SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF GEORGE WASHINGTON
George Washington was twenty years old when he became the owner of the Mount Vernon estate on the Potomac, in accordance with the provisions of the will of Laurence Washington, his half-brother. At that time the house contained but eight rooms and an attic, four rooms on each floor. There were twenty-five hundred acres in the farm.
As a boy Washington had tramped over every acre of the estate. When he was sixteen he made a plot of the region around Mt. Vernon. The original of the survey made at that time may be seen in the Library of Congress at Washington.
The young owner looked forward to years of quiet on his estate, but he was frequently called away from home for service in the militia of Virginia. In spite of these absences, however, he managed to make the acres surrounding the mansion give a good account of themselves.
When he responded to the call of the Colonies and became Commander-in-Chief of the army, he turned his back on Mt. Vernon with great reluctance, and for six years hardly saw the place he loved. But when the independence of the Colonies had been won he returned home, in the hope that he might be permitted to remain there in obscurity, farming his land and entertaining his friends in the house on the Potomac.
That he might have more room for his friends, he enlarged the house. On July 5, 1784, he wrote to his friend, William Rumney of Alexandria, asking him to inquire into the terms on which ” a House Joiner and Bricklayer ” might be engaged for two or three years. To the house, which dated from 1744, he made additions until it was three times as large as when he inherited the property. The alterations were completed in 1785. The completed house was ninety-six feet long, and thirty feet deep, with a piazza fifteen feet wide. The building material was wood, cut in imitation of stone.
While these alterations were in progress a visitor to Mt. Vernon was Charles Vardo, an Englishman. When he returned home he wrote an account of his visit, in which said :
” I crossed the river from Maryland into Virginia, near to the renowned General Washington’s, where I had the honor to spend some time, and was kindly entertained with that worthy family. As to the General, if we may judge by the countenance, he is what the world says of him, a shrewd, good-natured, plain, humane man, about fifty-five years of age, and seems to wear well, being healthful and active, straight, well made, and about six feet high. He keeps a good table, which is always open to those of a genteel appearance
” The General’s house is rather warm, snug, convenient and useful, than ornamental. The size is what ought to suit a man of about two or three thousand a year in England. The out-offices are good and seem to be not long built; and he was making more offices at each wing to the front of the house, which added more to ornament than to real use. The situation is high, and commands a beautiful prospect of the river which parts Virginia and Maryland, but in other respects the situation seems to be out of the world, being chiefly surrounded by woods, and far from any great road or thoroughfare. . . . The General’s lady is a hearty, comely, discreet, affable woman, some few years older than himself. … The General’s house is open to poor travellers as well as rich, he gives diet and lodging to all that come that way, which indeed cannot be many, without they go out of their way on purpose…. ”
A visitor of January 19, 1785, was Elkanah Watson, In his diary Washington wrote simply that Mr. Watson came in and stayed all night; and that he went away after breakfast next morning. But Mr. Watson had a fuller account to give :
” I found him at table with Mrs. Washington and his private family, and was received in the native dignity and with that urbanity so peculiarly combined in the character of a soldier and eminent private gentleman. He soon put me at ease. . . . The first evening I spent under the wing of his hospitality, we sat a full hour at table by ourselves, without the least interruption, after the family had retired. I was extremely oppressed by a severe cold and excessive coughing, contracted by the exposure of a harsh winter journey. He pressed me to use some remedies, but I declined doing so. As usual after retiring, my coughing increased. When some time had elapsed, the door of my room was gently opened, and on drawing my bed-curtains, to my utter astonishment, I beheld Washington himself, standing at my bedside, with a bowl of hot tea in his hand.”
The following May Rev. Thomas Coke and Bishop Francis Asbury were welcomed to Mt. Vernon. ” The General’s seat is very elegant,” Mr. Coke wrote. ” He is quite the plain, country-Gentleman.” After dinner the visitors presented to their host a petition for the emancipation of the Negroes, ” entreating his signature, if the eminence of his station did not render it inexpedient for him to sign any petition.” Washington told his guests that he was ” of their sentiments, and had signified his thoughts on the subject to most of the great men of the State; that he did not see it proper to sign the petition, but if the Assembly took it into consideration, would signify his sentiments to the Assembly by a letter.”
An attractive picture of the General was given by Richard Henry Lee after a visit to Mt. Vernon in November, 1785:
” When I was first introduced to him he was neatly dressed in a plain blue coat, white Cashmere waistcoat, and black breeches and Boots, as he came from his farm. After having sat with us some time he retired. … Later he came in again, with his hair neatly powdered, a clean shirt on, a new plain drab Coat, white waistcoat and white silk stockings.”
John Hunter, who was with Colonel Lee, added his impression :
” The style of his house is very elegant, something like the Prince de Conde’s at Chantilly, near Paris, only not quite so large; but it’s a pity he did not build a new one at once, as it has cost him nearly as much a repairing his old one. . . . It’s astonishing what a number of small houses the General has upon his Estate for his different Workmen and Negroes to live in. He has everything within himselfCarpenters, Bricklayers, Brewers, Blacksmiths, Bakers, etc., etc., and even has a well assorted store for the use of his family and servants.”
While the repairs were still in progress, the ship Mary arrived at Alexandria, having a consignment for Washington from Samuel Vaughan, a great admirer in London. This was a chimney-piece, wrought in Italy from pure white and sienite marble, for the use of Mr. Vaughan. When the mantel reached England the owner learned of the improvements then in progress at Mt. Vernon. Without unpacking the mantel he sent it on to America. When Washington received word of the arrival of the gift, he wrote, ” By the number of cases, however, I greatly fear it is too elegant and costly for my room and republican style of living.” Nevertheless the mantel was installed in the mansion and became a great delight to the household.
Washington’s days at Mt. Vernon were interrupted by the renewed call of his country. For much of the time for eight years he was compelled to be absent, and when, at length, the opportunity came to resume the free life on his estate, he had less than three years left. But these years were crowded full of hospitality in the mansion and of joyous work on the estate, and when, on December 14, 1799, he died as a result of a cold caught while riding on the estate, he left it to his ” dearly beloved wife, Martha Washington.”
For many years Mt. Vernon continued its hospitable career. Then came years of neglect, when the mansion was falling into ruins. But in 1853-56 Miss Ann Pamela Cunningham of South Carolina appealed to the women of the nation, and succeeded’ in organizing an association that took over the estate, restored it to its original condition, furnished it with Washington relics gathered from far and near, and opened it for the visits of the reverent visitors to the city of Washington, who continue their journey sixteen miles down the Potomac that they may look on the scene that brought joy to the heart of the Father of his Country.