Mount Vernon During The Presidency
( Originally Published 1925 )
Visits Home—Arrival of the Key of the Bastille—Mode of Travel—The Hard Riding Aide and the General's Anger—Directions for Hospitality at Mount Vernon in His Absence—Managers of the Estate: George Augustine Washington, Anthony Whiting, Howell Lewis, William Pearce, and James Anderson—Keeping in Touch with His Estate When Absent—New Barns—Mrs. Washington Homesick in Philadelphia—The General's Love for His Home—Retires from Public Life—Returns to Mount Vernon.
THE six years' respite from official life at Mount Vernon after the war Washington called his "furlough." During the next eight years his home saw him only by glimpses.* He found opportunities during his two terms as President to journey fifteen times to Mount Vernon, an average of about twice a year. These visits were always made between the first of April and the first of November. Once only he remained later by three weeks. Winter was the period of the sittings of Congress, and the season when the roads were less passable and when the city offered the greater comfort, which accounts for his presence at the seat of government during the colder months.
His stays on the Potomac were generally brief. Five times he remained only from seven to twelve days. Once he remained a part of four months. The other visits covered four to eight weeks. To be exact, of the eight years of the Presidency he allowed himself in all less than fifteen months at his home.
His first absence was his longest. He did not come back to Mount Vernon until a year and a half after his inauguration, September, 1790. On this trip he probably brought with him the main key of the Bastille and the drawing of the fortress which LaFayette sent him "as a missionary of Liberty to its patriarch." The key hung in a glass cabinet on the south wall of the main hall and it has not left Mount Vernon since. The Bust of Necker, French Revolutionary Minister of Finance, also came at this time, and for many years after occupied a position in the library. Mrs. Washington and her grandchildren, Nellie and George Washington Parke Custis, did not accompany the General to the inauguration, but they soon followed, and spent the period of his Presidency in New York with him. In the fall of 1790 Philadelphia succeeded New York as the seat of government, and thither Washington returned at the end of November.
He was at home three periods in 1791: the first for three days early in April, "visiting my Plantations every day," on his way to make the grand tour of the South; the second to rest for a fortnight on his way north in June, and the third for three weeks in September and October.
The next year he came twice: for nine days in May, and in July for the longest vacation he spent at his home while President, when he was so far disposed not to accept a second term that he wrote Madison asking his suggestions about a farewell address. A unique souvenir of this summer on the Potomac survives today scratched in one of the panes of glass in the sleeping room known as the Green Room. The frail but precious window pane is heavily reinforced with putty, for it bears the autograph of Eliza P. Custis, and the date of its etching, August 2, 1792.
After the ceremonies of his second inauguration, in 1793, the President rode away as soon as he could for a spring visit to Mount Vernon, but the outbreak of the war between France and England drew him back to Philadelphia after a rest of less than three weeks. The death of the manager of his estate made it necessary for him to return southward early in the summer. He remained nine days and was the guest of honor of his friends and neighbors at Alexandria at a Fourth of July celebration, when "mighty twelve pounders" thundered salutes and a company of one hundred and ten "sat down to an elegant dinner in Mr. Wise's long room." His real vacation came in September and October, loveliest time of the year in Fairfax. It was an unexpected and unwilling flight from Philadelphia, but the yellow fever had broken out in the city, and every one who could deserted it. Although Washington expressed a wish to remain in the north longer than the 10th of September, it is difficult to see how that could have been possible in view of an important engagement for the 18th of that month in Washington City. On that day he came up from Mount Vernon to "The Federal City," as he was accustomed to call it, and assisted at the laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol of the United States.
Having accepted a second term in the chair of government, Washington at this time began to think of reducing his responsibilities as a planter by renting all his land except the farm on which the mansion house stood. It was the passing whim of a tired man. His farms were the great plaything of his life. Nothing came of it except an advertisement in a local paper and an elaborate letter to his English friend, Arthur Young, in which is preserved a detailed account of the physical features of his lands and their improvements and stock.
Twelve days in June and July were the sum of the next year's time spent at Mount Vernon, In 1795 he came for seven days in April, in July for seventeen, and on September thirteen for a full month lacking only a day. It was on the last visit that he found two old friends of the Mount Vernon household married and at home in Alexandria. They were his secretary, Tobias Lear, and Frances Bassett Washington, widow of George Augustine Washington. Her husband and Lear's wife both died in 1793. The young widow and the widower were married in August, 1795, and in September the President and Mrs. Washington drove up to Alexandria and dined with them. This was the first time in over thirty years that the master and mistress of Mount Vernon had driven through its gates and missed the welcome of ancient Bishop. He died in his cottage on the mansion house farm, in his eightieth year, in January, 1795, mourned by the master he had served as long as strength permitted and by whose bounty he enjoyed a green old age of ease and plenty.
Every morning saw the President on horseback, riding over his farms. The house was never free of company and usually the guests packed it. He often entertained the foreign ministers, the members of his cabinet, and other high governmental officials, ranking veterans of the army, and natives and foreigners of various distinctions. Time for work on his letters and papers was made possible only by his custom of rising hours before others of the household and closeting himself in the library.
During the final year of the Presidency Washington was at home for nearly two months, from June 20th to August 17th, and returned in September to take Mrs. Washington and the children back to Philadelphia for the winter. On the latter occasion he remained thirty-three days. Much of his time while at home this summer was spent in his library over his Farewell Address. He had by him Alexander Hamilton's extensive suggestions, and to him he wrote after some work on it: "All the columns, of a large gazette would scarcely, I believe, contain the present draught."
He left Mount Vernon for Philadelphia for the last period of his term in office at the end of October, 1796. He arrived at the seat of government on the last day of the month. In general the trip between Mount Vernon and Philadelphia, with fair roads and no delays, occupied four or five days. When his horses were fat or "out of exercise" he allowed for an extra day of rest on the route somewhere. If the trip were made without Mrs. Washington or her grandchildren he generally pushed forward with secretary and servants and five horses, or at most with the light coachee and outriders. But with his family he travelled with chariot and four or six horses, coachman and postilions, secretaries on horseback, a light baggage wagon, perhaps a two-horse phaeton, and from six to twelve servants. There were often as many as sixteen horses in the train. The heavy luggage was usually sent from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon by vessel. Washington rode in the coach only a fraction of the time, often mounting a horse and resting himself with a ride by the side of Mrs. Washington's chariot.
One of the rare scenes reported of these journeys confirms the belief that behind Washington's placid mask he had a very human nature capable of being stirred to high anger and, moreover, it glimpses his concern for his horses.
"I never saw him angry but once in my life," said a relative of the General's whom a writer in the Democratic Review for March, 1843, merely styles "Captain L"; "and this was considered so remarkable . . we looked upon it as quite an anomaly in the General's life. It happened while he was President and travelling in his carriage, with a small retinue of outriders, from Mount Vernon to Philadelphia. It was during the first day of our journey, and we were passing through the barrens of Maryland, where, at intervals of a few miles, the solitude of the road was relieved at that time by a set of low taverns or groggeries, at which we did not think of stopping. But we had a thoughtless young man in our train, who by favour had been admitted into the family as a sort of gentleman attendant, and who seemed much more inclined to patronize these places. The General, at his request, had permitted him to ride a favorite young mare which he had raised on his plantation, and of which he was exceedingly careful, the animal being almost as slight as a roebuck and very high spirited. But the young fellow, notwithstanding the intimations he had received at starting to deal gently with her, appeared bent on testing her speed and other qualities, and that too in a manner little likely to meet with favour in a man of Washington's high sense of propriety. Ile would leave the train, and riding up to one of the liquoring establishments, there remain until we were out of sight; when he would come up upon the run, ride with us awhile, and gallop on forward to the next. This he repeated three times, the last of which brought the mettlesome creature to a foam and evidently much fretted her. At the first transgression thus committed against the General's orders respecting the mare, as well as against his known sense of propriety, he seemed surprised, looking as if he wondered at the young man's temerity, and contented himself with throwing after the young man a glance of displeasure. At the second he appeared highly incensed although he said nothing, and repressed his indignation, acting as if he thought this must be the last offense, for the punishment of which he chose a private occasion. But as the offender rode up the third time, Washington hastily threw open the carriage window, and asking the driver to halt, sharply ordered the former alongside; when with uplifted cane, and a tone and emphasis which startled us all, and made the culprit shrink and tremble like a leaf, he exclaimed, 'Look you, sir! Your conduct is in-sufferable! Fall in behind there, sir; and as sure as you leave us again, I will break every bone in your skin ! '
In the absence of the family Mount Vernon was frequented by travellers eager to see the home of the renowned Washington, and he maintained a generous hospitality for all who presented themselves. It was taken advantage of, however, not merely by the guests but by the servants, and the President felt obliged to write his manager defining the treatment he wished the visitors to receive :
"Speaking of Gentlemens Servts it calls to my mind, that in a letter from Mrs. Fanny Washington to Mrs. Washington (her Aunt) she mentions, that since I left Mount Vernon she has given out four doze and eight bottles of wine.—Whether they are used, or not, she does not say;—but I am led by it to observe, that it is not my intention that it should be given to every one who may incline to to make a convenience of the house, in traveling; or who may be induced to visit it from motives of curiosity.—There are but three descriptions of people to whom I think it ought to be given:—first, my particular and intimate acquaintances, in case business should call them there, such for instance as Doctr Craik.-2dIy some of the most respectable foreigners who may, per-chance, be in Alexandria or the federal city; and be either brought down, or introduced by letter, from some of my particular acquaintances as before mentioned;—or, thirdly, to persons of some distinction (such as members of Congress &et) who may be traveling through the Country from North to South, or from South to North; —to the first of which, I should not fail to give letters, where I conceive them entitled.—Unless some caution of this sort governs, I should be run to an expence as improper, as it would be considerable. . . . I have no objection to any sober, or orderly person's gratifying their curiosity in viewing the buildings, Gardens &ct about Mount Vernon;—but it is only to such persons as I have described, that I ought to be run to any expence on account of these visits of curiosity, beyond common civility and hospitality."
The above directions were sent his manager, William Pearce.
During the first sixteen years of his married life, which he spent at home, Washington managed the estate himself with overseers on each of the farms. At the outbreak of the Revolution he engaged a distant relative, Lund Washington, as manager, and left the charge of Mount Vernon in his hands for ten years. At the end of this term the General had then been at home two years and recovered his grasp on the place. His nephew, George Augustine Washington, was at Mount Vernon at this time, and to the affections of his uncle he added his confidence to such a degree that when called to the Presidency Washington placed the estate under the management of this nephew. The young man seems not to have been without ability, but his health failed him and in the winter of 1791-2 he was succeeded by Anthony Whiting, a man who, it was reported to Washington, "drank freely—kept bad company at my house and in Alexandria-and was a very debauched person." His habits probably hastened the relief his employer had of him for he died in July, 1793. Washington's nephew, Betty's son, Howell Lewis, took charge during the few months pending the arrival of William Pearce, in December. There may be a hint to the curious in Washington's remark when he heard that Howell's brother Lawrence was available at the time of the former's engagement: "But after all is not Lawrence Lewis on the point of matrimony? Report says so, and if truly, it would be an effectual bar to a permanent establishment in my business, as I never again will have two women in my house when I am there myself."
Pearce's stewardship covered three full years. He was succeeded by James Anderson in the last year the President was absent in Philadelphia. Both these men gave their chief great satisfaction. Anderson was manager during the remaining years of Washington's life and to him was addressed the last letter the great man wrote.
During the first five years of the General and Mrs. Washington's absence at the seat of government the mansion was under the personal control of Fanny Washington. Both her uncle and aunt were very fond of her and Mrs. Washington was constantly sending her presents. In forwarding a newly imported watch on one occasion, her Aunt Martha closed the letter with this remembrance of her little girl: "Kiss Marie I send her two little handkerchiefs to wipe her nose. Adue."
Mount Vernon never lost the direct influence of its master even during his long absences. He exacted a weekly report from his manager by the post leaving Alexandria each Thursday, and he, on his part, wrote every week, usually devoting Sunday afternoon to the preparation of the long letters which covered two or three and even four large, closely written pages. Such was the importance which he attached to these letters that he first made a rough draft of them, then copied them out in full in his own handwriting, and finally preserved a letter-press copy. They directed the planting, cultivating, and harvesting of crops; building and repairs; the engaging, discharge, discipline, and comfort of his servants and slaves; all with the same intimate acquaintance he might have shown in his library in a talk with his manager after a morning ride of inspection over his farms.
He referred to the hundreds of slaves by name, and knew each of their children's; he knew exactly where windows and doors were to be placed and their dimensions; what was boarded and what was free; what carpenters were available and best suited to the various jobs; what money he owed and what money was owed him; the condition of his growing crops, the potentiality of each field, the stage of the foaled mares; and seemingly every other imaginable detail.
That an absent proprietor with no other concerns should exhibit such a grasp would be remarkable; that it was the concurrent if not the secondary interest at first of a general conducting a great war and later of a president organizing an infant nation, excites a truly natural wonder.
One of the new and important works put under way during the early years of the Presidency was the circular or sixteen-sided barn, of his own invention, on Dogue Run Farm. It was two stories high and sixty feet in diameter, and was so arranged that when rain drove the farm help out of the fields they could here under shelter, in the second story, thresh out the grain on a ten-foot floor of open slats which entirely surrounded the central mows. Another feature of this barn, in which he took so much pride, and which was the wonder of the neighbors, was an. inclined runway which admitted the oxen or horses up to the circular treading floor.
When Pearce arrived in 1793 the President wrote him a characteristic letter giving a schedule of work for the carpenters. They were to begin at once the completion of the circular barn and the stables attached thereto for horses and cattle. After that "the work essentially necessary to be done," he wrote, was "building the house for Crow—Repairing my house in Alexandria for Mrs. Fanny Washington—which must be done before the first of May—Inclosing the lot on which it stands for a Garden or Yard. Repairing the Millers house. Removing the larger kind of Negro quarters (the smaller ones or cabbins, I presume the people with a little assistance of Carts can do themselves) to the ground marked out for them opposite to Crow's New house. Repairing at a proper time those he will remove from.—Lending aid in drawing the houses at River farm into some uniform shape, in a convenient place.—Repairing the Barn and Stables at Muddyhole.—Compleating the Dormant Windows in the back of the Stable at Mansion house and putting two in the front of it agreeably to directions already given to Thomas Green—after which, and perhaps doing some other things which do not occur to me at this moment, my intention is to build a large Barn, and sheds for Stables upon the plan of that at Dogue Run (if, on trial it should be found to answer to the expectation wch is formed of it) at River Farm."
In another letter he enclosed a schedule of the bricks needed for the barn on the River Farm. They were 139,980 in number. In view of these extensive improvements something had to be neglected, and it appears to have been the palings of the deer park. When Pearce forwarded the gardener's complaint of the in-jury the roving animals did the shrubbery, the General did not consider new palings, rather he was "at a loss . . whether to give up the Shrubbery or the Deer!" The only new feature of the mansion at this time seems to have been the "Venetian blinds . . . painted green, for all the windows on the West side of the House."
Whenever away from Mount Vernon not only a portion of his mind but all his heart seems to have been there. He had better control of his emotions in this respect, however, than Mrs. Washington; with greater need. She was downright homesick. When the war ended they had hoped to pass the remainder of their days at their river home in peace and tranquillity. The renewed absences during the Presidency fretted Mrs. Washington, she longed for home and said so. She found official life dull and went about little. "Indeed I think I am more like a State prisoner than anything else," she said; "there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from—and as I cannot doe as I like, I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal."
Her husband's love for Mount Vernon was even more passionate. It breathes forth in letter after letter in spite of his excellent self-control. It was his "goal of domestic enjoyment"; his "vine and fig-tree" over and over again; and he dwelt caressingly on its "tranquil scenes" whether absent or among them. It was his pride to be thought the first farmer in America. He declared no estate to be so pleasantly situated as his. "I can truly say," he exclaimed, "I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me, than to be attended at the seat of government by the officers of state and the representatives of every power in Europe." As the time approached to relinquish office and return to his plantation, he looked forward to this last journey with the eagerness of a freed schoolboy, declaring, "No consideration under heaven, that I can foresee, shall again withdraw me from the walks of private life."
John Adams was inaugurated March 4, 1797. Washington thus once more became a private citizen. Mr. Adams, writing his wife, said: "A solemn scene it was indeed, and it was made more affecting to me by the presence of the General, whose countenence was as serene and unclouded as the day. He seemed to me to enjoy a triumph over me. Methought I heard him say, `Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!'
The citizens of Philadelphia gave Washington a fare-well dinner under the great roof of Rickett's Circus. As the extensive company marched in to the tables, said a journal of the day, "Washington's march re-sounded through the place, and a curtain drew up which presented to view a transparent full length painting of the late President, whom Fame is crowning with a Wreath of Laurel, taking leave after delivering to her his valedictory address, of the Genius of America, who is represented by a Female Figure holding the Cap of Liberty in her hand, with an Altar before her, inscribed PUBLIC GRATITUDE. In the painting are introduced several emblematic devices of the honours he had acquired by his public services, and a distant view of Mount Vernon the seat of retirement."
On March 9th Washington left Philadelphia. A Baltimore paper reported the party made up of "His Excellency . . . his lady and Miss Custis, the son of the Unfortunate LaFayette and his preceptor." But Washington in a postscript to a letter, written on the way, to Lear, indicated others: "On one side I am called upon to remember the Parrot, and on the other to re-member the dog. For my own part I should not pine much if both were forgot."
Everywhere along the route the illustrious traveller was met by escorts of military, by processions, salutes, entertainments, and ovations from the assembled crowds. An escort of mounted troops from Alexandria finally accompanied him to the gates of Mount Vernon, where he arrived on Saturday, April 1, 1797.