By E. N. Vallandigham
That great river, the Potomac, in its tidal course, seems fitly to typify the life and character of the majestic man Washington, who was born within sight of its banks, whose permanent home for most of his life overlooked many miles of its course, and whose tomb now dominates its waters. Irving says of Washington's birthplace on Bridges Creek, that it "commanded the Potomac and the shores of Maryland opposite." If Irving visited the birthplace of the man whose biography he was to write with so much ability and charm, he must have found himself there on a fine day, for upon no other could he have seen "the shores of Maryland opposite." The slow-moving and majestic flood of the Potomac, indeed, lies in full sight from the spot where Washington was born, and only three miles away; but the river at that point, fully forty miles above the mouth, is nearly fourteen miles wide, as it is for much of its course southeastward to the Chesapeake; and the left bank of the stream is much of the time invisible from the high, lone field in which once stood the Washington homestead. Between the capes that mark its mouth the river is eighteen miles wide, and its tributaries of hardly more than local fame have the aspect of great rivers. Wherever one of those tributaries enters the larger stream, the latter looks like a great inland sea. It rolls toward the bay without haste or fret, in silent, tidal majesty, as Washington moved, quiet and self-assured, from end to end of a career which steadily widened with his increasing years.
Those who visit Mt. Vernon return perhaps with a quickened apprehension, of Washington, the victorious captain and great President, Washington the world-hero; but to apprehend Washington the British subject and colonial magnate, and thus better to understand the full flowering of his character and career, one must visit not only Mt. Vernon, but his other two homes in the Potomac country. Between the Potomac and the Rappahannock lies the Northern Neck of Virginia, including the counties of King George, Westmoreland, Richmond, Northumberland, Lancaster and a part of Stafford—a peninsula perhaps seventy-five miles long, and at the narrowest point barely nine miles wide; or, more inclusively, and as colonial Virginians looked at the region, the whole Piedmont country between the Potomac and the Rappahannock. The peninsula alone now has a population of about 50,000, mostly Americans of long native descent.
Here it was that Washington first saw the light, and had his brief education in the schools, and his more important education in practical business and the social life of the region. It was while living here also that he made a fortunate marriage, fell heir to a handsome property, and rose to be a person of first importance socially and politically in the colonial life of the mid-eighteenth century.
To this region also it was that he always turned with affectionate loyalty in the midst of a life cumbered with great affairs. As soon as his sword was surrendered to Congress at the close of the Revolutionary War, he hastened home to Mt. Vernon. He was sincere when he declared with something like an oath, fetching his great fist down upon the table in the presence of his Cabinet, that he would rather administer his estate at Mt. Vernon than be emperor of the world, and it was to Mt. Vernon that he gladly retired for the last two and a half years of his life, which followed the close of his second Presidency. Whosoever knows that beautiful region, with its encompassing rivers, can easily understand Washington's devotion to the land of his birth and residence; for beauty of aspect, richness of soil and sweetness of climate it is hard to match. To sail the Potomac and its tributaries, visiting the delightful little sunny harbors of the Northern Neck, and seeing the lovely lands and delicious waters that were familiar to Washington from infancy, is to freshen one's patriotism, and to realize, perhaps for the first time, how much Washington cheerfully risked in order that he might serve his country in what must have appeared to so wise and cautious a man an undertaking of highly problematical success.
Perhaps most of us who have not actually visited the Northern Neck of Virginia think of it as resembling some other portions of the Old Dominion in being poor and outworn with generations of wasteful culture. As a matter of fact, the region immediately bordering the Potomac and its tributaries is unusually rich and beautiful, with well-kept farms, nobly wooded hills and sparkling streams. The walk from the little government wharf at Wakefield to the site of Washington's birthplace takes one through a farming country in admirable condition and betraying many signs of an old civilization. Cherry trees, run wild, line the roadside, and all about the lonely birthplace monument still spring shoots of the fig-trees that doubtless flourished here when Washington was a babe in arms. The man and his family here seem living realities. The fishing-boat of the present Lawrence Washington, commonly called Mr. Lal. Washington by his neighbors, rocks in the mouth of a little creek not far from the monument, and hard by is his embowered homestead. Another Washington was recently State's Attorney in a neighboring county. Thinking of these modern Washing-tons and of their great dead, a simple countryman said: "Yes, those Washington’s are mighty smart people."
|Mary Washington house in Fredericksburg, Va|
The country about the birthplace of Washington must look today much as it looked when he was born, and later when he returned to the spot in order to attend a better school than any that he could find near his second home in Stafford County, opposite Fredericksburg. Even now you may see log corncribs a mile or so from the birthplace monument which must be just such as were commonly built all over this region in the first half of the eighteenth century. From the site of the birthplace one sees, as Washington must have seen, acre upon acre of field and forest, the waters of Bridges Creek, here expanded into a wide and beautiful pond, and far across country the lordly flood of the Potomac, bounded by the misty shores of old Catholic Maryland. One of the little harbors in Lancaster County is called Lodge in memory of the fact that here stood the Masonic Lodge which Washington occasionally visited. The building is now gone, but its corner-stone has been built into another Masonic Lodge in a neighboring little port.
It is a mistake to think of the early American Washington’s as county magnates. Had George Washington died before the battle of Bunker Hill he would still have been the most distinguished man that his family had produced, whether in Europe or America. The Washington’s were of ancient and gentle blood, but the two brothers who emigrated to America in 1657 were not men of great wealth or distinction, and when they purchased land in Westmoreland County they found themselves in a region that had been settled by men of substance for almost half a century. John, the ancestor of George, married Anne Pope, and took up his residence on Bridges Creek, where he became an extensive planter, a local magistrate and a member of the House of Burgesses. His house, however, the one in which his great-grandson was born, was small and simple, with four rooms on the ground floor, an attic immediately above and a deep sloping roof. The early home of the Lees, which is only a few miles away, although far from imposing, is much larger than this dwelling of John Washington the immigrant, just as Arlington is a far greater house than Mt. Vernon. The Washington homestead on Bridges Creek served the family well enough in the next generation, and here apparently were born the children of Augustine Washington's first wife, the half-brothers and half-sisters of George. Of the second wife's children, George alone was born at the Westmoreland County homestead, for in his early infancy the family removed to Stafford County, and occupied a house which seems to have been in size and simplicity the counterpart of George's birthplace. Nothing now remains of this building save a few bricks of the foundation. The house stood on a rise overlooking a meadow bounded by the Rappahannock. This meadow was George Washington's first playground, and a neighboring "old field" school, kept by the parish sexton, a tenant of his father's, was his first place of formal education.
|Pohick Church, where Washington attended services|
Augustine Washington was able to send his son Lawrence to be educated in England, a privilege much coveted by young colonials of social importance at home, and when Lawrence returned with the accomplishments of a well-bred young Englishman, he seems to have been the idol of his brother George, who was fourteen years his junior. Soon after Lawrence's return he volunteered for Admiral Vernon's expedition against the Spanish power on the Isthmus of Panama, not as a naval officer, but as captain in a regiment of infantry recruited for this special service. He returned from the expedition in 1742, about a year before the death of his father. Augustine Washington, though a rich man for the period, was not able to leave all his sons with great estates. To Lawrence, who, as eldest, it was expected would be the head of the family, he left the noble plantation on the Potomac, which Lawrence called Mt. Vernon, in honor of his late commander. Here Lawrence built the comfortable plantation house which George afterward enlarged to its present size. One realizes the Washington’s as patriotic colonials like their neighbors when one knows that another participant in Admiral Vernon's expedition named a Potomac plantation in memory of the affair. This place, some miles below Mt. Vernon, is called Cartagena. Lawrence received also other real estate, and shares in iron works. Augustine received the humble homestead with its large plantation on Bridges Creek, which he was not too proud to occupy, and George, the Stafford County estate with his mother as guardian.
To Lawrence's possession of the Mt. Vernon estate, George Washington owed his first close contact with much that was most distinguished in the local colonial life of the period. Mt. Vernon was not then, and is not today with the additions made by George Washington, a great house, but it was probably a greater house than any that George had hitherto inhabited. The gentry of the Potomac shore furnished no bad social school for an apt lad of fifteen, at which age George went to live with Lawrence, after some years at home with his mother and at his birthplace with Augustine. A near neighbor of Lawrence Washington's and his uncle by marriage was that greatest Virginian proprietor of the period, Thomas, Lord Fairfax. A cousin of Lord Fairfax and local agent of his vast landed estates, occupied Belvoir, a neighboring plantation on the Potomac, and thither came Lord Fairfax himself and his son. This nobleman was probably the first Englishman of courtly social experience that George Washington ever met upon intimate terms, and he must have had a marked influence upon the lad. His lordship was then a man of fifty-five, tall, spare, erect, rawboned, and of sandy complexion. He had seen much of aristocratic society in England, and had been embittered it is said, by an unsuccessful love affair in which he was jilted that the lady in the case might marry a duke. The affair, however, had not prevented his lordship from finding a wife, though it is believed to have turned him from courtly society, and prepared him for emigration to America.
|Mary Washington Monument|
By the time George Washington was sixteen years of age he was a man, in stature and in general outward aspect, and he was treated as such by Lord Fairfax, and his son, the latter a youth of twenty-two, who married a Cary, of a well-known colonial family. George, who had been writing love verses to a "Lowland Beauty," perhaps the lady who afterward became the mother of Light Horse Harry Lee, found the sister of Mrs. Fairfax very attractive, though he intimated that she served only to keep alive his old flame. George Washington at this time was not only a tall, strong youth, but he had a better business education than most lads of his age in his day, though a very moderate education in other departments of knowledge. He knew enough of mathematics and surveying, however, to be commissioned by Lord Fairfax to survey some of his lands beyond the Blue Ridge. For this service, rendered when Washington was only a few weeks past sixteen, he received a compensation varying from $7 to $20 a day. He also obtained soon after, and held for three years, the office of public surveyor.
Washington must have regarded a British nobleman of vast American estates much as any other well placed colonial regarded an aristocrat of wealth and courtly breeding. The lad rode to hounds along with Fairfax and his friends, took part in the social life of the region, and probably watched with intelligent interest the bearing and manners of the noble man and his English-bred son. The youth, bred in a comfortable farm-house, and under the hands of a father no doubt of excellent manners but chiefly distinguished as a man of wisdom, integrity and business ability, was seeing social life on a grander scale than he had known it in his Stafford County home, or his short residence at the Westmoreland birthplace with his brother Augustine.
At Mt. Vernon, however, he learned other things than conventional good the manners. Here he was instructed in arms by Adjutant Muse and a Dutch soldier of fortune named Van Braam. The latter wrote him a letter many years after, when Washington as general and President was famous the world over. Perhaps Lawrence Washington also helped to instruct his brother in the art of war. Certainly Lawrence loved him well, for it was George whom he chose as a companion when on-coming consumption drove him to the Barbadoes. Here young George saw his first play, and had the small-pox. He bore the marks of the latter for the rest of his life. Lawrence died soon after his return, at Mt. Vernon, in July, 1752, providing in his will that George should inherit the estate should Lawrence's daughter die without issue. This she did, and George, when little more than a youth in years, became the master of Mt. Vernon.
|Washington Birth-place Monument, Wakefield, Va|
All the world is aware how near George Washington came at fourteen to accepting a midshipman's commission in the British Navy. Had he really entered the Navy he would probably never have become either a colonial magnate or President of the United States. He won, however, in the British Colonial service the military experience that eventually made him commander-in-chief of the patriot forces, and he did this when still very young. For much of time between 1752 and 1758 he was busied in negotiating with the French and Indians or in warring with them. The reduction of Fort Du Quesne in the latter year was the realization of one of his darling projects. Meanwhile Governor Dinwiddie took a dislike to him, and did what he could to embarrass the young soldier, so that Washington was well content when his colonial military service came to an end.
It was in the midst of his activities during in connection with French and Indian affairs that Washington in 1756 visited Boston and New York. He attended the sessions of the General Court at Boston with great interest. At New York he was guest of a fellow Virginian, Beverly Robinson, who had married a sister of Mary Philipse. Washington, although then only a youth of twenty-four, had for nearly ten years done a man's work in the world, and for more than half that time had borne the gravest responsibilities. He must have been prematurely grave for his years, and with his great stature, large hands and feet, erect figure and prodigious physical strength, he must have shown as a striking figure in the already pretentious society of New York. He had probably seen no other city of its size, and never known exactly the sort of urban social life that prevailed among the well-to-do of New York. Washington seems to have been sufficiently susceptible to the charms of fine women, and he probably had the upper-middle-class Englishman's traditional liking for a wife with a handsome jointure.
Mary Philipse, the sister-in-law of his friend Beverly Robinson, was a charming and lively heiress, and it seems certain that Washington found her strongly attractive, though it is not so certain that he offered her marriage and was rejected. This grave and serious man of action, accustomed to the rough frontier and to the business administration of a great plantation, must have been a very different sort of suitor from any that Mary Philipse had met in the society of New York. Robinson was keen enough upon the subject of Washington and Mary to write the young man an urgent letter after his departure, advising his instant return to New York would he snatch the lady from the hands of an army officer. Washington, however, had just then an important public call in Virginia, and he left Mary Philipse to her fate.
|Interior of Christ Church, Alexandria, Va|
In 1758 Washington, then a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, met the widow Custis. The circumstances attendant upon their meeting were characteristic of colonial Virginia. Washington, in crossing the Paumunky ferry, fell in with a gentleman named Chamberlyn, and accepted his hospitable invitation to dine and spend the night. A fellow guest was the widow Custis, who had one third of her late husband's £45,000, besides property in her own right. Washington lost no time in courting Mrs. Custis, and they were married in January, 1759, after the fall of Fort Du Quesne.
For the first few months after his marriage, Washington lived at the home of his wife, a place called White House, the site of which is visible from a line of the Southern Railway between Richmond and West Point, the lead of navigation on the York River. Mrs. Washington (Martha Dandridge) was born at a plantation called Chestnut Grove in New Kent County. The house is still standing, a rather large but plain and now shabby wooden structure of great age, with the peaked roof often seen in the better class of colonial houses. Her neighbors about the Dandridge place were the Claibornes, the Lewises, the Webbs, the Bassetts, the Macons and others of local and wider fame.
When Washington brought his bride home to Mt. Vernon he had only just entered upon his twenty-eighth year. His marriage increased his already considerable fortune by about $100,000, equivalent, perhaps, to at least four times that sum at the present day. The early death of his step-daughter further swelled the fortune brought him by his wife. His landed possessions were trivial compared to those of his neighbors at Belvoir, but he must have been one of the greatest of the Virginia planters. He was made vestryman in two parishes. The church of one was ten miles away at Alexandria, and is still standing. That of the other was seven miles distant at Pohick. This church was rebuilt upon the designs of Washington, and largely by his own contributions. He attended one church or the other upon every Sunday when the weather was such as to permit of the long drive over bad roads. Washington now drove about in a chariot with four horses and liveried postilions, and in other ways maintained his dignity as a colonial magnate. Some of his wealthy neighbors moved about the waters of the Potomac in costly barges imported from England and manned by many Negro rowers. There were dinners at Mt. Vernon and at Belvoir after the fox-hunts, in which Washington and his neighbors, the Fairfaxes, took part, and these feasts were garnished with all the luxuries of a country rich in the food of land and water. Deer, wild turkeys and smaller game birds, along with canvasback duck, oysters and the best of fish, were abundant in the Potomac country of that day. One of the Maryland Carrolls of about this time, writing to his son, then a student at the Middle Temple in London, asked him to look up a gamekeeper who could be stationed in Elk Neck near the head of Chesapeake Bay, in order to provide the family with all sorts of game that then abounded in the wooded hills of that little peninsula. Washington kept many hounds in kennel and many horses in stable. We hear of hounds named Vulcan, Singer, Ringwood, Sweetlips and Music, of horses named Ajax, Blueskin, Valiant and Magnolia.
|Kenmore House, home of Bettie Washington|
Thus fifteen years before the opening of the Revolutionary War, it seemed that Washington's ambition was almost necessarily bounded by the possibilities of colonial life and leadership, his usefulness by the every-day needs of a prosperous agricultural community. One of his oldest friends was that staunch and loyal Englishman, Thomas, Lord Fairfax, who was destined to remain faithful to the mother country through the Revolutionary struggle, and after the surrender of Cornwallis, to die at a great age in his safe sylvan retreat beyond the Blue Ridge in the wild valley of the beautiful Shenandoah ("daughter of the stars"). Perhaps had there been no break with England, Washington might have held in time some such place as Postmaster-General for the Colonies, which Franklin so ably filled. But there were few public places to which a colonial magnate might aspire, for the Crown kept important offices for favorites or their friends in Great Britain. Some wealthy colonials returned to the mother country, notably those who had grown rich in Jamaica. Washington, with the prestige of his wealth, and his military services, might have established himself in England as, a landed gentleman, and his friend, Lord Fairfax, could have given him introductions such as would have procured for him recognition in the highest English society. There was nothing to prevent a home-coming colonial from entering Parliament, and Washington, had he chosen to leave his colonial estates and purchase a homestead in England, might very well have found a seat in the House of Commons, and perhaps have won distinction there. He was hardly the pliant material of which George III was accustomed to make peers, but Washington as a member of the British House of Commons, and a man familiar with the colonies, might have done something to stay the hand of tyranny when it was finally raised against his birth-land in the passage of stamp acts and the like.
Life in England, however, could not have looked especially attractive to a colonial of Washington's occupations, tastes and local importance. He could not reasonably have hoped to attain any such position in England as already, at less than thirty years of age, he enjoyed in America. The steady loyalty of the colonies up to the fourth quarter of the eighteenth century was ill requited by the mother country, and the term "buckskin," contemptuously applied to the Americans, indicated the attitude of haughty superiority maintained by native Britons toward their fellow subjects on this side the Atlantic. Washington could ill have brooked any such attitude in his personal contact with Englishmen at home. At the same time the relatively artificial life of an English country gentleman, rough as many English squires of the period were, would have been distasteful to such a colonial as Washington. Accustomed to the broad spaces and the unconventional freedom of life in Virginia of the eighteenth century, he would have found rural England cramping and distressful and London unendurable. Magnate as he was, and the neighbor of other magnates who were notoriously pleasure-loving and fond of display, Washington retained the business instincts and habits of his family. Before he was fourteen he had familiarized himself with business forms and methods, and from his early youth he was a strict and minutely careful accountant. During much of his life at Mt. Vernon he rose at daylight, breakfasted at seven in summer and eight in winter, dined at two upon meat and vegetables, drinking beer or cider and two glasses of old Madeira, and went early to bed. Although he went upon occasions of state in his chariot, he rode over his plantation on horseback. He helped Peter, the slave blacksmith, to make a new kind of plow, and was so eager to try it that he actually harnessed to the invention a pair of his best horses.
|Interior of Kenmore House|
Washington was essentially a man of business after he ceased to be a colonial soldier. Mt. Vernon had ten miles of water front, most of which, as the owner told a correspondent, was a fishing shore. The seine was hauled and the gill-nets and purse-nets were tended by the slaves, but we may be sure from Washington's habits that he often superintended the work. The Potomac of to-day, in the region of Washington's birth and residence, has miles of nets staked out just as his were staked when his dusky fishermen fared forth and returned laden with the miscellaneous catch. Washington himself, according to Irving, seized a poacher whom he found in a boat on his premises lying in wait for canvasback ducks. Flour with the name of Washington stamped upon the barrel passed without inspection in British West Indian ports. Washington had great tobacco barns, such as today show their gray shingles on the slopes as one sails the Potomac, and he shipped his tobacco in just such hogsheads as are shipped to-day from half a hundred ports on the Potomac and its tributaries. These hogsheads are no longer trundled directly upon their own staves over roads impracticable for wheeled vehicles, but they are still made with perpendicular, unbossed sides, just as they were in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The world well knows the steps that converted the well content and loyal Colonial magnate of 176o, who had everything to gain from continued good relations with the mother country, into the patriot leader of 1775 and the next eight years. All through the Revolutionary struggle Washington kept himself informed of the doings at Mt. Vernon, and he returned to it at the close of the war deter, mined to resume his old occupations. His dissipations as a Colonial magnate had been dinners at Belvoir and other neighboring plantations and an occasional visit with Mrs. Washington to the gay little State capital of Annapolis, whither the belles of Maryland were accustomed to ride on horseback with their hoops looped up somehow, in order to dance all night at the balls for which the infant city was famous. Even the long war, the anxieties of the critical period that followed, and the burdens of the presidency, left Washington with the simple instincts and habits of the county magnate and man of business. He wrote to a friend in those later days that he had found Mt. Vernon in need of careful attention on his return from the army. Friends were welcome, but they must expect simple fare—a bit of mutton and a glass of wine were all the table boasted. Later still, after Washington had definitely laid aside the cares of state, Col. Carrington found life at Mt. Vernon still of marked simplicity. The veteran, upon the occasion of Carrington's visit, went to bed at midnight instead of nine o'clock, extending his time three hours in honor of his guest. Mrs. Washington spoke of her official life, with its levees and formality, as "her lost days," and Mrs. Carrington found her in her own room, with a chambermaid knitting in one corner, and a little Negress learning to sew in another. The first lady of the White House was even then knitting gloves and stockings for friends and dependents. It was of this period, or perhaps a few years earlier, that an English actor tells a pleasant story. He was on the public road somewhere near Mt. Vernon when a private coach was upset. The occupants, a fine lady and her escort, almost angrily demanded help. While the actor was doing what he could, a large man rode up on horseback, dismounted, rendered effectual aid, for which he received scant thanks, and started the ill-mannered pair upon their journey. Then the stranger turned to the actor, recognized him and recalled the fact of having seen him more than once upon the stage. By this time the actor in turn had recognized the man on horseback as General Washington. The incident closed with the actor on his way to dine at Mt. Vernon.
For most of us today that giant figure in the background of our short national history suffices to hide the perspective of the earlier Washington in his successive stages as a colonial American. Nevertheless, the plain planter and provincial soldier, called upon to lead a new nation in war and in peace, and to take an unwilling hand in world-politics, must always have thought of his later life in relation with his humbler past. Whoever would know Washington in his entirety must not content himself with reading American history from Bunker Hill to the middle of John Adams's administration, and standing bared before the tomb at Mt. Vernon.
|Washington's Book Plate|
He must visit the Northern Neck, where Washington, even at his greatest, loved to live an equal among his neighbors; he must see Fredericksburg, with the still standing homestead of Washington's mother and the house of his sister; he must take the delicious walk from Wakefield wharf to the lonely birthplace monument in the great wheat field overlooking the Potomac, see the very plantations that the schoolboy of 1740 looked upon, hear the mad mockingbirds as he must have heard them. Above all, such a student must navigate the lovely waters of the Potomac in its lower course, where the stream and its tributaries spread and branch like an inland sea; must hear the homely speech of the native population to whom the name Washington connotes not only the dead hero, but their living neighbors of one blood with the first President. Whoever has done all this will come away with a new grasp upon Washington's career in its consistent entirety, from its almost humble boyhood to its imperial close. And ever after, for the student who has thus explored the scenes of Washington's familiar daily goings and comings, the river, with its vast, silent, resistless flood, pouring seaward, must remain in memory and imagination as typical of the large simplicity, and unobtrusive compelling power of the great man who lived and died upon its banks.
from Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, February 1908.