Mount Vernon Lands Diminish
( Originally Published 1925 )
Burden of a National Shrine —Neglect and Decay—Speculators—Vain Appeal for Government Purchase—Ann Pamela Cunningham Organizes the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union—Contract for Purchase—Campaign for Funds—Edward Everett's Work—Possession Given—Restoration Begun—During the War—Regents, Superintendents, and Other Officials.
THE maintenance of Mount Vernon on the scale established by General Washington was only possible for a man of his other resources. When he died he owned, besides the eight thousand acres on or near Dogue Creek and Little Hunting Creek, other land and chattels which he estimated to be worth five hundred and thirty thousand dollars. He directed that these possessions be sold and the proceeds be divided in twenty-three parts. His will named twenty-three or more of his sister's and brothers' children, and the four grandchildren of Mrs. Washington, who received each at most one twenty-third part. This bequest, generous as it was, made none of the recipients wealthy.
When Mount Vernon passed to Bushrod Washington its yielding acres were diminished more than two-thirds. The owner was wholly without the western landed domain of his uncle from which strip after strip had been sold to realize the capital needed to support his seat on the Potomac. Each subsequent transfer of Mount Vernon saw the boundary lines draw in. The last private owner, John Augustine Washington, had about twelve hundred acres. As the owners of the mansion saw their lands diminish, they saw the obligations attached to its ownership increase by leaps and bounds. Fifty years after his death Washington's fame and the patriotic curiosity to see his home and tomb had grown to such proportions that it was not possible any longer for the owners to live there with privacy or without bankruptcy. In spite of their devotion to the sacred spot it became a burden they could not any longer bear.
Year after year saw the place fall farther and farther into neglect and decay. Justice Washington was absent on the bench nearly all the twenty-seven years of his ownership. His nephew and heir, John Augustine, survived him less than three years. The widow of John Augustine struggled bravely with the heavy burden, and finally, when her eldest son, John Augustine, married in his twenty-second year, she handed the estate over to him and fled with relief to a remote home in the mountains on the western edge of the state.
In addition to tourists from Europe and all parts of the world, every one in public life in Washington City felt privileged to come and to send his friends and visiting constituents with letters of introduction. Among his father's and grandmother's papers the surviving son of the last owner has an astonishing number of letters from members of the antebellum Senate, House, Supreme Court, and Cabinets asking attention for the bearers. Hospitality directed that they have not merely the liberty of the house and grounds, but substantial entertainment as well. It was not then an easy hour's ride on the wings of electricity. The journey was made in a primitive slow river steamer or in carriages over precarious roads.
Bushrod's heir foresaw that Mount Vernon would eventually ruin any member of the family who under-took to wring a living from its well-worn acres and remained to meet the tide of visitors with open house and open-handed hospitality, which is the tradition of the planters. In his will he wisely included permission for his heirs to sell to the national government. The mansion and estate reached his son in a depleted and ruined state. Had he the means to restore it to its original condition it would have required an annual fortune to keep it in repair, under the normal wear and tear of pilgrims, and to maintain a corps of guards against the idle, conscienceless visitors who not merely stole but destroyed to bear away souvenirs of the great shrine.
As early as 1848 speculators were keen to acquire the home and tomb of the first President. His great-grandnephew knew better than any one else how many and how keen they were, and he refused at great sacrifice to allow the estate to drift into speculative hands. At one time he was offered three hundred thousand dollars for the house and one thousand acres. At an-other time he refused two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for the house and two hundred and fifty acres. Mr. Washington was not holding Mount Vernon primarily for a high price. He had a proper sense of its speculative value but he had also a proper and a higher sense of its patriotic national quality, and for this reason he withheld it that the United States Government or the State of Virginia might own and care for it.
At one time he offered to let either the state or the national government take Mount Vernon at its own price. Both refused. So far as governmental appreciation, national or state, were concerned, the home of the immortal First Citizen went begging.
Mount Vernon seemed doomed to decay and perhaps to disappear. That fate overtook many of the famed mansions intimately associated with Washington's life, which their builders raised, not as he did in perishable wood, but in enduring brick. Mount Vernon survived Wakefield, where Washington was born; Greenaway Court about which as a young man he made his early surveys under the friendly eye of old Lord Fairfax; the White House, scene of his wedding festivities; Mr. Digges' Warburton Manor, and the Fairfaxs' Belvoir in sight of his own front door; nearby Hollin Hall of another neighbor, Thomson Mason; and Councillor Carter's Nomini Hall where he was a frequent visitor.
But, more enduring than the work of man's hand was custom, the work of his heart. By day and by night, as the boats sped along the Potomac past the tomb of Washington, their bells tolled in memory of the de-parted liberator who lay asleep beneath the trees on the hillside. Many heard but only one responded. Journeying up the river one night in the year 1853, a South Carolina woman was moved by the solemnity of the tolling bell, by the decay she knew of in spite of the softening moonlight and by the tales of the neglect of government, to a plan for the salvation of Mount Vernon. Her inspiration was to place the work of rescue in the hands of the women of America. This was a bolder project then than now. Feminine activity was undignified not to say unorganized. She confided the idea to her daughter, who seized it and became its standard-bearer. This was Ann Pamela Cunningham, founder and first Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union.
Miss Cunningham possessed a strong will and indomitable purpose in a frail body. But even when invalidism kept her off her feet she planned and wrote and exhorted in a truly remarkable manner. She began her crusade for funds to purchase Mount Vernon in December, 1853. For three years, though she was breaking the way, there was little tangible result. The organization was unincorporated and though some money was coming in it was inconsiderable in proportion to the effort or to the whole amount required.
At first Miss Cunningham reported that Mr. Washington's reception of her plan was not wholly cordial, and this was wholly natural. The day of feminine efficiency had not arrived. Even Miss Cunningham operated under an incognito, as "The Southern Matron," and was horrified when her own name appeared in. an obscure journal. Moreover, the fact that she was an invalid did not inspire confidence in her ability to accomplish such a prodigious work. Her proposition to Mr. Washington was based on hope, expectation perhaps, and promise; all at the time without substance.
The idea had taken form, however, and the patriotic fervor of Miss Cunningham and her growing group of workers began to achieve results. The Assembly of the State of Virginia granted a charter to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union on the seventeenth day of March, 1856, which it revised by a further act of March, 1858.
The governing body of the Association thereby consists of a Regent and the Grand Council made up of the Vice-Regents, who are appointed from each state in the Union. They serve without pay. By this charter it is provided that, should the Association fail in its work, Mount Vernon Mansion and land shall be taken over by the State of Virginia and held sacred to the purposes for which it was purchased from the Washington family. The work of the ladies is ' surveyed once a year by a Board of Visitors appointed by the Governor and reporting to him. Mount Vernon is exempt from taxation, and the sum saved thereby is in effect Virginia's annual contribution to the work.
On the incorporation of the Association Mr. Washington at once entered into a contract with it for the sale of the mansion and two hundred and two acres of land immediately surrounding it for two hundred thousand dollars, giving four years during which to complete the payment
The agreement with the Washington heirs specified that they "shall at all times have and enjoy the right to inter the remains of such persons whose remains are in the vault at Mount Vernon as are not now interred, and to place the said vault in such a secure and permanent condition as he or they shall see fit, and to enclose the same so as not to include more than a half-acre of land, and the said vault, the remains in and around it, and the enclosure shall never be removed or disturbed, and that no other person hereafter shall ever be interred or entombed within the said vault or enclosure."
The campaign for funds was organized on the plan of dollar contributions, and every state responded to the call. The most notable individual assistance given the Association in its campaign for the purchase money came from the Honorable Edward Everett of Massachusetts. For four years he travelled from New England to the Mississippi and south into Georgia delivering his oration on the character of Washington and devoting the proceeds to the purchase fund. In addition he accepted the proposal of the editor of the New York Ledger to write one article each week for one year, for which ten thousand dollars was paid to the fund. In all, Mr. Everett, by tongue and pen, earned and donated to the purchase money needed to redeem Mount Vernon the sum of $68,294.54, more than one-third of the whole amount.
The final payment on the purchase contract was made in December, 1859, and formal possession was given February 22, 1860. On the outbreak of the Civil War John Augustine Washington joined the Confederate Army and was given a commission as aide on General Robert E. Lee's staff, with the rank of Colonel. He was killed September 13, 1861, at Cheat Mountain, and was buried in a family burying ground at Charlestown, West Virginia.
In the mansion at this time the only objects associated with the General's life there were the Key of the Bastille, the clay bust of Washington which Houdon modelled from life, a plaster bust of LaFayette, the old globe in the library, and some camp equipment. The owner said that aside from papers, these were the only things which he possessed which had belonged to the General, and he presented them to the Association.
Upton H. Herbert was the first resident superintendent for the Association, and the estate was placed under his care, and he began restorations a few months before possession was given. The mansion received first attention. The crumbling portico, whose roof was at the time supported in places by masts from the sailboats of the river fishermen, offered the most compelling opportunity; the tottering colonnades were strengthened and these and the mansion received the needed protection of paint. All the outbuildings near the house had survived but were in bad condition. They were all roofed in 1860. The walks and drives were cleared, the wharf was made practical, and a small steamer, the Thomas Collyer, was purchased and put in commission to carry visitors between Washington City and Mount Vernon. From this source the Association received its first revenue. The work began to march, when suddenly the Civil War broke out, the steamer was confiscated for army transport service, interest in Washington's home was deflected, and revenue was almost totally cut off.
There followed dark days for the courageous women who had undertaken the salvation of Washington's home, but they did not falter even in the face of war; they maintained the work, and improvements progressed, though only by many individual sacrifices and contributions from the members' private savings, which some of them were little able to give. The pioneers remember with especial gratitude the substantial assistance given in these days by George W. Riggs of Washington, for many years treasurer of the Association, who financed many an emergency.
During the Civil War Mount Vernon was by spontaneous consent of those on both sides of the great contest the only neutral ground in the country. Soldiers were requested to leave their arms outside the gates, which they did, and men in blue and men in gray met fraternally before the tomb of the Father of their divided country. Mr. Herbert remained on the estate throughout the war and at its end said: "There was no effort to disturb the tomb or the place by troops on either side during that period." Which admits the inference that it was a civilian relic hunter who passed the iron barrier before Washington's sarcophagus and broke off one of the talons of the eagle sculptured on its top, for this bit of vandalism was committed at this time.
After the war the Association was so poor that it was unable to pay a superintendent's salary, and Miss Cunningham came in 1868 and lived at Mount Vernon and directed operations until her frail health broke down entirely in 1872. J. M. Hollingsworth then took up the work as resident secretary and superintendent. He remained in charge until May 80, 1885, and was succeeded by Harrison Howell Dodge who has held this same post more than thirty-one years. James Young came to assist Mr. Dodge as clerk in 1886, but he has been assistant superintendent and James Archer has been resident engineer since these offices were created in 1890 and 1907, respectively.
Since the death of the Founder of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association it has had three Regents: Mrs. Lily M. Berghman of Pennsylvania, who presided in council from 1873 until her death in 1891; Mrs. Justine Van Rensselaer Townsend of New York, who held the presiding office until 1909; and Miss Harriet C. Comegys of Delaware, who has held the office since that date.
Miss Cunningham died May 1, 1875, at her home at Laurens, South Carolina,alittle over one year after resigning the office of Regent, which she had held from the birth of the Association. In her letter of resignation to the Council of Vice-Regents she left this declaration of purpose: "Ladies, the Home of Washington is in your charge; see to it that you keep it the Home of Washington, Let no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress ! Those who go to the Home where he lived and died, wish to see in what he lived and died! Let one spot in this grand country of ours be saved from change! Upon you rests this duty."