George Washington: Farmer
Paul Leland Haworth
Part 3 out of 4
1774 on one hundred thirty-five. Presently he found himself overstocked
and in 1778 expressed a wish to barter for land some "Negroes, of whom I
every day long more to get clear of." Still later he declared that he
had more negroes than could be employed to advantage on his estate, but
was principled against selling any, while hiring them out was almost as
bad. "What then is to be done? Something or I shall be ruined."
 In 1754 he bought a "fellow" for L40.5, another named Jack for L52.5
and a woman called Clio for L50. Two years later he acquired two negro
men and a woman for L86, and from Governor Dinwiddie a woman and child
for L60. In 1758 he got Gregory for L60.9. Mount Vernon brought him
eighteen more. Mrs. Washington was the owner of a great many slaves,
which he called the "dower Negroes," and with part of the money she
brought him he acquired yet others. The year of his marriage he bought
Will for L50, another fellow for L60, Hannah and child for L80 and nine
others for L406. In 1762 he acquired two of Fielding Lewis for L115,
seven of Lee Massey for L300, also one-handed Charles for L30. Two years
later he bought two men and a woman of the estate of Francis Hobbs for
L128.10, the woman being evidently of inferior quality, for she cost
only L20. Another slave purchased that year from Sarah Alexander was
more valuable, costing L76. Judy and child, obtained of Garvin Corbin,
cost L63. Two mulattoes, Will and Frank, bought of Mary Lee in 1768,
cost L61.15 and L50, and Will became famous as a body servant; Adam and
Frank, bought of the same owner, cost L38. He bought five more slaves in
1772. Some writers say that this was his last purchase, but it is
certain that thereafter he at least took a few in payment of debts.
In 1786 he took a census of his slaves on the Mount Vernon estate. On
the Mansion House Farm he had sixty-seven, including Will or Billy Lee,
who was his "val de Chambre," two waiters, two cooks, three drivers and
stablers, three seamstresses, two house maids, two washers, four
spinners, besides smiths, a waggoner, carter, stock keeper, knitters and
carpenters. Two women were "almost past service," one of them being "old
and almost blind." A man, Schomberg, was "past labour." Lame Peter had
been taught to knit. Twenty-six were children, the youngest being Delia
and Sally. At the mill were Miller Ben and three coopers. On the whole
estate there were two hundred sixteen slaves, including many
If our Farmer took any special pains to develop the mental and moral
nature of "My People," as he usually called his slaves, I have found no
record of it. Nor is there any evidence that their sexual relations were
other than promiscuous--if they so desired. Marriage had no legal basis
among slaves and children took the status of their mother. Instances
occurred in which couples remained together and had an affection for
their families, but the reverse was not uncommon. This state of affairs
goes far toward explaining moral lapses among the negroes of to-day.
I have found only one or two lists of the increase of the slaves, one
being that transmitted by James Anderson, manager, in February, 1797, to
the effect that "there are 3 Negro Children Born, & one dead--at River
Farm 1; born at Mansion house, Lina 1; at Union Farm 1 born & one
dead--It was killed by Worms. Medical assistance was called--But the
mothers are very inattentive to their Young."
Just why the managers, when they carefully mentioned the arrival of
calves, colts, lambs and mules, did not also transmit news of the advent
of the more valuable two-legged live stock, is not apparent. In many
reports, however, in accounting for the time of slaves, occur such
entries as: "By Cornelia in child bed 6 days." Occasionally the fact and
sex of the increase is mentioned, but not often.
Washington was much more likely to take notice of deaths than of
increases. "Dorcas, daughter of Phillis, died, which makes 4 Negroes
lost this winter," he wrote in 1760. He strove to safeguard the health
of his slaves and employed a physician by the year to attend to them,
the payment, during part of the time at least, being fifteen pounds per
annum. In 1760 this physician was a certain James Laurie, evidently not
a man of exemplary character, for Washington wrote, April 9, 1760,
"Doctr. Laurie came here. I may add Drunk." Another physician was a
Doctor Brown, another Doctor William Rumney, and in later years it was
Washington's old friend Doctor Craik. I have noticed two instances of
Washington's sending slaves considerable distances for medical
treatment. One boy, Christopher, bitten by a dog, went to a "specialist"
at Lebanon, Pennsylvania, for treatment to avert madness, and another,
Tom, had an operation performed on his eyes, probably for cataract.
When at home the Farmer personally helped to care for sick slaves. He
had a special building erected near the Mansion House for use as a
hospital. Once he went to Winchester in the Shenandoah region especially
to look after slaves ill with smallpox "and found everything in the
utmost confusion, disorder, and backwardness. Got Blankets and every
other requisite from Winchester, and settied things on the best footing
I could." As he had had smallpox when at Barbadoes, he had no fear of
Among the entries in his diary are: "Visited my Plantations and found
two negroes sick ... ordered them to be blooded." "Found that lightening
had struck my quarters and near 10 Negroes in it, some very bad but by
letting blood recovered." "Found the new negro Cupid ill of a pleurisy
at Dogue Run Quarter and had him brot home in a cart for better care of
him.... Cupid extremely ill all this day and night. When I went to bed I
thought him within a few hours of breathing his last." However, Cupid
In his contracts with overseers Washington stipulated proper care of the
slaves. Once he complained to his manager that the generality of the
overseers seem to "view the poor creatures in scarcely any other light
than they do a draught horse or ox; neglecting them as much when they
are unable to work; instead of comforting and nursing them when they lye
on a sick bed." Again he wrote:
"When I recommended care of and attention to my negros in sickness, it
was that the first stage of, and the whole progress through the
disorders with which they might be seized (if more than a slight
indisposition) should be closely watched, and timely applications and
remedies be administered; especially in the pleurisies, and all
inflammatory disorders accompanied with pain, when a few day's neglect,
or want of bleeding might render the ailment incurable. In such cases
sweeten'd teas, broths and (according to the nature of the complaint,
and the doctor's prescription) sometimes a little wine, may be necessary
to nourish and restore the patient; and these I am perfectly willing to
allow, when it is requisite."
Yet again he complains that the overseers "seem to consider a Negro much
in the same light as they do the brute beasts, on the farms, and often
times treat them as inhumanly."
His slaves by no means led lives of luxury and inglorious ease. A
friendly Polish poet who visited Mount Vernon in 1798 was shocked by the
poor quarters and rough food provided for them. He wrote:
"We entered some negroes' huts--for their habitations cannot be called
houses. They are far more miserable than the poorest of the cottages of
our peasants. The husband and his wife sleep on a miserable bed, the
children on the floor. A very poor chimney, a little kitchen furniture
amid this misery--a tea-kettle and cups.... A small orchard with
vegetables was situated close to the hut. Five or six hens, each with
ten or fifteen chickens, walked there. That is the only pleasure allowed
to the negroes: they are not permitted to keep either ducks or geese
Yet all the slaves he saw seemed gay and light-hearted and on Sundays
played at pitching the bar with an activity and zest that indicated that
they managed to keep from being overworked and found some enjoyment
To our Farmer's orderly and energetic soul his shiftless lazy blacks
were a constant trial. In his diary for February, 1760, he records that
four of his carpenters had only hewed about one hundred twenty feet of
timber in a day, so he tried the experiment of sitting down and watching
them. They at once fell to with such energy and worked so rapidly that
he concluded that each one ought to hew about one hundred twenty-five
feet per day and more when the days were longer.
A later set of carpenters seem to have been equally trifling, for of
them he said in 1795: "There is not to be found so idle a set of
Rascals.--In short, it appears to me, that to make even a chicken coop,
would employ all of them a week."
"It is observed by the Weekly Report," he wrote when President, "that
the Sowers make only Six Shirts a Week, and the last week Caroline
(without being sick) made only five;--Mrs. Washington says their usual
task was to make nine with Shoulder straps, & good sewing:--tell them
therefore from me, that what _has_ been done _shall_ be done by fair or
foul means; & they had better make a choice of the first, for their own
reputation, & for the sake of peace and quietness otherwise they will be
sent to the several Plantations, & be placed at common labor under the
Overseers thereat. Their work ought to be well examined, or it will be
most shamefully executed, whether little or much of it is done--and it
is said, the same attention ought to be given to Peter (& I suppose to
Sarah likewise) or the Stockings will be knit too small for those for
whom they are intended; such being the idleness, & deceit of
"What kind of sickness is Betty Davis's?" he demands on another
occasion. "If pretended ailments, without apparent causes, or visible
effects, will screen her from work, I shall get no work at all from
her;--for a more lazy, deceitful and impudent huzzy is not to be found
in the United States than she is."
"I observe what you say of Betty Davis &ct," he wrote a little later,
"but I never found so much difficulty as you seem to apprehend in
distinguishing between _real_ and _feigned_ sickness;--or when a person
is much _afflicted_ with pain.--Nobody can be very sick without having a
fever, nor will a fever or any other disorder continue long upon any one
without reducing them.--Pain also, if it be such as to yield entirely to
its force, week after week, will appear by its effects; but my people
(many of them) will lay up a month, at the end of which no visible
change in their countenance, nor the loss of an oz of flesh, is
discoverable; and their allowance of provision is going on as if nothing
He not only deemed his negroes lazy, but he had also a low opinion of
their honesty. Alexandria was full of low shopkeepers who would buy
stolen goods from either blacks or whites, and Washington declared that
not more than two or three of his slaves would refrain from filching
anything upon which they could lay their hands.
[Illustration: Spinning House--Last Building to the Right]
[Illustration: The Butler's House and Magnolia Set out by Washington the
Year of his Death]
He found that he dared not leave his wine unlocked, because the servants
would steal two glasses to every one consumed by visitors and then
allege that the visitors had drunk it all.
He even suspected the slaves of taking a toll from the clover and
timothy seed given them to sow and adopted the practice of having the
seed mixed with sand, as that rendered it unsalable and also had the
advantage of getting the seed sown more evenly.
Corn houses and meat houses had to be kept locked, apples picked early,
and sheep and pigs watched carefully or the slaves took full advantage
of the opportunity. Nor can we at this distant day blame them very much
or wax so indignant as did their master over their thieveries. They were
held to involuntary servitude and if now and then they got the better of
their owner and managed to enjoy a few stolen luxuries they merely did a
little toward evening the score. But it was poor training for
The black picture which Washington draws of slavery--from the master's
standpoint--is exceedingly interesting and significant. The character
he gives the slaves is commended to the attention of those persons who
continually bemoan the fact that freedom and education have ruined
One of the famous "Rules of Civility," which the boy Washington so
carefully copied, set forth that persons of high degree ought to treat
their inferiors "with affibility & Courtesie, without Arrogancy." There
is abundant evidence that when he came to manhood he was reasonably
considerate of his slaves, and yet he was a Master and ruled them in
martinet fashion. His advice to a manager was to keep the blacks at a
proper distance, "for they will grow upon familiarity in proportion as
you will sink in authority." The English farmer Parkinson records that
the first time he walked with General Washington among his negroes he
was amazed at the rough manner in which he spoke to them. This does not
mean that Washington cursed his negroes as the mate of a Mississippi
River boat does his roustabouts, but I suspect that those who have heard
such a mate can form an idea of the _tone_ employed by our Farmer that
so shocked Parkinson. Military officers still employ it toward
Corporal punishment was resorted to on occasion, but not to extremes.
The Master writes regarding a runaway: "Let Abram get his deserts when
taken, by way of example; but do not trust to Crow to give it to
him;--for I have reason to believe he is swayed more by passion than by
judgment in all his corrections." Tradition says that on one occasion he
found an overseer brutally beating one of the blacks and, indignant at
the sight, sprang from his horse and, whip in hand, strode up to the
overseer, who was so affrighted that he backed away crying loudly:
"Remember your character, General, remember your character!" The General
paused, reprimanded the overseer for cruelty and rode off.
Among his slaves were some that were too unruly to be managed by
ordinary means. In the early seventies he had such a one on a plantation
in York County, Will Shag by name, who was a persistent runaway, and who
whipped the overseer and was obstreperous generally. Another slave
committed so serious an offense that he was tried under state law and
>vas executed. When a bondman became particularly fractious he was
threatened with being sent to the West Indies, a place held in as much
dread as was "down the river" in later years. In 1766 Washington sent
such a fellow off and to the captain of the ship that carried the slave
away he wrote:
"With this letter comes a negro (Tom) which I beg the favor of you to
sell in any of the islands you may go to, for whatever he will fetch,
and bring me in return for him
"One hhd of best molasses
"One ditto of best rum
"One barrel of lymes, if good and cheap
"One pot of tamarinds, containing about 10 lbs.
"Two small ditto of mixed sweetmeats, about 5 lbs. each. And the
residue, much or little, in good old spirits. That this fellow is both a
rogue and a runaway (tho he was by no means remarkable for the former,
and never practiced the latter till of late) I shall not pretend to
deny. But that he is exceedingly healthy, strong, and good at the hoe,
the whole neighborhood can testify, and particularly Mr. Johnson and his
son, who have both had him under them as foreman of the gang; which
gives me reason to hope that he may with your good management sell well,
if kept clean and trim'd up a little when offered for sale."
Another "misbehaving fellow" named Waggoner Jack was sent off in 1791
and was sold for "one pipe and Quarter Cask" of wine. Somewhat later
(1793) Matilda's Ben became addicted to evil courses and among other
things committed an assault and battery on Sambo, for which he received
corporal punishment duly approved by our Farmer, whose earnest desire it
was "that quarrels be stopped." Evidently the remedy was insufficient,
for not long after the absent owner wrote:
"I am very sorry that so likely a fellow as Matilda's Ben should addict
himself to such courses as he is pursuing. If he should be guilty of any
atrocious crime that would affect his life, he might be given up to the
civil authority for trial; but for such offenses as most of his color
are guilty of, you had better try further correction, accompanied by
admonition and advice. The two latter sometimes succeed where the first
has failed. He, his father and mother (who I dare say are his receivers)
may be told in explicit language, that if a stop is not put to his
rogueries and other villainies, by fair means and shortly, that I will
ship him off (as I did Waggoner Jack) for the West Indies, where he will
have no opportunity of playing such pranks as he is at present
A few of the negroes occupied positions of some trust and
responsibility. One named Davy was for many years manager of Muddy Hole
Farm, and Washington thought that he carried on his work as well as did
the white overseers and more quietly than some, though rather negligent
of live stock. Each year at killing time he was allowed two or three
hundredweight of pork as well as other privileges not accorded to the
ordinary slave. Still his master did not entirely trust him, for in 1795
we find that Washington suspected Davy of having stolen some lambs that
had been reported as "lost."
The most famous of the Mount Vernon negroes was William Lee, better
known as Billy, whose purchase from Mary Lee has already been noticed.
Billy was Washington's valet and huntsman and served with him throughout
the Revolution as a body servant, rode with him at reviews and was
painted by Savage in the well-known group of the President and his
family. Naturally Billy put on airs and presumed a good deal upon his
position. On one occasion at Monmouth the General and his staff were
reconnoitering the British, and Billy and fellow valets gathered on an
adjoining hill beneath a sycamore tree whence Billy, telescope in hand,
surveyed the enemy with much importance and interest. Washington, with a
smile, called the attention of his aides to the spectacle. About the
same time the British, noticing the group of horsemen and unable to
distinguish the color of the riders, paid their respects to Billy and
his followers in the shape of a solid shot, which went crashing through
the top of the tree, whereupon there was a rapid recession of coat tails
toward the rear.
Billy was a good and faithful servant and his master appreciated the
fact. In 1784 we find Washington writing to his Philadelphia agent: "The
mullatto fellow, William, who has been with me all the war, is attached
(married he says) to one of his own color, a free woman, who during the
war, was also of my family. She has been in an infirm condition for some
time, and I had conceived that the connexion between them had ceased;
but I am mistaken it seems; they are both applying to get her here, and
tho' I never wished to see her more, I can not refuse his request (if it
can be complied with on reasonable terms) as he has served me faithfully
for many years. After premising this much, I have to beg the favor of
you to procure her a passage to Alexandria."
Next year while Billy and his master were engaged in surveying a piece
of ground he fell and broke his knee pan, with the result that he was
crippled ever after. When Washington started to New York in 1789 to be
inaugurated Billy insisted upon accompanying him, but gave out on the
way and was left at Philadelphia. A little later, by the President's
direction, Lear wrote to return Billy to Mount Vernon, "for he cannot be
of any service here, and perhaps will require a person to attend upon
him constantly ... but if he is still anxious to come on here the
President would gratify him, altho' he will be troublesome--He has been
an old and faithful Servant, this is enough for the President to gratify
him in every reasonable wish."
When Billy was at Mount Vernon he worked as a shoemaker. He kept careful
note of visitors to the place and if one arrived who had served in the
Revolution he invariably received a summons to visit the old negro and
as invariably complied. Then would ensue a talk of war experiences which
both would enjoy, for between those who had experienced the cold at
Valley Forge and the warmth of Monmouth there were ties that reached
beyond the narrow confines of caste and color. And upon departure the
visitor would leave a coin in Billy's not unwilling palm.
As later noted in detail, Washington made special provision for Billy
in his will, and for years the old negro lived upon his annuity. He was
much addicted to drink and now and then, alas, had attacks in which he
saw things that were not. On such occasions it was customary to send for
another mulatto named Westford, who would relieve him by letting a
little blood. There came a day when Westford arrived and proceeded to
perform his customary office, but the blood refused to flow. Billy
Washington's kindness to Billy was more or less paralleled by his
treatment of other servants. Even when President he would write letters
for his slaves to their wives and "Tel Bosos" and would inclose them
with his own letters to Mount Vernon. He appreciated the fact that
slaves were capable of human feelings like other men and in 1787, when
trying to purchase a mason, he instructed his agent not to buy if by so
doing he would "hurt the man's feelings" by breaking family ties. Even
when dying, noting black Cristopher by his bed, he directed him to sit
down and rest. It was a little thing, but kindness is largely made up of
The course taken by him in training a personal servant is indicated by
some passages from his correspondence. Writing from the Capital to
Pearce, December, 1795, regarding a young negro, Washington says:
"If Cyrus continues to give evidence of such qualities as would fit him
for a waiting man, encourage him to persevere in them; and if they
should appear to be sincere and permanent, I will receive him in that
character when I retire from public life if not sooner.--To be sober,
attentive to his duty, honest, obliging and cleanly, are the
qualifications necessary to fit him for my purposes.--If he possess
these, or can acquire them--he might become useful to me, at the same
time that he would exalt, and benefit himself."
"I would have you again stir up the pride of Cyrus," he wrote the next
May, "that he may be the fitter for my purposes against I come home;
sometime before which (that is as soon as I shall be able to fix on
time) I will direct him to be taken into the house, and clothes to be
made for him.--In the meanwhile, get him a strong horn comb and direct
him to keep his head well combed, that the hair, or wool may grow long."
Once when President word reached his ears that he was being criticized
for not furnishing his slaves with sufficient food. He hurriedly
directed that the amount should be increased and added: "I will not
have my feelings hurt with complaints of this sort, nor lye under the
imputation of starving my negros, and thereby driving them to the
necessity of thieving to supply the deficiency. To prevent waste or
embezzlement is the only inducement to allowancing them at all--for if,
instead of a peck they could eat a bushel of meal a week fairly, and
required it, I would not withold or begrudge it them."
There is good reason to believe that Washington was respected and even
beloved by many of his "People." Colonel Humphreys, who was long at
Mount Vernon arranging the General's papers, wrote descriptive of the
return at the close of the Revolution:
"When that foul stain of manhood, slavery, flowed,
Through Afric's sons transmitted in the blood;
Hereditary slaves his kindness shar'd,
For manumission by degrees prepared:
Return'd from war, I saw them round him press
And all their speechless glee by artless signs express."
On the whole we must conclude that the lot of the Mount Vernon slaves
was a reasonably happy one. The regulations to which they had to conform
were rigorous. Their Master strove to keep them at work and to prevent
them from "night walking," that is running about at night visiting.
Their work was rough, and even the women were expected to labor in the
fields plowing, grubbing and hauling manure as if they were men. But
they had rations of corn meal, salt pork and salt fish, whisky and rum
at Christmas, chickens and vegetables raised by themselves and now and
then a toothsome pig sequestered from the Master's herd. When the annual
races were held at Alexandria they were permitted to go out into the
world and gaze and gabble to their heart's content. And, not least of
all, an inscrutable Providence had vouchsafed to Ham one great
compensation that whatever his fortune or station he should usually be
cheerful. The negro has not that "sad lucidity of mind" that curses his
white cousin and leads to general mental wretchedness and suicide.
Some of the Mount Vernon slaves were of course more favored than were
others. The domestic and personal servants lived lives of culture and
inglorious ease compared with those of the field hands. They formed the
aristocracy of colored Mount Vernon society and gave themselves airs
Nominally our Farmer's slaves were probably all Christians, though I
have found no mention in his papers of their spiritual state. But
tradition says that some of them at Dogue Run at least were Voudoo or
Washington owned slaves and lived his life under the institution of
slavery, but he loved it not. He was too honest and keen-minded not to
realize that the institution did not square with the principles of human
liberty for which he had fought, and yet the problem of slavery was so
vast and complicated that he was puzzled how to deal with it. But as
early as 1786 he wrote to John F. Mercer, of Virginia: "I never mean,
unless some particular circumstances should compel me to it, to possess
another slave by purchase, it being among my _first_ wishes to see some
plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by law."
The running away of his colored cook a decade later subjected him to
such trials that he wrote that he would probably have to break his
resolution. He did, in fact, carry on considerable correspondence to
that end and seems to have taken one man on trial, but I have found no
evidence that he discovered a negro that suited him.
In 1794, in explaining to Tobias Lear his reasons for desiring to sell
some of his western lands, he said: "_Besides these I have another
motive which_ makes me earnestly wish for these things--it is indeed
more powerful than all the rest--namely to liberate a certain species of
property which I possess very repugnantly to my own feelings; but which
imperious necessity compels, and until I can substitute some other
expedient, by which expenses, not in my power to avoid (however well I
may be disposed to do it) can be defrayed."
Later in the same year he wrote to General Alexander Spotswood: "With
respect to the other species of property, concerning which you ask my
opinion, I shall frankly declare to you that I do not like even to
think, much less to talk of it.--However, as you have put the question,
I shall, in a few words, give _my ideas_ about it.--Were it not then,
that I am principled agt. selling negroes, as you would cattle at a
market, I would not in twelve months from this date, be possessed of one
as a slave.--I shall be happily mistaken, if they are not found to be a
very troublesome species of property ere many years pass over
"I wish from my soul that the Legislature of the State could see the
policy of a gradual abolition of slavery," he wrote to Lawrence Lewis
three years later. "It might prevent much future mischief."
His ideas on the subject were in accord with those of many other great
Southerners of his day such as Madison and Jefferson. These men realized
the inconsistency of slavery in a republic dedicated to the proposition
that all men are created equal, and vaguely they foresaw the
irrepressible conflict that was to divide their country and was to be
fought out on a hundred bloody battle-fields. They did not attempt to
defend slavery as other than a temporary institution to be eliminated
whenever means and methods could be found to do it. Not until the cotton
gin had made slavery more profitable and radical abolitionism arose in
the North did Southerners of prominence begin to champion slavery as
praiseworthy and permanent.
And yet, though Washington in later life deplored slavery, he was human
and illogical enough to dislike losing his negroes and pursued runaways
with energy. In October, 1760, he spent seven shillings in advertising
for an absconder, and the next year paid a minister named Green four
pounds for taking up a runaway. In 1766 he advertised rewards for the
capture of "Negro Tom," evidently the man he later sold in the West
Indies. The return of Henry in 1771 cost him L1.16. Several slaves were
carried away by the British during the Revolution and seem never to have
been recovered, though the treaty of peace provided for the return of
such slaves, and Washington made inquiries concerning them. In 1796,
apropos of a girl who had absconded to New England, he excused his
desire to recapture her on the ground that as long as slavery was in
existence it was hardly fair to allow some to escape and to hold others.
A rather peculiar situation arose in 1791 with regard to some of his
"People," His attorney general, Randolph, had taken some slaves to
Philadelphia, and the blacks took advantage of the fact that under
Pennsylvania law they could not be forced to leave the state against
their will. Fearing that some of his own servants might do likewise,
Washington directed Lear to get the slaves back to Mount Vernon and to
accomplish it "under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public,"
which goes to show that even George Washington had some of the guile of
During this period he was loath to bring the fact that he was a
slaveholder too prominently before the public, for he realized the
prejudice already existing against the institution in the North. When
one of his men absconded in 1795 he gave instructions not to let his
name appear in any advertisement of the runaway, at least not north
His final judgment on slavery is expressed in his will. "Upon the
decease of my wife it is my will and desire," he wrote, "that all the
slaves which I hold _in my own right_ shall receive their freedom--To
emancipate them during her life, would tho earnestly wished by me, be
attended with such insuperable difficulties, on account of their
intermixture by marriages with the Dower negroes as to excite the most
painful sensations,--if not disagreeable consequences from the latter,
while both descriptions are in the occupancy of the same proprietor, it
not being in my power under the tenure by which the dower Negroes are
held to manumit them."
The number of his own slaves at the time of his death was one hundred
twenty-four. Of dower negroes there were one hundred fifty-three, and
besides he had forty leased from a Mrs. French.
He expressly forbade the sale of any slave or his transportation out of
Virginia, and made provision for the care of the aged, the young and
the infirm. He gave immediate freedom to his mulatto man, calling
himself William Lee, or if he should prefer it, being physically
incapacitated, he might remain in slavery. In either case he was to have
an annuity of thirty dollars and the "victuals and cloaths he has been
accustomed to receive." "This I give him as a testimony of my sense of
his attachment to me and for his faithful services during the
As a matter of fact, Mrs. Washington preferred to free her own and the
General's negroes as soon as possible and it was accordingly done before
her death, which occurred in 1802.
One of the servants thus freed, by name Cary, lived to the alleged age
of one hundred fourteen years and finally died in Washington City. He
was a personage of considerable importance among the colored population
of the Capital, and on Fourth of July and other parades would always
appear in an old military coat, cocked hat and huge cockade presented by
his Master. His funeral was largely attended even by white persons.
THE FARMER'S WIFE
Martha Dandridge's first husband was a man much older than herself and
her second was almost a year younger. Before she embarked upon her
second matrimonial venture she had been the mother of four children, and
having lost two of these, her husband, her father and mother, she had
known, though only twenty-seven, most of the vital experiences that life
can give. Perhaps it was well, for thereby she was better fitted to be
the mate of a man sober and sedate in disposition and created by Nature
to bear heavy burdens of responsibility.
In view of the important places her husband filled, it is astonishing
how little we really know of her. Washington occasionally refers to her
in his letters and diaries, but usually in an impersonal way that gives
us little insight into her character or activities. She purposely
destroyed almost all the correspondence that passed between her and her
husband and very little else remains that she wrote. From the few
letters that do survive it is apparent that her education was slender,
though no more so than that of most women of her day even in the upper
class. She had a fondness for phonetic spelling, and her verbs and
subjects often indulged in family wrangles. She seems to have been
conscious of her deficiencies in this direction or at least to have
disliked writing, for not infrequently the General acted as her
amanuensis. But she was well trained in social and domestic
accomplishments, could dance and play on the spinet--in short, was
brought up a "gentlewoman." That she must in youth have possessed charm
of person and manners is indicated by her subjugation of Daniel Parke
Custis, a man of the world and of much greater fortune than herself, and
by her later conquest of Washington, for, though it be admitted in the
latter case that George may not have objected to her fortune, we can not
escape the conclusion that he truly loved her.
In fact, the match seems to have been ideally successful in every
respect except one. The contracting parties remained reasonably devoted
to each other until the end and though tradition says that Martha would
sometimes read George a curtain lecture after they had retired from
company, there remains no record of any serious disagreement. Though not
brilliant nor possessed of a profound mind, she was a woman of much good
sense with an understanding heart. Nor did she lack firmness or public
spirit. Edmund Pendleton relates that when on his way to the Continental
Congress in 1774 he stopped at Mount Vernon, "She talked like a Spartan
mother to her son on going to battle. 'I hope you will all stand firm--I
know George will,' she said."
The poorest artisan in Boston with nothing to lose but his life did not
embrace the patriot cause with any greater eagerness than did these
Washingtons with their broad acres and thousands of pounds on bond.
There is every reason to believe that Martha Washington was helpful to
her husband in many ways. At home she was a good housewife and when
Washington was in public life she played her part well. No brilliant
sallies of wit spoken by her on any occasion have come down to us, but
we know that at Valley Forge she worked day and night knitting socks,
patching garments and making shirts for the loyal band of winter
patriots who stood by their leader and their cause in the darkest hour
of the Revolution.
A Norristown lady who paid her a call in the little stone house that
still stands beside the Schuylkill relates that "as she was said to be
so grand a lady, we thought we must put on our best bibs and bands. So
we dressed ourselves in our most elegant ruffles and silks, and were
introduced to her ladyship. And don't you think we found her _knitting
with a specked apron on!_ She received us very graciously, and easily,
but after the compliments were over, she resumed her knitting."
But the marriage was a failure in that there were no children. No doubt
both wanted them, for Washington was fond of young people and many
anecdotes are handed down of his interest in little tots. Some one has
remarked that he was deprived of offspring in order that he might become
the Father of His Country.
Toward those near and dear to her Martha Washington was almost foolishly
affectionate. In one of her letters she tells of a visit "in
Westmoreland whare I spent a weak very agreabley. I carred my little
patt with me and left Jackey at home for a trial to see how well I coud
stay without him though we ware gon but won fortnight I was quite
impatiant to get home. If I at aney time heard the doggs barke or a
noise out, I thought thair was a person sent for me. I often fancied he
was sick or some accident had happened to him so that I think it is
impossible for me to leave him as long as Mr. Washington must stay when
he comes down."
Any parent who has been absent from home under similar circumstances and
who has imagined the infinite variety of dreadful things that might
befall a loved child will sympathize with the mother's heart--in spite
of the poor spelling!
Patty Custis was an amiable and beautiful girl who when she grew up came
to be called "the dark lady." But she was delicate in health. Some
writers have said that she had consumption, but as her stepfather
repeatedly called it "Fits," I think it is certain that it was some form
of epilepsy. Her parents did everything possible to restore her, but in
vain. Once they took her to Bath, now Berkeley Springs, for several
weeks and the expenses of that journey we find all duly set down by
Colonel Washington in the proper place. As Paul Leicester Ford remarks,
some of the remedies tried savored of quackery. In the diary, for
February 16, 1770, we learn that "Joshua Evans who came here last Night
put an iron Ring upon Patey and went away after Breakfast." Perhaps
Evans failed to make the ring after the old medieval rule from three
nails or screws that had been taken from a disinterred coffin. At any
rate the ring did poor Patty little good and a year later "Mr. Jno.
Johnson who has a nostrum for Fits came here in the afternoon." In the
spring of 1773 the dark lady died.
Her death added considerably to Washington's possessions, but there is
every evidence that he gave no thought to that aspect of the matter.
"Her delicate health, or perhaps her fond affection for the only father
she had ever known, so endeared her to the 'general', that he knelt at
her dying bed, and with a passionate burst of tears prayed aloud that
her life might be spared, unconscious that even then her spirit had
departed." The next day he wrote to his brother-in-law: "It is an easier
matter to conceive than describe the distress of this Family: especially
that of the unhappy Parent of our Dear Patey Custis, when I inform you
that yesterday removed the Sweet Innocent Girl [who] Entered into a more
happy & peaceful abode than any she has met with in the afflicted Path
she hitherto has trod."
Before this John Parke Custis, or "Jacky," had given his stepfather
considerable anxiety. Jacky's mind turned chiefly from study to dogs,
horses and guns and, in an effort, to "make him fit for more useful
purposes than horse races," Washington put him under the tutorship of an
Anglican clergyman named Jonathan Boucher, who endeavored to instruct
some of the other gilded Virginia youths of his day. But Latin and Greek
were far less interesting to the boy than the pretty eyes of Eleanor
Calvert and the two entered into a clandestine engagement. In all
respects save one the match was eminently satisfactory, for the Calvert
family, being descended from Lord Baltimore, was as good as any in
America, and Miss Nelly's amiable qualities, wrote Washington, had
endeared her to her prospective relations, but both were very young,
Jack being about seventeen, and the girl still younger. While consenting
to the match, therefore, Washington insisted that its consummation
should be postponed for two years and packed the boy off to King's
College, now Columbia. But Martha Washington was a fond and doting
mother and, as Patty's death occurred almost immediately, Jack's absence
in distant New York was more than she could bear. He was, therefore,
allowed to return home in three months instead of two years, and in
February, 1774, was wedded to the girl of his choice. Mrs. Washington
felt the loss of her daughter too keenly to attend, but sent this
message by her husband:
"MY DEAR NELLY.--God took from me a Daughter when June Roses were
blooming--He has now given me another Daughter about her Age when Winter
winds are blowing, to warm my Heart again. I am as Happy as One so
Afflicted and so Blest can be. Pray receive my Benediction and a wish
that you may long live the Loving Wife of my happy Son, and a Loving
"Your affectionate Mother,
The marriage, it may be added here, sobered John Custis. He and his
bride established themselves at Abingdon on the Potomac, not far from
Mount Vernon, and with their little ones were often visitors, especially
when the General was away to the war and Mrs. Washington was alone.
Toward the close of the war Jack himself entered the army, rose to the
rank of colonel and died of fever contracted in the siege of Yorktown.
Thus again was the mother's heart made sorrowful, nor did the General
himself accept the loss unmoved. He at once adopted the two youngest
children, Eleanor and George Washington Parke, and brought them up in
his own family.
Eleanor Custis, or "Nelly," as she was affectionately called, grew up a
joyous, beautiful cultured girl, who won the hearts of all who saw her.
The Polish poet, Julian Niemcewicz, who visited Mount Vernon in 1798,
wrote of her as "the divine Miss Custis.... She was one of those
celestial beings so rarely produced by nature, sometimes dreamt of by
poets and painters, which one cannot see without a feeling of ecstacy."
As already stated, she married the General's nephew, Lawrence Lewis. In
September, 1799, Washington told the pair that they might build a house
on Grey's Heights on the Dogue Run Farm and rent the farm, "by all odds
the best and most productive I possess," promising that on his death the
place should go to them. Death came before the house was built, but
later the pair erected on the Heights "Woodlawn," one of the most
beautiful and pretentious places in Fairfax County.
George Washington Parke Custis grew up much such a boy as his father
was. He took few matters seriously and neglected the educational
opportunities thrown in his way. Washington said of him that "from his
infancy I have discovered an almost unconquerable disposition to
indolence in everything that did not tend to his amusements." But he
loved the boy, nevertheless, and late in life Custis confessed, "we have
seen him shed tears of parental solicitude over the manifold errors and
follies of our unworthy youth." The boy had a good heart, however, and
if he was the source of worry to the great man during the great man's
life, he at least did what he could to keep the great man's memory
green. He wrote a book of recollections full of filial affection and
Latin phrases and painted innumerable war pictures in which Washington
was always in the foreground on a white horse "with the British
streaking it." Washington bequeathed to him a square in the City of
Washington and twelve hundred acres on Four Mile Run in the vicinity of
Alexandria. Upon land near by inherited from his father Custis built the
famous Arlington mansion, almost ruining himself financially in doing
so. Upon his death the estate fell to his daughter, Mrs. Robert E. Lee,
and it is now our greatest national cemetery.
Mrs. Washington not only managed the Mount Vernon household, but she
looked after the spinning of yarn, the weaving of cloth and the making
of clothing for the family and for the great horde of slaves. At times,
particularly during the Revolution and the non-importation days that
preceded it, she had as many as sixteen spinning-wheels in operation at
once. The work was done in a special spinning house, which was well
equipped with looms, wheels, reels, flaxbrakes and other machinery. Most
of the raw material, such as wool and flax and sometimes even cotton,
was produced upon the place and never left it until made up into the
In 1768 the white man and five negro girls employed in the work produced
815-3/4 yards of linen, 365-1/4 yards of woolen cloth, 144 yards of
linsey and 40 yards of cotton cloth. With his usual pains Washington
made a comparative statement of the cost of this cloth produced at home
and what it would have cost him if it had been purchased in England, and
came to the conclusion that only L23.19.11 would be left to defray the
expense of spinning, hire of the six persons engaged, "cloathing,
victualling, wheels, &c." Still the work was kept going.
A great variety of fabrics were produced: "striped woolen, wool plaided,
cotton striped, linen, wool-birdseye, cotton filled with wool, linsey,
M's and O's, cotton Indian dimity, cotton jump stripe, linen filled with
tow, cotton striped with silk, Roman M., janes twilled, huccabac,
broadcloth, counter-pain, birdseye diaper, Kirsey wool, barragon,
fustian, bed-ticking, herring-box, and shalloon."
In non-importation days Mrs. Washington even made the cloth for two of
her own gowns, using cotton striped with silk, the latter being obtained
from the ravellings of brown silk stockings and crimson damask
The housewife believed in good cheer and an abundance of it, and the
larders at Mount Vernon were kept well filled. Once the General
protested to Lund Washington because so many hogs had been killed,
whereupon the manager replied that when he put up the meat he had
expected that Mrs. Washington would have been at home and that he knew
there would be need for it because her "charitable disposition is in
the same proportion as her meat house."
[Illustration: Weekly Report on the Work of the Spinners]
She had a swarm of relatives by blood and marriage and they visited her
long and often. The Burwells, the Bassetts, the Dandridges and all the
rest came so frequently that hardly a week passed that at least one of
them did not sleep beneath the hospitable roof. Even her stepmother paid
her many visits and, what is more, was strongly urged by the General to
make the place her permanent home. When Mrs. Washington was at home
during the Revolution her son and her daughter-in-law spent most of
their time there. After the Revolution her two youngest grandchildren
resided at Mount Vernon, and the two older ones, Elizabeth and Martha,
were often there, as was their mother, who married as her second husband
Doctor Stuart, a man whom Washington highly esteemed.
It would be foolish to deny that Mrs. Washington did not take pleasure
in the honors heaped upon her husband or that she did not enjoy the
consideration that accrued to her as First Lady of the Land. Yet public
life at times palled upon her and she often spoke of the years of the
presidency as her "lost days." New York and Philadelphia, she said,
were "not home, only a sojourning. The General and I feel like children
just released from school or from a hard taskmaster.... How many dear
friends I have left behind! They fill my memory with sweet thoughts.
Shall I ever see them again? Not likely unless they come to me, for the
twilight is gathering around our lives. I am again fairly settled down
to the pleasant duties of an old-fashioned Virginia-housekeeper, steady
as a clock, busy as a bee, and cheerful as a cricket."
That she did not overdraw her account of her industry is borne out by a
Mrs. Carrington, who, with her husband, one of the General's old
officers, visited Mount Vernon about this time. She wrote:
"Let us repair to the Old Lady's room, which is precisely in the style
of our good old Aunt's--that is to say, nicely fixed for all sorts of
work--On one side sits the chambermaid, with her knitting--on the other,
a little colored pet learning to sew, an old decent woman, with her
table and shears, cutting out the negroes' winter clothes, while the
good old lady directs them all, incessantly knitting herself and
pointing out to me several pair of nice colored stockings and gloves she
had just finished, and presenting me with a pair half done, which she
begs I will finish and wear for her. Her netting too is a great source
of amusement and is so neatly done that all the family are proud of
trimming their dresses with it."
This domestic life was dear to the heart of our Farmer's wife, yet the
home-coming did not fail to awaken some melancholy memories. To Mrs.
George Fairfax in England she wrote, or rather her husband wrote for
her: "The changes which have taken place in this country since you left
it (and it is pretty much the case in all other parts of this State)
are, in one word, total. In Alexandria, I do not believe there lives at
this day a single family with whom you had the smallest acquaintance. In
our neighborhood Colo. Mason, Colo. McCarty and wife, Mr. Chickester,
Mr. Lund Washington and all the Wageners, have left the stage of human
life; and our visitors on the Maryland side are gone and going
How many people have had like thoughts! One of the many sad things about
being the "last leaf upon the tree" is having to watch the other leaves
shrivel and drop off and to be left at last in utter loneliness.
Like her husband, Mrs. Washington was an early riser, and it was a habit
she seems to have kept up until the end. She rose with the sun and
after breakfast invariably retired to her room for an hour of prayer and
reading the Scriptures. Her devotions over she proceeded with the
ordinary duties of the day.
She seems to have been somewhat fond of ceremony and to have had a
considerable sense of personal dignity. A daughter of Augustine
Washington, who when twelve years of age spent several weeks at Mount
Vernon, related when an old woman that every morning precisely at eleven
o'clock the mistress of the mansion expected her company to assemble in
the drawing-room, where she greeted them with much formality and kept
them an hour on their good behavior. When the clock struck twelve she
would rise and ascend to her chamber, returning thence precisely at one,
followed by a black servant carrying an immense bowl of punch, from
which the guests were expected to partake before dinner. Some of the
younger girls became curious to discover why her "Ladyship" retired so
invariably to her room, so they slipped out from where she was
entertaining their mothers, crept upstairs and hid under her bed.
Presently Lady Washington entered and took a seat before a large table.
A man-servant then brought a large empty bowl, also lemons, sugar,
spices and rum, with which she proceeded to prepare the punch. The young
people under the bed thereupon fell to giggling until finally she became
aware of their presence. Much offended, or at least pretending to be,
she ordered them from the room. They retired with such precipitancy that
one of them fell upon the stairway and broke her arm.
Another story is to the effect that one morning Nelly Custis, Miss
Dandridge and some other girls who were visiting Nelly came down to
breakfast dressed dishabille and with their hair done up in curl papers.
Mrs. Washington did not rebuke them and the meal proceeded normally
until the announcement was made that some French officers of rank and
young Charles Carroll, of Carrollton, who was interested in Miss Custis,
had driven up outside, whereupon the foolish virgins sprang up to leave
the room in order to make more conventional toilets. But Mrs. Washington
forbade their doing so, declaring that what was good enough for General
Washington was good enough for any guest of his.
She spoiled George Washington Custis as she had his father, but was
more severe with Eleanor or Nelly. Washington bought the girl a fine
imported harpsichord, which cost a thousand dollars and which is still
to be seen at Mount Vernon, and the grandmother made Nelly practise upon
it four or five hours a day. "The poor girl," relates her brother,
"would play and cry, and cry and play, for long hours, under the
immediate eye of her grandmother." For no shirking was allowed.
The truth would seem to be that Lady Washington was more severe with the
young--always excepting Jacky and George--than was her husband. He would
often watch their games with evident enjoyment and would encourage them
to continue their amusements and not to regard him. He was the confidant
of their hopes and fears and even amid tremendous cares of state found
time to give advice about their love affairs. For he was a very human
man, after all, by no means the marble statue sculptured by some
Yet no doubt Mrs. Washington's severity proceeded from a sense of duty
and the fitness of things rather than from any harshness of heart. The
little old lady who wrote: "Kiss Marie. I send her two handkerchiefs to
wipe her nose," could not have been so very terrible!
She was beloved by her servants and when she left Mount Vernon for New
York in 1789 young Robert Lewis reported that "numbers of these poor
wretches seemed most affected, my aunt equally so." At Alexandria she
stopped at Doctor Stuart's, the home of two of her grandchildren, and
next morning there was another affecting scene, such as Lewis never
again wished to witness--"the family in tears--the children a-bawling--&
everything in the most lamentable situation."
Although she was not the paragon that some writers have pictured, she
was a splendid home-loving American woman, brave in heart and helpful to
her husband, neither a drone nor a drudge--in the true Scriptural sense
a worthy woman who sought wool and flax and worked willingly with her
hands. As such her price was far beyond rubies.
As has been remarked before, no brilliant sayings from her lips have
been transmitted to posterity. But I suspect that the shivering soldiers
on the bleak hillsides at Valley Forge found more comfort in the warm
socks she knitted than they could have in the _bon mots_ of a Madame de
Stael or in the grace of a Josephine and that her homely interest in
their welfare tied their hearts closer to their Leader and
It is not merely because she was the wife of the Hero of the Revolution
and the first President of the Republic that she is the most revered of
all American women.
A FARMER'S AMUSEMENTS
No one would ever think of characterizing George Washington as frivolous
minded, but from youth to old age he was a believer in the adage that
all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy--a saying that many an
overworked farmer of our own day would do well to take to heart.
Like most Virginians he was decidedly a social being and loved to be in
the company of his kind. This trait was noticeable in his youth and
during his early military career, nor did it disappear after he married
and settled down at Mount Vernon. Until the end he and Mrs. Washington
kept open house, and what a galaxy of company they had! Scarcely a day
passed without some guest crossing their hospitable threshold, nor did
such visitors come merely to leave their cards or to pay fashionable
five-minute calls. They invariably stayed to dinner and most generally
for the night; very often for days or weeks at a time. After the
Revolution the number of guests increased to such an extent that Mount
Vernon became "little better than a well-resorted inn."
Artists came to paint the great man's picture; the sculptor Houdon to
take the great man's bust, arriving from Alexandria, by the way, after
the family had gone to bed; the Marquis de Lafayette to visit his old
friend; Mrs. Macaulay Graham to obtain material for her history; Noah
Webster to consider whether he would become the tutor of young Custis;
Mr. John Fitch, November 4, 1785, "to propose a draft & Model of a
machine for promoting Navigation by means of a Steam"; Charles Thomson,
secretary of the Continental Congress, to notify the General of his
election to the presidency; a host of others, some out of friendship,
others from mere curiosity or a desire for free lodging.
The visit of Lafayette was the last he made to this country while the
man with whose fame his name is inseparably linked remained alive. He
visited Mount Vernon in August, 1784, and again three months later. When
the time for a final adieu came Washington accompanied him to Annapolis
and saw him on the road to Baltimore. The generous young benefactor of
America was very dear to Washington, and the parting affected him
exceedingly. Soon after he wrote to the departed friend a letter in
which he showed his heart in a way that was rare with him. "In the
moment of our separation," said he, "upon the road as I travelled, and
every hour since, I have felt all the love, respect, and attachment for
you with which length of years, close connextion, and your merits have
inspired me. I have often asked myself, as our carriages separated,
whether that was the last sight I ever should have of you."
It was a true foreboding. Often in times that followed Washington was to
receive tidings of his friend's triumphs and perilous adventures amid
the bloody turmoil of the French Revolution, was to entertain his son at
Mount Vernon when the father lay in the dark dungeons of Olmuetz, but was
never again to look into his face. Years later the younger man,
revisiting the grateful Republic he had helped to found, was to turn
aside from the acclaiming plaudits of admiring multitudes and stand
pensively beside the Tomb of his Leader and reflect upon the years in
which they had stood gloriously shoulder to shoulder in defense of a
Even when Washington was at the seat of government many persons stopped
at Mount Vernon and were entertained by the manager. Several times the
absent owner sent wine and other luxuries for the use of such guests.
When he was at home friends, relatives, diplomats, delegations of
Indians to visit the Great White Father swarmed thither in shoals. In
1797 young Lafayette and his tutor, Monsieur Frestel, whom Washington
thought a very sensible man, made the place, by invitation, their home
for several months. In the summer of that year Washington wrote to his
old secretary, Tobias Lear: "I am alone at _present_, and shall be glad
to see you this evening. Unless some one pops in unexpectedly--Mrs.
Washington and myself will do what I believe has not been done within
the last twenty Years by us,--that is to set down to dinner by
Washington was the soul of hospitality. He enjoyed having people in his
house and eating at his board, but there is evidence that toward the
last he grew somewhat weary of the stream of strangers. But neither then
nor at any other time in his life did he show his impatience to a
visitor or turn any man from his door. His patience, was sorely tried at
times. For example, we find in his diary under date of September 7,
1785: "At Night, a Man of the name of Purdie, came to offer himself to
me as a Housekeeper or Household Steward--he had some testimonials
respecting his character--but being intoxicated, and in other respects
appearing in an unfavorable light I informed him that he would not
answer my purpose, but that he might stay all night."
No matter how many visitors came the Farmer proceeded about his business
as usual, particularly in the morning, devoting dinner time and certain
hours of the afternoon and evening to those who were sojourning with
him. He was obliged, in self-defense, to adopt some such course. He
wrote: "My manner of living is plain, and I do not mean to be put out by
it. A glass of wine and a bit of mutton are always ready, and such as
will be content to partake of them are always welcome. Those who expect
more will be disappointed."
After his retirement from the presidency he induced his nephew Lawrence
Lewis to come to Mount Vernon and take over some of the duties of
entertaining guests, particularly in the evening, as Washington had
reached an age when he was averse to staying up late. Lewis not only
performed the task satisfactorily, but found incidental diversion that
led to matrimony.
Every visitor records that the Farmer was a kind and considerate host.
Elkanah Watson relates that one bitter winter night at Mount Vernon,
having a severe cold that caused him to cough incessantly, he heard the
door of his chamber open gently and there stood the General with a
candle in one hand and a bowl of hot tea in another. Doubtless George
and Martha had heard the coughing and in family council had decided that
their guest must have attention.
Washington was a Cavalier, not a Puritan, and had none of the old New
England prejudice against the theater. In fact, it was one of his
fondest pleasures from youth to old age. In his Barbadoes journal he
records being "treated with a play ticket by Mr. Carter to see the
Tragedy of George Barnwell acted." In 1752 he attended a performance at
Fredericksburg and thereafter, whenever occasion offered, which during
his earlier years was not often, he took advantage of it. He even
expressed a desire to act himself. After his resignation and marriage
opportunities were more frequent and in his cash memorandum books are
many entries of expenditures for tickets to performances at Alexandria
and elsewhere. Thus on September 20, 1768, in his daily record of
_Where & how my time is Spent_ he writes that he "& Mrs. Washington & ye
two children were up to Alexandria to see the Inconstant or way to win
him acted." Next day he "Stayd in Town all day & saw the Tragedy of
Such performances were probably given by strolling players who had few
accessories in the way of scenery to assist them in creating their
In September, 1771, when at Annapolis to attend the races, he went to
plays four times in five days, the fifth day being Sunday. Two years
later, being in New York City, he saw _Hamlet_ and _Cross Purposes_.
On many occasions both in this period of his life and later he went to
sleight of hand performances, wax works, puppet shows, animal shows, "to
hear the Armonica," concerts and other entertainments.
The "association" resolutions of frugality and self-denial by the
Continental Congress put an end temporarily to plays in the colonies
outside the British lines and put Washington into a greater play, "not,
as he once wished, as a performer, but as a character." There were
amateur performances at Valley Forge, but they aroused the hostility of
the puritanical, and Congress forbade them. Washington seems, however,
to have disregarded the interdiction after Yorktown.
He had few opportunities to gratify his fondness for performances in the
period of 1784-89, but during his presidency, while residing in New York
and Philadelphia, he was a regular attendant. He gave frequent theater
parties, sending tickets to his friends. Word that he would attend a
play always insured a "full house," and upon his entrance to his box the
orchestra would play _Hail Columbia_ and _Washington's March_ amid great
The _Federal Gazette_ described a performance of _The Maid of the Mill,_
which he attended in 1792, as follows:
"When Mr. Hodgkinson as Lord Ainsworth exhibited nobleness of mind in
his generosity to the humble miller and his daughter, Patty; when he
found her blessed with all the qualities that captivate and endear life,
and knew she was capable of adorning a higher sphere; when he had
interviews with her upon the subject in which was painted the
amiableness of an honorable passion; and after his connection, when he
bestowed his benefactions on the relatives, etc., of the old miller, the
great and good Washington manifested his approbation of this
interesting part of the opera by the tribute of a tear."
Another amusement that both the Farmer and his wife enjoyed greatly was
dancing. In his youth he attended balls and "routs" whenever possible
and when fighting French and Indians on the frontier he felt as one of
his main deprivations his inability to attend the "Assemblies." After
his marriage he and his wife went often to balls in Alexandria, attired
no doubt in all the bravery of imported English clothes. He describes a
ball of 1760 in these terms:
"Went to a ball at Alexandria, where Musick and dancing was the chief
entertainment, however, in a convenient room detached for the purpose
abounded great plenty of bread and butter, some biscuits, with tea and
coffee, which the drinkers of could not distinguish from hot water
sweet'ned--Be it remembered that pocket handkerchiefs served the
purposes of Table cloths & Napkins and that no apologies were made for
either. I shall therefore distinguish this ball by the stile and title
of the Bread & Butter Ball."
A certain Mr. Christian conducted a dancing school which met at the
homes of the patrons, and the Custis children, John Parke and Martha,
were members, as were Elizabeth French of Rose Hill, Milly Posey and
others of the neighborhood young people. In 1770 the class met four
times at Mount Vernon and we can not doubt that occasionally the host
danced with some of the young misses and enjoyed it.
An established institution was the election ball, which took place on
the night following the choice of the delegate to the Burgesses.
Washington often contributed to the expenses of these balls,
particularly when he was himself elected. No doubt they were noisy,
hilarious and perhaps now and then a bit rough.
Much has been written of the dances by which Washington and his officers
and their ladies helped to while away the tedium of long winters during
the Revolution, but the story of these has been often told and besides
lies outside the limits of this book, as does the dancing at New York
and Philadelphia during his presidency.
There is much conflicting evidence regarding Washington's later dancing
exploits. Some writers say that he never tripped the light fantastic
after the Revolution and that one of his last participations was at the
Fredericksburg ball after the capture of Cornwallis when he "went down
some dozen couple in the contra dance." It is certain, however, that
long afterward he would at least walk through one or two dances, even
though he did not actually take the steps. One good lady who knew him
well asserts that he often danced with Nelly Custis, and he seems to
have danced in 1796 when he was sixty-four. But to the invitation to the
Alexandria assembly early in 1799 he replied:
"Mrs. Washington and myself have been honored with your polite
invitation to the assemblies of Alexandria this winter, and thank you
for this mark of your attention. But, alas! our dancing days are no
more. We wish, however, all those who have a relish for so agreeable and
innocent an amusement all the pleasure the season will afford them."
Nor was he puritanical in respect to cards. From his account books we
find that he ordered them by the dozen packs, and his diaries contain
such entries as "At home all day over cards, it snowing." To increase
the interest he not infrequently played for money, though rarely for a
large amount. "Loo" and whist seem to have been the games played, but
not "bridge" or draw poker, which were then unknown.
From entries in his cash memorandum books it is evident that he loved a
quiet game rather frequently. Thus in his memorandum for 1772 I find the
entry for September five: "To Cash won at cards" L1.5. Four days later
he writes: "To Cash won at Cards at Mrs. Calverts" ten shillings. But on
September 17th he lost L1.5; on September 30th, L2, and on October 5th,
six shillings. Two days later his luck changed and he won L2.5, while on
the seventh he won L12.8. This was the most serious game that I have
found a record of, and the cards must either have run well for him or
else he had unskilful opponents. The following March, when attending the
Burgesses at Williamsburg, he got into a game, probably at Mrs.
Campbell's tavern, where he took his meals, and dropped L7.10.
In one of his account books I find two pages devoted to striking a
balance between what he won and what he lost from January 7, 1772, to
January 1, 1775. In that time he won L72.2.6 and lost L78.5.9. Hence we
find the entry: "By balance against Play from Jany. 1772 to this
date ... L6.3.3." But he must have had a lot of fun at a cost of that
six pounds three shillings and three pence!
It should be remarked here that gaming was then differently regarded in
Virginia from what it is now. Many even of the Episcopal clergymen
played cards for money and still kept fast hold upon their belief that
they would go to Heaven.
The same may also be said of lotteries, in which Washington now and then
took a flier. Many of the churches of that day, even in New England,
were built partly or wholly with money raised in that way. January 5,
1773, Washington states that he has received sixty tickets in the
Delaware lottery from his friend Lord Stirling and that he has "put 12
of the above Sixty into the Hands of the Revd. Mr. Magowan to sell." And
"the Revd." sold them too!
In his journal of the trip to Barbadoes taken with his brother Lawrence
we find that on his way home he attended "a Great Main of cks [cocks]
fought in Yorktown between Gloucester & York for 5 pistoles each battle
& 10 ye. odd." Occasionally he seems to have witnessed other mains, but
I have found no evidence that he made the practice in any sense a habit.
As a counterweight to his interest in so brutal a sport I must state
that he was exceedingly fond of afternoon teas and of the social
enjoyments connected with tea drinking. Tea was regularly served at his
army headquarters and in summer afternoons on the Mount Vernon veranda.
There is abundant evidence that he also enjoyed horse racing. In
September, 1768, he mentions going "to a Purse race at Accotinck," a
hamlet a few miles below Mount Vernon where a race track was maintained.
In 1772 he attended the Annapolis races, being a guest of the Governor
of Maryland, and he repeated the trip in 1773. In the following May he
went to a race and barbecue at Johnson's Ferry. George Washington Custis
tells us that the Farmer kept blooded horses and that his colt
"Magnolia" once ran for a purse, presumably losing, as if the event had
been otherwise we should probably have been informed of the fact. In
1786 Washington went to Alexandria "to see the Jockey Club purse run
for," and I have noticed a few other references to races, but I conclude
that he went less often than some writers would have us believe.
Washington was decidedly an outdoor man. Being six feet two inches tall,
and slender rather than heavily made, he was well fitted for athletic
sports. Tradition says that he once threw a stone across the
Rappahannock at a spot where no other man could do it, and that he could
outjump any one in Virginia. He also excelled in the game of putting the
bar, as a story related by the artist Peale bears witness.
Of outdoor sports he seems to have enjoyed hunting most. He probably had
many unrecorded experiences with deer and turkeys when a surveyor and
when in command upon the western border, but his main hunting adventure
after big game took place on his trip to the Ohio in 1770. Though the
party was on the move most of the time and was looking for rich land
rather than for wild animals, they nevertheless took some hunts.
On October twenty-second, in descending the stretch of the Ohio near the
mouth of Little Beaver Creek and above the Mingo Town, they saw many
wild geese and several kinds of duck and "killed five wild turkeys."
Three days later they "saw innumerable quantities of turkeys, and many
deer watering and browsing on the shore side, some of which we killed."
He does not say whether they shot this game from the canoe or not, but
probably on sighting the game they would put to shore and then one or
more would steal up on the quarry. Their success was probably increased
by the fact that they had two Indians with them.
Few people are aware of the fact that what is now West Virginia and Ohio
then contained many buffaloes. Below the mouth of the Great Hockhocking
the voyagers came upon a camp of Indians, the chief of which, an old
friend who had accompanied him to warn out the French in 1753, gave
Washington "a quarter of very fine buffalo." A creek near the camp,
according to the Indians, was an especial resort for these great beasts.
Fourteen miles up the Great Kanawha the travelers took a day off and
"went a hunting; killed five buffaloes and wounded some others, three
deer, &c. This country abounds in buffaloes and wild game of all kinds;
as also in all kinds of wild fowls, there being in the bottoms a great
many small grassy ponds, or lakes, which are full of swans, geese, and
ducks of different kinds."
How many of the buffaloes fell to his gun Washington does not record,
but it is safe to assume that he had at least some shots at them. And
beyond question he helped to devour the delicious buffalo humps, these
being, with the flesh of the bighorn sheep, the _ne plus ultra_ of
American big game delicacies.
The region in which these events took place was also notable for its big
trees. Near the mouth of the Kanawha they "met with a sycamore about
sixty yards from the river of a most extraordinary size, it measuring,
three feet from the ground, forty-five feet round [almost fifteen feet
through], lacking two inches; and not fifty yards from it was another,
thirty-one feet round."
When at home, Washington now and then took a gun and went out after
ducks, "hairs," wild turkeys and other game, and occasionally he records
fair bags of mallards, teal, bald faces and "blew wings," one of the
best being that of February 18, 1768, when he "went a ducking between
breakfast and dinner & killed 2 mallards & 5 bald faces." It is doubtful
whether he was at all an expert shot. In fact, he much preferred chasing
the fox with dogs to hunting with a gun.
Fox hunting in the Virginia of that day was a widely followed sport. It
was brought over from England and perhaps its greatest devotee was old
Lord Fairfax, with whom Washington hunted when still in his teens.
Fairfax, whose seat was at Greenway Court in the Shenandoah Valley, was
so passionately fond of it that if foxes were scarce near his home he
would go to a locality where they were plentiful, would establish
himself at an inn and would keep open house and welcome every person of
good character and respectable appearance who cared to join him.
The following are some typical entries from Washington's _Where & how my
time is Spent_: "Jany. 1st. (1768) Fox huntg. in my own Neck with Mr.
Robt. Alexander and Mr. Colville--catchd nothing--Captn. Posey with us."
There were many similar failures and no successes in the next six weeks,
but on February twelfth he records joyfully, "Catchd two foxes," and on
the thirteenth "catch 2 more foxes." March 2, 1768, "Hunting again, &
catchd a fox with a bobd Tail & cut Ears, after 7 hours chase in wch.
most of the dogs were worsted." March twenty-ninth, "Fox Hunting with
Jacky Custis & Ld. [Lund] Washington--Catchd a fox after 3 hrs. chase."
November twenty-second, "Went a fox huntg. with Lord Fairfax & Colo.
Fairfax & my Br. Catchd 2 Foxes." For two weeks thereafter they hunted
almost every day with varying success. September 30, 1769, he records:
"catchd a Rakoon."
On January 27, 1770, the dogs ran a deer out of the Neck and some of
them did not get home till next day. The finding of a deer was no
uncommon experience, but on no occasion does the chase seem to have been
successful, as, when hard pressed, the fugitive would take to the water
where the dogs could not follow. January 4, 1772, the hunters "found
both a Bear and a Fox but got neither."
Bear and deer were still fairly plentiful in the region, and the fact
serves to indicate that the country was not yet thickly settled, nor is
it to this day.
In November, 1771, Washington and Jack Custis went to Colonel Mason's at
Gunston Hall, a few miles below Mount Vernon, to engage in a grand deer
drive in which many men and dogs took part. Mason had an estate of ten
thousand acres which was favorably located for such a purpose, being
nearly surrounded by water, with peninsulas on which the game could be
cornered and forced to take to the river. On the first day they killed
two deer, but on the second they killed nothing. No doubt they had a
hilarious time of it, dogs baying, horsemen dashing here and there
shouting at the top of their voices, and with plenty of fat venison and
other good cheer at the Hall that night.
Washington's most remarkable hunting experience occurred on the
twenty-third of January, 1770, when he records: "Went a hunting after
breakfast & found a Fox at Muddy hole & killed her (it being a Bitch)
after a chase of better than two hours & after treeing her twice the
last of which times she fell dead out of the Tree after being therein
sevl. minutes apparently well." Lest he may be accused of nature faking,
it should be explained that the tree was a leaning tree. Occasionally
the foxes also took refuge in hollow trees, up which they could climb.
The day usually ended by all the hunters riding to Mount Vernon,
Belvoir, Gunston Hall, or some other mansion for a bountiful dinner.
Mighty then were the gastronomic feats performed, and over the Madeira
the incidents of the day were discussed as Nimrods in all ages are
wont to do.
Being so much interested in fox hunting, our Farmer proceeded, with his
usual painstaking care, to build up a pack of hounds. The year 1768 was
probably the period of his greatest interest in the subject and his
diary is full of accounts of the animals. Hounds were now, in fact, his
hobby, succeeding in interest his horses. He did his best to breed
according to scientific principles, but several entries show that the
dogs themselves were inclined blissfully to ignore the laws of eugenics
as applied to hounds.
Among his dogs in this period were "Mopsey," "Taster," "Tipler," "Cloe,"
"Lady," "Forester" and "Captain." August 6, 1768, we learn that "Lady"
has four puppies, which are to be called "Vulcan," "Searcher," "Rover,"
Like all dog owners he had other troubles with his pets. Once we find
him anointing all the hounds that had the mange "with Hogs Lard &
Brimstone." Again his pack is menaced by a suspected mad dog, which
The Revolution broke rudely in upon the Farmer's sports, but upon his
return to Mount Vernon he soon took up the old life. Knowing his bent,
Lafayette sent him a pack of French hounds, two dogs and three bitches,
and Washington took much interest in them. According to George
Washington Custis they were enormous brutes, better built for grappling
stags or boars than chasing foxes, and so fierce that a huntsman had to
preside at their meals. Their kennel stood a hundred yards south of the
old family vault, and Washington visited them every morning and evening.
According to Custis, it was the Farmer's desire to have them so evenly
matched and trained that if one leading dog should lose the scent,
another would be at hand to recover it and thus in full cry you might
cover the pack with a blanket.
The biggest of the French hounds, "Vulcan," was so vast that he was
often ridden by Master Custis and he seems to have been a rather
privileged character. Once when company was expected to dinner Mrs.
Washington ordered that a lordly ham should be cooked and served. At
dinner she noticed that the ham was not in its place and inquiry
developed that "Vulcan" had raided the kitchen and made off with the
meat. Thereupon, of course, the mistress scolded and equally, of course,
the master smiled and gleefully told the news to the guests.
Billy Lee, the colored valet who had followed the General through the
Revolution, usually acted as huntsman and, mounted on "Chinkling" or
some other good steed, with a French horn at his back, strove hard to
keep the pack in sight, no easy task among the rough timber-covered
hills of Fairfax County.
On a hunting day the Farmer breakfasted by candlelight, generally upon
corn cakes and milk, and at daybreak, with his guests, Billy and the
hounds, sallied forth to find a fox. Washington always rode a good horse
and sometimes wore a blue coat, scarlet waistcoat, buckskin breeches,
top boots and velvet cap and carried a whip with a long thong. When a
fox was started none rode more gallantly or cheered more joyously than
did he and as a rule he was in at the death, for, as Jefferson asserts,
he was "the best horseman of his age, and the most magnificent figure
that could be seen on horseback."
The fox that was generally hunted was the gray fox, which was indigenous
to the country. After the Revolution the red fox began to be seen
occasionally. They are supposed to have come from the Eastern Shore, and
to have crossed Chesapeake Bay on the ice in the hard winter of 1779-80.
Custis tells of a famous black fox that would go ten or twenty miles
before the hounds and return to the starting-point ready for another run
next day. After many unsuccessful chases Billy recommended that the
black reynard be let alone, saying he was near akin to another sable
and wily character. Thereafter the huntsman was always careful to throw
off the hounds when he suspected that they were on the trail of the
black fox. This story may or may not be true; all that I can say is that
I have found no confirmation of it in Washington's own writings.
Neither have I found there any confirmation of the story that Mrs.
Washington and other ladies often rode out to see the hunts. Washington
had avenues cut through some of his woods to facilitate the sport and
possibly to make the riding easier for the ladies. Upon the whole,
however, I incline to the opinion that generally at least Martha stayed
at home visiting with lady friends, attending to domestic concerns and
superintending the preparation of delectable dishes for the hungry
hunters. I very much doubt whether she would have enjoyed seeing a
The French hounds were, at least at first, rather indifferent hunters.
"Went out after Breakfast with my hounds from France, & two which were
lent me, yesterday, by Mr. Mason," says the Farmer the day of the first
trial; "found a Fox which was run tolerably well by two of the Frh.
Bitches & one of Mason's Dogs--the other French dogs shewed but little
disposition to follow--and with the second Dog of Mason's got upon
another Fox which was followed slow and indifferently by some & not at
all by the rest until the sent became so cold it cd. not be followed
Two days later the dogs failed again and the next time they ran two
foxes and caught neither, but their master thought they performed better
than hitherto, December 12th:
"After an early breakfast [my nephew] George Washington, Mr. Shaw and
Myself went into the Woods back of the Muddy hole Plantation a hunting
and were joined by Mr. Lund Washington and Mr. William Peake. About half
after ten O'clock (being first plagued with the Dogs running Hogs) we
found a fox near Colo Masons Plantation on little Hunting Creek (West
fork) having followed on his Drag more than half a Mile; and run him
with Eight Dogs (the other 4 getting, as was supposed after a Second
Fox) close and well for an hour. When the Dogs came to a fault and to
cold Hunting until 20 minutes after when being joined by the missing
Dogs they put him up afresh and in about 50 Minutes killed up in an open
field of Colo Mason's every Rider & every Dog being present at
Eight days later the pack chased two foxes, but caught neither. The next
hunt is described as follows:
"Went a Fox hunting with the Gentlemen who came here yesterday with
Ferdinando Washington and Mr. Shaw, after a very early breakfast.--found
a Fox just back of Muddy hole Plantation and after a Chase for an hour
and a quarter with my Dogs, & eight couple of Doctor Smiths (brought by
Mr. Phil Alexander) we put him into a hollow tree, in which we fastened
him, and in the Pincushion put up another Fox which, in an hour and 13
Minutes was killed--We then after allowing the Fox in the hole half an
hour put the Dogs upon his Trail & in half a Mile he took to another
hollow tree and was again put out of it but he did not go 600 yards
before he had recourse to the same shift--finding therefore that he was
a conquered Fox we took the Dogs off, and came home to dinner."
[Illustration: The Flower Garden, By permission of the Mount Vernon
Custis asserts that Washington took his last hunt in 1785, but in the
diary under date of December 22, 1787, I find that he went out with
Major George A. Washington and others on that day, but found nothing,
and that he took still another hunt in January, 1788, and chased a fox
that had been captured the previous month. This, however, is the last
reference that I have discovered. No doubt he was less resilient than in
his younger days and found the sport less delightful than of yore, while
the duties of the presidency, to which he was soon called, left him
little leisure for sport. He seems to have broken up his kennels and to
have given away most or all of his hounds.
Later he acquired a pair of "tarriers" and took enough interest in them
to write detailed instructions concerning them in 1796.
Washington's fishing was mostly done with a seine as a commercial
proposition, but he seems to have had a mild interest in angling.
Occasionally he took trips up and down the Potomac in order to fish,
sometimes with a hook and line, at other times with seines and nets. He
and Doctor Craik took fishing tackle with them on both their western
tours and made use of it in some of the mountain streams and also in the
Ohio. While at the Federal Convention in 1787 he and Gouverneur Morris
went up to Valley Forge partly perhaps to see the old camp, but
ostensibly to fish for trout. They lodged at the home of a widow named
Moore. On the trip the Farmer learned the Pennsylvania way of raising
buckwheat and, it must be confessed, wrote down much more about this
topic than about trout. A few days later, with Gouverneur Morris and Mr.
and Mrs. Robert Morris, he went up to Trenton and "in the evening
fished," with what success he does not relate. When on his eastern tour
of 1789 he went outside the harbor of Portsmouth to fish for cod, but
the tide was unfavorable and they caught only two. More fortunate was a
trip off Sandy Hook the next year, which was thus described by a
"Yesterday afternoon the President of the United States returned from
Sandy Hook and the fishing banks, where he had been for the benefit of
the sea air, and to amuse himself in the delightful recreation of
fishing. We are told he has had excellent sport, having himself caught a
great number of sea-bass and black fish--the weather proved remarkably
fine, which, together with the salubrity of the air and wholesome
exercise, rendered this little voyage extremely agreeable."
Our Farmer was extremely fond of fish as an article of diet and took
great pains to have them on his table frequently. At Mount Vernon there
was an ancient black man, reputed to be a centenarian and the son of an
African King, whose duty it was to keep the household supplied with
fish. On many a morning he could be seen out on the river in his skiff,
beguiling the toothsome perch, bass or rock-fish. Not infrequently he
would fall asleep and then the impatient cook, who had orders to have
dinner strictly upon the hour, would be compelled to seek the shore and
roar at him. Old Jack would waken and upon rowing to shore would inquire
angrily: "What you all mek such a debbil of a racket for hey? I wa'nt
asleep, only noddin'."
Another colored factotum about the place was known as Tom Davis, whose
duty it was to supply the Mansion House with game. With the aid of his
old British musket and of his Newfoundland dog "Gunner" he secured many
a canvasback and mallard, to say nothing of quails, turkeys and
After the Revolution Washington formed a deer park below the hill on
which the Mansion House stands. The park contained about one hundred
acres and was surrounded by a high paling about sixteen hundred yards
long. At first he had only Virginia deer, but later acquired some
English fallow deer from the park of Governor Ogle of Maryland. Both
varieties herded together, but never mixed blood. The deer were
continually getting out and in February, 1786, one returned with a
broken leg, "supposed to be by a shot." Seven years later an English
buck that had broken out weeks before was killed by some one. The
paddock fence was neglected and ultimately the deer ran half wild over
the estate, but in general stayed in the wooded region surrounding the
Mansion House. The gardener frequently complained of damage done by them
to shrubs and plants, and Washington said he hardly knew "whether to
give up the Shrubs or the Deer!" The spring before his death we find him
writing to the brothers Chickesters warning them to cease hunting his
deer and he hints that he may come to "the disagreeable necessity of
resorting to other means."
George Washington Custis, being like his father "Jacky" an enthusiastic
hunter, long teased the General to permit him to hunt the deer and at
last won consent to shoot one buck. The lad accordingly loaded an old
British musket with two ounce-balls, sallied forth and wounded one of
the patriarchs of the herd, which was then chased into the Potomac and
there slain. Next day the buck was served up to several guests, and
Custis long afterward treasured the antlers at Arlington House, the
residence he later built across the Potomac from the Federal City.
Upon the whole we must conclude that Washington was one of the best
sportsmen of all our Presidents. He was not so much of an Izaak Walton
as was one of his successors, nor did he pursue the lion and festive
bongo to their African lairs as did another, but he had a keen love of
nature and the open country and would have found both the Mighty Hunter
and the Mighty Angler kindred spirits.
A CRITICAL VISITOR AT MOUNT VERNON
About thirty miles down the river Potomac, a gentleman, of the name of
Grimes, came up to us in his own boat. He had some little time
before shot a man who was going across his plantation; and had been
tried for so doing, but not punished. He came aboard, and behaved very
politely to me: and it being near dinner time, he would have me go
ashore and dine with him: which I did. He gave me some grape-juice to
drink, which he called Port wine, and entertained me with saying he made
it himself: it was not to my taste equal to our Port in England, nor
even strong beer; but a hearty welcome makes everything pleasant, and
this he most cheerfully gave me. He showed me his garden; the produce of
which, he told me, he sold at Alexandria, a distance of thirty miles.
His garden was in disorder: and so was everything else I saw about the
place; except a favourite stallion, which was in very good condition--a
pretty figure of a horse, and of proper size for the road, about fifteen
hands high. He likewise showed me some other horses, brood-mares and
foals, young colts, &c. of rather an useful kind. His cattle were small,
but all much better than the land.
 This chapter is taken from _A Tour of America in 1798, 1799, and
1800_, by Richard Parkinson, who has already been several times quoted.
Parkinson had won something of a name in England as a scientific
agriculturist and had published a book called the _Experienced Farmer_.
He negotiated by letter with Washington for the rental of one of the
Mount Vernon farms, and in 1798, without having made any definite
engagement, sailed for the Potomac with a cargo of good horses, cattle
and hogs. His plan for renting Washington's farm fell through, by his
account because it was so poor, and ultimately he settled for a time
near Baltimore, where he underwent such experiences as an opinionated
Englishman with new methods would be likely to meet. Soured by failure,
he returned to England, and published an account of his travels, partly
with the avowed purpose of discouraging emigration to America. His
opinion of the country he summed up thus: "If a man should be so
unfortunate as to have married a wife of a capricious disposition, let
him take her to America, and keep her there three or four years in a
country-place at some distance from a town, and afterwards bring her
back to England; if she do not act with propriety, he may be sure there
is no remedy." I have rearranged his account in such a way as to make it
consecutive, but otherwise it stands as originally published.
He praised the soil very highly. I asked him if he was acquainted with
the land at Mount Vernon. He said he was; and represented it to be rich
land, but not so rich as his. Yet his I thought very poor indeed; for
it was (as is termed in America) _gullied_; which I call broken land.
This effect is produced by the winter's frost and summer's rain, which
cut the land into cavities of from ten feet wide and ten feet deep (and
upwards) in many places; and, added to this, here and there a hole,
which makes it look altogether like marlpits, or stone-quarries, that
have been carried away by those hasty showers in the summer, which no
man who has not seen them in this climate could form any idea of or
In two days after we left this place, we came in sight of Mount Vernon;
but in all the way up the river, I did not see any green fields. The
country had to me a most barren appearance. There were none but
snake-fences; which are rails laid with the ends of one upon another,
from eight to sixteen in number in one length. The surface of the earth
looked like a yellow-washed wall; for it had been a very dry summer; and
there was not any thing that I could see green, except the pine trees in
the woods, and the cedars, which made a truly picturesque view as we
sailed up the Potomac. It is indeed a most beautiful river.
When we arrived at Mount Vernon, I found that General Washington was at
Philadelphia; but his steward had orders from the General to receive
me and my family, with all the horses, cattle, &c. which I had on board.
A boat was, therefore, got ready for landing them; but that could not be
done, as the ship must be cleared out at some port before anything was
moved: so, after looking about a few minutes at Mount Vernon, I returned
to the ship, and we began to make way for Alexandria....
 No doubt Anderson, Washington's last manager.
When I had been about seven days at Alexandria, I hired a horse and went
to Mount Vernon, to view my intended farm; of which General Washington
had given me a plan, and a report along with it--the rent being fixed at
eighteen hundred bushels of wheat for twelve hundred acres, or money
according to the price of that grain. I must confess that if he would
have given me the inheritance of the land for that sum, I durst not have
accepted it, especially with the incumbrances upon it; viz. one hundred
seventy slaves young and old, and out of that number only
twenty-seven in a condition to work, as the steward represented to
me. I viewed the whole of the cultivated estate--about three thousand
acres; and afterward dined with Mrs. Washington and the family. Here I
met a Doctor Thornton, who is a very pleasant agreeable man, and his
lady; with a Mr. Peters and his lady, who was a grand-daughter of Mrs.
Washington. Doctor Thornton living at the city of Washington, he gave me
an invitation to visit him there: he was one of the commissioners of
 Most certainly a mistake.
I slept at Mount Vernon, and experienced a very kind and comfortable
reception; but did not like the land at all. I saw no green grass there,
except in the garden: and this was some English grass, appearing to me
to be a sort of couch-grass; it was in drills. There were also six
saintfoin plants, which I found the General valued highly. I viewed the
oats which were not thrashed, and counted the grains upon each head; but
found no stem with more than four grains, and these a very light and bad
quality, such as I had never seen before: the longest straw was of about
twelve inches. The wheat was all thrashed, therefore I could not
ascertain the produce of that: I saw some of the straw, however, and
thought it had been cut and prepared for the cattle in the winter; but I
believe I was mistaken, it being short by nature, and with thrashing out
looked like chaff, or as if chopped with a bad knife. The General had
two thrashing machines, the power given by horses. The clover was very
little in bulk, and like chaff; not more than nine inches long, and the
leaf very much shed from the stalk. By the stubbles on the land I could
not tell which had been wheat, or which had been oats or barley; nor
could I see any clover-roots where the clover had grown. The weather was
hot and dry at that time; it was in December. The whole of the different
fields were covered with either the stalks of weeds, corn-stalks, or
what is called sedge--something like spear-grass upon the poor limestone
in England; and the steward told me nothing would eat it, which is true.
Indeed, he found fault with everything, just like a foreigner; and even
told me many unpleasant tales of the General, so that I began to think
he feared I was coming to take his place. But (God knows!) I would not
choose to accept of it: for he had to superintend four hundred slaves,
and there would be more now. This part of his business especially would
have been painful to me; it is, in fact, a sort of trade of itself.
I had not in all this time seen what we in England call a corn-stack,
nor a dung-hill. There were, indeed, behind the General's barns, two or
three cocks of oats and barley; but such as an English broad-wheeled
waggon would have carried a hundred miles at one time with ease. Neither
had I seen a green plant of any kind: there was some clover of the first
year's sowing: but in riding over the fields I should not have known it
to be clover, although the steward told me it was; only when I came
under a tree I could, by favour of the shade, perceive here and there a
green leaf of clover, but I do not remember seeing a green root. I was
shown no grass-hay of any kind; nor do I believe there was any.
The cattle were very poor and ordinary, and the sheep the same; nor did
I see any thing I liked except the mules, which were very fine ones, and
in good condition. Mr. Gough had made a present to General Washington of
a bull calf. The animal was shown to me when I first landed at Mount
Vernon, and was the first bull I saw in the country. He was large, and
very strong-featured; the largest part was his head, the next his legs.
The General's steward was a Scotchman, and no judge of animals--a better
judge of distilling whiskey.
I saw here a greater number of negroes than I ever saw at one time,
either before or since.
The house is a very decent mansion: not large, and something like a
gentleman's house in England, with gardens and plantations; and is very
prettily situated on the banks of the river Potowmac, with extensive
prospects.... The roads are very bad from Alexandria to Mount Vernon.
The General still continuing at Philadelphia, I could not have the
pleasure of seeing him; therefore I returned to Alexandria.
I returned [to Mount Vernon some weeks later] ... to see General
Washington. I dined with him; and he showed me several presents that had
been sent him, viz. swords, china, and among the rest the key of the
Bastille. I spent a very pleasant day in the house, as the weather was
so severe that there were no farming objects to see, the ground being
covered with snow.
Would General Washington have given me the twelve hundred acres I would
not have accepted it, to have been confined to live in that country; and
to convince the General of the cause of my determination, I was
compelled to treat him with a great deal of frankness. The General, who
had corresponded with Mr. Arthur Young and others on the subject of
English farming and soils, and had been not a little flattered by
different gentlemen from England, seemed at first to be not well
pleased with my conversation; but I gave him some strong proofs of his
mistakes, by making a comparison between the lands in America and those
of England in two respects.
First, in the article of sheep. He supposed himself to have fine sheep,
and a great quantity of them. At the time of my viewing his five farms,
which consisted of about three thousand acres cultivated, he had one
hundred sheep, and those in very poor condition. This was in the month
of November. To show him his mistake in the value and quality of his
land, I compared this with the farm my father occupied, which was less
than six hundred acres. He clipped eleven hundred sheep, though some of
his land was poor and at two shillings and sixpence per acre--the
highest was at twenty shillings; the average weight of the wool was ten
pounds per fleece, and the carcases weighed from eighty to one hundred
twenty pounds each: while in the General's hundred sheep on three
thousand acres, the wool would not weigh on an average more than three
pounds and a half the fleece, and the carcases at forty-eight pounds
each. Secondly, the proportion of the produce in grain was similar. The
General's crops were from two to three bushels of wheat per acre;
and my father's farm, although poor clay soil, gave from twenty to
 A misstatement, of course.
During this conversation Colonel Lear, aide-de-camp to the General, was
present. When the General left the room, the Colonel told me he had
himself been in England, and had seen Arthur Young (who had been
frequently named by the General in our conversation); and that Mr. Young
having learnt that he was in the mercantile line, and was possessed of
much land, had said he thought he was a great fool to be a merchant and
yet have so much land; the Colonel replied, that if Mr. Young had the
same land to cultivate, it would make a great fool of _him_. The Colonel
did me the honour to say I was the only man he ever knew to treat
General Washington with frankness.
The General's cattle at that time were all in poor condition: except his
mules (bred from American mares), which were very fine, and the Spanish
ass sent to him as a present by the king of Spain. I felt myself much
vexed at an expression used at dinner by Mrs. Washington. When the
General and the company at table were talking about the fine horses and
cattle I had brought from England, Mrs. Washington said, "I am afraid,
Mr. Parkinson, you have brought your fine horses and cattle to a bad
market; I am of opinion that our horses and cattle are good enough for
our land." I thought that if every old woman in the country knew this,
my speculation would answer very ill: as I perfectly agreed with Mrs.
Washington in sentiment; and wondered much, from the poverty of the
land, to see the cattle good as they were.
The General wished me to stay all night; but having some other
engagement, I declined his kind offer. He sent Colonel Lear out after I
had parted with him, to ask me if I wanted any money; which I
PROFIT AND LOSS
A biographer whose opinions about Washington are usually sound concludes
that the General was a failure as a farmer. With this opinion I am
unable to agree and I am inclined to think that in forming it he had in
mind temporary financial stringencies and perhaps a comparison between
Washington and the scientific farmers of to-day instead of the juster
comparison with the farmers of that day. For if Washington was a
failure, then nine-tenths of the Southern planters of his day were also
failures, for their methods and results were much worse than his.
It must be admitted, however, that comparatively little of his fortune,
which amounted at his death to perhaps three-quarters of a million
dollars, was made by the sale of products from his farm. Few farmers
have grown rich in that way. Washington's wealth was due in part to
inheritance and a fortunate marriage, but most of all to the increment
on land. Part of this land he received as a reward for military
services, but much of it he was shrewd enough to buy at a low rate and
hold until it became more valuable.
The task of analyzing his fortune and income in detail is an impossible
one for a number of reasons. We do not have all the facts of his
financial operations and even if we had there are other difficulties. A
farmer, unlike a salaried man, can not tell with any exactness what his
true income is. The salaried man can say, "This year I received four
thousand dollars," The farmer can only say--if he is the one in a
hundred who keeps accounts--"Last year I took in two thousand dollars or
five thousand dollars," as the case may be. From this sum he must deduct
expenses for labor, wear and tear of farm machinery, pro rata cost of
new tools and machinery, loss of soil fertility, must take into account
the fact that some of the stock sold has been growing for one, two or
more years, must allow for the butter and eggs bartered for groceries
and for the value of the two cows he traded for a horse, must add the
value of the rent of the house and grounds he and his family have
enjoyed, the value of the chickens, eggs, vegetables, fruit, milk, meat
and other produce of the farm consumed--as he proceeds the problem
becomes infinitely more complex until at last he gives it up
This much, however, is plain--a farmer can handle much less money than a
salaried man and yet live infinitely better, for his rent, much of his
food and many other things cost him nothing.
In Washington's case the problem is further complicated by a number of
circumstances. As a result of his marriage he had some money upon bond.
For his military services in the French war he received large grants of
land and the payment during the Revolution of his personal expenses, and
as President he had a salary of twenty-five thousand dollars a year.
Yet another difficulty discloses itself when we come to examine his cash
accounts. We find, for example, that from August 3, 1775, to September,
1783, leaving out of the reckoning his military receipts, he took in a
total of about eighty thousand one hundred sixty-seven pounds. What then
more simple than to divide this sum by seven and ascertain his average
receipts during the years of the Revolution? But when we come to examine
some of the details more closely we are brought to pause. We discover
such facts as that in 1780 a small steer, supposed to weigh about three
hundred pounds, brought five hundred pounds in money! A sheep sold for
one hundred pounds; six thousand five hundred sixty-nine pounds of
dressed beef brought six thousand five hundred sixty-nine pounds; the
stud fee for "Steady" was sixty pounds. In other words, the accounts in
these years were in depreciated paper and utterly worthless for our
purposes. Washington himself gave the puzzle up in despair toward the
end of the war and paid his manager in produce, not money.
We of to-day have, in fact, not the faintest conception of the blessing
we enjoy in a uniform and fairly stable monetary system. Even before the
days of the "Continentals" there was depreciated paper afloat that had
been issued by the colonial governments and, unless the fact is
definitely stated, when we come upon figures of that period we can never
be sure whether they refer to pounds sterling or pounds paper, or, if
the latter, what kind of paper. People had to be constantly figuring the
real value of Pennsylvania money, or Virginia money or Massachusetts
money, and one meets with many such calculations on the blank leaves of
Washington's account books. Even metallic money was a Chinese puzzle
except to the initiated, there were so many kinds of it afloat. Among
our Farmer's papers I have found a list of the money that he took with
him to Philadelphia on one occasion--6 joes, 67 half joes, 2
one-eighteenth joes, 3 doubloons, 1 pistole, 2 moidores, 1 half moidore,
2 double louis d'or, 3 single louis d'or, 80 guineas, 7 half guineas,
besides silver and bank-notes.
The depreciation of the paper currency during the Revolution proved
disastrous to him in several ways. When the war broke out much of the
money he had obtained by marriage was loaned out on bond, or, as we
would say to-day, on mortgage. "I am now receiving," he soon wrote, "a
shilling in the pound in discharge of Bonds which ought to have been
paid me, & would have been realized before I left Virginia, but for my
indulgences to the debtors." In 1778 he said that six or seven thousand
pounds that he had in bonds upon interest had been paid in depreciated
paper, so that the real value was now reduced to as many hundreds. Some
of the paper money that came into his hands he invested in government
securities, and at least ten thousand pounds of these in Virginia money
were ultimately funded by the federal government for six thousand two
hundred and forty-six dollars in three and six per cent. bonds.
And yet, by examining Washington's accounts, one is able to estimate in
a rough way the returns he received from his estate, landed and
otherwise. We find that in ten months of 1759 he took in L1,839; from
January 1, 1760, to January 10, 1761, about L2,535; in 1772, L3,213;
from August 3, 1775, to August 30, 1776, L2,119; in 1786, L2,025; in
1791, about L2,025. Included in some of these entries, particularly the
earlier ones, are payments of interest and principal on his wife's share
of the Custis estate. Of the later ones, that for 1786--a bad farming
year--includes rentals on more than a score of parcels of land amounting
to L282.15, L25 rental on his fishery, payments for flour, stud
Upon the average, therefore, I am inclined to believe that his annual
receipts were roughly in the neighborhood of ten thousand dollars to
fifteen thousand dollars a year from his estate.
As regards Mount Vernon alone, he sometimes made estimates of what the
crop returns ought to be; in other words, counted his chickens before
they were hatched. Thus in 1789 he drew up alternative plans and
estimated that one of these, if adopted, ought to produce crops worth a
gross of L3,091, another L3,831, and a third L4,449, but that from these
sums L1,357, L1,394 and L1,445 respectively would have to be deducted
for seed, food for man and beasts, and other expenses.
A much better idea of the financial returns from his home estate can be
obtained from his actual balances of gain and loss. One of these, namely
for 1798, which was a poor year, was as follows:
BALANCE OF GAIN AND LOSS, 1798
DR. GAINED CR. LOST
Dogue Run Farm 397.11.2 Mansion House .. 466.18. 2-1/2
Union Farm .... 529.10.11-1/2 Muddy Hole Farm 60. 1. 3-1/2
River Farm .... 234. 4.11 Spinning ....... 51. 2. 0
Smith's Shop .. 34.12.09-1/2 Hire of Head
Distillery .... 83.13. 1 overseer ..... 140. 0. 0
Jacks ......... 56.1
Traveler ...... 9.17
Shoemaker ..... 28.17. 1
Fishery ....... 165.12. 0-1/4 By clear gain on
Dairy ......... 30.12. 3 the Estate.....L898.16. 4-1/4
Mr. Paul Leicester Ford considered this "a pretty poor showing for an
estate and negroes which had certainly cost him over fifty thousand
dollars, and on which there was live stock which at the lowest
estimation was worth fifteen thousand dollars more." In some respects it
was a poor showing. Yet the profit Washington sets down is about seven
per cent. upon sixty-five thousand dollars, and seven per cent. is more
than the average farmer makes off his farm to-day except through the
appreciation in the value of the land. The truth is, however, that Mount
Vernon, including the live stock and slaves, was really worth in 1798
nearer two hundred thousand dollars than sixty-five thousand, so that
the actual return would only be about two and a fourth per cent.
But Washington failed to include in his receipts many items, such as the
use of a fine mansion for himself and family, the use of horses and
vehicles, and the added value of slaves and live stock by
Besides in some other years the profits were much larger.
And lastly, in judging a man's success or failure as a farmer, allowance
must be made for the kind of land that he has to farm. The Mount Vernon
land was undoubtedly poor in quality, and it is probable that Washington
got more out of it than has ever been got out of it by any other person
either before or since. Much of it to-day must not pay taxes.
Washington died possessed of property worth about three-quarters of a
million, although he began life glad to earn a doubloon a day surveying.
The main sources of this wealth have already been indicated, but when
all allowance is made in these respects, the fact remains that he was
compelled to make a living and to keep expenses paid during the forty
years in which the fortune was accumulating, and the main source he drew
from was his farms. Not much of that living came from the Custis estate,
for, as we have seen, a large part of the money thus acquired was lost.
During his eight years as Commander-in-Chief he had his expenses--no
more. Of the eight years of his presidency much the same can be said,
for all authorities agree that he expended all of his salary in
maintaining his position and some say that he spent more. Yet at the end
of his life we find him with much more land than he had in 1760, with
valuable stocks and bonds, a house and furniture infinitely superior to
the eight-room house he first owned, two houses in the Federal City that
had cost him about $15,000, several times as many negroes, and live
stock estimated by himself at $15,653 and by his manager at upward of
twice that sum.
Such being the case--and as no one has ever ventured even to hint that
he made money corruptly out of his official position--the conclusion is
irresistible that he was a good business man and that he made farming
pay, particularly when he was at home.
It is true that only three months before his death he wrote: "The
expense at which I live, and the unproductiveness of my estate, will not
allow me to lessen my income while I remain in my present situation. On
the contrary, were it not for occasional supplies of money in payment
for lands sold within the last four or five years, to the amount of
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