Mount Vernon - Burdens Of Greatness
( Originally Published 1925 )
Secretaries in the Home—David Humphreys and William Smith—Anecdote of Old Bishop and His Daughter—Gideon Snow—William Shaw—Tobias Lear—New Associations with Alexandria—Visitors' Descriptions of Life at Mount Vernon—Sitting for the Portrait Painters—Arrival of Houdon—He Models the Bust—LaFayette's Visit —Gifts from Abroad—French Hounds—The Vaughan Mantel—Mules from Malta—Asses from the King of Spain.
RELIEF that it was to have sheathed his sword and retired to the quiet of his home, Washington was no longer wholly free there and in the enjoyment of the privacy he desired. He now belonged to the country, for although there was no actual national entity, the pride and national aspirations of all the independent states in the confederation focussed on their recent military leader. Mount Vernon as the residence of such a figure typified the capital of the embryonic nation.
The first token of this new order invaded his house-hold itself, the very privacy of his family. Henceforth, while lie was there, the house was never without secretaries and clerks whose assistance was made necessary by the increasing volume of public and private correspondence and accounts. With added work he had less time, for a second evidence of the new order was the flow of visitors, no longer the casual neighbors riding in for dinner and a fox hunt, but dignitaries whose presence made demands, and amiable and often important strangers who came with the homage of curiosity.
In altering his house Washington made storage space for his letters and papers in recesses built on each side of his library. Eventually these became inadequate and he felt the necessity of building a separate house for this purpose. The bases of the archives of Mount Vernon were of course the copies of all his personal, business, and agricultural letters which he kept scrupulously in his own hand, his journals, and his account-books. To these were added, at the close of the war, the transcripts made by Colonel Richard Varick of the entire mass of his correspondence, public and private, from the beginning to the end of the Revolution. They filled thirty-seven volumes. After his death they passed by purchase into the archives of the national government. This mass was soon increased, in addition to his enormous personal correspondence, by the requests which came from all sources for his assistance and countenance; for he was asked "to write endorsements and recommendations, stand sponsor to books on every topic, subscribe money to all manner of undertakings and loan it to the needy."
The succeeding years brought to the Mount Vernon archives his vast correspondence on bounty lands in the West, on the development of waterways, on the organization of a stable national government, and on other public matters of which there was no end.
The first secretaries accompanied him home from the war. They were Colonels David Humphreys and William Smith. They remained long enough for Colonel Smith to furnish an exploit which became one of the traditional stories of the estate.
Humphreys, it seems, was of a poetic turn and dreamed away his leisure hours in communion with the lovely views which at Mount Vernon stretch in all directions. Smith spent his recreation in more sociable walks. On one occasion he came upon the house of the petted old autocrat, Bishop, Washington's former body-servant, whose daughter was returning from the milking with a brimming pail. Smith made some kindly offer of assistance which the frightened girl took for the flirtatious license of a kind with that of the wantonly reputed British officers. She dropped the pail and ran into the house. The young colonel followed, muttering apologies and explanations, when he came face to face with her father. The ancient Bishop seems to have been a spoiled favorite who allowed himself all kinds of temper and temperament. He at once flew into ,a state of outraged wrath. The secretary's explanations did not make matters any better. "I know what you dashing young officers are," Bishop is said to have replied, folding his weeping daughter in his arms, feeling he was the hero of a sound dramatic situation and intending to do his full duty by it. "I am an old soldier and have seen some things in my day. I am sure his honor, after my services, will not permit my child to be insulted; and, as to the Madam, why the Madam as good as brought up my girl." And so he brought the curtain down on the first scene, or at least says the chronicle, "he retired into his house and closed the door."
Smith suspected Bishop to be as good as his threat and sought out Billy Lee, a no less important figure at Mount Vernon than Bishop himself. Billy seemed to sense a part for himself in this little drama, and first fed the colonel on the ruthlessness of Bishop and then offered himself as ambassador to plead with him.
"Meantime," says the chronicler, who lived at Mount Vernon at the time and heard the story at first hand, "the old body-servant ransacked a large worm-eaten trunk, and brought forth a coat that had not seen the light for many long years (it was of the cut and fashion of the days of George II), then a vest, and lastly a hat, Cumberland cocked, with a huge ribbon cockade, that had seen service in the seven years' war. His shoes underwent a polish, and were covered by large silver buckles. All these accoutrements being carefully dusted and brushed, the veteran flourished his staff and took up his line of march for the mansion house.
"Billy met the old soldier in full march, and a parley ensued. Billy harangued with great force upon the impropriety of the veteran's conduct in not receiving the colonel's apology; 'for,' continued the ambassador, 'my friend Colonel Smith is both an officer and a gentle-man; and then, old man, you have no business to have such a handsome daughter (a grim smile passing over the veteran's countenance at this compliment to the beauty of his child), for you know young fellows will be young fellows.
"The old body-servant, fully accoutred for his expedition, had cooled off a little during his march. A soldierly respect for an officer of Colonel Smith's rank and standing, and a fear that he might carry the matter a little too far, determined him to accept the colonel's assurance that there could be no harm where 'no harm was intended,' came to a right-about and retraced his steps to his home.
"The ambassador returned to the anxious colonel, and informed him that he had met the old fellow, en grand costume, and in full march for the mansion house, but that by a powerful display of eloquence he had brought him to a halt, and induced him to listen to reason, and drop the affair altogether. The ready guinea was quickly in the ambassador's pouch, while the gallant colonel, happy in his escape from what might have resulted in a very unpleasant affair, was careful to give the homestead of the old body-servant a good wide berth in all future rambles."
The first tutor for the children was Gideon Snow, who probably first used the quaint little octagon house in the garden wall as a schoolroom. His duties were so light that Washington decided to combine the offices of tutor and secretary, and he thus described the obligations and privileges attaching to the position : "To write letters agreably to what shall be dictated. Do all other writing which shall be entrusted to him. Keep Accts. —examine, arrange, and properly methodize my Papers, which are in great disorder.—Ride, at my expense, to such other States, if I should find it more convenient to send than to attend myself, to the execution thereof. And, . . . . to initiate two little children (a girl of six and a boy of 4 years of age, descendants of the deceased Mr. Custis, who live with me and are very promising) in the first rudiments of education." To which he shortly added that the secretary "will sit at my table, will live as I live, will mix with the company who resort to my house, and will be treated in every respect with civility and proper attention. He will have his washing done in the family, and may have his linen and stockings mended by the maids of it."
William Shaw came to fulfil those demands in July, 1785. He remained a year and seems to have had an easy time, for he hunted with the General, and went to the races, assemblies, and dances roundabout.
His successor was Tobias Lear, a native of Ports-mouth, New Hampshire, and a Harvard graduate of 1783, who remained with Washington till the great man died. His second wife was Mrs. Washington's niece, the widow of George Augustine Washington. He lived at Wellington, an estate on the Virginia shore of the Potomac, about four miles north of Mount Vernon mansion, which Washington placed at his disposal, without charge, for his lifetime. After his chief's death Lear went into the consular service and died in Washington City, October 16, 1816.
During the Presidency Washington's secretaries often accompanied him from the seat of government to Mount Vernon, and he referred to them as "members of my family."
Though the hero was now merged in the planter, he found, as formerly, genuine satisfaction in the corn. panionship of his friends. Nine years had made comparatively few changes in the neighborhood. The Fairf axes were gone, to be sure, and Belvoir was no more, but a link with that treasured association remained in the person of Bryan Fairfax, younger half-brother of Colonel George William Fairfax. Later he was rector of Christ Church, Alexandria. His home, Mount Eagle, was and remains today on the heights across Great Hunting Creek from Alexandria. He was a picturesque figure, indeed, if he came to Mount Vernon dressed as he was when he went to England, "in a full suit of purple," which abroad was supposed to be "the custom of the clergy in Virginia."
The family now went to Christ Church much oftener than to Pohick. The latter church was practically abandoned. It suffered severely in the reaction against the established church, and all other things English, during the Revolution, and only at infrequent intervals were the doors open to itinerant preachers. Christ Church had been built about the same time as the second Pohick Church, and from the beginning Washington had owned a pew there. The family and their guests drove up when the roads and the weather encouraged a round trip drive of eighteen miles. But he never gave up his pew at Pohick, and went there occasionally when it was open.
Another link between Mount Vernon and Alexandria was forged as early as 1784, when the General and Mrs. Washington drove up to attend the first of the Birth Night Balls. These were the predecessors of the later holiday, Washington's Birthday, and succeeded to the colonial custom of celebrating the sovereign's birthday.
His exalted position now attracted a constant stream of visitors. Among them were his recent French- and American companions in arms, and even English officers; leaders of political thought from all over the country; a variety of strangers, curious, speculative, petitioning; and distinguished foreigners from many European countries. It is to some of these foreigners, who afterward published the journals of their travels, that the story of Mount Vernon owes many valuable sketches of the life there at this time.
Among the first to come and write his impressions was John Hunter, merchant of London. He spent a day and a night there in 1785. In his diary is found:
"Wednesday 16th. of Nov'r. When Colonel Fitzgerald introduced me to the General I was struck with his noble and venerable appearance. . . . The General is about six feet high, perfectly straight and well made; rather inclined to be lusty. His eyes are full and blue and seem to express an air of gravity. His nose inclines to the aquiline; his mouth small; his teeth are yet good and his cheeks indicate perfect health. His forehead is a noble one and he wears his hair turned back, without curls and quite in the officer's style, and tyed in a long queue behind. Altogether he makes a most noble, respectable appearance, and I really think him the first man in the world. After having had the management and care of the whole Continental army, he has now retired without receiving any pay for his trouble, and though solicited by the King of France and some of the first characters in the world to visit Europe, he has denied them all and knows how to prefer solid happiness in his retirement to all the luxuries and flattering speeches of European Courts.
"People come to see him here from all parts of the world—hardly a day passes without; but the General seldom makes his appearance before dinner; employing the morning to write his letters and superintend his farm, and allotting the afternoon to company; but even then he generally retires for two hours between tea and supper to his study to write.
"He is one of the most regular men in the world. When no particular Company is at his house, he goes to bed always at nine and gets up with the sun. It's astonishing the packets of letters that daily come for him, from all parts of the world, which employ him most of the morning to answer, and his Secretary Mr. Shaw to copy and arrange. The General has all the accounts of the war yet to settle. Shaw tells me he keeps as regular Books as any Merchant whatever, and a daily Journal of all his transactions.
" When I was first introduced to him he was neatly dressed in a plain blue coat, white cassimer waistcoat, and black breeches and Boots, as he came from his farm. After having sat with us some time he retired and sent in his lady, a most agreeable woman about 50, and Major Washington his nephew, married about three weeks ago to a Miss Bessot. . . . After chatting with them for half an hour, the General came in again, with his hair neatly powdered, a clean shirt on, a new plain drab coat, white waistcoat and white silk stockings. At three, dinner was on table, and we were shewn by the General into another room, where everything was set off with a peculiar taste, and at the same time very neat and plain. The General sent the bottle about pretty freely after dinner, and gave success to the navigation of the Potomac for his toasts, which he has very much at heart.
"After tea General Washington retired to his study and left us with the President, his lady and the rest of the Company. If he had not been anxious to hear the news of Congress from Mr. Lee, most probably he would not have returned to supper, but gone to bed at his usual hour, nine o'clock, for he seldom makes any ceremony. We had a very elegant supper about that time. The General with a few glasses of champagne got quite merry, and being with his intimate friends laughed and talked a good deal. Before strangers he is generally very reserved, and seldom says a word. . . . At 12 I had the honor of being lighted up to my bedroom by the General himself.
"Thursday 17th. November.—I rose early and took a walk about the General's grounds—which are really beautifully laid out. . . . Indeed his greatest pride now is, to be thought the first farmer in America. He is quite a Cincinnatus, and often works with his men himself—strips off his coat and labors like a common man.
It's astonishing with what niceness he directs everything in the building way, condescending even to measure the things himself, that all may be perfectly uniform. The style of his house is very elegant, something like the Prince de Condé's at Chantille, near Paris, only not quite so large. . . . The situation is a heavenly one, upon one of the finest rivers in the world. I suppose I saw thousands of ducks upon it, all within gun shot. There are also plenty of blackbirds and wild geese and turkies.
"After breakfast I went with Shaw to see his famous race-horse Magnolia—a most beautiful creature. . . . He also showed me an elegant State Carriage, with beautiful emblematical figures on it, made him a present by the State of Pennsylvania. I afterwards went into his stables, where among an amazing number of horses, I saw old Nelson, now 22 years of age, that carried the General almost always during the war: Blueskin, another fine old horse next to him, now and then had that honor. . . They have heard the roaring of many a cannon in their time. Blueskin was not the favorite, on account of his not standing fire so well as venerable old Nelson. . . .
"When the General takes his coach out he always drives six horses; to his chariot he only puts four. . . . I fancy he is worth 100,000 Pounds sterling and lives at the rate of 3 or 4000 a year; . . . There is a fine family picture in the Drawing room of the Marquis de LaFayette, his lady and three children—another of the General with his marching orders, when he was Colonel Washington in the British Army against the French in the last war; and two of Mrs. Washington's children : her son was reckoned one of the handsomest men living, also a picture of Mrs. Washington when a young woman."
Watson, formerly a merchant of Nantes, came one bitter January evening, suffering with a severe cough, which increased during the night; when his door opened gently, the bed curtains were parted and there stood "Washington himself with a bowl of hot tea in his hand." J. B. Brissot de Warville appeared in the course of his travels in North America and noted the simplicity in the house, and declared that Washington's "modesty is astonishing to a Frenchman; he speaks of the American war, and of his victories, as of things in which he had no direction."
Robert Edge Pine, "a pretty eminent Portrait & Historical-Painter," spent three March weeks at Mount Vernon in 1785 to make studies of Washington for historical canvases. These were never painted, but he did portraits of the General and the Custis children. It was while Pine was at Mount Vernon that Washington wrote :
"In for a penny, in for a pound, is an old adage. I am so hackneyed to the touches of the painter's pencil, that I am now altogether at their beck; and sit, 'like Patience on a monument,' while they are delineating the lines of my face. It is a proof, among many others, of what habit and custom can accomplish. At first I was as impatient at the request, and as restive under the operation, as a colt is of the saddle. The next time I submitted very reluctantly, but with less flouncing. Now, no dray-horse moves more readily to his thill than I to the painter's chair."
The imagination responds readily to the suggestion of astonishment and confusion produced by the event noted as of Sunday the 2d of October following:
"Went with Fanny Bassett, Burwell Bassett, Doctr Stuart, G. A. Washington, 1W Shaw & Nelly Custis to Pohick Church; to hear a Mr Thompson preach, who returned home with us to Dinner, where I found the Rev. Mr. Jones, formerly a Chaplin in one of the Pennsylvania Regiments.—After we were in Bed (about Eleven oclock in the Evening): Mr Houdon, sent from Paris by Doctr Franklin and Mr Jefferson to take My Bust, in behalf of the State of Virginia, with three young men assistants, introduced by a Mr Perin a French Gentleman of Alexandria arrived here by water from the latter place."
During nearly three weeks spent at Mount Vernon, Houdon made a life mask and modelled a bust which has remained in the mansion ever since. With this life mask and measurements of the person of the General, and memoranda concerning his dress, he returned to Paris. There Gouverneur Morris posed for the figure and Houdon modelled the head from the mask and memory, and thus completed the exquisite statue in marble which stands in the rotunda of the Capitol at Richmond. The clay bust at Mount Vernon remains unique as the only bust of Washington made from life.
So the procession filed on. It included among others Charles Vallo, who contributed to the descriptive literature of the place; Chevalier de la Luzerne, who found nothing to recall "the important part he [Washington] has played except the great number of foreigners who come to see him"; two English visitors perpetuated in the significant entry in the diary, "Mrs. Macauley Graham and Mr. Graham"; the French Minister, the Comte de Moustier, and his sister the "Marquise de Brehan," and, though Washington did not appreciate Madame's penchant for fondling negro babies, he admired a miniature profile of him which she painted; Jno. Fitch with "a draft & model of a machine for promoting navigation, by means of steam," and Robert Fulton, then only twenty years of age; Noah Webster, on a copyright errand, not yet busy with his dictionary; Captain Littlepage, of Virginia, who had been "Aid de Camp to the Duke de Crillen-was at the Seiges of Fort St. Phillip (on the Island of Minorca) and Gibralter; and is an extraordinary Character"; André Michaux, sent by the French Government to establish in America nurseries of plants to be naturalized in France; "a Gentleman calling himself the Count de Cheiza D'arteignan officer of the French Guards" presented himself for dinner and spent the night, "bringing no letters of introduction, nor any authentic testimonials for his being either; I was at a loss how to receive or treat him—"; Parson Weems, meditating the hatchet story for his life of Washington, which was to be more widely known and read than any other; and Jedediah Morse, author of the first American geography. "My house," wrote Washington at about this time, "may be compared to a well resorted tavern."
With uniform hospitality for all who came under his roof, there was, however, no one else who received a welcome equal to that of General the Marquis de LaFayette, "the French boy," as Mrs. Washington called him, who made two visits to Mount Vernon on his return to America in 1784. He came first in August for twelve days and returned in November for a week. Washington's attachment for LaFayette was one of the unique affections of his life. On the occasion of his second visit Washington travelled all the way to Richmond to meet him and accompany him to Mount Vernon. And when the precious seven days had passed he was so loath to give up his friend that he journeyed on with him to Annapolis. Washington returned home and dispatched thence these lines of farewell which are more nearly sentimental than any others of his which are preserved:
"In the moment of our separation, upon the road as I travelled, and every hour since, I have felt all that love, respect and attachment for you, with which length of years, close connection, and your merits have inspired me. I often asked myself, as our carriages separated, whether that was the last sight I ever should have of you? And though I wished to answer No, my fears answered Yes. I called to mind the days of my youth, and found they had long since fled to return no more; that I was now decending the hill I had been fifty two years in climbing, and that, though I was blessed with a good constitution, I was of a short lived family, and might soon expect to be entombed in the mansion of my fathers. These thoughts darkened the shades, and gave a gloom to the picture, and consequently, to my prospect of ever seeing you again."
His premonition was correct. They did not see each other again. LaFayette, however, came to Mount Vernon forty years later to pay homage at the tomb of his chief and friend.
Washington was also reminded of the enlarged sphere of his fame by the numerous and sometimes extraordinary gifts which now reached Mount Vernon. Most interesting of these were the Italian mantel, the French hunting hounds, and the Maltese and Spanish asses.
The mantel, which at once found an ideal position in the banquet room, opposite the large ornamental window, came in February, 1785, from Samuel Vaughan, of London. He was a stranger to Washington but had a passionate admiration for his character and achievements. The mantel is of "white and Sienite marbles."
Its most striking feature, aside from its simplicity and symmetry, are the three panels, sculptured in high relief, celebrating agricultural life. It has never been removed from its original position and, with the white marble hearth, the grate, clock, vases, candlesticks, and flanking pedestals, it forms the one complete original group assembled in the mansion to-day exactly as in the life time of its owner.
The hounds were sent by LaFayette on his return to France after his visit to Mount Vernon. They were in favor until one day the family sat down to dinner to discover that Vulcan had stolen the ham about which the meal was to have been assembled. They were a natively fierce pack and Mrs. Washington is suspected of having used the stolen ham as an excuse to get rid of them. At any rate the French hounds soon followed the ham. Washington's adopted son says apropos of this that the General gave up hunting in 1785, but he did in fact hunt until 1788. Then for eight years his absence at the seat of government kept him away from Mount Vernon during the hunting season. When he returned in 1797 he was somewhat advanced in years for the vigorous sport he had followed until his fifty-sixth year.
There were few and only inferior mules in America at this time and Washington desired to improve the breed. This became known abroad, and in 1788 he received from LaFayette a jack called Knight of Malta and two Maltese she asses; also a jack called Royal Gift and two jennies from the King of Spain. "From these altogether," he said, "I hope to secure a race of extraordinary goodness, which will stock the country."
The presents did not all move in one direction by any means. In 1785 Washington was making an effort to get seeds in "Kentucke" for the French King's Gardens at Versailles, and three years later he was hunting a healthy family of opossums to send an English friend, Sir Edward Newenham.
Such were some of the conspicuous details at Mount Vernon of the early days of Washington's military fame. If it robbed the home of some of its privacy, there were compensations. It has been said Mount Vernon typified the capital of the embryonic nation. There now centred the ideas, the discussions, and the initiative which finally prevailed in giving birth to the nation.