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Washington the Liberator

George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the husband-and-wife collaboration of Robert and Lee Dalzell, is a lovely book. It ought to be widely read and generally praised, but it may not be, inasmuch as its title—the only title it could possibly have—unavoidably sends all the wrong signals. It looks like a specialized monograph well outside the mainstream of general interest, a book about a house. But this is deceptive; it’s a great deal more, and is as much about the builder, the foremost Founding Father, as about his house. There are insights in it about the character of George Washington that don’t emerge from the rest of the Washington literature, vast as the corpus is, because they aren’t to be perceived except with refer-ence to a specific place from which Washington was absent for long periods on those occasions which established his primary claim on the nation’s memory.

Mount Vernon was nevertheless the place he professed to value above all the world’s honors. Its sole planner and architect was himself; he shared that role with no one: twice he undertook a major rebuilding, beginning with the one-and-a-half-story structure he inherited from his brother Lawrence in 1754, each time doubling the house’s size. In all the forty-five years between then and his death in 1799, there was never a time when he was not at work on the house and the five outlying farms, mostly from a distance.

During those same years he was of course also occupied with such things as military service in the French and Indian War, membership in the Continental Congress, commanding the Continental Army throughout the Revolution, presiding at the Constitutional Convention, and serving two terms as president of the United States. Yet those duties, arduous and exhausting as they were, never crowded out the attention he gave to the minutely detailed instructions regularly transmitted to his managers and overseers at Mount Vernon about materials and labor and the way he wanted them used. We thus have an exceptionally full record of what went on in Washington’s mind regarding these and many related matters, as well as evidence of how the vision of Mount Vernon, and his plans for it, served him as a calming recourse in the most trying hours of his public life.

The progress of three generations of Washingtons eventuated, somewhat erratically, in the form Mount Vernon would take by the time George Washington came into possession of it at the age of twenty-two. John Washington, the first of them, had come to Virginia in 1657, a time when the principal concern of incoming settlers, that of acquiring tracts of land as extensive as possible, was still a preoccupation that far eclipsed whatever thought they may have given to the kind of houses they would erect there. It would be another hundred years before a limited number of families whose undertakings had survived the protracted depression in tobacco prices that began in the 1690s would coalesce as a gentry class and acquire a virtual monopoly of political and social power in the colony. And not until then would such fixed and visible expressions of that power as Gunston Hall, Belvoir, Westover, and Carter’s Grove—the country “seats” of the Masons, Fairfaxes, Byrds, and Burwells—generally appear.

It had meanwhile become evident once and for all that the kind of agricultural labor cheapest to maintain and yielding the greatest profit was that of black slaves. Their presence, moreover, permitted a style of life and a margin of leisure within which those who owned the largest numbers of them might truly constitute themselves as a governing class. Slavery by the early decades of the eighteenth century had become a quintessential feature of Virginia life.

The beginnings of what came to be called Mount Vernon, located some twelve miles south of Alexandria on an estate stretching ten miles in length along the Potomac and four miles across at its widest, are clouded in obscurity. John Washington’s son Lawrence seems to have put up a dwelling of some kind on the site. A more permanent one was built by Augustine, the father of George and of George’s older half-brother Lawrence; Lawrence inherited the property and rebuilt the house, which he named after Admiral Edward Vernon, under whom he had served in the Caribbean.

Lawrence died of tuberculosis in his mid-thirties, and Mount Vernon, now under George’s hand, thereupon began to grow. The Washingtons, prospering from the start, had early on made their way into the ruling elite, though hardly at the top level, inasmuch as they always seemed to have one more enterprise going than they could conveniently handle. George Washington’s marriage to the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759 was another step upward. And he had already begun, several years before, to impose himself upon a house that would take on, over time, something approaching animation. Yet the house was more complex than just an extension of himself, because it resisted him, and led him to change his mind on certain fundamental questions regarding his own life and times. It did at the same time reflect values he would always live by; it expressed in many overtones his sense of how he fitted, and where his responsibilities lay, in the world which he himself would take an ever greater part in forming.

After giving us, for points of reference, a brief tour of Mount Vernon as it is now, restored to the state in which Washington left it in 1799, the Dalzells in successive chapters describe and analyze the building materials (the timber, the nails, the paint), the laborers and their supervisors, and the treatises and pattern books Washington could draw on in his lifelong effort to make his own house just so, and how he used them.

In Mount Vernon’s various features there was a fair amount of emulation, both of what was in books and of examples of other houses that Washington had directly seen. He asked advice and often took it; he was aware of the current rules of taste and respected them—but only in a rather general way. He tended more and more to strike out on his own as time went on; he broke the rules on occasion, each time consciously and with specific reasons for doing so. The success of Mount Vernon is less as a total artistic composition than as a series of increments and the ways in which their problems were confronted, this being the key to much of the house’s vitality.

The two most striking and original innovations were the roofed but otherwise open “piazza,” supported by eight square pillars and running the entire length of the east front, designed to take advantage of the breeze from the Potomac in warm weather, and the cupola which diverts attention from both the effect produced by the house’s lengthening and the asymmetry of the east and west fronts. Washington, for all his reserve, had an innate sense of theater. Acting as his own landscape architect and with the mastery of perspective acquired in his experience as a surveyor, he saw to it that the visitors’ introduction to the place was staged, with the curved approach road and the intermittent tree and shrub plantings allowing the drama to heighten with interrupted glimpses of a house floating through the distance to meet them.

If there was a generic model influencing such edifices, it was the English country house. Though even the grandest of those in the colonies could hardly compare in scale with such chateau-like halls as Blenheim, Knole, or Castle Howard (Queen Elizabeth II, visiting Mount Vernon before her coronation, thought it “a cozy little place”), what they had in common was their character as reminders and embodiments of power, Mount Vernon being no exception. It is difficult today to grasp the extent to which the gentry houses of pre-Revolutionary Virginia were quasi-public places. Neighbors, relatives, local notables, and casual visitors were all received as a matter of course with food and lodging, a form of responsibility Washington accepted without question and observed to the end of his life. In his case, however, with the Revolution and its republican outcome, the social equation underwent a subtle transformation; the house and its appurtenances became more and more an expression not of the power he held but of the power that he, like Cincinnatus returning to his plow, had voluntarily given up.1

Since Mount Vernon throughout a very large part of Washington’s lifetime was constantly changing, it was the process of building itself, its smallest as well as broadest details, its frustrations as well as satisfactions, that fills the record of what Washington and his correspondents on the site thought and did about them. The Dalzells provide a wonderfully lucid appendix on how people went about building a house in eighteenth-century Virginia, and the things we are most curious to know about have all been anticipated: how they made bricks, how they calculated the proportions of a staircase, what they did for power to run a lathe, what they used for framing timbers and how they prepared them. Washington wanted his timbers to be of white oak, a wood tougher and harder to saw than just about any other. He was a relentlessly demanding taskmaster in most other respects as well, often driving Lund Washington—a distant cousin and the most faithful of his resident managers—to depths of despair over materials insisted upon but not to be had, or deadlines imposed but impossible to meet.

But Washington did not undergo such experience without learning from and being chastened by it, and most profoundly so in the case of a particular form of human resource: the labor of slaves that he had at his disposal. Among the most critical events in the entire sequence of building was the impromptu time and motion check he did in 1760 on two slave carpenters who were hewing poplar logs. He discovered that they took four times as long to hew a given amount when he was not present observing them as when he was; the implications of this, from that time on, would proceed to multiply in his mind. Slave labor did not measure up. It was far short in quality of what could be expected from free apprentices and journeymen, and there must, he thought, be a reason for it. Most of his neighbors would have told him, and some probably did, that that was just the way those people were. You had to keep on top of them to get anything done at all; it was only as slaves that they could do either themselves or their owners any good. But for George Washington that was not a good enough answer, and in time he turned it upside down.

The slaves at Mount Vernon were relatively well housed and well fed, a fair amount of “night walking”—visiting other plantations—was tolerated, working conditions were reasonable enough for the purposes at hand, and punishments for misdoings were not severe. But “relative” to what? Stealing from the meat house, making off with horses for after-dark visiting, and evolving strategies for avoiding work were recurrent indications that whatever the master’s generosity, whatever latitude he allowed, whatever inducements he offered, would never be enough, that the relations between master and slaves were inherently unstable and could never be otherwise. In Washington’s own code, truth, reputation, honest work, and a “good name” left little room for anything else. Why, then, did none of his own slaves possess the ambition to establish “a good name”? It was because, he concluded, they were not allowed to have any; it was because they were slaves, and not the other way around.

He was thus increasingly troubled by a system which, as he wrote to Lund Washington in 1778, “I every day long more & more to get clear of,” and in 1786 he declared to Robert Morris, “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.” By the early 1790s he had worked out a plan of his own that he hoped would allow him to free the slaves at Mount Vernon. He would lease four of his five farms to industrious farmers of known good character; the added income and proceeds from the sale of his western lands would enable him “to liberate a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings”; and they would presumably remain as free workers employed on the farms. But he was unable, after more than two years of effort, to interest anyone in leasing the farms.

The climax of the Mount Vernon story—recounted with the same understated grace that characterizes the Dalzells’ book throughout—came in the final year of Washington’s life. He spent the early summer of 1799, still in excellent health, rewriting his will, having at length realized that he did not want to perpetuate in succeeding generations an estate whose life depended on slavery. Though he had poured much of his inner self into this place, he was now preparing in effect simply to let it all go. Upon Martha’s death (which in fact occurred only two and a half years after his own), bequests of money and furniture would go in equal portions to twenty-three persons, Martha’s grandchildren and his own surviving nieces and nephews. Generous sums were designated for public purposes, all involving education.

The house itself was bequeathed to Washington’s nephew Bushrod. Its deterioration had already begun, and although Bushrod tried in good faith to keep the place in repair, he did not have the means either to make it his regular residence or to prevent its steady decline. After his death in 1829 it passed successively to two other relatives who proved similarly unable to keep it up. It was finally put up for sale in 1848 and was rescued ten years later by the heroic money-raising efforts of Ann Pamela Cunningham and the organization she formed—the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which remains very much in existence today. George Washington had the full means to make this sequence a very different one, but deliberately chose not to.

The opening clauses of his will, moreover, were the key ones. All of his slaves were to be freed, and provision was made for the support of any who were either too old or too young to support themselves. The final payment on this account from the estate was made in 1839, forty years after his death. By that time the career of the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, which I have discussed in a previous article,2 was fully launched. One of the hopes Garrison vainly cherished, in accord with his pacifist convictions, was that the evil of slavery might somehow penetrate to the slaveholders’ own consciences, and move them. George Washington, a half- dozen years before Garrison was born, was among the very few to whom this happened.

  1. 1

    This same theme is splendidly developed in Garry Wills’s Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (Doubleday, 1984).

  2. 2

    See “The Liberator,” The New York Review, October 21, 1999.

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