Washington's Delight To Be At Mount Vernon Again
( Originally Published 1925 )
Letters —Journeys to Fredericksburg, Philadelphia, and the Ohio Country—Putting a Finish on Grounds and Buildings—The Bowling Green and the Serpentine Drive—Trees—The Deer Park—Gardens—Walls-Barns—Fences—A Toper's Contract—The General's Warhorse, Nelson—Mrs. Washington's Grandchildren—His Nephews and Nieces—First Wedding in the Mansion—Dreaming of a Deed from the General—Shiftless Harriott.
THE General and Mrs. Washington reached home Christmas Eve. His "people" from the various farms gathered at the gate and along the drive to give them welcome. Among them was Bishop, easily forgiven for any envy he felt of young Billy Lee. They lighted the night with bonfires and made it noisy with fiddling and dancing in the quarters. At the great door of the mansion the homecomers were greeted by a troop of relatives, and next day the neighbors drove in from all directions to add their welcome.
The unconscious historian of this occasion was a little girl, one of the Lewis children of Fredericksburg, who wrote a friend : "I must tell you what a charming day I spent at Mt. Vernon with Mama and Sally. The General and Madame came home on Christmas Eve, and such a racket as the servants made! They were glad of their coming. Three handsome young officers came with them. All Christmas afternoon people came to pay their respects and duty. Among these were stately dames and gay young women. The General seemed very happy and Mrs. Washington was up before daybreak making everything as agreeable as possible for everybody."
Washington's early letters after reaching Mount Vernon breathe the relief and joy he felt to have closed his "transactions with the public" and arrived at "the goal of domestic enjoyment."
It was perhaps natural that he should write with least reserve and most sentiment to his dear LaFayette:
"At length, my dear Marquis, I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac; and under the shadow of my own vine and fig-tree, free from the bustle of a camp, and the busy scenes of public life, I am solacing myself with those tranquil enjoyments, of which the soldier, who is ever in pursuit of fame, the statesman, whose watchful days and sleepless nights are spent in devising schemes to promote the welfare of his own, perhaps the ruin of other countries, as if this globe were insufficient for us all, and the courtier, who is always watching the countenence of his prince, in hopes of catching a gracious smile, can have very little conception. I have not only retired from all public employments, but I am retiring within myself, and shall be able to view the solitary walk, and tread the paths of private life, with heartfelt satisfaction. Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all; and this, my dear friend, being the order of my march, I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my fathers."
In a somewhat similar sentimental vein he wrote the Marchioness de LaFayette, in reply to her felicitations:
"From the clangor of arms and the bustle of a camp, freed from the cares of public employment and the responsibility of office, I am now enjoying domestic ease under the shadow of my own vine and fig-tree; and in a small villa, with the implements of husbandry and lambkins around me, I expect to glide gently down the stream of life, till I am entombed in the dreary mansion of my fathers."
But to his fellow-campaigner, General Knox, he ex-pressed his situation seven weeks after his return in more literal terms :
"I am just beginning to experience that ease and freedom from public cares, which, however desireable, takes some time to realize; for, strange as it may seem, it is nevertheless true, that it was not till lately I could get the better of my usual custom of ruminating, as soon as I waked in the morning, on the business of the ensuing day; and of my surprise at finding, after revolving many things in my mind, that I was no longer a public man, nor had anything to do with public transactions.
"I feel now, however, as I conceive a wearied traveller must do, who, after treading many a painful step with a heavy burthen on his shoulders, is eased of the latter, having reached the haven to which all the former were directed; and from his house-top is looking back, and tracing with an eager eye the meanders by which he escaped the quicksands and mires which lay in his way; and into which none but the all-powerful Guide and Dispenser of human events could have prevented his falling."
Relief was the keynote of all he expressed, relief and a desire to remain undisturbed in the tranquillity of his home. "I feel myself relieved of a load of public care," he wrote Governor Clinton. "I hope to spend the remainder of my days cultivating the affections of good men, and in the practice of the domestic virtues." It was now his devoutly expressed wish "to glide silently and unnoticed through the remainder of life."
The ice and snow of a particularly rigid winter locked the family in the house during the first weeks of the General's return. During this time he laid out a scheme of work for his military secretaries, for improvements on the grounds and gardens and farms, and for the recovery of his extensive private interests from the confusion into which they had run during his long absence.
He settled down eventually to the routine of his life before the war, but not until he had made some trips during the first months after his return home. In February he braved roads and weather to pay his duty to his mother in Fredericksburg. In May he attended the meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati at Philadelphia. At the end of the summer he made his hasty journey to view his lands on the Kanawha and the Ohio. He was accompanied only by his nephew Bush rod Washington, Doctor Craik and his son William, and three servants. They travelled on horseback and covered the entire distance of six hundred and eighty miles in thirty-four days between September 1st and October 4th.
Save for three absences in Richmond he was not many miles from Mount Vernon until public service again made him an exile five years later. It is a notable fact that Washington rarely went far from his home except when called by duty or business. His interest and purpose attached to his house and lands and he left them only at the sacrifice of personal preferences.
It is not easy to see what Lund Washington left him to do by way of making those improvements to his house which have so often been attributed to the first years after the war. But the severe winter called out his ingenuity to make his house warmer, so it may have been at this time that he lathed and plastered the lower side of the floor planks between the joists in the cellar. The original laths and plaster have long since disappeared, but the unmistakable evidences of them remain. It was then not an uncommon method of keeping the floors free from draughts, for those were not days of tongue and groove lumber. He now prepared a dry well for ice in the cellar under the banquet hall, and possibly the 'cupola may be attributed to the work done at this time.
It is known that, in the spring of 1786, he renewed the paving of the great piazza on the river front. No portion of the house received more general or more severe usage than this out-of-door shelter with its magnificent views of the Potomac. Not only was it in constant service by the members of the household, but the great gatherings of visitors were received and entertained there, for which thirty windsor chairs were provided, and, when winter weather prevented the General from taking his usual exercise on foot or horseback, he paced the portico for an hour before retiring to rest. Its floor is, by Washington's own record, one hundred and twenty-four feet and ten and a half inches above the river level. Evidently the first pavement placed there by Lund Washington did not stand well, for says the diary (1786): "May 22, Began to take up the pavement of the piazza," and "May 23, Began to lay the flags of my piazza." Washington attributed the need of new flags to the effect of frost on the old, but the new ones have remained there to the present time.
In so far as concerned his house and grounds he had passed the days of assembly, and now entered on a period of decoration, polish, and finish. This appeared especially in his attention to his west lawn, its encircling drive, and the trees which border it; the two walled gar-dens, that to the south for vegetables and that to the north for flowers and flowering shrubs in greenhouse and box-patterned beds; the deer-park, the ha-ha walls, and the miles of fences on the various farms. As in all improvements of whatever character at Mount Vernon, Washington made his own plans and drawings.
The great enclosed lawn on the west side of the mansion includes a level stretch of nearly two acres about which he laid out a carriage drive, called his Serpentine Road, and which in its courses passed the great door of the mansion, the doors of four of the small or "office" buildings, and the entrance to each garden, and de-scribed somewhat the outline of the shield of the United States. The trees on either side of the Serpentine, as it stretched away from the big house, terminated, by Washington's own description, "with two mounds of earth, one on each side, on which grow weeping willows, leaving an open and full view of the distant woods. The mounds are sixty yards apart."
In 1785 and 1786 his diary is a running guide to his activities in the adornment of his grounds. On January 19th he was "employd until dinner time in laying out my Serpentine Road & Shrubberies adjoining." In February he "Removed two pretty large & full-grown lilacs to the No Garden gate one on each side taking up as much dirt with the roots as cd be well obtained"; he "also removed from the woods and the old fields, several young trees of sassafras, Dogwood & Redbud, to the Shrubbery on the No side the grass plot"; and he "planted all the Mulberry trees, Maple trees & Black gums my Serpentine walks—and the Poplars on the right walk." In the long list of trees that he planted and grafted, earlier and later, at Mount Vernon, are found: the Whitethorn, Hemlock, Mediterranean Pine, Holly, Tulip, Sweet Gum, Oak, Balsam, Mulberry, Aspen, Ash, Locust, Fringetree, Willow, Magnum Bonum Plum, French Walnut, Mississippi Nut, Crab Scions, Butter Pear, Spanish Pear "from Collo. Mason," Black Pear of Worcester, Bergamy Pear, Early June Pear, Newton Pippin, Gloucester White Apple, Cullock Heart Cherry, Early May Cherry, Large Duke Cherry, Black May Cherry, May Duke Cherry, Carnation Cherry, English Mulberry, Quince, Peach, and others.
He hunted the woods for miles to bring home a rare or perfect specimen for his lawns. He brought acorns .and buckeyes back from the Monongahela. He sought the cooperation of friends on both sides of the Atlantic to help embellish his estate. "Whenever you conceive the season is proper," he wrote Governor Clinton of New York, "and opportunity offers, I shall hope to receive the balsam trees, or any others, which you may think curious and exotics with us, as I am endeavoring to improve the grounds about my house in this way. If perchance the sloop Pilgrim is not yet sailed from your port, you would add to the favor you mean to confer on me, by causing a number of grape vines, sent to me by an uncle of the Chevalier de la Luzerne, brought over by Captain Williams, and deposited by him in the garden of Mr. Beekman near the City of New York, to be forwarded by that vessel. They consist of a variety of the most valuable eating grapes in France. A list of the kinds, and the distinctions of them, no doubt accompanied them. I pray you to take some of each sort for your own use, and offer some to Mr. Beekman."
The especial pride of his kitchen garden were the fig-trees which were trained on the warm side of the north wall. Amariah Frost, who wrote his account of a visit to Mount Vernon in Washington's lifetime, found the gardens "very elegant," and abounding in many curiosities, among which he enumerated "Fig-trees, raisins, limes, oranges, etc., large English mulberries, artichokes, etc. " The "raisin" is more familiar today as the currant bush.
The unmanageable undergrowth on the faces of the bluff between the mansion and the river gave offense to Washington's sense of order and economy. To be rid of the thicket, without the trouble of keeping it down by labor, and at the same time add a new grace to his estate, he enclosed about one hundred acres with a wooden paling in 1785, and stocked the enclosure with deer to beat it down to a park. It may be that his old friend, Colonel Fairfax, suggested this characteristic feature of a country estate, for in writing to him to thank him for offering to secure him "a buck and doe of the best English deer," Washington said : "but if you have not already been at this trouble, I would, my good sir, now wish to relieve you from it, as Mr. Ogle of Maryland has been so obliging as to present me six fawns from his park of English deer at Bellair. With these, and tolerable care, I shall soon have a full stock for my small paddock."
The brick walls about the two gardens, built during the war, were not merely utilitarian; they were part of the grand plan which united with architectural formality and proportion the big house, the little houses, the gardens, and the bowling green. But as the place took on finish it became exacting. It demanded that the barns and open stable court be screened from the lawns on the east side of the mansion, and Washington met the demand with the stepped wall which descends the hill with a grace that makes it almost imperceptible. Those were days before lawn-mowers when the cattle did the useful office of keeping the grass down. Unsightly pasture fences were no longer to be tolerated, so he built the English ha-ha walls across the north and south river lawns and beyond the west end of the bowling green. These walls, in effect brick terraces, were invisible from the house, but held the cattle at a distance while admitting them to the landscape.
Mount Vernon was in reality completed in all its adornments within a few years after the war. This accomplished, Washington continually repaired, but he did not materially alter the house or the fundamental plan of the grounds and small buildings. Changes in the outlying farms, however, were constantly under way. There was always a force of woodmen to cut and hew timber, and of carpenters and joiners to work the lumber up into farm buildings. Washington's pride as a farmer centred at this time on his new barn. It stood in the centre of Union Farm about halfway between the mansion and the mill, and measured one hundred feet long by more than one hundred feet deep. The plan was furnished by the celebrated English farmer, Arthur Young, but Washington modified it for his own emergencies.
Even at so early a period of the settlement of the country the astute Washington realized the necessity of economy in the use of timber. His thousands of acres were subdivided by miles of fences. The split-rail fence was commonly in use. He had begun several years before to replace these fences with hedges. "At least fifteen years," he said in 1795, "have I been urging my managers to substitute live fences in lieu of dead ones—which, if continued upon the extensive scale my farms require, must exhaust all my timber;—and to this moment I have not one that is complete:—nor never shall, unless they are attended to in the manner before mentioned; and if plants die, to replace them the next season; and so on, until the hedge is close, compact, and sufficient to answer the purpose for which it is designed."
Whatever other interests may have made their demands, wherever else he may have been called, neither now nor later did Washington cease to be the planter of, if not at, Mount Vernon. While away he kept in he did not materially alter the house or the fundamental plan of the grounds and small buildings. Changes in the outlying farms, however, were constantly under way. There was always a force of woodmen to cut and hew timber, and of carpenters and joiners to work the lumber up into farm buildings. Washington's pride as a farmer centred at this time on his new barn. It stood in the centre of Union Farm about halfway between the mansion and the mill, and measured one hundred feet long by more than one hundred feet deep. The plan was furnished by the celebrated English farmer, Arthur Young, but Washington modified it for his own emergencies.
Even at so early a period of the settlement of the country the astute Washington realized the necessity of economy in the use of timber. His thousands of acres were subdivided by miles of fences. The split-rail fence was commonly in use. He had begun several years before to replace these fences with hedges. "At least fifteen years," he said in 1795, "have I been urging my managers to substitute live fences in lieu of dead ones—which, if continued upon the extensive scale my farms require, must exhaust all my timber;—and to this moment I have not one that is complete: nor never shall, unless they are attended to in the manner before mentioned; and if plants die, to replace them the next season; and so on, until the hedge is close, compact, and sufficient to answer the purpose for which it is designed."
Whatever other interests may have made their demands, wherever else he may have been called, neither now nor later did Washington cease to be the planter of, if not at, Mount Vernon. While away he kept in touch with his manager through the exchange of weekly reports and letters, and he dictated astonishingly minute details of policy and procedure. In exercising this genius for detail he did not always escape humorous results, as in the contract with a gardener; wherein, in consideration of his attending faithfully to his work and keeping himself from being "disguised with liquor," Washington agrees to allow him, among other emoluments, "four dollars at Christmas, with which he may be drunk four days and four nights; two dollars at Easter to effect the same purpose; two dollars at Whitsuntide to be drunk for two days; a dram in the morning and a drink of grog at dinner at noon."
So when he came back after the war, he complained a little that the farms were shabby and that farming was impoverishing him, but he resumed his old routine, nevertheless, easily and naturally. He was again in the saddle daily, riding his circuit from farm to farm, to reappear at the great front door at fifteen minutes before the dinner hour punctually as the needle on the sundial, with which he now invariably compared his watch.
Somewhere along the way, however, he compromised with time to allow himself a few extra minutes, for it is said that he now added one final unfailing stop to his daily rounds. It was at the pasture where a tall, aging chestnut, with white face and legs, came at his call to receive the caresses of his master's hand. This was his battle-horse, Nelson, his companion in the war, and "remarkable as the first nicked horse seen in America." He bore Washington on his back when Cornwallis surrendered to him at Yorktown. Then he was mustered out of service and a saddle was never put on his back again.
Nothing else in life seemed to delight Washington as Mount Vernon and its belongings, its development and upkeep. "Agriculture has ever been among the most favored of my amusements," he wrote Arthur Young, "though I have never possessed much skill in the art, and nine years total inattention to it has added nothing to a knowledge, which is best understood from practice; but with the means you have been so obliging as to furnish me, I shall return to it, though rather late in the day, with more alacrity than ever."
When Washington resumed life at Mount Vernon the household was curiously similar to that when he began his married life there twenty-four years before. Then there were himself and Mrs. Washington and her two children, John and Martha, respectively four and two years old. Now there were still himself and Mrs. Washington, and again a little girl and a little boy, but though adopted by Washington, they were her grand-children this time, Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis, respectively four and two years old.
Washington's marriage was childless, but his paternal affections spent themselves without reserve first on Mrs. Washington's children and then on her grand-children. They found themselves as much at home at Mount Vernon as if it were their own father's house. Of the evidences of his petting of the children none perhaps is more charming than his thought of tiny Nellie and Washington when, in the confusion of settling the public business in Philadelphia, he took time to shop for toys for them, in anticipation of that Christmas Eve return from the war.
Washington had twenty-two nephews and nieces who survived infancy. His wife had almost as many. They were a humanly uneven group. But their uncle was generous and devoted to them according to their deserts. He found commissions for several nephews in the army. It is said, though on what authority it does not appear, that "he did not hesitate to give them posts of danger, and their pay came out of his pocket." Some of the boys he sent to school at his own expense, and he was glad to have the girls come to Mount Vernon and meet the distinguished visitors with an eye to desirable husbands for them.
When Lund Washington left Mount Vernon in 1785 and retired to his own estate, Hayfield, about four miles back from the river, he was succeeded as manager by George Augustine Washington, son of the General's youngest brother, Charles. While a member of his uncle's family and in his house George met Frances Bassett, Mrs. Washington's niece, and the second union of the Washington and Dandridge families followed in their marriage, on October 15, 1785. This appears to have been the first wedding ever solemnized at Mount Vernon. Before retiring that night the General noted in his diary with a quaint simplicity:
"The Reverend Mr. Grayson, and Doctr Griffith; Lund Washington, his wife, & Miss Stuart came to Dinner—all of them remained the Evening except L. W. After the Candles were lighted George Auge Washington and Frances Bassett were married by Mr Grayson."
Bushrod, son of John Augustine Washington, became his favorite nephew, even as his father was the General's favorite brother; and to him his uncle bequeathed Mount Vernon. There is something more to be told of him in its place in this story.
There is a tradition of another nephew, whose name is not given, who discovered his distinguished uncle's ownership of a plantation which the young man fancied. His desire for the place was so much on his mind that he one night dreamed his uncle had given it to him. The next time he was at Mount Vernon he called the General's attention to the piece of land which he had forgotten that he owned. The young man told of the dream. The General laughed outright and remarked : "You didn't dream Mount Vernon away from me, did you, sir?" The subject was then forgotten. The next morning as the young relative was leaving Washington placed a folded paper in his hand to be examined at his leisure. When he found the opportunity he discovered it was a deed, made out after his uncle had retired for the night, conveying to him the property they had talked about, "for the consideration of natural affection."
As the boys and girls file by, none seizes the attention with more amusement than Harriott, the incorrigible daughter of much-married Samuel. She came to her uncle's house in 1785, and made her home there for seven years. Her uncle gives her portrait in a few phrases, indicating at the same time what a trial she must have been to one of his fine sense of order and economy: "Harriott has sense enough but no disposition to industry, nor to be careful of her cloathes. . . . Direct her in their use and application of them, for with-out this they will be (I am told) dabbed about in every hole and corner, and her best things always in use." Then he adds with kindly justice: "But she is young and, with good advice, may yet make a fine woman." Surely there is apology for her in the inevitable neglect of a father who could scarcely have found time with his five wives to care properly for his five children.
These were, however, only the intimate details in the domestic background after the war before which a new and other phase of Washington's home life stood boldly forth.