Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 26

WASHINGTON'S INSTALLATION IN THE HOUSE OF BURGESSES--HIS RURAL LIFE--MOUNT VERNON AND ITS VICINITY--ARISTOCRATICAL DAYS OF VIRGINIA--WASHINGTON'S MANAGEMENT OF HIS ESTATE--DOMESTIC HABITS--FOX-HUNTING--LORD FAIRFAX-- FISHING AND DUCK-SHOOTING--THE POACHER--LYNCH LAW--AQUATIC STATE--LIFE AT ANNAPOLIS--WASHINGTON IN THE DISMAL SWAMP.


For three months after his marriage, Washington resided with his bride at the "White House." During his sojourn there, he repaired to Williamsburg, to take his seat in the House of Burgesses. By a vote of the House, it had been determined to greet his instalment by a signal testimonial of respect. Accordingly, as soon as he took his seat, Mr. Robinson, the Speaker, in eloquent language, dictated by the warmth of private friendship, returned thanks, on behalf of the colony, for the distinguished military services he had rendered to his country.

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 possess."

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 communicants.

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 Vernon.

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 hand.

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 swarded.

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.

Now and then his old friend and instructor in the noble art of venery, Lord Fairfax, would be on a visit to his relatives at Belvoir, and then the hunting was kept up with unusual spirit.

[Footnote: Hunting memoranda from Washington's journal, Mount Vernon.

Nov. 22.--Hunting with Lord Fairfax and his brother, and Colonel Fairfax.

Nov. 25.--Mr. Bryan Fairfax, Mr. Grayson, and Phil. Alexander came here by sunrise. Hunted and catched a fox with these, Lord Fairfax, his brother, and Col. Fairfax,--all of whom, with Mr. Fairfax and Mr. Wilson of England, dined here. 26th and 29th.--Hunted again with the same company.

Dec. 5.--Fox-hunting with Lord Fairfax and his brother, and Colonel Fairfax. Started a fox and lost it. Dined at Belvoir, and returned in the evening.]

His lordship, however, since the alarms of Indian war had ceased, lived almost entirely at Greenway Court, where Washington was occasionally a guest, when called by public business to Winchester. Lord Fairfax had made himself a favorite throughout the neighborhood. As lord-lieutenant and custos rotulorum of Frederick County, he presided at county courts held at Winchester, where, during the sessions, he kept open table. He acted also as surveyor and overseer of the public roads and highways, and was unremitted in his exertions and plans for the improvement of the country. Hunting, however, was his passion. When the sport was poor near home, he would take his hounds to a distant part of the country, establish himself at an inn, and keep open house and open table to every person of good character and respectable appearance who chose to join him in following the hounds.

It was probably in quest of sport of the kind that he now and then, in the hunting season, revisited his old haunts and former companions on the banks of the Potomac, and then the beautiful woodland region about Belvoir and Mount Vernon was sure to ring at early morn with the inspiring music of the hound.

The waters of the Potomac also afforded occasional amusement in fishing and shooting. The fishing was sometimes on a grand scale, when the herrings came up the river in shoals, and the negroes of Mount Vernon were marshalled forth to draw the seine, which was generally done with great success. Canvas-back ducks abounded at the proper season, and the shooting of them was one of Washington's favorite recreations. The river border of his domain, however, was somewhat subject to invasion. An oysterman once anchored his craft at the landing-place, and disturbed the quiet of the neighborhood by the insolent and disorderly conduct of himself and crew. It took a campaign of three days to expel these invaders from the premises.

A more summary course was pursued with another interloper. This was a vagabond who infested the creeks and inlets which bordered the estate, lurking in a canoe among the reeds and bushes, and making great havoc among the canvas-back ducks. He had been warned off repeatedly, but without effect. As Washington was one day riding about the estate he heard the report of a gun from the margin of the river. Spurring in that direction he dashed through the bushes and came upon the culprit just as he was pushing his canoe from shore. The latter raised his gun with a menacing look; but Washington rode into the stream, seized the painter of the canoe, drew it to shore, sprang from his horse, wrested the gun from the hands of the astonished delinquent, and inflicted on him a lesson in "Lynch law" that effectually cured him of all inclination to trespass again on these forbidden shores.

The Potomac, in the palmy days of Virginia, was occasionally the scene of a little aquatic state and ostentation among the rich planters who resided on its banks. They had beautiful barges, which, like their land equipages, were imported from England; and mention is made of a Mr. Digges who always received Washington in his barge, rowed by six negroes, arrayed in a kind of uniform of check shirts and black velvet caps. At one time, according to notes in Washington's diary, the whole neighborhood is thrown into a paroxysm of festivity, by the anchoring of a British frigate (the Boston) in the river, just in front of the hospitable mansion of the Fairfaxes. A succession of dinners and breakfasts takes place at Mount Vernon and Belvoir, with occasional tea parties on board of the frigate. The commander, Sir Thomas Adams, his officers, and his midshipmen, are cherished guests, and have the freedom of both establishments.

Occasionally he and Mrs. Washington would pay a visit to Annapolis, at that time the seat of government of Maryland, and partake of the gayeties which prevailed during the session of the legislature. The society of these seats of provincial governments was always polite and fashionable, and more exclusive than in these republican days, being, in a manner, the outposts of the English aristocracy, where all places of dignity or profit were secured for younger sons, and poor, but proud relatives. During the session of the Legislature, dinners and balls abounded, and there were occasional attempts at theatricals. The latter was an amusement for which Washington always had a relish, though he never had an opportunity of gratifying it effectually. Neither was he disinclined to mingle in the dance, and we remember to have heard venerable ladies, who had been belles in his day, pride themselves on having had him for a partner, though, they added, he was apt to be a ceremonious and grave one.

[Footnote: We have had an amusing picture of Annapolis, as it was at this period, furnished to us, some years since by an octogenarian who had resided there in his boyhood. "In those parts of the country," said he, "where the roads were too rough for carriages, the ladies used to ride on ponies, followed by black servants on horseback; in this way his mother, then advanced in life, used to travel, in a scarlet cloth riding habit, which she had procured from England. Nay, in this way, on emergencies," he added, "the young ladies from the country used to come to the balls at Annapolis, riding with their hoops arranged 'fore and aft' like lateen sails; and after dancing all night, would ride home again in the morning."]

In this round of rural occupation, rural amusements, and social intercourse, Washington passed several tranquil years, the halcyon season of his life. His already established reputation drew many visitors to Mount Vernon; some of his early companions in arms were his occasional guests, and his friendships and connections linked him with some of the most prominent and worthy people of the country, who were sure to be received with cordial, but simple and unpretending hospitality. His marriage was unblessed with children; but those of Mrs. Washington experienced from him parental care and affection, and the formation of their minds and manners was one of the dearest objects of his attention. His domestic concerns and social enjoyments, however, were not permitted to interfere with his public duties. He was active by nature, and eminently a man of business by habit. As judge of the county court, and member of the House of Burgesses, he had numerous calls upon his time and thoughts, and was often drawn from home; for whatever trust he undertook, he was sure to fulfil with scrupulous exactness.

About this time we find him engaged, with other men of enterprise, in a project to drain the great Dismal Swamp, and render it capable of cultivation. This vast morass was about thirty miles long, and ten miles wide, and its interior but little known. With his usual zeal and hardihood he explored it on horseback and on foot. In many parts it was covered with dark and gloomy woods of cedar, cypress, and hemlock, or deciduous trees, the branches of which were hung with long drooping moss. Other parts were almost inaccessible, from the density of brakes and thickets, entangled with vines, briers, and creeping plants, and intersected by creeks and standing pools. Occasionally the soil, composed of dead vegetable fibre, was over his horse's fetlocks, and sometimes he had to dismount and make his way on foot over a quaking bog that shook beneath his tread.

In the centre of the morass he came to a great piece of water, six miles long, and three broad, called Drummond's Pond, but more poetically celebrated as the Lake of the Dismal Swamp. It was more elevated than any other part of the swamp, and capable of feeding canals, by which the whole might be traversed. Having made the circuit of it, and noted all its characteristics, he encamped for the night upon the firm land which bordered it, and finished his explorations on the following day.

In the ensuing session of the Virginia Legislature, the association in behalf of which he had acted, was chartered under the name of the Dismal Swamp Company; and to his observations and forecast may be traced the subsequent improvement and prosperity of that once desolate region.


Washington Irving