Mount Vernon - Career Of Bushrod Washington
( Originally Published 1925 )
Estimates by Contemporaries—Mount Vernon and the English Fleet in 1814—Battle off Belvoir —Rev. Charles O'Neill Return of LaFayette—Death of Justice Washington—The Two John Augustine Washingtons —New Tomb—Reentombment of the General and Mrs. Washington—Other Burials—The Key Thrown into the Potomac.
BUSHROD WASHINGTON, third Washington to own and to live in Mount Vernon Mansion, was the second child of John Augustine Washington, who was a second younger brother of the General. He was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, June 5, 1762.
He graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1778, later joined the army, and was a private soldier under Mercer at Yorktown. In his twenty-second year he accompanied the General on his tour of western Pennsylvania, when they rode six hundred and eighty miles in thirty-four days, and he afterward received substantial evidence that he was his Uncle George's favorite nephew. Bushrod chose the law as his profession and by the influence of his uncle he was admitted to study in the office of James Wilson of Philadelphia, later one of the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. He began to practise in his native Westmoreland, which he represented in the Virginia Assembly and also in the Virginia Convention which ratified the Constitution.
Bushrod married Anne, daughter of Colonel Thomas Blackburn of Rippon Lodge, Prince William County, about twelve miles from Mount Vernon. There was no issue. As his country practice did not thrive, he moved to Alexandria; perhaps also to be nearer the Mount Vernon influence. Indeed he wrote the General asking to be appointed an attorney in the Federal Court, but learned that "nepotism was not one of his uncle's redeeming vices." He next established himself in Richmond and almost immediately became one of the leading members of the Virginia bar. His wife was an invalid, however, and he led a retired life, devoting his leisure to editing the Reports of the Virginia Court of Appeals between 1790 and 1796.
When Justice Wilson died President Adams reduced his choice of a successor to John Marshall and Bushrod Washington. " Marshall is first in age, rank and public service, probably not second in talents," the President wrote Mr. Pickering, his Secretary of State. "The character, the merits and abilities of Mr. Washington are greatly respected, but I think General Marshall ought to be preferred; of the three envoys [to France] the conduct of Marshall alone has been entirely satisfactory, and ought to be marked by the most decided approbation of the public. He has raised the American people in their own esteem, and if the influence of truth and justice, reason and argument is not lost in Europe, he had raised the consideration of the United States in that quarter of the world. If Mr. Marshall should de-cline, I should next think of Mr. Washington." Marshall did decline, and Bushrod Washington became an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, December 20, 1798, in his thirty-sixth year, succeeding his own learned preceptor.
Justice Washington is described as a small man, with an emaciated frame and a countenance like marble. Though his fame was overshadowed by his illustrious uncle, he was undoubtedly a man of parts. He specialized in commercial and Nisi Prius law, and Justice Binney said of him that he was "as accomplished a Nisi Prius judge as ever lived. I cannot conceive a better. . . . I do not believe that even he [Lord Mansfield] surpassed him." Judge Hopkinson and David Paul Brown made equal estimates of his abilities.
Justice Story reviewing the partiality shown Bushrod Washington by his uncle in bequeathing him Mount Vernon, his private and public letters and papers and his library, and in making him executor of his will, said: "Such marks of respect from such a man,—the wonder of his own age, and the model of all future ages, — would alone stamp a character of high merit, and solid distinction, upon any person. They would constitute a passport to public favour, and confer an enviable rank, far beyond the records of the herald's office, or the fugitive honors of a title. . . . He was as worthy an heir as ever claimed kindred with a worthy ancestor. . . . Few men indeed have possessed higher qualifications for the office, either natural or acquired. . . His mind was solid, rather than brilliant; sagacious and searching, rather than quick or eager; steady, but not unyielding; comprehensive, and at the same time cautious; patient in inquiry, forcible in conception, clear in reasoning. He was, by original temperament, mild, conciliating, and candid; and yet he was remarkable for his uncompromising firmness."
He was a man of few activities apart from his attention to his duties on the Supreme Bench. He was, however, the first President of the American Colonization Society, which sought to transfer negroes from the United States to colonize the little Republic of Liberia, and in his later years he edited the Reports of the United States Circuit Court of the Third District, 1803 to 1827.
Justice Washington's senforced presence in Philadelphia, during many of the years of his ownership of Mount Vernon, afforded him brief intervals to retire to his estate. Whenever he was there he dispensed a modest and graceful hospitality to the great number of visitors who came to view the home and tomb of his uncle. Among the happy incidents of his occupancy of the mansion were the occasional dinners which he and his wife gave to the Chief Justice and his Associate Justices of the Supreme Court.
Apprehension for Mount Vernon again seized the people during the second war with Great Britain, when, on August 24, 1814, the British fleet sailed up the Potomac. Instead of attacking and destroying Mount Vernon, as anticipated, it is said Captain Gordon of the Royal Navy caused the seven vessels of his fleet to fire salutes as they came abreast. Almost immediately thereafter, and in sight of the mansion, Fort Washington, on the site of Mr. Digges' Warburton Manor lands, surrendered without a shot to the astonished English.
When the enemy returned from the plunder of Alexandria, however, they bore away a different tale of Mount Vernon neighborhood. Two batteries under Commodore David Porter and Commodore Oliver H. Perry engaged the retreating ships from the Virginia shore, following their passage down river. They crossed the western end of Mount Vernon estate and took up a position on Belvoir heights. As the English ships passed there was a spirited engagement. But this naval battle fought in sight of Mount Vernon was overwhelmingly onesided. The land batteries were of small calibre and the guns were outnumbered many times over by those on the ships.
Of a more peaceful nature were the visits to Mount Vernon of the Rev. Charles O'Neill, rector of rejuvenated Pohick Church, recounted by Bishop Meade, then rector of Christ Church, Alexandria, where Justice and Mrs. Washington worshipped: "The families at Mount Vernon and Rippon Lodge were fond of him. He always spent his Christmas at Mount Vernon, and on these occasions was dressed in a full suit of velvet, which General Washington left behind, and which had been given to Mr. O'Neill. But as General Washington was tall and well proportioned in all his parts, and Mr. O'Neill was peculiarly formed, being of uncommon length of body and brevity of legs, it was difficult to make the clothes of one even though altered sit well upon the other."
General the Marquis de LaFayette, accompanied by his son, George Washington LaFayette, crossed the Atlantic once more, in 1824, for a tour of America as the nation's guest, and he came again to Mount Vernon to refresh his souvenirs and lay his homage at the tomb of his chief and friend. It was a pilgrimage of much state though of simple ceremonial.
Bushrod Washington possessed Mount Vernon for twenty-seven years. The only impress of his ownership which survives on the mansion is the porch which he built on the southwest end outside the library windows. In erecting this porch he tore away the shelter over the steps descending into the cellar, similar to the shelter which survives at the northeast cellar door.
Justice Washington's health began to fail in the autumn of 1829, and he died while attending court in Philadelphia, November 26th, of that year. His wife died a few days later, of grief it is said. They were buried side by side in the family vault at Mount Vernon.
In his will Justice Washington divided that portion of the original estate which he had inherited from his uncle, the General, among his own nephews and a niece, Mary Lee Washington, daughter of his brother Corbin, who was married to Noblet Herbert in the mansion in 1819, and is buried within the vault. The mansion and a large tract surrounding, including the river front, he bequeathed to John Augustine Washington, third child of his brother Corbin.
This John Augustine Washington was born at Walnut Farm, in Westmoreland County, Virginia, about 1792. He married Jane Charlotte, daughter of Major Richard Scott Blackburn, of the United States Army, in 1814, and they lived at Blakeley, in Jefferson County, then Virginia, now West Virginia. There five children were born to them, of whom two died in infancy. On the death of his 'Uncle Bushrod, John Augustine moved with his family to Mount Vernon and proposed to make the cultivation and improvement of the estate his chief business in life. He died in 1832, however, and was buried in the vault, after only a little more than two years' ownership of the estate, which he bequeathed to his widow.
Jane Washington seems to have been a woman of character and resources. With such aid as she could command she kept her young family about her—her eldest son was only eleven years old—and applied her-self to carry on her husband's work. What a burden it must have been to her can be little realized by those who have not staggered under the tax, in time and entertainment, of the proprietorship of one of the most-frequented patriotic shrines in the world.
John Augustine, Jane's eldest boy, was his mother's main dependence, and within a few years he is found shouldering responsibilities in the management of the place. Soon after Bushrod Washington's death the green-house next the flower gardens burned, which explains an allusion in a letter of November 10, 1837, to John Augustine from his mother: "The portico and pavement round the House at Mount Vernon should be immediately laid—many of the flagstones are broken and much defaced there are more than eno' to replace them in the Burnt Hot house, the rubbish must be removed & have them carefully taken up."
Jane Washington lived at Mount Vernon until 1843. In February of that year John Augustine was married to Eleanor Love Selden of Exeter, Loudoun County, Virginia. His mother then retired to her other estate, Blakeley, in Jefferson County. She transferred Mount Vernon Mansion and about twelve hundred acres of surrounding land to him by deed of gift in 1850, which gift she confirmed in her will.
To this John Augustine, last Washington to own Mount Vernon, and Eleanor his wife, were born seven children: Louisa Fontaine, 19 February, 1844; Jane Charlotte, 26 May, 1846; Eliza Selden, 17 July, 1848; Anna Maria, 17 November, 1851; Lawrence, 14 January, 1854; Eleanor Love, 14 March, 1856; and George, 22 July, 1858. All were born in Mount Vernon Mansion except Eliza, and they were the last children born there.
The years of Jane Washington's residence at Mount Vernon made little history for the estate apart from the notable events of 1831 and 1837, the years which saw the realization of the General's wish expressed in this item of his will:
"The family Vault at Mount Vernon requiring repairs, and being improperly situated besides, I desire that a new one of Brick, and upon a larger scale, may be built at the foot of what is commonly called the vineyard enclosure, on the ground which is marked out. In which my remains, with those of my deceased relatives (now in the Old Vault) and such others of my family as may chuse to be entombed there, may be deposited."
In the thirty-odd years since his death, the proposal to move his remains from Mount Vernon to Washington City was twice agitated. During Martha Washington's widowhood President Adams requested that her husband's ashes might be brought to the national Capital. She consented, but the project was not pursued. Again in 1832, when the nation celebrated the centennial of Washington's birth, Congress renewed the request to the Washington family and a platform was prepared for his sarcophagus in the crypt underneath the centre of the dome of the Capitol of the United States. But it remains untenanted today, and the General reposes in the quiet of his beloved Mount Vernon, as his relatives refused to give a permission contrary to the desire expressed in his will.
It was a vandal's effort, happily futile, to steal the body of Washington from the old tomb, which stirred Lawrence Lewis and G. W. P. Custis, surviving executors under the General's will, to fulfil his desire. This was about 1830. Already the damp condition of the old tomb, smothered under the dense foliage of trees which grew above it and shot their destructive roots through its roof and walls, had three times destroyed the wooden casings of the General's leaden casket. In 1831 the new tomb was completed and into it all the remains of the deceased members of the Washington family in the old vault were at once moved.
When, the next year, the proposal to remove Washington and his wife to the United States Capitol was agitated, John Struthers, of Philadelphia, asked and received permission to present sarcophagi for their bodies, which he proceeded to chisel from solid blocks of marble. When the effort was finally abandoned and it became certain that Washington's wish to remain at Mount Vernon would be respected, Mr. Struthers presented the sarcophagi to the Washington family for use in the family vault.
Attention was called to the fact that the marble would discolor and perhaps decay in the damp and darkness behind the iron door of the vault. It was then decided to build the vestibule that the marble caskets might have air and light. This was completed in 1837, when the remains of George and Martha Washington were sealed in the marble sarcophagi in the places where they have since rested in the open vestibule before the vault.
On this occasion a delegation headed by Henry Clay drove to Mount Vernon from the Capital and joined Lawrence Lewis, his son Lorenzo Lewis, John Augustine Washington, his mother Jane Washington, the Reverend Mr. Johnson and his wife, and others in the informal but solemn ceremonial of reëntombment.
A circumstantial story has been published that the leaden casket was opened, that Washington's face was looked upon by those present, and that his features were little changed. "I believe this to be untrue," said Mr. Lawrence Washington to the writer. "The late Mr. Richard B. Washington told me that the leaden casket was not opened. He was present and about fifteen years old. He said there was a small circular hole immediately over the face, through which several persons attempted to look on Washington's face, and some of them claimed that they saw it, but that he on attempting to look through the hole could see nothing. I am aware that Strickland's account is very circumstantial, but my uncle did not hesitate to denounce it as false."
The marble receptacles are severely plain. That of Washington has on its upper surface a sculptured device in high relief representing the eagle above the American shield against a drapery of the Flag of the Union. Beneath this is the single word " Washington." Martha's has carved on its upper surface the words, "Martha, Consort of Washington," and, on the up-right surface at the end, "Died May 21, 1801, aged 71 years." This is obviously erroneous. Martha Washington died the 22d day of May, in the year 1802.
After the entombment in 1837 there were seven other burials at Mount Vernon—four within the vault and three in the ground on the southeast side. The first of these was Lawrence Lewis. After Martha Washington's death, Lawrence and Nellie built Woodlawn Mansion, three miles northwest of Mount Vernon house, on the superb site which the General bequeathed his nephew. It is one of the stateliest houses in Virginia, built of brick throughout, in the Georgian style, and its pillared portico overlooks the Potomac down the length of Dogue Creek, all of the original acres of Mount Vernon, and a long stretch of lovely valley to the north. The Lewises continued to live at Woodlawn until the early thirties, when they moved to Audley, another estate of theirs in Clarke County, near the Shenandoah. Lawrence died November 20, 1839, and is buried in the vault at Mount Vernon. Their daughter Angela, Mrs. Conrad, died at Pass Christian, Mississippi, in 1839, according to the shaft above her grave, and John Augustine Washington's diary says that on July 10, 1843, her body " and that of her child were buried near the new vault." Mrs. Lewis survived her husband thirteen years. She died at Audley, July 15, 1852, and was brought to Mount Vernon and buried near her daughter and granddaughter at the side of the vault. Her brother, G. W. P. Custis, died October 10, 1857, and is buried at Arlington. Of two of the others to be admitted to the vault at Mount Vernon one was Mary Lee Washington Herbert, who died in 1852. Mr. Washington's diary records the other burial there on April 16, 1842: "Reverend Mr. Johnson had the body of his child placed in the vault." The father of this child was the Rev. W. P. C. Johnson, who married a Miss Washington of Mount Zephyr.
Jane, mother of the last Washington to own Mount Vernon, passed away at Blakeley, her home in Jefferson County, in the year 1855. She was brought to Mount Vernon and placed near her husband in the vault.
On that occasion John Augustine Washington entered in his diary, under date of September 10, 1855, these in-valuable memoranda (see next page) of the positions of the persons buried in the vault, omitting unfortunately to indicate the bodies marked C, D, E, and F in his diagram, though sequence would seem to determine them :
" We buried my mother in the vault at Mount Vernon —as she desired, at my father's feet. The bodies buried there lie as follows. The first body inside the door of the inner vault is Major Lawrence Lewis (marked A. in the subjoined diagram). The second B. is my mother. Then at right angles to these with their feet to them are Judge Bushrod Washington marked [blank]. His wife Ann Washington My father John Augustine Washington marked [blank] and his sister Mary Lee Herbert marked [blank] "
A tradition has lingered about Mount Vernon that, after the burial of Mrs. Jane Washington, the tomb was locked, the keyhole sealed with the little metal plate which obscures it to-day, and the key was thrown into the Potomac. There seems to be no written history to corroborate this. However, oral confirmation is furnished by Thomas W. Buckey, a connection by marriage with John Augustine Washington's brother Richard, from whom he had these facts.
One evening shortly after the burial of Jane Washington a number of the Washington family were gathered in Mount Vernon Mansion, and talk turned on the crowded condition of the family vault. The discussion of what other members of the family should enjoy the distinction of burial in the historic tomb disclosed so many claims that it was decided then and there that no one else should be buried therein, and to prevent it to throw the key into the river. To avoid responsibility for this radical act it was decided to draw lots. The obligation fell to Richard Washington, who at once took the key, went down the hill in the darkness, and with all his strength hurled the key far out into the Potomac.
When this was repeated to Lawrence Washington, nephew of Richard Washington, he told the writer he had never heard it before, but added: "If Uncle Dick said so you can depend on it."
John Augustine's ownership was notable in its termination which saw the home of Washington pass from the precarious ownership of an individual to the more comprehensive and efficient care of a zealous national organization which sprang into being for this patriotic purpose.