Mount Vernon – Last Years Before The Revolution

The last two years before the Revolution brought many changes to Mount Vernon. They affected the house itself, the family circle, and the neighborhood, and the issues of which, in discussion and in correspondence, it was the storm centre were the most significant in character and effect in the history of our country.

The first grief that shadowed the house in more than twenty years came with the death of Martha Parke Custis, Mrs. Washington’s daughter, the “Patsy” and “little patt” of their letters. She had been an invalid all her brief life, which endeared her the more to her devoted stepfather. On the night of June 19, 1773, he wrote briefly in his diary: “About five o’clock poor Patey Custis died suddenly,” and in a letter to his wife’s brother-in-law, Colonel Bassett: “It is an easier matter to conceive than to describe the distress of this Family; especially that of the unhappy Parent of our Dear Patsy Custis, when I inform you that the Sweet Innocent Girl Entered into a more happy & peaceful abode than any she has met with in the afflicted Path she hitherto has trod.” He begs that Mrs. Washington’s mother come to make her home at Mount Vernon and concludes: “I do not purpose to add more at present, the end of my writing being to inform you of this unhappy change.” He was about to start on a journey into the West with the Governor, Lord Dunmore, but he gave this up and remained with the bereaved mother, his own ” dear Patsy,” as he was wont to call her. Martha Custis left her entire and very considerable fortune to her step-father.

This year, too, Mount Vernon lost its long-time neighbors and friends, the Fairfax family, and there-after the diary is silent of fox-hunting and dining and visiting across the creek at the merry old mansion. George William Fairfax fell heir to the ancestral estates in England, placed Belvoir in the care of Colonel Wash­ington, who knew it and loved it better than any other man after its proprietor, and departed America never to return. Washington and his wife were with Colonel Fairfax and his family during their last hours at Belvoir, saw them embark, and from the noble height waved sad adieux as the ship sailed away to southward around the sharp turn in the Potomac.

Though Colonel Fairfax never returned to America, he and Washington kept up an intimate correspondence for the rest of his life. In 1774 most of the chattels at Belvoir were disposed of at public sale, and Washington bought at the prices below and brought to Mount Vernon the following items

1 mahogany shaving desk 4 £, 1 settee bed and furniture 13 £, 4 mahogany chairs 4 £, 1 chamber carpet 1 £ is, 1 oval glass with gilt frame in the “green room” 4 £ 5s, 1 mahogany chest and drawers in Mrs. Fairfax’s chamber 12 £ 10s,1 mahogany sideboard 12 £ 5s, 1 mahogany cistern and stand 4 £, 1 mahogany voider, a dish tray and knife tray 1 £ 10s; 1 Japan bread tray 7s, 12 chairs and 3 window curtains from dining room 31 £, 1 looking glass and gilt frame 13 £ 5s, 2 candle sticks and a bust of Shakespeare 1 £ 6s, 3 floor carpets in gentlemen’s room 3 £ 5s, 1 large carpet 11 £,

1 mahogany wash desk, &c., 1 £ 2s 6d; 1 mahogany close stool i £ 10s, 2 matresses 4 £ 10s, 1 pair andirons, tongs, fender and shovel, 3 £ 10s; 1 pair andirons, tongs, fender and shovel, 3 £ 17s 6d; 1 pair andirons, tongs, fender and shovel, 1 £ 17s 6d; 1 pair dog irons in great kitchen 3 £, 1 hot rache 4 £, 1 roasting fork 2s 6d, 1 plate basket 3s, 1 mahogany spider make tea table 1 £ 11s, 1 screen 10s, 1 carpet 2 £ 15s, 1 pair bellows and brush 11s,

2 window curtains 2 £, 1 large marble mortar 1 £ is, 1 hot rache in cellar 1 £ 7s 6d, 2 mahogany card tables 4 £, 1 bed, pair of blankets, 19 coverlets, pillows, bolsters and 1 mahogany table, 11 £ ; bottles and pickle pots 14s, 1 dozen mountain wine 1 £ 4s, 4 chariot glasses frames 12s 6d, 12 pewter water plates 1 L.

Colonel Fairfax presented Colonel and Mrs. Washington with the entire suite of furniture in “the Blue, or Dressing Room.”

The Fairfaxes were moderate loyalists. Not only was it not on account of the presaging troubles with the mother country that Colonel Fairfax returned to Eng­land, but throughout the war he extended liberal assistance to Americans in England, to which Washington testified when the confiscation of his American property was threatened :

“I hope, I trust, that no act of Legislation in the State of Virginia has affected, or can affect, the property of this gentleman, otherwise than in common with that of every good and well disposed citizen of America. It is a well known fact that his departure for England was not only antecedant to the present rupture with Great Britian, but before there was the most distant prospect of a serious dispute with that country, and if it is necessary to adduce proof of his attachment to the in­terests of America since his residence there, and of the aid he has given to many of our distressed countrymen in that kingdom, abundant instances may be produced, not only by the Gentlemen alluded to in his letter of December 5, 1779, but by others that are known to me, and on whom justice to Col. Fairfax will make it nec­essary to call, if occasion should require the facts be ascertained.”

John Parke Custis had now grown into young man-hood, and he, too, was soon lost to Mount Vernon, but under consoling circumstances. He had spent the last few years away from home at college or under private tutors, with results that often tried and vexed his step-father, who once said: “I can govern men, but I can-not govern boys.” He supposed Jack was finally safely anchored when he placed him with the Rev. Mr. Boucher in Annapolis. There were frequent visits home from there, but the way lay past the door of Mount Airy, the seat of the Calverts of Maryland, and within was an irresistible temptation in the person of Miss Eleanor.

When the young people’s intentions became obvious the politest letters passed between Mount Vernon and Mount Airy. Washington wrote Benedict Calvert, the young lady’s father:

“My son-in-law and ward, Mr. Custis, has, as I have been informed, paid his addresses to your second daughter, and, having made some progress in her affections, has solicited her in marriage. How far a union of this sort may be agreeable to you, you best can tell; but I should think myself wanting in candor, were I not to confess, that Miss Nellie’s amiable qualities are acknowledged on all hands, and that an alliance with your family will be pleasing to his. . . It may be expected of me, perhaps, to say something of property; but, to descend to particulars, at this time, must seem rather premature. In general, therefore, I shall inform you, that Mr. Custis’s estate consists of about fifteen thousand acres of land, a good part of it adjoining the city of Williamsburg, and none of it forty miles from that place; several lots in the said city; between two and three hundred negroes; and about eight or ten thousand pounds upon bond, and in the hands of his merchants. This estate he now holds independent of his mother’s dower; which will be an addition to it at her death; and, upon the whole, it is such an estate as you will readily acknowledge ought to entitle him to a handsome portion with a wife. But as I should never require a child of my own to make a sacrifice of himself to interest so neither do I think it incumbent on me to recommend it as a guardian. At all times when you, Mrs. Calvert, or the young ladies, can make it convenient to favor us with a visit, we should be happy in seeing you at this place.”

To which Mr. Calvert replied with the grace which became one of the family of the Lords Baltimore:

“I Received the favour of yours of the 3d Instant by Mr Custis which I feel myself highly honoured by, and am truly happy in your Approbation of that young Gentlemans future Union with my Second Daughter. I should be dead to Parental feelings, were I untouched with the polite manner in which you are pleased to compliment Nel-ly’s Qualifications; Being her father, it would illy become me to sound her praise, perhaps I might be deemed partial —I shall therefore only say, That it has ever been the Endeavor of her Mother and me, to bring her up in such a manner, as to ensure the happiness of her future Husband, in which, I think, we have not been unsuccessful—if we have, we shall be greatly disappointed. . . . Mr. Custis I must acknowledge, is, as a match for my Daughter, much superior to the sanguine hopes which a parents fondness may have at any time encouraged me to indulge. . . . I can only add, on this subject, that, from the largeness of my family (having ten Children) no very great fortune can be expected : What that may be depends upon the Issue of my present depending Claim. Of this, Sir, however be assured, nothing in my power shall be left undone to promote so pleasing a Union—Nelly’s portion, as far as my personal Estate will go, shall, at least, be equal to any of my other Children, nor will you, Sir, I am sure, desire more—I shall at all times, when convenient, be happy in bringing my family to wait on Mrs Washington, and equally glad to see her & Miss Custis with you at Mount Airy, where I hope it will suit you to call (next week early) in your way to Annapolis, and I will have the pleasure of attending you thither.

” I am Dear Sir Your most obedt Humble Servt


“I expect the pleasure of the Governors & Mr. Hay-woods Company a Saturday Evening, they stay with me till Monday Morning, when they set off for Mr. Bouchers where they propose to dine, and then go for Annapolis, I shall attend them there & return home in the Evening, without it will sute you to come here on Sunday and go up with them

“B C”

At the end of January, in 1774, the chariot was ferried across to Warburton, and Colonel Washington followed the next day in the great barge and rolled in state to the Calvert seat. Mrs. Washington still felt the loss of her daughter too keenly to enter into the bridal gayety. The fashion of the two colonies were there, and on February 3d the nuptials were celebrated amid much festivity. Jack was not wholly lost to Mount Vernon, however, for he and his wife made their home at Abingdon, a plantation on the Virginia side of the Potomac about four miles above Alexandria and formerly the home of their friend Robert Alexander. A large portion of their time and their children’s was spent at Mount Vernon only a dozen miles away. It is, indeed, one of the traditions that “if any horse of the stables were started from Abingdon, and left to his own free will, it would be found in due time at the entrance of Mount Vernon.”

The passage of the Stamp Act imposing duties on goods imported into the colony, though at first considered as a domestic difficulty which would yield to argument, was nevertheless resisted at once by the colonists. Washington was among the first by persuasion and example to oppose the injustice of the measure.

The non-importation Resolves were the weapon with which the colonists hoped to change England’s attitude. They were the basis of a continual stream of letters from Mount Vernon advancing at first the formation of a local non-importation association, after the pattern of that established at Philadelphia, and later the more aggressive attitude which culminated in the conventions of Fairfax County, Williamsburg, Richmond, and the two Congresses at Philadelphia.

How Washington’s principles bore upon the life of his own household is seen in his instructions to his London correspondents. In sending one of his orders to Robert Cary & Company for domestic goods in 1769, he wrote:

“If there are any articles contained in either of the respective invoices (paper only excepted) which are taxed by act of Parliament for the purpose of raising a revenue in America, it is my express desire and request, that they may not be sent, as I have very heartily entered into an association (copies of which I make no doubt you have seen, otherwise I should have enclosed one) not to import any article which now is, or hereafter shall be taxed for this purpose until the said act or acts are repealed. I am therefore particular in mentioning this matter as I am fully determined to adhere religiously to it, and may perhaps have wrote for some things unwittingly which may be under these circumstances.”

This intention to import nothing for his home upon which Parliament had imposed a tax is repeated in another order on London in 1770:

“You will perceive, in looking over the several in. voices, that some of the goods there required, are upon condition, that the act of Parliament imposing a duty on tea, paper, &c. for the purpose of raising a revenue in America, is totally repealed; and I beg the favor of you to be governed strictly thereby, as it will not be in my power to receive any articles contrary to our non-im­portation agreement, which I have subscribed, and shall religiously adhere to, and should, if it were, as I could wish it to be, ten times as strict.”

Washington and his neighbor, George Mason, were the leaders in the more aggressive attitude of the outraged colonists. In 1774 there were continual trips between Mount Vernon and Gunston Hall for conferences, and there eventuated the famous Resolves, written by Mason, and presented at a convention of the inhabi­tants of Fairfax County in July, at which Washington presided. In this meeting was the germ of the Second Continental Congress and in the Resolves was the in­spiration of the Declaration of Independence.

Washington recorded this occasion with a simplicity which is the despair of the student; but in the light of what was accomplished and its effect on the destiny of a people, the few words are epic :

“July 17. Col. Mason came in the afternoon, and staid all night. 18. Went up to Alexandria to a meeting of the County. Returned in the evening.”

After the Fairfax convention he was at Mount Vernon only long enough to pack up and hurry to the convention at Williamsburg, where the astonishing conduct of General Gage at Boston was discussed. The nominally silent delegate from Fairfax showed the warmth of his ardor when need be, as now, when, in “the most eloquent speech that ever was made,” he declared with fire and force: “I will raise one thousand men, subsist them at my own expense, and march myself at their head for the relief of Boston.”

Hurrying home he discovered the house full of company, but he found time for the Fairfax sale, letters to England and elsewhere, the arrangement of domestic affairs, and hurried off on the last day of the month for the first Congress at Philadelphia. The day before his departure Mount Vernon was the scene of another significant conference with George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Edmund Pendleton. They “came in the evening and stay’d all night.” Next day, August 31st, “All the above gentlemen dined here; after which with Colo. Pendleton and Mr. Henry, I set out on my journey to Philadelphia.” Pendleton said that before they set out Martha Washington “talked like a Spartan mother to her son on going to battle. ‘I hope you will all stand firm—I know George will,’ she said.”

When Washington returned home it was to pick up again the threads of the life he loved so well. He began at this time to make a reality of plans for the enlargement and perfection of his house and grounds, which had long been maturing in his mind.

The house stood in 1773 exactly as he found it when he took up his home there with his brother Lawrence, save for the repairs he made in anticipation of his marriage. The intervening fourteen years of domestic and social life brought out the limitations of the villa. It began to call again for repairs after so many years of hard use. Washington desired a more ambitious and commodious residence, and as early as 1773 planned the house as it appears to-day. This included the extension of the length of the house by the additions at each end measuring the full width of the original house, thirty-two feet by twenty-two feet, which would extend the house by forty-four feet in length.

The new building operations were under way in the fall of 1773, as indicated by a quaint letter from a joiner in Washington’s employ :


“I am apprehensive that in the Bill of Scantling that I sent you it was orderd so as to have the Sleepers of Both the additions to Ly Length ways with the house if so the will not be Right by that means the floor will be aCross and the Gelling plank the Length of the addition will not answer the intended purpose of haveing no heading Joints in the Lower floors, the S[l]eepers Need not be More then 16 feet Long to Join on a Summer in the Middle that must be Layd Length ways of House, the Sleepers Must be the same Breadth & thickness as them Mention in the Bill & the Two Summers 10 by 14 and 22 foot Long

“I am Sir Yr Most Hum’ Servt

“GOING LANPHIER “New Church Octr 16: 1773

“N B I preposd from the beginning to Lay the floor­ing & seeling Jousts Length way of the House it will be a Great Means to Strength-en the additions . . . . G L”

Washington no sooner began the cherished plans than the war drew him away. He left Lund Washington in charge of Mount Vernon, and the letters that passed back and forth tell somewhat of the progress and dura­tion of the work. At least one of the new additions was completed within two years, for Washington wrote home from Camp at Cambridge, August f20, 1775: “I wish you would quicken Lanphier and Sears about the Dining Room Chimney Piece (to be executed as mentioned in one of my last letters) as I would wish that end of the House compleatly finished before I return.”

Lund Washington referred to the “new room” in his letters to his chief in 1775, as when, on October 15th, he wrote: “As to pulling down the plastering in the new room, it will not make a days odds in his doing the room. Mrs. Washington seems desireous that whatever is to be done to it, may be at once that she may get into it this winter”; and again on December 10th: “Sears has now painted the dining room twice over and the new room once.”

The further progress of Washington’s extensive plans for his dwelling and for the outbuildings, the gardens and their walls, will appear later. At this time in­terruptions checked the work. Mount Vernon seemed destined to see its master’s carefully planned efforts in its behalf carried on in his absence now as when he first put it in order to receive his wife.

During the winter of 1774—1775 he was frequently from home. The house was the scene of continual con­ferences of the leaders of thought and action in the neighborhood and in the colony at large. George Mason was there; William Grayson, later first Senator for Virginia but now arming the Independent Militia of Prince William with funds he was promised on these visits; Edmund Pendleton and Daniel of Saint Thomas Jenifer, the latter now as Major Jenifer, neighbor, coming to be directed in militia organization, but later to live in history as Signer of the Declaration of Independence for Maryland; Charles Lee, British and unbalanced, accompanied by his hounds, which he insisted on feeding in the dining-room; Horatio Gates, Major now but Adjutant General in June next; old companions in the French War, who, scenting powder, found their way to their former chief’s seat “in search of courage and sympathy”; delegations from the various counties who came to offer Washington the command of their Independent Militia “should they be obliged to have recourse to arms to defend their King and coun­try”; and others in numbers, patriots for the most part, who recognized in the master of Mount Vernon their hope in the impending struggle.

Washington found time for his visitors and for endless letters, and for the obligations placed upon him by the neighborhood and the colony. He was still a member of the House of Burgesses. As such he attended the Virginia convention “in the. old church in the town of Richmond,” in March (1775) and brought home his appointment to represent Virginia in the Second Continen­tal Congress and the thrilling story of Mr. Henry’s peroration: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Less dramatically but not less fervently he wrote his brother, John Augustine, his own “full intention to de-vote my life and fortune in the cause we are engaged in.”

He had scarcely returned to Mount Vernon when word followed him from the low country that the Royal Governor had confiscated the powder stored in Williamsburg, and he rode instantly to Fredericksburg to calm the six hundred men who had rushed to arms. Riders came to his door with messages from the militia of various counties offering to serve under his command. The pulse of the people was indeed throbbing.

Toward the end of April his chariot rolled away again to Philadelphia. There was not probably either in his heart or Mrs. Washington’s a full understanding of what their good-byes meant. He left to be absent a few weeks, at most, as Virginia’s delegate in the Congress. He remained under pressure of a unanimous Assembly to accept the command of the independent army of the colonies.

At this moment of such significance and obligation his thoughts flew at once to Mount Vernon. He wrote his “dear Patsey “:

“I am now set down to write you on a subject, which fills me with inexpressible concern, and this concern is greatly aggravated and increased, when I reflect upon the uneasiness I know it will give you. It has been determined in Congress, that the whole army raised for the defense of the American cause shall be put under my care, and that it is necessary for me to proceed im­mediately to Boston to take upon me the command of it. . . I shall feel no pain from the toil or the danger of the campaign; my unhappiness will flow from the uneasiness I know you will feel from being left alone. I therefore beg, you will summon your whole fortitude, and pass your time as agreeably as possible. Nothing will give me so much sincere satisfaction as to hear this, and to hear it from your own pen.”

To Jack Custis he wrote:

“My great concern upon this occasion is, the thought of leaving your mother under the uneasiness which I fear this affair will throw her into; I therefore hope, expect, and indeed have no doubt, of your using every means in your power to keep up her spirits, by doing everything in your power to promote her quiet. .

At any time, I hope it is unnecessary for me to say, that I am always pleased with yours and Nelly’s abidence at Mount Vernon; much less upon this occasion, when I think it absolutely necessary for the peace and satis­faction of your mother; a consideration which I have no doubt will have due weight with you, and require no argument to enforce.”

To his brother John Augustine:

“I am now to bid adieu to you, and to every kind of domestic ease, for a while. I am embarked on a wide ocean, boundless in its prospect, and in which, perhaps, no safe harbor is to be found. I have been called upon by the unanimous voice of the Colonies to take the com­mand of the Continental army; an honor I have neither sought after, nor desired, as I am thoroughly convinced, that it requires greater abilities and much more experience, than I am master of, to conduct a business so extensive in its nature, and arduous in its execution. But the partiality of the Congress, joined to a, political motive, really left me without a choice; and I am now commissioned a General and Commander-in-chief of all the forces now raised, or to be raised, for the defense of the United Colonies. That I may discharge the trust to the satisfaction of my employers, is my first wish; that I shall aim to do it, there remains as little doubt of. How far I shall succeed, is another point; but this I am sure of, that, in the worst event, I shall have the consolation of knowing, if I act to the best of my judgement, that the blame ought to lodge upon the appointers, not the appointed, as it was by no means a thing of my seeking, or proceeding from any hint of my friends. . . . I shall hope that my friends will visit and endeavor to keep up the spirits of my wife, as much as they can, as my departure will, I know, be a cutting stroke upon her; and on this account alone I have many very disagreeable sensations. I hope you and my sister, (although the distance is great) will find as much leisure this summer as to spend a little time at Mount Vernon.”

Washington did not see Mount Vernon again for six years.