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  • 1907
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“Although no man’s sentiments are more opposed to any kind of restraint upon religious principles than mine are, yet I must confess, that I am not amongst the number of those, who are so much alarmed at the thoughts of making people pay towards the support of that which they profess, if of the denomination, of Christians, or to declare themselves Jews, Mahometans, or otherwise, and thereby obtain proper relief. As the matter now stands, I wish an assessment had never been agitated, and as it has gone so far, that the bill could die an easy death; because I think it will be productive of more quiet to the State, than by enacting it into a law, which in my opinion would be impolitic, admitting there is a decided majority for it, to the disquiet of a respectable minority. In the former case, the matter will soon subside; in the latter, it will rankle and perhaps convulse the State.”

Again in a letter he says,–

“Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated. I was in hopes, that the lightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled _Christians_ of every denomination so far, that we should never again see their religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society.”

And to Lafayette, alluding to the proceedings of the Assembly of Notables, he wrote,–

“I am not less ardent in my wish, that you may succeed in your plan of toleration in religious matters. Being no bigot myself, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church with that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest, and least liable to exception.”

What Washington believed has been a source of much dispute. Jefferson states “that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets, and believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did,” and Morris, it is scarcely necessary to state, was an atheist. The same authority quotes Rush, to the effect that “when the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation, that he had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address, as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not They did so. But, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice.”

Whatever his belief, in all public ways Washington threw his influence in favor of religion, and kept what he really believed a secret, and in only one thing did he disclose his real thoughts. It is asserted that before the Revolution he partook of the sacrament, but this is only affirmed by hearsay, and better evidence contradicts it. After that war he did not, it is certain. Nelly Custis states that on “communion Sundays he left the church with me, after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back for my grandmother.” And the assistant minister of Christ Church in Philadelphia states that–

“Observing that on Sacrament Sundays, Gen’l Washington, immediately after the Desk and Pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the congregation, always leaving Mrs. Washington with the communicants, she _invariably_ being one, I considered it my duty, in a sermon on Public Worship, to state the unhappy tendency of _example_, particularly those in elevated stations, who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I acknowledge the remark was intended for the President, as such, he received it. A few days after, in conversation with, I believe, a Senator of the U.S. he told me he had dined the day before with the President, who in the course of the conversation at the table, said, that on the preceding Sunday, he had received a very just reproof from the pulpit, for always leaving the church before the administration of the Sacrament; that he honored the preacher for his integrity and candour; that he had never considered the influence of his example; that he would never again give cause for the repetition of the reproof; and that, as he had never been a communicant, were he to become one then, it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal arising altogether from his elevated station. Accordingly he afterwards never came on the morning of Sacrament Sunday, tho’ at other times, a constant attendant in the morning.”

Nelly Custis, too, tells us that Washington always “stood during the devotional part of the service,” and Bishop White states that “his behavior was always serious and attentive; but, as your letter seems to intend an inquiry on the point of kneeling during the service, I owe it to the truth to declare, that I never saw him in the said attitude.” Probably his true position is described by Madison, who is quoted as saying that he did “not suppose that Washington had ever attended to the arguments for Christianity, and for the different systems of religion, or in fact that he had formed definite opinions on the subject. But he took these things as he found them existing, and was constant in his observances of worship according to the received forms of the Episcopal Church, in which he was brought up.”

If there was proof needed that it is mind and not education which pushes a man to the front, it is to be found in the case of Washington. Despite his want of education, he had, so Bell states, “an excellent understanding.” Patrick Henry is quoted as saying of the members of the Congress of 1774– the body of which Adams claimed that “every man in it is a great man, an orator, a critic, a statesman”–that “if you speak of solid information and sound judgment Colonel Washington is unquestionably the greatest man on the floor;” while Jefferson asserted that “his mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon, or Locke; and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion.”



The book from which Washington derived almost the whole of his education warned its readers,–

“Young Men have ever more a special care That Womanish Allurements prove not a snare;”

but, however carefully the lad studied the rest, this particular admonition took little root in his mind. There can be no doubt that Washington during the whole of his life had a soft heart for women, and especially for good-looking ones, and both in his personal intercourse and in his letters he shows himself very much more at ease with them than in his relations with his own sex. Late in life, when the strong passions of his earlier years were under better control, he was able to write,–

“Love is said to be an involuntary passion, and it is, therefore, contended that it cannot be resisted. This is true in part only, for like all things else, when nourished and supplied plentifully with aliment, it is rapid in its progress; but let these be withdrawn and it may be stifled in its birth or much stinted in its growth. For example, a woman (the same may be said of the other sex) all beautiful and accomplished will, while her hand and heart are undisposed of, turn the heads and set the circle in which she moves on fire. Let her marry, and what is the consequence? The madness _ceases_ and all is quiet again. Why? not because there is any diminution in the charms of the lady, but because there is an end of hope. Hence it follows, that love may and therefore ought to be under the guidance of reason, for although we cannot avoid first impressions, we may assuredly place them under guard.”

To write thus in one’s sixty-sixth year and to practise one’s theory in youth were, however, very different undertakings. Even while discussing love so philosophically, the writer had to acknowledge that “in the composition of the human frame, there is a good deal of inflammable matter,” and few have had better cause to know it. When he saw in the premature engagement of his ward, Jack Custis, the one advantage that it would “in a great measure avoid those little flirtations with other young ladies that may, by dividing the attention, contribute not a little to divide the affection,” it is easy to think of him as looking back to his own boyhood, and remembering, it is to be hoped with a smile, the sufferings he owed to pretty faces and neatly turned ankles.

While still a school-boy, Washington was one day caught “romping with one of the largest girls,” and very quickly more serious likings followed. As early as 1748, when only sixteen years of age, his heart was so engaged that while at Lord Fairfax’s and enjoying the society of Mary Cary he poured out his feelings to his youthful correspondents “Dear Robin” and “Dear John” and “Dear Sally” as follows:

“My place of Residence is at present at His Lordships where I might was my heart disengag’d pass my time very pleasantly as theres a very agreeable Young Lady Lives in the same house (Colo George Fairfax’s Wife’s Sister) but as thats only adding Fuel to fire it makes me the more uneasy for by often and unavoidably being in Company with her revives my former Passion for your Low Land Beauty whereas was I to live more retired from young Women I might in some measure eliviate my sorrows by burying that chast and troublesome Passion in the grave of oblivion or etarnall forgetfulness for as I am very well assured thats the only antidote or remedy that I shall be releivd by or only recess that can administer any cure or help to me as I am well convinced was I ever to attempt any thing I should only get a denial which would be only adding grief to uneasiness.”

“Was my affections disengaged I might perhaps form some pleasure in the conversation of an agreeable Young Lady as theres one now Lives in the same house with me but as that is only nourishment to my former affecn for by often seeing her brings the other into my remembrance whereas perhaps was she not often & (unavoidably) presenting herself to my view I might in some measure aliviate my sorrows by burying the other in the grave of Oblivion I am well convinced my heart stands in defiance of all others but only she thats given it cause enough to dread a second assault and from a different Quarter tho’ I well know let it have as many attacks as it will from others they cant be more fierce than it has been.”

“I Pass the time of[f] much more agreeabler than what I imagined I should as there’s a very agrewable Young Lady lives in the same house where I reside (Colo George Fairfax’s Wife’s Sister) that in a great Measure cheats my thoughts altogether from your Parts I could wish to be with you down there with all my heart but as it is a thing almost Impractakable shall rest myself where I am with hopes of shortly having some Minutes of your transactions in your Parts which will be very welcomely receiv’d.”

Who this “Low Land Beauty” was has been the source of much speculation, but the question is still unsolved, every suggested damsel–Lucy Grymes, Mary Bland, Betsy Fauntleroy, _et al._–being either impossible or the evidence wholly inadequate. But in the same journal which contains the draughts of these letters is a motto poem–

“Twas Perfect Love before
But Now I do adore”–

followed by the words “Young M.A. his W[ife?],” and as it was a fashion of the time to couple the initials of one’s well-beloved with such sentiments, a slight clue is possibly furnished. Nor was this the only rhyme that his emotions led to his inscribing in his journal: and he confided to it the following:

“Oh Ye Gods why should my Poor Resistless Heart Stand to oppose thy might and Power
At Last surrender to cupids feather’d Dart And now lays Bleeding every Hour
For her that’s Pityless of my grief and Woes And will not on me Pity take
He sleep amongst my most inveterate Foes And with gladness never wish to wake
In deluding sleepings let my Eyelids close That in an enraptured Dream I may
In a soft lulling sleep and gentle repose Possess those joys denied by Day.”

However woe-begone the young lover was, he does not seem to have been wholly lost to others of the sex, and at this same time he was able to indite an acrostic to another charmer, which, if incomplete, nevertheless proves that there was a “midland” beauty as well, the lady being presumptively some member of the family of Alexanders, who had a plantation near Mount Vernon.

“From your bright sparkling Eyes I was undone; Rays, you have; more transperent than the Sun. Amidst its glory in the rising Day
None can you equal in your bright array; Constant in your calm and unspotted Mind; Equal to all, but will to none Prove kind, So knowing, seldom one so Young, you’l Find.

Ah! woe’s me, that I should Love and conceal Long have I wish’d, but never dare reveal, Even though severely Loves Pains I feel; Xerxes that great, was’t free from Cupids Dart, And all the greatest Heroes, felt the smart.”

When visiting Barbadoes, in 1751, Washington noted in his journal his meeting a Miss Roberts, “an agreeable young lady,” and later he went with her to see some fireworks on Guy Fawkes day. Apparently, however, the ladies of that island made little impression on him, for he further noted, “The Ladys Generally are very agreeable but by ill custom or w[ha]t effect the Negro style.” This sudden insensibility is explained by a letter he wrote to William Fauntleroy a few weeks after his return to Virginia:

“Sir: I should have been down long before this, but my business in Frederick detained me somewhat longer than I expected, and immediately upon my return from thence I was taken with a violent Pleurise, but purpose as soon as I recover my strength, to wait on Miss Betsy, in hopes of a revocation of the former cruel sentence, and see if I can meet with any alteration in my favor. I have enclosed a letter to her, which should be much obliged to you for the delivery of it. I have nothing to add but my best respects to your good lady and family, and that I am, Sir, Your most ob’t humble serv’t.”

Because of this letter it has been positively asserted that Betsy Fauntleroy was the Low-Land Beauty of the earlier time; but as Washington wrote of his love for the latter in 1748, when Betsy was only eleven, the absurdity of the claim is obvious.

In 1753, while on his mission to deliver the governor’s letter to the French, one duty which fell to the young soldier was a visit to royalty, in the person of Queen Aliquippa, an Indian majesty who had “expressed great Concern” that she had formerly been slighted. Washington records that “I made her a Present of a Match-coat and a Bottle of Rum; which latter was thought much the best Present of the Two,” and thus (externally and internally) restored warmth to her majesty’s feelings.

When returned from his first campaign, and resting at Mount Vernon, the time seems to have been beguiled by some charmer, for one of Washington’s officers and intimates writes from Williamsburg, “I imagine you By this time plung’d in the midst of delight heaven can afford & enchanted By Charmes even Stranger to the Ciprian Dame,” and a footnote by the same hand only excites further curiosity concerning this latter personage by indefinitely naming her as “Mrs. Neil.”

With whatever heart-affairs the winter was passed, with the spring the young man’s fancy turned not to love, but again to war, and only when the defeat of Braddock brought Washington back to Mount Vernon to recover from the fatigues of that campaign was his intercourse with the gentler sex resumed. Now, however, he was not merely a good-looking young fellow, but was a hero who had had horses shot from under him and had stood firm when scarlet-coated men had run away. No longer did he have to sue for the favor of the fair ones, and Fairfax wrote him that “if a Satterday Nights Rest cannot be sufficient to enable your coming hither to-morrow, the Lady’s will try to get Horses to equip our Chair or attempt their strength on Foot to Salute you, so desirous are they with loving Speed to have an occular Demonstration of your being the same Identical Gent–that lately departed to defend his Country’s Cause.” Furthermore, to this letter was appended the following:

“DEAR SIR,–After thanking Heaven for your safe return I must accuse you of great unkindness in refusing us the pleasure of seeing you this night. I do assure you nothing but our being satisfied that our company would be disagreeable should prevent us from trying if our Legs would not carry us to Mount Vernon this night, but if you will not come to us to-morrow morning very early we shall be at Mount Vernon.


Nor is this the only feminine postscript of this time, for in the postscript of a letter from Archibald Cary, a leading Virginian, he is told that “Mrs. Cary & Miss Randolph joyn in wishing you that sort of Glory which will most Indear you to the Fair Sex.”

In 1756 Washington had occasion to journey on military business to Boston, and both in coming and in going he tarried in New York, passing ten days in his first visit and about a week on his return. This time was spent with a Virginian friend, Beverly Robinson, who had had the good luck to marry Susannah Philipse, a daughter of Frederick Philipse, one of the largest landed proprietors of the colony of New York. Here he met the sister, Mary Philipse, then a girl of twenty-five, and, short as was the time, it was sufficient to engage his heart. To this interest no doubt are due the entries in his accounts of sundry pounds spent “for treating Ladies,” and for the large tailors’ bills then incurred. But neither treats nor clothes won the lady, who declined his proposals, and gave her heart two years later to Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Morris. A curious sequel to this disappointment was the accident that made the Roger Morris house Washington’s head-quarters in 1776, both Morris and his wife being fugitive Tories. Again Washington was a chance visitor in 1790, when, as part of a picnic, he “dined on a dinner provided by Mr. Marriner at the House lately Colo. Roger Morris, but confiscated and in the occupation of a common Farmer.”

[Illustration: MARY PHILIPSE]

It has been asserted that Washington loved the wife of his friend George William Fairfax, but the evidence has not been produced. On the contrary, though the two corresponded, it was in a purely platonic fashion, very different from the strain of lovers, and that the correspondence implied nothing is to be found in the fact that he and Sally Carlyle (another Fairfax daughter) also wrote each other quite as frequently and on the same friendly footing; indeed, Washington evidently classed them in the same category, when he stated that “I have wrote to my two female correspondents.” Thus the claim seems due, like many another of Washington’s mythical love-affairs, rather to the desire of descendants to link their family “to a star” than to more substantial basis. Washington did, indeed, write to Sally Fairfax from the frontier, “I should think our time more agreeably spent, believe me, in playing a part in Cato, with the company you mention, and myself doubly happy in being the Juba to such a Marcia, as you must make,” but private theatricals then no more than now implied “passionate love.” What is more, Mrs. Fairfax was at this very time teasing him about another woman, and to her hints Washington replied,–

“If you allow that any honor can be derived from my opposition … you destroy the merit of it entirely in me by attributing my anxiety to the animating prospect of possessing Mrs. Custis, when–I need not tell you, guess yourself. Should not my own Honor and country’s welfare be the excitement? ‘Tis true I profess myself a votary of love. I acknowledge that a lady is in the case, and further I confess that this lady is known to you. Yes, Madame, as well as she is to one who is too sensible of her charms to deny the Power whose influence he feels and must ever submit to. I feel the force of her amiable beauties in the recollection of a thousand tender passages that I could wish to obliterate, till I am bid to revive them. But experience, alas! sadly reminds me how impossible this is, and evinces an opinion which I have long entertained that there is a Destiny which has the control of our actions, not to be resisted by the strongest efforts of Human Nature. You have drawn me, dear Madame, or rather I have drawn myself, into an honest confession of a simple Fact. Misconstrue not my meaning; doubt it not, nor expose it. The world has no business to know the object of my Love, declared in this manner to you, when I want to conceal it. One thing above all things in this world I wish to know, and only one person of your acquaintance can solve me that, or guess my meaning.”

The love-affair thus alluded to had begun in March, 1758, when ill health had taken Washington to Williamsburg to consult physicians, thinking, indeed, of himself as a doomed man. In this trip he met Mrs. Martha (Dandridge) Custis, widow of Daniel Parke Custis, one of the wealthiest planters of the colony. She was at this time twenty-six years of age, or Washington’s senior by nine months, and had been a widow but seven, yet in spite of this fact, and of his own expected “decay,” he pressed his love-making with an impetuosity akin to that with which he had urged his suit of Miss Philipse, and (widows being proverbial) with better success. The invalid had left Mount Vernon on March 5, and by April 1 he was back at Fort Loudon, an engaged man, having as well so far recovered his health as to be able to join his command. Early in May he ordered a ring from Philadelphia, at a cost of L2.16.0; soon after receiving it he found that army affairs once more called him down to Williamsburg, and, as love-making is generally considered a military duty, the excuse was sufficient. But sterner duties on the frontier were awaiting him, and very quickly he was back there and writing to his _fiancee_,–

“We have begun our march for the Ohio. A courier is starting for Williamsburg, and I embrace the opportunity to send a few words to one whose life is now inseparable from mine. Since that happy hour when we made our pledges to each other, my thoughts have been continually going to you as another Self. That an all-powerful Providence may keep us both in safety is the prayer of your ever faithful and affectionate friend.”

Five months after this letter was written, Washington was able to date another from Fort Duquesne, and, the fall of that post putting an end to his military service, only four weeks later he was back in Williamsburg, and on January 6, 1759, he was married.

Very little is really known of his wife, beyond the facts that she was petite, over-fond, hot-tempered, obstinate, and a poor speller. In 1778 she was described as “a sociable, pretty kind of woman,” and she seems to have been but little more. One who knew her well described her as “not possessing much sense, though a perfect lady and remarkably well calculated for her position,” and confirmatory of this is the opinion of an English traveller that “there was nothing remarkable in the person of the lady of the President; she was matronly and kind, with perfect good breeding.” None the less she satisfied Washington; even after the proverbial six months were over he refused to wander from Mount Vernon, writing that “I am now, I believe, fixed at this seat with an agreeable Consort for life,” and in 1783 he spoke of her as the “partner of all my Domestic enjoyments.”

John Adams, in one of his recurrent moods of bitterness and jealousy towards Washington, demanded, “Would Washington have ever been commander of the revolutionary army or president of the United States if he had not married the rich widow of Mr. Custis?” To ask such a question is to overlook the fact that Washington’s colonial military fame was entirely achieved before his marriage. It is not to be denied that the match was a good one from a worldly point of view, Mrs. Washington’s third of the Custis property equalling “fifteen thousand acres of land, a good part of it adjoining the city of Williamsburg; several lots in the said city; between two and three hundred negroes; and about eight or ten thousand pounds upon bond,” estimated at the time as about twenty thousand pounds in all, which was further increased on the death of Patsy Custis in 1773 by a half of her fortune, which added ten thousand pounds to the sum. Nevertheless the advantage was fairly equal, for Mrs. Custis’s lawyer had written before her marriage of the impossibility of her managing the property, advising that she “employ a trusty steward, and as the estate is large and very extensive, it is Mr. Wallers and my own opinion, that you had better not engage any but a very able man, though he should require large wages.” Of the management of this property, to which, indeed, she was unequal, Washington entirely relieved her, taking charge also of her children’s share and acting for their interests with the same care with which he managed the part he was more directly concerned in.

He further saved her much of the detail of ordering her own clothing, and we find him sending for “A Salmon-colored Tabby of the enclosed pattern, with satin flowers, to be made in a sack,” “1 Cap, Handkerchief, Tucker and Ruffles, to be made of Brussels lace or point, proper to wear with the above negligee, to cost L20,” “1 pair black, and 1 pair white Satin Shoes, of the smallest,” and “1 black mask.” Again he writes his London agent, “Mrs. Washington sends home a green sack to get cleaned, or fresh dyed of the same color; made up into a handsome sack again, would be her choice; but if the cloth won’t afford that, then to be thrown into a genteel Night Gown.” At another time he wants a pair of clogs, and when the wrong kind are sent he writes that “she intended to have leathern Gloshoes.” When she was asked to present a pair of colors to a company, he attended to every detail of obtaining the flag, and when “Mrs. Washington … perceived the Tomb of her Father … to be much out of Sorts” he wrote to get a workman to repair it. The care of the Mount Vernon household proving beyond his wife’s ability, a housekeeper was very quickly engaged, and when one who filled this position was on the point of leaving, Washington wrote his agent to find another without the least delay, for the vacancy would “throw a great additional weight on Mrs. Washington;” again, writing in another domestic difficulty, “Your aunt’s distresses for want of a good housekeeper are such as to render the wages demanded by Mrs. Forbes (though unusually high) of no consideration.” Her letters of form, which required better orthography than she was mistress of, he draughted for her, pen-weary though he was.

It has already been shown how he fathered her “little progeny,” as he once called them. Mrs. Washington was a worrying mother, as is shown by a letter to her sister, speaking of a visit in which “I carried my little patt with me and left Jacky at home for a trial to see how well I could stay without him though we were gon but wone fortnight I was quite impatient 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.” To spare her anxiety, therefore, when the time came for “Jacky” to be inoculated, Washington “withheld from her the information … & purpose, if possible, to keep her in total ignorance … till I hear of his return, or perfect recovery;… she having often wished that Jack wou’d take & go through the disorder without her knowing of it, that she might escape those Tortures which suspense wd throw her into.” And on the death of Patsy he wrote, “This sudden and unexpected blow, I scarce need add has almost reduced my poor Wife to the lowest ebb of Misery; which is encreas’d by the absence of her son.”

When Washington left Mount Vernon, in May, 1775, to attend the Continental Congress, he did not foresee his appointment as commander-in-chief, and as soon as it occurred he wrote his wife,–

“I am now set down to write to you on a subject, which fills me with inexpressible concern, and this concern is greatly aggravated and increased, when I reflect upon the uneasiness I know it will give you. It has been determined in Congress, that the whole army raised for the defence of the American cause shall be put under my care, and that it is necessary for me to proceed immediately to Boston to take upon me the command of it.

“You may believe me, my dear Patsey, when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity, and that I should enjoy more real happiness in one month with you at home, than I have the most distant prospect of finding abroad, if my stay were to be seven times seven years…. I shall feel no pain from the toil or danger of the campaign; my unhappiness will flow from the uneasiness I know you will feel from being left alone.”

To prevent this loneliness as far as possible, he wrote at the same time to different members of the two families as follows:

“My great concern upon this occasion is, the thought of leaving your mother under the uneasiness which I fear this affair will throw her into; I therefore hope, expect, and indeed have no doubt, of your using every means in your power to keep up her spirits, by doing everything in your power to promote her quiet. I have, I must confess, very uneasy feelings on her account, but as it has been a kind of unavoidable necessity which has led me into this appointment, I shall more readily hope that success will attend it and crown our meetings with happiness.”

“I entreat you and Mrs. Bassett if possible to visit at Mt. Vernon, as also my wife’s other friends. I could wish you to take her down, as I have no expectation of returning till winter & feel great uneasiness at her lonesome situation.”

“I shall hope that my friends will visit and endeavor to keep up the spirits of my wife, as much as they can, as my departure will, I know, be a cutting stroke upon her; and on this account alone I have many very disagreeable sensations. I hope you and my sister, (although the distance is great), will find as much leisure this summer as to spend a little time at Mount Vernon.”

When, six months later, the war at Boston settled into a mere siege, Washington wrote that “seeing no prospect of returning to my family and friends this winter, I have sent an invitation to Mrs. Washington to come to me,” adding, “I have laid a state of difficulties, however, which must attend the journey before her, and left it to her own choice.” His wife replied in the affirmative, and one of Washington’s aides presently wrote concerning some prize goods to the effect that “There are limes, lemons and oranges on board, which, being perishable, you must sell immediately. The General will want some of each, as well of the sweetmeats and pickles that are on board, as his lady will be here to-day or to-morrow. You will please to pick up such things on board as you think will be acceptable to her, and send them as soon as possible; he does not mean to receive anything without payment.”

Lodged at head-quarters, then the Craigie house in Cambridge, the discomforts of war were reduced to a minimum, but none the less it was a trying time to Mrs. Washington, who complained that she could not get used to the distant cannonading, and she marvelled that those about her paid so little heed to it. With the opening of the campaign in the following summer she returned to Mount Vernon, but when the army was safely in winter quarters at Valley Forge she once more journeyed northward, a trip alluded to by Washington in a letter to Jack, as follows: “Your Mamma is not yet arrived, but … expected every hour. [My aide] Meade set off yesterday (as soon as I got notice of her intention) to meet her. We are in a dreary kind of place, and uncomfortably provided.” And of this reunion Mrs. Washington wrote, “I came to this place, some time about the first of February where I found the General very well,… in camp in what is called the great valley on the Banks of the Schuylkill. Officers and men are chiefly in Hutts, which they say is tolerably comfortable; the army are as healthy as can be well expected in general. The General’s apartment is very small; he has had a log cabin built to dine in, which has made our quarters much more tolerable than they were at first”

Such “winterings” became the regular custom, and brief references in various letters serve to illustrate them. Thus, in 1779, Washington informed a friend that “Mrs. Washington, according to custom marched home when the campaign was about to open;” in July, 1782, he noted that his wife “sets out this day for Mount Vernon,” and later in the same year he wrote, “as I despair of seeing my home this Winter, I have sent for Mrs. Washington;” and finally, in a letter he draughted for his wife, he made her describe herself as “a kind of perambulator, during eight or nine years of the war.”

Another pleasant glimpse during these stormy years is the couple, during a brief stay in Philadelphia, being entertained almost to death, described as follows by Franklin’s daughter in a letter to her father: “I have lately been several times abroad with the General and Mrs. Washington. He always inquires after you in the most affectionate manner, and speaks of you highly. We danced at Mrs. Powell’s your birthday, or night I should say, in company together, and he told me it was the anniversary of his marriage; it was just twenty years that night” Again there was junketing in Philadelphia after the surrender at Yorktown, and one bit of this is shadowed in a line from Washington to Robert Morris, telling the latter that “Mrs. Washington, myself and family, will have the honor of dining with you in the way proposed, to-morrow, being Christmas day.”

With the retirement to Mount Vernon at the close of the war, little more companionship was obtained, for, as already stated, Washington could only describe his home henceforth as a “well resorted tavern,” and two years after his return he entered in his diary, “Dined with only Mrs. Washington which I believe is the first instance of it since my retirement from public life.”

Even this was only a furlough, for in six years they were both in public life again. Mrs. Washington was inclined to sulk over the necessary restraints of official life, writing to a friend, “Mrs. Sins will give you a better account of the fashions than I can–I live a very dull life hear and know nothing that passes in the town–I never goe to any public place–indeed I think I am more like a State prisoner than anything else; there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from–and as I cannot doe as I like, I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal.”


None the less she did her duties well, and in these “Lady Washington” was more at home, for, according to Thacher, she combined “in an uncommon degree, great dignity of manner with most pleasing affability,” though possessing “no striking marks of beauty,” and there is no doubt that she lightened Washington’s shoulders of social demands materially. At the receptions of Mrs. Washington, which were held every Friday evening, so a contemporary states, “the President did not consider himself as visited. On these occasions he appeared as a private gentleman, with neither hat nor sword, conversing without restraint.”

From other formal society Mrs. Washington also saved her husband, for a visitor on New Year’s tells of her setting “‘the General’ (by which title she always designated her husband)” at liberty: “Mrs. Washington had stood by his side as the visitors arrived and were presented, and when the clock in the hall was heard striking nine, she advanced and with a complacent smile said, ‘The General always retires at nine, and I usually precede him,’ upon which all arose, made their parting salutations, and withdrew.” Nor was it only from the fatigues of formal entertaining that the wife saved her husband, Washington writing in 1793, “We remain in Philadelphia until the 10th instant. It was my wish to have continued there longer; but as Mrs. Washington was unwilling to leave me surrounded by the malignant fever which prevailed, I could not think of hazarding her, and the Children any longer by _my_ continuance in the City, the house in which we live being in a manner blockaded by the disorder, and was becoming every day more and more fatal; I therefore came off with them.”

Finally from these “scenes more busy, tho’ not more happy, than the tranquil enjoyment of rural life,” they returned to Mount Vernon, hoping that in the latter their “days will close.” Not quite three years of this life brought an end to their forty years of married life. On the night that Washington’s illness first became serious his secretary narrates that “Between 2 and 3 o’clk on Saturday morning he [Washington] awoke Mrs. Washington & told her he was very unwell, and had had an ague. She … would have got up to call a servant; but he would not permit her lest she should take cold.” As a consequence of this care for her, her husband lay for nearly four hours in a chill in a cold bedroom before receiving any attention, or before even a fire was lighted. When death came, she said, “Tis well–All is now over–I have no more trials to pass through–I shall soon follow him.” In his will he left “to my dearly beloved wife” the use of his whole property, and named her an executrix.

As a man’s views of matrimony are more or less colored by his personal experience, what Washington had to say on the institution is of interest. As concerned himself he wrote to his nephew, “If Mrs. Washington should survive me, there is a moral certainty of my dying without issue: and should I be the longest liver, the matter in my opinion, is hardly less certain; for while I retain the faculty of reasoning, I shall never marry a girl; and it is not probable that I should have children by a woman of an age suitable to my own, should I be disposed to enter into a second marriage.” And in a less personal sense he wrote to Chastellux,–

“In reading your very friendly and acceptable letter,… I was, as you may well suppose, not less delighted than surprised to meet the plain American words, ‘my wife.’ A wife! Well, my dear Marquis, I can hardly refrain from smiling to find you are caught at last. I saw, by the eulogium you often made on the happiness of domestic life in America, that you had swallowed the bait, and that you would as surely be taken, one day or another, as that you were a philosopher and a soldier. So your day has at length come. I am glad of it, with all my heart and soul. It is quite good enough for you. Now you are well served for coming to fight in favor of the American rebels, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, by catching that terrible contagion–domestic felicity–which same, like the small pox or the plague, a man can have only once in his life; because it commonly lasts him (at least with us in America–I don’t know how you manage these matters in France) for his whole life time. And yet after all the maledictions you so richly merit on the subject, the worst wish which I can find in my heart to make against Madame de Chastellux and yourself is, that you may neither of you ever get the better of this same domestic felicity during the entire course of your mortal existence.”

Furthermore, he wrote to an old friend, whose wife stubbornly refused to sign a deed, “I think, any Gentleman, possessed of but a very moderate degree of influence with his wife, might, in the course of five or six years (for I think it is at least that time) have prevailed upon her to do an act of justice, in fulfiling his Bargains and complying with his wishes, if he had been really in earnest in requesting the matter of her; especially, as the inducement which you thought would have a powerful operation on Mrs. Alexander, namely the birth of a child, has been doubled, and tripled.”

However well Washington thought of “the honorable state,” he was no match-maker, and when asked to give advice to the widow of Jack Custis, replied, “I never did, nor do I believe I ever shall, give advice to a woman, who is setting out on a matrimonial voyage; first, because I never could advise one to marry without her own consent; and, secondly because I know it is to no purpose to advise her to refrain, when she has obtained it. A woman very rarely asks an opinion or requires advice on such an occasion, till her resolution is formed; and then it is with the hope and expectation of obtaining a sanction, not that she means to be governed by your disapprobation, that she applies. In a word the plain English of the application may be summed up in these words: ‘I wish you to think as I do; but, if unhappily you differ from me in opinion, my heart, I must confess, is fixed, and I have gone too far now to retract.'” Again he wrote:

“It has ever been a maxim with me through life, neither to promote nor to prevent a matrimonial connection, unless there should be something indispensably requiring interference in the latter. I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery. To be instrumental therefore in bringing two people together, who are indifferent to each other, and may soon become objects of disgust; or to prevent a union, which is prompted by the affections of the mind, is what I never could reconcile with reason, and therefore neither directly nor indirectly have I ever said a word to Fanny or George, upon the subject of their intended connection.”

The question whether Washington was a faithful husband might well be left to the facts already given, were it not that stories of his immorality are bandied about in clubs, a well-known clergyman has vouched for their truth, and a United States senator has given further currency to them by claiming special knowledge on the subject. Since such are the facts, it seems best to consider the question and show what evidence there actually is for these stories, that at least the pretended “letters,” etc., which are always being cited, and are never produced, may no longer have credence put in them, and the true basis for all the stories may be known and valued at its worth.

In the year 1776 there was printed in London a small pamphlet entitled “Minutes of the Trial and Examination of Certain Persons in the Province of New York,” which purported to be the records of the examination of the conspirators of the “Hickey plot” (to murder Washington) before a committee of the Provincial Congress of New York. The manuscript of this was claimed in the preface to have been “discovered (on the late capture of New York by the British troops) among the papers of a person who appears to have been secretary to the committee.” As part of the evidence the following was printed:

“William Cooper, soldier, sworn.

“Court. Inform us what conversation you heard at the Serjeant’s Arms?

“Cooper. Being there the 21st of May, I heard John Clayford inform the company, that Mary Gibbons was thoroughly in their interest, and that the whole would be safe. I learnt from enquiry that Mary Gibbons was a girl from New Jersey, of whom General Washington was very fond, that he maintained her genteelly at a house near Mr. Skinner’s,–at the North River; that he came there very often late at night in disguise; he learnt also that this woman was very intimate with Clayford, and made him presents, and told him of what General Washington said.

“Court. Did you hear Mr. Clayford say any thing himself that night?

“Cooper. Yes; that he was the day before with Judith, so he called her, and that she told him, Washington had often said he wished his hands were clear of the dirty New-Englanders, and words to that effect.

“Court. Did you hear no mention made of any scheme to betray or seize him?

“Cooper. Mr. Clayford said he could easily be seized and put on board a boat, and carried off, as his female friend had promised she would assist: but all present thought it would be hazardous.”

“William Savage, sworn.

“Court. Was you at the Serjeant’s Arms on the 21st of May? Did you hear any thing of this nature?

“Savage. I did, and nearly as the last evidence has declared; the society in general refused to be concerned in it, and thought it a mad scheme.

“Mr. Abeel. Pray, Mr. Savage, have not you heard nothing of an information that was to be given to Governor Tryon?

“Savage. Yes; papers and letters were at different times shewn to the society, which were taken out of General Washington’s pockets by Mrs. Gibbons, and given (as she pretended some occasion of going out) to Mr. Clayford, who always copied them, and they were put into his pockets again.”

The authenticity of this pamphlet thus becomes of importance, and over this little time need be spent. The committee named in it differs from the committee really named by the Provincial Congress, and the proceedings nowhere implicate the men actually proved guilty. In other words, the whole publication is a clumsy Tory forgery, put forward with the same idle story of “captured papers” employed in the “spurious letters” of Washington, and sent forth from the same press (J. Bew) from which that forgery and several others issued.

The source from which the English fabricator drew this scandal is fortunately known. In 1775 a letter to Washington from his friend Benjamin Harrison was intercepted by the British, and at once printed broadcast in the newspapers. In this the writer gossips to Washington “to amuse you and unbend your minds from the cares of war,” as follows: “As I was in the pleasing task of writing to you, a little noise occasioned me to turn my head around, and who should appear but pretty little Kate, the Washer-woman’s daughter over the way, clean, trim and as rosy as the morning. I snatched the golden, glorious opportunity, and, but for the cursed antidote to love, Sukey, I had fitted her for my general against his return. We were obliged to part, but not till we had contrived to meet again: if she keeps the appointment, I shall relish a week’s longer stay.” From this originated the stories of Washington’s infidelity as already given, and also a coarser version of the same, printed in 1776 in a Tory farce entitled “The Battle of Brooklyn.”

Jonathan Boucher, who knew Washington well before the Revolution, yet who, as a loyalist, wrote in no friendly spirit of him, asserted that “in his moral character, he is regular.” A man who disliked him far more, General Charles Lee, in the excess of his hatred, charged Washington in 1778 with immorality,–a rather amusing impeachment, since at the very time Lee was flaunting the evidence of his own incontinence without apparent shame,–and a mutual friend of the accused and accuser, Joseph Reed, whose service on Washington’s staff enabled him to speak wittingly, advised that Lee “forbear any Reflections upon the Commander in Chief, of whom for the first time I have heard Slander on his private Character, viz., great cruelty to his Slaves in Virginia & Immorality of Life, tho’ they acknowledge so very secret that it is difficult to detect. To me who have had so good opportunities to know the Purity of the latter & equally believing the Falsehood of the former from the known excellence of his disposition, it appears so nearly bordering upon frenzy, that I can pity the wretches rather than despise them.”

Washington was too much of a man, however, to have his marriage lessen his liking for other women; and Yeates repeats that “Mr. Washington once told me, on a charge which I once made against the President at his own Table, that the admiration he warmly professed for Mrs. Hartley, was a Proof of his Homage to the worthy Part of the Sex, and highly respectful to his Wife.” Every now and then there is an allusion in his letters which shows his appreciation of beauty, as when he wrote to General Schuyler, “Your fair daughter, for whose visit Mrs. Washington and myself are greatly obliged,” and again, to one of his aides, “The fair hand, to whom your letter … was committed presented it safe.”

His diary, in the notes of the balls and assemblies which he attended, usually had a word for the sex, as exampled in: “at which there were between 60 & 70 well dressed ladies;” “at which there was about 100 well dressed and handsome ladies;” “at which were 256 elegantly dressed ladies;” “where there was a select Company of ladies;” “where (it is said) there were upwards of 100 ladies; their appearance was elegant, and many of them very handsome;” “at wch. there were about 400 ladies the number and appearance of wch. exceeded anything of the kind I have ever seen;” “where there were about 75 well dressed, and many of them very handsome ladies–among whom (as was also the case at the Salem and Boston assemblies) were a greater proportion with much blacker hair than are usually seen in the Southern States.”

At his wife’s receptions, as already said, Washington did not view himself as host, and “conversed without restraint, generally with women, who rarely had other opportunity of seeing him,” which perhaps accounts for the statement of another eye-witness that Washington “looked very much more at ease than at his own official levees.” Sullivan adds that “the young ladies used to throng around him, and engaged him in conversation. There were some of the well-remembered belles of the day who imagined themselves to be favorites with him. As these were the only opportunities which they had of conversing with him, they were disposed to use them.” In his Southern trip of 1791 Washington noted, with evident pleasure, that he “was visited about 2 o’clock, by a great number of the most respectable ladies of Charleston–the first honor of the kind I had ever experienced and it was flattering as it was singular.” And that this attention was not merely the respect due to a great man is shown in the letter of a Virginian woman, who wrote to her correspondent in 1777, that when “General Washington throws off the Hero and takes up the chatty agreeable Companion–he can be down right impudent sometimes–such impudence, Fanny, as you and I like.”

Another feminine compliment paid him was a highly laudatory poem which was enclosed to him, with a letter begging forgiveness, to which he playfully answered,–

“You apply to me, my dear Madam, for absolution as tho’ I was your father Confessor; and as tho’ you had committed a crime, great in itself, yet of the venial class. You have reason good–for I find myself strangely disposed to be a very indulgent ghostly adviser on this occasion; and, notwithstanding ‘you are the most offending Soul alive’ (that is, if it is a crime to write elegant Poetry,) yet if you will come and dine with me on Thursday, and go thro’ the proper course of penitence which shall be prescribed I will strive hard to assist you in expiating these poetical trespasses on this side of purgatory. Nay more, if it rests with me to direct your future lucubrations, I shall certainly urge you to a repetition of the same conduct, on purpose to shew what an admirable knack you have at confession and reformation; and so without more hesitation, I shall venture to command the muse, not to be restrained by ill-grounded timidity, but to go on and prosper. You see, Madam, when once the woman has tempted us, and we have tasted the forbidden fruit, there is no such thing as checking our appetites, whatever the consequences may be. You will, I dare say, recognize our being the genuine Descendants of those who are reputed to be our great Progenitors.”

Nor was Washington open only to beauty and flattery. From the rude frontier in 1756 he wrote, “The supplicating tears of the women,… melt me into such deadly sorrow, that I solemnly declare, if I know my own mind, I could offer myself a willing sacrifice to the butchering enemy, provided that would contribute to the people’s ease.” And in 1776 he said, “When I consider that the city of New York will in all human probability very soon be the scene of a bloody conflict, I cannot but view the great numbers of women, children, and infirm persons remaining in it, with the most melancholy concern. When the men-of-war passed up the river, the shrieks and cries of these poor creatures running every way with their children, were truly distressing…. Can no method be devised for their removal?”

Nevertheless, though liked by and liking the fair sex, Washington was human, and after experience concluded that “I never again will have two women in my house when I am there myself.”



The earliest known Washington coat of arms had blazoned upon it “3 Cinque foiles,” which was the herald’s way of saying that the bearer was a landholder and cultivator, and when Washington had a book-plate made for himself he added to the conventional design of the arms spears of wheat and other plants, as an indication of his favorite labor. During his career he acted several parts, but in none did he find such pleasure as in farming, and late in life he said, “I think with you, that the life of a husbandman of all others is the most delectable. It is honorable, it is amusing, and, with judicious management, it is profitable. To see plants rise from the earth and flourish by the superior skill and bounty of the laborer fills a contemplative mind with ideas which are more easy to be conceived than expressed.” “Agriculture has ever been the most favorite amusement of my life,” he wrote after the Revolution, and he informed another correspondent that “the more I am acquainted with agricultural affairs, the better pleased I am with them; insomuch, that I can no where find so great satisfaction as in those innocent and useful pursuits: In indulging these feelings, I am led to reflect how much more delightful to an undebauched mind is the task of making improvements on the earth, than all the vain glory which can be acquired from ravaging it, by the most uninterrupted career of conquests.” A visitor to Mount Vernon in 1785 states that his host’s “greatest pride is, to be thought the first farmer in America. He is quite a Cincinnatus.”

Undoubtedly a part of this liking flowed from his strong affection for Mount Vernon. Such was his feeling for the place that he never seems to have been entirely happy away from it, and over and over again, during his various and enforced absences, he “sighs” or “pants” for his “own vine and fig tree.” In writing to an English correspondent, he shows his feeling for the place by saying, “No estate in United America, is more pleasantly situated than this. It lies in a high, dry and healthy country, three hundred miles by water from the sea, and, as you will see by the plan, on one of the finest rivers in the world.”

The history of the Mount Vernon estate begins in 1674, when Lord Culpepper conveyed to Nicholas Spencer and Lieutenant-Colonel John Washington five thousand acres of land “scytuate Lying and being within the said terrytory in the County of Stafford in the ffreshes of the Pottomocke River and … bounded betwixt two Creeks.” Colonel John’s half was bequeathed to his son Lawrence, and by Lawrence’s will it was left to his daughter Mildred. She sold it to the father of George, who by his will left it to his son Lawrence, with a reversion to George should Lawrence die without issue. The original house was built about 1740, and the place was named Mount Vernon by Lawrence, in honor of Admiral Vernon, under whom he had served at Carthagena. After the death of Lawrence, the estate of twenty-five hundred acres came under Washington’s management, and from 1754 it was his home, as it had been practically even in his brother’s life.

Twice Washington materially enlarged the house at Mount Vernon, the first time in 1760 and the second in 1785, and a visitor reports, what his host must have told him, that “its a pity he did not build a new one at once, for it has cost him nearly as much to repair his old one.” These alterations consisted in the addition of a banquet-hall at one end (by far the finest room in the house), and a library and dining-room at the other, with the addition of an entire story to the whole.

The grounds, too, were very much improved. A fine approach, or bowling green, was laid out, a “botanical garden,” a “shrubbery,” and greenhouses were added, and in every way possible the place was improved. A deer paddock was laid out and stocked, gifts of Chinese pheasants and geese, French partridges, and guinea-pigs were sent him, and were gratefully acknowledged, and from all the world over came curious, useful, or beautiful plants.

The original tract did not satisfy the ambition of the farmer, and from the time he came into the possession of Mount Vernon he was a persistent purchaser of lands adjoining the property. In 1760 he bargained with one Clifton for “a tract called Brents,” of eighteen hundred and six acres, but after the agreement was closed the seller, “under pretence of his wife not consenting to acknowledge her right of dower wanted to disengage himself … and by his shuffling behavior convinced me of his being the trifling body represented.” Presently Washington heard that Clifton had sold his lands to another for twelve hundred pounds, which “fully unravelled his conduct … and convinced me that he was nothing less than a thorough pac’d rascall.” Meeting the “rascall” at a court, “much discourse,” Washington states, “happened between him and I concerning his ungenerous treatment of me, the whole turning to little account, ’tis not worth reciting.” After much more friction, the land was finally sold at public auction, and “I bought it for L1210 Sterling, [and] under many threats and disadvantages paid the money.”


In 1778, when some other land was offered, Washington wrote to his agent, “I have premised these things to shew my inability, not my unwillingness to purchase the Lands in my own Neck at (almost) any price–& this I am very desirous of doing if it could be accomplished by any means in my power, in ye way of Barter for other Land–for Negroes … or in short–for any thing else … but for money I cannot, I want the means.” Again, in 1782, he wrote, “Inform Mr. Dulany,… that I look upon L2000 to be a great price for his land; that my wishes to obtain it do not proceed from its intrinsic value, but from the motives I have candidly assigned in my other letter. That to indulge this fancy, (for in truth there is more fancy than judgment in it) I have submitted, or am willing to submit, to the disadvantage of borrowing as large a sum as I think this Land is worth, in order to come at it”

By thus purchasing whenever an opportunity occurred, the property was increased from the twenty-five hundred acres which had come into Washington’s possession by inheritance to an estate exceeding eight thousand acres, of which over thirty-two hundred were actually under cultivation during the latter part of its owner’s life.

To manage so vast a tract, the property was subdivided into several tracts, called “Mansion House Farm,” “River Farm,” “Union Farm,” “Muddy Hole Farm,” and “Dogue Run Farm,” each having an overseer to manage it, and each being operated as a separate plantation, though a general overseer controlled the whole, and each farm derived common benefit from the property as a whole. “On Saturday in the afternoon, every week, reports are made by all his overseers, and registered in books kept for the purpose,” and these accounts were so schemed as to show how every negro’s and laborer’s time had been employed during the whole week, what crops had been planted or gathered, what increase or loss of stock had occurred, and every other detail of farm-work. During Washington’s absences from Mount Vernon his chief overseer sent him these reports, as well as wrote himself, and weekly the manager received in return long letters of instruction, sometimes to the length of sixteen pages, which showed most wonderful familiarity with every acre of the estate and the character of every laborer, and are little short of marvellous when account is taken of the pressure of public affairs that rested upon their writer as he framed them.

When Washington became a farmer, but one system of agriculture, so far as Virginia was concerned, existed, which he described long after as follows:

“A piece of land is cut down, and kept under constant cultivation, first in tobacco, and then in Indian corn (two very exhausting plants), until it will yield scarcely any thing; a second piece is cleared, and treated in the same manner; then a third and so on, until probably there is but little more to clear. When this happens, the owner finds himself reduced to the choice of one of three things–either to recover the land which he has ruined, to accomplish which, he has perhaps neither the skill, the industry, nor the means; or to retire beyond the mountains; or to substitute quantity for quality, in order to raise something. The latter has been generally adopted, and, with the assistance of horses, he scratches over much ground, and seeds it, to very little purpose.”

Knowing no better, Washington adopted this one-crop system, even to the extent of buying corn and hogs to feed his hands. Though following in the beaten track, he experimented in different kinds of tobacco, so that, “by comparing then the loss of the one with the extra price of the other, I shall be able to determine which is the best to pursue.” The largest crop he ever seems to have produced, “being all sweet-scented and neatly managed,” was one hundred and fifteen hogsheads, which averaged in sale twelve pounds each.

From a very early time Washington had been a careful student of such books on agriculture as he could obtain, even preparing lengthy abstracts of them, and the knowledge he thus obtained, combined with his own practical experience, soon convinced him that the Virginian system was wrong. “I never ride on my plantations,” he wrote, “without seeing something which makes me regret having continued so long in the ruinous mode of farming, which we are in,” and he soon “discontinued the growth of tobacco myself; [and] except at a plantation or two upon York River, I make no more of that article than barely serves to furnish me with goods.”

From this time (1765) “the whole of my force [was] in a manner confined to the growth of wheat and manufacturing of it into flour,” and before long he boasted that “the wheat from some of my plantations, by one pair of steelyards, will weigh upwards of sixty pounds,… and better wheat than I now have I do not expect to make.” After the Revolution he claimed that “no wheat that has ever yet fallen under my observation exceeds the wheat which some years ago I cultivated extensively but which, from inattention during my absence of almost nine years from home, has got so mixed or degenerated as scarcely to retain any of its original characteristics properly.” In 1768 he was able to sell over nineteen hundred bushels, and how greatly his product was increased after this is shown by the fact that in this same year he sowed four hundred and ninety bushels.

Still further study and experimentation led him to conclude that “my countrymen are too much used to corn blades and corn shucks; and have too little knowledge of the profit of grass lands,” and after his final home-coming to Mount Vernon, he said, “I have had it in contemplation ever since I returned home to turn my farms to grazing principally, as fast as I can cover the fields sufficiently with grass. Labor and of course expence will be considerably diminished by this change, the nett profit as great and my attention less divided, whilst the fields will be improving.” That this was only an abandonment of a “one crop” system is shown by the fact that in 1792 he grew over five thousand bushels of wheat, valued at four shillings the bushel, and in 1799 he said, “as a farmer, wheat and flour are my principal concerns.” And though, in abandoning the growth of tobacco, Washington also tried “to grow as little Indian corn as may be,” yet in 1795 his crop was over sixteen hundred barrels, and the quantity needed for his own negroes and stock is shown in a year when his crop failed, which “obliged me to purchase upwards of eight hundred barrels of corn.”

In connection with this change of system, Washington became an early convert to the rotation of crops, and drew up elaborate tables sometimes covering periods of five years, so that the quantity of each crop should not vary, yet by which his fields should have constant change. This system naturally very much diversified the product of his estate, and flax, hay, clover, buckwheat, turnips, and potatoes became large crops. The scale on which this was done is shown by the facts that in one year he sowed twenty-seven bushels of flaxseed and planted over three hundred bushels of potatoes.

Early and late Washington preached to his overseers the value of fertilization; in one case, when looking for a new overseer, he said the man must be, “above all, Midas like, one who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards gold;–in a word one who can bring worn out and gullied Lands into good tilth in the shortest time.” Equally emphatic was his urging of constant ploughing and grubbing, and he even invented a deep soil plough, which he used till he found a better one in the English Rotheran plough, which he promptly imported, as he did all other improved farming tools and machinery of which he could learn. To save his woodlands, and for appearance’s sake, he insisted on live fences, though he had to acknowledge that “no hedge, alone, will, I am persuaded, do for an outer inclosure, where _two_ or four footed hogs find it convenient to open passage.” In all things he was an experimentalist, carefully trying different kinds of tobacco and wheat, various kinds of plants for hedges, and various kinds of manure for fertilizers; he had tests made to see whether he could sell his wheat to best advantage in the grain or when made into flour, and he bred from selected horses, cattle, and sheep. “In short I shall begrudge no reasonable expence that will contribute to the improvement and neatness of my Farms;–for nothing pleases me better than to see them in good order, and everything trim, handsome, and thriving about them.”

The magnitude of the charge of such an estate can be better understood when the condition of a Virginia plantation is realized. Before the Revolution practically everything the plantation could not produce was ordered yearly from Great Britain, and after the annual delivery of the invoices the estate could look for little outside help. Nor did this change rapidly after the Revolution, and during the period of Washington’s management almost everything was bought in yearly supplies. This system compelled each plantation to be a little world unto itself; indeed, the three hundred souls on the Mount Vernon estate went far to make it a distinct and self-supporting community, and one of Washington’s standing orders to his overseers was to “buy nothing you can make within yourselves.” Thus the planting and gathering of the crops were but a small part of the work to be done.

A corps of workmen–some negroes, some indentured servants, and some hired laborers–were kept on the estate. A blacksmith-shop occupied some, doing not merely the work of the plantation, but whatever business was brought to them from outside; and a wood-burner kept them and the mansion-house supplied with charcoal. A gang of carpenters were kept busy, and their spare time was utilized in framing houses to be put up in Alexandria, or in the “Federal city,” as Washington was called before the death of its namesake. A brick-maker, too, was kept constantly employed, and masons utilized the product of his labor. The gardener’s gang had charge of the kitchen-garden, and set out thousands of grape-vines, fruit-trees, and hedge-plants.

A water-mill, with its staff, not merely ground meal for the hands, but produced a fine flour that commanded extra price in the market In 1786 Washington asserted that his flour was “equal, I believe, in quality to any made in this country,” and the Mount Vernon brand was of such value that some money was made by buying outside wheat and grinding it into flour. The coopers of the estate made the barrels in which it was packed, and Washington’s schooner carried it to market.

The estate had its own shoemaker, and in time a staff of weavers was trained. Before this was obtained, in 1760, though with only a modicum of the force he presently had, Washington ordered from London “450 ells of Osnabrig, 4 pieces of Brown Wools, 350 yards of Kendall Cotton, and 100 yards of Dutch blanket.” By 1768 he was manufacturing the chief part of his requirements, for in that year his weavers produced eight hundred and fifteen and three-quarter yards of linen, three hundred and sixty-five and one-quarter yards of woollen, one hundred and forty-four yards of linsey, and forty yards of cotton, or a total of thirteen hundred and sixty-five and one-half yards, one man and five negro girls having been employed. When once the looms were well organized an infinite variety of cloths was produced, the accounts mentioning “striped woollen, woolen plaided, cotton striped, linen, wool-birdseye, cotton filled with wool, linsey, M.’s & O.’s, cotton-India dimity, cotton jump stripe, linen filled with tow, cotton striped with silk, Roman M., Janes twilled, huccabac, broadcloth, counterpain, birdseye diaper, Kirsey wool, barragon, fustian, bed-ticking, herring-box, and shalloon.”

One of the most important features of the estate was its fishery, for the catch, salted down, largely served in place of meat for the negroes’ food. Of this advantage Washington wrote, “This river,… is well supplied with various kinds of fish at all seasons of the year; and, in the spring, with the greatest profusion of shad, herrings, bass, carp, perch, sturgeon, &c. Several valuable fisheries appertain to the estate; the whole shore, in short, is one entire fishery.” Whenever there was a run of fish, the seine was drawn, chiefly for herring and shad, and in good years this not merely amply supplied the home requirements, but allowed of sales; four or five shillings the thousand for herring and ten shillings the hundred for shad were the average prices, and sales of as high as eighty-five thousand herring were made in a single year.

In 1795, when the United States passed an excise law, distilling became particularly profitable, and a still was set up on the plantation. In this whiskey was made from “Rye chiefly and Indian corn in a certain proportion,” and this not merely used much of the estate’s product of those two grains, but quantities were purchased from elsewhere. In 1798 the profit from the distillery was three hundred and forty-four pounds twelve shillings and seven and three-quarter pence, with a stock carried over of seven hundred and fifty-five and one-quarter gallons; but this was the most successful year. Cider, too, was made in large quantities.

A stud stable was from an early time maintained, and the Virginia papers regularly advertised that the stud horse “Samson,” “Magnolia,” “Leonidas,” “Traveller,” or whatever the reigning stallion of the moment might be, would “cover” mares at Mount Vernon, with pasturage and a guarantee of foal, if their owners so elected. During the Revolution Washington bought twenty-seven of the army mares that had been “worn-down so as to render it beneficial to the public to have them sold,” not even objecting to those “low in flesh or even crippled,” because “I have many large Farms and am improving a good deal of Land into Meadow and Pasture, which cannot fail of being profited by a number of Brood Mares.” In addition to the stud, there were, in 1793, fifty-four draught horses on the estate.

A unique feature of this stud was the possession of two jackasses, of which the history was curious. At that time there was a law in Spain (where the best breed was to be found) which forbade the exportation of asses, but the king, hearing of Washington’s wish to possess a jack, sent him one of the finest obtainable as a present, which was promptly christened “Royal Gift.” The sea-voyage and the change of climate, however, so affected him that for a time he proved of little value to his owner, except as a source of amusement, for Washington wrote Lafayette, “The Jack I have already received from Spain in appearance is fine, but his late Royal master, tho’ past his grand climacteric cannot be less moved by female allurements than he is; or when prompted, can proceed with more deliberation and majestic solemnity to the work of procreation.” This reluctance to play his part Washington concluded was a sign of aristocracy, and he wrote a nephew, “If Royal Gift will administer, he shall be at the service of your Mares, but at present he seems too full of Royalty, to have anything to do with a plebeian Race,” and to Fitzhugh he said, “particular attention shall be paid to the mares which your servant brought, and when my Jack is in the humor, they shall derive all the benefit of his labor, for labor it appears to be. At present tho’ young, he follows what may be supposed to be the example of his late Royal Master, who can not, tho’ past his grand climacteric, perform seldomer or with more majestic solemnity than he does. However I am not without hope that when he becomes a little better acquainted with republican enjoyment, he will amend his manners, and fall into a better and more expeditious mode of doing business.” This fortunately proved to be the case, and his master not merely secured such mules as he needed for his own use, but gained from him considerable profit by covering mares in the neighborhood. He even sent him on a tour through the South, and Royal Gift passed a whole winter in Charleston, South Carolina, with a resulting profit of six hundred and seventy-eight dollars to his owner. In 1799 there were on the estate “2 Covering Jacks & 3 young ones, 10 she asses, 42 working mules and 15 younger ones.”

Of cattle there were in 1793 a total of three hundred and seventeen head, including “a sufficiency of oxen broke to the yoke,” and a dairy was operated separate from the farms, and some butter was made, but Washington had occasion to say, “It is hoped, and will be expected, that more effectual measures will be pursued to make butter another year; for it is almost beyond belief, that from 101 cows actually reported on a late enumeration of the cattle, that I am obliged to _buy butter_ for the use of my family.”

Sheep were an unusual adjunct of a Virginia plantation, and of his flock Washington wrote, “From the beginning of the year 1784 when I returned from the army, until shearing time of 1788, I improved the breed of my sheep so much by buying and selecting the best formed and most promising Rams, and putting them to my best ewes, by keeping them always well culled and clean, and by other attentions, that they averaged me … rather over than under five pounds of washed wool each.” In another letter he said, “I … was proud in being able to produce perhaps the largest mutton and the greatest quantity of wool from my sheep that could be produced. But I was not satisfied with this; and contemplated further improvements both in the flesh and wool by the introduction of other breeds, which I should by this time have carried into effect, had I been permitted to pursue my favorite occupation.” In 1789, however, “I was again called from home, and have not had it in my power since to pay any attention to my farms. The consequence of which is, that my sheep at the last shearing, yielded me not more than 2-1/2” pounds. In 1793 he had six hundred and thirty-four in his flock, from which he obtained fourteen hundred and-fifty-seven pounds of fleece. Of hogs he had “many,” but “as these run pretty much at large in the woodland, the number is uncertain.” In 1799 his manager valued his entire live-stock at seven thousand pounds.

A separate account was kept of each farm, and of many of these separate departments, and whenever there was a surplus of any product an account was opened to cover it. Thus in various years there are accounts raised dealing with cattle, hay, flour, flax, cord-wood, shoats, fish, whiskey, pork, etc., and his secretary, Shaw, told a visitor that the “books were as regular as any merchant whatever.” It is proper to note, however, that sometimes they would not balance, and twice at least Washington could only force one, by entering “By cash supposed to be paid away & not credited _L_17.6.2,” and “By cash lost, stolen or paid away without charging _L_143.15.2.” All these accounts were tabulated at the end of the year and the net results obtained. Those for a single year are here given:


_Dr. gained._

Dogue Run Farm. 397.11.02
Union Farm ….. 529.10.11-1/2
River Farm ….. 234. 4.11
Smith’s Shop…. 34.12.09 1/2
Distillery ….. 83.13.01
Jacks ………. 56.01
Traveller (studhorse) 9.17
Shoemaker……. 28.17.01
Fishery …….. 165.12.0-3/4
Dairy ………. 30.12.03

_Cr. lost._

Mansion House… 466.18.02-1/2
Muddy Hole Farm 60.01.03-1/2
Spinning ……. 51.02.0
Hire of head
overseer …. 140.00.0

By Clear gain on
the Estate. _L_898.16.4-1/4

A pretty poor showing for an estate and negroes which had certainly cost him over fifty thousand dollars, and on which there was livestock which at the lowest estimation was worth fifteen thousand dollars more. It is not strange that in 1793 Washington attempted to find tenants for all but the Mansion farm. This he reserved for my “own residence, occupation and amusement,” as Washington held that “idleness is disreputable,” and in 1798 he told his chief overseer he did not choose to “discontinue my rides or become a cipher on my own estate.”

When at Mount Vernon, as this indicated, Washington rode daily about his estate, and he has left a pleasant description of his life immediately after retiring from the Presidency: “I begin my diurnal course with the sun;… if my hirelings are not in their places at that time I send them messages expressive of my sorrow for their indisposition;… having put these wheels in motion, I examine the state of things further; and the more they are probed, the deeper I find the wounds are which my buildings have sustained by my absence and neglect of eight years; by the time I have accomplished these matters, breakfast (a little after seven o’clock)… is ready;… this being over, I mount my horse and ride round my farms, which employs me until it is time to dress for dinner.” A visitor at this time is authority for the statement that the master “often works with his men himself–strips off his coat and labors like a common man. The General has a great turn for mechanics. It’s astonishing with what niceness he directs everything in the building way, condescending even to measure the things himself, that all may be perfectly uniform.”

This personal attention Washington was able to give only with very serious interruptions. From 1754 till 1759 he was most of the time on the frontier; for nearly nine years his Revolutionary service separated him absolutely from his property; and during the two terms of his Presidency he had only brief and infrequent visits. Just one-half of his forty-six years’ occupancy of Mount Vernon was given to public service.

The result was that in 1757 he wrote, “I am so little acquainted with the business relative to my private affairs that I can scarce give you any information concerning it,” and this was hardly less true of the whole period of his absences. In 1775 he engaged overseers to manage his various estates in his absence “upon shares,” but during the whole war the plantations barely supported themselves, even with depletion of stock and fertility, and he was able to draw nothing from them. One overseer, and a confederate, he wrote, “I believe, divided the profits of my Estate on the York River, tolerably betwn. them, for the devil of any thing do I get.” Well might he advise knowingly that “I have no doubt myself but that middling land under a man’s own eyes, is more profitable than rich land at a distance.” “No Virginia Estate (except a very few under the best of management) can stand simple Interest,” he declared, and went even further when he wrote, “the nature of a Virginia Estate being such, that without close application, it never fails bringing the proprietors in Debt annually.” “To speak within bounds,” he said, “ten thousand pounds will not compensate the losses I might have avoided by being at home, & attending a little to my own concerns” during the Revolution.

Fortunately for the farmer, the Mount Vernon estate was but a small part of his property. His father had left him a plantation of two hundred and eighty acres on the Rappahannock, “one Moiety of my Land lying on Deep Run,” three lots in Frederick “with all the houses and Appurtenances thereto belonging,” and one quarter of the residuary estate. While surveying for Lord Fairfax in 1748, as part of his compensation Washington patented a tract of five hundred and fifty acres in Frederick County, which he always spoke of as “My Bull-skin plantation.”

As a military bounty in the French and Indian War the governor of Virginia issued a proclamation granting Western lands to the soldiers, and under this Washington not merely secured fifteen thousand acres in his own right, but by buying the claims of some of his fellow officers doubled that quantity. A further tract was also obtained under the kindred proclamation of 1763, “5000 Acres of Land in my own right, & by purchase from Captn. Roots, Posey, & some other officers, I obtained rights to several thousand more.” In 1786, after sales, he had over thirty thousand acres, which he then offered to sell at thirty thousand guineas, and in 1799, when still more had been sold, his inventory valued the holdings at nearly three hundred thousand dollars.

In addition, Washington was a partner in several great land speculations,–the Ohio Company, the Walpole Grant, the Mississippi Company, the Military Company of Adventures, and the Dismal Swamp Company; but all these ventures except the last collapsed at the beginning of the Revolution and proved valueless. His interest in the Dismal Swamp Company he held at the time of his death, and it was valued in the inventory at twenty thousand dollars.

The properties that came to him from his brother Lawrence and with his wife have already been described. It may be worth noting that with the widow of Lawrence there was a dispute over the will, but apparently it was never carried into the courts, and that owing to the great depreciation of paper money during the Revolution the Custis personal property was materially lessened, for “I am now receiving 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,” Washington wrote, and in 1778 he said, “by the comparitive worth of money, six or seven thousand pounds which I have in Bonds upon Interest is now reduced to as many hundreds because I can get no more for a thousand at this day than a hundred would have fetched when I left Virginia, Bonds, debts, Rents, &c. undergoing no change while the currency is depreciating in value and for ought I know may in a little time be totally sunk.” Indeed, in 1781 he complained “that I have totally neglected all my private concerns, which are declining every day, and may, possibly, end in capital losses, if not absolute ruin, before I am at liberty to look after them.”

In 1784 he became partner with George Clinton in some land purchases in the State of New York with the expectation of buying the “mineral springs at Saratoga; and … the Oriskany tract, on which Fort Schuyler stands.” In this they were disappointed, but six thousand acres in the Mohawk valley were obtained “amazingly cheap.” Washington’s share cost him, including interest, eighteen hundred and seventy-five pounds, and in 1793 two-thirds of the land had been sold for three thousand four hundred pounds, and in his inventory of 1799 Washington valued what he still held of the property at six thousand dollars.

In 1790, having inside information that the capital was to be removed from New York to Philadelphia, Washington tried to purchase a farm near that city, foreseeing a speedy rise in value. In this apparently he did not succeed. Later he purchased lots in the new Federal city, and built houses on two of them. He also had town lots in Williamsburg, Alexandria, Winchester, and Bath. In addition to all this property there were many smaller holdings. Much was sold or traded, yet when he died, besides his wife’s real estate and the Mount Vernon property, he possessed fifty-one thousand three hundred and ninety-five acres, exclusive of town property. A contemporary said “that General Washington is, perhaps, the greatest landholder in America.”

All these lands, except Mount Vernon, were, so far as possible, rented, but the net income was not large. Rent agents were employed to look after the tenants, but low rents, war, paper money, a shifting population, and Washington’s dislike of lawsuits all tended to reduce the receipts, and the landlord did not get simple interest on his investments. Thus, in 1799 he complains of slow payments from tenants in Washington and Lafayette Counties (Pennsylvania). Instead of an expected six thousand dollars, due June 1, but seventeen hundred dollars were received.

Income, however, had not been his object in loading himself with such a vast property, as Washington believed that he was certain to become rich. “For proof of” the rise of land, he wrote in 1767, “only look to Frederick, [county] and see what fortunes were made by the … first taking up of those lands. Nay, how the greatest estates we have in this colony were made. Was it not by taking up and purchasing at very low rates the rich back lands, which were thought nothing of in those days, but are now the most valuable land we possess?”

In this he was correct, but in the mean time he was more or less land-poor. To a friend in 1763 he wrote that the stocking and repairing of his plantations “and other matters … swallowed up before I well knew where I was, all the moneys I got by marriage, nay more, brought me in debt” In 1775, replying to a request for a loan, he declared that “so far am I from having L200 to lend … I would gladly borrow that sum myself for a few months.” When offered land adjoining Mount Vernon for three thousand pounds in 1778, he could only reply that it was “a sum I have little chance, if I had inclination, to pay; & therefore would not engage it, as I am resolved not to incumber myself with Debt.” In 1782, to secure a much desired tract he was forced to borrow two thousand pounds York currency at the rate of seven per cent.

In 1788, “the total loss of my crop last year by the drought” “with necessary demands for cash” “have caused me much perplexity and given me more uneasiness than I ever experienced before from want of money,” and a year later, just before setting out to be inaugurated, he tried to borrow five hundred pounds “to discharge what I owe” and to pay the expenses of the journey to New York, but was “unable to obtain more than half of it, (though it was not much I required), and this at an advanced interest with other rigid conditions,” though at this time “could I get in one fourth part of what is due me on Bonds” “without the intervention of suits” there would have been ample funds. In 1795 the President said, “my friends entertain a very erroneous idea of my particular resources, when they set me down for a money lender, or one who (now) has a command of it. You may believe me when I assert that the bonds which were due to me before the Revolution, were discharged during the progress of it–with a few exceptions in depreciated paper (in some instances as low as a shilling in the pound). That such has been the management of the Estate, for many years past, especially since my absence from home, now six years, as scarcely to support itself. That my public allowance (whatever the world may think of it) is inadequate to the expence of living in this City; to such an extravagant height has the necessaries as well as the conveniences of life arisen. And, moreover that to keep myself out of debt; I have found it expedient now and then to sell Lands, or something else to effect this purpose.”


As these extensive land ventures bespoke a national characteristic, so a liking for other forms of speculation was innate in the great American. During the Revolution he tried to secure an interest in a privateer. One of his favorite flyers was chances in lotteries and raffles, which, if now found only in association with church fairs, were then not merely respectable, but even fashionable. In 1760 five pounds and ten shillings were invested in one lottery. Five pounds purchased five tickets in Strother’s lottery in 1763. Three years later six pounds were risked in the York lottery and produced prizes to the extent of sixteen pounds. Fifty pounds were put into Colonel Byrd’s lottery in 1769, and drew a half-acre lot in the town of Manchester, but out of this Washington was defrauded. In 1791 John Potts was paid four pounds and four shillings “in part for 20 Lottery tickets in the Alexa. street Lottery at 6/ each, 14 Dollrs. the Bal. was discharged by 2.3 Lotr prizes.” Twenty tickets of Peregrine and Fitzhugh’s lottery cost one hundred and eighty-eight dollars in 1794. And these are but samples of innumerable instances. So, too, in raffles, the entries are constant,–“for glasses 20/,” “for a Necklace L1.,” “by profit & loss in two chances in raffling for Encyclopadia Britannica, which I did not win L1.4,” two tickets were taken in the raffle of Mrs. Dawson’s coach, as were chances for a pair of silver buckles, for a watch, and for a gun; such and many others were smaller ventures Washington took.

There were other sources of income or loss besides. Before the Revolution he had a good sized holding of Bank of England stock, and an annuity in the funds, besides considerable property on bond, the larger part of which, as already noted, was liquidated in depreciated paper money. This paper money was for the most part put into United States securities, and eventually the “at least L10,000 Virginia money” proved to be worth six thousand two hundred and forty-six dollars in government six per cents and three per cents. A great believer in the Potomac Canal Company, Washington invested twenty-four hundred pounds sterling in the stock, which produced no income, and in time showed a heavy shrinkage. Another and smaller loss was an investment in the James River Canal Company. Stock holdings in the Bank of Columbia and in the Bank of Alexandria proved profitable investments.

None the less Washington was a successful businessman. Though his property rarely produced a net income, and though he served the public with practically no profit (except as regards bounty lands), and thus was compelled frequently to dip into his capital to pay current expenses, yet, from being a surveyor only too glad to earn a doubloon (seven dollars and forty cents) a day, he grew steadily in wealth, and when he died his property, exclusive of his wife’s and the Mount Vernon estate, was valued at five hundred and thirty thousand dollars. This made him one of the wealthiest Americans of his time, and it is to be questioned if a fortune was ever more honestly acquired or more thoroughly deserved.



In his “rules of civility” Washington enjoined that “those of high Degree ought to treat” “Artificers & Persons of low Degree” “with affibility & Courtesie, without Arrogancy,” and it was a needed lesson to every young Virginian, for, as Jefferson wrote, “the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most insulting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”

Augustine Washington’s will left to his son George “Ten negro Slaves,” with an additional share of those “not herein particularly Devised,” but all to remain in the possession of Mary Washington until the boy was twenty-one years of age. With his taking possession of the Mount Vernon estate in his twenty-second year eighteen more came under Washington’s direction. In 1754 he bought a “fellow” for L40.5, another (Jack) for L52.5, and a negro woman (Clio) for L50. In 1756 he purchased of the governor a negro woman and child for L60, and two years later a fellow (Gregory) for L60.9. In the following year (the year of his marriage) he bought largely: a negro (Will) for L50; another for L60; nine for L406, an average of L45; and a woman (Hannah) and child, L80. In 1762 he added to the number by purchasing seven of Lee Massey for L300 (an average of L43), and two of Colonel Fielding Lewis at L115, or L57.10 apiece. From the estate of Francis Hobbs he bought, in 1764, Ben, L72; Lewis, L36.10; and Sarah, L20. Another fellow, bought of Sarah Alexander, cost him L76; and a negro (Judy) and child, sold by Garvin Corbin, L63. In 1768 Mary Lee sold him two mulattoes (Will and Frank) for L61.15 and L50, respectively; and two boys (negroes), Adam and Frank, for L19 apiece. Five more were purchased in 1772, and after that no more were bought. In 1760 Washington paid tithes on forty-nine slaves, five years later on seventy-eight, in 1770 on eighty-seven, and in 1774 on one hundred and thirty-five; besides which must be included the “dower slaves” of his wife. Soon after this there was an overplus, and Washington in 1778 offered to barter for some land “Negroes, of whom I every day long more to get clear of,” and even before this he had learned the economic fact that except on the richest of soils slaves “only add to the Expence.”

In 1791 he had one hundred and fifteen “hands” on the Mount Vernon estate, besides house servants, and De Warville, describing his estate in the same year, speaks of his having three hundred negroes. At this time Washington declared that “I never mean (unless some particular circumstance compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase,” but this intention was broken, for “The running off of my cook has been a most inconvenient thing to this family, and what rendered it more disagreeable, is that I had resolved never to become the Master of another slave by purchase, but this resolution I fear I must break. I have endeavored to hire, black or white, but am not yet supplied.”

A few more slaves were taken in payment of a debt, but it was from necessity rather than choice, for at this very time Washington had decided that “it is demonstratively clear, that on this Estate (Mount Vernon) I have more working negros by a full moiety, than can be employed to any advantage in the farming system, and I shall never turn Planter thereon. To sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out, is almost as bad, because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse the families I have an aversion. What then is to be done? Something must or I shall be ruined; for all the money (in addition to what I raise by crops, and rents) that have been _received_ for Lands, sold within the last four years, to the amount of Fifty thousand dollars, has scarcely been able to keep me afloat.” And writing of one set he said, “it would be for my interest to set them free, rather than give them victuals and cloaths.”

The loss by runaways was not apparently large. In October, 1760, his ledger contains an item of seven shillings “To the Printing Office … for Advertising a run-a-way Negro.” In 1761 he pays his clergyman, Rev. Mr. Green, “for taking up one of my Runaway Negroes L4.” In 1766 rewards are paid for the “taking up” of “Negro Tom” and “Negro Bett.” The “taking up of Harry when Runaway” in 1771 cost L1.16. When the British invaded Virginia in 1781, a number escaped or were carried away by the enemy. By the treaty of peace these should have been returned, and their owner wrote, “Some of my own slaves, and those of Mr. Lund Washington who lives at my house may probably be in New York, but I am unable to give you their description–their names being so easily changed, will be fruitless to give you. If by chance you should come at the knowledge of any of them, I will be much obliged by your securing them, so that I may obtain them again.”

In 1796 a girl absconded to New England, and Washington made inquiries of a friend as to the possibility of recovering her, adding, “however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of people (if the latter was in itself practicable) at this moment, it would neither be politic nor just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference, and thereby discontent beforehand the minds of all her fellow servants, who, by their steady attachment, are far more deserving than herself of favor,” and at this time Washington wrote to a relative, “I am sorry to hear of the loss of your servant; but it is my opinion these elopements will be much more, before they are less frequent; and that the persons making them should never be retained–if they are recovered, as they are sure to contaminate and discontent others.”

Another source of loss was sickness, which, in spite of all Washington could do, made constant inroads on the numbers. A doctor to care for them was engaged by the year, and in the contracts with his overseers clauses were always inserted that each was “to take all necessary and proper care of the Negroes committed to his management using them with proper humanity and descretion,” or that “he will take all necessary and proper care of the negroes committed to his management, treating them with humanity and tenderness when sick, and preventing them when well, from running about and visiting without his consent; as also forbid strange negroes frequenting their quarters without lawful excuses for so doing.”

Furthermore, in writing to his manager, while absent from Mount Vernon, Washington reiterated that “although it is last mentioned it is foremost in my thoughts, to desire you will be particularly attentive to my negros in their sickness; and to order every overseer _positively_ to be so likewise; for I am sorry to observe that the generality of them view these 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.” And in another letter he added, “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 days’ 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. My fear is, as I expressed to you in a former letter, that the under overseers are so unfeeling, in short viewing the negros in no other light than as a better kind of cattle, the moment they cease to work, they cease their care of them.”

At Mount Vernon his care for the slaves was more personal. At a time when the small-pox was rife in Virginia he instructed his overseer “what to do if the Small pox should come amongst them,” and when he “received letters from Winchester, informing me that the Small pox had got among my quarters in Frederick; [I] determin’d … to leave town as soon as possible, and proceed up to them…. After taking the Doctors directions in regard to my people … I set out for my quarters about 12 oclock, time enough to go over them and found every thing in the utmost confusion, disorder and backwardness…. Got Blankets and every other requisite from Winchester, and settl’d things on the best footing I cou’d, … Val Crawford agreeing if any of those at the upper quarter got it, to have them remov’d into my room and the Nurse sent for.”

Other sickness was equally attended to, as the following entries in his diary show: “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 with letting blood they recover’d;” “ordered Lucy down to the House to be Physikd,” and “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 at night when I went to bed I thought him within a few hours of breathing his last.”

This matter of sickness, however, had another phase, which caused Washington much irritation at times when he could not personally look into the cases, but heard of them through the reports of his overseers. Thus, he complained on one occasion, “I find by reports that Sam is, in a manner, always returned sick; Doll at the Ferry, and several of the spinners very frequently so, for a week at a stretch; and ditcher Charles often laid up with lameness. I never wish my people to work when they are really sick, or unfit for it; on the contrary, that all necessary care should be taken of them when they are so; but if you do not examine into their complaints, they will lay by when no more ails them, than all those who stick to their business, and are not complaining from the fatigue and drowsiness which they feel as the effect of night walking and other practices which unfit them for the duties of the day.” And again he asked, “Is there anything particular in the cases of Ruth, Hannah and Pegg, that they have been returned sick for several weeks together? Ruth I know is extremely deceitful; she has been aiming for some time past to get into the house, exempt from work; but if they are not made to do what their age and strength will enable them, it will be a bad example for others–none of whom would work if by pretexts they can avoid it”

Other causes than running away and death depleted the stock. One negro was taken by the State for some crime and executed, an allowance of sixty-nine pounds being made to his master. In 1766 an unruly negro was shipped to the West Indies (as was then the custom), Washington writing the captain of the vessel,–

“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 practised the latter till of late) I shall not pretend to deny. But that he is exceeding 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 he may with your good management sell well, if kept clean and trim’d up a little when offered for sale.”

Another “misbehaving fellow” was shipped off in 1791, and was sold for “one pipe and Quarter Cask of wine from the West Indies.” Sometimes only the threat of such riddance was used, as when an overseer complained of one slave, and his master replied, “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 effect his life, he might be given up to the civil authority for trial; but for such offences as most of his color are guilty of, you had better try further correction, accompanied with 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 Wagoner Jack) for the West Indies, where he will have no opportunity of playing such pranks as he is at present engaged in.”

It is interesting to note, in connection with this conclusion, that “admonition and advice” were able to do what “correction” sometimes failed to achieve, that there is not a single order to whip, and that the above case, and that which follows, are the only known cases where punishment was approved. “The correction you gave Ben, for his assault on Sambo, was just and proper. It is my earnest desire that quarrels may be stopped or punishment of both parties follow, unless it shall appear _clearly_, that one only is to blame, and the other forced into [a quarrel] from self-defence.” In one other instance Washington wrote, “If Isaac had his deserts he would receive a severe punishment for the house, tools and seasoned stuff, which has been burned by his carelessness.” But instead of ordering the “deserts” he continued, “I wish you to inform him, that I sustain injury enough by their idleness; they need not add to it by their carelessness.”

This is the more remarkable, because his slaves gave him constant annoyance by their wastefulness and sloth and dishonesty. Thus, “Paris has grown to be so lazy and self-willed” that his master does not know what to with him; “Doll at the Ferry must be taught to knit, and _made_ to do a sufficient day’s work of it–otherwise (if suffered to be idle) many more will walk in her steps”; “it is observed by the weekly reports, that the sewers make only six shirts a week, and the last week Carolina (without being sick) made only five. Mrs. Washington says their usual task was to make nine with shoulder straps and good sewing. Tell them therefore from me, that what _has_ been done, _shall_ be done”; “none I think call louder for [attention] than the smiths, who, from a variety of instances which fell within my own observation whilst I was at home, I take to be two very idle fellows. A daily account (which ought to be regularly) taken of their work, would alone go a great way towards checking their idleness.” And the overseer was told to watch closely “the people who are at work with the gardener, some of whom I know to be as lazy and deceitful as any in the world (Sam particularly).”

Furthermore, the overseers were warned to “endeavor to make the Servants and Negroes take care of their cloathes;” to give them “a weekly allowance of Meat … because the annual one is not taken care of but either profusely used or stolen”; and to note “the delivery to and the application of nails by the carpenters,… [for] I cannot conceive how it is possible that 6000 twelve penny nails could be used in the corn house at River Plantation; but of one thing I have no great doubt, and that is, if they can be applied to other uses, or converted into cash, rum or other things there will be no scruple in doing it.”

When robbed of some potatoes, Washington complained that “the deception … is of a piece with other practices of a similar kind by which I have suffered hitherto; and may serve to evince to you, in strong colors, first how little confidence can be placed in any one round you; and secondly the necessity of an accurate inspection into these things yourself,–for to be plain, Alexandria is such a recepticle for every thing that can be filched from the right owners, by either blacks or whites; and I have such an opinion of my negros (two or three only excepted), and not much better of some of the whites, that I am perfectly sure not a single thing that can be disposed of at any price, at that place, that will not, and is not stolen, where it is possible; and carried thither to some of the underlying keepers, who support themselves by this kind of traffick.” He dared not leave wine unlocked, even for the use of his guests, “because the knowledge I have of my servants is such, as to believe, that if opportunities are given them, they will take off two glasses of wine for every one that is drank by such visitors, and tell you they were used by them.” And when he had some work to do requiring very ordinary qualities, he had to confess that “I know not a negro among all mine, whose capacity, integrity and attention could be relied on for such a trust as this.”

Whatever his opinion of his slaves, Washington was a kind master. In one case he wrote a letter for one of them when the “fellow” was parted from his wife in the service of his master, and at another time he enclosed letters to a wife and to James’s “del Toboso,” for two of his servants, to save them postage. In reference to their rations he wrote, “whether this addition … is sufficient, I will not undertake to decide;–but in most explicit language I desire they may have plenty; for 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 of 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 withhold or begrudge it them.” At Christmas-time there are entries in his ledger for whiskey or rum for “the negroes,” and towards the end of his life he ordered the overseer, “although others are getting out of the practice of using spirits at Harvest, yet, as my people have always been accustomed to it, a hogshead of Rum must be purchased; but I request at the same time, that it may be used sparingly.”

A greater kindness of his was, in 1787, when he very much desired a negro mason offered for sale, yet directed his agent that “if he has a family, with which he is to be sold; or from whom he would reluctantly part, I decline the purchase; his feelings I would not be the means of hurting in the latter case, nor _at any rate_ be incumbered with the former.”

The kindness thus indicated bore fruit in a real attachment of the slaves for their master. In Humphreys’s poem on Washington the poet alluded to the negroes at Mount Vernon in the lines,–

“Where that foul stain of manhood, slavery, flow’d Through Afric’s sons transmitted in the blood; Hereditary slaves his kindness shar’d,
For manumission by degrees prepar’d: Return’d from war, I saw them round him press, And all their speechless glee by artless signs express.”

And in a foot-note the writer added, “The interesting scene of his return home, at which the author was present, is described exactly as it existed.”

A single one of these slaves deserves further notice. His body-servant “Billy” was purchased by Washington in 1768 for sixty-eight pounds and fifteen shillings, and was his constant companion during the war, even riding after his master at reviews; and this servant was so associated with the General that it was alleged in the preface to the “forged letters” that they had been captured by the British from “Billy,” “an old servant of General Washington’s.” When Savage painted his well-known “family group,” this was the one slave included in the picture. In 1784 Washington told his Philadelphia agent that “The mulatto 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 cannot 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.”


When acting as chain-bearer in 1785, while Washington was surveying a tract of land, William fell and broke his knee-pan, “which put a stop to my surveying; and with much difficulty I was able to get him to Abington, being obliged to get a sled to carry him on, as he could neither walk, stand or ride.” From this injury Lee never quite recovered, yet he started to accompany his master to New York in 1789, only to give out on the road. He was left at Philadelphia, and Lear wrote to Washington’s agent that “The President will thank you to propose it to Will to return to Mount Vernon when he can be removed for he cannot be of any service here, and perhaps will require a person to attend upon him constantly. If he should incline to return to Mount Vernon, you will be so kind as to have him sent in the first Vessel that sails for Alexandria after he can be moved with safety–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.”

By his will Washington gave Lee his “immediate freedom or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which have befallen him and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment) to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional in him to do so– In either case however I allow him an annuity of thirty dollars during his natural life which shall be independent of the victuals and _cloaths_ he has been accustomed to receive; if he _chuses_ the last alternative, but in full with his freedom, if he prefers the first, and this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.”

Two small incidents connected with Washington’s last illness are worth noting. The afternoon before the night he was taken ill, although he had himself been superintending his affairs on horseback in the storm most of the day, yet when his secretary “carried some letters to him to frank, intending to send them to the Post Office in the evening,” Lear tells us “he franked the letters; but said the weather was too bad to send a servant up to the office that evening.” Lear continues, “The General’s servant, Christopher, attended his bed side & in the room, when he was sitting up, through his whole illness…. In the [last] afternoon the General observing that Christopher had been standing by his bed side for a long time–made a motion for him to sit in a chair which stood by the bed side.”

A clause in Washington’s will directed that

“Upon the decease of my wife it is my will and desire 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 of 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–And whereas among those who will receive freedom according to this devise there may be some who from old age, or bodily infirmities & others who on account of their infancy, that will be unable to support themselves, it is my will and desire that all who come under the first and second description shall be comfortably cloathed and fed by my heirs while they live and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court until they shall arrive at the age of twenty five years…. The negroes thus bound are (by their masters and