met an old negro woman who seemed to have walked directly out of the distant past, stooping as she was beneath a large basket filled with pussy-willows and sassafras bark and poke-root shoots.

And, so long as you make the single turn at the fork not far from your destination, there is only one way to go, as is generally the case in sparselyroaded Virginia. The Potomac sweeps for miles near the road, alternately coming into sight and disappearing. The country-side is gently rolling and is wooded with insignificant trees. You pass by the roadside a spot associated with one of the many visits of John Marshall. He and a friend and a servant rode down on a day so hot that they rode in old clothes and decided to change in the woods near the house, to be fresh on arrival. They stopped here by the roadside and took off their dusty clothes and the servant opened the bag to get out their better ones—when out poured the general medley of a peddlar’s pack! The bag had been changed at the Alexandria tavern ! The friends shrieked with laughter and rolled, unclad, on the ground !—and the Father of his Country came riding out to learn the cause of the extraordinary mirth.

Approaching Mount Vernon, it is surprising to notice, clustered about it, some two hundred enormous trees. They are largely of unusual varieties and most of them were set out by Washington him-self with all the care of a tree-lover, and can be identified from his diary. Washington was a tree-collector, as well as a tree-lover, and often wrote for specimens to friends or to scientists in various parts of America and Europe, in addition to gathering trees personally in localities that he visited.

Elms were an especial choice and there are a number of these now close to ninety feet in height. There are giant tulips that he set out and huge hemlocks somber in dark green. There are beech trees of his planting. There are ash. There is a sugar maple which has reached to ninety-one feet; and those who study his trees declare that the tallest of all is well over one hundred feet high. There are lindens and honey-locusts; and he has somewhere written that on a March day in the late seventeen-eighties he planted more than seventeen thousand honey-locust seeds. He often brought home in his saddlebags tree seeds from distant places to which he had gone; and some rare buckeyes were gathered in the Cheat River region—even now wild and beautiful with rhododendron thickets.

Thomas Jefferson gathered things animate and inanimate, and, himself a devoted tree-planter, gave to Washington the three pecan trees which grow in the front lawn of the mansion. Box was an especial favorite of the master of Mount Vernon and he was very successful in growing it. It was rooted under his own supervision by beating it firm in sand, and large areas in the vicinity of the house are geometrically outlined with billowy box masses, four feet high.

Mount Vernon is entered by the driving road through and beside these groups and single giant trees.

One approaches the immediate grounds beside a long line of servants’ quarters, dormer windowed, red-roofed, surrounded by flowers, and overgrown with thick masses of ivy.

Although the driveway leads to the house, it is not now to be used, and you leave your car outside and walk in. Thus the modern, the noisy, the risk of fire, are left well outside and rich and poor go in alike on foot—on an equal footing.

Nothing could be more different than the two fronts of Mount Vernon: the superb pillared front toward the water, and the beautiful unpillared front facing inland, with its central door, its fine pediment on the cornice line with its round window, charmingly spider-webbed in design. Washington took great pride in the doorsteps of this front. They are square, they are of stone, they decrease evenly in size, as they go up.

If it were not for the altogether charming and altogether unique little cupola on the roof it would not seem that this could be the same house whose river-front is so familiar to every one.

Sweeping away at either corner from this inland front are delightful curving arcades connecting with the kitchen and offices. There are quaint outlying kitchen and wash-houses, a perfect village of tiny household dependences, with roofs dormered and delectably steep and with chimneys quaintly large throated.

The curving sweep of the old driveway swings around the old lawn-like bowling green in its central position, and passes the exquisite gardens at right and left, in all their beauty of paths and boxborders, old walls and charming garden houses.

The superb river front of Mount Vernon has never been broken by driveway or footpath. The house is perfectly set and looks out in restful dignity at the superb sweeps of river, at the glimmering glory of the unspoiled distances.

When you visit Mount Vernon go, if you can, on a pleasant day at an early hour so as to miss throngs. The custodians are many, but they are necessary and unobtrusive. It is the peeking and peering and pushing of people on your heels that destroy effects. Have Mount Vernon as nearly as possible to yourself—and your imagination will picture and people the mansion with the life of the past, and you will think of Washington pacing solitary on the long piazza on rainy days, or walking there alone on sleepless nights.

In every detail the building, the outbuildings, and the lawns, parks and gardens, represent the splendid taste, the boundless enthusiasm, the tireless industry, the loving care, of the great man who planned everything there.

Washington was among the great landowners and increased the size of Mount Vernon to eight thou-sand acres. Now the estate measures two hundred and thirty-seven and a half.

In the greenhouse is a much-traveled, tall-tufted sago palm, twelve feet in height, with a most striking history. It was sold at the auction in 1802 and remained in a greenhouse up the Hudson River until the very recent year of 1920, when it was restored to Mount Vernon. Close by, hanging on the wall are two of the quaintest imaginable sprinkling •cans. They look like lead but are really of copper. They hold many gallons of water and have queer, circle-sweeping handles. They were here in use in the famous days of the house and gardens. Among the other little buildings is the ice-house over which the emotional old lady was found weeping, according to the story of half a century ago, under the impression that she was weeping over the tomb !

In one of these little houses, in 1787, lived an especially good gardener named Baxter, whose single defect was that he drank too much ; one of the surprisingly many white servants that Washington maintained. Baxter drank so freely as to destroy his usefulness, and Washington avoided the necessity of discharging him by making what might be called a psychological contract with him. He had a bond formally drawn up, binding Washington, on his part, to give certain money and clothes to Baxter in the course of the next year, and binding Baxter to do certain daily work, and permitting him to be drunk just four days and four nights at Christmas, two days similarly at Easter and two at Whitsuntide—and it worked !

In another little house lived Bishop, the English body-servant, who had been left by the dying Brad-dock to the care of Washington, and who was for forty years a faithful caretaker of the place.

Mount Vernon is a building of pine whose long boards are cut to resemble blocks of cut stone. With some amusement one remembers that Washington, on passing through Connecticut, wrote of his amazement that there the houses were built of frame instead of stone!

Washington lived as proprietor at Mount Vernon for a few years before his marriage in 1759. It would seem that his independent-minded mother was here at least once in that period, but it would also seem, with somewhat of vagueness, that she never visited there after his marriage. Toward the close of her life she intimated her readiness, strong-willed though she was, to end her days with her son, but Washington, knowing that she had her comfort-able home in Fredericksburg near the foot of her daughter’s garden, did not accept her suggestion.

The house centers about the hallway. Innumerable times here stood George and Martha Washington receiving formal guests, and one gets a general impression that they welcomed all of America and half of Europe! The hallway extends through the house with a great door at either end. The paneling is as Washington built it in 1775. On either side of the heavily corniced wall are two broken-arched doorways, and there are beautiful articles of furniture.

Here in the hall is the huge key of the Bastille, sent as a personal gift from the man who ordered the great prison torn down, the rapidly developed Lafayette who only eight years before had finished his youthful American warfare. Here also in the hall are three of the four swords left by Washington to his nephews, with his unforgetable injunction: “Not to unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be in self-defense or in defense of their Country and its rights, and in the latter case to keep them unsheathed and prefer falling with them in their hands to the relinquishment thereof.”

The easy-rising stairway of black walnut mounts at one side of the hall with delightful balusters—three on each step—and a fine ramp, and with a turn half way up, where stands a tall clock that was owned by Lawrence Washington. One pictures Washington roused from sleep and descending the stair with a candle, the night that Houdon, the sculptor, sent from Paris by Jefferson and Franklin, to model Washington, arrived with three companions by water from Alexandria, getting Washington out of bed. The original statue is in the State House. of Virginia ; and a clay study of the head only was left at Mount Vernon, where it may still be seen.

In the music room is a harpsichord which Washington imported from England as a thousand dollar gift to his wife’s grandaughter, Nellie Custis. It is still a beautiful instrument, tawny colored, slender legged, something the shape of a little grand piano of modern days and with a double-tiered key-board.

Of all the musical instruments that the imagination could associate with George Washington the flute’ would be the most romantic. The picture of the Father of his Country puffing and blowing away his very soul, while his foot tapped time to the music, is a picture you love to turn over in your mind ! And the flute which was his very own is in the music room.

In the west parlor, a paneled room with stucco-ornamented ceiling and containing some beautiful Chippendale chairs, is a large Aubusson carpet which was sent as a gift to Washington by Louis the Sixteenth. Washington could not, under the law, accept a gift from a foreign potentate; and the carpet, centered by an eagle surrounded by stars, was sold to some one in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In 1897, after years of use, it was presented to the building for which it was intended more than a century before.

The intimate little family dining-room, is reminiscent of thousands of guests, for it was freely used with intimates ; and it is said that one day in the late 1780’s Washington suddenly laid down his knife and fork, leaned back in his chair, and said to his wife that he believed this to be the first time in their married life that they had dined alone ! Guests were always welcome at Mount Vernon. Washing-ton was willing in those early days of the nation to have his home treated essentially as a building of the Government. His managers even had his careful instructions as to what to offer in food and drink and general hospitality to unexpected guests who arrived when he and his wife were absent.

In this room there is a Heppelwhite sideboard of Washington’s, presented by Mrs. Robert E. Lee in 1860, of positively lovely curves, and there are mahogany chests filled with great square old bottles. One case came from the Fairfax auction at Belvoir, the adjoining place, just before the Revolution, when that Fairfax family returned to England. Washington always remained young enough to enjoy an auction, and from his diary may be picked out many an item of auction purchases.

Both for this room and the great dining-room all food was carried in from the outside kitchen along one of the covered colonnades—one can picture the running back and forth with covered dishes!

The only time in all his years of life at Mount Vernon that any one there succeeded in passing upon him even a jesting impertinence—the stories of the personal awe inspired by Washington being almost incredible—occurred one dinner-time when the famous Light-horse Harry Lee, whose mother was a friend of his youth, was a guest. Washington re-marked that he would like to buy a pair of carriage horses, whereupon young Lee facetiously responded that he had a pair for sale but that Washington could not buy them. “Why not?” asked Washing-ton incautiously. “Well,” replied Lee, “you never pay more than half price for anything and I won’t sell except for full price.” Mrs. Washington laughed and her parrot burst into a torrent of mirth. At which Washington, whose face had begun to chill, laughed too and said: “Well, Lee, you’re a funny fellow; see, even the bird is laughing at you.”

Perhaps the only other formal effort on record of even an attempt to shake Washington’s amour propre was made by Gouverneur Morris, when, on a dare, he entered the dining-room in Philadelphia, and with a familiar greeting, slapped him on the shoulder. There was no parrot to relieve this much worse situation, and the guests watched in horror as Washington turned his eyes on the culprit and froze him with a silent look. It was rather curious that Gouverneur Morris, over in Paris, posed for Houdon for Washington’s legs, which the artist had not been able to make for the statue while in America ; and as the legs are disturbingly queer for their great subject, one wonders if Morris did not have a fine revenge !

Throughout the house are scattered many military pictures of men or scenes, for which Washing-ton had a great regard. They used to line the whole staircase.

The great banquet-room was planned by Washington personally, and was added by him just as the Revolution was beginning. This was one of the changes that developed the house into a mansion. The great triple Palladian window centers the end of the house and was always a point of pride. The elaborate marble mantel, in the center of the wall, opposite the great window, was sent as a gift at a later date from an English admirer of Washington named Vaughn. It is a great Siena marble mantel in three colors, with entablatures in relief showing scenes in agriculture. One of the most interesting of Mount Vernon stories is that the ship bringing it was captured by French pirates, who, when they found it was intended for George Washington, sent it most carefully on its way.

The library at the other end of the house was made for quiet retreat, for isolation, and for study, and at the dame time with a splendid view; a room which looks as it did when the great owner was here, for one wall is lined with glass-protected bookcases and the cases are filled with books. Most of the original volumes are in the library of the Boston Athenaeum but great pains have been taken to fill these shelves with books of the same titles and the same period. Even the old tambour desk and revolving armchair, left in his will to his old friend Doctor Craik, is here where it used to be, and the only long windows in the house permit the eyes of the one seated at the desk to sweep down to the river and the wharf. Washington was frequently at his desk in this room before daylight and built his own fire on the hearth.

Mount Vernon had many bedrooms to hold its many guests. Whole neighborhood parties used to stay the night. John Marshall tells of a night he stayed here. He had no idea that anything was to be asked of him; to him it was only that as one who had been a young officer in Washington’s army, he had been given an invitation.

But when evening came, the two men sat together in front of one of the fireplaces and Washington out-lined a task which he wished to be performed. Mar-shall, who tells the story himself, omits to mention precisely what the task was, but tells that it was something which he was extremely anxious to avoid. Washington, however, would not listen to him and treated the matter as if settled.

Marshall has narrated how he lay awake for hours until nearly daylight, when he silently got up and began to dress, preparing to make his escape, but he could not find his top boots! English-fashion they had been slipped quietly away by a servant to be cleaned. There was only one thing to be done. Marshall felt his way down the stairs, opened an outside door and made his way to the servants’ quarters to find his boots. Suddenly there was a slight sound behind him. He turned, still in his stockings, and above him towered a tall form, fully dressed—and Marshall took the work !

The bedroom in which Washington died, the south bedroom on the second floor, has a staircase by which he could reach his library below, and also out-of-doors, without going into the main hall. Most of the furniture now in this room was here in his day, including the four-poster bed upon which he died—a bed of a strange shortness for a man as tall as we know Washington to have been.

After his death his widow did a fine and thoughtful thing. She destroyed his personal letters to her. His diaries, his letters to friends, his state papers all were kept. But the letters to herself were to be seen by no eyes but her own. To this she made one exception. She kept the letter, for all to read, in which Washington told her of having to go at once to take command of the American forces; a letter which he ended with affection for his “dear Patsey.” By this letter the world knows the affection around which this household grew.

His body lies within a brick vault at some distance down the slope from the mansion. There George and Martha Washington lie side by side, each within a marble sarcophagus. There is a wonderful growth of dark ivy, about the tomb, and against the brick wall clings early-blooming jasmine.

Never was any place so full of the personality of the man who made it his own. He loved every corner of the house, every article of furniture, every tree and shrub and ha-ha wall. They were his !

A thought freely evoked with Mount Vernon is that of mounted officers riding the pine woods road thither as daylight began to wane; for military men from either side of the Atlantic were always treated as brothers in arms. And one evening, as I drove back toward the city, just as darkness was coming on, I was almost startled, for there, riding in the direction I was quitting, were three carefully groomed officers on horseback. It was ghostly.