TOPICS: Early American Life, Mount Vernon, Slavery
by Dana Stefanelli, Assistant Editor
December 8, 2017
With the holiday season upon us, it seems appropriate to look back at visitors’ accounts of George and Martha Washington’s Potomac River plantation, Mount Vernon. The Christmas season—stretching from December 24th to January 6th—was widely considered a time to gather with family and friends. As the Washingtons’ estate and reputation grew, visitors came year-round and included not only immediate family and local friends but more distant relatives and strangers with and without letters of introduction.
Descriptions of Mount Vernon and its inhabitants take up significant space in the diaries of many visitors. These accounts reflect curiosity about America’s most famous person, his family, and his private life, as well as an interest in the estate itself as a status symbol and business enterprise. Visitors’ descriptions are freighted with 18th-century assumptions and categorizations, and frequently compare Mount Vernon to the estates of the British gentry.
Mount Vernon’s appearance and location met with almost universal praise. On a brief visit in the later years of the Revolution, Gen. Nathanael Greene remarked to Washington that Mount Vernon was “one of the most pleasant places I ever saw,” and relayed that Baron Friedrich von Steuben was likewise “delighted with the place, and charmed with the reception we met with.” Reflecting on Washington’s long absence from the estate, Greene concluded that only “the glory of being commander in Chief and the happiness of being universally admird could compensate a person for such a sacrafice as you make.”1
One person whose praise was less effusive was British-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was unimpressed by the mansion (or, perhaps more charitably, impressed by its unimpressiveness). He declared that the back of the house facing the road was designed “in a very indifferent taste,” but allowed that the front portico facing the Potomac with its eight large square pillars was “of good proportions and effect.” Latrobe described a “handsome statuary marble chimney piece in the dining room,” as “the only piece of expensive decoration I have seen about the house, and is indeed remarkable in that respect.”2
Almost all visitors referred to Mount Vernon as George Washington’s “seat,” in the style of the manor houses of European aristocrats, and the term seems especially apt given the estate’s sweeping views from the heights above the Potomac. This may have been the characteristic of Mount Vernon about which Washington was most proud. “No estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this—It lyes in a high, dry & healthy country…on one of the finest Rivers in the world,” he claimed.3 Visitors often evaluated the estate in terms familiar to Britain’s upper classes, focusing on the plantation’s acreage and the annual income derived from it. Their estimates of Mount Vernon’s size vary widely, from 3,000 to 10,000 acres or more (the Mansion House and surrounding farms included about 8,000 acres), and estimates of the income derived from Mount Vernon are similarly inconsistent. Latrobe thought the estate resembled an English manor that might generate £500-£600 annually, while Robert Hunter, who visited in 1785, thought the Washingtons “lived at the rate of three or four thousand [pounds sterling] per year.”4
Many of the estate’s designs were inspired by the tastes and preferences of Britain’s gentry. So close was the association that Winthrop Sargent, who visited the estate in October 1793, concluded that the rustication process used to make the mansion’s wooden siding look like stone was “in Imitation of Bristol Free Stone” – stone from the quarries around Bath, England.5 Sargent and others noted Washington’s deer park, a walled, wooded area on the mansion grounds intended to attract game for hunting that was inspired by similar enclosures in Britain.
The conspicuous exception to these similarities was the presence of enslaved African Americans. Instead of the contract servants and scattered tenant farmers that populated British estates, Robert Hunter found it “astonishing what a number of small houses the General has upon his estate for his different workmen and Negroes to live in. He has everything within himself—carpenters, bricklayers, brewers, blacksmiths, bakers, etc. etc.”6 Sargent reported that the enslaved were “better clothed and fed than negroes generally are in this Country,” and that having “conversed with many of them” found them “well contented with their Situation and much attached to their Master.”7 Presumably the enslaved did not share their most candid opinions with Sargent or other guests of the Washingtons.
Besides the appearance of the estate, most visitors to Mount Vernon recorded and reflected on George Washington’s movements, habits, and manners, as well as interactions with him and (to a lesser extent) with Martha Washington. Those accounts are a subject worthy of their own post, which I hope to explore at a later time.
1. “To George Washington from Nathanael Greene, 13 November 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-03922.
2. Jean B. Lee, ed., Experiencing Mount Vernon: Eyewitness Accounts, 1784-1865 (Charlottesville, Va., 2006), 57.
3. “From George Washington to Arthur Young, 12 December 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-14-02-0337. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington Presidential Series 14: 504-14.
4. Lee, Experiencing Mount Vernon, 34.
5. See n. 3 of “George Washington to James Madison, 14 October 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-14-02-0146. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 14:206–210.
6. Lee, Experiencing Mount Vernon, 33.
7. See n. 3 of “GW to James Madison, 14 October 1793.”