Mount Vernon – Social Life

Before the Revolution Mount Vernon bore its share of the open-handed hospitality which distinguished Virginia colonial life. The brief call of visitors whose home base is near by was practi­cally unknown. Distances were great, travelers came with their own coach and horses and servants, and an arrival meant additional places at the master’s table and in the servants’ hall, additional beds, and stabling and feed for from six to twelve horses. It was part of the flexible, cordial social system, and the hospitality and provision was on a large scale. Every one was welcome: brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, and cousins to remote degrees; friends passing north and south, crossing from Maryland to lower Virginia, or only on their way to the plantation next beyond. Not least welcome were strangers, with and often without letters. Washington is several times at a loss, in his diary, to recall the names of visitors in his house. But without distinction the horses were sent to the stables, the servants to quarters, and the visitors were welcomed to all the big house afforded.

Not less true of this period than a little later was De Chastellux’s description of the guests’ reception at Mount Vernon: “Your apartments were your house; the servants of the house were yours; and, while every inducement was held out to bring you into the general society of the drawing-room, or at the table, it rested with yourself to be served or not with everything in your own chamber.”

The family were so rarely alone that when they were it was a matter of surprised comment and record. Day after day, year after year, the diary details the seemingly never-ending procession of guests. Here is a week in August, 1769, which is not unlike other weeks in other years:

10 Mr. Barclay dined with us again as did Mr. Power, and Mr. Geo. Thornton

11 Lord Fairfax & Colo. Geo. Fairfax dined with us–

12 Mr. Barclay dined with us this day also

13 We dined with Lord Fairfax–

14 Colo. Loyd, Mr. Cadwallader & Lady, Mrs. Dalton & Daughter & Miss Terrett dind with us

15 Had my horses brought in to carry Colo. Loyd as far as Hedges on his return home & rid with him as far as Sleepy Creek—returned to Dinner & had Mr. Barclay & a Mr. Brown to dine with me–

16 Horses returnd from carrying Colo. Loyd— Mr. Barclay, Mr. Goldsbury, Mr. Hardwick, Mr. Jno. Lewis & Mr. Wr. Washington Junr. dined here–

17 Mr. Jno. Lewis, & Mr. W. Washington Junr. dined here—We drank Tea with My Lord–

18 Mr. Barclay, Mr. Woodrow & Mr. Wood dined here—My Lord ye two Colo. Fx’s & others drank Tea here–

The dining-room was not large and one wonders how it held them all, for in addition to those enumerated

there were Colonel and Mrs. Washington, Jack and Patty Custis, and relatives and house guests. The week quoted above shows only continual entertainment. The numbers there given were indeed comparatively small. On one occasion Washington reached home from Williams-burg and found Mrs. Bushrod, Mrs. W. Washington and their families here—also Mr. Boucher Mr. Addison Mr. Magowan & Doctr Rumney.” At another time he enters: “The 4 Mr. Digges came to dinner also Colo. Fairfax, Colo. Burwell. Messrs. Tilghman, Brown, Piper, Adam, Muir, Herbert, Peake, and Dr. Rumney all of whom stayd all night except Mr. Peake.”

When British ships of war appeared in the Potomac and ascended to Mount Vernon there was a general exchange of courtesy between house and ship. A characteristic entry in the diary is that in July, 1770, when an English frigate anchored in the stream: “Sir Thomas Adams and Mr. Glassford his first Lieutt Breakfasted here— Sir Thos returnd after it; but Mr. Glassford dined here as did the 2d Lieutt. Mr. Sartell Mr. Johnston of Marines Mr. Norris & Mr. Richmore—two Midshipmen.”

Mount Vernon was the centre of a neighborhood life of much activity. “Neighborhood” is a relative term. Virginia country gentlemen of colonial days called any man their neighbor who lived within a day’s ride. Separated from Washington’s home only by Dogue’s Creek was Belvoir, the seat of his lifelong friends the Fairfaxes. They were his nearest neigh­bors, but by water Belvoir was a barge ride of two miles and on land it was a ride of about eight miles around the head of the creek. Next beyond Belvoir, and separated from it only by Gunston Cove, was Gunston Hall, home of George Mason, an active planter on a large scale and a philosophic statesman of the first order. His son Thomson Mason’s house, Hollin Hall, was a few miles to the north of Mount Vernon, beyond the River Farm and on the well-travelled road to Alexandria. At a somewhat greater distance, but still in the wide colonial latitude of neighborhood, was Belle Aire, of which Gunston Hall was in many feat­ures a replica, high on the hills of Neabsco, the home of the Ewells, cousins of the Washingtons, and a family connected by marriage with William Grayson, Virginia’s first Senator; Parson Weems, one of Washington’s early if not most reliable biographers, and Doctor James Craik, Mount Vernon family surgeon and later Surgeon General of the Revolutionary Army.

Like many other colonial country houses Mount Vernon, Gunston Hall, and Belle Aire are all set identically the same in relation to the compass, with each corner pointing to one of the cardinal points. In this way each side of the house admits the sunlight at some time during the day.

Across the Potomac to the eastward, where now rises Fort Washington, was the estate of the Digges family and their seat Warburton Manor. Washington and Digges had a code of signals between Mount Vernon and Warburton, and when the signal went up that there were guests on the way the handsome barges which each house maintained shot out from the shores, driven by the oars of gayly liveried black men, and met in midstream to transfer the visitors.

At Warburton the Washingtons met not only the extensive connection of the Digges family but Governor Eden, Major Fleming, Mr. Boucher, who tutored John Parke Custis, the Calverts, Daniel of Saint Thomas Jenifer, and other Maryland notables. At times the whole party would cross the river for a hunt and dinner at Mount Vernon, spend the night there, and next day press on in a body to Belvoir for further entertainment, and even on to Gunston Hall and Belle Aire, picking up recruits to the merry party enroute, and on their leisurely return dropping them at their homes after partaking of renewed hospitality.

The races at Annapolis always drew the family from Mount Vernon. The visit to the Maryland Capital gave country life a touch of urbanity. On these occasions the great coach, the horses, the coachman, footmen, and postilions were sent across the river the day before, to be in readiness without delay, for the arrival of the master and mistress next morning for an early start. The trip was broken by stops in Marlboro and at Mount Airy, home of the Calverts, who were later to be connected with the family at Mount Vernon by the marriage of Miss Eleanor Calvert and John Parke Custis.

Washington’s pastors and friends at Pohick Church were frequent and welcome visitors at his home, among them Dr. Green, the Rev. Lee Massey, Captain Daniel McCarty of Cedar Grove on Accotink Creek, Col. Alexander Henderson, Dr. Peter Wagener, Col. William Grayson, Mr. George Johnston, and Mr. Martin Cockburn of Springfield, near Gunston Hall.

Two other neighbors within sight of the villa were Thomas Hanson Marshall of Marshall Hall on the Maryland shore about two miles to the south, and John Posey of Rover’s Delight, the sentimental name he gave his house on the Dogue Creek tract later added to Mount Vernon. As revealed in their letters to Washington they were as definitely opposite types as could well be imagined. Marshall was precise, unyielding, self-sufficient, and admirable. Dear old Posey was easy-going, dependent, timid, irresolute, and delightful. Indeed a single passage from one of Posey’s letters sent up to his friend Colonel Washington gives his character in a paragraph :

“I could [have] been able to [have] Satisfied all my old Arrears, Some months ago, by marrying [an] old widow woman in this County, She has Large soms [of] cash by her, and Prittey good Est — She is as thick, as she is high—And gits drunk at Least three or foure [times] a weak—which is Disgreable to me-has Viliant Sperrit when Drunk—its been [a] Great Dispute in my mind what to Doe,—I believe I shu’d Run all Resk’s—if my Last wife, had been [an] Even tern­per’d woman, but her Sperrit, has Given me such [a] Shock—that I am afraid to Run the Resk Again, when I see the object before my Ey[e]s [it] is Disagreable.”

The Mount Vernon coach and horses were nowhere more familiar than on the road to Alexandria. The little city eight miles up river was the background of a large part of Washington’s life and of some of the most important events of his career. Here at one time he is said to have had his office as surveyor; it was the base of his departure on his trips westward on surveying bound and later to fight in the wars with the French, he represented it in the House of Burgesses, he surveyed its streets, he was a member of the town council, here he cast his votes, here later in life he worshipped at Christ Church, and here he held his last review. Alexandria was warehouse and market town for the products of Mount Vernon farms, its physicians attended the family in illness, and not only did the Washingtons enter fully into the social life of the little city, but their friends there were in an intimate sense their neighbors, and stood out conspicuously in the picture of social life at Mount Vernon.

The assemblies at Alexandria were a never-failing lure to Washington. One of the first to which he took Mrs. Washington after their marriage was thus recorded in the diary:

“Went to a ball at Alexandria, where Musick and dancing was the chief Entertainment however in a convenient room detached for the purpose abounded great plenty of bread and butter, some biscuits, with tea and coffee, which the drinkers of could not distin­guish from hot water sweet’ned

“Be it remembered that pocket handkerchiefs servd the purposes of Table cloths & Napkins and that no apologies were made for either. I shall therefore distinguish this ball by the stile and title of the Bread & Butter Ball.”

Repeated like the responses in a litany are these entries of Herberts, Alexanders, Carlyles, Ramsays, Rumney, Laurie, and other Alexandrians at Mount Vernon, gathered at random from a few months of the diary in 1760 and 1768:

“Just as we were going to Dinnr. Capt. Walter Stuart appeared with Doctr. Laurie,” who attended all Washington’s people by contract for £15 a year; “Doctr. Craik left this for Alexandria”; “Doctr Laurie dined here” ; “Returned home receiving an invitation to Mrs. Chew’s Ball on Monday night next-first”; “Colo. Carlyle dind here”; “Return’d home, Mrs. Carlyle accompanying us, the day being exceeding fine”; “Mr. Carlyle (who came here from Port Tobo. Court last night) and Mrs. Carlyle were confin’d here all day”; “Mr. Carlyle and his wife returnd home”; “Doctr Laurie came here, I may say drunk”; “Mrs. Washington was blooded by Doctr Laurie”; “Sent Tom and Mike to Alexandria in my boat for 20 or 25 bushels of oats. Went up myself there to Court”; “At home with Doctr. Rumney”; “Confined by rain with Mr. Fairfax and Mr. Alexander”—the city was named after the Alexanders who were great landholders on its site and in its vicinity; “In the afternoon went up to Mr. Robt. Alexander’s in order to meet Mr. B. Fairfax & others a fox Huntg”; “Returnd home, much disordered by a Lax, Griping & violent straining”; “Sent for Doctr. Rumney, who came in ye afternoon”; “Doctr still here—& Mr. Ramsay came down to see me”; “Went with Colo. Carlyle and our Families to Belvoir”; “Went to Court,” at Alexandria; “Colo. Carlyle & Family also went up. Mr. Stedlar stay’d & Sally Carlyle”; “We (together wt. Miss Betey Ram-say) went to Alexa. to a Ball”; “Went to church at Alexandria and Dined at Colo Carlyle’s”; “Went up to Alexandria to meet the Attorney-General & returned with him, his Lady and Daughter, Miss Corbin & Majr. Jenifer”; “At home with the above Company. Colo. Fairfax, his Lady & Miss Nicholas, Colo. West & his wife, & Colo. Carlyle, Captn. Dalton & Mr. Piper—the three last of whom stayd at night”; ” Went to Alex­andria & bought a Brick layer from Mr. Piper & re­turnd to Dinner. In the afternoon Mr. R. Alexander come”; “Miss Manly dind here, and Mr. Alexander came in the evening”; “Mr. Alexander & .Miss Manly went away”; “Went to a Ball in Alexandria”; “Went to a Purse Race at Accotinck & returnd with Messrs. Robt. and George Alexander”; “Miss Sally Carlyle came here” ; ” Went to Alexandria to see a ship launched, but was dissapointed and came home”; “Went up again, saw the ship Launched, stayd all night to a Ball”; and so on.

One of the great attractions at Mount Vernon for Washington’s friends was the hunting. Though the Potomac has always been famous for duck and fish, Washington only occasionally went gunning, and less often did he try his skill with hook and line. The latter sport was little in evidence on this river where fishing has always been done on a wholesale scale by seines and nets and traps.

His prime outdoor diversion was fox hunting. The pursuit of Brer Fox seems sometimes to have been less an object in itself than an excuse to be in the saddle and to ride afield, for he loved to feel a horse under him, and he rode with famous skill. He loved the yelp of the pack and the excitement of a galloping group of horsemen, and the hard ride for hours at a time “across a country that was only for those who dared.” They justified the day whatever its end. It is inevitable that he was “fashionably” dressed for the hunt. His stepson says he “was always superbly mounted, in true sporting costume, of blue coat, scarlet waistcoat, buckskin breeches, top boots, velvet cap, and whip with long thong.”

Some notion of the out-of-door life at Mount Vernon, as well as the relative number of days devoted to duck­ing and fox hunting may be gathered from these quo­tations from the diary for the months of January and February, 1769:

“Jan. 4, Fox hunting; 10, Fox hunting; 11, Fox hunting; 12, Fox hunting; 16, Went a ducking; 17, Fox hunt­ing; 18, Fox hunting; 19, Fox hunting; 20, Fox hunting; 21, Fox hunting; 25, Hunting below Accotinck; 28, Fox hunting; Feb. 3, Went a Gunning up the Creek; 9, Went a Ducking; 10, Went a shooting again; 11, Ducking till Dinner; 14, Fox hunting; 17, Rid out with my hounds; 18, Went a hunting with Doctr. Rumney Started a fox or rather 2 or 3 & catched none—Dogs mostly got after deer & never joind; 27, Fox hunting.”

When in pursuit of the fox they not infrequently started deer or bear.

These parties seem generally to have drawn from these friends and relatives: the Fairfaxes, Colonel Bassett, Jack Custis, T. and Wm. Triplet, H. Manley, Philip and Robert Alexander, William Ramsay, Colonel Fielding Lewis, Dr. Rumney, Captain McCarty, Lloyd Dulaney and his brother, and Messrs. Chichester, Wagener, Tilghman, Posey, Peake, and others.

There was a famous pack of hounds at Mount Vernon, in the kennels down on the western slope leading to the wharf. Their names ring across the years fresh and inspiring: Pilot, Musick, Countess, Truelove, Lawlor, Forrister, Singer, Ringwood, Mopsey, Cloe, Dutchess, Chaunter, Drunkard and, doubtless his son, Tipsy. From a stable full of thoroughbred mounts the names of Blueskin, Valiant, Ajax, and Chinkling are preserved.

The races in Fairfax or neighboring counties in Virginia and Maryland were potent in drawing forth the squire of Mount Vernon. He contributed liberally, entered horses from his stables, and occasionally laid a wager on the result. Washington was a steward of the Alexandria Jockey Club. Nearer Mount Vernon was Bogg’s Race Track in the meadow below and to the west of Pohick Church, but the reader is left to wonder where might have been the track referred to in the brief entry : “Went up to a Race by Mr. Beckwith’s & lodgd at Mr. Edwd. Paynes.”

Rainy days or the early winter evenings were devoted to cards. Washington’s account books indicate that playing cards were quickly used up. The profit and loss columns record his winnings and losses, which at times mounted to nine pounds at a sitting. It was a liberal age. Not only was gambling on a moderate scale considered a fashionable diversion, but the family at Mount Vernon patronized the lotteries on various occasions. These institutions were under distinguished social and even, in one instance, ecclesiastical patronage. Among the many lotteries in which Washington bought tickets were the Alexandria Street Lottery, “Colo. Byrds Lottery,” Peregrine and Fitzhugh’s Lottery, the Mountain Road Lottery, and Earl Sterling’s Land and Cash Lottery. From letters and accounts it would seem that the last was much trafficked in. One item is for “£83 . . . 6″ for twelve tickets. Washington took quantities of Lord Sterling’s Delaware lottery tickets and then resold them. His agent in this trans-action was the Reverend Walter Magowan, of Saint James Parish, Anne Arundel County, Maryland, who was a frequent visitor at Mount Vernon and was one of John Parke Custis’ tutors.

One of the fashionable customs which was not tolerated at Mount Vernon, however, was duelling. Thack­eray was under another impression, for he hinged the plot of “The Virginians” on the challenge sent to Wash­ington by young Warrington, and it is implied that Washington will fight. Thackeray had evidently not read this letter of George Mason’s: “You express a fear that General Lee will challenge our friend. Indulge in no such apprehensions, for he too well knows the sentiments of General Washington on the subject of duelling. From his earliest manhood I have heard him express his contempt of the man who sends and the man who ac­cepts a challenge, for he regards such acts as no proof of moral courage; and the practice he abhors as a relic of old barbarisms, repugnant alike to sound morality and christian enlightenment.”

Such are some of the aspects of life at Mount Vernon and of the character of its occupant before the Revolu­tion. But such a survey would be incomplete if it carried the impression that so much social activity diminished interest in the family spirit, which in this in-stance rose out of the presence of Mrs. Washington’s two children, Martha Custis and her brother, John Parke Custis.

Washington met the demands of his wife’s children with the same tenderness and generosity as if he had been their own father. Martha, or Patty as she was more often called, was an invalid all her short life. It was in large part for her that Dr. Green and Dr. Laurie and Dr. Rumney made their repeated visits to Mount Vernon. Once, in their hope to relieve the child, “Joshua Evans, who came here last night, put an Iron ring upon Patey (for fits).”

Mrs. Washington took her children on the trips away from Mount Vernon, though once she made the experi­ment of leaving Jacky at home, as she wrote her sister, Mrs. Bassett, and with such anxiety to herself that the boy probably accompanied his mother on future trips: “I carried my little patt with me and left Jacky at home for a trial to see how well I could stay without him though we ware gon but wone fortnight I was quite impatient to get home. If I at aney time heard the doggs barke or a noise out, I thought thair was a person sent for me.”

There was a tutor at Mount Vernon to instruct Patty and Jack in their letters and figures, but the popular occasions of instructions were the days when Mr. Chris­tian, the dancing master, arrived on his way over his itinerary, which extended the length of the Potomac’s tidewater valley. The classes were held at Mount Vernon and Gunston Hall in turn, when all the children of the neighborhood assembled to be taught the rollicking country dances or the formal minuet. When the afternoon had been danced away and candles were brought, Mr. Christian retired, and the young people romped at “Button to get Pauns for Redemption” or “Break the Pope’s Neck.” The fun was carried on with “sprightliness and Decency,” but the “Pauns” were potent to wring “kisses from the Ladies.”

Washington was fond of dancing and he took an interest in the dancing classes and the after sport of the children. Though his manner was gentle and kindly, his presence was so imposing that young people as well as their elders were inclined to become reserved when with him. The reminiscence of an old Virginia lady of ninety-one, who in her twelfth year romped under the eyes of Colonel and Mrs. Washington, is a likely one: “Often, when at their games in the drawing-room at night—perhaps romping, dancing and noisey—they [the children] would see the General watching their move­ments at some side door, enjoying their sport, and if at any time his presence seemed to check them, he would beg them not to mind him, but go on just as before, en­couraging them in every possible way to continue their amusement to their hearts’ content.”

The little family kept together until 1768, when the Reverend Walter Magowan, of lottery fame, who had been tutoring the Custis children, left for England. The education of girls was not a serious matter in those days, and Miss Patty was considered sufficiently accomplished in Mr. Magowan’s rudiments and the graces Mr. Christian had given her. With a man it was different. He had to be educated. So in the same year Jack went over to Annapolis under the care of Reverend Jonathan Boucher, who had several other young gentlemen under his charge. During the next five years Jack was away from home much of the time, either at Annapolis or at King’s College in New York.

Running parallel with Washington’s private life at Mount Vernon, throughout the pre-Revolutionary period, was an active public life, for he met and recognized the responsibilities of citizenship always in full. The period of this public service was so much over-shadowed by his earlier and later military career and by his supreme service under the new Republic, that it is easy to think of Mount Vernon at this time merely as a home of an industrious, pleasure-loving planter. Bound up in his home though he was, there emanated from Mount Vernon wider and more unselfish interests than those which were merely social and domestic.