Confederation Series: Volume 3

DATE May 1785 – March 1786

This is the third volume of a six-volume edition of Washington’s papers in the Confederation period. Between May 1785 and March 1786 Washington ventured from his house and farms at Mount Vernon only for occasional trips into Alexandria and periodic forays up the Potomac to meet with the officers of the Potomac River Company and to monitor the progress of the workmen clearing the stream for navigation.

At Mount Vernon, in addition to entertaining hundreds of guests from most of the states of the Union and countries of Europe as well as from the more immediate environs, Washington pushed on with the remodeling of his house, the construction of its outbuildings, and the improvement of its grounds. He also attempted a complete reorganization of his farming operations, with himself in direct charge; empowered a new land agent to deal with the tenants, many unidentified, living on his land in outlying counties; intensified his efforts to improve his farming methods by wide-ranging experimentation; and was at last successful in hiring a clerk to help him with his correspondence and to make a beginning in bringing some sort of order to his private papers.

In addition to reflecting Washington’s concerns with these matters, his correspondence during these months deals with such things as acquiring a jackass from the king of Spain for breeding purposes, refusing a gift from the Virginia legislature without giving offense, choosing his clothing for Houdon’s statue, and, above all and pervasively, deciding what was to be done about the perilous state of the American union. Most of the letters in the volume are to and from fellow gentlemenfarmers, merchants, tradesmen, and old soldiers, French and American, but his correspondents also include such public figures as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, George Mason, John Paul Jones, Edmund Randolph, Gouverneur Morris, Lafayette, Lauzun, Noah Webster, Floridablanca, Chastellux, Arthur Young, and Catharine Macaulay Graham.

W.W. Abbot., ed., The Papers of George Washington: Confederation Series volume 3, May 1785 – March 1786. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1994.

Volume 3: Essay
“A Year of Drought and Distraction”

Volume Three of the Confederation Series of The Papers of George Washington spans the year between May 1785 and April 1786, described by Washington’s biographer Douglas Southall Freeman as a year of “drought and distraction.” Washington spent most of these months at Mount Vernon, continuing to wrestle with the problems of restoring the plantation and his personal fortune after years of neglect while serving as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army — efforts hampered by a long summer drought. During these months Washington was distracted by national affairs, particularly the impotence of the Confederation government, and by a constant stream of visitors. His principal concerns, however, were close to home.

The winter of 1784-85 was “long, wet & disagreeable” and had been followed by the “most unfavourable” spring in Washington’s memory. [1] The weather remained cool and wet well through the month of May, making plowing difficult and slowing the growth of many of the crops that were planted. The dismal spring gave way to summer drought that played havoc with the summer crops, particularly the corn, a great deal of which, Washington wrote, was “irrecoverably lost.” [2] Despite these and other problems in managing the plantation and making it profitable, Washington was laying ambitious plans for improving Mount Vernon. To George William Fairfax he wrote:

Our course of Husbandry in this Country, & more especially in this State, is not only exceedingly unprofitable, but so destructive to our Lands, that it is my earnest wish to adopt a better; & as I believe no Country has carried the improv ment of Land & the benefits of Agriculture to greater perfection than England, I have asked myself frequently of late, whether a thorough bred practical english Farmer, from a part of England where Husbandry seems to be best understood & is mo st advantageously practiced, could not be obtain’d? . . . When I speak of a knowing farmer, I mean one who understands the best course of Crops; how to plough–to sow–to mow–to hedge–to Ditch & above all, Midas like, one who can convert every thing he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards Gold. [3]

In the spring of 1786, through George William’s efforts, Washington contracted with what he hoped was such a man: James Bloxham of Gloucestershire, England, who agreed to assist Washington in managing stock (to be maintained primarily as a source of manure) and to instruct farm laborers “to Plow, Sow; Mow, Reap; Thatch; Ditch; Hedge &ca in the best manner.” [4] Even before Bloxham’s arrival, Washington was experimenting with novel ways to increase the fertility of his farms. Certain that “the bed of the Potomac before my door, contains an inexhaustable fund of manure . . . if I could adopt an easy, simple, and expeditious method of raising, and taking it to the Land,” he considered using a special dredge developed by Arthur Donaldson, the “Hippopotamus,” to bring it to the surface. In the fall of 1785 he borrowed a scow belonging to George Gilpin to raise Potomac mud. [5]

PineProbably at no time during the post-Revolutionary period was Washington more intimately involved in every aspect of farm management than during the late fall and winter of 1785-86. That November, Lund Washington indicated his wish to give up the management of the plantation, a task he had performed for twenty-one years. Washington asked his nephew, George Augustine Washington, to assume the position of plantation manager. George Augustine spent the winter with the family of his new wife, Fanny Bassett, and took over management of the Mount Vernon farms at the end of March 1786. In the intervening months Washington took over day-to-day supervision of the Mount Vernon farms. In November he began a detailed inventory of horses, cattle, tools, and implements on the plantation, and in February 1786 he made a detailed census of the 216 slaves on the five farms. Both of these documents he included in his diary. [6] In November he also began a running account of his farming operations in the form of weekly notes. He assembled these reports for himself through the week of 15 April 1786, when the task was assumed by George Augustine. For the rest of his life, Washington required these weekly farm reports from his plantation manager. The present volume includes the complete reports made by Washington between 26 November 1785 and 16 April 1786. [7] It was probably during these months of intensive personal management of the plantation that Washington developed and refined plans for the “entire new course of cropping” that he would begin to carry out in 1786. [8]

Through these busy months of farming Washington received a constant stream of visitors — relatives, friends, old comrades, and what must have seemed like an ever-increasing number of American and European visitors, including Catherine Macauley Graham and the French sculptor Houdon, who arrived at Mount Vernon in October 1785. The present volume includes correspondence documenting Houdon’s visit, which resulted in what is apparently the most accurate likeness of Washington ever made. During these months Washington also found time to make improvements to the mansion; Confederation 3 includes Washington’s correspondence with Tench Tilghman and craftsman John Rawlins regarding the finish work in the New Room. [9]

Confederation 3 also documents changes in the household at Mount Vernon, most notably perhaps the wedding of George Augustine Washington and Fanny Bassett, which occasioned Washington’s most extended comments on marriage. On the intended marriage, Washington wrote to Fanny’s father, Burwell Bassett:

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 mos t interesting event of ones life. The foundation of happiness or misery. To be instrumental therefore in bringing two people together who are indifferent to each other, & may soon become the 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, & therefore neither directly, nor indirectly have I ever said a syllable to Fanny, or George, upon the Subject of their intended connection: but as their attachment to each other se ems of early growth, warm, & lasting, it bids fair for happiness. If therefore you have no objec<tion>, I think, the sooner it is consummated the better. [10]

Beyond Mount Vernon, Washington devoted much of his attention during these months to the business of the Potomac Company. The company was authorized under Virginia law in the October 1784 session of the legislature to undertake to make the Potomac navigable above the falls. [11] In the same session, the Virginia legislature voted Washington a gift of stock in the Potomac and James River companies in recognition of his services during the Revolution. [12] Few episodes in Washington’s career caused him as much concern as this unsought gift from the state. Acceptance, Washington believed, would compromise the reputation for disinterested public service he had carefully cultivated and protected from the start of the Revolution. Accepting the gift, Washington wrote to Nathanael Greene, “is incompatible with my principles, & contrary to my declarations,” and he was determined not to accept the shares. Still he was concerned about “how to refuse them, without incurring the charge of disrespect to the Country on the one hand, and an ostentatious display of disinterestedness on my part on the other, I am a little at a loss.” [13] After what seems to have been agonizing consideration, he wrote to Gov. Patrick Henry on 29 October 1785:

When I was first called to the station with which I was honored during the late conflict for our liberties, to the diffidence which I had so many reasons to feel in accepting it, I thought it my duty to join a firm resolution to shut my han d against every pecuniary recompence. To this resolution I have invariably adhered. From this resolution (if I had the inclination) I do not consider my self at liberty, to depart. [14]

Washington ultimately agreed to hold the shares in trust for public benefit, and in his will he left the Potomac Company shares to the national government and the James River Company shares to what later became Washington and Lee University.

Despite his refusal to accept the shares for his own benefit, Washington was enthusiastic about the prospects for opening the Potomac above the falls. “Were I disposed to encounter present inconvenience for a future income,” he wrote to Robert Morris in February 1785, “I would hazard all the money I could raise upon the navigation of the river.” [15] He was elected president at the first meeting of the subscribers at Alexandria in May 1785, and during the summer was occupied, with the other directors, in organizing the company’s efforts to clear navigation and construct canals around major obstructions in the river. Through Washington’s efforts, the directors contracted with James Rumsey in July 1785 to manage the project. [16] The documents in this volume leave no doubt that Washington regarded the opening of the Potomac and other avenues of trade with the burgeoning settlements on the western frontier of the United States as essential for the preservation of the union. “There is nothing” he wrote to Richard Henry Lee in August 1785, “which binds one Country, or one State to another, but interest. without this cement, the Western inhabitants . . . can have no predeliction for us; and a commercial connection is the only tie we can have upon them.” [17]

Washington was also involved during these months in pushing forward the business of the Dismal Swamp Company. At the beginning of May 1785 Washington attended a meeting of the company members, and returned from the meeting still convinced that the region would eventually be developed into some of the best farmland in Virginia. He considered recruiting Dutch or German workmen familiar with the best methods of ditching and canal building to help manage the work of draining the rich swamp land. [18] Ultimately, however, Washington’s personal financial concerns and his greater interest in improving the navigation of the Potomac pushed the affairs of the Dismal Swamp Company from the forefront of his concerns. He wrote to Patrick Henry,

Altho’ I conceive that the sunken Lands lying on Albermarle sound, & the waters emptying into it, will in time become the most valuable property in this Country; yet when I reflect further, that it will require a considerable advance to rec laim & render them fit for cultivation, & in the mean time that they may be subjected to expences; I believe it would be most adviseable for me, in my situation not to add to my present expenditures. [19]

Despite the press of private business, Washington remained deeply concerned about public affairs during these months. The failing ability of the Confederation government to meet its financial obligations and its inability to assert its sovereignty over the frontier particularly troubled him. He regarded with pleasure the adoption of the Northwest Ordinance, but confided to Richard Henry Lee that he feared that the law came too late to control speculation and disorganized settlement beyond the Ohio. He lamented to Lee that “the inadequacy of the powers of Congress” had called into question “our National character for wisdom, justice & temperance . . . before we can govern the political Machine.” [20] Congressional authority, he argued, should be extended over international commerce and must be broadened to include sufficient taxing power to meet the debts contracted during the war. Without “adequate powers in Congress,” Washington wrote to James McHenry, “we never shall establish a National character, or be considered on a respectable footing by the powers of Europe.” [21]

Washington remained optimistic about the prospects for the new nation during 1785, but as the impotence of the Confederation government became increasingly apparent in the spring and summer of 1786, his concerns about the future of the union would grow, and his support for political reform would increase in urgency.

Jack D. Warren


1. GW to David Humphreys, 1 September 1785, Confederation 3: 214-15; GW to George Clinton, 20 April 1785, Confederation 2: 509-12. [back]

2. For GW’s comments on the drought, see, e.g., Diaries IV: 182-85; GW to David Humphreys, 1 September 1785, Confederation 3: 214-15. [back]

3. GW to George William Fairfax, 30 June 1785, Confederation 3: 87-92. [back]

4. Articles of Agreement with James Bloxham [31 May 1786], Confederation 4: 86-88. [back]

5. GW to Levi Hollingsworth [20 September 1785], Confederation 3: 267-68; GW to Arthur Donaldson [16 October 1785], Confederation 3: 307; GW to George Gilpin, 29 October 1785, Confederation 3: 324-25.[back]

6. Diaries IV: 223-31, 277-83. [back]

7. Farm Reports, 26 November 1785 – 16 April 1786, Confederation 3: 389-410. [back]

8. GW to William Triplett, 25 September 1786, Confederation 4: 268-274. [back]

9. See, e.g., John Rawlins to GW, 15 November 1785, Confederation 3: 359. [back]

10. GW to Burwell Bassett, 23 May 1785, Confederation 3: 9-10; for a sample of the improved accuracy of the present edition of Washington’s letters, compare this text with that of the same letter in Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington, 28: 151-52. [back]

11. Willam W. Hening, comp., The Statutes at Large … of Virginia (New York and Philadelphia, 1823) vol. 11: 510-25. [back]

12. Willam W. Hening, comp., The Statutes at Large … of Virginia (New York and Philadelphia, 1823) vol. 11: 525-26. [back]

13. GW to Nathanael Greene, 20 May 1785, Confederation 3: 4-6. [back]

14. GW to Patrick Henry, 29 October 1785, Confederation 3: 326-27. [back]

15. GW to Robert Morris, 1 February 1785, Confederation 2: 309-15. [back]

16. On the Potomac Company, see, e.g., GW to James Rumsey, 2 July 1785, Confederation 3: 99-100. [back]

17. GW to Richard Henry Lee, 22 August 1785, Confederation 3: 195-97. [back]

18. John Page to GW, 9 September 1785, Confederation 3: 240-41; GW to John Page, 3 October 1785,Confederation 3: 293-94. [back]

19. GW to Patrick Henry, 24 June 1785, Confederation 3: 79-80. [back]

20. GW to Richard Henry Lee, 22 June 1785, Confederation 3: 70-72. [back]

21. GW to James McHenry, 22 August 1785, Confederation 3: 197-99. [back]