Mount Vernon – Planter Once More

WASHINGTON left the pageantry of public life outside the gates of Mount Vernon. As he turned in and they closed behind him, it was with a profound relief and a tranquil delight that he beheld, across the rolling green lands, centered through the opening in the wall of woods, his tabernacle of peace. Just one-half of all the years of his ownership of Mount Vernon were given to the public service.

He had come home to stay. He sensed it and, though a man’s sixty-fifth year would be late for him to resume the interests of youth, he began where he left off when his country called him thence, nearly a quarter of a century before, to lead her armies.

He acknowledged that he felt himself a permanent resident of Mount Vernon now for the first time in twenty-five years. During that period he had been the public’s servant, an exile from his much-desired retirement, save for his brief “furlough” between the end of his military service and his call to the Presidency, an interval crowded with the penalties of fame and the anxieties of the prophetic patriot who foresaw the necessity of a coherent union and worked unceasingly to effect it.

The house and the lands and “his people” retained a hold over him which he had never relinquished. In his letters he defers a little to the current literary fashion for sentimental melancholy—”To the wearied traveller, who sees a resting-place, and is bending his body to rest thereon, I now compare myself “—but for the most part they teem with his interest in the renewed activity.

“For myself,” he wrote Oliver Wolcott, “having turned aside from the broad walks of political, into the narrow paths of private life, I shall leave it with those, whose duty it is to consider subjects of this sort, and, (as every good citizen ought to do,) conform to whatever the ruling powers shall decide. To make and sell a little flour annually, to repair houses (going fast to ruin), to build one for the security of my papers of a public nature, and to amuse myself in agricultural and rural pursuits, will constitute employment for the few years I have to remain on this terrestrial globe. If, to these, I could now and then meet the friends I esteem, it would fill the measure and add zest to my enjoyments; but, if ever this happens, it must be under my own vine and fig-tree, as I do not think it probable that I shall go beyond twenty miles from them.”

“Rural employments. . . . will now take place of toil,— responsibility—and the solicitudes of attend­ing the walks of public life,” he wrote another, and Nellie Custis wrote Mrs. Wolcott of how much pleased her ” Grandpapa,” as she called him, was “with being once more Farmer Washington.”

Every aspect of the place now reminded him of his absence, for it had let down perceptibly at all points. He pushed repairs on his barns, overseers’ houses, slave quarters and fences. This was all done with such thoroughness that “the expense was almost as great and the employment of attending to the workmen almost as much” as if he had “commenced an entire new estab­lishment.”

In spite of all the outlying work, however, his first and most cherished interest was to put his house in order. “I find myself in the situation nearly of a young beginner,” he wrote McHenry, “for, although I have not houses to build (except one, which I must erect for the accomodation and security of my Military, Civil, and private Papers, which are voluminous and may be interesting), yet I have not one, or scarcely anything else about me that does not require considerable repairs. In a word, I am already surrounded by Joiners, Masons, Painters, &c., &c.; and such is my anxiety to get out of their hands, that I have scarcely a room to put a friend into, or to sit in myself, without the music of hammers, or the odoriferous smell of paint.”

The exact nature of the work on the mansion he re­vealed in a letter to his faithful and much-appreciated Lear, who remained behind in Philadelphia to close the house the President had occupied, pack and ship such furnishings as were wanted at Mount Vernon, and sell the balance:

“The work immediately foreseen and which must be done without delay, is to refix the marble Chimney piece in the parlour, which is almost falling out, to fix the new one (expected from Philadelphia) in the small dining Room; to remove the one now there, into what is called the School room,—to fix the grate which is coming round in the large dining room;—and to give some repairs to the steps; which (like most things else I have looked into since l have been home) are sadly out of repair.”

That twelve busy months were exacted for this work is learned from a letter written a year later to his old neighbor, Sarah Fairfax, the widow of Colonel George William Fairfax, a letter which confirms again the time when he made the last former repairs to the mansion:

“Before the war, and even while it existed, although I was eight years from home at one stretch, (except the en passant visits made to it on my marches to and from the seige of Yorktown,) I made considerable additions to my dwelling-houses, and alterations in my offices and gardens; but the delapidation occasioned by time, and those neglects, which are coextensive with the absence of proprieters, have occupied as much of my time within the last twelve months in repairing them, as at any former period in the same space; and it is matter of sore regret, when I cast my eyes towards Belvoir, which I often do, to reflect, the former inhabitants of it, with whom we lived in such harmony and friendship, no longer reside there, and that the ruins can only be viewed as the memento of former pleasures.”

The interior of the mansion took on a more elaborate effect at this time by reason of the addition of much of the fine furniture, silver, china, glass, and other furnishings which the General and his wife had accumu­lated at the Presidential Mansion in Philadelphia, and of numerous curious and elegant presents admirers had sent Washington. Among them were the harpsi­chord which he imported from London for Nellie Custis, and over which she spent so many many hours of practice under the disciplinary eye of her grand-mother; the small (twenty by thirty inches) Trumbull portrait of the General standing by the side of his horse; the shaving stand which was presented to him by the first French Minister to this country; and the oak box made from the tree which sheltered the great Sir William Wallace after the battle of Falkirk, and sent to Washington by the Earl of Buchan.

As the General had ridden home amid the applause of the crowds which saluted him on every hand, his thoughts seem to have been well fastened on the re-furnishing of his house, for directions for the choice and packing of what he desired filled letters which he posted to Lear at each principal stop after they left Philadelphia. The large looking glasses, “the grate (from Mr. Morris’s),” the “bedstead which Nellie Custis slept on,” and “the trundle under it” were all to be packed carefully against tossing in the vessel’s hold. He desires “new Carpeting as will cover the floor of my blue Parlour,” Wilton if it is “not much dearer than Scotch Carpeting.” . . “a suitable border if to be had, should accompany the Carpeting” “all the Carpeting belonging to me I would have sent;—and Mrs. Washington requests that you would add the Bellows and the Vessels (Iron & Tin) in which the ashes are carried out.”

“Desire Peter Porcupine’s Gazette to be sent to me (as a subscriber).” . . . “Pray get me of those Thermometers that tell the state of the Mercury within the 24 hours—Doctor Priestly or Mr. Madison can tell where it is to be had.”

“Let me request the favour of you to purchase for me half a dozen pair of the best kind of White Silk stockings (not those with gores but) to be large, and with small clocks (I think they are called) I want the same number of raw silk, for boot stockings; large and strong.”

In connection with these attentions to refurnishing, there are traditions that he kept certain curtain cor­nices and the painting of Vernon’s fleet riding before Carthagena, both of which were in the house when he first came there to live, and have been there ever since, accredited veterans of the chattels of the mansion.

Life appeared very full and very sweet, in spite of minor occasional complaints. As Christmas approached the General made a draft of a letter to Mrs. Powell for Martha, who seems not to have been willing to compose her own letters in later life, and it reflected their gay mood:

“I am now, by desire of the General to add a few words on his behalf; which he desires may be expressed in the terms following, that is to say,—that despairing of hearing what may be said of him, if he should really go off in an apoplectic, or any other fit (for he thinks that all fits that issue in death are worse than a love fit, a fit of laughter, and many other kinds that he could name)—he is glad to hear beforehand what will be said of him on that occasion;—conceiving that nothing extra : will happen between this and then to make a change in his character for better, or for worse.—And besides, as he has entered into an engagement with W. Morris, and several other Gentlemen, not to quit the theatre of this world before the year 1800, it may be relied upon that no breach of contract shall be laid to him on that account, unless dire necessity should bring it about, maugre all his exertions to the contrary.—In that case, he shall hope they would do by him as he would do by them—excuse it. At present there seems no danger of his giving them the slip, as neither his health nor spirits, were ever in greater flow, notwithstanding, he adds, he is descending, and has almost reached, the bottom of the hill;—or in other words, the shades below.”

Life in the mansion was never gayer than now. Young Custis was away part of the time, to be sure, pursuing his studies at college, but his sister Nellie was now a beautiful young woman of nearly twenty and enlivened the house with her girlish spirit,. her troops of friends, and not least with the piquancy of an inevitable romance. Her elder sisters, Mrs. Law and Mrs. Peter, with their husbands and children drove down frequently from their homes in George-town and Washington; so did their mother, now Mrs. Doctor Stuart, from her new home, Hope Park, west-ward, near Ravensworth. The Lewis boys, sons of Betty Washington Lewis, were frequent visitors; as were other nephews and nieces of both the General and Mrs. Washington.

Mount Vernon was the rallying point as formerly for the extended neighborhood, though there were changes enough since the days of hunts and dinners and dances at Belvoir and Gunston Hall, the sprightly racing sea-sons at Annapolis, and the frequent balls at Alexandria. In another letter which the General wrote for his wife to copy and send to their friend Mrs. Fairfax in England, he reviews the neighborhood changes:

“It is among my greatest regrets, now I am again fixed (I hope for life) at this place, at not having you as a neighbor and companion. This loss was not sensibly felt by me while I was a kind of perambulator, during eight or nine years of the war, and during other eight years which I resided at the seat of the general government, occupied in scenes more busy, tho’ not more happy, than in the tranquil employment of rural life with which my days will close.

“The changes which have taken place in this country, since you left it (and it is pretty much the same in all other parts of this State) are, in one word, total. In Alexandria, I do not believe there lives at this day a single family with which you had the smallest ac­quaintance. In our neighborhood Colo. Mason, Colo. McCarty and wife, Mr. Chichester, Mr. Lund Wash­ington and all the Wageners, have left the stage of human life; and our visitors on the Maryland side are gone and going likewise. . . With respect to my own family, it will not I presume, be new to you to hear that my son died in the fall of 1781. He left four fine children, three daughters and a son; the two eldest of the former are married, and have three children between them, all girls. Both live in the federal city. The youngest daughter, Eleanor, is yet single, and lives with me, having done so from an infant; as has my grandson George Washington, now turned seventeen, except when at college; to three of which he has been—viz—Philadelphia, New Jersey and Annapolis, at the last of which he now is.”

To Mrs. Knox she wrote:

“The General and I feel like children just released from school or from a hard taskmaster, and we believe that nothing can tempt us to leave the sacred roof tree again, except on private business or pleasure. We are so penurious with our enjoyment that we are loth to share it with any one but dear friends, yet almost every day some stranger claims a portion of it, and we cannot refuse. . Our furniture and other things sent us from Philadelphia arrived safely, our plate we brought with us in the carriage. . . . I am again fairly settled down to the pleasant duties of an old-fashioned Virginia housekeeper, steady as a clock, busy as a bee, and cheerful as a cricket.”

When returning from Philadelphia the General brought home with him George Washington LaFayette, son of his dear Marquis, who was accompanied by his tutor, M. Frestel. The young man had been in Amer­ica nearly two years, but so long as Washington held an official position reasons of state made it inexpedient to invite him into his own family, but when he was again a private citizen he at once welcomed the young man to his home with the tenderness of a father. A report of LaFayette’s release from prison reached America in the autumn and his son sailed for France October 26th. It was not his last visit to American or to Mount Vernon.

Other distinguished emigrés who had not been received by the President in Philadelphia, but were later welcomed at his home on the Potomac, included the Duc d’Orleans, afterward Louis Philippe, and his brothers, Montpensier and Beaujolais.

During ’97 and ’98 came Volney, the freethinker, for a recommendation, and received the equivocal “C. Volney needs no recommendation from Geo. Wash­ington”; Benjamin H. Latrobe, Amariah Frost, and Mr. Niemcewitz, “the companion of General Kosci­aski,” all of whom wrote valued descriptions of Mount Vernon and of Washington; young Charles Carroll of Carrollton, suspected of sentimental intentions in regard to Nellie Custis; and once, on the same day, “Mr Lawe Washington of Chotanck & Mr Lawe Wash­ington of Belmont came to dinner.”

The arrival ‘one autumn day of Bushrod Washington and his friend John Marshall, later Chief Justice of the United States, afforded one of the most amusing traditions of the place. They came, as the story runs, on horseback, “attended by a black servant, who had charge of a large black portmanteau containing their clothes. As they passed through a wood on the skirts of the Mount Vernon grounds they were tempted to make a hasty toilet beneath its shade; being covered with dust from the state of the roads. Dismounting, they threw off their dusty garments, while the servant took down the portmanteau. As he opened it, out flew cakes of windsor soap and fancy articles of all kinds. The man by mistake had changed their portmanteau at the last stopping place for one which resembled it, belonging to a Scotch pedlar. The consternation of the negro, and their own dismantled state, struck them so ludicrously as to produce loud and repeated bursts of laughter. Washington, who happened to be out upon his grounds, was attracted by the noise, and was so overcome by the strange plight of his friends, and the whimsicality of the whole scene, that he is said to have actually rolled on the grass with laughter.”

More frequently than many others came General Henry Lee who, of all of them, stood least in awe of the majestic Washington. Tradition has floated down numerous anecdotes of his table talk at Mount Vernon.

On one occasion Lee quoted Gilbert Stuart, the portrait painter, as having said that the General had a tremendous temper. Mrs. Washington colored and said that “Mr. Stuart took a great deal on himself.” Lee then said that Stuart had added that the General had his temper under wonderful control. After a thoughtful pause the General himself smiled and re-marked, “Mr. Stuart is right.”

On another occasion General Lee expressed the widespread amazement at the vast amount of work Wash­ington did. “Sir,” he replied, “I rise at four o’clock and a great deal of my work is done while others sleep.”

Lee’s great impertinence was committed at table one day when Washington remarked that he wanted new carriage horses and asked Lee if he could get him a pair. “I have a fine pair, General,” answered Lee, “but you cannot get them.” ” Why not? ” asked his host. Because,” Lee replied, “you will never pay more than half price for anything; and I must have full price for my horses.” At this Mrs. Washington laughed and was joined by her parrot, perched near her, doubtless the same one the General had the care of on his way home. Washington yielded to the situation and said with good humor: “Ah, Lee, you are a funny fellow, see that bird is laughing at you.”

The General and Mrs. Washington defended themselves from the overrunning visitors, who would have left them no life of their own, by a well-understood formality which restricted certain time for their own. It was at the dinner hour after his ride over the farms that Washington’s visitors saw him first. After dinner he spent an interval talking with them, “with a glass of Madeira by his side,” and then withdrew to his library again where he made a hasty survey of the newspapers, of which he received a great many, and retired for the night at nine o’clock, if possible without appearing at supper.

Mrs. Washington’s first appearance in the morning seems to have been “precisely at eleven,” when she spent an hour with her guests, who were expected to be waiting her at that time. When the clock struck twelve she would bid them good-morning and ascend to her chamber, to reappear punctually on the stroke of one. At this time she was followed by a servant with a bowl of punch which was served, She presided at the supper table and spent the evening with her guests.

It was Kosciuszko’s friend who left one of the most graphic sketches of life and conditions at Mount Vernon at this time which survives. He journeyed thither with Mr. Law. ‘When they arrived the General was absent on his morning tour of his estate, but “his lady ap­peared in a few minutes, welcomed us most agreeably, and hastened to serve punch. At two o’clock the Gen­eral arrived on the back of a grey horse. He descended, shook hands, and gave a lash to his horse, which went alone to the stable. After a short conversation he re-tired in order to change his dress.”

The visitor then inspected the house. In the hall he found “a kind of crystal lantern contains the true key of the Bastille” and underneath it hung ” a picture represent­ing the destruction of that formidable castle.” The model of the Bastille carved from one of its stones stood on the piazza, “it is a pity that children have spoiled it a little.” At this time, from the Polish gentleman’s account, Washington’s bedroom seems to have been on the ground floor; probably a temporary arrangement. The views from the portico excited his liveliest enthu­siasm. “This gallery is the place where the General and his family spend their afternoons with their guests, en­joying fresh air and the beautiful scenery.”

He gives this glimpse of the spirit of youth which Nellie Custis brought into the picture : “About three o’clock a carriage drawn by two horses, accompanied by a young man on horseback, stopped before the door. A young lady of the most wonderful beauty, closely followed by an elderly attendant, descended. She was one of those celestial beings so rarely produced by nature, sometimes dreamt of by poets and painters, which one cannot see without a feeling of ecstacy. Her sweetness equals her beauty, and that is perfect. She has many accomplishments. She plays on the piano, she sings and designs better than the usual woman of America or even of Europe.”

The deer-park palings had now rotted and the deer were scattered. But when a group of bucks came browsing in sight of the mansion, “the General proposed to me to go to see them nearer. We went. He walks very quickly. I could scarcely follow him.” But the bucks observed their approach and disappeared in the woods.

How the time passed with Washington himself, he told, when he became the historian of one of his days, “which will serve for a year,” in a letter to his friend James McHenry :

“You are at the source of information, and can find many things to relate; while I have nothing to say, that could either inform or amuse a Secretary at War in Philadelphia. I might tell him, that I begin my diurnal course with the sun; that, if my hirelings are not in their places at that time I send them messages ex­pressive of my sorrow at their indisposition; that, having put these wheels in motion, I examine the state of things further; and the more they are probed, the deeper I find the wounds are which my buildings have sustained by an absence and neglect of eight years; by the time I have accomplished these matters, breakfast (a little after seven o’clock, about the time I presume you are taking leave of Mrs. McHenry), is ready; that, this being over, I mount my horse and ride round my farms, which employs me until it is time to dress for dinner, at which I rarely miss seeing strange faces, come as they say out of respect for me. Pray, would not the word curiosity answer as well? And how different this from having a few social friends at a cheerful board! The usual time of sitting at table, a walk, and tea, brings me within the dawn of candlelight; previous to which, if not prevented by company, I resolve, that, as soon as the glimmering taper supplies the place of the great luminary, I will retire to my writing-table and acknowledge the letters I have received; but when the lights are brought, I feel tired and disinclined to engage in this work, conceiving that the next night will do as well. The next comes, and with it the same causes for postponement, and effect, and so on.

“This will account for your letter remaining so long unacknowledged; and, having given you the history of a day, it will serve for a year, and I am persuaded you will not require a second edition of it. But it may strike you, that in this detail no mention is made of any portion of time allotted for reading. The remark would be just, for I have not looked into a book since I came home nor shall I be able to do it until I have discharged my workmen, probably not before the nights grow longer, when possibly I may be looking in Doomsday-Book.