Mount Vernon – Lawrence Plans George’s Career

A PROPER career for George was one of the topics much discussed at Mount Vernon at this time. His two advisers were Lawrence and Lord Fair-fax, who had come to Virginia and made his home with his cousin William nearby at Belvoir.

Lawrence had fancied a career at sea, hoping that, after some experience before the mast, some influence might be controlled to secure a commission in the Royal Navy. George yielded to the romance of this idea. His father is said to have followed the sea in earlier days. His trunk was packed, and there is said to have been a vessel anchored below the house on which he was to have shipped. His mother, however, was of another mind. When the project was first broached she wrote to her brother, a London lawyer, and from all accounts she arrived at Mount Vernon with his reply at the last moment before her boy’s departure.

The letter, carefully considered, dissipates the myth that Lawrence had actually secured a midshipman’s commission in the navy. Moreover, it gives some gauge of the Washington family’s sphere and influence; and of George’s expectations; and is sound, direct, vig­orous, and refreshing :

“I understand that you are advised and have some thoughts of putting your son George to sea. I think he had better be apprenticed to a tinker, for a common sailor before the mast has by no means the common liberty of the subject; for they will press him from a ship where he has fifty shillings a month and make him take twenty-three, and cut, and slash, and use him like a negro, or rather like a dog. And, as to any considerable preferment in the navy, it is not to be expected, as there are always so many gaping for it here who have interest, and he has none. And if he should get to be master of a Virginia ship (which it is very difficult to do), a planter that has three or four hundred acres of land and three or four slaves, if he be industrious, may live more comfortably, and leave his family in better bread, than such a master of a ship can. . .

He must not be too hasty to be rich, but go on gently and with patience, as things will naturally go. This method, without aiming at being a fine gentleman be-fore his time, will carry a man more comfortably and surely through the world than going to sea, unless it be a great chance indeed. I pray God keep you and yours.

“Your loving brother,

“JOSEPH BALL.”

This cleared the air. George remained at home and devoted himself to his studies, among which mathematics was the most congenial; to sports; somewhat to sentimental matters; and a great deal to the com­panionship of his elders at home and at the mansion across Dogue Creek.

The fox, like the Indian, and certain other aborigines mentioned by John Smith, has been pushed westward. He still furnishes sport in the hills and in certain parts of The Valley, but he is no longer enough in evidence in Fairfax to maintain fox-hunting in its place in the country gentleman’s life that it held in Washington’s youth. It was in fact the boy’s favorite sport. Lord Fairfax was equally fond of the chase, and together they hunted Reynard over the hills and meadows, through fields and woods, for days at a time. The climate of Virginia and the country life of the period invited to the open air.

It was in the saddles that these two boon compan­ions became best acquainted, Washington silent and attentive, his lordship sharing with him the treasures of a rare mind well stocked with rare experience. Lord Fairfax was a graduate of Oxford, his family gave him easy access to the best society of London, and he’ had been a contributor to Mr. Addison’s Spectator. It is said that he was jilted on his wedding day for a higher title. His disappointment and chagrin seemed to change his whole outlook on society. Journeying to Virginia to see his vast land holdings, administered by William of Belvoir, he was so delighted with what he saw that he later took up his home on his estate in the lower Shenandoah Valley, where he lived into his ninetieth year.

The companionship and interest of such a patron was the most fortunate substitute for the university education and sojourn abroad, so much affected by other young colonial gentlemen, that could have come to an open and serious mind of Washington’s years.

It was at Lord Fairfax’s suggestion that he took up surveying as a career. After charting Mount Vernon and Belvoir, he set out to survey his lordship’s thousands of acres in The Valley.

He left Mount Vernon early in March, 1748, and was absent a month and two days. The journal of this trip is not without its amusing passages. Of the 15th and 16th of March he writes:

“We got our suppers & was Lighted into a Room & I not being so good a woodsman as ye rest of my company, striped myself very orderly and went into ye Bed, as they called it, when to my surprize, I found it to be nothing but a little straw matted together without sheets or anything else, but only one thread bear blanket with double its weight of vermin, such as Lice, Fleas, &c. I was glad to get up (as soon as ye Light was carried from us.) I put on my cloths & lay as my companions. Had we not been very tired, I am sure we would not have slep’d much that night. I made a Promise not to sleep so from that time forward, chusing rather to sleep in ye open air before a fire, as will appear hereafter.

“Wednesday 16th. We got out early & finish’d about one o’clock & then travelled up to Frederick Town, where our Baggage came to us. We cleaned ourselves (to get Rid of ye Game we had catched ye night before). I took a Review of ye Town & then returned to our Lodgings where we had a good Dinner prepared for us. Wine & Rum Punch in plenty, & a good Feather Bed with clean sheets, which was a very agreeable regale.”

One day’s journey from home, on his return, he did “this day see a Rattled snake, ye first we had seen in all our journey.” No doubt he was better acquainted with the black snakes and moccasins of Fairfax. On the 13th of April, he notes: “Mr. Fairfax got safe home and I Myself to my Brothers, which concludes my journal.”

One of two letters written on this trip shows his interest growing in another direction :

“DEAR FRIEND ROBIN,

“As it’s the greatest mark of friendship and esteem, absent friends can show each other, in writing and often communicating their thoughts, to his fellow com­panions, I make one endeavor to signalize myself in acquainting you, from time to time, and at all times, my situation and employments of life, and could wish you would take half the pains of contriving me a letter by any opportunity, as you may be well assured of its meeting with a very welcome reception. My place of residence is at present at his Lordship’s, where I might, was my heart disengaged, pass my time very pleasantly as there’s a very agreeable young lady lives in the same house, (Colonel George Fairfax’s wife’s sister.) But as that’s only adding fuel to fire, it makes me the more uneasy, for by often, and unavoidably, being in com­pany with her revives my former passion for your Lowland beauty; whereas, was I to live more retired from young women, I might in some measure eliviate my sorrows, by burying that chaste and troublesome passion in the grave of oblivion or etarnall forgetful­ness, for as I am very well assured, that’s the only antidote or remedy, that I shall ever be relieved by or only recess that can administer any cure or help to me, as I am well convinced, was I ever to attempt any thing, I should only get a denial which would be only adding grief to uneasiness.”

From which it seems George did not take seriously Lord Fairfax’s warnings about women, of whom, as has been seen, his lordship’s early experience had made him as suspicious and bitter as later on Tony Weller was of “vidders.”

At Mount Vernon these were quiet and uneventful years. In this the life on the estate only reflected the calm of the colony. There was no war on at the time with French or Indian, no trouble with colonial governor, and not yet any acute trouble with the mother coun­try. There was peace, plenty, and growth. Lawrence devoted himself to his estate and to his public offices as adjutant of the militia, member of the House of Burgesses, and president of the Ohio Company.

George, though still in his nonage, pursued his career as surveyor in earnest. It is said that he had an office in the small but important city of Alexandria, on the Potomac six miles above Mount Vernon, and that he rode back and forth over the rolling country on horseback. In the summer of 1749 he was appointed surveyor of the County of Culpepper, just west of Fredericksburg. His surveyor’s tripod may be seen in the library at Mount Vernon.

At this time every day’s absence must have been an anxiety, for his brother, who had been to him friend and father as well, began to develop the weakness of the lungs which was his eventual undoing. The win­ters of 1750 and 1751 were full of foreboding for those at Mount Vernon. In the spring Lawrence felt obliged to resign his commission as adjutant and succeeded in having George appointed in his stead.

So at nineteen and at Mount Vernon began his mili­tary career. “He now set about preparing himself, with his usual method and assiduity,” says Washington Irving, “for his new duties. Virginia had among its floating population some military relics of the late Spanish war. Among them was a certain Adjutant Muse, a Westmoreland volunteer, who had served with Lawrence Washington in the campaigns in the West Indies, and had been with him in the attack on Car­thagena. He now undertook to instruct George in the arts of war, lent him treatises on military tactics, put him through the manual exercises, and gave him some idea of evolutions in the field. Another of Lawrence’s campaigning comrades was Jacob Van Bramm, a Dutchman by birth, a soldier of fortune of the Delgatty order; who had been in the British army, but was now out of service, and, professing to be a complete master of fence, recruited his purse in this time of military excitement, by giving the Virginian youth lessons in the sword exercise. Under the instructions of these veterans, Mount Vernon, from being a quiet rural retreat, where Washington, three years previously, had indited love ditties to his ‘lowland beauty,’ was suddenly transformed into a school of arms, as he practised the manual exercise with Adjutant Muse, or took lessons on the broadsword with Van Bramm.”

Lawrence remained at home during the warm Vir­ginia summer, but, as the autumn approached, he was advised to seek a change. Barbadoes, the most easterly of all the West Indies, was selected as a healthy and agreeable resort, and thither he sailed the middle of September. His wife had a baby less than a year old in her arms, and in her stead George accompanied his brother on the stout sailing vessel which carried them the length of the Spanish Main, consuming, in. the leisurely fashion of wind-driven travel, over six weeks from the Potomac to Barbadoes.

This was not the first time a Washington set foot on this island. Another of this name, some say John, the Emigrant, great-grandfather of the two young travellers, stopped here on his way from England to Virginia, nearly a hundred years before, in 1658. This, however, was the only time that George Washington went outside the confines of his own country.

The two brothers were apparently much missed at Mount Vernon, and Lawrence felt keenly the separation from his wife. He decided to remove to Bermuda for the spring and dispatched George home to get Mrs. Washington and bring her to him there. George “embarked on the Industry, Captn Saunders,” for Virginia on December 12th, only a few days after his release from the quarantine imposed on him by an attack of smallpox. He reached home through pounding seas on the 1st of February.

For some reason Lawrence’s wife did not leave home. It was a trying springtime at Mount Vernon. George had not brought encouraging news from the invalid. Soon significant letters came from Bermuda, tempering the edge of their surprise when Lawrence hurried home “in time to die under his own roof, surrounded by his family and friends,” the 26th of July, 175 2.

This was the first poignant sorrow of George’s life. He had been really too young to realize his loss when his father died, and Lawrence meant more to his sum of happiness, experience, and advancement than any other member of the family. George looked up to him with affection and confidence. His brother’s death was, indeed, one of the crucial events of his life. It placed him in a position of independence and responsibility. Henceforward he walked alone. It marked his transition from boyhood to manhood.

They laid Lawrence by the side of his three infant children in. the family burying ground on the estate. He seems, however, to have felt the need of something more ambitious and permanent, for in his will he directed “that a proper vault, for interment, may be made on my home plantation, wherein my remains together with my three children may be decently placed; and to serve for my wife, and such other members of my family as may desire it.”

As executor of his brother’s will, George faithfully fulfilled this wish. He built the vault on the brow of the hill about two hundred yards south of the house and in plain view of the south windows. It was built of brick and sandstone and survives today, with its arched entrance over oak doors. It sinks into the green bank in such a way that it seems a part of the hillside. There Lawrence and his children were laid, and it received and held the remains of the family who died at Mount Vernon for nearly one hundred years.

The disposition of Mount Vernon was partially provided for in the will of Augustine, father of Lawrence and George, in this :

“Item Forasmuch as my several children in this my will . . . cannot inherit from one another in order to make a proper Provision agt their dying without Issue, It is my will and desire that in Case my son Lawrence should dye without heirs of his body Lawfully begotten that then the Land and the Mill given him by this my Will lying in the County of Prince William shall go & re-main to my son George and his heirs.”

Lawrence in his will expressed his “will and desire” that his wife should have the “benefits and profits” of Mount Vernon estate during her lifetime. To his daughter Sarah, who at the time of his death was less than a year old, he did “give and bequeath” all his real and personal estate in Virginia and Maryland “not otherwise disposed of,” which included Mount Vernon. But in case his daughter died without issue he gave “unto my loving brother George Washington” all his lands in Fairfax (formerly a part of Prince William) County.

Little Sarah died in September. Anne was welcome in the house which now virtually belonged to her brother-in-law, but it had been a home of disappointment, suffering, and grief, and she preferred to return to Belvoir. She seems to have enjoyed the “benefits and profits” of Mount Vernon, for, soon after this, having married George Lee, the uncle of Charles and Richard Lee, her husband joined her in a deed to George which indicates that her young brother-in-law bought her life interest:

“We the parties of the first part grant to the party of the second part the life interest of Ann Lee, widow of Lawrence Washington, in two parcels of land, one situated on Little Hunting Creek, the other on Dogue Creek in Fairfax, of which Lawrence Washington died seized, also one Water Grist Mill, also certain Slaves in consideration that Geo Washington during the natural life of Ann Lee, do each year pay to her husband, Geo Lee—on the 25th of December, the sum or quantity of fifteen thousand pounds of tobacco in fifteen hogsheads, to be delivered at one or some of the Warehouses in the Co of Fairfax, or as much current money of Virginia in lieu thereoff as will be equal thereto at twelve (12) shillings & six pence current money, for every hundred weight of tobacco.”

Thus George, heir to Mount Vernon and executor of his brother’s will, at twenty, wisely completed his title to his estate.