Mount Vernon – Washington In Colonial Public Life

Before the Revolution Mount Vernon was represented in the civic life of the neighborhood and colony by Washington’s long tenure as a vestryman of Truro Parish and as a member of the House of Burgesses at Williamsburg.

The Revolution divorced the Church and State, but until that time the Episcopal Church was a civic estab­lishment in the colony as well as in England. The parish was created by the Assembly, and by its direction the parish was surveyed and the first vestry was elected by the “freeholders and housekeepers” of the county. Thereafter the vestry constituted a tight little self-perpetuating corporation, by itself filling all vacancies in its own body. But the vestry was unfail­ingly representative of the “ablest and most discreet” citizens of the neighborhood. Under authority and direction of the vestry deeds were recorded, the tithe lists made up, the tithes collected, the poor cared for, and the landmarks renewed by the process called “pro­cessioning.” To the churchwardens fell “the duty of binding orphans and other indigent children as Apprentices,” and the obligation of looking after the apprentices’ morals, their education and their initiation into the “Art and mystery” of shoemaker, carpenter, cooper, etc.

The vestry of Truro Parish was probably the most distinguished in the colony. Of its members eleven sat in the House of Burgesses; two of them, the Fair-faxes, were of His Majesty’s Council for Virginia; an-other member, George Mason, author of the Virginia Bill of Rights and the Constitution of the State of Virginia, was one of the most enlightened men in the colonies; and, finally and first, George Washington.

Pohick, the parish church of Truro Parish, was first situated on Michael Reagan’s Hill on the road from Alexandria and the north to Colchester and the south, due west of Mount Vernon by a drive of about nine miles. When in 1767 the present surviving edifice was projected, it was built at a point selected by Washington two miles nearer his home.

Washington was first elected vestryman October 25, 176e. The family name was not new to the Truro Parish register, for his father, Augustine Washington, entered the same vestry in November, 1735. The date is valuable in connection with establishing the period when the family, including George at the age of three years, came first to Mount Vernon. –

Some confusion has marked the various statements as to where Washington and his family worshipped and when and to what vestries he belonged. The confusion results from an interesting parish contest for the possession of Mount Vernon.

Truro Parish was divided by act of Assembly, in February, 1765, creating the new parish of Fairfax. Dogue’s Run was a part of the dividing line, and Mount Vernon found itself in the new parish, cut off from old Pohick. This act raised immediate and general protest from the parent parish. Mount Vernon was the bone of contention. Washington himself seems to have been averse to being legislated out of Pohick and out of his association with Colonel Fairfax, Colonel Mason, and his other neighbors of the vestry, for he was one of a committee of Burgesses who introduced the act, passed the following May, which moved the northern boundary of the parish from Dogue’s Creek on the west side of Mount Vernon to a line running with Little Hunting Creek to the northeast of the mansion. Mount Vernon was thus restored to Pohick, where it has remained ever since.

Meanwhile, on its creation in May, 1765, the new parish of Fairfax had at once elected Washington a vestryman. On the realignment of the parishes four months later he resigned from Fairfax and was again elected to the vestry of Truro. Washington was con­tinuously reëlected to the same vestry and attended Pohick Church with a high average of regularity until the Revolution took him away from home.

The Mount Vernon coach was in evidence at Pohick from 1759 to 1774, often accompanied by a chaise and by gentlemen on horseback, for Washington seems to have been persuasive in inducing his usually numerous house guests to accompany him and Mrs. Washington to church. At least one effort has been made to establish Washington’s lukewarmness as a churchman. The author thereof cites an average of fifteen entries of church attendance each year between 1760 and 1773. He assumes that Washington never went to church that he did not record it in his diary. Even so he might have thought better of Washington’s fifteen annual trips to Pohick if he had experienced year after year the condition of colonial Virginia roads and realized the futility of trying to force a great chariot through a round trip of from fourteen to eighteen miles of Fairfax clay during wet and winter weather. In further justice to Washington’s practical interest in the church it is fair to call attention to the fact that Pohick Church was not open every Sunday of the year. The rector “supplied” one and sometimes two other churches. Moreover, Washington made additional trips to Pohick Church to attend meetings of the vestry. “During the eleven years of his active service from February, 1763, to February, 1774,” says the parish historian, “thirty one ‘vestries’ were held, at twenty three of which he is recorded as being present. On the eight occasions when he was absent, as we learn from his diary or other sources, once he was sick in bed, twice the House of Burgesses, of which he was a member, was in session, and three other times certainly, and on the two remaining occasions probably, he was out of the County.”

Washington bought pew twenty-eight, in the centre of the church, before the Communion table, on the north aisle. Lund Washington bought number twenty-nine, next behind, but George Washington later bought it from him. The Sunday attendance from Mount Vernon required these two great square box-like pews, which Washington kept all his life, even when the parish fell upon neglected days and Pohick was without a regular rector, and he and his family worshipped at Christ Church, Alexandria.

Churchgoing really played a large part in the social side of Virginia colonial life. Philip Vickers Fithian, in his Journal, gives a graphic idea of this phase:

“There are three grand divisions of time at the church on Sundays; Viz: before Service giving and receiving letters of business, reading Advertisements, consulting about the price of Tobacco, Grain, &c, and settling either the lineage, Age or qualities of favorite Horses. 2. In the church at Service, prayers read over in haste, a Sermon, seldom under and never over twenty minutes, but always made up of sound morality, or deep-studied Metaphysicks. 3. After Service is over, three quarters of an hour spent in strolling round the church among the crowd in which time invitations are given by gentlemen to go home with them to dinner.”

Which gives significance to a certain item in the specifications for the building of Pohick Church : “And the said Daniel French doth further agree to build two Horse-Blocks with each two flights of Steps; to fix six benches for the people to sit on under the trees; and to clear and remove all the rubbish and litter from off the Church Lott, so as to fix it for the Reception of the Congregation; and to have those additional works done by the time appointed for the finishing of the Church.”

As already seen, Mount Vernon had to wait for its new mistress on its master’s first appearance in the House of Burgesses. After that session in 1759 he was returned as Burgess every year until the Revolution made his attendance impossible; at first, as stated, by Frederick County, but from 1765 by Fairfax.

Washington did not exert his influence on the floor of the House as an orator. His first effort there at a speech was a fiasco, but justified its failure by producing the celebrated tribute from Mr. Speaker Robinson. When Washington rose to reply to the Speaker’s pro­fession of the colony’s thanks for his distinguished military services in the West, he blushed, stammered, and was mute. Mr. Robinson came to his rescue with : ” Sit down, Mr. Washington,your modesty equals your valour, and that surpasses the power of any language l possess.”

His genius showed itself rather in leadership in committee, in sound advice, and especially in the drafting of legislative papers. When John Parke Custis, at this time a boy at Mount Vernon, was later elected to the Assembly, Washington wrote to him his own conception of the duty of the Burgess:

“I do not suppose that so young a senator as you are, little versed in political disquisitions, can yet have much influence in a popular assembly, composed of Gentln. of various talents and of different views. But it is in your power to be punctual in your attendance (and duty to the trust reposed in you exacts it of you), to hear dispassionately and determine coolly all great questions. To be disgusted at the decision of questions, because they are not consonant to your own ideas, and to withdraw ourselves from public assemblies, or to neglect our attendance at them, on suspicion that there is a party formed, who are inimical to our cause, and to the true interest of our country, is wrong, because these things may originate in a difference of opinion; but, supposing the fact is otherwise, and that our suspicions are well founded, it is the indespensable duty of every patriot to counteract them by the most steady and uniform opposition.”

The sessions of the Burgesses were held in the spring after the roads had settled and in the fall before winter opened them again. The trips back and forth between Mount Vernon and Williamsburg were made by coach as a rule, especially when Mrs. Washington accom­panied her husband; otherwise in his chaise or “chair,” or on horseback, attended by his servants.

The distance was generally covered in four days. The diary sets forth the dates and the stoppages which indicate the routes followed; first in October, 1768:

19. Set of on my Journey to Williamsburg & reachd Colo. Henry Lees to Dinner.

Detaind there all day by Rain.

21. Reachd Fredericksburg, found Warren Washington & Ca. there.

22. Dined at Parkers Ordy. & lodgd at Mr. Benja. Hubbards, Colo. Lewis also.

Dined at the Causey & got to Colo. Bassetts.

24. Dined at Josh. Valentine’s sent Chairs & Horses over James River, & lodged in Wms.burg ourselves.

and returning the early part of next month :

6. Left Williamsburg & dined & lodgd at Colo. Bassetts.

7. Set out for home with Betsy Dandridge. Dined at King Wm. Court Ho. & lodgd at Mr. Wm. Ayletts.

Dined at Parkers and lodgd at Fredericksburg.

9. Reached home in about 7 hours & an half, found Doctr. Rumy. and Miss Ramy. here.

The round trip another year, in 1774, was made in this fashion, starting in May:

Set off with Mrs. Washington for Williamsburg. Dined

at Dumfries and lodged at Col. Lewis’s in Fredericksburg.

At Fredericksburg all day. Dined at Col. Lewis’s and spent the evening at Weedon’s.

Dined at Roys Ordinary and lodged at Tods Bridge.

15. Breakfasted at Ruffin Ferry and dined and lodged at Col. Bassett’s.

16. Came to Williamsburg, dined at the Governor’s, and spent the evening at Mrs. Campbell’s.

And returning in June:

18. Dined at Mrs. Dawson’s and came up to Col. Bassetts in the afternoon.

At Colo. Bassett’s all day.

20. Set off from thence on my return home. Dined at Todd’s Bridge and lodged at Hubbard’s.

21. Breakfasted at the Bolling Green, dined and lodged at Col. Lewis’s in Fredericksburg.

Reached home to a late dinner, after breakfasting at Acquia.

Many more days were sometimes consumed, however, as in the spring of 1768, when Washington loitered on the journey homeward over twenty-five days. The diary furnishes a graphic sketch of Washington at play:


6. Rid to the Plantations near Williamsburg & dined at Mr. Valentine’s.

Came up to Colo. Bassett’s to Dinner.

Went to Church & returnd to Dinner.

9. Went a Fox hunting and catched a Fox after 35 minutes chase; returnd to Dinner & found the Attorney, his Lady & daughter there.

10. Rid to the Buck House & returnd to Dinner; after which went a dragging for sturgeon.

Dined at the Globe with Mr. Davis.

Went to New Kent Court with Colo. Bassett.

Went after sturgeon & a gunning.

14. Went to my Plantation in King William by water and dragd for Sturgeon & catchd one.

Rid to see Colo. Bassetts meadows at Roots’s.

16. Fishing for Sturgeon from Breakfast to Dinner but catchd none.

Rid to Buck House & returnd to Dinner.

Did the same & got my Chariot & Horses over to Claibornes.

19. Went a shooting & hair huntg. with the Hounds who started a Fox which we catchd.

20. Set of from Colo. Bassetts for Nomony, crossed over to Claibornes; from thence by Frazer’s Ferry to Hobs hole dining at Webbs Ordinary.

21. Reachd my Brothr. John’s who & his wife were up the Country. Crossed over to Mr. Booths.

22. Went to Church (Nomony) & returnd to Mr Booths to Dinner, who was also from home in Gloucester. Mr. Smith, the Parson, dind with us.

At Mr Booth’s all day with Revd. Mr. Smith. My Carpenter & House People went to work at my Mill repairing the Dams, hightening of them & opening the Race.

Came up to Pope’s Creek & staid there all day.

25. Got up to my Brother Sams to Dinner, found Mrs. Washington &c. there.

26. Remaind at my Brother Sams where my Brother Jno. came, as also Mr. Lawr. Washington &c to Dinner.

Dined at Mr. L. Washingtons with the Compy. at my Bro.

28. Went to Boyd’s hole & returnd to my Brothers to Dinr. where we found Colo. Lewis & my Br. Charles.

29. Went to St. Pauls church & Dined at my Brothers. The bitch Chanter brought five Dog puppies & 3 Bitch ditto which were named as follows: viz—Forrester, Sancho, Ringwood, Drunkard, and Sautwell—and Chan-ter, Singer & Busy.

Went fishing & dined under Mr. L. Washington’s store.

31. Returnd home crossing at Hooes Ferry—through Port Tobacco.

The trips to Williamsburg represent Washington’s principal absences from Mount Vernon during the fifteen years next after his marriage. Occasionally he took the family to the Bath Warm Springs, but on only two other occasions did he go farther from his beloved home. In 1770 he went to the Ohio and in 1773 to New York.

The Warm Spring trips were made partly in hopes of benefiting Patsy Custis, and partly to counteract the malaria imbibed at Mount Vernon, against which the “Bark” seems not to have been wholly effective. August was the month selected for the sojourn at the Springs. Of his earliest experience there he said: “Lodgings can be had on no terms but building for them. . . . Had we not succeeded in getting a tent and a marquee from Winchester we should have been in a most miserable station here.” Lloyd Dulaney’s inquiry about the rent of his house there in 1771 would suggest that he built at once, though his diary clearly establishes the building of a new house, kitchen, and stable there in 1784. The journey to the Ohio in the autumn of 1770 was made to see the bounty lands which he and his companions in arms, during the campaigns against the French and their Indian allies, had received from the Government for their military services. He was accompanied by his friend, neighbor, and fellow campaigner, “Dr. Craik, his servant, two of mine, with a led horse and baggage.” They departed October 5th and on December 1st he “Reachd home, being absent from it nine weeks and one day,” longer than he was away from Mount Vernon at any other time between 1759 and 1775.

The occasion of his trip to New York City in May and June, 1773, was to place Jack Custis in King’s College. He was absent twenty-nine days, only four of which were spent in New York. The journey northward con­sumed sixteen days, the return nine days. In going and in returning he crossed the Potomac at the ferry above Mount Vernon, landing on Piscataway, and making his first stop with Mr. Calvert of Mount Airy. The points touched during the sixteen days’ outward journey were Annapolis, Rockhall, Chestertown, “Georgetown on Sassafras,” Newcastle, Wilmington, Chester, Philadelphia, Burlington, Trenton, Princeton, Bound Brook, “Lord Sterling’s at Baskin’s Ridge,” and “Elisabeth town.” Southward he stopped at New Ark, Amboy, Brunswick, Princeton, Bristol, Philadelphia, “the Sorrel House, 13 miles from it,” “the Ship Tavern, 34 off,” the Sign of the Bull, “13 miles from ye Ship,” Lancaster, York Town, “the Sign of the Buck, 14 miles from York,” Suttons, Slades, “Baltimore Town,” the Widow Ram-say’s, and Mount Airy, and he “reached home to dinner about 2 o’clock.”

The earliest portrait of Washington was painted at this time at Mount Vernon. He wrote Dr. Boucher, in May, 1772 : “Inclination having yielded to Importunity, I am now contrary to all expectation under the hands of Mr. Peale; but in so grave—so sullen a mood—and now and then under the influence of Morpheus, when some critical strokes are making, that I fancy the skill of this Gentleman’s Pencil, will be put to it, in describing to the World what manner of man I am.”

The artist was Charles Willson Peale and the portrait was the three-quarter length picture in the uniform of a Virginia colonel. On “May 19. Found Mr. Peale and J. P. Custis.— 20. I sat to have my picture drawn.—21. I set again to take the drapery.— 22. Set for Mr. Peale to finish my face.” The artist found subjects also in Mrs. Washington, Martha and Jack Custis. These three productions, however, were in miniature. The cost of the four paintings was £57.4.0.

So passed the life at Mount Vernon, domestic and social, private and public, during the years which were for Washington among the happiest, if not quite the happiest, he ever enjoyed. The colony was at peace and was blessed with the serenity of a period practically without history. What Washington wrote to a relative in England was typical of this whole period: “I do not know that I can muster up one tittle of news to communicate. In short, the occurances of this part of the world are at present scarce worth reciting; for, we live in a state of peaceful tranquility ourselves, so we are at very little trouble to inquire the operations against the Cherokees, who are the only people that disturb the re-pose of this great continent, and who, I believe, would gladly accomodate differences upon almost any terms.”

Not yet apparent was the significance of the increasing visits of the fathers of the colony to Mount Vernon and their earnest discussion with its first citizen; nor was it obvious as yet what would issue from the mass of correspondence rolling out of Mount Vernon library to every corner of the clustering colonies.