Life of George Washington

Washington rose to reply; blushed-stammered-trembled, and could not utter a
word. “Sit down, Mr. Washington,” said the Speaker, with a smile; “your
modesty equals your valor, and that surpasses the power of any language I

Such was Washington’s first launch into civil life, in which he was to be
distinguished by the same judgment, devotion, courage, and magnanimity
exhibited in his military career. He attended the House frequently during
the remainder of the session, after which he conducted his bride to his
favorite abode of Mount Vernon.

Mr. Custis, the first husband of Mrs. Washington, had left large landed
property, and forty-five thousand pounds sterling in money. One third fell
to his widow in her own right; two thirds were inherited equally by her two
children,–a boy of six, and a girl of four years of age. By a decree of
the General Court, Washington was intrusted with the care of the property
inherited by the children; a sacred and delicate trust, which he discharged
in the most faithful and judicious manner; becoming more like a parent,
than a mere guardian to them.

From a letter to his correspondent in England, it would appear that he had
long entertained a desire to visit that country. Had he done so, his
acknowledged merit and military services would have insured him a
distinguished reception; and it has been intimated, that the signal favor
of government might have changed the current of his career. We believe him,
however, to have been too pure a patriot, and too clearly possessed of the
true interests of his country, to be diverted from the course which he
ultimately adopted. His marriage, at any rate, had put an end to all
travelling inclinations. In his letter from Mount Vernon, he writes: “I am
now, I believe, fixed in this seat, with an agreeable partner for life, and
I hope to find more happiness in retirement than I ever experienced in the
wide and bustling world.”

This was no Utopian dream transiently indulged, amid the charms of novelty.
It was a deliberate purpose with him, the result of innate and enduring
inclinations. Throughout the whole course of his career, agricultural life
appears to have been his _beau ideal_ of existence, which haunted his
thoughts even amid the stern duties of the field, and to which he recurred
with unflagging interest whenever enabled to indulge his natural bias.

Mount Vernon was his harbor of repose, where he repeatedly furled his sail,
and fancied himself anchored for life. No impulse of ambition tempted him
thence; nothing but the call of his country, and his devotion to the public
good. The place was endeared to him by the remembrance of his brother
Lawrence, and of the happy days he had passed here with that brother in the
days of boyhood; but it was a delightful place in itself, and well
calculated to inspire the rural feeling.

The mansion was beautifully situated on a swelling height, crowned with
wood, and commanding a magnificent view up and down the Potomac. The
grounds immediately about it were laid out somewhat in the English taste.
The estate was apportioned into separate farms, devoted to different kinds
of culture, each having its allotted laborers. Much, however, was still
covered with wild woods, seamed with deep dells and runs of water, and
indented with inlets; haunts of deer, and lurking-places of foxes. The
whole woody region along the Potomac from Mount Vernon to Belvoir, and far
beyond, with its range of forests and hills, and picturesque promontories,
afforded sport of various kinds, and was a noble hunting-ground. Washington
had hunted through it with old Lord Fairfax in his stripling days; we do
not wonder that his feelings throughout life incessantly reverted to it.

“No estate in United America,” observes he, in one of his letters, “is more
pleasantly situated. In a high and healthy country; in a latitude between
the extremes of heat and cold; on one of the finest rivers in the world; a
river well stocked with various kinds of fish at all seasons of the year,
and in the spring with shad, herrings, bass, carp, sturgeon, &c., in great
abundance. The borders of the estate are washed by more than ten miles of
tide water; several valuable fisheries appertain to it: the whole shore, in
fact, is one entire fishery.”

These were, as yet, the aristocratical days of Virginia. The estates were
large, and continued in the same families by entails. Many of the wealthy
planters were connected with old families in England. The young men,
especially the elder sons, were often sent to finish their education there,
and on their return brought out the tastes and habits of the mother
country. The governors of Virginia were from the higher ranks of society,
and maintained a corresponding state. The “established,” or Episcopal
church, predominated throughout the “ancient dominion,” as it was termed;
each county was divided into parishes, as in England,–each with its
parochial church, its parsonage, and glebe. Washington was vestryman of two
parishes, Fairfax and Truro; the parochial church of the former was at
Alexandria, ten miles from Mount Vernon; of the latter, at Pohick, about
seven miles. The church at Pohick was rebuilt on a plan of his own, and in
a great measure at his expense. At one or other of these churches he
attended every Sunday, when the weather and the roads permitted. His
demeanor was reverential and devout. Mrs. Washington knelt during the
prayers; he always stood, as was the custom at that time. Both were

Among his occasional visitors and associates were Captain Hugh Mercer and
Dr. Craik; the former, after his narrow escapes from the tomahawk and
scalping-knife, was quietly settled at Fredericksburg; the latter, after
the campaigns on the frontier were over, had taken up his residence at
Alexandria, and was now Washington’s family physician. Both were drawn to
him by campaigning ties and recollections, and were ever welcome at Mount

A style of living prevailed among the opulent Virginian families in those
days that has long since faded away. The houses were spacious, commodious,
liberal in all their appointments, and fitted to cope with the free-handed,
open-hearted hospitality of the owners. Nothing was more common than to see
handsome services of plate, elegant equipages, and superb carriage
horses–all imported from England.

The Virginians have always been noted for their love of horses; a manly
passion which, in those days of opulence, they indulged without regard to
expense. The rich planters vied with each other in their studs, importing
the best English stocks. Mention is made of one of the Randolphs of
Tuckahoe, who built a stable for his favorite dapple-gray horse,
Shakespeare, with a recess for the bed of the negro groom, who always slept
beside him at night.

Washington, by his marriage, had added above one hundred thousand dollars
to his already considerable fortune, and was enabled to live in ample and
dignified style. His intimacy with the Fairfaxes, and his intercourse with
British officers of rank, had perhaps had their influence on his mode of
living. He had his chariot and four, with black postilions in livery, for
the use of Mrs. Washington and her lady visitors. As for himself, he always
appeared on horseback. His stable was well filled and admirably regulated.
His stud was thoroughbred and in excellent order. His household books
contain registers of the names, ages, and marks of his various horses; such
as Ajax, Blueskin, Valiant, Magnolia (an Arab), &c. Also his dogs, chiefly
fox-hounds, Vulcan, Singer, Ringwood, Sweetlips, Forrester, Music,
Rockwood, Truelove, &c. [Footnote: In one of his letter-books we find
orders on his London agent for riding equipments. For example:

1 Man’s riding-saddle, hogskin seat, large plated stirrups and every thing
complete. Double reined bridle and Pelham bit, plated.

A very neat and fashionable Newmarket saddle-cloth.

A large and best portmanteau, saddle, bridle, and pillion.

Cloak-bag surcingle; checked saddle-cloth, holsters, &c.

A riding-frock of a handsome drab-colored broadcloth, with plain double
gilt buttons.

A riding waistcoat of superfine scarlet cloth and gold lace, with buttons
like those of the coat.

A blue surtout coat.

A neat switch whip, silver cap.

Black velvet cap for servant.]

A large Virginia estate, in those days, was a little empire. The
mansion-house was the seat of government, with its numerous dependencies,
such as kitchens, smoke-house, workshops and stables. In this mansion the
planter ruled supreme; his steward or overseer was his prime minister and
executive officer; he had his legion of house negroes for domestic service,
and his host of field negroes for the culture of tobacco, Indian corn, and
other crops, and for other out of door labor. Their quarter formed a kind
of hamlet apart, composed of various huts, with little gardens and poultry
yards, all well stocked, and swarms of little negroes gambolling in the
sunshine. Then there were large wooden edifices for curing tobacco, the
staple and most profitable production, and mills for grinding wheat and
Indian corn, of which large fields were cultivated for the supply of the
family and the maintenance of the negroes.

Among the slaves were artificers of all kinds, tailors, shoemakers,
carpenters, smiths, wheelwrights, and so forth; so that a plantation
produced every thing within itself for ordinary use: as to articles of
fashion and elegance, luxuries, and expensive clothing, they were imported
from London; for the planters on the main rivers, especially the Potomac,
carried on an immediate trade with England. Their tobacco was put up by
their own negroes, bore their own marks, was shipped on board of vessels
which came up the rivers for the purpose, and consigned to some agent in
Liverpool or Bristol, with whom the planter kept an account.

The Virginia planters were prone to leave the care of their estates too
much to their overseers, and to think personal labor a degradation.
Washington carried into his rural affairs the same method, activity, and
circumspection that had distinguished him in military life. He kept his own
accounts, posted up his books and balanced them with mercantile exactness.
We have examined them as well as his diaries recording his daily
occupations, and his letter-books, containing entries of shipments of
tobacco, and correspondence with his London agents. They are monuments of
his business habits. [Footnote: The following letter of Washington to his
London correspondents will give an idea of the early intercourse of the
Virginia planters with the mother country.

“Our goods by the Liberty, Capt. Walker, came to hand in good order and
soon after his arrival, as they generally do when shipped in a vessel to
this river [the Potomac], and scarce ever when they go to any others; for
it don’t often happen that a vessel bound to one river has goods of any
consequence to another; and the masters, in these cases, keep the packages
till an accidental conveyance offers, and for want of better opportunities
frequently commit them to boatmen who care very little for the goods so
they get their freight, and often land them wherever it suits their
convenience, not where they have engaged to do so. … A ship from London
to Virginia may be in Rappahannock or any of the other rivers three months
before I know any thing of their arrival, and may make twenty voyages
without my seeing or even hearing of the captain.”]

The products of his estate also became so noted for the faithfulness, as to
quality and quantity, with which they were put up, that it is said any
barrel of flour that bore the brand of George Washington, Mount Vernon, was
exempted from the customary inspection in the West India ports. [Footnote:
Speech of the Hon. Robert C. Winthrop on laying the corner-stone of
Washington’s Monument.]

He was an early riser, often before daybreak in the winter when the nights
were long. On such occasions he lit his own fire and wrote or read by
candle-light. He breakfasted at seven in summer, at eight in winter. Two
small cups of tea and three or four cakes of Indian meal (called hoe
cakes), formed his frugal repast. Immediately after breakfast he mounted
his horse and visited those parts of the estate where any work was going
on, seeing to every thing with his own eyes, and often aiding with his own

Dinner was served at two o’clock. He ate heartily, but was no epicure, nor
critical about his food. His beverage was small beer or cider, and two
glasses of old Madeira. He took tea, of which he was very fond, early in
the evening, and retired for the night about nine o’clock.

If confined to the house by bad weather, he took that occasion to arrange
his papers, post up his accounts, or write letters; passing part of the
time in reading, and occasionally reading aloud to the family.

He treated his negroes with kindness; attended to their comforts; was
particularly careful of them in sickness; but never tolerated idleness, and
exacted a faithful performance of all their allotted tasks. He had a quick
eye at calculating each man’s capabilities. An entry in his diary gives a
curious instance of this. Four of his negroes, employed as carpenters, were
hewing and shaping timber. It appeared to him, in noticing the amount of
work accomplished between two succeeding mornings, that they loitered at
their labor. Sitting down quietly he timed their operations; how long it
took them to get their cross-cut saw and other implements ready; how long
to clear away the branches from the trunk of a fallen tree; how long to hew
and saw it; what time was expended in considering and consulting, and after
all, how much work was effected during the time he looked on. From this he
made his computation how much they could execute in the course of a day,
working entirely at their ease.

At another time we find him working for a part of two days with Peter, his
smith, to make a plough on a new invention of his own. This, after two or
three failures, he accomplished. Then, with less than his usual judgment,
he put his two chariot horses to the plough, and ran a great risk of
spoiling them, in giving his new invention a trial over ground thickly

Anon, during a thunderstorm, a frightened negro alarms the house with word
that the mill is giving way, upon which there is a general turn out of all
the forces, with Washington at their head, wheeling and shovelling gravel,
during a pelting rain, to check the rushing water.

Washington delighted in the chase. In the hunting season, when he rode out
early in the morning to visit distant parts of the estate, where work was
going on, he often took some of the dogs with him for the chance of
starting a fox, which he occasionally did, though he was not always
successful in killing him. He was a bold rider and an admirable horseman,
though he never claimed the merit of being an accomplished fox-hunter. In
the height of the season, however, he would be out with the foxhounds two
or three times a week, accompanied by his guests at Mount Vernon and the
gentlemen of the neighborhood, especially the Fairfaxes of Belvoir, of
which estate his friend George William Fairfax was now the proprietor. On
such occasions there would be a hunting dinner at one or other of those
establishments, at which convivial repasts Washington is said to have
enjoyed himself with unwonted hilarity.

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